The following post is in both the form of a downloadable Word document (above) and text that follows.
Roger W. Smith, “My Boyhood”
I was the second of four children and was born on November 7, 1946 in Boston Lying-In Hospital (now part of Brigham and Women’s Hospital). I was about a month and a half premature.
My mother told me that she was Christmas shopping in Boston when she began to have labor pains and had to go to the hospital. She had been trying to get her Christmas shopping done early.
I was told that I was kept in an incubator for a long time. I have thought that this experience may have something to do with my becoming a fresh air fiend who detests air conditioning. I also have long thought that it might have had to do with my developing amblyopia. The condition was diagnosed early and I started wearing glasses at an early age.
I remember some things about our house on Mellen Street in Cambridge when we were first living there. It had a 1940’s feel. There was a big old fashioned radio console in the living room. I used to play with the dial when I was older and was intrigued that there was a shortwave band. But you got very poor reception, and it didn’t seem like there was much to listen to.
We lived upstairs at first, in a third floor apartment. In September 1948, my parents bought the house for $13,400 from the owners, the Tsuchidas, and we became landlords. The Tsuchida family was headed by Fred Tsuchida, who became an attorney. They had been in an internment camp during World War II. My parents got along very well with them, and through the Tsuchidas made other Japanese friends. One was a Mrs. Habino. She used to come to visit and prepare Japanese dishes for us. I enjoyed her cooking very much and recall how much I liked her rice.
My older brother and I had red wooden bunk beds. My brother slept on the top and I was on the bottom. He would sometimes put his hand down to scare me and I complained to my parents about this. I thought it was very unfair that I was being treated in this way.
I remember my mother coming to pick me up once at nursery school in Cambridge. She was a little late and I was so happy to see her. I had been having a very good time playing on a jungle gym by myself. Usually, I didn’t like to do it because of a bully, but he had already gone home and I had the playground all to myself.
My father, being a musician, was often working in the evenings and not at home. I recall at an indeterminate age my mother shoveling coal into the furnace in our cellar on cold days.
We always had music in the house. Both my father and mother loved music. My father was a professional musician who had majored in Music at Harvard. We had a scratchy record of the song “Rain, rain, go away” (based on a nursery rhyme) that I couldn’t hear enough times. I grew to like some classical music, such as Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 (particularly the opening), which I got to know when I was very young. I grew to love Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite.
In my early years (at an age when sex differences don’t matter), I had a girl playmate, Janet Funke. She lived with her father, Art, and older sister Carol — the father was a widower — on the next street over, Wendell Street. Their back yard was adjacent to ours.
Janet’s father had a nice flower garden. One day, I decided to take some flowers and give them to my mother as a gift. I thought this would impress and please her. When I brought the flowers home, my mother was NOT pleased. She told me I had to take the flowers back immediately and say that I had taken them.
It seemed very difficult to comply. But I took the flowers right back to the Funke house. I knocked on the door. My friend Janet answered. I thrust the flowers at her and blurted out something like “I took your flowers,” then bolted before she could say a word.
Something similar happened on a later occasion. I liked to go to the drugstore with my mother and have a Coke at the soda fountain. (She liked this too.) On one such occasion, I furtively grabbed a handful of straws and stole them. The attraction seems to have been that they were there, they were free, I was getting something for nothing. (It was sort of like St. Augustine and his friends stealing pears from a neighbor’s orchard, which he tells about in his Confessions.) As we were walking home, I proudly showed them to my mother. She was not pleased and told me I had to take the straws back immediately, which I did.
I think she set a good moral example on these occasions. They obviously made an impression on me, since I remember them so well.
At a very young age, I spent a night at my paternal grandparents’ rented house on Cliff Street in Arlington Heights. I had been left to stay over for the night. I missed my parents, got very upset, and began to cry. My grandmother Smith couldn’t get me to stop. She tried very hard to amuse and distract me. Eventually, she put a book on her head (a children’s book she was planning to read to me) and walked up the stairs that way, with me following.
I used to like to walk around Arlington with my paternal grandfather. The streets in the neighborhood were on an incline and I used to say to my grandfather, “The streets are tippy, Grampy.” This amused him.
I have few memories prior to the first grade. I do recall kindergarten at Agassiz School in Cambridge, which I enjoyed very much, but do not recall it well. We had a wonderful teacher. I recall her name vaguely.
The “Cherry Tree”
There was an underground garbage pail with a lid in our back yard in Cambridge.
