Coming of Age on Rosemary Street

Excerpted from a book that the author is working on based on his recollection of growing up in Jamaica Plain between 1950 and 1964. Special thanks to Peter O’Brien for suggesting this story and generously sharing his writing expertise and vast local knowledge. Kathy Griffin provided production assistance.

Taking Root

Corner of South and Hall Streets. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Ratta.

Corner of South and Hall Streets. Photograph courtesy of Sarah Ratta.

They were hoping for a flat-topped three-decker, their personal interpretation of the post-war American dream – a place of their own with two rental flats. But the money they had saved living in the projects of Southie wasn’t quite enough, and so they settled for and settled into a two-story fixer with a pitched roof on Rosemary Street. The price of their dream was $8500.

They were my parents, Jeannette and William. The year was 1950. I was four years old and my Jamaica Plain upbringing was about to begin. In a certain sense, my life as I have come to know it was about to begin, because I have no recollection whatsoever of life in the projects of Southie.

Why Jamaica Plain? I have no idea. They had no family or friends there. Presumably my parents had looked as far and wide as one could in the pre-Internet days of the mid-twentieth century. Why Rosemary Street? Mom told me much later that Rosemary Street was nice enough. It was a quiet dead-end street, but was also very convenient to the Park Street streetcar that stopped at the end of our block. That streetcar stop was important. We were a car-less family and would stay that way for nine more years.

Looking back across those years, I would have to agree with Mom. Rosemary Street was good to me. Bordered at the open end by Saul Grossman’s Arborway Pharmacy and at the dead end by an embankment that scaled up to the railroad tracks, there was a lot for a kid to do. Saul was a good guy who served up a fountain coke for a nickel and put extra syrup in the mix if you asked. He also had nickel candy bars and a good selection of comic books for a dime. The brick side wall of Saul’s place was great for playing Boston/New York with a friend. If you smashed a pimple ball just right off the wall, it would rebound over the hedge on the opposite side of the street for a home run.

Baseball was a big deal for boys at the time. Saul’s wall was also the place where later I would risk my cherished baseball cards flipping them toward the wall in competition with other neighborhood kids. The kid whose card came to rest closest to the wall would acquire all the others put into competition. When we tossed our cards, we never gave a thought to dinged corners. We were kids. Profiting from collectibles was not part of our consciousness. Our idea of a sports card collection was a stack of cards held by a rubber band and stuffed into a back pocket. Many years later grown-ups would figure out a way to ruin that innocent pleasure.

Getting back on topic, down at the dead end of Rosemary between the last houses and the embankment were open fields with heavy brush – a great place to play Hide-and-Seek or Cowboys-and-Indians, complete with cap guns, home-made bows, and arrows with rubber tips that looked like the working end of a plunger. I can still remember the distinctive smell of fired caps. It’s funny about childhood memories. Certain smells can be more acute memories than faces. Maybe that’s just me.

When winter came and snow piled up, the action moved to the embankment with a bunch of kids careening down the slope on Flexible Flyers. My first Christmas on Rosemary brought me my own sled – a welcome replacement for flattened cardboard boxes that got soggy after a couple of runs down the slope. “Don’t go near the tracks,” was Mom’s warning as I headed for the embankment. Fortunately for us, the tracks were mostly unused in those days.

Mom designated everything between Saul’s place and the embankment a safe corridor for me to roam whether on foot or in a vehicle. My available vehicles upon arrival on Rosemary were a hand-me-down bike with a squealing coaster brake and a wooden wagon that you’d plant one knee inside as you pushed off with your free leg. These were okay, but the preferred mode of a boy’s transportation on Rosemary Street was the home-made scooter. Constructed from an old wooden packing crate mounted on a flat board over salvaged roller-skate wheels, scooters were customized by hammering soda bottle caps onto the sides and top of the packing crate. Meeting up with a friend on scooters always included checking out his latest caps. As I remember my first scooter, I had some mint condition Nehi and Royal Crown Cola caps that my peers approved of, but until my dad found a moment to show me how to use a hammer properly, my caps kept falling out.

