Tuesday, July 12, 2016

An Acre Memory - Summertime

Me in my
Rifleman t-shirt
I never got to operate a lawn mower until I was in my 30s.  Growing up on the corner of Broadway and Walker didn’t give much opportunity to do so.  What we did have was the blacktop in back of the blocks that ran along Broadway Street.  In-between the blocks were alleys that were inches thick with pigeon dropping.  At dawn and evening, the dozens of pigeons that made the roof their homes would serenade the inhabitants of the blocks with their cooing.  Sometimes young fledglings would fall from the roofs, and my humane father would take them into our cellar where he would hand feed them and then bring them outside to exercise until they would take wing on their own.  A summer ritual was the annual scraping of the dung in the alleyway with massive quantities of creosote.  I later found that this substance was regarded as highly toxic and potentially carcinogenic, but my parents thought cleaning the alley a neighborly duty.   The smell of the chemicals would permeate the backyard for days.  My mother explained it away by saying it was better than pigeon smell.
There were no air conditioners or even a fan.  Lying on the cool linoleum might alleviate some of the heat.  Opening and closing the screen door let in hordes of flies.  We often left doors open overnight, never fearing anyone would walk in.  The flyswatter was ever at the ready and if that didn’t work there was fly paper.  My mother would keep one above the kitchen table and more than once a wing or a leg would be pulled off some poor insect and land on a supper plate.
There was little you could do to alleviate the heat of the summer especially when it radiated off of the blacktop.  One refuge was Mike’s Field in back of the Lovejoy estate—today, the parking lot for UMass on the corner of Wilder and Broadway.  The estate had been in disrepair decades before I was brave enough to make my way up there.  Everyone knew a madman lived in the basement (or was it the attic?) and if you got close enough he’d use a hatchet on you.  By the time I was old enough (or brave enough) to get close to the building there was just enough glass left in the windows to make a crash and then run away.  There were a few apple trees that had gone rogue on the property and if it was warm enough, we’d climb up and pick a few, always wary of potential worms.  Mike’s Field was a 10 year-old’s dream.  I have no idea who Mike was or what the land was used for, but it was dotted with massive trenches dug out by man or machine that had to be 6 to 8 feet deep.  It was the 60s and playing War was how we spent most of our days.  Combat and Twelve O’clock High were necessary TV viewing for many families.  The trenches of Mike’s Field were our foxholes.  We’d fill penny candy bags with dirt and hurl them as sort of grenades into the other holes where the enemy was hiding.  If you did it correctly, the bag would open over the heads of the enemy and cover them in dirt.  Though it would be terribly politically incorrect today, we were all armed with plastic helmets and very life-like rifles.  Our fathers had served in WWII and the Cold War was on.  We knew what those yellow CD signs on buildings meant.  We heard the sirens every Friday that were tested in case the Russians attacked.  Mike’s Field was our battleground and we were there to defend it.
When we got bored with war, we might walk down Walker Street and make our way to Gage’s Ice
Google Maps. corner of Broadway & Walker Streets
House.  If we were fortunate enough to go to the beach, my Dad would come down to Gage’s to buy a cube of ice, and I mean A cube.  You’d put your money in the slot and one huge block of ice would slide down a chute.  You’d then have to take it home to break up with an ice pick to put in the heavy metal CocaCola cooler.  On super hot days we’d check out Gage’s and see if any ice chips had fallen onto the straw where the giant cubes would land at the end of the chute.  Odd how we never got sick from any of this.
If we were really lucky, we’d go to Burbeck’s Ice Cream on Pawtucket Street.  This was really rare.  This is also where my friend Ricky taught me a trick.  You’d order an ice cream cone, eat half, drop it on the ground, and they’d give you a new one.  He used that ploy several times.  The first time I tried it, the teenage clerk just walked away.  I guess I didn’t look sad enough. 
There was one thing to which we were all sworn to.  My mother made me swear on a stack of Bibles, a real stack, and that God would personally punish me if I broke the promise- that I was to never go to the river or in the canal.  She had good reason to.  Those who lived by the canals in Lowell knew that each summer a number of daredevils would jump in the canal and be dragged under.  Each time it happened she made me read the article.  I do recall watching the police, or firemen, along the Pawtucket Canal dragging a large rope, which we volunteered to help.  I was later told that at the end of the rope was a grappling hook looking for a body.  That wasn’t the only occasion.  Once my cousin Armand brought me to see a similar scene along the Merrimack canal, and yet another was when we ran out of a friend’s birthday party after the news had spread someone drowned at Francis Folley on the Pawtucket.  We were sure to return in time for cake.  These events must have made their mark, as to this day I still do not know how to swim.
Since we lived on the corner of Broadway and Walker it was a great place to set up a lemonade stand.  The city bus would disembark people on the corner, and they’d get off the bus all hot and sweaty from the ride and the long day’s work.  Sales were slow until Ricky’s brother started crying that he wanted some lemonade, but had no money.  A kind bus rider pinched his cute little face and gave the nickel for the lemonade.  Hmmm, if it worked once…..   From then on each time the bus pulled up Ricky’s brother would turn on the tears and out would come the nickels.  We must have made a fortune, or at least enough for a Mr. Softee.  We knew a good thing when we saw it and set up the stand the next day.  The same riders disembarked, but once our ploy was recognized we were put out of business.
After much pleading, we might get a nickel and go to Dostaler’s Market on the corner.  The penny candy display had all the good stuff: squirrel nuts, peach stones, mint juleps, sugar straws, flying saucers (that served as hosts when playing Mass), and black licorice records with the red dot in the middle.  Another favorite was a candy necklace that you could bite of a piece as the day wore on.  Wearing the necklace then eating it after a game of tag or Red Rover often gave the candy a sweaty flavor, but it didn’t faze us.  On those super hot days, the only thing to work was a cool orange Popsicle.  Grape and cherry were good, but orange had a greater cooling effect.  There would be 2 sticks so you could break it in two and share with a friend.  Then you’d stick your tongue out to be sure it was orange.  That was part of summer too- sharing with friends.
My fondest memory of summer was Thursday night after food shopping at the Giant Store, my dad and I would go down to the river to fish.  We’d dig up worms along the riverbed and stick them on a hook.  I only had a drop line, but it worked just fine.  The only thing I remember catching was hornpout, black catfish.  Those whiskers could really inflict damage so my dad would take the hook out.  He got stuck more than once and let out a string of curses each time.  We didn’t talk much.  That was his way, but we’d sit along the river wall tugging at the drop line.  We’d watch the orange sun set along the curve of the river.  He had fished that same spot in the river when he was my age.  As the last rays of light departed we’d gather our gear and turn up Walker Street to home.