One evening when I was quite young, my father was taking out the garbage. He got the idea of burying some of it – cherry pits – in the dirt.
I watched with interest. He said that the pits would eventually grow into a cherry tree.
I was intrigued by the thought. I asked my father several times, would they really?
Now that he had made this assertion, I guess he felt he couldn’t qualify it. He said several times over that, yes, they would.
It seemed to me almost magical that a tree could spring up right there and I wanted to believe him, but I don’t think — even at that age — I really did.
First Grade; Mrs. Zapolska
At the end of each school year in my elementary school, the Agassiz School on Oxford Street in Cambridge, it was the practice, at the end of the very last day of the term, that your class would go to the classroom of the grade you would be in in the following year and meet your new teacher.
In 1951, on the last day of kindergarten, we went to meet our new, first grade teacher, Mrs. Zapolska.
We kindergarteners went to her classroom. Mrs. Zapolska was not in the room.
There was something kids used to do at that time to show off. They would put their hands on the desktops and vault over their seats. It was a stunt that impressed me. Several students were doing this before Mrs. Zapolska came into the room. I decided to imitate them – I wanted to show that I too could perform the feat — and started to vault over my seat, which I did several times.
Mrs. Zapolska was not in the room while all this was going on, but a minute later she entered. She had seen or sensed that something was going on.
For some reason, several of the other boys singled me out and said that I was jumping over my seat. (As if I was the only one who was doing it, which, I guess would get them off the hook; they were rotten squealers.) She made me stand up next to my seat and keep standing. She began to scold me. She told me that this wasn’t kindergarten any more and things were different. Where did I get the idea I could act like this? I was ashamed and scared. I was trembling and wet my pants, which the teacher didn’t notice, but it increased my humiliation.
It was a bad start to first grade.
I had a very bad year in first grade (mostly) because of Mrs. Zapolska. I was afraid of her. She was mean, always ill tempered, and actually gave homework, which I had a lot of anxiety about doing right. She got sick during the school year and had to take a leave of absence. We got a new teacher, Mrs. Joyce, who took over the class for a while. She was very nice and things were completely different.
My mother did not like to intervene on our behalf with teachers and authority figures. This was probably because she didn’t want to us to become mother’s boys. (Also, my parents weren’t by nature complainers, an example which I followed in later life.) Years later, however, she told me that she did made an exception with Mrs. Zapolska and had a meeting with her. Mrs. Zapolska, when told of my difficulties, said to my mother something like, “Well, he never speaks up [participates].” My mother replied, “That’s because he is afraid of you.”
I distinctly recall some aspects of learning to read. We used the standard reader at that time, Dick and Jane, which was boring. I remember we were divided up into reading circles, or groups, and would read aloud in them, the groups seated at the front of the class. I must have learned fairly quickly because I found it tedious to wait while other kids would stumble over a passage when it was their turn to read.
Early Grade School Years
I once went with my father to a supermarket on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge. While he was shopping, I was amusing myself by running circles in the aisles and around the frozen food cases. Suddenly, I became aware, as I perceived it, that my father was gone! I ran out of the store and down the wide red brick sidewalks of Massachusetts Avenue in a panic, calling for my father. I was hysterical. Some passersby stopped me and asked what was the matter. When I told them, they tried to comfort me. Within a minute or two, my father came along. He had been in the store all along and I had somehow failed to see him.
At some young age, I was permitted to go to a store on Massachusetts Avenue on an errand. But first I was coached, instructed, very carefully by my mother. She stressed the importance of being absolutely sure to look both ways before crossing the street. I went on the errand and came back without incident. I had very dutifully followed instructions, stopping and looking both ways several times before crossing a street. When I got home, I was praised fulsomely by my mother for doing so well. Only years later did I realize that my mother had secretly followed me (as she told me) both ways to make sure I had followed her instructions.
I frequently used to be taken for visits to an ophthalmologist, Dr. Johnson, in Boston. He seemed very learned. He always seemed to be putting eye drops in my eyes so he could examine them better, which made everything blurry.
Once, on a cold rainy day, my mother took me there (taking the subway, as usual) and the visit and day lasted a very long time. My mother was very nice to me, expressing concern that it had been such a long day for me and that I had gotten cold and wet. I was a little under the weather. But, I was very pleased with her attention to me and actually enjoyed having her to myself like that.
