Sunday, October 25, 2020

Mr. Sands — a character study

Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.

I hadn’t thought about Mr. Sands in years, and wasn’t aware that he’d had a hiking trail named after him. As we climbed up through old glacial boulder fields now grown up in woods, I noticed that someone had built this meandering path with exceptional care. To shore it up, they had borrowed from the array of stones scattered all around, and provided rudimentary staircases here and there where it was steep. Someone outdoorsy and knowledgeable and thorough. Maybe it had been Doug Sands and some of his friends. That would have been like him.

Mr. Sands was my science teacher at Wellesley Junior High between 1963 and ’64. My brother Bob had him in 1960, and Ned would follow in 1966. In all, he would teach middle-school science in Wellesley for over 30 years. In his appearance, and in the enthusiastic, quirky manner in which he conducted his classes, he stood apart from other teachers I had, who by now have mostly blurred together in my memory.

In the classroom, especially just before and after class, he would be formal but friendly. But if you saw him out walking among the scurrying students in the crowded hallways between classes, towering over everyone, loping along with great long strides, his gaze fixed on some distant object, you learned not to say hi to him, because he would not acknowledge you at all.

Mr. Sands was a sight. Tall, thin, and bony, middle-aged when I had him, his face was narrow and weathered and the features within it – his chin, lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears, his teeth when he laughed which was often – were prominent and elongated. Horse teeth! He wore glasses with thick lenses; I remember that they reminded me of goggles. His gray hair stood almost straight up from his forehead, as if a blast of wind had once blown it up and back so hard that it had yet to recover. He had a deep, booming voice and an unpredictable manner; both tended to get your attention.

His was the most unusual and engaging class I ever had at that school, maybe any school. Mr. Sands threw out the rule book and he threw out the lesson plan. He must have had an overall design to his teaching but I was never aware of it.

One of the first things you’d notice was that the standard lab bench and teacher’s desk up front were a mess, and so were the bulletin boards. There was stuff everywhere: curios, keepsakes, bird’s nests, tiny skeletons, shells and stones from far and near, and amber bottles of who knew what. The stock terrarium was filled not with turtles or fish but what appeared to be mosses and mold, and litter. Halfway down the right-hand wall (the left-hand wall was all windows, north-facing) was a cork bulletin board with a white dish towel tacked to it, on which someone (Mrs. Sands? For there was a Mrs. Sands.) had spelled out in needlework, “Mr. Sands’ Crying Towel.” It was understood, tongue-in-cheek, that the crying towel was to be used after Mr. Sands handed back his corrected quizzes to the class. Such quizzes were frequent; he was trying to impart knowledge – were you getting it or not? (Some of the kids, disdaining science, resisted Mr. Sands, his efforts and his personality; I’m sure it puzzled him.) Across the bottom of the towel, in smaller letters: “It’s Your Own Fault.”)

At the back of the room, on the floor in a shallow carton, was something most of us had heard about before our first day: the classroom mascot, Mr. Sands’ Galapagos tortoise, which he’d named Albee, or Alby, or Albie. Albee was about the size of a toilet seat and rode to work each day on a pile of old newspapers in the back of Sands’ blue-violet Ford Fairlane convertible. Albee would sit in class quietly munching apples and gazing at the sights. No other teacher had a pet in their room, certainly not anything as exotic. Albee made you want to look up the Galapagos Islands in a book, without anyone telling you to do so. He also made kids (Albee’s groupies) want to sit in the back of the room, where they could keep an eye on him, and be interested in him. This tended to push the slower kids up towards the front, where Sands could keep an eye on them.

