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excerpt > William Walsh > Forty-four American Boys

He was the fourth of five children in his family, born on June 14, 1946.

His father, with his thick moustache and hair combed back, was a stern, formal man who insisted on wearing a tie and jacket at home. A conservative Republican who admired Barry Goldwater, his father forbade his children from cursing or calling each other by nicknames.

His mother, a Scottish immigrant, relished attention, thrusting herself to the center of every social gathering. Fair, tall, and slender with blue eyes and blond hair, his mother spoke with a hint of a brogue.

When he was three he went to the Carousel Pre-School, a new nursery program in Jamaica Estates, Queens. He was a beautiful little boy, very blond and buttery. He was a nice size for his age, very attractive, social, and outgoing. He wasn’t fat, but he was sturdy, and really quite jolly.

For kindergarten, he went to the private Kew-Forest School, which required skirts for girls and ties and blazers for boys. His father was a board member of the school.

He has said that he hasn’t changed since the first grade. During dodgeball games, he was known for jumping and pulling his knees up to avoid balls thrown at him.

His father’s success as a real estate developer paid for the private schools, limousines, and a 23-room house to which he and his four siblings grew accustomed. His father wasn’t shy about flashing symbols of wealth either. Unlike most families in the neighborhood, his had a cook, a chauffeur, and an intercom system.

He recalls that his mother had been fascinated by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. As a boy he had been impressed by his mother’s interest as she eagerly watched every minute of the live TV broadcast of the event.

Even in elementary school, he was a very assertive, aggressive kid. In the second grade, he actually gave a teacher a black eye— he punched his music teacher because he didn’t think he knew anything about music and he almost got expelled. He had the most amazing train set. He had all these special gadgets and gates and switches.

He impressed classmates with his athleticism, shenanigans, and refusal to acknowledge mistakes, even one so trivial as misidentifying a popular professional wrestler. No matter his pals’ ridicule, he doubled down, insisting wrestler Antonio Rocca’s name was “Rocky Antonino.”

His face crowned by a striking blond pompadour, he commanded attention with playground taunts, classroom disruptions, and distinctive countenance, even then his lips pursed in a way that would inspire future mimics.

He had a reputation for saying anything that came into his head. Taller than his classmates, he exuded an easy confidence and independence.

His best sport was baseball. By sixth grade, his power as a righthanded hitter was enough that fielders shifted to left field when he batted. If he had hit the ball to right, he could’ve had a home run because no one was there. But he always wanted to hit the ball through people. He wanted to overpower them.

A fierce competitor, he would erupt in anger, smashing a baseball bat, if he made an out.

In school he misbehaved so often that his initials became his friends’ shorthand for detention.

His father instilled thrift in him by coaxing him to redeem sodabottle deposits and forcing him to get summer jobs and paper routes. When it rained, he delivered newspapers from the back of a chauffeured limousine.

By junior high, inspired by the battles between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, he was sneaking onto the subway and amassing a collection of switchblades, according to friends.

When he was thirteen, his father abruptly sent him to a military boarding school, where instructors struck him if he misbehaved and the requirements included daily inspections and strict curfews.

He was essentially banished from the family home. He hadn’t known anything but living with his family in a luxurious setting, and all of a sudden he was sent away.

At New York Military Academy, he wore a crew cut, a thick wool uniform and was awoken daily by a recording of reveille.

At the beginning, he didn’t like the idea of being told what to do—like make your bed, shine your shoes, brush your teeth, clean the sink, do your homework. He did his best to fit in, once even refusing to let his parents visit unless they left the chauffeur at home.

Instead of steaks prepared by his family’s cook, he sat in a crowded mess hall and filled his plate from vats of meatloaf, spaghetti, and something called “mystery mountains,” a stew of deep-fried leftovers remade as meatballs. Instead of his own bathroom, he had to shower with fellow cadets. Instead of his father, his new taskmaster was a no-nonsense combat veteran who had served in World War II who had seen Mussolini’s dead body hanging from a rope.

At the military academy, he grew taller, more muscular and tougher.

He was headstrong and determined. He would sit with his arms folded with this look on his face—surly—almost daring someone to say one thing or another that wouldn’t settle with him.

Struck with a broomstick during a fight, he tried to push a fellow cadet out a second-floor window, only to be thwarted when two other students intervened.

If nothing else, the military academy taught him a lesson that would prove valuable in adulthood as he navigated two divorces, bankruptcy and regular spasms of bad publicity: No matter the crisis, he could prevail.

He won medals for neatness and took pride in his grades. He distinguished himself on both the baseball and football teams. He wanted to be number one. He wanted to be noticed. He wanted to be recognized. And he liked compliments.

At last he was in a place where winning really mattered, and he poured himself into doing better than everyone else at everything. In the classroom he could compete for grades and actually managed to get the highest grades in geometry. And on the athletic field he could compete in every sport and be a star.

His ball-field experiences were formative because they made him locally famous and because they instilled in him the habit of winning. By his own estimate he was definitely “the best baseball player in New York,” and he would have turned pro except that “there was no real money in it.”

To his classmates, he was a blend of friendly and cocky. He boasted that his father’s wealth doubled every time he completed a real estate deal. He was self-confident and very soft-spoken, as if he knew he was just passing time until he went on to something greater.

Peers say there were no signs that he treated anyone differently. He met students from all over the U.S., guys from Central and South America. He got along with everybody.

Nonetheless he never had truly close friends. He wasn’t that tight with anyone, his first year roommate recalled.

At the Academy, he learned a lot about discipline, and about channeling his aggression into achievement. In his senior year he was appointed a captain of the cadets.

During spring break senior year, he went on a chaperoned trip to Bermuda with other cadets, and they all rode around on rented motor scooters and met socially appropriate girls on chaperoned trips from their own prep schools.

“Ladies Man” read the caption beneath a photo of him in the senior yearbook.

He began attending Fordham University in the Bronx, mostly because he wanted to be close to home. He got along very well with the Jesuits who ran the school, but after two years, he decided that as long as he had to be in college, he might as well test himself against the best. He applied to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania and he got in.

While in college from 1964 to 1968, he obtained four student deferments from the draft for the Vietnam War. In late November 1966 he was briefly classified as 1-A, Available for Service. But within a few weeks he was once again reclassified with a 2-S, Student Deferment. He received one more deferment in January 1968, months before he graduated.

His Selective Service records indicate that he was again reclassified as 1-A. But despite having gained a reputation as a physically superior specimen who had excelled in athletics throughout his life, he was suddenly reclassified on October 15, 1968 as 1-Y (which would later be changed to a 4-F, unable to serve). It turned out he had what were classified as bone spurs on the heels of both feet.

After graduating from Wharton in 1968, he joined the family real estate business. He was immediately immersed into the day-today management of his father’s mini empire, which, after many years, had continued to focus on middle class rental housing in his long held territories of Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island. He eased into the working environment, but within a year was already growing restless at his father’s extremely conservative philosophy that, while continuing to be successful, ultimately resulted in a limited vision and, predictably, smaller profit margins.

Keep reading:

In this book, the stories of our presidents' childhoods are told through fragments and quotes appropriated from more than 300 children’s books, pop history books and scholarly biographies. Each one is numbered, without a name, though a list of the corresponding presidents is in the book, along with a complete bibiliography. William Walsh is the author four previous books of fiction and nonfiction. His texts and stories are published widely. Learn more about Forty-four American Boys.

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