In this funny yet bittersweet memoir, author Howard Chislett takes us on a journey that spans twenty years of his life. By sharing stories of his early days—from growing up in Jamaica Plain to landing his first full-time job—Chislett paints a realistic portrait of life in America during the 1950s and 1960s. The author has graciously made a chapter of the book available for use on this web site. This book is available for purchase from Amazon.com and from your neighborhood bookseller.
You are where you’re from
I grew up in what was known as the Stony Brook section of Jamaica Plain. Stony Brook was the industrial part of Jamaica Plain. I spent my first 21 years in Jamaica Plain. If you don’t know Boston, then you should know its neighborhoods are insular. My small part of Jamaica Plain was no different. It was the place that shaped my world view. It was my island, my territory, my turf, my homeland, and my world; it was my small part of a bigger universe of Boston.
Boston’s neighborhoods are like most urban neighborhoods where the rich and the poor lived together in a sort of détente cordial. The Jamaica Plain class system was set up this way: the closer you lived to the New York/New Haven RR tracks the less well off you were; the closer you lived to the MTA streetcar tracks on Centre Street, the better off you were; the closer you lived to Jamaica Pond and the Arborway, the more you were a part of the Jamaica Plain aristocracy. My family lived within 25 yards of the New York/New Haven RR tracks. The least well off ones lived on the “other side” of the railroad tracks, that is, between Amory Street and the New York/New Haven RR tracks. These are imaginary dividing lines, but, if you wanted to know your place in the Jamaica Plain hierarchy, your address said it all. Before I was born, my family lived in various parts of Jamaica Plain but they were always in close proximity to the RR tracks. They never completely escaped the rumble and roar of freight and passenger trains that ran day and night.
I entered this world on Wednesday, April 21, 1943. This was not a particularly auspicious time to be born. It was a time of war. By 1943, the United States needed more men to fight in Europe and the Far East. My brother, Cecil, was drafted into the Army a few months before I was born. He was still in high school. He graduated while he was off at basic training. Ma and Dad picked up his diploma.
On my birth certificate, it simply states I was born to Alpheus and Gertrude Chislett, both of Newfoundland: he was born in Islington on Trinity Bay and she was born in Pouch Cove. His occupation was “mechanic”; her occupation, “housewife.” I was born in the quaintly named Boston Lying-In Hospital whose motto heartily proclaimed, at Lying-In, “everyday was labor day.” My stay at the Lying-In was short. There was, after all, a war on—I couldn’t be lying about. More babies were coming into this world, and there was a need for beds.
After leaving Lying-In, my parents took me to where I would spend the next 19 years of my life. My new digs were on the corner of Lamartine Street and Emsella Terrace. The number on the door was 190. On the ground floor was a five and ten cent store. It wasn’t a Woolworth’s or a Kresge’s. It had the eponymous name of Gert’s. The Chisletts lived above Gert’s, and above us lived a middle-age bachelor and his elderly mother. They were Greek. They spoke no English, but he was always good for a nickel whenever he saw me. I never knew his name. I never saw his mother, either. Aside from the nickels, the thing I remember about him was he made wine. I remember the times my old man yelled and screamed at him after his wine vats ran over. These verbal battles were short lived as this guy would freely share his most recent batch of home made red wine with my father.
Our next door neighbors lived at number 188. We, in 190, were separated from our neighbors by about 4 feet of wall in the front of the building, and an open air shaft in the back of the building. There is an old adage about contempt bred from familiarity. In many ways, this old adage spoke the truth. Across our 4 foot separation, lived a spinster daughter and her mother whom I never really knew. Below them was another store that went from a dry cleaner in the late 40s and 50s; to a television repair place in the mid 50s to a used magazine store in the early 60s. On the top floor there lived a family with four kids. This was my home. A place I grew to abhor especially after the Greek’s mother died and he moved out. After that a series of strange individuals moved in upstairs. One such family moved during a blizzard in order to avoid paying the rent. That, on the surface, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the weeks before they left, the wife had somehow gotten my mother to take her telephone calls. This was a bad thing as we received all manner of weird phone calls. If I answered I just said they weren’t home.