I never asked how or why Sands had acquired Albee. I’d heard rumors that he (Sands) had been in the Navy or the Seabees in World War II, and it is easy to imagine him stopping by the archipelago sometime during those years and taking a young tortoise on impulse. I can’t picture Albee in the classroom of today, with or without a pandemic. Individuals aren’t allowed to walk off with tortoises anymore, and a committee would have to be convened before it could be allowed into the school, and the Board of Health would probably get involved. All this would be well and good from the standpoint of preserving the tortoise species. But our classroom experience would have been significantly less rich without Albee, and I feel lucky that we were able to enjoy his presence. (I do wonder about Albee sometimes, wherever he is. He’s still a fairly young tortoise.)

Mr. Sands clearly liked his job. He liked to draw examples from what we could see around us. One day he pointed to a utility pole across the street, which had two gray cylindrical boxes attached to it up high, with wires running in and out. “Now, which one of you bright young people can tell me what those boxes are? Come on, now, somebody? You see them every day, aren’t you curious about them?” There were some who snickered (“Who cares?”), and some of us were embarassed to admit to ourselves that we took these devices for granted and had never wondered what they were. But scientists don’t take things for granted, and Mr. Sands strode out into the hallway where he seized a hapless student on his way down the hall with a bathroom pass and ushered him in. “Now, you look like a smart young man to me. You see those gray boxes up on the telephone pole? I’ll bet you can tell me what those are.” It made little difference that the student didn’t know either, because by now most of us did want to know. We wanted to know; a thing more rare than you’d think. They turned out to be transformers; their purpose was to reduce the power from the high-voltage lines to a level that wouldn’t “fry your mothers’ fridges.” He didn’t really say that, I read it somewhere; but he could have.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands was discussing the Moon. Everybody knew that the Earth rotated fully on its axis once a day; that’s what made a day a day. But how often did the Moon rotate, not just around the Earth but on its own? Did it rotate on its own? Someone offered the theory that there was a dark side to the Moon that nobody ever sees; the Moon always shows one face to us; therefore, it doesn’t rotate at all. At this, Mr. Sands asked me get up. (“Stand up, Robert,” he said, using my older brother’s name. When Ned had him three years later, Sands used to call him “David.”) He had me stand at the front and face the class, and keep on facing the class, with my arms out to the side at shoulder level so I could be seen better. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Moon and the rest of the class is the Earth.” Then he asked me to move sideways over to the window-wall, still facing the class, then to the rear wall (being careful not to trip over Albee), then to the fourth wall (“Keep your arms up, Robert, you’re drooping.”), then back to where I started. How many times had I turned? Like the Moon, I had turned once.

Today, NASA delights us with this information: “The Moon does spin on its axis, completing a rotation once every 27.3 days. Confusion is caused because it also takes the same period to orbit the Earth, so that it keeps the same side facing us.” I hear ya, guys, but I’m still baffled. I guess that’s one reason I didn’t go into the sciences.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands took the class on an imaginary trip to the Moon. (NASA’s own Moon missions were several years in the future.) He did this with every class, every year. Sometimes he did it for whole auditoriums. The room would be our spaceship, Mr. Sands would be the Captain. There, in the sky, is the Moon; what would you need to take along for such a journey? Sands positioned himself at the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to write down our suggestions.

We had some: the Moon was far, we would need fuel. The moon was airless, we would need spacesuits. We thought and thought and threw out some more ideas, but of course we forgot a few things. “Is that it? Anything else? OK, then!” And he grasped the handle of a heavy, invisible door and drew it firmly shut: “Kah-LAAANG!!” followed by a burst of mad-scientist laughter. And so over the next 20 minutes, we were all on board with him (which was another remarkable thing in itself), flying to the Moon and back. While everyone was in on the joke, still we managed to absorb a few crucial facts about space, and rockets, and the inhospitable surface of the Moon, and the deviousness of our Captain, by getting killed off one row at a time because we had forgotten to bring – what? – food, or bottled air, or water, or radios, or weighted boots, or a parachute for our ship. By the time the ship got back to Earth, the only one left was our Captain. Truly a tragic outcome for the rest of the passengers! But then, there was always the crying towel.

