This summer we sat down with fellow neighbors at various local strolls, street festivals, and block parties. They were kind enough to tell us their favorite memories of Bay Ridge. This is Harry’s story.
Dan: [Opening Segment] Hi there, and welcome to Radio Free Bay Ridge’s Oral History Archive. In the summer of 2018 we began attending local events and set up a booth asking our neighbors to share their favorite memories and stories about Bay Ridge. This story is from Harry.
Dan: …so anyway, I’m Dan. What’s your name?
Harry: My name is Harry. How are you?
Dan: Hey. How’s it going? Really good!
Harry: Really good, can’t complain! I’m here on Fifth Avenue and I’m enjoying the street fair.
Harry: I’m here. Of course I’m also a Vietnam veteran too…
Harry: A disabled veteran, so we have a table to the back of us, it’s the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Brooklyn chapter. For many years I worked for utility company… I’m not going to mention the utility company
Dan: [Laughter] It will be unnamed.
Harry: Unnamed, yeah. Anyway to make the long story short we had a job. The thing was 4th Avenue off 86th street and I had parked my truck and there was this weird smell coming out of the building and the guy was telling me, who was there, was they found the dead body and…
Dan: Whoah, really?
Harry: Guy must have been dead a couple of days. But they picked him up already, but they put this smell there and that smell… oh my god… that smell and the deodorizer mixed together, had a weird smell.
But you know it reminds me of the time when I was in Vietnam. I used to carry dead bodies. They used to come down from the choppers. I used to take them to grave registration. I remember when I opened up the tent. They would register the bodies and send them down to Da Nang to the morgue and get some paperwork there. And God… you know you just that smell…
Dan: And that just like brought back…
Harry: Yeah, yeah.
Dan: Oh wow.
Harry: I remember the guy said to me [in the grave registration tent], oh, do you want soda? I said yeah why not! So, they said go to the ‘frigerator. I went to the refrigerator and I saw soda, and I saw bananas, and I saw body parts. I said gee! And you know the guy…
Dan: Kinda ruined my appetite!
Harry: *Laughter* Yeah! It’s the guy, it’s a great illustration… it’s like everyday life for him. You know I was thinking, what is that guy doing today? You know? What is the guy doing today.
Dan: It might be something like that, off of 4th and 86th..
Harry: Right, maybe he got another job.
Dan: Maybe he’s the guy that took that [body] out…
Harry: Yeah, who knows, right? But you know, it was a body smell… like a meat. Like a dirty butcher store. That’s how it smells like. And plus they put deodorizer to mask up…
Dan: So it’s that mix that’s really noticeable. If you know what it is…
Dan: You immediately know…
Harry: Yeah. I had to go stay. I had to wait for the job to come up…
Dan: Oh, man.
Harry: Yeah, it was terrible.
Dan: So where were you in Vietnam?
Harry: I was up north. I was I went there right before Tet. We had nice barracks there. All of a sudden Tet. We had to go up north. We had to go to Huế. And we lived in tents… sometimes if I go into a butcher store, a dirty butcher, it kinda reminds me, you know?
And I hear they’re gonna do away with the VA….
Dan: Yeah. How do you feel about that? They were saying SUNY Downstate, then the VA, are all competing saying one is taking the other…
Harry: Well, I heard it from doctors in the VA. They were telling me. He says, how do you compete? He says we could do work cheaper. VA doctors can do work cheaper than outside doctors.
Dan: Exactly. Because they’re all subsidized, there’s an actual infrastructure to support that.
Harry: Right. So you know, I have my medical plans from my company, I could go to any doctor, but still.
Dan: If it closes, what would you… how would you feel?
Harry: Well you know, the VA in Brooklyn, it’s sixteen floors. And two floors are used for a hospital. They wanna to close it down. Instead they’ll be sending people to Manhattan. If you have relatives, where are they gonna park in Manhattan?
Dan: Exactly. And at least the VA is right near the base.
Dan: Especially if you’re out in Staten Island.
Harry: Well, do you know also at Fort Hamilton, it uses the VA for the medical… where are people from Fort Hamilton gonna go? They do have a permanent thing, they have a recruitment company in Fort Hamilton.
Dan: And it’s still an active base.
Harry: Right, right. Well they wanted to close [the base] down, but since we had problems in the Middle East, it’s much closer than having it on the West Coast, you know? For Europe, or say, the Middle East, it’s much closer on the East Coast.
