Harry Takes a Drive Through 1930s Buffalo
You don’t have to be over 80 and from Buffalo to appreciate Harry Zubkoff’s musings about life in his hometown in Upstate New York. If you’re old enough to drive and from anywhere, you might appreciate his quip about making out in the back seat. Harry shared these memories in an email to a young confidante, in 2010, when he was 88 years old. We, Harry’s family, first saw them after his passing in 2014. Through his writings like this one, Harry’s relatives and family of friends continue to learn more about his life and contributions. He regularly encouraged others to write, too.
When I was 16, I did what all 16-year-old kids do. I got a learner’s permit to learn how to drive. But, I also got a learner’s permit to learn how to fly. This was in 1937, the middle of the Depression, when money was scarce and I was a junior in high school. I never took a driving lesson because I already knew how to drive – just from watching others. My brother, seven years older than I, took me one day to take the test, which I passed the first time, and I had a license but not a car.
Several friends had cars, so, whenever we went out on double dates, I would drive their cars. The way it worked was we would chip in a quarter apiece for gas – believe it or not, 50 cents would buy six or eight gallons of gas, and I’d drive on a Saturday night usually, to a great diner in Batavia or to Niagara Falls for a late snack.
My date and I would sit in front and talk while my friend, whose car it was, would sit in the back seat and make out with his date. I didn’t mind because I enjoyed driving and talking. I had three such friends who had cars and they always wanted to double date with me because they knew I would drive and they could enjoy their back seats.
When I was 17, I graduated from Fosdick-Masten Park High School. I had already been working part-time, so then I went to work full time. My older brother joined the Army. My oldest sister had married and gone to Palestine to build a home for the Jewish people. My other sister, four years older than I, was married and pregnant, no longer living at home. My parents, both terminally ill, unable to work, depended on me to support them. Which I did, of course.
Every Sunday afternoon, if the weather was good, I took a flying lesson from an old World War I pilot who had a small airfield on Sheridan Drive. At that time, Sheridan Drive from Delaware Ave., all the way to Main Street was uninhabited – empty wilderness. Somewhere way past Niagara Falls Blvd. was this little airfield where I flew. I paid two bucks a lesson – for an hour of dual instruction, and then one dollar an hour for solo flights until I got my private pilot’s license in 1938. It took well over a year for the entire thing.
In those days, I had a motorcycle that I bought for 10 bucks, and that’s how I got around. I paid for it a dollar a week for 10 weeks. I was earning 12 bucks a week and, by the end of 1938, about $15 a week, which was pretty good money in those days. People were supporting families on that kind of money. In 1939, I went to work for a war plant, the Bell Aircraft Co., for $20 a week, which averaged around $30 a week with overtime pay. The war in Europe started in September 1939, and though we weren’t in it yet, everyone expected we would get into it sooner or later.
I would say, right now, you and all the kids in similar circumstances, just don’t realize how lucky you are to get the chance to get an education – and more than that, to go to a college away from home, to mingle with others whom you would never otherwise encounter, and to form friendships and associations that will broaden your outlook and give you perspectives you could never obtain any other way.
Harry never went to college for credit, but he did take college classes and volunteer on campus after he retired. He talks about those memories in other posts on this blog.
The Zubkoff legacy — it’s all in a (nick)name