At the end of the school day on Friday, November 22nd, after the principal had given us the bad news about President Kennedy over the P.A., I made my way down to Mr. Sands’ classroom. I must have thought I’d feel safer there. Nothing was said; he had left the door open for anyone who wanted to come inside. There was a radio on, reporting what little news there was at that point. After a while, Mrs. Sands appeared. They gave each other a quick hug and went back to listening to the news with somber expressions, each staring ahead blankly, trying to imagine, trying to understand, to see. Mrs. Sands looked . . . normal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two Beaters: an exercise in writing about cars

In 1972, after I graduated from college, having realized that the Army was not about to draft me, I spent the summer driving a taxi (there’s some more car stories right there) and mailing out recordings of my voice to radio stations around the country that specialized in classical-music programming. It seemed logical. I had the voice for it and four years of classical radio experience. I had mastered many of the diffcult pronunciations in the genre (Mieczys┼éaw Horszowski comes to mind), and I was prepared to go anywhere to get work. I mailed tapes to stations in Albany, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston (where I already was), Portland (Maine), Philadelphia, and more. Then I called up the program director at each station to ask for an interview and an audition. I hadn’t figured out yet that, for me to get hired, one of these places was going to need to have a vacancy, and it happened that turnover at such stations was low. Also, some of them were commercial, and would expect their announcers to work half of each day selling airtime; I had no background in sales. But as summer turned to fall, I caught a break with WFLN, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. They asked me to come down for an interview, can’t promise anything right now, but we’d like to meet you, how about four o’clock a week from Thursday?

I didn’t own a car so I arranged to borrow my mother’s old Datsun sedan. It was a clunker, a diminutive, rusty, dark-red box on wheels, four on the floor. Mom had been using it for years to get to work across town, which was about all it was good for, and she’d finally persuaded my dad to get her something better. So there it sat in the driveway, lightly leaking oil. Its prospects weren’t good but then neither were mine. At that point, we were made for each other.

Are there any journeys in life quite like the questing journeys of damn-fool twentysomethings, with a change of wrinkled clothes in a duffle bag and a few dollars in their wallet (and dimes for the pay phones), an old roadmap to go by, a few directions and names and phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper? Your innocent teen years have come and gone, you’re out of the nest now but don’t quite know it yet. Your future awaits, a vast gulf, exciting and frightening, but somehow your great plan for your life all comes down to an ability to stay alert on the daunting drive down the interstate, and to get off at the right exit, and to neatly tie your necktie using the car’s tiny rearview mirror.

I had the interview at FLN and it was cordial but brief. They had no need “at present” for anyone new but, hey, Dave, thanks for coming down, and best of luck. Well, I already knew I was going to need it.

Would you have turned around then, and crawled all the way back up 95 to Boston? I would have, yes. I was the kind of guy who liked things that were safe, and known. But for reasons I don’t recall, I didn’t. Sometime before I’d left Boston, I had called my cousin Laura in Pittsburgh (my Uncle Ted’s youngest) to tell her that I was having an interview in Philly, and she had urged me to come on out to Pittsburgh when I was done, I could crash at the apartment with her and her roomies, why not? I took a long look at the map. Pittsburgh didn’t really seem that far from Philadelphia, not in the grand scheme of things. Home: I’d been prepared just now to leave home for good, for a new life in some other state. So, no. I would not go home, not yet. I gassed up and headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It’s four and a half hours from city to city if you do the speed limit, which the Datsun didn’t. It was probably well past midnight when I arrived at Laura’s apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood. Shadyside was funky, diverse, a mix of students, poor and working-class people, artists and musicians, dreamers and schemers and down-and-outers, a good place to find a cheap apartment. My memories are blurry at this point. I probably stayed a couple of days; my bed was an old couch in the living room, which I shared with one of their cats, who was sick. One evening, I accompanied Laura and her friends to a neighborhood bar. The beer, in generously-sized frosty mugs by the platterful, just kept coming. A local rock band was playing, very loud. I remember its name, Ira Carrot. The lead singer was a short woman with a big voice and bright-red hair.