Dad didn’t have many moments to show me stuff. In those days, Mom managed my activities single-handedly. It wasn’t necessarily that Dad was disinterested. It was simply that he didn’t have the time. There was this parental plan in effect that Dad would slowly rehab the entire house working around his full-time job as a printer. Initially we had moved into the more dilapidated of the two flats and rented the other. The long-range plan was to reverse the two flats when our own was more presentable. Then Dad would set to work on the other one. I didn’t know it at the time, but Dad also had a vision for the large unfinished attic under the pitched roof, a vision that would become important in our daily lives a few years later.

Mom’s role in the plan was to take care of my sister and me and manage the family income to fund the rehab. That income was a combination of my dad’s meager salary and the rent collected from our rental flat. Both my parents would go on to demonstrate great skill at their respective tasks. If my dad didn’t know how to do something he would find out how. Plumbing, electrical, your name it; he somehow mastered it through trial and error. For her part, Mom turned the money in her care into on-time mortgage payments and cash for everything Dad required for the rehab. Fortunately for my sister and me, Mom also reserved enough to put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I don’t know what the mortgage payments were, but the dream of home ownership took a heavy toll on my parents’ lifestyle for several years. As for me, within a few months of moving into the neighborhood, I was to find out what school was all about and discover the world of JP that lay beyond the corner of Rosemary Street. But that’s a story for another day.

Expanding Horizons

The door was of solid wood, highly polished with a frosted glass panel that obscured what lay on the other side. Depending on where you stood, the other side could be a long corridor of similar doors or the busy small world of Ms. Jenny Penta, my kindergarten teacher at the Agassiz School. Mom had delivered me to Ms. Penta that first day of school in September 1950, and like the other mothers, she was encouraged to stay a bit. When suddenly I couldn’t see Mom anymore, I turned and noticed her leaving quietly through that paneled door, her muted shadow dissolving into the glass as the door closed. I cried. It was the last time that school would make me cry. Mean kids might have brought me to tears a time or two. I really don’t remember. But for me school, especially Jenny Penta’s kindergarten, was cool. She was especially strong at manipulatives, the things that keep little hands busy and develop coordination as well as learning. She also would prove to be a teacher with unending patience.

Each day thereafter, Mom would accompany me to the Agassiz School and go back home alone. We quickly got past the crying incident. Mom explained that Ms. Penta had told mothers to leave quietly once their children were engaged in the activities she had set up for opening day. After a couple of days, Mom just left me at the entrance, and then a little before the entrance so that I could arrive at school like the big boys.

On those many trips together up South Street we sometimes walked and at other times took the streetcar. As this was a whole new world for me, I preferred the walk. The streetcar ride went by too fast. Leaving Rosemary, one block brought us to Hall St. Just beyond Hall was Steve’s. The sign on the place said First National Stores, but Mom called it Steve’s after the owner’s name, so it was Steve’s in our family dialect. The First National name was reserved for the larger market of the chain on Centre Street. Mom didn’t like Steve’s. For a couple of things in a pinch, it was okay, but Steve’s wasn’t especially clean and it didn’t smell so good. There was lot of sawdust on the wooden floor. The few shopping carts were creaky and couldn’t go straight. Markets back then weren’t the cold shiny antiseptic clones that they are today. So I guess to be kind you could say that Steve’s had character.

In those very early days of my upbringing, Steve’s First National was just a landmark we passed on the way to school, but about a year later it became important for me. One day I was entrusted with some money wrapped in a paper that listed a couple of items Mom needed, and then packed off to Steve’s on my own. That was a major deal. I was a young man out on the town with a job to do and money in my pocket to get it done. Of course the novelty soon wore off, and whenever Mom would summon me to go to Steve’s it was more of a Why do I have to go affair.

A little further up our walk was Bob’s Spa. We weren’t customers there, but a Rosemary Street neighbor kid’s (Frankie Caliri’s) dad worked at the spa, and I liked their window display of fresh fruit, a commodity that was not usually in our family budget. Next up was the St. Thomas Aquinas Church. For me the church was just a very large and fancy building. But for Mom it was a focal point of curiosity. On Rosemary Street almost everyone was Catholic, and this big church was the social hub of their lives. Mom had been raised a Hard-Shell Baptist, but she had fallen away and was now becoming interested in Catholicism. Most of her friends were Catholic, and her sense of things was that Catholicism was a happier, more upbeat way to keep the faith.