Also in this family was the husband’s elderly mother. After they finally left, there came a knock on our door. It was the elderly mother. Her stellar son and daughter-in-law abandoned her. They just left this old woman alone in an empty apartment. She came downstairs to find out if her son was with us. My Mom took her in and “put the kettle on.” (Putting the kettle on is Newfoundlander for feed the person). It was obvious this woman’s son was not about to retrieve his mother. The cops came and took her away. I’m sure she thought she was to be taken to her son’s new place. There are shits in every era. Ah, but I’m getting ahead in my story.
An early memory was of my father. He was never home during the day. He left long before any of the kids got up. My Mom would get up at five in the morning, and got his breakfast, and packed his lunch. He often got home after six in the evening. During the war, he worked for the railroad, a vital industry back then. My Mom stayed at home. She had three kids; she was no Rosie the Riveter.
The first two years of my life are what Newfoundlanders would call “mauzy” or misty. I recall the old kitchen where my mother did the washing and prepared our meals. When the wash was taken out of the washer, my mother ran it through the wringer and then took it out to the back porch. There she hung it on a clothes line that was screwed into the outside wall of another apartment across the way. On wash day, Monday, as I recall it, the alley between the two apartments exposed everyone’s clothes. I imagine it was a way of seeing who was doing okay and who was not. This was a rather primitive barometer of socioeconomic levels or plight. I must’ve been getting around on my own, and I was probably under foot or I was just sitting off somewhere observing. My brothers were off at school. In the summer, they would be outdoors playing with friends or off at some church sponsored camp for working-class kids. They spent a few weeks there.
These are some of the things that happened to me during my first nine years:
1. When I was 2 years old, I drank disinfectant and was rushed to the hospital. During the ambulance ride, I vomited all over the back. I have some stray memories of my stay in the hospital. Just before going to sleep, I would always gaze out of the ward’s huge window. The moon would miraculously turn into a giant teddy bear. It sat rocking on the roof of a building across the courtyard.
2. I once played with matches and set the clothes closet on fire. My mother, to teach me a lesson, held a lighted match under my palm. It was a tough lesson—I never forgot it.
3. When I got whooping cough, I thought, “could I really cough my lungs out?” It sure felt like it at the time! It was a horrendous disease to suffer through as a child.
4. Measles weren’t any better. I was in a state of delirium most of the time. I would climb out of my bed, and head for the kitchen. I can still hear everyone yelling at me to get back into bed. They shouted something like, “Do you want to go blind?” Chicken pox was a big itch. Mumps, a name that always sounded funny to me, came in stages. First on the right side of my neck; then on the left side. To a kid, the only good thing about these diseases was a week or two out of school. Every kid I knew got these childhood diseases. Most kids survived; some kids did not. Death, like life, happens. Sometimes, however, death comes too soon.
5. The dental delivery system in the late 1940s was primitive for me. My family couldn’t afford a good dentist but relied, instead, on a public health clinic. Or barring that, we went to some shady tooth puller down at Roxbury Crossing. When I was in the 2nd grade, I had a molar pulled out of my head. I didn’t know why then, and I don’t know why now. I must’ve had a cavity. At this time, the city of Boston had dental clinics for school kids at what was known as Curtis Hall (the local all purpose government building in JP) where a dentist or dental student would look at your teeth. I was in the second grade, and I don’t recall any tooth pain or anything like that prior to this time. I recall sitting in a hard chair; there was light above. The dentist said, “open up.” The next thing I knew, he was pulling at my tooth with something. He pulled, I rose. Eventually, he had someone hold me down in order for him to rip the tooth right out of my jaw. All this without benefit of anesthesia—no Novocain, no gas, no ether, no nothing. I can still hear the ripping in my left ear; I can still feel the hard metal of the pliers. I can still feel that pain. No one should’ve been subjected to this kind of barbarism—it was medieval. I was just a kid, a seven year old kid who had a molar yanked out of my jaw without benefit of any pain killer.