I was having a good time there in Pittsburgh but this wasn’t getting me work, so now it was time to head home and regroup. Before starting out, did I have the Datsun checked over by a service station? Did I fill the tires or check the oil or top up the coolant? Did I clean the windshield? No, I did not. Partly I didn’t because I didn’t want to know what a garage might find wrong; I lacked the cash to fix it. Partly I didn’t because cars were (and are) a mystery to me. I pictured myself popping the hood for the mechanic (if I could figure out how) and standing over the engine, trying to look cool and discerning as I stared at this bewildering jumble of grimy metal. No, I just pumped more gas into the car and headed north, aiming for Erie, then Buffalo, where I would pick up I-90 for Boston.

It’s a 660-mile trip, well over ten hours the way I drove. I didn’t know this at the time, but it wouldn’t have changed my plans, if my headful of whims and guesswork could properly be called plans. Somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, dusk arrived, and with it, the beginnings of fatigue. The highway spooled out in front of me and behind, rising and falling and curving away and returning, the little engine drumming away (or was it now beginning to whine a little?). The wind from passing trucks pushed the Datsun around in its lane, and now everyone’s headlights came on, glaring through the back window, and sweeping over the windshield from the westbound lanes. As you may know, it’s a long journey across the state of New York, with few landmarks to take note of even during the daytime. For a time, I had the feeling that my car was standing still, and that the roadway and the sky and the fantastical landscapes of light and shadow to the left and right were in motion, rushing towards me and past me with an endless whoosing sound.

Somewhere around Syracuse I stopped at a service plaza for gas, and for some badly-needed coffee too, but I couldn’t find anyone selling it. This was when the restaurants at the rest stops were mostly sit-down, not take-out. Perhaps I was too tired to take in my surroundings, but I couldn’t even find a Coke machine. Finally I saw a little counter with apples on display, Red Delicious apples, local produce no doubt. I bought one and headed back out to the car, thinking that perhaps the activity of eating a crunchy apple would help keep me awake.

It wasn’t long before I felt fatigued again. I knew I was all alone and very far from home. My car and I were a tiny speck on a seemingly endless strip of tar, this merciless hard surface brushed with cold winds. I desperately needed rest. So I came up with a plan, whereby I would agree to close my eyes (while doing 55 or so) for about 20 seconds, then keep them open for 20 seconds, then close for 20, then open for 20, and in this way give my eyes a tiny break while I hurtled towards Albany and the Hudson River. It was not a terrific plan, but I had no other. The thought of barreling off the road or into the back of a truck while taking a catnap probably ensured that I remembered to open my eyes — wide! — every 20 seconds without fail. And as it turned out, it’s possible to drive some of the Thruway while asleep, just a little bit, though I don’t recommend it.

Past the Hudson and into the Berkshires, home was now only two hours away. As I climbed towards Blandford, I began to notice some hesitation in the Datsun’s forward motion, just now and again. I’d step on the gas to get up a hill, and the car would simply fail to accelerate, just sort of keep rolling ahead in a leisurely way, speed dropping steadily, until something under the hood kicked in, and it would leap forward. So now the Datsun was fatigued too, and I really couldn’t blame it, but we couldn’t quit now! I began to notice that when the car got sluggish-then-speedy like this, clouds of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, obscuring the headlights behind me for a bit. And then I noticed that the gas gauge dipped sharply toward “Empty” each time. So I was running out of gas too, and at a pretty fast rate. I gassed up in Ludlow and again at Charlton. Now I was out of money, no credit card, and of course there were no ATMs.

When I rolled into my parents’ driveway sometime after midnight, I was feeling many things — exhaustion, relief, happy to be home, sad that I was back to square one. And lucky, frankly; lucky to be alive, lucky that I hadn’t been stranded out in the Mohawk Valley somewhere. There was no good reason for my good fortune, none at all. If I thought about it, I couldn’t help feeling I was being saved for something, but I didn’t know what. I still don’t.

