|A postcard of Ravenhall Baths|
By Tommy Coca
The day starts as previous years’ summer days began. Two young boys climb the stairs to the ‘B’ train, also known as the West End Line. At this particular entrance there is no token clerk. The ten inches or so between the floor and the bottom of the fence is enough room for Tommy and Joseph to wiggle their skinny 10-year old frames underneath, saving them the cost of a token. This gives them 15 cents each to spend later in the day for candy or in the arcade.
This was a different time. August, 1962. On Halloween, children don’t need parental escorts to go trick-or-treating. Elderly passengers are instantly offered seats on a crowded subway car. And in Tommy and Joseph's neighborhood of Bensonhurst, fish trucks and pizzerias do a brisk business on Fridays. (This was before the Second Ecumenical Council and the Catholic Church still forbade the eating of meat on Fridays).
So yes, it was a different time, and parents didn’t harbor the fears they do today. It was not unheard of to allow 10-year old boys to ride the subway a few stops to Coney Island. After all, it was safer than cooling themselves under the fire hydrant, where they risked being hit by a car.
As the train trudges to the last stop, the doors open and the sounds and smells of Coney Island instantly take hold – the roar of the wooden roller coasters, the screams, the aromas of cotton candy and French fries. Down the ramp they go. Surrounding them are the carousel, Wonder Wheel, movie theaters and shooting galleries. Further ahead is Steeplechase Park and towering behind is the park’s centerpiece, the 262-foot tall Parachute Jump. On some days the boys succeed in sneaking into the park late in the day and searching for discarded punch cards, which will allow them access to rides.
|The Parachute Jump, 1962. AP Photo|
On the next block is Ravenhall Baths. They show their passes and enter. Up ahead they hear the rhythm of the punching bags as the old and young tough guys of Brooklyn hone their boxing skills in a shaded area. Further along are handball courts, sand boxes, lockers, and other features. Features that will remain ingrained in their memory decades later.
The boys have season lockers. Most people choose to use keyed locks as opposed to combination locks. The key is attached to a band that is worn on one’s ankle. The boys are always bothered by the sight of a man missing a leg who wears the band and key on his stump. In the unroofed locker area many older men sit on chairs either naked, or with towels draping themselves, and play pinochle as they get some sun.
The heights of the lockers are perhaps seven feet. On the other side of the wooden wall is the women’s section, and as such the older kids often climb to the top of the lockers to look over. A more common practice is to punch a small hole in the wooden fence and peek through. The boys head to the sand pile where the older guys chalk up their hands and exercise on the high bar. They watch a while and then walk to the snack stand.
“A pack of Parliaments for my mom please,” says Joseph.
“Where is your mother?” asks the man behind the counter.
“She’s in the pool,” he answers confidently.
“Here you go. Bring them right to her.”
The area by the snack stand is under a canopy where it seems the Yankee game is always on. This was a time when the preponderance of the games was played in the daytime. Once they’ve got the score, or see the Yankees take a turn at bat, the boys return to the locker area. There are several steam rooms and one has been out of order for as long as they can remember. This is where they smoke their cigarettes, absurdly reasoning that if anyone sees smoke they’ll assume it is steam. The boys aren’t yet ready for a swim. As a matter of fact they can’t swim and instead typically just cool off in the shallow end. Today, after their smoke, they wander around the facility.
Nearby is the kiddie pool, which is near the boardwalk and exit to the beach. The older kids are permitted to leave the facility and walk along the boardwalk or swim in the Atlantic. They are stamped on their shoulders with an invisible ink that shows under a purple ultraviolet light, which proves they are members when they return. Under the boardwalk wait their friends who do not have the money to enter. They position themselves back-to-back and rub the stamp onto their buddies’ shoulders so they are allowed in.
Now they are ready for the pool. There is plenty of activity by the diving boards, which are named after playing cards. The highest is the Ace, and as the height decreases the names get more diminutive: the King, Queen and Jack. Sal the lifeguard is off to the side. He is a somewhat old, short, gregarious and barrel-chested man in an orange bathing suit who offers to teach the youngsters how to swim. He accomplishes this by tossing them in the deep end. They either prove to be quick learners or Sal dives into the pool and rescues them.
The mats around the pool are scratchy and sting bare feet. Beach balls bounce, people listen to transistor radios, kids across the street shriek as they ride the Steeplechase roller coaster. Some of the older kids begin to tease Tommy. They taunt the skinny boy who can’t swim. “C’mon you baby, let’s see you jump off the diving board.”
The goading continues and to the amazement of all, Tommy accepts the challenge, runs onto the Jack, and jumps in. Sal the lifeguard’s services are put into action. Although he still can’t swim, Tommy has earned a degree of respect, and vows that before the summer ends, he will indeed swim, and even jump off the Ace. August turns to September. Labor Day weekend arrives and the season ends. Lockers are emptied. Tommy does not jump off the ace. Maybe next year!
But before the new season arrives, a fire destroys the baths. Ravenhall Baths is gone and transformed into a memory for generations of Brooklynites. In 1957 it was the Dodgers, and now in 1964, it is Ravenhall. Brooklyn is changing and Tommy and Joseph learn a lesson regarding the lack of permanence.
The following summer their families get lockers at Steeplechase. On the last weekend of the summer their parents treat them to a day on the rides at the Park. A day of fun and amusements before the school year begins. They enjoy the giant wooden slide, the Steeplechase horses, the Barrels of Fun, and all the other rides. No matter how brave they pretend to be, though, the Parachute Jump is just too tall, and the tremendous jolt they observe as it hits the top and plunges back down to earth terrifies them. Maybe next year they’ll have the guts. Maybe next year! But as they once more learn, sometimes you must seize the day. Next year will come but there may be changes.
The park, which had been in existence since 1898, fails to open for the 1965 season. Steeplechase Park fades to black and joins the Dodgers, Ebbets Field, the original Luna Park, and Ravenhall Baths, as one of the borough’s treasured memories.