Dad spent the first eleven years of his life in Rockaway, NJ, which was a sleepy little town about forty miles west of New York City. It covered an area slightly over two square miles and was inhabited by under thirty-two hundred people. This was in stark contrast to Leningrad, which had a population of approximately 2.4 million people covering an area of over two hundred square miles.
My father’s home in Rockaway was not unusual for the time. It was a small 3 bedroom colonial with a front porch to sit on during the hot summer days, a white picket fence, and tall maple trees sprinkled throughout a yard which was large enough to play in yet with enough room for my grandparents to have a garden.
One afternoon in early July 1926 when Dad was just seven, the air was suddenly filled with loud explosions like Fourth of July fireworks. All around could be heard the sounds of glass breaking as well as people screaming. The explosions continued as shards of broken glass could be seen flying all around. It was a Saturday afternoon near dinner time, so my grandfather was probably not at work.
The headlines in the local newspaper, “The Rockaway Record” explained that the blasts were the result of a lightning strike at Picatinny Arsenal–a nearby Army facility where ammunition was produced. Many windows throughout my father’s town were blown out or broken, and the chimneys in many houses were cracked. Their small community was lucky, since the only injuries received by anyone in Rockaway were cuts from the flying glass. Those individuals closer to the explosion were not so fortunate. In those towns, some houses were completely destroyed, and Dad learned later that approximately twenty people died. I am sure none of his family ever wanted to feel that fear again, but that was not the last time his family experienced the horror of being in the midst of such a nightmare. Unfortunately, the next time was much worse than that day in July.