Autobiography of an American Surfer: Capt. Dan

This is the first installment of a series of segments from the autobiography of Capt. Dan. He was one of large group of senior surfers that called Tourmaline their home break. Each morning any number of these gentlemen (and women), many of them surfing since the 1930’s, would gather and socialize and often surf. They were and are a treasure recognized by anyone with the time to listen and the humility to understand what a valuable thing their experience is.

It is my understanding that Capt. Dan put this story down at the urging of Ron St.John, and for that, we should all be grateful. Ron has agreed to allow me to pass this story along. I’ll try to keep the segments manageable and put them up over the course of the next couple of months.

This is not necessarily a surf story, but is a story of a surfer. It is a glimpse into American history from Tammany meetings in Central Park, through prohibition and World War II into the present. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF DANIEL J. O’CONNELL – 1915 TO 1973
1915-1930
My father and mother were married in 1914 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NY. I was the first child, born May 25, 1915 in a coldwater flat at the NW corner of 55th Street and Third Avenue. My sister Margaret was born there June l8, l9l6. Later in life, I remember my parents telling me that I almost had my fanny carved by a celebrant from either the christening reception in our flat, or from a wedding reception in the next flat. They had me on the table with a ham, roast beef, etc.
My father had odd jobs and boxed in car barns for money. One job was as a dynamiter working on Park Avenue when they were excavating to put the New York Central tracks underground, where they are today.
We moved to 335 E. 45th Street about 19l8. My sister Catherine was born there in 1919 and my brother Tom in 1920. Tommy’s birth is my earliest memory, a midwife was employed, and I could hear my mother yelling. I am sure we all came into this world at that time by way of midwives. My father went to work with the Manhattan Sand & Gravel Co. as a truck driver. The company garage was at 49th Street and the East River, and owned by the Peter C. Gallagher family.

I started school at St Agnes on 44th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues. The nuns gave us lots of homework and had very strict rules. You carried all your schoolbooks home every day – no lockers. Besides, you needed all of them to do your homework. There were four flats to a floor in our coldwater tenement. One toilet assigned for each two flats. We all washed in the kitchen, as there were no bathrooms. The kids got a bath every Saturday night in a galvanized tin bathtub or the soapstone washtub. I can recall having to put my head in my mother’s lap while she fine-combed my hair to make sure I had no lice. She polished the black iron coal stove on Saturday night after finishing baking and cooking. She used a scrub board and soapstone washtub to do laundry then hung it on a clothesline running from the rear window to a tall clothesline pole in the back yard.

I remember chasing horse drawn fire engines, and Uncle Pete Cuggy driving an electric-driven Railway Express truck, down Second Avenue. The dairies used horse drawn wagons, as did ice wagons, etc. We use to sleigh ride on 4lst Street between 1st and 2nd Aves. Milk was 5 cents a quart; you brought your own milk can to the grocery and ladled milk out from a large can in the store. Bread, for a pound loaf, was 7cents. There were no supermarkets then. You went to grocery, vegetable, bakery, dairy, meat, pork, coffee etc, stores for those requirements. I recall our grocer had a ledger where you could charge your purchase. He entered each item you had ordered and the cost. Most families paid him on payday, or if your father was out of work, he carried you for a time.

Modern apartment houses, occupied by United Nations employees, replaced the tenements on 45th Street after WW11, as the UN was located between 42nd and 46th Street along 1st Avenue and down to the East River. This whole area had been slaughterhouses when I lived there; we even had a brewery right behind the clothes pole in the backyard. I use to climb up the pole and watch the bottling and conveyor belt operations. A kid in my tenement tried to leap from the pole to the roof of the brewery, which was about 4 feet away. He missed and fell on a fence bellow and was killed. The brewery was one owned by Jacob Rupert who built Yankee Stadium and owned the Yankees. Movies were 10 cents at the theatre on the corner of 42nd and 3rd.

I got my head stuck in my parents’ brass bed and had to have the firefighters get me free with lots of soap. I thought sure I would end up with jug ears. I had a good fight with the Muldoon kid. We both had black eyes and bloody noses, guess you could call it a draw. The grown-ups were whooping it up for both of us. I would walk up to my Aunt Mary (Cuggy) on Sundays and mooch a cold cut sandwich and sweet bun. Uncle Pete would also give me a quarter, which was a lot back then.

On May Day, all the Irish went to Central Park for the Tammany Hall picnic. We kids got bats and balls, lots to eat and games to play there. I remember going on a few bus tours out to a lake in New Jersey and taking the excursion boat to Asbury Park, NJ, and one to Bear Mountain State Park on the Hudson. My paternal grandmother, a Kenny by birth, died in 1922. I remember visiting her a few times before that. We all had to kiss her on the forehead in the casket. The day of the funeral was cold and rainy. We rode out in horse drawn carriages and she in a horse-drawn hearse. It was a solemn occasion. She was buried next to my grandfather, Daniel, in Calvary. That same year I made my First Holy Communion at St Agnes.