What happened after the tooth came out? I bled. He stuffed my mouth full of gauze. I was sent me back to school. The small group of kids walked back to school, no schools buses then. We walked from Curtis Hall on Centre Street to the Bowditch Elementary School on Green St. It’s not a long walk, maybe half a mile. But after losing my tooth, it was the “trail of tears” for me. I can still see the looks on my classmates’ faces as I took my seat at my desk. With my bulging cheek, I looked like a sorrowful chipmunk. I wasn’t having a good day. I did not want to be in school. I wanted to go home, go to bed, and pull the covers up over my head to make this day go away. I felt rotten. My teacher realized this too; she had me to put my head down on the desk. I fell asleep or passed out—I don’t know which it was. The next thing I remember, my Mom was there and she took me home. I survived and returned to school the next day. A year later, I had yet another molar removed—this time on the right side. This time Ma took me to a public health dental clinic off So. Huntington Ave. Here the technology was more high tech. Instead of “rip and pull,” I received ether. Come to think of it, I thought ether hadn’t been used since the Second Battle of Bull Run. The dentist put a wire mask covered with what looked like a white handkerchief over my face, and he instructed me to “breathe-in” and “breathe-out” as he poured the fragrant ether on to the handkerchief. Next thing I remember, I was coming around while lying on a cot in another room. I felt woozy, and I think I fell asleep on the streetcar on our way home. This was not the end of it.
At age 9, I developed an abscess under yet another molar. A toothache is one kind of pain, but an abscess is quite intolerable. The throbbing pain was exacerbated by the slightest movement. Blinking my eyes sent shockwaves to the seemingly huge bag of pus under my tooth. Again, Ma made the arrangements. This time, I went to a real dentist. No ether this time, he gave me gas. I didn’t care. When I came to, the aggravating pain was gone. It was over. The next time I visited a dentist, I was 21 years old. Yes, that’s right—21 years old. My teeth didn’t fall out of my head, they didn’t rot. I didn’t make any effort to take care of them. My sister-in-law, Edress, valiantly tried to get me to take care of my teeth. I would always get a new toothbrush every Christmas and on my birthday. I used to keep them in the bathroom, but I rarely used them. Why? I don’t know. Caring for teeth was never emphasized in my family. Both my parents didn’t have any natural teeth. My brothers had missing teeth; Larry doesn’t have any natural teeth. I was simply following precedent, I guess. Why my teeth remained intact, I have no idea—I did enjoy sweets, and I ate enough crap to insure a great many cavities, but they never developed. Could it have been, perhaps, the addition of fluoride to the water supply of Boston? I don’t know. As I was growing up the addition of fluoride to the water supply may have been the reason. Not some Commie conspiracy to rule the hearts and minds of America’s youth as many on the Right thought.
Jesus Christ, and you think today’s politicians are full of shit! So when I finally went to a legitimate dentist in 1964, he looked, he drilled and he filled. Nothing more and nothing less, and my teeth have been fine for over 40 years. I’ve had no problems except I cracked a tooth once in an attempt to break a pistachio nut’s shell.
6. At age 8, two friends and I were hit by a car. Here’s how it happened. In those days, parents didn’t have the same fears of sending their youngsters out into the neighborhood and its environs. After a week at work, kids underfoot weren’t tolerated very well. Give the kid a quarter and shunt him off to the movies. So, Wally, Chester and I went off to the movies. I remember the movie we saw; it was the Disney cartoon classic, The Wind in the Willows. We were supposed to leave after the first show; we didn’t. It was dark outside when we left the Jamaica theatre. The theatre was up on Jamaica Plain’s main drag, Centre Street. To make our way home, we had to cross it. It was in late October; it was night. We were late getting home. Panicky kids don’t always remember traffic rules. We just decided to run across the street forgetting the number one cardinal traffic safety rule: ALWAYS LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE CROSSING THE STREET! We just took off. I heard a screeching of brakes, the sound of flesh and bone and chrome bumpers colliding, and, then, silence. The accident consumed maybe a few seconds. I was able to stand. I saw Wally under the car, but I couldn’t see Chester. I didn’t feel any pain, at first, so I ran away. I ran home. And no one stopped me or came after me. I got home, and my mother was upset. She expected me home hours ago. Where was I? What happened to you? How’d you get that black and blue mark on your head? I fell down on the way home. Let’s clean it up and have supper. I’m not really hungry—I just want to go to bed. Now the pains in my legs started. The car’s running boards side swiped me, and I was thrown toward the curb. When I got home and I looked at my shins, they were black and blue and swelling badly. Did I fall asleep or did I faint? I don’t know.
