Chapter 3: The Breakdown

CREEDMOOR. Any kid growing up in Queens in the 1960s knew the word. Creedmoor meant crazy, insane. Kids used to joke about it, as in “That guy belongs in Creedmoor.” Or, “Man, you belong in Creedmoor.”

Creedmoor, of course, refers to the one hundred year old psychiatric hospital located in Queens Village, whose main structure now, as then, consists of a forbidding, twenty floor [check], 1930s era structure overlooking—really overshadowing is a better word—Grand Central Parkway. Anyone driving east or west can see it for miles. The closer you get it to it, the scarier it looks.

Today the hospital, officially known as the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center, whose mission, according to its website, is “to provide compassionate, high quality mental health services,” has a more benign reputation then it back then, the result of both the advances in psychiatric medicine that have taken place over the past forty years, and the gradual fading of the stigma attached to being mentally ill, as our society itself has, slowly but surely, become compassionate and inclusive itself.

However there was nothing compassionate about the institution’s reputation in the 1950s and 1960s. Creedmoor, which actually was founded by the Lunacy Commission of New York back in 1912 —which tells you all you need to know about how American society regarded the mentally ill for the better part of the 20th century—was simply shorthand for “loony bin,” or “a place you don’t want to go to,” and everything about its physical aspect reinforced that.

–Especially those bars…those thick, steel bars running across the width and length of its each of Creedmoor’s hundreds of windows. That’s the thing that really strikes you when you drive past. Hopefully, the quality of the care offered on the other side of those bars is somewhat more compassionate and enlightened than it was back in the 1960s.

I hope at least that Creedmoor officials don’t mix patients up and/or misdiagnose them, as befell someone close to me who was incarcerated there at that time—more about which below. In any case, those horrid, bars, are still there, I suppose because they have to be.

That was certainly the thing that hit me when I used to pass Creedmoor when the family was heading out to Jones Beach, on one of our all too rare family outings, or when we, i.e., the Jamaica High School varsity, drove out to Alley Pond Park to play against our nemesis, Van Buren, which had its home field there, or against Mid-Queens in the summer league, when I was playing with Joe: those bars. Every disreputable joke or rumor I had heard about Creedmoor—as well as the treatment of “the insane,” as the mentally ill used to be called—was confirmed by those nightmarish, prison-like bars. I used to shudder when I saw them; all of us did. Never in my wildest dream could I imagine being on the other side of those dreadful bars for any conceivable reason, let alone to visit anyone I knew.

And yet that is exactly the incredible reality that presented itself one day in late May, 1968, when I found myself in a car being driven by my dear friend and Jamaica teammate Peter Lord eastward on Grand Central Parkway and the all too familiar main building of Creedmoor loomed into view. Except that this time we weren’t headed to Alley Pond Park as the visiting baseball team. We were actually going to visit Creedmoor itself. And, the unseen patient held against her will behind those bars whom we were going to visit was—nightmare of nightmares—my mother…

Freaky. Do you remember, back in the late 60s when people started calling things freaky, as in “strange or unusual?”—which is how the American Heritage Dictionary defines it.

This was just about the time that the new-fangled youth culture, or counterculture, as it was called—or Counterculture, with a capital “C” as some of the more self-serious rebels, or freaks, as some of them called it—was coining or recoining a lot of words and expressions, some of which are for better or worse, still with us, today, along with the rock ‘n roll music that propelled them, most of which thankfully are not.

Not that I am an expert on philogist, it’s probably no coincidence that the word “freaky” entered common usage, especially amongst high school and college students about the same time that the late Frank Zappa and his very loud and freaky unleashed their infamous or celebrated (depending on how you looked or look at it) rock concept album, “Freak Out!” as in “…an experience or scene of unrestrained excitement or irrational behavior.”

“That was freaky.”

“Hey man, that’s far out.”

“What’s your bag, man…”

“Don’t freak out about it.”