In 1925, I had a hernia operation in hospital on 42nd St between 1st and 2nd Aves. I believe we started going to Port Washington in the summers starting that year. My father had become skipper of Gallager’s yacht, the AMURAY, named after his son Murray and daughter Alice. We lived in a WW 1 Army tent, divided into three rooms, with wood sidings that came up about 5 feet, above the wood were screens and canvas. We had to fetch water, cooked with a kerosene stove, and had an icebox. The outhouse was about 200′ away from the tent. Other help of the Gallagher’s on the estate had either a house, or tent like ours. The estate ran from the Port Washington Yacht Club to the Manhasset YC, and from the bay back to the main road. In later years, the estate was converted to an exclusive tract with nice homes. The original Gallagher main house was still there by the water next to the Manhasset YC in the early 1990’s. I use to lug a 5-gallon can of kerosene from the village, until I got smart and used a canoe or rowboat to cut across the curve of the bay. I think that is why my arms seemed longer in later life. One morning a cow was hung up in our tent ropes and was about to pull the tent apart. My mother got a broom and whacked the cow free, but not until all the pots and pans, etc. were knocked down inside. I remember going to Port Washington in Gallagher’s Pierce Arrow or the sport touring Maxwell sedan. From the water, the land rose to what seemed like a good hill up near the main road. One day the kids were all up there hiking when we started throwing stones at a hornet’s nest. They came after us and we all tumbled down the hill screaming our brains out. We averaged at least six stings apiece and were miserable for quite awhile.

The Gallagher’s had their dock and float in front of the main house. He belonged to the Knickerbocker YC, just beyond the Manhasset. One could say that Republicans belonged to the Manhasset and Democrats to the Knickerbocker. My father taught all of us to swim by tossing us in deep water. Two incidents come to mind in my Port Washington days. One time I caused my brother Tommy to break his leg. He was about four at the time. I had him on the end of a large boat haul out-cart that had two 8-foot wheels in the middle with a long boom or cradle on which a boat would rest. The rig was perfectly balanced so that one could tip it up or down at each end. I put Tommy on one end and then I climbed out to the other end. As I was letting Tom’s end go back down he lost his balance slightly and his leg got under the boom, so that when it hit the ground it broke his leg. I got a good whacking for that. While Tommy’s leg was in a cast, I had to push him around in a carriage. One day, I started running with the carriage, hit a bump, and out fell Tommy. Fortunately, his leg did not break again. Tommy’s howling brought my mother to investigate and another trip to the woodshed for me. It seems like I could not stay out of trouble. I had been warned not to take my youngest sister Catherine or Tommy out in the canoe. My sister Margaret talked me into taking Catherine, who had an infected arm with a big bandage on it, out in the canoe. We also had a friend of Catherine’s, who had blond hair like Tommy, with us. Tommy was not in the canoe. You guessed it. It tipped over! Well, fortunately, there were sailors diving off ships near where we had capsized. I was struggling to keep Catherine’s arm out of the water and the girls were yelling. The sailors finally got us to the beach. My mother had heard the commotion, came to the dock, saw the kid with the blond hair, and thinking it was Tommy, dove in to save him. Well, guess what it was, back to the woodshed for me! Actually, it was my sister Margaret rocking the canoe that caused it to tip.
The Gallagher sons, Peter and Murray, would take me for rides in an old model T Ford chassis. We sat on the gas tank and hung on for dear life, as they raced around the sand hill part of the estate. They also would take me for rides in their pony cart, as did Jack Nobel who was sweet on the Gallagher’s daughter Anne. They were all about 8 to 10 years older than I was. My father used to have to go up and get the Gallagher boys from the police as they would be arrested for reckless driving, or as on one occasion, they rode their horses through the village shooting at store windows with a BB gun. I am sure old man Gallagher paid plenty of hush money to keep his sons from getting booked.

One time, when the Gallagher’s were leaving on the yacht, I wanted to go with them. The sons said it would be ok, but my father, who was skipper, said no. I can remember standing on the dock crying my eyes out. They were on their way to cruise the St. Lawrence River area. They usually cruised those waters and the Maine area in the summers. My father would take the yacht south in the fall to Palm Beach where the Gallaghers had another estate. He would bring it back to Port Washington in the spring. One time he took all of us plus relatives for a cruise around Manhattan Island. We were picked up on the dock at 49th Street and the East River where they kept their trucks. I learned much about boats from those days; I rowed, paddled, shined brass, and scrubbed paintwork.

Pete Reilly was the engineer on the AMURAY. There was also a Japanese cook, by name of Willie. I used to pick berries and he would make a pie for me. One time he jumped in and saved my brother Tom, who had fallen off the float. The Gallagher sons would slip sandwiches, etc. to me through a hedge behind where their family had outdoor lunch on the patio. There was a large carriage house on the estate, a hosteller living above it. I loved the smell of harnesses, etc. It was clean as a whistle there.

Old man Gallagher had become an alcoholic. He would think nothing of having someone call from some place in Connecticut for “Jim,” my father to come and pick him up with the yacht. Actually, old Pete loved my father; I think more than he did his wild sons. My father told me in later years that Pete told him he would get the yacht when he died. One morning in 1925, my father found old Pete dead in his stateroom on the AMURAY. Many times he would go down and sleep in the yacht when he was drunk, as his wife could not stand him when he was in that condition. Since nothing was in the will saying my father would get the yacht, of course he did not. Mrs. Gallagher knew that her husband on many occasions had stated that fact. My father was bitter. He “borrowed” the yacht, went up to Nova Scotia, picked up a load of whiskey, brought it back to NY area then quietly returned the AMURAY to Manhasset Bay. From then on, he was in the rum running business.

To be continued.

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