The next morning was a school day, but Ma woke me up, and said there was a cop here who wanted to talk to me. He told Ma everything. As for me, I thought I was going to be arrested and sent off to jail. All he needed was information for his report. I stayed at home because walking was difficult. I was taken to a doctor, I recall, for some x-rays. In the end, I recovered, there were no broken bones, and Wally and Chester came out of it okay too.
As mentioned, I ran the gamut of childhood diseases. Every kid did in those days. Did a mother whisk us off to some pediatrician when we got the sniffles or worse: red measles? No, she did not. My mother was well versed in the treatment of childhood diseases. After all, she had three sons. The government’s efforts to protect the public health mainly consisted of vaccinating us against smallpox, and, later on, vaccinating against polio. Dutifully, your mother took you to Curtis Hall at a designated day and time, and you got your vaccination. You came back home with the normal warning to “be careful of the scab.” I think if the scab got knocked off, you had to be revaccinated, or as the rumor had it, you got smallpox.
The only time I can recall going to a doctor as a child was when a series of boils erupted on my skin. These were the first plagues to attack my skin. This doctor didn’t seem to know the cause of my affliction. He looked at them and gave me a shot of penicillin. The penicillin worked for awhile. Soon, the boils returned. This time the treatment was home grown. At home, my father was the physician in attendance. He treated my boils by laying a hot towel on top of the boil, “to bring it to a head” as he would say. What happened when it came to a head? He pricked it with a sewing needle and squeezed out the pus. Yes, he did. In today’s world, I don’t think too many parents would resort to this home treatment. When I could get at the boil, I would treat it and squeeze it. Next day, the excruciating pain and the boil were gone until the next one popped up. It seemed it was a self-limiting problem as were the eye inflammations I would get.
After the age of 12, the boils and sties were history. In terms of sickness, I had most of the normal childhood diseases. I say normal only in terms of those particular times. In closely packed tenements and schools, diseases certainly made their rounds among the children. As a kid, I never thought of these illnesses as being particularly scary. The kids with the scary diseases had signs posted on their front doors by somber looking men and women sent out by the city. The dreaded “Quarantine” sign meant “don’t come any closer—it’s dangerous.” And stay away we did. I never broke any bones as a kid although I had many opportunities to do some serious bone breaking. The only serious health issue was drinking disinfectant. I swallowed it and vomited it, and I must’ve breathed some in to my lungs, and this was probably the reason I stayed in the hospital for several weeks.
Then there were the more stupid things kids always seem to do. My Mom had an old wringer type washing machine, and, of course, I ran my fingers through the ringers. I only did it once though. Cuts and bruises are not unusual for boys, and I was no exception. I enjoyed smashing glass bottles on the sidewalk. There were dumber acts, but they escape me now. The thing about smashing glass on the sidewalk was the outward explosion of hundreds of shiny shards of glass. Not only did these shards fly outward; they flew upward. My forehead is pocked with scars from wayward shards of glass. It took me some time to figure out that smashing bottles on the sidewalk was really a stupid activity. But, hey, what is it they say about small things amusing…?
