Interview: Fred Serrano

Brooklyn native Fred Serrano delivered the Brooklyn Eagle in the 1940s,
and later climbed Mount Fuji while stationed in Japan

By Palmer Hasty (April 14, 2015)

Brooklyn native Fred Serrano is 80 years old and currently lives in comfortable retirement in a private subdivision of Palm Harbor, a town connected to the north side of Clearwater on the West Coast of Florida.  Like another Brooklyn native we interviewed last year, Serrano delivered the Brooklyn Eagle for two years in the late 1940s when he was 14 years old.  In a recent interview with the Brooklyn Eagle, Serrano spoke about his Brooklyn roots, his success as an Insurance Advisor and Financial Planner for MetLife, and his reasons for moving to Florida.

BE: Although Jerry Seinfeld was joking when he said that his parents retired to Florida, not because they wanted to, but because it was the law, Serrano told me he had a different reason.

FS: It was my wife and my daughter’s fault. We had a great life in New York.  My wife was working as secretary to then-Mayor Ed Koch, and I worked for Met Life.  My daughter got married and didn’t want to raise her children in New York.  We purchased a villa in Palm Harbor where my daughter could live and we would often visit her family and our first grandchild.  In 1992 my wife twisted my arm, and pretty hard, I might add, so I retired and we moved to Florida.

BE: Where in Brooklyn were you born?

FS: I was born at Long Island College Hospital in 1934.  We lived at 20 Douglass St. in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn.  It was primarily an Italian neighborhood at the time. My grandmother had immigrated from Naples and bought the house in 1916.  It was the only semi-detached house on a block of Brownstones. The family still owns it.  

BE: What did you do as a kid?

I was raised in the streets of Brooklyn; the world was mine back then.  When I was nine I used to play in Carroll Park. I got to know the park attendant and he let me raise the American flag every morning on my way to school.
I had a great childhood. We didn’t have TVs, phones or computers, but we had whatever we could make. The football we played with was made of newspapers rolled and wadded up with a rope wrapped around to hold it together.  In the neighborhood, the kids shared everything. 
After we moved to President Street off Van Brunt, two blocks from the docks, I remember seeing aircraft carriers severely battle-damaged in the war being brought back to the Navy Yard. I remember Sam’s Restaurant on Court and Baltic streets, and I think it’s still there. That’s where my teenage friends and I hung out all the time.

BE: Tell us about delivering the Eagle.

I was so young when I delivered the Brooklyn Eagle I had to get working papers. Eventually I had to give up the route at 16. My route was Baltic and Warren streets, and all the side streets. Several years ago, I went back to Brooklyn and walked around inside the giant courtyard of the apartment complex at the corner of Baltic and Hicks streets, where I used to deliver the paper. Back then we called it The Towers. It brought back so many memories. I started delivering the paper with 40 customers, and when I left the delivery job I had over 100. The manager of the paper would give me extra copies to give to people who didn’t have subscriptions, and I would go back and try to sign them up.  Most of the time it worked. It was a good job and decent money for a 14-year old at that time.

BE: What did your parents do?

My father, Pat Serrano, was a Longshoreman. He was from the old country in Italy. One of my favorite memories when I was real young was when my mother would make lunch for me and dad and put it in a paper sack.  I would take it to my father at work and he and I would sit and talk while eating lunch together on the docks.

BE: So you were in the military?

Yes. I was drafted in 1954 just after the Korean War. I had tried to enlist in the Marine Corps a couple of years earlier in 1952, but my mother would not sign me up. I did not want to join the Army; at the draft board I asked the Sergeant if I could enlist in the Air Force. I had a choice of going to either Europe or Japan. I was in the Air Research Command. I chose Japan and served two years outside of Tokyo.  

BE: You said you climbed Mount Fuji while in Japan? What was that like?

Yes. That was quite an experience. A few of my buddies and I decided to do something different. It took all night. It’s about 6,000 feet. It was exhilarating, to say the least. From above we had to look down to see the clouds.

BE: Tell us about your experience delivering Western Union telegrams.

The Korean War had escalated and I had been specially trained to deliver casualty notices to families of deceased or wounded soldiers. I didn’t want to do it, but I had no choice if I was going to keep my job. I wore a Western Union cap and had a sign for the bike. Even today, I vividly remember the distraught faces of the parents and siblings while opening those dreaded telegrams. More than fifty years have passed and I’ve lived a full and satisfying life, but nevertheless, the memories of those faces still haunt me today.

BE: What was your most memorable experience while delivering telegrams?

FS: “I was delivering a telegram to an Italian family in Park Slope. I parked my bike against a bakery window, walked up the dark hallway stairs and knocked on the door of the correct address. The old woman opened the door and immediately recognized my “something, and they started yelling chaotically. Suddenly, I hear footsteps bounding up the hallway stairs and deep voices of men echoing through the building. I panicked and slammed the apartment door shut, and locked myself inside with the old woman, who was still screaming.  The men started banging and kicking at the locked door.  Scared to death, I pleaded, “Western Union Department of Defense telegram delivery boy; please don’t hurt me!

“As the commotion died down, I cautiously opened the door and handed the telegram to the two men, who claimed to be her nephews. I quickly obtained a signature, bolted down the stairs and left. Soon after that, I ended my employment with Western Union; I had had enough of the sorrow I was delivering to so many families.”

“What was even more strange, about six years ago, I met one of those men. My wife and I were eating in one of our favorite local Italian restaurants here in Palm Harbor. We were frequent customers there because we liked the live music. That night, the entertainer came and joined us at our table and we realized we were both from Brooklyn. We were reminiscing, and he started talking about his own recollections during the Korean War. He told me about a bad experience he had in Park Slope that involved his non-English speaking aunt and a Western Union delivery boy. He said that a poor Western Union boy had almost been seriously harmed by members of his family.”

“I was dumbfounded — I mean, it had been almost 60 years.  There was a powerful silence when I told him, “That’s me. I’m that Western Union boy.” The emotional connection was hard to bear; we both had tears in our eyes. I told him that I had wondered all through my life what had happened to the soldier whose name was on the telegram, if he had been killed or wounded. Sadly, his reply was, “Killed in action.”

BE: I asked Serrano if there was anything from his Brooklyn background that has influenced him even into his 80s.

“I think I see things differently than people from other parts of the country. Like I said earlier, I grew up on the streets of Brooklyn; the world was mine. Brooklyn gave me strength. It has helped me survive all these years.”

Photo: Palmer Hasty