My journey to Miami Beach in 1939 actually began two years earlier. I was 10 and living in a New York City apartment house when a Western Union telegram arrived to change our lives. We had won the Irish Sweepstakes.
Disrupted from our neighborhood, friends and schools, my two older brothers and I boarded a train called the Silver Meteor that took us south on a new and somewhat scary adventure. Shortly before arriving in Miami, I was really confused when the conductor announced “Next stop Hollywood!” Where were we, I wondered: In Florida or California?
Seeing Miami Beach for the first time, with its pastel-colored buildings, I marveled at how different it was from the dirty red brick buildings I had known in New York.
Thanks to our sweepstakes winnings, my parents purchased an eight-unit apartment house where we lived on Third Street and Jefferson Avenue. New school, new friends, and a new type of climate – all had to be gotten used to very quickly.
My first job was as a pin boy at an open air duck pin bowling alley on Alton Road and Third Street. There was a corral next to it that kept stabled donkeys used to pull lawn mowers during the day, mowing overgrown empty lots. We loved riding them.
My two older brothers worked as busboys at a fancy restaurant called The Strand, on 12th and Washington, where the waiters paraded through the dining room carrying flaming swords. I had my bar mitzvah in 1940 at Beth Jacob Synagogue, now the home of the Jewish Museum on Third Street and Washington Avenue.
By 1942, the country was at war and things changed. The city was taken over by the Army Air Force. I remember Flamingo Park, the beaches and the local streets, filled with marching and singing soldiers, sweating in the hot sun, with my mother trying to keep up with them while passing out glasses of ice water.
At 16 I did a stint as an usher at the old Wometco’s Plaza Theatre on First Street and Washington Avenue. I became an air raid warden that year and delighted in blowing my whistle and advising people to keep their windows covered. On occasion we could see burning ships on the horizon and the next day would find globs of tar and oil on the beaches from the tankers that were sunk by German U-boats.
At 17, I joined the Civil Air Patrol, a subsidiary of the Army Air Force. I attained the rank of master sergeant and was in command of the cadet program in the Miami area. We spent time marching and taking classes at a big building on 37th Avenue called the Coliseum, and spent weekends at Chapman Air Field performing search and rescue missions for the Air Force, using small Piper Cub airplanes. I also worked at the Air Force motor pool and bused soldiers to the various military hospitals in the area, including what are now Mount Sinai and the Biltmore in the Gables. We also drove German and Italian POWs to work as KP’s at the various Army mess halls on the beach.
I enlisted in the Air Force when I turned 18, took basic training in Biloxi, Miss., then went to photography school in Denver. I was sent overseas for a couple of years, ending up at Yokota Air Base in Japan where I served as an Air Force photographer.
By 20, I was back home in Miami Beach and in short order, married to my high school sweetheart, Erma Lee Edelman. Within five years, we had three kids, (Leon, Jack and Paula), and I joined my father-in-law in his fish business, Collins Fish & Seafood, ultimately growing it into a major wholesale seafood distributorship.
In the early years, I remember delivering fish and live stone crabs (today you can only get the cooked claws), in the alley behind Joe’s Stone Crab. Owner Grace Weiss would personally come outside to check the order out and sign my bill.
A memorable experience occurred during a visit by President Kennedy to Miami. We received an urgent call from the hotel where he was staying and shortly therafter the Secret Service came to watch us with steely eyes as we prepared an order of seafood for the president’s dinner. I think it was pompano and lump crabmeat.
The Beach was a colorful place in the 1950s and ’60s. On occasion, Silver Dollar Jake, a local character who always drove an old convertible with the top down, would stop by and take pictures with his new Polaroid camera and hand out silver dollars to the kids, his colorful parrot perched on his shoulder. I remember taking my kids to a place they loved called Fairyland.
In 1975 I decided to fulfill a long-time ambition and attended the Miami Police Academy, graduating and serving for 10 years as an auxiliary police officer for the city of Miami Beach.
After 40 years in business, at the age of 60, I retired and have since devoted myself to various volunteer pursuits.
I’ve seen Miami Beach reinvent itself a number of times since I stepped off the Silver Meteor approximately 72 years ago.
I’ve gone from a wide-eyed kid to a great-grandfather, and made many wonderful memories during the intervening years. These are just a few of them.