I have an idea that young people used to leave home on a train to find their fortune, or something like it. The whistle would blow, a high lonesome wail, and the engine would chug out of the station, the coaches click-clacking along behind, a great rhythmic clocklike sound that said, time is in motion now; you are already part of something else, you are being drawn away towards something bigger, and you are going, going away completely, right this minute, and leaving your old life behind. For us, for me anyway, it was a car instead, and I was behind the wheel of it, shifting the gears, in control of it. In control of my destiny, so to speak. Yes, I was being swept down the highway like a leaf on a stream, but I could make choices. I could start at A, and I could go to B, because I wanted to go there. Then I could choose to go on further, to C, or D, or E, wherever. And then I could run right back to A and start over again. I’m not sure whether one way of becoming yourself is better than the other.

One more story, about another car, another absorbing automotive experience. By this time, I was a father, picking up my 8-month-old from a home daycare in my town. The car was a beat-up sky-blue VW Rabbit with a sunroof that you couldn’t open; we’d bought the car at a gas station, because the price was right. So much to be gleaned from those sentences. New parents, both working but just getting by, their new son has to be jobbed out to daycare, their backup car is a shitbox that, as it turned out, shipped rainwater through the sunroof; when you hit the brake pedal, the stored-up water would come racing forward and pour down your neck.

I put Peter in his car seat and headed out on the two-mile trip home. Isn’t it pleasant, tooling along a leafy byway in your beater, just before something happens? I began to feel myself slowly sinking. I sat up straighter, but the sinking continued; my view out the windshield had become of the sky, not the road in front. I pulled over, and found that the floor of the car, long rusty here and there, had given way beneath the two back legs of the driver’s seat, and was now more than halfway to the road surface.

I remembered that trip back from Pittsburgh. Here I was again, no AAA, no cell phone, no money to pay a tow truck. I climbed back in, and managed to get home by sitting astride the emergency brake and working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with just my left foot.

What kind of father was this, I ask you! I’ll tell you what kind. Yes, we got rid of that car soon enough, but not before I took a two-by-four that was a little longer than the hole in the floor was wide, wedged it in under the back legs of the driver’s seat, and got a couple more days’ use out of that Rabbit.

Remembering: an exercise in sticking to the facts

I remember watching the launch of one of the Mercury missions on TV. I was at home, with my mother and one of my brothers. It was an Atlas rocket, larger than the Redstone that launched Alan Shepard, but way smaller than the Saturns used for the Apollo missions. [If I weren’t trying to play by the rules, I would add that a mystique still clings to these early NASA names.] The clock ticked down and the rocket lifted off. With her eyes fastened on the screen, my mother began to recite the Lord’s Prayer aloud: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” I cringed and looked over at her. I wished she would stop.

I remember when Boston’s annual spring flower show was held at the Wonderland race track in Revere. I was 8 or 9. Dozens of garden clubs from the region had arranged their lush displays in the oval concourse beneath the grandstands whose undersides, concrete-gray and sloping down and away towards the darkened rear of the display space, made for a somber yet theatrical setting. It was a late-winter miracle: all of these mature trees and ponds with fountains and fully-flowering plants and lawns and shrubs arranged to look like real landscapes. People had tossed pennies into the fountains for good luck. It seemed that every display had received some sort of blue ribbon from the judges. In an adjoining hall, the commercial displays had set up (sellers of garden supplies, fudge, replacement windows, fences, easy chairs that would give you a back massage); here there was noise and bright light, smells of pizza and fried dough, a man playing a tinny electric organ for the entertainment of the crowd, and pigeons pecking at discarded popcorn on the asphalt walkways just outside.