At some early age, I was required to wear a patch over my left eye in the summertime when there was no school. Undoubtedly, this was to force me to use my weak and fairly useless right eye and hopefully strengthen it. I hated doing this and complained bitterly. This did not last long. The patches were uncomfortable in the hot weather, and they ultimately did no good. I did not like having the patches ripped off at bedtime.
My parents gave us considerable independence and also taught us (implicitly, by example) to take responsibility for one’s self at an early age. It is an aspect of our upbringing that I greatly appreciate. I was allowed at quite a young age to go places by myself. This included walking to the library and taking the trolley to my paternal grandparents’ house in Arlington.
The streetcar to Arlington Center ran all the way down Massachusetts Avenue, starting at Harvard Square, and cost a nickel. I loved the wooden streetcars. I would get off on Pleasant Street — at an intersection where the First Parish Unitarian Universalist, the church at which my grandmother was organist and choir director, stood — and walk a couple of blocks to my grandparents’ house, which was at end of Wellington Street at the edge of Spy Pond.
My grandmother was very cheerful and I liked her cooking. She would make fried chicken and fricassee chicken, also Niblets canned corn.
My grandfather was a very nice man, soft spoken and unassuming, with a good sense of humor. Once, during a visit when I was quite young, he let me play a game with him and a neighbor, Mr. Locatelli, on the porch. The game involved guessing how much money was in another’s hand. The game seemed to last a long time. I won something like 80 cents. (They probably let me win.) My winnings seemed like a fortune. I was very proud of myself, and they kept praising me for my success.
Later, when I was older, my grandfather used to give me a dollar bill as he was leaving our house. This seemed like a big amount.
When I was quite young, my mother took me, by myself, to see a stage production of Sleeping Beauty in Cambridge by a student theater group. I was enthralled. Especially enchanting was the scene where the prince fights his way with his sword through the forest of thorns to rescue Princess Aurora.
I also saw the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with my mother. The scene with the Evil Queen’s poisoned apple made a big impression on me.
In second grade, we had a very nice teacher, Mrs. Riley, who was very short. I thrived and began to enjoy school.
It was in the second grade that I decided I wanted to read a real book. My parents had one on their bookshelf, The Flying Carpet by Richard Haliburton. It was a popular book by an aviator who flew around the world in the 1930’s. I “read” the whole book through, every page, but I was incapable of understanding it. Yet I was very proud to say that I had “read” a book. There was a novel about gypsies that I also attempted to read at that time. All throughout, I didn’t know what the word “gypsies” meant and couldn’t pronounce it.
Around this time, I became very interested in drawing. I progressed to the point where I was making my own “books” with color drawings. My parents took note of this and hired a private teacher, Mrs. Ball, to give me art lessons after school in her home. Nothing came of this.
I also recall at this time enjoying ceramics. I did some school project which involved making an imprint of my hand in wax. I was very pleased with the finished product and seeing my hand reproduced, as it were, that way.
One of the first films I recall seeing was Ivanhoe (1952), which my mother took me to see in Cambridge. My older brother was supposed to go too, but he had to stay home as punishment for some misbehavior and I felt very sorry for him. I also saw By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day and Gordon MacRae and Houdini (1953) with Tony Curtis.
Houdini is the film I remember best of these three. The way Houdini kept escaping from seemingly impossible traps, like being locked up in handcuffs in a box under water, fascinated me. Also, the scene at the end where he dies in a water tank. (This, as is well known, is not the way the real Houdini died.)
Third through Fifth Grades
In July 1953, the summer between second and third grades, I was walking with my mother one day when we heard church bells pealing. My mother said, “Oh, the war must be over.” I didn’t know what war, but could see that she thought this was a good thing. On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed unofficially ending the Korean War.
Our education at the Agassiz School was superb. We had some very smart kids in our class. There was Christina Schlesinger, the daughter of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (She transferred to a private school in the sixth grade.) She wore glasses like me, and we sat in adjoining seats in the first row. Another classmate was Robert Valerio, whose father was a clarinetist in the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Wei Chiu (known as Wei-Wei) was a classmate who lived on Mellen Street. His father was an instructor at Harvard, and Wei himself wound up attending Harvard. Christina Schlesinger attended Radcliffe. Robert Shevach, a Jewish kid, was a classmate who, like me, ended up at Brandeis. He became an actor in New York under the name Jeremy Sage.