When kids weren’t down with something, we played. In the winter time, there was “coasting” as we called it; in the rest of the world it’s known as sledding. My first solo outing on a sled was disastrous. My brother Ralph was going to teach me how to coast. He showed me, he let me ride with him, and then I had my solo ride. He sat me on the sled, put my feet on the steering bar, and sent me gliding down the hill. It was fun except, at age 4 or 5, I wasn’t too attentive to my surroundings; I was busy watching the runners slide over the snow. I didn’t hear my brother yelling, “Steer! Steer! There’s a tree!” I remember looking up and yes, looming right in front of me was the huge trunk of a maple tree. The next moment I was looking in the mirror. There was a great goose egg in the middle of my forehead all black and blue and the skin split from top to bottom. My brother was holding me up and Ma was yelling at him using words I never before heard spill from her mouth. As for me, I was groggy. After all, I just woke up from my first sledding adventure. After that episode, I learned how to steer a sled better. Plus, I coasted down hills in the more preferred prone position. I learned to swerve around oncoming trees. However, it didn’t take long before I was handling the hill that was Hubbard St.
Yes, in the day, we coasted on public streets. Once you mastered the small hill of Hubbard St., the next hurdle was the hill on Chestnut Ave. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Boston snowplows methodically moved snow about. However, Hubbard St. rarely saw pavement until the sun melted the snow. There was always enough snow on the street to go all the way to the bottom. By today’s standards, these winter games were dangerous. In truth, Hubbard Street was a side street; it rarely saw too much car traffic; it was considered a safe street. I don’t recall anyone ever being seriously injured. Sometimes, though, you just couldn’t avoid colliding with a parked car. We used to play something called “sleeries.” Simply, you would try to push the other guy off his sled while going down the hill. Sometime you pushed too hard. He hit the rear bumper of a parked car, head on. It hurt, but not enough to stop the game. As I said, “small things amuse….”
My world was this place. School took me beyond it, the movies took me beyond it, but it was always just a short distance behind me. My refuge in this world was 190 Lamartine St., our railroad apartment. A railroad apartment consisted of a long corridor; it ran from the front of the apartment to the back of the apartment. The front of the apartment faced Lamartine St. while the back faced an alleyway and another apartment building. Although, I call these apartments; they in no way resembled the huge apartment buildings of New York City. In fact the places where I lived were called “double deckers” or “triple deckers.” No more than three families lived in any one of them. They shared walls as in the row house concept. In the front of the apartment was my parents’ bedroom and what my folks called the parlor. As you headed toward the kitchen, on your right was the oldest son’s bedroom, a few steps farther down was the shared bedroom. Across from it was a large closet and our single bathroom. Finally, you came into the kitchen. There was a storage room off the kitchen, and two back doors. One door opened on to a small porch or in as it was called in JP, a piazza. The other door opened to the back stairwell and the cellar.
When we got our first television set, my first observation was: our house didn’t look at all like the house where David and Ricky Nelson lived. No it looked more like the place where Ralph and Alice Kramden lived. My first bedroom I shared with Larry and Ralph who slept in the big bed. I slept in my crib. As brothers would do, they often let me sleep in their bed especially during the winter. Winters in Boston are notoriously cold and although heat was supplied to our apartment, the heat went off at 10:00 p.m. In the winter, our apartment was always cold. It was cold even with the heat on. In bed, body heat substituted for heat from radiators. The heat came on at 6:00 a.m. In the summer, of course, the place was stifling. As a kid, it never seemed to bother me.
In the kitchen, the old wooden icebox was replaced in the early 1950s with a refrigerator. It even had a tiny freezer compartment. My Mom’s first frozen food purchase was broccoli. I concluded that it was an acquired taste that I didn’t care to acquire. The stove stood on four legs and it had the usual oven and four burners, but on the left side was the main source of heat for the kitchen. Although the stove used gas, the left side of the stove used heating oil which had to be added every week. In effect, what we had was an oil burning space heater and cook stove combination. By today’s standards governing home heating, this thing was the equivalent of disaster waiting to happen. Dad kept it in running order, and the place never burned down. Of course, you lit the stove’s burners with a wooden match. In those days, every mother’s son who went to junior high sheet metal class brought home a match box holder to be nailed to the wall next to the stove.
