PHOTO: David Schneider
Boy Scout Troop 100 on Governors Island in 1951.
 

Famous residents:
Newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger (1710), Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (1852), one of the world’s shortest railroad (8 miles long), Walt Disney (WWI), boxer Rocky Graziano (WWII), entertainers the Smothers Brothers (1937-1939), Superman and Batman Comic book artist Neal Adams (1941)

Foot attack from Brooklyn?
A third fort, South Battery, was built on Governors Island in 1812 to protect the military base from an attack from Brooklyn. The Buttermilk Channel, which divides the island from Brooklyn, was shallow enough in low tide that Brooklynites could cross it by foot.

Fort Jay:
Fear of a British invasion was so great in New York in the last 1790s that Columbia College professors and students, along with religious, political and trade organizations, picked up shovels to help build Fort Jay. The fort is named after John Jay, a Columbia graduate and then Secretary of Foreign Affairs.

Longest building in the world:
Building 400 was built by the prestigious architects McKim, Mead and White, supposedly to stop New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia from building a municipal airport on the island. At one time the longest building in the world, it housed an entire Army regiment.

First overwater test of the telegraph:
In 1842, Samuel Morse conducted the first overwater test of his telegraph between Manhattan's Battery and Governors Island.

 

Army Brats Recall
Island
Paradise

By Beth Schepens


almer McGrew could get anywhere on Post within 15 minutes. Less if he were riding his bike, which the 11-year-old boy usually was.

But getting to and from the YMCA or teen center in a few minutes had less to do with how fast he rode and more to do with the fact that the U.S. Army Post his family was stationed on from 1947 to 1951 was an island in the middle of New York's harbor.

From 1800 until 1966, Governors Island served as an Army headquarters. It was home to thousands of officers and their children, who are often lovingly called "brats."

"It was a kids' paradise," said McGrew, who went into the Army himself after attending the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. "If you were bored on Governors Island, you had no one to blame but yourself."

Childhood on the island was filled with the things routine to every Army brats. Nights ended with the sound of "Taps" and cannons firing. Favorite pastimes of the brats included teasing the military police and then hiding from them, playing on the golf course after it closed and hanging out at the base pool every day all summer long.

ut at night, the bugler had only seagulls as his backup band. Cannons that had been fired during the War of 1812 and the Civil War were now stuffed with grass and golf balls by the kids who would tip them at night only for the engineers to crane them back into place the next morning. Beginning in 1946, a circus was held every year on the island, using equipment borrowed from New York's Circus Saints and Sinners, which raised money for down-and-out actors.

Because Governors Island was smaller and more compact than most posts, a bike could actually get you anywhere you wanted or needed to go.

Every kid, at some point, cut through the golf course to get to the two-room schoolhouse, where dogs, if they behaved, were allowed to stand by the children's desks. The golf course surrounded a 150-year-old castle which still held prisoners. The prisoners, who were parolees, worked around the Army post mowing lawns, shoveling coal into furnaces, doing fix-up jobs or anything else the officers needed.

A ferry was the only way to reach the island. Ships sailed past front yards and the sun set in brilliant oranges, reds and yellows against the Statue of Liberty every night. The quarters at the northern end of the island were buildings that dated as far back as the 1790s and housed British governors and the likes of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. It was the stuff of dreams and history books.

Kathy (Gropp) Konecny would stand in the Officer's Club, a converted battery with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline and a stone floor entrance that had been worn down to three inches, and imagine life as it might have been on Governors Island 150 years before. But even in 1953, the island was fresh for adventure to the 10-year-old and, at the tip of the island, for as far as you could see, there was only the Atlantic Ocean and a world of possibility.

"Life was like you dreamed you'd like it to be," said Konecny, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C. It was so quiet and serene that it was like living in the country. With so many trees and large parks, it was an island paradise.

Garry Roosma, who was born in the island's Post Hospital in 1935 and lived there from 1946 to 1950 and then from 1953 to 1955, called it "a millionaire's paradise, because a millionaire couldn't even afford to live the way we were living." His mother used to ring a cowbell to call Roosma and his brothers home in the evening. House doors were never locked.
<Click here to see a slideshow about Army brat life>

overnors Island had the feel of a small town—without forsaking all of the niceties of the big city. Manhattan, with all of its Broadway shows, concerts, sports, restaurants, stores and oddities was only a 15-minute ferry ride away. McGrew, whose parents let him venture out whenever he wanted, let his whim and a nickel subway fare carry him all over the city.

"Any time I wanted I could hop on the ferry and go to Manhattan, Coney Island, you name it, for a nickel," McGrew said. "I learned a lot about the female anatomy at peep shows on Times Square. I stepped over winos in the Bowery. I hobnobbed with the upperclasses at Tiffany's."

And yet children always came home to a place that was so quiet you could hear the buoys clanging, the water lapping at the seawall and the janitors mopping the mess hall.
There was an order to life on Governors Island, Konecny said. There was a safety and security that a place like New York City could not offer, that could only be found on a post where the speed limit was never above 25 mph and cars rarely drove more than the two and a half miles it took to circle the island once.

PHOTO: Jim Mackie
In 1952, New York City was just another backyard.

Every once in a while the city would invade the quiet of Governors Island. McGrew remembers counting the number of condoms floating in the water on ferry rides. Roosma, whose father served as Provost Marshall and Post Commander, said there were three or four times when they also saw dead bodies floating in the channel. But those were rare occasions.

"You were so isolated from what was going on in the city," said Roosma, who was McGrew's classmate at West Point and retired as a colonel in the Reserves. "You were literally on a little island paradise out there. It was relatively quiet, except when the foghorn blew. You could hear the clang, clang, clang of the buoys in the channel in the night in the summer when your windows were open. But it was almost a kind of music."

overnors Island had a way of staying with the people who lived on it. Tom Clinard, who was born in the Post Hospital, came back as a teenager and considers the island his hometown. He created a Web site commemorating his time there. McGrew still tells stories about his years on the island. His tales have become legendary among his friends and family; he once placed fake license plates on all of the cars at the Officer's Club during a visit from President Dwight Eisenhower.

Roosma has files of documents, maps and memories that he brings out every once in a while. And he keeps up with the news on Governors Island, because he feels concerned about what the city and state plan on doing with a place where his family lived for a total of seven years.

Konecny still speaks with her mother about their two years on the island. And one of her most poignant memories is that of her departure from Governors Island for Germany in 1955. "We were at Fort Hamilton (Brooklyn), and we stood on the beach trying to look at Governors Island because we missed it so much," Konecny said. "My mother and I just stood there with tears in our eyes."

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