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Report 1462: Army Brats Reunion - Governors Island, NYC
By Jeff H from NH, Spring 2007
Trip Description: Eighty plus people gather for a two night, one day Governors Island Army Brats Reunion
Destinations: Countries - North America; Regions/Cities - New York City
Categories: Hotels/B&Bs; Sightseeing; Independent Travel; 2 People
Page 1 of 1: A Reunion of Army Brats and Tour of Governors Island
Governors Island in the Foreground - looking north
This was a special occasion for Army Brats, arranged by a small group of Governors Island alums, working with the National Park Service on the Island. Those of us who had lived there were privy to many aspects of the Island that the general public is not allowed to see. Many of the buildings are slowly being renovated and a general plan (as yet unapproved) is in the works to put this island to use for NYC, since it was abandoned by the Army and Coast Guard and sold back to NY in 2001. You might say we were a "select" group of visitors and were treated as such by the team of Park Rangers, who served as guides and partners in our trip down Memory Lane.
Since everyone was to stay at the Sheraton Weehawken in New Jersey, Sue and I drove down from NH and arrived late afternoon. I lived on Governors Island way back in the early 50's, and I had volunteered via a "Brats" web-page (see link below) and was a member of the Reunion Committee. My mission was to design, purchase, deliver and distribute 100 T-shirts for reunion attendees and guests/spouses. Other logistics were provided by the committee chair. The T-shirts were already there when we arrived and there was a cocktail "greet and meet" going on in one of the suites ... price of admission was a picture from when we lived on the island ... no problem. The T-shirts got handed out during the course of this afternoon and evening soiree and logistics information for the morning trip over to Manhattan was handed out, too; not to mention a lot of handshakes, hugs, kisses and laughter.
The Sheraton Weehawken is right across the Hudson from Manhattan, but required us to plan for and execute a group commuter rail ride on Saturday morning. It went flawlessly and after a switch in Jersey City we took the subway over to the Trade Center station and walked down to the Battery Ferry piers from there. By then most in the group had gotten their T-shirts and roughly 80 people strolling lower Manhattan all in bright RED didn't even raise an eyebrow - New Yorkers see this kinda thing every day.
We boarded the ferry for Governors Island en masse and the memories began flooding into everyone's consciousness - for many (including me) it had been more than 50 years since we'd "grown up" on that island, which has been closed to the general public since the 60's and returning was nothing, if not nostalgic. Lots of picture snapping. Just standing in Slip #7 waiting to depart on the tour sent a chill down my spine -- I don't know how many times I stood there over 50 years ago, but it seemed like I was headed home ... many on the ride seemed to be about my age, a few were younger as they were examining the maps very carefully and "remembering" things out loud -- really set the mood for the rest of us older brats.
Weather notwithstanding (it rained), our day on the island was spectacular. The National Parks Rangers, who are responsible for the National Historic Site seven acres on the north end, were dedicated to us for the entire morning and afternoon, providing individualized attention and mini tours as well as ensuring we were comfortably ensconced (and dry) within the walls of Fort Jay, our home base for the day and for lunch. The West Point Army Band provided one hour of patriotic music in the archway of Building 400, which, when it was built, was the largest Army housing building in the US. All this just for a bunch of old fogies who used to live there!
It turns out the Park Rangers are very interested in the personal experiences of those who lived on the island years ago - it provides them with lots of material for their general public tours. They encouraged us to write down our own accounts of life on the island and submit them to the National Parks Office on the island for their use - we all did, of course.
The island housing, churches, battery buildings, offices, library, hospital and school were very much as I remembered, although distances seemed a little distorted, but after all it had been 54 years! The moat and walls of Fort Jay seemed as deep and as high as I remember and I actually found the clay pipe we used to shinny down into the moat from the top of the fort ramparts! Additionally, I imposed on a ranger to unlock the apartment in Fort Jay I called home back in '52 and took a 10 minute tour all alone - talk about spooky: everything came rushing back to me ... pillow fights, TV shows, the daily 5 o'clock howitzer salute right outside our kitchen door, walking to school and back for lunch, the kid in our class who came over everyday from Liberty (nee Bedloes) Island to attend our school, mischief of one kind or another. What a thrill! Another member of our group found a note he'd hidden under the knurl of a banister in his apartment when he and his family had left in the early 60's - and there was a note to him from someone saying they'd found his note - this goes back over 45 years!
The status of Governors Island is being portrayed as still every much up in the air -- handouts to voice your opinion and of course the web pages available to do the same -- they ought to just put the whole place in a time capsule!
I was surprised by the extent of disrepair of some of the housing and Fort Jay apartments (not awful mind you, but I thought the National Parks or some other agency was staying on top of that kind of thing). There were signs of repair and restoration work, however, so there is hope that the mildew and whatnot won't take over much more. It was bad enough though, that we were reminded it was a privilege to go up on the porches, etc... The public, as a rule is not allowed to do so ... liability, you know. Lots of scraping and paint needed, but the place has "great bones!"
Our guides were history buffs and related quite a lot of military fact mixed with some yarns and unsubstantiated stories concerning island lore and such. They were well spoken, well read and clearly on top of the historical aspects of the island and with a droll way of relating the many interesting events and personalities that make up the Island's charm -- flexible enough to allow some meandering off course and some lallygagging here and there, when they sensed people were interested in staying put a few minutes longer. All in all, an excellent job. The high point for me was Fort Jay, of course, but finding the old schoolhouse, behind the South Battery was a very close second -- first room on the left off the foyer ... Miss Duff.
Some things I didn't remember: the land around Fort Jay is rolling and somewhat hilly (my recollection was FLAT); the northeast shore behind Officers' Row is a few meters lower than the Fort entrance (I remember it as severely downhill, with a dramatic elevation change); the entrance to the Fort has a roundabout with low brick walls in front of the bridge (I don't recall that, at all); immediately before crossing the bridge into the Fort, to the left, is a 10 foot high berm of earth with wooden steps, that serves as access to the parade ground/golf course (this was NOT there in 1952 ... well ... I don't think it was...); the tennis courts adjacent to the east side of the parade ground (they weren't there in '52, were they?); the proximity of Castle Williams (prison) to Fort Jay and the ferry dock - maybe 200 yards (I recall it as being a mile away!).
What I do remember: distances in general seemed about right (with the exception of the above reference to Castle Williams); Fort Jay quad is about the size I remember; the view out 'my' bedroom window to lower Manhattan would indeed have been spectacular; the cannons arrayed around the walls of Fort Jay are as large as ever; the incredible quiet, rural elegance of Officers' Row is still maintained; and I can't believe we shinnied down that drain spout off the top of those walls at the age of seven! They seem pretty high even today! Brooklyn is as close as ever, too, but Buttermilk Channel is busier than back in 1952.
On the ferry ride back over to Slip 7 all I could do was stare and wait for the magic of more memories to reach my consciousness, but they didn't. So I got my fix and am apparently satisfied. All in all a great treat, a great day, the trip of a lifetime!
At the end of the day, after retracing our route (ferry, walk, subway, commuter rail) back to the hotel, the committee hosted a dinner at the hotel. The memories were flowing and everyone shared stories with the entire group, posed questions (who was that teacher, coach, MP?) for group resolution. People from the 40's, 50's and 60's could all relate to one another through the common experience of having lived on Governors Island in New York City.
A full day of reminiscing, with 80+ friends of Governors Island. What a place it was to live. See: Governors Island Military Brats under Resources for a whole lot more from those who remember those days.
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