Across from Thomas Aquinas on the corner of Child Street was a tiny inconspicuous store with a big collection of penny candy under glass. The place was almost at basement level, with a step down to enter. It was quiet in the mornings when we passed, but bustling with kids from St. Thomas Grammar School in the afternoon. Over the years I would spend many a nickel there for half a sour pickle. They had dills and sours soaking in barrels. Delicious! I wasn’t that big on the penny candy though. Most of the good stuff stuck to your teeth, like the Tootsie Rolls, Bullseyes, and those rock-hard Mary Janes. The absolute stickiest of the sticky was Turkish Taffy in any flavor. There were also mini packages of NECCO wafers. I didn’t mind them, but they were kind of bland and boring. Long strips of waxed paper with sugar pills stuck to them were impressive looking, but they were boring too. I forget what they were called. In my view, none of this penny stuff could compete with a nickel Zagnut bar from Saul’s on the corner of Rosemary. A Zagnut was quite the thing – peanut paste and coconut. Even though I was just an occasional pickle customer at the penny candy store, for some reason I have a clearer visual memory of the clerk there than I do of many of my schoolteachers. I wonder what that says about my educational priorities. She was a slight older lady barely bigger than most of the kids pushing their way forward to check out her penny candy. She must have stocked some grown-up things too, but I never noticed them. Like I mentioned, the space was really tiny.

Continuing north we would pass Curtis Hall, or the Muni as everyone called it. I associated the place with my sister because she liked to swim there. I didn’t. I didn’t like to swim anywhere. I was fat and could only manage a dog paddle. I should mention that my sister was 8 years older than me, so there weren’t that many things that we could enjoy together. One thing that was very clear was that moving to Rosemary wasn’t the adventure for my sister that it was for me. She had left behind a circle of friends that was years in the building. No texting or Facebook to stay in touch back in those days. Being uprooted must have been much tougher for a teenager than for a four-year-old.

After passing the Monument we were almost there. I never found the Monument in any way interesting as a kid, but I was fascinated by the Atlantic Gas Station at the end of the next block. We had no car so everything about cars was of keen interest to me. Brigham’s was a landmark too. Every once in a while on a warm afternoon I could have a raspberry sherbet cone covered with jimmies. Sheer heaven! I’ve never liked milk sherbet, but Brigham’s sherbet was more of a refreshing water ice. Finally the turn onto Burroughs Street and the school day was about to begin. I think the whole walk probably took 15 minutes.

One landmark I have not mentioned was a billboard at the base of Saint Rose Street. That seemingly innocent structure became a living nightmare for me the first winter on Rosemary. In those years Marjorie Henderson Buell’s cartoon character Little Lulu was very popular. Lulu was a star in the Sunday comics, or the funnies as we called them. She was also the spokesperson for Kleenex tissues. That in itself is kind of funny when you think about it. I don’t know of any cartoon character who pitches products these days except for kids’ cereal. I doubt it would be effective. Imagine Popeye pitching canned spinach or Blondie telling you that Bounty Towels are the quicker picker-upper. Have we all become hardened cynics unreceptive to fantasy? Or is it just a part of what learned publications describe as a massive cultural shift?

Anyway, winter with its colds and flus was high season for Kleenex marketing. That winter the billboard at the bottom of St. Rose illustrated a Lulu cartoon of someone sneezing so hard that his/her head blew off. I don’t remember exactly if it was a boy or girl. I don’t think it was Lulu herself. She would never have been in that predicament because she always had her Kleenex handy. Maybe it was her sidekick Tubby or his cousin Chubby. Whoever it was, on that awful billboard there was a decapitated head poised in mid-air. I could not handle it. I could not look at it. I always had to shield my eyes or look away. Thankfully one day it was gone.

Remembering Sister Roger

St. Thomas Aquinas Convent. Courtesy St. Thomas Aquinas 1969 yearbook.