Ah yes, those were the days, weren’t they, my friends?!

Freaky. I definitely remember freaky.

To be sure, the years 1966 through 1969, which also happened, for better or worse to coincide with my last two years at Jamaica High School, were, to slip back into the patois of the day, a very freaky, or just plain strange, time to be in school, as well as the world in general.

The Tet offensive and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The Great Society and the rise and fall of Lyndon Johnson. The black power revolution. The student power revolution. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, Jr. All these things and more occurred during the three years I spent roaming the vast halls and sweeping campus of Jamaica, and of course, I could not help but be unaffected by them, or see the effect these changes, as well as the rapid changes in youth culture was having on my peers, many of whom (including the co-author of this book, who was one year ahead of me at Jamaica) were molting into hippies, or longhairs, or, yes, freaks, as they proudly called themselves.

I recall the day in the spring of 1968 that a group of angry Jamaica High School students, most of them fellow Special Progress students like myself, “struck” the school over the war, sending our conservative principal, Louis Schuker, into paroxsyms, and causing a temporary disruption in classes. I also recall—how could I not?—the horrid day later that spring when we woke up to find that Robert Kennedy, Jr., whom many of us had hoped would lead us out of the Vietnam quagmire, had been shot and killed in Los Angeles shortly after winning the California Democratic presidential primary. Another Kennedy shot. It was almost too much to get one head’s around. Even Joe Austin, who normally paid little head to non-baseball matters was shaken the next day, as the Emeralds assembled for practice. “We shouldn’t even be playing today,” I remember him saying , as the school, as well and the rest of the nation, reeled in shocked.

And yet, of course, we did.

Or at least I did.

Which tells you just about what you need to know about where my “head” was—to use another period expression was–for the greater part of my time at Jamaica—at least when I was on or near campus.

My “trip,” so to speak—my abiding passion—continued to be on baseball.

It certainly wasn’t on studies. Of course, I liked some of my teachers and enjoyed discussed current events in my classes, where it was warranted; I also strongly felt , in contrast to some of my “freaky” peers, that the classroom, not the street, was the best place to take up the issues of the day.

I was especially fond of my 11th grade social studies teacher, Ms. Ratkins, who had a flair for getting her sometimes apathetic or otherwise distracted students—like me—to get involved in lively and sometimes passionate discussions of the tumultuous events that were then dominating the front pages of the newspapers and broadcast on the evening news, while also helping us place these jarring and unsettling events and occurrences into some kind of historical context. It was she who first sparked my interest in becoming a Social Studies teacher when I eventually graduated into the “real world,” as we called it. She had that rare ability to connect with her students, an ability I would like to think she passed on to me.

BUT no, my head was most decidedly not on my books, or for that matter, on Current Events as my junior year rolled around. My passion was for baseball, and specifically on my performance as a pitcher on the Varsity baseball team, where my improving efforts and ability was steadily helping our team to advance in the standings, while I racked up a series of hard-fought, hard-pitched victories.

Baseball was more than my passion. It was my buffer, my way of bracing myself, and absorbing the shocks that were emanating from the “real world,” as well as the all too real, and disturbing events that were currently taking place within my own little world such as my father’s heart attack and the increasing troubles of our second candy store. It was hard not to be distracted by such things.

And yet, when the umpire yelled “play ball” and I firing away, all was well—at least for the duration of the game. Baseball. That was my overriding passion as the spring term of ’68 rolled around, a passion that was rewarded by both coach Sam Pace’s increasing confidence in me, as well as a record of 5 and 0, and a reputation as our team’s “star pitcher.” I was, justly, proud of my performance. So was Joe, who attended each and every one of my games. So were my brother and parents—inasmuch as they had the time and attention to follow my soaring “career.” I wore my varsity jacket with pride.

Baseball. That was my passion, as well as my refuge.

However, even my beloved baseball proved a poor refuge that spring when my mother had her breakdown…

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