MEET THE LEGEND NAMED RALPH ZENGEN
The phrase, "He was a legend in his own time," may be one of the most overused, and, usually exaggerated, expressions in history, but when it comes to a guy named Ralph Zengen, it's almost as if the words were coined expressly for him. You see, I actually "heard" of Ralph before I even met him. We both grew up in Bayside, Queens, a New York City residential suburb in the 1950s, but since he was several years older, we did not meet until a few years later. In 1953, there was a terrible bully by the name of Pete Foresi stalking Bell Boulevard, Bayside's main street, picking on all the younger kids, myself included. Although I was big for my age (actually fully grown already) I was only 13 at the time, and lacking the confidence that only comes with life's experiences, so I and other kids always kept an eye out for Pete, and would run upon sighting.
Suddenly, through the teenage grapevine, I heard those magic words: Hey, didya hear about . . . ? No, what? This guy, his name is Ralph, saw Pete Foresi picking on some kids and threw him through the plate glass window of Pete's Paint Store. Wow! Pete the bully was never seen stalking the boulevard again. As it happened just two years later I started "hanging out" with a bunch of guys at Dick's Candy Store on Bell and, lo and behold, one of them was Ralph Zengen, the legend of Bell, who had made it safe for younger kids.
Although I was younger than most of the guys, I was accepted into "The Crowd" with Ralph and Bobby Coppers and the others, and we became friends for life. In 1954 Ralph joined the U.S. Navy, and, after Boot Camp, was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a stone's throw from Dick's, so "the crowd" remained intact with Ralph and the others. Even when he was later transferred to the New London Naval Base, in nearby Connecticut, Ralph, in his new 1958 V-8 Impala, cut the driving time down on the turnpike to less than two hours as he rushed back to Bayside on weekends to see his family and friends.
One night in November 1959, as he was heading back to New London on the Connecticut Turnpike after spending the weekend in Bayside, disaster struck – disaster with a golden lining. Ralph was involved in a horrific traffic accident and was rushed to Yale Medical Center in New Haven. The hospital listed his condition "grave," but, of course, they didn't know who they were dealing with. With the strength and determination that always defined Ralph Zengen, and with the help of a cute little nursing student named Nancy Woods, he made a remarkably fast and complete recovery. When he eventually left the hospital, he took his nursing student with him, and, on September 17, 1960, Nancy Woods became Nancy Zengen, at a Connecticut wedding "invaded" (by invitation, of course) by the entire gang from Dick's, which left the local townfolk something to talk about for years to come.
Of course, the exploits of Ralph and the rest of us at Dick's Candy Store could all come under the heading of "teenage frivolity," but when it came to his country and the United States Navy, Ralph took things seriously, very seriously – and the legend continued.
By the late 1950s and early 60s, when most of the crowd was being dragged reluctantly into adulthood, and the military, Ralph was already on his way to building a most honorable career in the Navy. Following his return to duty after his release from the hospital, Ralph, who had chosen Cryptology as his rating specialty, was stationed to a security base in Washington, DC. That's when he showed the brass he had "the right stuff." Entering the service as an ordinary seaman, he flew through the ranks of petty officers until being awarded the insignia of Chief Warrant Officer, a fete seldom achieved. Along the way, he collected numerous awards and medals for his service, including two Navy & Marine Corps Commendation Medals, a Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal, a Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon, a Navy Good Conduct Medal, and a National Defense Service Medal. The only way for the awards to stop was for Ralph to retire in 1980, after a more than admirable (pun intended) 26-years of service.
You might think compiling such a commendable military career would leave time for nothing else. You might think that, but you'd be wrong. About the only thing more important to Ralph than the Navy was his family – for which he achieved even more memorable "awards." You see, that cute nursing student he married in 1960 also had "the right stuff." Their 60-year marriage was commemorated with the birth of four daughters and five granddaughters. (As one daughter, Dawn, said: "I think having all girls was a "payback" for his early years!").
Early years, married years, military years. Ralph proved to be a legend in all three. But just days after Nancy and his 60th anniversary, Ralph suffered a cardiac arrest which took his life. I think there was a sudden stillness around the world at that moment. I know there was one in mine. After the stillness, however, there was an avalanche of memories. Like our many reunions in Bayside throughout the years, and the time Bobby Coppers and I "dropped" in for a visit when he was stationed in Virginia. What'd we do after enjoying a wonderful dinner with Nancy and the rest of his family? Retire to his backyard to resume our wrestling match that began sometime in 1955.