It was the last Saturday of Ms. Sarah Dodge’s Introduction to Music program at the New England Conservatory. The program was an informal one that exposed younger kids to a variety of musical instruments while teaching some music fundamentals. Considering the prestige of the Conservatory, the cost was very modest. My mom had enrolled me that spring on the advice of a friend. I was a second-grader at the time, reluctant to exchange my free Saturdays for another school day. But the class was a lot of fun and I was hoping to return in the fall.

There was a problem however. Ms. Dodge was conferencing with all attending parents that morning. She had just told my mom and me that I showed a talent for piano and should begin taking lessons with one of the Conservatory staff. Our family couldn’t afford the lessons and we certainly couldn’t afford a piano. However, you don’t tell a teacher that kind of stuff. My mom smiled and thanked Ms. Dodge. Then we left quietly.

Mom was not one to roll over in defeat. She put aside for the time being the issue of us not having a piano, and focused solely on finding a teacher we could afford. A friend whose daughter attended St. Thomas Aquinas Grammar School recommended Sister Roger, a nun in residence at the parish convent. Sister Roger led the church choir and gave private piano lessons. The convent was between the parish church and the parish grammar school on St. Joseph Street. Most of the nuns in residence were assigned classes at the grammar school, but Sister Roger was a music specialist. In my mom’s view, there were two advantages to this alternative: proximity to our home on Rosemary Street, and a low rate for private instruction. In late summer Mom decided that we would pay a visit to Sister Roger.

I will not forget my first visit to that convent. The outside was drab, but the architectural style was ornate with Victorian detail. An iron fence bordered the sidewalk. A long flight of exterior stairs ascended to a grand entrance. Had this convent stood in solitary splendor on a hilltop, it could have been used in a Hitchcock movie as a place where mysterious things took place.

The interior was not as intimidating. Whereas the exterior was dull and a little grimy, everything visible on the inside showed careful attention to housekeeping. Every surface was scrubbed and polished. To the right of the entry was a small waiting area with a door that opened to Sister Roger’s small teaching studio. To the left was a sort of parlor. Straight ahead were double doors which led to the convent’s inner sanctum where no visitors were allowed. It was all very mysterious for a 7-year-old who had no direct experience with the world of nuns.

Thankfully Sister Roger’s habit was less mysterious. It consisted of a veiled black gown with a starched white bib and a white cap under the veil. Her appearance was far less ominous than that of some of the nuns of the day whose winged bonnets made it appear that they were poised for takeoff. I had seen that kind when I went once with my mom to visit her friend at the Carney Hospital.

Sister Roger ushered us into her studio and got straight to business. She sat me at her upright piano and asked me to play anything I could. After a minute she stopped me and gave us her opinion. She said she would be happy to start me on lessons but that I would need to start at the beginning to learn correct fingering and proper finger position. She wanted to make sure that was acceptable before going any further. Since that was fine, we then set a time for my first 30-minute lesson, and she gave me a book checking off two, simple, one-line ditties she wanted me to practice. No mention was made of payment.

We walked home and Mom asked me what I thought of Sister Roger. I said she was okay. On closer inspection of the two assigned pieces at home, I could see that they involved only three white piano keys. There was middle C, the B just below it, and the D just above. That was a snap. I could practice that on the kitchen table. It would buy my mom a little time to find us a piano. I didn’t realize it then, but Sister Roger had noticed immediately that I had no sense of fingering. Her purpose was to get my thumbs grounded at middle C so that I could extend from there.

Sister Roger proved in all ways to be an excellent teacher. Strict with the music and a little reserved or maybe shy in manner, she had an ecumenical spirit of her own many years before Vatican II. In the entire time I studied with her she always seemed embarrassed about payment. I would simply hand her an envelope and she would quickly put it aside. No mistake in my playing escaped her correction, but her corrections were never harsh. In her capable hands I progressed rapidly and due to a stroke of good luck was soon to acquire my very own piano.

From a friend on South Street, my parents learned of a family in her building who was moving out and leaving behind a piano. We could have it for the cost of moving it. A week later it was in place in our living room. The piano was what a working musician would refer to as an old beater or banger. The cabinet was a mess, but musically the piano checked out okay. Since our place was forever being remodeled and we didn’t have stylish furniture, the beat up cabinet did not look a bit out of place. Besides, Sister Roger had already become my hero and her piano looked beaten up too.

