By Frank Barning

It is said that his problems began in the early 1940s when his stepfather tossed him out of a rowboat cruising Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadow Park, not far from Billy Rose’s Aquacade. This was long before a parent could easily be charged with child abuse and anyway, the stepfather told family members, the only reason he tossed the boy out of the boat was to stop him from his constant whining. They understood.

The whining became less chronic, but the lad was never the same after this incident. He was still in elementary school and spent much of his free time playing in one of the few remaining empty lots of Austin Street. It was there that Wally soon starting playing with matches and roaming the Long Island Rail Road tracks.

Legend has it that he may have started a series of small fires in the basements of Forest Hills apartment houses as well as the blaze in the back of Jones' Candy Store near Ascan Avenue. He never liked Mrs. Jones who refused his numerous requests of packs of matches and he knew that she was a secret drinker just like his stepfather.

As difficult as it may be to believe, Wally was an altar boy at a church. “One Sunday, the priest walked too close to my lit candle and went up in flames like a bag of hay,” he said. “Thank God some of the people in the parish rushed in and put out the flames.”

That was not his only adventure in regard to his church. “It was the job of the alter boys to fill one flask with water and another with wine,” whining Wally said. “Let’s have some fun and fill both flasks with wine. By the middle of mass, the priest was stumbling all over the alter.”

The Long Island Rail Road tracks through Forest Hills were an attraction for many boys. The high embankment was fun to climb and it was exciting to get close to the tracks as the trains heading to Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan whizzed by in the morning. Some of the kids had collections of coins, usually pennies, that they had put on the tracks to be flattened by the roaring trains.

Wally’s favorite time was just after sundown, semi-darkness. He liked to fire rocks as the trains carrying commuters home from the city to distant towns such as Freeport, Hicksville, Mineola, Wantagh, Baldwin and other exotic locations. Actually, they were only exotic in Wally’s fertile mind.

It was rumored that if you touched the third rail, from which the trains’ engines received their power, that you would be electrocuted. Boys quivered at the thought and were extremely careful to avoid that hazard. Wally thought it was a bunch of crap and he wanted to prove that it was just a wives’ tale.

One summer day, he and a few pals gathered on the tracks to see Wally try to prove his theory that the third rail was safe. They climbed the embankment behind the garages on Burns Street, just a couple of hundred yards southwest of the Ascan Avenue tressel. The large privet hedges gave them some semblance of cover, they believed, although they could easily be seen by people living in the Tilden Arms apartment house on the other side of the tracks.

He had found a long metal rod, probably some sort of tool used in track maintenance. His plan was to touch the third-rail with this implement. The tension mounted as Wally approached his target, with some of his friends getting as far away as possible out of their fear.

Undaunted, Wally marched over to the eastbound track and extended the metal bar as his pals held their breaths. Upon contact, Wally was propelled about five feet in the air, his hair and pants ablaze. Some of his buddies scrambled down the embankment in terror, while two remained to tend to their friend who was still smoking a few minutes later.

"Not only did my pants leg go on fire, my hair made me look like Alfalfa, the kid in the old movies," he recalled. "The light was so bright that I could not see for at least 10 seconds."

Someone from the Tilden Arms called the fire department, although Wally was the only thing on fire. He was strapped onto a stretcher, carried down the hill and was driven in an emergency vehicle to a nearby hospital.

The only damage was some hair loss and minor burns on his face and hands. Of course, his family was furious and humiliated. But to his friends and schoolmates who learned about Wally’s railroad-track adventure, he was a minor folk hero.

He and his family moved to the south shore of Nassau County a year or so later, where Wally went to high school. On a Monday morning following a mysterious weekend break-in and vandalism, a demolished grand piano was found in the first few rows of seats in the school auditorium. The male music teacher was seen in tears and an investigation was conducted to find the culprits. Wally, who had the face of an angel, was never even questioned about the crime.

Upon graduating from high school, it was suggested by guidance counselors and family that he join the military. Having no plans, Wally signed up. One of his final acts as a civilian was to steal his stepfather’s Buick and leave it in the long-time parking lot at Idlewild Field, renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Years later over cocktails at a class reunion, he admitted destroying the piano, as well as a handful of other unsolved mysteries. He bragged about Peeping Tom episodes in the girls’gym, petty shoplifting, and stolen cars taken for joy rides and abandoned at nearby Jones Beach.

Wally is long retired from a career as a LIRR employee and is a decorated volunteer fireman. Thankfully, he never returned to Forest Hills and no longer whines except when he thinks about rowboats.

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