Scenes of My New England Boyhood

 

 

 

It was a different time.

 

Adults were in short supply, more flinty and aloof in affect. Those who were not Teachers were Store keeps, Police or Firemen, one’s parents or the parents of others. All were suspect.

 

An hour lasted at least seven of what you have now and a mile was half again as long on any given day, particularly the miles between home and school.

 

In autumn we burned our leaves without resort to permit, and their aroma could be smelled for miles and days beyond the burning. Fires might spread to fields and yards, structures, children, dogs: all were abundant. The loss of some few was bittersweet but unremarkable.

 

You could see further then, especially if trouble was coming and you squinted. Playgrounds were our battlefields. In the woods beyond low stone walls there was certainly quicksand. It was widely rumored the railroad tracks led to china, but I never followed them that far.

 

The wheels on our skateboards were made of stone that sparked against asphalt. If you lost a leg, it grew back, like a starfish, but it was a torment to resist picking the scab.

 

We feared and admired the French Canadian heathen in their shantytowns and tarpaper shacks down by the river. “Canucks” I’d whisper under my blankets in the flash lit light, imagining their ridged brows, their ruddy skin, their beaver pelt coats, their hockey sticks.

 

My brother and I, the loose knit band of nearly feral youth we ran with, swam the fall of the Nixon administration like it was a river, forded the Ford and came ashore on Carter, never once knowing our games of army and Red Rover were played out upon squares of yellowed Kodachrome.

 

THE ENERGY CRISIS

This was several years before the Crisis on Infinite Earths, around the time of Giant Size X-men #1 in fact. Gasoline became so scarce our fathers stood in lines for it. They gambled for it, traded food and women. I once came upon a family of seven, mummified in their station wagon for want of gasoline, even the dog, mummified. I snapped a finger off the Grandma for a souvenir and kept it in a Lost in Space lunchbox like a reliquary. My father once traded me to a traveling Gypsy knife sharpener for a jerry can of watered down gasoline, but it was understood if I could use my wits and lock pick tools to escape I would, and so I did after a week and made my way back, but had to sleep on the porch having lost my share of the bed to our dog Stephen Foster. That was the summer I ate lightning bugs. The use of electrical devices including the telephone machine was curtailed to necessity and enforced by law, personal shame, and roving gangs of Baseball furies, Lizzies, Rogues, Riffs, Hurricanes and Boppers.

For a year we were forced to forego Daylight Savings Time and so walked to school before sunrise in the pitch black. We carried variously flashlights, Coleman lanterns, torches, but still passing cars picked us off here and there. A Billy Macavoy, a Mary Lee Porrier did not answer ‘present’ when their name was called and that was how you found out the dark had got them.

 

SCHOOL

Steven Shaheens’ head was torn clean off by an expertly thrown package of Grape Bazooka on the playground and so all gums were outlawed. We made do smuggling in Blowpops, which had gum at their center. Owing to a general lack of coordination and a paralyzing degree of self-awareness, I was consigned to ‘Special Gym’ with three retarded children and a legally blind child who wore glasses so thick they required a delicately balanced counter weight to remain upon his face. We were told we could tell the other children that our gym was not ‘special’ it was ‘extra’, but any damn fool knew an idiot enclosure for what it was. I excelled, particularly on the balance beam. Our English teacher, Mizz Della Dinowski was over three hundred years old and lived with her mother. She routinely ran children down with her Oldsmobile for spite and no one did a damn thing, crushed them to death like squirrels under her wheels and drove on. My friends and I attended many funerals.

 

I played harmonica at graveside. The preacher remarked on the fragility of modern children, which is what we were to him. He was seventeen feet tall and his skin was so dry it had peeled away at the nose entirely, revealing the bleached cartilage beneath. At assembly I was required to explain what Jews were, and at this I failed. To this day the town I grew up in is unclear on the nature and status of Jews, to my great and lasting shame. On the playground, the law of the jungle prevailed. A child might be stoned to death for swinging out of turn or crucified upon the monkey bars to appease an angry God before a science test. My best friend Mike was often called upon to fight for our lives, but I became expert in burrowing, weaseling, slipping between the edges of things and becoming invisible. In extreme need I could sometimes summon a short burst of speed that would leave me in a neighboring town, shoes burned away at the sole, smoking, hungry beyond words. I grew my hair to tremendous proportions and refused to brush it, so I could blend seamlessly into thickets. We would meet up at the fire station, Mike covered in swellings and bruises, me with half the forest in my hair, and buy pop from the soda machine and stare at the firemen who might have been chainsaw carved stumps and spoke in a language comprised entirely of curse words.