With all this good fortune, the third grade sailed by. My grades were exemplary – meaning they left nothing for my mom to complain about. Sister Roger praised my work to my mom. It was a good winter for snowfall with some school cancellation days due to storms. I got to go sledding a lot and made some money shoveling neighbor’s sidewalks. Jamaica Plain had given us her answers to our problems. Life on Rosemary was good. About the only issue I can recall is my sister’s reaction to me having a piano, a luxury that she had never been afforded. I suppose she had a point, but as a full-blown teenager she had arrived at that precipice where almost everything her parents did was wrong or unfair. They told her it was her piano, too, and she should be free to play it any time she wished. She did that on rare occasions, but for the most part turned her attention to other complaints.

Let’s Go Fishing

Jamaica Pond today. Courtesy Boston13, Wikimedia Commons.

In all the years we lived on Rosemary Street my dad was a busy guy. On the rare occasions when he carved out a block of time just for the two of us to spend together, it was pretty fun. Like any enterprise he got involved in, Dad needed to be completely prepared. This trait was demonstrated again and again in his home projects. When he had meticulously assembled all the tools and materials he needed for a particular renovation project, he never had to buy anything else. If I have a small project that takes me to the home improvement center, I usually forget something and have to go back later.

Dad’s work commute on a bicycle brought him by Jamaica Pond twice daily. The pond was a place that he enjoyed from a distance without ever stopping there. He got the idea one spring that it might be fun to try his hand at fishing. When he invited me into the plan, I was happy. I was eight years old at the time. The pond had rental boats, but they were out of the question, and he didn’t even make an inquiry about the cost. Instead he envisioned a quiet fishing spot at the edge of the pond where we would stick our poles and fish would hook themselves to oblige our interest. Of course we had no poles or hooks, but he was already working on that.

Dad’s private haunt for all material things was the towering Sears and Roebuck store near Kenmore Square. Private in this case refers to the solitude he could enjoy away from the family. It does not mean that he disliked his family or that the store needed to be cleared of all other shoppers to make way for his entrance. He could find his solitude in the midst of a thousand strangers. But shopping with the family meant being pushed and pulled in different directions by the different priorities that each of us had.

Sears today is but a dim shadow of that splendid Sears and Roebuck Boston store of the 1950s. Dad passed the landmark building daily on the way home and would often stop by for something he needed or just to soak up all the things he couldn’t afford. The mammoth Sears catalog was a fixture in our house and the smaller Christmas catalog that came out in the fall was eagerly anticipated. I used to take that one to the bathroom when I had to take care of some personal business. Many shoppers came into Sears to pick up things from the catalog. Some came periodically just to see what was new. Others came to check out the displays of the latest televisions and major appliances. Televisions were still a novelty and any TV that was turned on attracted an audience.

At that time Sears sold a comprehensive line of sporting goods branded J.C. Higgins. Dad’s first Jamaica Plain bicycle had been a Higgins, but it didn’t hold up so well and he switched to his British-built Raleigh. For fishermen, J.C. Higgins offered a whole world of hooks, bobbins, lures, lines, weights, nets, reels, and rods. For the fashion-conscious angler there were hip waders, fishing vests and hats. Slowly and incrementally over the course of many visits, Dad began to assemble a collection of fishing gear in preparation for our grand outing to Jamaica Pond. When he felt he had all the tackle that we would need, he bought a big tackle box to hold everything. Then he set a date for our first venture into the great outdoors.

On the appointed day it pelted rain and didn’t let up through the mid-afternoon, so we spent the time going through his tackle box together as he showed me all the marvels he had acquired. I didn’t know much about fishing, but it seemed to me he had hooks big enough to catch a whale and enough bobbins to crowd the ducks off the pond. But the stuff was interesting and the many lures he had, while they also looked way too big for a pond fish, were very colorful.