Dan: Yeah, that makes sense. And I know they wanted to add a cyber-warfare division or something like that…
Dan: … to Fort Hamilton, because it’s always that they wanna close the base down every ten years or so.
Harry: Well in New York, we do have educated people! We’re able to handle a lot of things other places can’t.
Dan: Just reactivating part of the base because a lot of things are shut down over the years.
Dan: I mean I love going over for the museum, the Harbor Defense Museum is one of my favorite little things. It’s a pain sometimes to get in because you gotta go through all the paperwork, but I love it.
Harry: *Laughter* Yeah, I remember when I work for the utility company, we’d always have to go in there to do some kind of electrical switch-up. After 9/11, we had to go in the truck to a special tent, and they’d check our truck! Before we were able to go…
Dan: Really! Like a full top-to-bottom…
Harry: Yeah! Because we’d go there all the time. Also, too, because we had paperwork, we’d write it down. We had the radio, we had other jobs. [The base would say] well, I wanna see a hard copy. Thank god we did have a computer, in the truck. He wanted to see a hard copy, of why we were there.
Dan: Really. They wouldn’t trust anything on the computer?
Harry: No, no. This was after 9/11. And then, later on, it went back to normal.
Dan: Alright. Were you able to get onto the base a little easier from the utility company and also being a veteran?
Harry: Yeah, yeah. Well now, you know, I have a pass to go to the VA. I go to the commissary, which is like a supermarket. You know, I go to the PX [the Main Exchange, an on-base food court and department store]. I remember I used to go to the PX years ago, you know when I was in the military because anybody that lived in Brooklyn, whatever, is able to go there for medical and to get his pay. If you’re home, you get your pay there. Let me tell you something, since you’re into history?
Harry: Do you remember Borden Milk?
Dan: Yes. Yes I do.
Harry: They had a couple buildings in Brooklyn. Do you know that? They had a nice, like, off of Atlantic Avenue and Barbey Street [in East New York]? Where the building had like, cows on top of it, like…
Harry: That was old Borden Milk. And Borden Milk started in Brooklyn, and also, where they used to make the milk, it’s now a Salvation Army warehouse, in Bedford-Stuyvesant. It was Borden Milk Company.
Dan: So if anyone has ever seen cows on the decals of some of the buildings…
Harry: Yeah, it’s on Atlantic Avenue. I think it’s still there.
Dan: Yeah, I think it still is. Thank you so much, Harry. Good to meet you.
Harry: Thank you.
Dan: [Closing Segment] Harry, thanks so much for being our very first contributor. It was an absolute pleasure to talk to you. Thanks for your service, and thanks for your story. Our interview with Harry took place on June 3rd at the Fifth Avenue Festival… and special thanks to the Fifth Avenue BID for hosting us. To listen to more stories from your neighbors, check out Radio Free Bay Ridge’s community archive at www.RadioFreeBayRidge.org, where you can find show notes and more. Until then, stay free Bay Ridge.
About our Oral History Project
At Radio Free Bay Ridge, we are committed to telling stories from local communities that may not have a voice, and providing a progressive platform for those who wish to use it.
However, while collecting interviews and information for our podcast, we also ended up with a lot of interesting discussions on the cutting room floor, which didn’t tie into an episode narrative. We soon realized we could easily begin organizing this audio not for a full-length episode, but for distribution as small bite-sized stories.
So in the summer of 2018, we set out to collect oral histories from anyone who wished to participate, across the political spectrum. We had a mobile studio set up at local street fairs, block parties, and senior centers… anyplace that would host us. Our all-volunteer staff would help conduct the interviews, and gather basic release forms from the participants allowing us to publish their stories and determine how they wanted to be credited. Each interview was conducted with a simple icebreaker question. For 2018, we asked, “What is your favorite Bay Ridge memory?”
The result of these interviews is our series “Short Stories About Bay Ridge”, a nonpartisan look into who makes up our community.
We have published all interviews for which we have a release form (in the case of children under 13, for whom we also received in-person parental permission), and which we felt the participant was in a sound state of mind (i.e. intoxicated), not indulging in hate speech against a protected class of people, and not using our platform to harm another person or for some other explicitly self-serving interest. We have published only the first name of individuals, unless they requested to remain anonymous. Some interviews have been lightly edited for time and clarity.