I remember hiking up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire with my father and my two brothers. My family did this more than once. On this occasion, a sunny summer day threatened to turn stormy as we reached the summit, and my father had us squeeze into an impromptu shelter among large boulders. We watched as a storm cloud ascended the mountainside towards us like a gray wave, and then the lights went out and it rained and blew like a hurricane for a few minutes, the temperature dropping sharply. My father surprised us by reaching into his pocket and taking out three Hershey bars, to save us: “Here, eat this!”

I remember our cat Sammy, short for Samantha. Sammy was our second and last family pet. The first had been a canary (named Sunny) who sang for a year or so then seemed to lose interest in being alive. The care and feeding of both fell to my mother, who could not have been thrilled with these extra chores. Sammy was on the small side, lively, grayish-brown with dark mackerel stripes, a common coloring. When it was time for her to be spayed, my parents took her to Dr. Zullo’s, and several days later brought her back home. But it was not the same cat. This one was skinny with a matted coat; that was to be expected. But it didn’t look very much like Sammy, and besides it was larger, and longer. That couldn’t have happened in four days at the vet. But my parents didn’t want to hear about it. After a while, we got used to this cat, and its dull personality, whatever its real name was.

I remember when, the February after the JFK assassination, during school vacation and just before the Beatles came along to lift us out of our collective gloom, my parents took me and Ned to the tip of Cape Cod. The days were clear and the winds were strong, visitors few. I was already railroad-crazy, and kept a lookout for remains of the old line to Provincetown, only recently abandoned with crossties still in place. There seemed to be about one motel open in Provincetown, and one restaurant (not counting the bars downtown with neon signs that said “Ladies Invited”). I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was on Shank Painter Road, which referred not to paint but to a rope or chain that secures a ship’s anchor when it’s not in use. An old fishing dory had been repurposed to form the bar. It was in fact a tavern with a small dining area, frequented by the fishermen, Portugese-Americans. Our well-scrubbed, out-of-place little cluster of a tourist family was the oddity of the evening. The next day, on our way back to Wellesley, my father drove us through Hyannisport. Here and there on street corners close to the “Kennedy Compound” stood enclosures for sentries, about the size of phone booths. My father pointed them out to us as we crawled past. There was a silence, then he mused, bitterly, “They got him anyway.”

I remember Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s winter home in Delmar, New York. Many of my relatives (on my father’s side) had gathered here for the holiday, but I was not in a good mood and the day didn’t go well for me. The first thing I noticed, on entering the house through the back or kitchen door, was the strong smell of cauliflower (ick) being steamed to death. The house had been owned by a hunter before my stepgrandfather bought it, and the hooks for hats and coats near the entry were actually deers’ hooves, mounted to the wall. In time, the turkey was carved up and we all sat down to dinner. I noticed that among the slices of turkey on my plate were tubes. Soft-looking and flexible, the color of “white meat,” they were short, and the diameter of drinking straws. Remnants of the turkey-processing process, no doubt. At that point, what appetite I still had vanished. My great-aunt, to my right, smelling as she always did of talcum powder, leaned over to ask whether I felt all right. That alerted the table, and before long I was taken upstairs to “lie down” in an unheated bedroom until I felt better. On a small table beside the bed was a Golden Book about whales. Featured in its pages was a graphic depicition of some killer whales ganging up on a larger toothed whale. They were especially determined to get at the big whale’s tongue.

I remember the offices of my father’s architectural practice, which were on the fifth floor of 120 Tremont Street in Boston, across from the Park Street Church. Years later, I would be reminded of the views across to the church and the Common beyond by Childe Hassam’s “At Dusk,” and the cityscapes of Edward Hopper.

I remember my orthodontist, Dr. Melvin Andell. I went to see him for years. I used to save up jokes to tell him and his assistant, for the interval after I had gotten into the chair but before he got down to business.

