Interjecting his tales with high-spirited “Bops!” and “Zows!” and bouncing in his armchair, Andrew Conlin was clearly still full of life. His memory was sharp, packed with details of his New York childhood, his service in World War II and his career as a New York City police officer. Conlin even picked up and played his hefty accordion, despite nearing his 100th birthday.
“I used to pick up tunes by ear,” he said, holding the red, lacquered instrument on his lap. “I’d remember what to play after one listen — but I couldn’t tell you one key from the other,” he added with a laugh.
Today that strong memory is still evident. Conlin’s jovial, adolescent-like laughs pierced the conversation as he recalled names of past comrades and important dates. Before an interview with the Herald Life, he prepared six pages of hand-written personal history, in neat script. “It didn’t take me long — maybe two hours,” he said with a shrug.
As a boy, long before he moved to Merrick in 1952, Conlin spent much of his time on the streets near his family’s apartment in the Bronx. He described his mother wearing a bandana, sweat rolling down her neck in the summer heat while leaning over the fire escape, beckoning to the man selling ice on the street below. Back then, 15 cents bought enough ice to last his family until the next visit, he said.
From a nearby carnival came “dream-like music,” Conlin recalled. Local parades featured Spanish-American War veterans with bandoliers across their uniforms, he said, and Civil War veterans riding by in cars.
“There was never a lack of kids!” Conlin exclaimed, throwing his arms up emphatically. Stickball was the sport of choice, pulling all the neighborhood kids away from their stoops. He recounted other childhood memories — of fisticuffs and laughter — never missing a detail.
At Clinton High School in the Bronx, Conlin “zipped right through the four years” of French, he said. At a newspaper stand in Times Square with a wide selection, he honed his skill by reading copies of French periodicals.
In 1937, Conlin met his future wife, Peggy Lynch. The two got married upstate four years later, but “war was in the air,” he said. “Everyone knew, sooner or later, we’d be at war.” He joined the National Guard in 1940, and served at the 258th Armory in the Bronx.
In 1942, Conlin and thousands of other National Guard members were drafted into the Army. In his carefully written notes, he detailed the tense atmosphere when he was shipped off to, of all places, Iceland. On the way, he wrote, “Looking off to the horizon, I saw message lights from a destroyer, signaling ‘Periscope sighted 400 yards astern!’” — a warning of a German submarine sighting. “Two destroyers picked up steam, the smoke billowing up from their stacks,” he wrote, “and they U-turned backwards to attack the German submarines.”
In Iceland, alongside British soldiers, Conlin served as a radio operator. Armed with a typewriter, he would record intercepted messages and hand them off to a sergeant, who would send them off to the “big brains” in Washington. He recalled celebrating Christmas there, with soldiers from New York, Massachusetts and New Mexico — as well as Holland and Ukraine — all gathered around a small, festive tree.
His service brought him to training camps in South Carolina, Arkansas and Georgia. “Dear Peggy,” as Conlin affectionately calls his late wife, always moved with him, giving birth to their first son, Andrew, in 1944, and their second, James, in 1945.
Conlin was discharged that year, and became a New York City policeman. After 19 years on patrol and several attempts at the sergeant’s test, he eventually earned that promotion, and went on to become a lieutenant. He served for a total of 35 years in the 114th Precinct in Astoria.
Conlin followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming an officer, he said. That was the way Andrew Conlin Sr. supported his family coming out of the Great Depression. Andrew Jr.’s first two sons, Andrew III and James, did the same.
After he and Peggy settled in their quaint Merrick home, they had three more children, Eileen, Kevin and Dennis. Conlin now has eight grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. Many attended Old Mill Road Elementary School and Sanford H. Calhoun High School.
Conlin enjoyed nothing more than tracing his family’s roots — “without the help of Google,” his granddaughter Molly Larom, 39, said. On a pilgrimage to Ireland, he tracked down his lineage, and sketched his family tree on his father’s side all the way back to a great-great-grandfather.
At home in Merrick, where Conlin sat with Kevin and Molly, spirits were high. The trio recounted generations of memories that were made there, and how their lives had changed over the years. But none of their stories match those from Conlin’s generation, said Kevin, 69.
“I don’t think there will be any generation that’ll experience more things than they did,” he said. “There will never be 100 years of more amazing history.”