My neighborhood was small, but it was not exclusively residential. This was Stony Brook. There were small businesses. Two doors down from our door was what we called the “Doll Factory.” It was a source of work for some of the neighborhood people. Also in Jamaica Plain there was a brewery (the future home for Samuel Adams), a shoe plant, and a small company that produced surveying instruments. I even recall there was a blacksmith’s shop on Boylston Street. There were, believe it or not, lots of horses around used by the rag man, the vegetable man and the milk man.
There was a small, unpaved street separating 190 from 194 Lamartine St. This street was Emsella Terrace. Who or what Emsella was I have no idea. For that matter, who the hell was Lamartine? This terrace was a short dead-end. Before an electric street light was installed, a man would come around each evening and light the gas lamp—yes a gas street light! The railroad right of way was its terminus. The right of way was a built up granite wall topped by the New York/New Haven RR tracks. There were at least 5 sets of tracks—beyond the tracks was the rest of the railroad’s right of way; and beyond the right of way, there were more wooden apartment houses. The railroad’s right of way provided a source of wild blackberries during the summer. There was a railroad station, so to speak, on Boylston St. No passenger trains stopped there, but the work trains for the New Haven RR stopped there to pick up men and take them to work in the Reedville train yards. This was where my Dad went to work every morning at 5:30. There were other men in the neighborhood that went to work with my father.
Across Emsella from our apartment was another apartment building/store combination. The store was a convenience store—it was variously operated by Greeks and the last operators were refugees from post-WWII Europe. Behind us were more apartments. They were railroad apartments most without central heating—instead they were heated by the now outlawed “space heater” that used kerosene as its source of heat. In my immediate neighborhood there were at least 10 apartment buildings of varying sizes, all painted grey and all made of wood. Also there were several private homes, and a few duplex homes. Diagonally across from our apartment on Lamartine Street there was a large duplex perched on a about an acre of land.
In the early Spring of 1958, every building that stood between 194 to 201 Lamartine Street and back to the railroad tracks was destroyed by fire. A kid set his mother’s laundry on fire as it was drying on the clothesline. The noise of the buildings going up in flames was reminiscent of a heavy rainfall. I went out to close the back door where I was greeted with sight of two apartments buildings ablaze. There were no casualties as a result of the fire. The shells of the buildings stood as a reminder of just how quickly life and lives can change. During the summer of 1958, the whole area was leveled. Eventually all of what was my neighborhood would be leveled. Today the railroad tracks are part of the public transportation system, and my old block is now the Stonybrook station.
The neighborhood was served by a First National or Finast store—a chain grocery store where Joe, the manager, would amaze me at how fast he could add up our bill on the side of a brown paper bag. There were several convenience stores—one owned by the Silver sisters one of whom dressed like a man. There were three barbers: Push, Ralph and Jimmy. There was a shoe repair place, a tailor, a small restaurant (the first place I ever had a burger), junk stores—stores that sold junk. Today, they’re antique stores. There was one gas station, two pharmacies, two taverns, a five and dime, one butcher/liquor store combo, and a commercial laundry. The neighborhood was predominantly white and working-class. During my childhood, there were Chinese, Puerto Ricans, African-Americans, various refugee families from post WWII Europe. The neighborhood was, for the most part, white working-class immigrants from Ireland and Canada with a smattering of Italians, Greeks and Jews.
In my neighborhood, there were lots of kids. From an early age, my mother wanted me out of her house especially in the summer and on the weekend. As soon as I could walk and make some sense with my speech, I was sent out “to play.” I played with the McPherson, Spellman, Wilmarth, Craffey, Craven, Myers, Stewarts, Frizell, Hudson, Balise, Flippin, Watkins, Moriarty and Coakley kids. There were always kids around although there were never enough kids at any given time to form two complete teams for baseball or football. In the summer, we stayed out as long as our parents and social convention allowed, and in the winter, we stayed outside for as long as we could stand the cold. The games we played were: kick the can, hide and go seek, ring-a-leave-o, red rover, billy, billy buck, half-ball, rollies at the bat, baseball, touch and tackle football, coasting, snowball fights, basketball, street hockey with a puck not a ball, pitching pennies (when we had them), pitching baseball cards, hop scotch, hand ball [our version of hand ball bore no resemblance to regular hand ball; our version was closer to ping-pong except 4 squares of cement sidewalk, a rubber ball, and hands served as table, ball and paddles], climbing up trees and, occasionally, falling out of them, jumping into snow drifts from the railroad right of way or from the ash shed’s roof (a dangerous undertaking), flipping a knife, marbles or aggies, stoop ball, for want of a better name, card games, checkers, chess when you learned the moves, all sorts of games.