I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, as directed by my orthodontist, cleared out a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth, numbering seven or so, to make room for the straightening of my front teeth. This was done in an office in a single appointment. They brought a black rubber mask up to my face with a gagging gaseous odor wafting from it, and I was out like a light. The visions I had while under anesthesia were vivid, bizarre, intensely colored, and vaguely disturbing, like “Pink Elephants on Parade” from “Dumbo.” When I came to, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there. In time, the gas and the blood I had swallowed made me sick, and things got kind of messy.

I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, years later, took out my wisdom teeth. Could it have been the same guy? It was pretty much the same as before, except that it was in a hospital so they had me change into a johnnie first, and they used an IV drip to put me out: no bad smell, no disturbing visions. I was careful to take every bit of the Percodan they gave me afterwards. It was the first time in my life I had experienced the joy of being completely free from anxiety. The swelling gave me chipmunk-cheeks for a week.

I remember, on a road trip out West with college friends, the sudden change in central Oregon from the arid east to the lush and humid west.

I remember, as a college freshman in an oceanography seminar, going on a fishing trip in a part of Boston Harbor. The professor’s teaching aide was a grad student (let’s call him Jimmy) who had grown up in the North End, and together they thought it would be a good idea to get the six of us out into the field. It was. Jimmy knew a couple of old-time fishermen (Lou and Dirty Dick) who still operated a small trawler out of Pie Wharf on the waterfront, and would take us on a morning run down to Quincy Bay for flounder and see what happened. They did. After we’d steamed past Long Island, they put the net over the side, and in a while hauled it back in with a crane, lifting it clear of the water and suspending it, dripping and full of flapping fish, over the deck where we stood, admiring it. Someone reached in and pulled the string below the bag, and the fish cascaded to the deck. We were up to our thighs in fish. It was now our job to load them into the chests of ice on either side of the deck. We did a good job, for greenhorns. Jimmy put aside one of the fish, a large cod. Codfish were already rare in the harbor. He had us watch him while he gutted it and split it down the middle, pointing out to us where the cod fillets in the supermarket come from.

I remember Sputnik. The Russians had beaten us to space. My parents got us up around 3:00 on a clear moonless night so that we could go out into our back yard and watch Sputnik fly over. We looked straight up into the thick field of stars and the blackness around them until our eyes and necks ached, and then we saw it, a tiny pinpoint of light that was not a star, moving steadily across the sky.

I remember this mad racoon. It was about 4:00 on a summer afternoon, and I was walking down a quiet street in Newton, a suburb, a small city. The racoon walked out into the street from between two parked cars, glanced at me, and turned to walk in the same direction I was going. I thought, he’s not supposed to be out in the daytime, and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of me at all. I slowed my pace, but I was still gaining on him. After a minute, the racoon stopped, turned halfway in my direction, and gravely raised his right forepaw as if in warning. Then he continued down the street in an unhurried way. I took the next left and a long detour to get where I was going.

I remember Expo 67 in Montreal. Expo had booked my family into a comfortable, nothing-fancy apartment on the Rue Lajeunesse, handy to the Metro. The trains on the Metro were new and slick-looking and ran on rubber tires. The stations were clean and orderly. The exhibition grounds at Expo covered many acres, and it turned out to be an exhausting task to try to see everything. I remember especially the Habitat housing complex, the Saint Lawrence River busy with hovercraft, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and, one evening, a very funny revue called, I think, “Hellzapoppin”; the special effects were modern but the heart and soul of the show belonged to old-time vaudeville.

I remember the four-minute meeting I had with Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, in his office. He was gruff, brusque . . . but who was I? A blip on his morning’s schedule. A son of one of his Harvard classmates (who he’d never known), in need of a job, and bearing a particularly thin resume. He knew what I wanted: a connection or two, someone I could call. He rattled off a couple of names, people well-placed in business or government. “You can say your father and I were at Harvard together . . .” I practically bowed and scraped on the way out the door. Then I went out and got a real job.