On our make-up day the weather turned out fine. We headed for the pond with sandwiches my mom had packed. She was very pleased to see Dad spending quality time with his son. Our departure was a scene Normal Rockwell could have painted. Dad didn’t trust me to carry any of our important gear. Instead, I was assigned a big bucket for bringing home the catch of the day. For the time being, the bucket held our lunch.

Though we cast our shiny new rods into open water all along the back of the pond and into many little sheltered nooks along the side, the only thing we accomplished the whole afternoon was to eat our sandwiches and get our lines tangled. Dad also lost a flashy orange lure with yellow streamers on it when he didn’t have it attached to his line securely, and it flew majestically across the water when he cast. I had all I could do not to laugh. On the way back I carried our empty lunch wrappers in the bucket until we reached a trashcan. Dad talked about how the second time our luck would be better.

The second time around, results were a little better. Dad caught a fish, but I will only report that it was visible to the naked eye and that it squirmed and whipped its tail around until he unhooked it and gently put it back. Results were similar on a few more pond visits until Dad declared that the fishing season was over. He stashed all the gear in his basement hideaway. That was perfectly acceptable to me. I had never caught a thing and was losing interest.

What stuck in my mind from that experience were those rental boats. Each time we stood on the gritty sandy dirt at the pond’s edge, I wondered if a boat would have made a difference. I had never been on a boat and was curious. That thought stayed with me until many years later when I was already settled in California. I ordered an Old Town canoe from Maine, the kind with the wicker seats, and later explored the lakes in and around the Sierra Nevada with my own family. I don’t remember catching anything there either.

Remembering the Arnold Arboretum

Arnold Arboretum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.A couple of weeks after the end of our fishing season, Dad suggested that we go to Arnold Arboretum to play catch and do a little hitting. At the time I had a few pimple balls, a Wiffle ball, and an old Hillerich and Bradsby bat that somehow or other we had acquired without buying it. I didn’t know what Dad’s motivation was for these overtures to me to spend time together. Maybe he had decided on his own to give me some time. Maybe Mom had encouraged the idea. It’s possible too that he just wanted to lighten his weekend-remodeling schedule for a while. Whatever! It was spring. Baseball was in the air. And you don’t say no to your dad when he takes an interest in you.

We set out on a Sunday walking the whole way. Once again Mom had packed up our lunch and wished us a good trip. After finding a suitable open space in the Arboretum, we warmed up playing catch. Then he pitched to me, lobbing a pimple ball underhand from a close distance. My dad really didn’t know if I could hit a ball at all since we had never done this sort of thing together before. I wasn’t much of a slugger then or anytime later, but I managed to make contact on all his lobs and whizzed the ball right back at him a few times. Then he backed up and pitched overhand with an exaggerated windup that was pretty funny. I hit some and missed some.

After lunch we walked a bit. He wanted to see more of the Arboretum. It was another place he knew only from passing. At one point he turned to me and suggested we play Hide-and-Seek. That seemed truly strange, but he was serious. We took turns covering our eyes and counting to 100 before setting out to look for the hider. This was the only time in my life that I played the game with an adult. It made a difference because Dad was very creative in choosing his hiding places, and at one point I wondered if he might have headed back home. But all in all it was fun, especially seeing my Dad behaving like a kid.

We stayed with the Arboretum plan for a couple of months, going every couple of weeks. At that point summer had arrived. School was out and on Sunday afternoons my dad returned to his remodeling work while Mom, my sister, and I made occasional trips on the MTA to Revere Beach. Father-and-son outings were done for the year.

If you’ve ever lived through a New England winter with its shortened daylight, repetitive sunless grey days, and dirty brown snow accumulating anywhere not essential to cars and pedestrians, you know that winter can sap your energy and take away your desire to be outdoors. In my dad’s case, it was especially tough. Even on clear days when the roads were dry, he had to come home from work on his bicycle in the dark windy cold. He had a few reflectors on the back of his bike and a headlamp powered by a little generator mounted up front, but it was a treacherous trip in winter. My mother worried about him if he got home even a little late. On days when the roads were slick or had icy patches, he had to take the Park Street streetcar to the Huntington Avenue Bridge and transfer onto the Brookline Avenue bus to Kenmore Square. This added to his commuting time. Dad’s personal tempo slowed down noticeably every winter.