There were dangerous games such as swinging from trees, jumping off the railroad right of way, kick the can, knife throwing, trading punches, carving your own or someone else’s initials into your skin, to name a few. All of these things were the basic ingredients of my growing up. There were more dangerous things to do, but these were usually reserved for the older guys. Guys we could only aspire to emulate. These were the guys who would jump across the open space between buildings, and, for the most part, all, but a few unfortunates, made it. I still remember the sound of the police ambulance every summer coming to pick up one of these broken boys who didn’t make it across the seemingly short space between buildings. It was farther than he thought. Did I ever do it or try it? I never did it. I often wanted to try to do it, but I quickly realized I had a fear of heights. From the roof to the bottom of the alleyway, to me at least, was about a mile straight down.
Lamartine Street was a busy street. It was the main artery between Green and Centre Streets. It was busy during “rush hour.” Did that stop us from playing a game called stoop ball? No, it did not. Stoop ball was a game played by two kids. The kid who was up bounced a ball off a stoop. The object was to score runs. Runs were scored if the other kid couldn’t catch the ball. The stoop was on one side of Lamartine Street while the field of play was on the sidewalk on the other side of the street. The up man had to toss the ball against the stoop [I’ve been in New York way too long; in Boston, a stoop was called a step; so, in fact, we played step ball], and the ball had to make it to the other side of the street. The object of the game, other than scoring points, was to kill time. A variation of this game was called “half-ball.” As the name implies, you took a rubber ball, cut it in half, got one of your mother’s broom sticks and used it as a bat. This game was similar to baseball in that there were teams. The team size depended on who was around at the time. Usually it was one guy up against four of five in the field. There was a pitcher who tossed the ball across Lamartine Street. The batter hit the ball and scoring depended on how high up the opposite apartment building the ball hit. First floor was first base, second floor was second base, third floor third base, and a hit above the third floor was a home run. No base running, just keep hitting the ball until you made three outs.
In a working class neighborhood, there was never much money around to buy the necessary gear to play games. Some kid had a baseball glove. Another kid had a bat and a ball. The ball was usually some relic from an older brother. It was held together with black electrical tape. Some kid could usually be counted on to have a football. Most of us had sleds for the winter and many kids had ice skates. I never learned how to ice skate. I regret that today. Bikes were the hand-me-downs from older brothers. If you didn’t have older brothers, you might be lucky enough to get a new bike. The problem with having a new bike was every boy in the neighborhood had to ride it. By the time all of us were finished with the new bike’s “break-in” period, it had quite a few miles on it.
Roller skating was a girl thing. However, a few of us tried to skate with those old “skate key” skates. The skates never stayed on. We did, on occasion, get a small square of wood, and sit on a skate and ride it down a hill. That was fun. The more ingenious and manually adept kids made scooters out of old orange crates, two by fours and a roller skate. Old baby carriage wheels, pieces of lumber and an old discarded ironing board became a cart. Any odd sized piece of discarded wood or chair leg became a rifle or a sword or a baseball bat in an emergency. Skinny limbs cut or pulled from sumac trees along with a piece of kitchen string became a bow; arrows were made from the thin branches of the tree. Imagination was a wonderful thing.