I remember taking and failing the monthly Civil Service typing test. I was no typist, but I needed work. I knew there was a chance I could get work in some branch of the government, and I had already scored well on the Civil Service written exam, but that wasn’t good enough. I needed a better-than-perfect score, either by being a veteran, or being from the South or West, or being related to a senator or something. None of these applied. But there was another way. You could pass the typing test, get hired as a lowly typist, and then proceed to climb the ladder from within, at the Smithsonian, or Voice of America, or Agriculture, or wherever. So I practiced my typing, trying to get both my speed and accuracy up. The test was given at 6:00 a.m. on a snowy weekday in January, in a classroom in an office building on the Virginia side of Key Bridge. There were perhaps 40 desks in the room, and there was a candidate at each one. Many of us had brought our own typewriters. The test was over in ten minutes. It was simple. They required a certain number of words per minute, and zero errors. The experience was so much fun that I took the test again in February, and failed again. Then I went out and got that real job. It didn’t require any typing. No . . . actually, it did, come to think of it.

I remember a little of my work as an announcer on WGMS in Washington. On Sunday evenings, about once a month, the station broadcast a live chamber-music concert from the Freer Gallery. The station sent an engineer down to the Freer to make sure the concert got on the air, but did not want the expense of sending an announcer too, relying instead on the studio announcer (me), back at the studio in Bethesda. But they did want the illusion, the “William Pierce effect,” the warm, reverential tones of a live announcer seeming to be inside the concert hall, welcoming you to the event and making introductory remarks in a hushed voice as the audience in the gallery chatted with one another and fussed with their printed programs. At the appropriate time, I flipped a switch and suddenly the concert hall was in my headphones, and also the voice of my engineer (Tony? Ace?), whispering cues into my ear. (“OK Dave, the pianist is coming up.”) And I would say to the listeners, “And now, Mr. Smith has appeared on stage, to begin tonight’s concert from the Freer Gallery with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata.” Or whatever. I remember feeling like I was an important part of a cultural event, even if that part was just the tiniest bit phony.

I remember biking from Boston to New York City and back.

I remember biking with Annie from New Gloucester, Maine, near Freeport, to Quebec City.

I remember the years of infertility treatments we went through in our efforts to start a family.

I remember the long October day that concluded with us bringing Peter home.

I remember a rainy mid-morning in downtown Natick; I was standing in the entrance to the office building where I worked as an art director, taking a short break and hoping the fresh air would help me think my way out of some  of the graphics problems that were waiting for me back upstairs. Parked cars lined busy North Main Street on both sides. To my left, along came a pickup truck that slowed and then double-parked with the engine running, about 30 feet away; I couldn’t not see it. The passenger door opened and out came a woman in a shapeless brown raincoat. Something was wrong. She staggered to the curb, made her way with some difficulty across the sidewalk, then turned and propped herself up with her back to the facade of the building next door. I remember thinking, she can’t stand up by herself. On her head was a scrap of reddish-blond hair, no more kempt than a broom. She was neither young nor old. Her face was pale. She stared into the middle distance with an empty expression. Meanwhile the door of the pickup truck slammed shut; I saw two men inside, also neither young nor old. They were in a hurry to leave, it appeared. The tires squealed a bit as they pulled out into the travel lane. The driver was wearing a polo shirt; I don’t remember what the other one was wearing but they would have seemed just like . . . two regular guys, except it was the middle of a weekday morning and they weren’t at work and, it was suddenly apparent to me, they had just dropped off the prostitute they were done with. O little town of Natick! The driver turned his head for a moment and looked back. I remember thinking, he’s checking to make sure she’s still upright, and that nobody had noticed or was following them. It was a sneaky, bad-little-boy gesture: hey, no one saw us smash that window, right? Then he gunned it out of there. The woman stayed where she was, waiting, I supposed, for her ride. With shaking hands she lit a cigarette. And it was past time for me to get back to work.

I remember a lot of things I wish I could forget, and I wonder why that is, both the remembering and the wishing to forget. Sometimes I think that I don’t really want to forget these troubling things, and I wonder why that is, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Bomb, which is still with us.