Wednesday, October 21, 2020

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.

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