Robert McNally grew up during the Great Depression and made Middle Village and Ridgewood his own personal playground by riding on train cars, jumping off buildings, and even making a historic discovery, all of which are chronicled in his book trilogy: “The Memoir of a Boy on His Dangerous Journey.”
McNally was born in Bridgeport, CT, in 1932, but in 1933 his family moved into a house right next to the Fresh Pond Crematory on Mt. Olivet Crescent in Middle Village, where his father was employed. After that time his family moved around quite a bit, going back to Bridgeport for a short while, then living in Maspeth and Middle Village before settling in Ridgewood in 1939.
“I loved Middle Village because it had a pastoral look to it. I wish I had lived in the country rather than the city,” McNally said from his home in Floral Park. “I like Middle Village better than Ridgewood because Ridgewood is more city. I have more of an agrarian nature.”
During his time in Middle Village and Ridgewood, McNally would go on childhood adventures with his groups of friends, which often put him in some dangerous situations. He would dangle off the sides of buildings by just his fingertips or jump down off garage roofs and leap from one building to another, all for the adulation of his companions. Some of his friends would even say he was a “daring-do,” which is someone who displays heroic courage, McNally said.
“I’m just an ordinary guy that had extraordinary experiences,” McNally said. “I’ve jumped off the Metropolitan Avenue Bridge. I use to climb down onto a pipe, I’d stand on there and jump down onto flatcars that are running through. And we opened up the freight car doors and take ride here and there. I say far and wide, but not too far, really. Long Island City was the furthest we ever went.”
McNally reminisced about the times he and his friends would connect the trollies that were stored between Woodbine Street and Madison Street to the electricity and ride them around.
“We learned all these trades, like how to drive a train,” McNally said. “We would get into the caboose, lay down on the bed in there and tell stories.”
One adventure even brought McNally some notoriety.
When he was 16, McNally was walking around the railroad tracks on the Middle Village/Ridgewood border with three of his friends when a 3-year-old boy called for their attention. When the quartet of boys arrives, the little kid pointed out a spider on the ground.
“Right away I knew it was a black widow spider because it had an orange hourglass shape on its belly,” McNally remembered. “So I put it on a stick, put him in a can or bottle and brought him to the pharmacy.”
The owner of the pharmacy was well-versed in spiders and snakes, and immediately knew this was a big find. As it turns out, what McNally brought in was the very first black widow spider ever found in the northeastern states of the United States. The pharmacy owner then called the Ridgewood Times, which published a story about the historic find.
McNally has plenty of other stories about his youth in the local neighborhoods, such as his time working with his father in the Fresh Pond Crematory, the trouble he would get into at school, and more. All of his stories can be found in his trilogy: “I Had Jelly on My Nose and A Hole in My Breeches,” “Sister Superior’s Thumb, the Pope’s Ring and the End of Childhood,” and “The Boy Who Loved Girls.”
All of his books are available for purchase on Amazon.com.