In the realm of real toys, my friends and I didn’t lack for too many, but at the time, there weren’t a great variety of toys available to us. Most toys were of the hand- me-down variety. The toy could be in good shape or rotten shape depending on where you were placed in your family’s hierarchy. For boys, the most prized toy was a cap pistol or rifle. BB guns were usually out of the question, “you’ll shoot your eye out” was not just a laugh line in the movie The Christmas Story. I wouldn’t be going too far out on a limb if I said there was always a kid in the neighborhood that possessed one of these coveted illegal toys. In my neighborhood, the Moriarity boys were always well armed with BB guns. How or where they and other kids got them none of us ever knew. And, they never divulged their sources. There must’ve been a black market supplying these kids with BB guns. I remember on Christmas day 1953, a friend and I were walking through, what was called, the “back yard”; two teenage hoodlums, armed with BB guns took aim at us. They were up on the railroad tracks and we were twenty feet below. They opened fire on us, and we scrambled for cover. Have you ever wondered what it was like to be hit with a BB? I got “shot” in the back of my left thigh—it stung like hell. We ducked into the space separating the two buildings as a barrage of BBs bounced off the walls. We were boxed in, but they soon tired, and they took off in search of other targets to hurt or worse.
Every boy I knew got a cap gun for Christmas or for his birthday. Cap guns usually came with an endorsement from the usual cowboy hero: Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or the Lone Ranger. As Roy once warbled, “Hoppy, Gene and me taught you how to shoot straight.” If you lucked out, you got the whole shebang. Cap gun and holster and a supply of caps; sometimes, a felt cowboy hat was thrown in too. My favorite cap gun was a nickel plated .44. Its barrel rotated whenever you pulled the trigger. It had imitation pearl handles. Some kids got toy rifles that shot caps one at a time. Once armed, you were ready to gather up your posse and head out to get the bad guys. The thing about cap guns was their fail rate. They would never fire off the whole roll of caps in any sustained order. Usually the caps bunched up inside the gun or they wouldn’t fire at all. One of the best toy guns was a replica of a Tommy gun. The kid who owned one, found that he had more friends than he thought possible. There were also commercially made bow and arrow sets. The arrows had a rubber suction cup at the end so they would stick to the accompanying tin target. Of course, every kid took the suction cup off and fired the arrows at each other—talk about “shoot your eye out.” Rubber knives and tomahawks, cheap metal swords that broke almost as soon as you withdrew them from their wooden scabbards. Back then, no boy was weaponless.
Toy guns lead to war games or Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers. War games were popular since WWII was still fresh in most of our minds especially since most of us had relatives who had been in it. Cowboys and Indians/Cops and Robbers are self explanatory.
What other toys did we have available? For some reason, there was the Slinky. I still don’t know what it was good for or what you did with it. Yet, there it was this coiled piece of thin metal that could go down a flight of stairs. Huh? The yo-yo was a popular toy. Some kids got very good at doing the intricate tricks that always came with a yo-yo. I still own a yo-yo, and I can still do some of the tricks. Board games were popular: Monopoly, Parcheesi, Sorry, Chinese checkers, checkers, and chess. I’ll readily admit to being the world’s worst chess player. I was the first kid on my block to learn how the pieces moved. Once I taught other kids how they moved, they would trounce me, royally. Today, I still can’t beat the computer at chess not even at the sub-novice level. Checkers was okay, but, don’t you know, there was and there probably always will be one kid who never lost at checkers no matter how hard you tried to beat him—he whipped you every time. One of the fond memories I have of my father was he would always let me beat him at checkers and always made it seem as if I did beat him. At age 10, I got a chemistry set from my brother Ralph. I don’t know why I wanted a chemistry set. I had no particular interest in chemistry. The only thing I ever made with the set was invisible ink. Childhoods and childish wants come to an end, and by age 12, toy guns and board games were for children.
By the time I reached age 12, all those goofy neighborhood girls, through the magic of their hormones, became much more physically interesting. They became the new unexplored territory that lay ahead. I, for one, was ready to set off on a journey of discovery.
Copyright 2006 © Howard Chislett
You have just finished reading an excerpt from From This Place and Time: A Memoir which is available for purchase from Amazon.com and from your neighborhood bookseller.