I am always proud to say I went to Mepham High School. Everyone knew Mepham because of its long wrestling winning streak. Although I wrestled at Mepham, I was not that good at it, but Sprig and Ken taught me about physical fitness and how to get into shape with push-ups, squat thrusts, round and round, sit-ups, pull-ups, rope climbing and jumping jacks. I remember running around the track in January with Tony, wearing only shorts and sneakers, no shirts. We were tough; we were rugged. (By the way, I still have my shot put from high school. I use it as a paper weight now.)
Reading comic books also taught me about physical fitness: Inside the back cover of Dagwood and Blondie, and Marvel Comics, a guy named Charles Atlas was teaching isometric exercises as a form of strength training after some bullies kicked sand in his face. He wanted to become bigger (a new term).
One of the most memorable days at Mepham, although not Principal Stunt’s best day, was St. Patrick’s Day in 1958. About 60 seniors went into school that morning, then we turned around and left; we went to the St. Paddy’s Day Parade in New York City. An alert truant officer must have seen us on the news, walking the green line, and realized we were not in school. Our parents were mad; Dr. Stunt was mad; we got punished, big time. We had to sit on display in the office lobby and study for a few weeks.
In 1956, I broke my ankle wrestling. Two other classmates were on crutches at the same time. We had “5 minute early-out passes”. We would race up and down the halls and stairs. Having a broken limb is not fun, my cast was heavy, but we made the most of it. I walked to school on crutches in a snow storm.
I did not like school very much, but I managed to graduate on time. I did well in physics and math which was good because I became a mechanic and I ran my own business. Frau Feuerlicht taught me German, which was very cool because I got sent to Germany with the U.S. Army in 1960. I was the only guy on base who spoke or understood any German. The dialect was Schwabisch. Ed Howering went to Germany also. Al Liebman’s parents bought us dinner in Zurich. They were there on business.
Going to the Jones Beach with classmates was fun. We picked the same spot every day and laid out 25 or 30 blankets like a giant quilt. Freeport High School students did the same thing a little farther down the beach. We were brave; I think a rite of passage was to run into the water no matter how cold it was. Now, most of us splash ourselves first, then walk in, or chicken out. In 2007, I did a Polar Bear Swim.
I hitch-hiked to the beach sometimes, and I did it properly: Walk backwards, right arm out, thumb up. Look the driver in the eye and smile. It worked like a charm. Hitch-hiking was relatively safe in the 50s. Occasionally, Herbie’s mother would drive us. We would swim in the pool, dive down at the deepest part and pick up coins. We usually found 2 or 3 dollars. Then, we would take the bus home.
My first real job was at Jones Beach, flipping burgers and blending malteds. The day I turned 16, I can’t believe this, I walked off that job and went to work at Jerry’s Merrilon Gulf Station in Merrick. I became a grease monkey, mechanic, gas jockey, detailer, tire changer and window washer. (The term “detail” did not exist in the 50s. It meant to wash, vacuum and Simonize a car. But, according to Simonize Company lawyers, the term Simonize should not be used as a verb.)
My boss asked me to look for a bullet in a flat tire. Ricky, a friend from Mepham, “borrowed” his neighbor’s car. He stopped to give Pat C. a jump. He forgot to turn on his headlights. Cops chased him and shot the tire. They shot Ricky through his neck and jaw. He drank through a straw for many months until he was unwired. Ricky’s neighbor didn’t press charges against him or his anonymous passengers.
Fords and Chevys were popular cars among classmates. My first car was a green 1949 Mercury with suicide doors. My 2nd car was a 1950, four-door, black, Plymouth (no A/C). It was square and not cool looking, but it ran great. I installed duel points and a dual exhaust system with glass packs that roared.
Going out to lunch, friends would kick in 10 or 25 cents each for gas. One day, classmates borrowed my car and ran out of gas. They left my car by the deli where we got baloney and tomato heroes, and cherry soda, almost every day for 2 years. MM, KB, JB, AK: You still owe me a dollar.
We drank a lot of 7 UP in those days; I’m not sure why they called it 7 & 7 at Sunrise Club. My first pizza was at Station Café by the train station in Merrick. Oranges were a popular snack food before a wrestling match. My mother was strict about nutrition: I tasted my first Coke and candy bar at 21.
Mepham High School A Cappella Choir was chosen to sing at the National Convention of the American School Administrators Association. This distinction is bestowed on only one high school choir in the United States. Senator John F. Kennedy was the keynote speaker. Mr. Alderfer was the choir director. Jacob Gunther bought dinner for 80 choir members and chaperones at Hackney’s Lobster Restaurant.
Our class was well-behaved because of our assistant principal, Stanley Versocki, who was ½” shorter than Michael Clarke Duncan (from The Green Mile) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. He picked guys up by the collar, put them against the wall and said, “get a haircut”. He was a pussycat with the girls. Mr. Versocki’s 1958 yearbook, signed by him, is in a cabinet in room 114 down the hallway in Mepham.
Henry Harris was a science teacher at Mepham. He was a very cool guy. Mr. Harris was also our Boy Scout leader. Scout meetings were at the Presbyterian Church in Merrick. Boy Scout summer camp and winter camp outs were at Camp Wauwepex in Wading River. Nassau County Scouts owned the camp. My first time canoeing was in January, 1953, on Lake Wauwepex. (That story is in my memoirs; later.)
I think our Class of ’58 had the most and the best reunions, thanks to Richard Wilgencamp. We had a 10th reunion, a 25th, a 40th, 50th and 60th. Richard organized the 40th with a committee who did 5% of the work. Hundreds of classmates came. It was in Nassau County. Audrey and I did the last two. The 50th was at a hotel in Islandia; the 60th was at Hutchinson Island Marriott in Stuart, Florida on April 28, 2018. Many of our classmates live in or near Stuart and Jensen Beach. Audrey and Dick are great cold callers.
We have mini reunions: Classmates get together for dinner at a nice restaurant. It’s easy to find old friends because Richard, Toby and Annette worked many hours producing an impressive “Directory of Graduates” for the 40th reunion; Toby and Annette updated it for the 50th. They researched phone books all over the country, and Alaska. Recently, Mona visited from California and 14 of us met for dinner.
Jim Dreeben, Retired. Pushing 80. Class of ’58. 631-834-2525 or firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. Please contact me if you want to join us for a mini reunion on Long Island, 2 or 3 times yearly.