Every event in our wonderful life is reborn. Our walking together every Friday night during our courtship to listen to the rabbi in the Brooklyn Jewish Center is in my mind. We would sing Hebrew songs while walking. We would see each other three times every shabbos. We davened together in the morning at the Hapoel Hamizrachi schul. In the afternoon, I went to her home and in the evening, we went to a movie theatre. We saw each other every evening during our four years of courtship. In fact, the evening prior to taking my CPA exam for the first time, I escorted her to the beauty salon.
Her many visits to see me at the college library where I worked while attending college is etched in my mind. She would leave her work at Pearl Dress Co. during her lunch hour taking a bus to do so. Our love for each other is indescribable. Never in the years that we were together did she or her parents ask me when I would consider marrying her. We were never engaged publicly but we were engaged from the moment we met. After working for one year, I was able to give her a diamond watch which she lost after wearing it for several weeks. A few months later, I gave her a watch without diamonds.
When I was taking inventory at one of my clients in the garment center in August 1940, I decided it was time to propose marriage to my darling. I phoned her at Pearl Dress Co. which was a block from my client and asked her if she would meet me for lunch; not mentioning the reason. We lunched at a cafeteria near Pearl and while eating I sprung the good news. Believe it or not, she reacted as though I told her what the weather would be tomorrow. She certainly was happy but she always knew that we would marry someday.
She suggested that we go immediately to inform her father about our decision. When we told him, he too was not at all surprised and asked us when the date should be. We said September14, a Saturday night. Both my parents and Hilda’s mother were in the Catskills so we printed the invitations and mailed it to them. Papa Friedfeld chose Trotzky Caterers located in the Hotel Sharon on West 49th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Trotzky’s was one of the most popular kosher caterers in New York. The hotel was a three story building built at the turn of the century and quite run-down. However, the ballroom was, at best, adequate for our needs. Papa Friedfeld made all the financial and menu arrangements. Taking care of the caterer was his only cost. I, personally, paid for flowers, photos, orchestra and the rabbi. Although both our parents were Orthodox, we had mixed seating for the chupa and the meal. We also had mixed dancing for Hebrew and Yiddish songs; but we had no social dancing.
We never had a honeymoon although we made up for it many times in the future. On Sunday afternoon we went walking, hand in hand, along Central Park West to see where Clarence Rainess, my boss, lived. Then we walked to 37th Street and 7th Avenue where Pearl Dress was located knowing that we would find Hilda’s parents on their usual Sunday outing. When we arrived there, her father could not look us in the face. Evidently he felt I had defiled a daughter of his for the first time since Hilda was the first child who was married. My mother-in-law who always loved me embraced and kissed me. That night we went to Radio City Music Hall and enjoyed for the first time marital bliss. I remember as though it was yesterday that we felt as though we were walking on air. Whether it was our first day as husband and wife or it was the result of our first sexual experience, or both, I really cannot explain.
We rented an apartment on Parkside Ave. in Brooklyn near Prospect Park. It had a large living-dining room, a large bedroom and a kitchen in the wall; the refrigerator, stove and sink were against a wall which was enclosed by swinging doors. The building had an elevator and doorman and the rent was 40 dollars a month. Since I was now earning $ 20 per week and Hilda was earning the same working for her father as model and head bookkeeper, we could afford the rent which was always supposed to be 25% of your earnings.
Since the furniture had not arrived yet, we were forced to stay at the Hotel Sharon for 2 weeks. Although most of the guests or residents of the hotel were shady characters: i.e. prostitutes, drug addicts and the like, my bride and I did not look down on them. They all could not have been nicer to us knowing that we were newly-weds. We were living a life-style quite different from theirs; however, I cannot forget their respect for us and their daily greetings. In fact, the desk clerk was so happy to have us as guests, that he gave us free tickets to Broadway shows. After 2 weeks we were ready to move into our new home. For one week we slept on a mattress since the rest of the furniture had not yet arrived. When you are in love, where you sleep is not important.
In April 1942, I received the very good news that Hilda was carrying a new member of our family. The expected date of our child’s arrival as predicted by Hilda’s obstetrician, Dr. Warwick, was the first week in Dec. 1942. Since this was my wife’s first experience in child bearing, we didn’t realize that a woman’s first child usually arrives later than expected. Suffice it to say, I began phoning her every day from a client’s office from the first of Dec. onward. After almost 4 weeks elapsed and still no baby, I asked her if she was really pregnant. Incidentally, Hilda worked every day till her ninth month picking up very large and heavy ledger books.
Finally, on a Saturday night after the conclusion of the Sabbath on Jan. 2, 1943, Hilda began to have contractions signifying the onset of labor. I immediately called Dr. Warwick who advised me to drive her to Beth-El Hospital. I remained in the hospital while Hilda went to the labor room; it was now 10 P.M. I noticed that if I sat in the men’s bathroom, I was able to hear her moans and groans; and thus, I felt as though I shared her pain and that she was not alone. In those days no one was permitted to be in the labor room. After several hours she was transferred to the delivery room. I then went to the waiting room and sat with other expectant fathers. At around 4 A.M., Dr. Warwick came to the waiting room and said, “Mr. Prager, you are now the father of a boy who entered this world with a cane and monocle,” meaning that Kenny was almost an adult weighing in at 10 lbs. 12 ounces. I then was permitted to see my wife who was being wheeled to her room.
