Robert Schinsing was born near Rochester, New York, and had six siblings. Robert’s father had served in the U.S. Navy during World War I and his brother enlisted in the Army during World War II. His mother was an air controller during the war and kept her eyes peeled for enemy planes on the East Coast. Robert joined the Air Force after high school and went on to fight in the Korean War.
In this oral history, Robert recalls wartime air raid drills and rationing. He discusses family life, school, and the impact of the war on his community. Robert further reflects on wartime celebrities, and visiting both Japan and Pearl Harbor years after World War II ended.
Winning Over My Wife with a 3-Cent Postcard
At that time, she lived across the street from us. [I] never walked to school with her. But when I went into the Air Force, I sent her that postcard, and that started the whole thing. She was in college up in Rochester for medical secretary school.
CSK: The Rochester Business Institute?
Yes, that’s the one. And I used to borrow her bicycle to do my paper route all the time. I wasn’t a stranger. Her father was a plumbing and heating contractor, but ah, very successful. She was the only kid in that family.
And I guess that 3-cent postcard started the whole thing. We got married in 1950, when I was in the service. I home every Christmas the four years I was in, in the Korean War. It was really fun.
Plowing the Sidewalks
Here’s a good story: I remember a DeJohn family. [One member of the family] used to plow the sidewalks with a horse. And he would ride in the back of that plow guiding the horse down through the sidewalks, on the streets, and on where it was the least for him to plow. The plow would go sideways back and forth on the sidewalk and hit trees and all that kind of stuff. Yeah.
Gas Station Bathroom
Gasoline was 19-cents a gallon at the gas station across the street. Also, that gas station had an extra bathroom for the customers. And us kids—because we only had one bathroom at our house—we would go over there and use their bathroom when we had to go [laughing].
The Sugar Black Market
Oh god, a lot of foods, too, right [were rationed at the time]? I think. Sugar of course was.
Oh! This guy that owned a whole bunch of trucks where I worked at the gas station, I used to ride to New York City with him and go all over. We used to get stuff out of Kodak and take it down to the navy yards in New York.
And then, one time [was] the best, only real experience I had [with the black market]. The best experience—I went down there several times. [I went to] Washington and Philadelphia; we used to go. But New York, we went there [and] took a load of stuff from [the] Eastman Kodak [Company] down to the Navy Yard.
On the way back, we were supposed to pick up fifteen ton of sugar to bring back to Rochester. And the guy arranges to go pick up the load of sugar, but they made me get out of the truck when they went to pick it up. And they give me money to go into a restaurant and get some coffee. “We’ll be back in a couple hours to pick you up.” Here I am, fourteen years old; 1944.
After they picked up the sugar, they come back and pick me up. The guy pulled out a little pistol—the guy who arranged to get us—and he said, “If nothing happened, we’re not taking this sugar up to Rochester.” They took it over to Newark, New Jersey.
Once again, they backed up; they wouldn’t let me go with ‘em. They give me money to go to the restaurant [and] says, “We’ll be back to pick you up after we unload the sugar.” He hijacked that whole fifteen ton of sugar and unloaded it over in Newark, New Jersey, someplace. He did pay the driver for our trip back to Rochester; some money. But we never—that guy hijacked that whole fifteen ton of sugar, somehow. Got away with it, too.
CSK: You knew these people?
Well—. [pauses] We had different guys that get you loads; they arrange to get you loads. And that’s what he wanted, you know? He knew a place where he could pick up the sugar and he must have had that all in line before he’d ever done this. But he said, “Nothin’ ever happens. You come back down here and I’ll give each of you $100.” I never went back for months after that [laughs].
CSK: So, it was kind of a black market for the rationed products?
That’s exactly what it was. Yup.
When the war ended [in] 1945, a friend of mine had a truck. He worked for this trucking outfit, hauling mail. He was driving mail ‘cause he had a license. And when the war ended, V-J Day—that night—all of us guys were riding in the back of that truck. And I think we had somebody’s cider barrel. One of the friends had a cider barrel or something, and we were drinking cider [at] fifteen years old.
We stayed out all night long running around town with that truck. Everybody was in the back of that truck, running up and down the streets when the war ended. It was all night long. I think I got home like 6:00 or 7:00 the next morning, we stayed out so long. My mother said, “Where ya been?” And we were just running around with that truck.
Graduating High School
I almost didn’t graduate in 1948 [after the war]. In my senior year, you’re supposed to read a book—in my junior year, it was—and then, report to the class the next morning. And I always refused to report. I said, “I’m not ready, I’m not ready.” The English teachers says, “Get out of class. Don’t come back until you make up your mind; you’ve gotta talk.” And now I talk too damn much, but anyway—. [laughing]
I stayed out of class [for] three weeks, ’til [Norman] Kelley—[who was] the principal at that time and they named a school after him here in Newark—he called me up, “What’s the matter, Bob?” And said, “I don’t want to talk.” He says, “Bob, I’ll tell you one thing: there’s a lot of things in life you’re gonna have to do that you don’t like to do. English is one of ’em or you’re not going to graduate.” He says, “[I’ll] tell you what to do: go back to class; outline what you’ve missed. Outlines,” he said, “are easy.”
And from then on, she [the teacher] hardly ever called on me. I passed the class and graduate. [laughing] I was the only one in my family—the first one, I should say—to graduate. Then, my brother and other sister underneath me graduated. Only three out of seven of us graduated.
Seeing the World Outside of Newark
Well, I think [that] everybody should take a few years in the service, for the country. And for one thing, it gets you to travel around, away from Newark. A lot of people right now—I still know people that have never been hardly out of New York State. I never would have got to California, if it wasn’t for being in [the] service.
And when I was in the service [during the Korean War], I think we paid forty-five bucks a month out there for the rent. But I ended up—after I left service in California to come back here to Newark, [I began] working. And after ten years of working here, I went back to California and stayed out there for twenty years. I made a fortunate on my house. I sold my house here in Newark for $17,000 in—oh golly, I got to think again now—1964. I sold my house here for $17,000. I had to go out there and pay [$26,000] for a house. I said, “I can’t pay twenty-six!”
But I paid some guy’s GI loan. It was $216 a month, I paid, right in Los Altos, California: the big Silicon Valley, right next to Palo Alto and Mountain View. Big time. I kept that house for twenty years. And we had our mind made up to come back to Newark. I bought the same house back where I live right now from the people. But we sold that one out there for $260,000. So it went ten times more than my $26,000. Now, everything, of course, nowadays—everything is one million dollars in that house.