When spring finally came around the following year, Dad bloomed once again like the crocuses in the Arboretum. I had asked him a few times to fix a balsa-wood airplane I had bought for a dime at the corner store. The wings on those planes would usually get messed up after only a couple of flights because the balsa wood was so flimsy. Either the wings would crack from the impact of a crash landing or they would no longer stay securely in place in the pre-cut wing slot of the body. I always knew when I bought one of those things that it wouldn’t last long, but that didn’t deter me from buying them.

When this particular plane was beyond Dad’s ability to repair it – in other words it was hopeless – Dad suggested that I get a book about constructing model airplanes from the library. We would choose a model and build it together. Then we would once again return to the Arnold Arboretum, this time for adventures in flight.

Spring was a time of renewal for all of us, and I was genuinely excited about renewing my Sunday outings to the Arboretum. I made a special trip to the library behind the Muni to get a book and began studying it walking home. After we had decided on our model, my dad made a list of materials needed and stopped by Sears the next day to pick them up. We decided to build two identical planes and put them into competition at the Arboretum. Our wood was balsa, but it was thicker and sturdier than the balsa used in the flimsy planes at the drugstore. Dad had picked up an X-Acto knife to cut out parts from the wood. He already had wood glue and sandpaper in his supply cabinet. Dad didn’t want the family pianist messing with the X-Acto, so I helped with the gluing and sanding.

As was the case with any project he took on, my dad’s work was meticulous. He had the patience of a craftsman. Time would become irrelevant for him as soon as he got into the task. I’ve never had that kind of patience and I know now that I won’t. My wife is an artist. She has it. She can work for days executing something on one piece of paper. My youngest son has it. He’s an art student at university. He never rushes anything. I’m envious of both of them.

Walking to the Arboretum was a challenge when our planes were finally ready. They had a much longer wingspan than the ones from the store, and were already assembled with glue, so they were a little awkward to carry. When we got there, Dad chose the same clearing where the year before we had played catch. Dad’s first flight sailed gracefully across the area and landed gently. Mine didn’t. I pushed the plane so hard out of my hand that it nosedived near my feet. No damage was done though, and I picked it up to try again.

There was a small pond in the Arboretum at the time. It was covered with water lilies and had a lot of slimy stuff just under the surface. The pond may still be there. On the second flight my airplane started well but veered right and landed on some water lilies in the pond. I had to take off my shoes and socks and roll up my pants to wade out and fetch it. The slimy stuff gave me the creeps, but I managed to bring back my plane. Then I moved well away from the pond and practiced on my own until I got the hang of it. When I was ready we resumed competition. He won most of the challenges, but I won a few.

All in all it was a successful day. When we left the Arboretum our planes were still in good shape. I think we got three or four more outings out of those planes before Dad felt he was falling behind on the remodeling schedule, and went back to his habit of dividing his Sundays between church and work.

That summer brought another round of trips to Revere Beach. My sister loved to swim, and I think she enjoyed checking out the boys, too. Once I teased her about it and she got upset, so I kind of knew it was true. I still wasn’t much of a swimmer, but I liked to splash around in the water, especially when my sister didn’t want to get her hair wet, and I could douse her by kicking water at her. The most fun for me was building sand castles with channels cut in the sand down to the water’s edge. My mother usually brought a book to read while she kept an eye on us.

Whenever we were ready to leave, I took flying leaps into my castle so no one else could claim it. Those leaps coated me with sand. We never paid to use the bathhouse. Instead we used buckets of salt water to try and rinse off before leaving. No matter how hard I tried to rinse off, I always went home with scratchy sand grating between my toes.

On the last beach trip that summer I brought all the coins from my piggy bank to play games at the penny arcade. I discovered a baseball game with a bat positioned at the end of a long metal chute that descended from the back of the machine. When you squeezed a trigger the bat swung at steel balls that rolled down the chute at regular intervals. Depending on where the ball went when you hit it, you could make an out or a hit. I loved that game. It swallowed a lot of my coins. It was pretty clear I was a baseball nut.

Copyright © 2014 William Annand. All Rights Reserved.