A few months after Kenny’s birth, I could no longer hide behind his diapers while Hitler was killing Jews and informed Hilda that I was going to apply for an officer’s commission in the Navy although I was deferred since I had dependants. She didn’t stop crying and pleaded with me not to leave her and Kenny. Her feelings did not deter me and I did apply in May 1943. I was not accepted possibly because I was an alumnus of CCNY which was a bastion of Jewish communists. In June I was drafted since my draft board was notified that I had applied for a commission. I entered the Navy on July 30, 1943 and since I had a 7 day leave, I had to report for active duty on August 6.
On that day, Hilda escorted me on a bus from Mt. Freedom, where we were staying that summer, to Penn Station leaving our son with our friend Jeanette who shared our bungalow in Mt. Freedom. The trip will always be etched in my mind; my wife’s heavy sobbing and my realization that I was leaving the woman whom I loved and adored and an infant son whom I was just getting to know. One must realize that for a couple who had seen each other every day for seven years, except for the summer of 1937 when I was managing Auerbach’s Hotel, this was a very traumatic experience.
We arrived at Penn Station around 5 P.M. and then Hilda had to leave and return to our child in Mt. Freedom. I can still remember our ardent kisses and embraces and her constant sobbing as we took leave of each other; even though we knew that we would see each other in seven weeks upon the completion of my boot training.
The joy of reconciling with my wife and child was beyond belief. Unfortunately, the week flew too quickly and on the first night of Rosh Hashonah, I had to return to Sampson for future assignment. I stared at my son of 8 months in his crib and burst into violent sobs, not knowing if I was ever to see him again. I was escorted by Hilda, my parents, Hilda’s parents and other members of our families to the subway station. I did not cease crying till I arrived at Penn Station.
Upon returning to Sampson, I received orders to report to the Naval Aviation Technical Training Center (NATTC) in Norman, Oklahoma. When Hilda visited me a few months after my arrival at the NATTC , I set her up at the Biltmore Hotel in Oklahoma City, several miles from Norman. She would take a bus that went specifically to the base and did this daily. One night we accepted an invitation from the rabbi of a congregation in Okla. City who was Orthodox. We spent a very enjoyable evening with the Rabbi and his rebbitzen who were approximately in their thirties. You can just imagine how I felt eating kosher meat after being in the Navy for six months. Since Hilda had been with me for two weeks, she too, missed eating kosher meat. After 3 weeks, it was time for Hilda to leave and rejoin Kenny.
I was given a leave of 14 days to go home for the Passover holidays which were in the early part of April 1944. On chal hamoed (intermediate days), I received a telegram advising me that I was granted a commission on March 7 and was now an Ensign in the U.S. Navy. The 14 days that I spent with Hilda, Kenny and our families were heavenly and much too brief.
On April 28, I received orders to report to the Naval Supply Corps School at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. While the college was in session till the middle of June, I was not able to bring Hilda and Kenny to live with me. However, on Saturdays after inspection, I would visit them by going by train to Carroll Street in Brooklyn, where they were residing in my in-law’s home, and return to Wellesley Sunday afternoon.
In the middle of June 1944, when the semester at the College ended, I was able to bring Hilda and Kenny to Wellesley. I rented an apartment in the city of Wellesley from a Mrs. Neal an Irish woman in her sixties who immediately took a liking to us and behaved as a mother to us and not as a landlord. She owned a 2 family house; we occupying the first floor and her family living above us.
Every day at 3 p.m. Hilda and Kenny would come by bus –a 15 minute trip- to visit me. We would be through with our classes then and would engage in calisthenics and football or baseball. On Saturdays after inspection which ended at 11 a.m. I went to our apartment and spent a most enjoyable time with my family till 4 p.m. Sunday when I returned to the school.
Every Sunday morning we took bus rides to Worcester and other cities close by and especially to Boston where we would spend the day at the Commons, which is the name of a large and beautiful park.
On one Saturday afternoon, we were invited to the home of a fellow student who was married and lived across the street of our apt. He invited several other students with their wives or girl friends. After a while mint juleps were served and I informed the host that I never drank and thanked him for his hospitality. That was a mistake that I made since getting me drunk would be a source of amusement to the other guests who were no novices in the art of drinking.
Every one kept telling me that mint juleps, which I had never heard of, were very mild and that one drink would certainly have no effect on me. Never being a “party pooper”, I acquiesced and tasted my first mint julep which, I, am sorry to say, enjoyed immensely. If one tasted great, two or more would taste even better. After 3 or more, I was completely inebriated. To this day, I don’t remember what happened from that moment to the following morning.
Hilda told me later that my “friends” took me home and that she had to undress me and put me to bed. I awoke Sunday morning with no hangover or any ill effects; that was the first and last time that I was drunk. It is quite possible that this incident created immunity to imbibing since I have been drinking from then on and have never had any difficulty in holding my liquor.
My classmates knew that I was Jewish since in our many conversations we spoke about religion. However, when Hilda joined me, many of them asked me why I married a Gentile; my wife not looking like the stereotyped Jew. I was the only Jew in the entire student body and they probably had not met many Jews in their lives. They also expressed surprise that I was not one of them: again thinking that all Jews looked alike.
On one Friday night, Hilda and I were invited to go “skinny dipping” in the lake with the rest of the boys and girls. Of course, we were taken aback at their suggestion since we knew that several of them were married and couldn’t believe that they would allow their wives to be seen nude and, perhaps, be fondled by other men.
We could understand unmarried persons indulging in this “sport”, but never married people. We, of course, made our excuses and spent that Friday night as we always did by lighting the Sabbath candles, making kiddish, eating the Sabbath meal, singing zmiros, saying grace after meals and maintaining our Jewish heritage as it should be on a Friday night.