 

THE WOODS

My property abutted a large parcel of disputed acreage, owing to surveying irregularities dating back hundreds of years. Nothing could be built upon the contested area and it had run wild. This no man’s land connected to a friends field and woodlot at the end of which was a swamp that if crossed let out on the town cemetery. In all, seventeen thousand square miles into which we could and did disappear regularly. One of the Donahue boys did not return at all from play, but they had almost a dozen and didn’t notice until five years later when a small portion of the swamp was drained to build a filling station and the child was discovered living with Beavers. After several failed attempts to reintroduce the boy to society, he was put down.

 

Indian caves could be found in those woods, as could the skeletal remains of bandits, more than one Hobo Jungle and a species of Salamander the size of a German Shepherd long thought extinct by science. We built a machine gun nest overlooking a valley and took note of Nazi troop convoys until I got cholera. The cemetery was a great place to be reminded of mortality, skateboard and get flowers on Mother’s Day.

 

ERNTERTAINMENT

The music was a hellish torment. One foul July Saturday the American Top Forty featured thirty-eight songs off the soundtrack album of ‘Saturday Night Fever’, ‘Saturday Night’ by the Bay City Rollers and ‘the Night Chicago Died’ by Paper Lace. All across town people beat their skulls in with their own clock radios until the local emergency room nailed it’s doors shut. There were four channels on the TV machine and also UHF if you were a man of science. Mike and I tried to assemble a UHF antenna from salvaged washing machine parts, my mother’s hair drying machine, tin foil and tape but succeeded only in creating a sentient computer which we were forced to go back in time and prevent from coming into existence. Only we remembered. ‘Star Wars’ debuted at the Cineplex and many of us took up residence therein to facilitate continuous viewing. We built ourselves hanging nests of found twine and hanger wire like giant featherless weaverbirds. We would drop from the ceilings between showings and forage for spilled popcorn, petrified gum, orphan Ju-Ju Bees, our ranks thinned by Rickets, Typhus and a host of other sailor’s diseases brought on by malnutrition. Comic Books cost fifteen cents, were One Hundred to Three Thousand pages long and printed on a wood pulp so cheap that I once turned an issue of The Brave and The Bold featuring Batman and the Metal Men to dust by simply by speaking to it.

 

THE BLIZZARD OF SEVENTY-EIGHT

The blizzard of ’78 was actually several storms coming together on each other’s heels and generally overlapping. Trapped in place by a Canadian high-pressure system, hurricane force winds battered us and snow fell twelve inches an hour for most of February. An atypical development of vertical storm clouds brought thunder and lightning as the temperature dropped to Seven Hundred and Twenty-Eight bellow zero. Unlucky dogs sailed through the air and shattered like life sized glass dog statues against equally unlucky frozen weathermen. At the height of the storm, Snowmen came to life and slid about ravenous for human flesh and the wind blew so hard the First Congregational Church of Gloucester was turned inside out. When the sun finally came out, we awoke to find ourselves buried beneath fourteen miles of snow. A complicated system of connecting tunnels were dug out in a showing of classic New England spunk that soon turned sour when it became clear their primary purpose was to facilitate cannibalism. Spring came, but many were too snow blind to believe it and continued to freeze to death in their dreams or brag so much their lungs exploded.

 

Scattered now, like the autumn leaves that smoldering lit on the sheds and garages of our youth and burnt them down, we survivors of those old days will fade into memory. One by one until all are gone, like the last Veterans of the Great wars or aging Apollo Astronauts winking out in nursing homes, we antiques born before the Internet machine, the cell phone machine; Keep off our lawns, don’t back sass us, salute as we go by and for God’s sake, pull your pants up, pants are not meant to be worn that way.

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7 thoughts on “Scenes of My New England Boyhood

  1. I haven’t thought about Miss Dainowski for a long time. She was my grandmother’s teacher. And she was my teacher. And she invented the legendary teacher phrase, “CAN you go to the bathroom? Are you PHYSICALLY ABLE?”
    A perfect memory for my first day of classes. Now I’m cold. So very cold …

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    • She scared the hell out of me, and she really did drive like a maniac. Mike, do you remember when she criticized one of your illustrations for not having enough color and you explained to her it was an Osprey, and that they are gray and black and white?

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  2. My family lived next door to Miss Dinowski; our houses were separated by 60 feet of boulders and a miniature swamp. Jimmy Kenny and I used to crawl the back way through the woods to get to her back yard and like commandos crawling along the ground, would steal a couple of peaches from the ground under her peach tree. Probably the most illegal thing I’ve done in my life. Probably the scariest, too. I didn’t have her at Atkinson Jr. High, I had Miss Ericsson, who I loved with all my heart, as she introduced me to debating, and Shakespeare.
    The rest of your account was true, however, and pretty much matches my memories of our youth, except you left out the magic of your ancestral home. You got the comics thing correct, though.

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