We had rigorous instruction in the basics. (Yet, the school environment was pleasant. The principal, Mr. Conley, was a well educated, dedicated, and nice man.) I really learned arithmetic well and still pride myself on my ability to do mathematical operations and calculations. (Long division, for example, was taught well and thoroughly.) We were trained carefully in penmanship, but I never learned to grip a pen properly or write well. (I had an aversion to inkwells and scratchy fountain pens.) The grammar instruction was superb. We learned all the parts of speech – exactly what they were for and how they were used — and eventually were introduced to diagramming sentences. I liked doing the latter a lot.
In the third grade, I had an elderly teacher, Miss Roper. At the end of the year, she retired. I told my mother I wanted to write her a letter to wish her a happy retirement. My mother helped me write it. I took it very seriously and put a lot of thought and effort into it. I did not receive a reply.
The Book of Knowledge was an excellent encyclopedia for children. My father and mother bought a complete set from an encyclopedia salesman in around 1953 or ‘54. They were excited when the books arrived and I recall my mother opening the boxes. The encyclopedia had the usual articles and also literature. There was a story in it, “The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde, that I loved. It made such an impression on me. It was so touching.
When I was around seven or eight years old, I asked my father to explain baseball to me. He said, well, we have this new encyclopedia, that’s what we bought it for, so let’s do it the proper way. He turned to the article on baseball in The Book of Knowledge and began to explain the game to me. I recall that there were diagrams showing the layout of the field and the positions. He might have explained the principle behind a force play, to give an example.
Around this time, my older brother and I got a Lionel train set. It was great to have it, set it up, and run the toy trains with an electric transformer. I recall the tunnels and crossing gates.
We decided to put out our own newspaper. We signed it “The Lionel Boys” and gave a copy to an upstairs tenant, Al Habib.
Al Habib, as we called him (perhaps his last name was Al-Habib), was an Iraqi and was a graduate student at Harvard, studying political science and preparing for a career in government service. We liked him a lot, and our feelings of affection were reciprocated.
Once, Al Habib showed us his dissertation, which he had just completed. I was impressed. I didn’t know what a doctoral dissertation was. He told me that they had flunked one of the doctoral candidates and that the student was fighting back tears. This story made an impression on me.
One winter morning when I was in elementary school (on a day when there was no school), our milkman while making his delivery noticed me and, on an impulse, asked me if I would like to accompany him on his rounds. My mother right away said fine, yes. (I would imagine that a parent today would be more cautious.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to go — I was in my pajamas and it was warm and cozy inside — but I felt I couldn’t say no, so I got dressed and went. The milkman was very nice to me and treated me like I was a valued assistant. We stopped at a doughnut shop on Mass Ave for a break, and the other patrons said to the milkman, “I see you have a helper today!” Carrying the milk bottles — they were in a metal basket — seemed very hard to me, it was so heavy. He dropped me off at home when his route was finished in the early afternoon.
At the Agassiz School, we used to play kickball in the schoolyard, which was paved. Like most sports, I wasn’t any good in the beginning. I couldn’t seem to catch anything. But I gradually got better and got to like it. I was disappointed that after the sixth grade I didn’t have the opportunity to play it any more. In the seventh grade, in the Eliot School in Canton, we played soccer on a muddy lot during recess and I hated it.
The Toy Horse
Like most children, I loved stories about horses (like Black Beauty, which I read at some point in grade school) and pictures of horses. I vaguely recall that we had a hobbyhorse once which, at a very early age, I tried to “feed,” probably with Shredded Wheat.
Once I was with my parents at the home of a middle aged women of their acquaintance whom they were visiting. She had a figurine of a horse, a palomino, on a mantelpiece.
I was fascinated by the horse statuette. It looked so real. At some point, I got the idea in my head that perhaps she would give it to me as a gift if she knew how much I liked it. I kept picking it up and touching and patting it and saying over and over again, “I really like this horse” — words to that effect. I had the strong feeling, or at least hope, of a child engaged in wishful thinking that she would notice this and say, before we left, “Why, dear, you like it so much, why don’t you take it home with you.”
This didn’t happen. The lady did not seem to hear or notice my remarks.
I was disappointed.
In around the third grade, I began to take an interest in baseball. As might be expected, I was inept as a player. Having poor eyesight didn’t help. Often, I would not wear my glasses and that made things worse.
Once, we were playing in the back yard of our Mellen Street house and one of the boys threw the ball to me — we played with a Spaldeen then — when I was covering first base. I totally missed it. He said something like that’s it and quit the game, believing that I was hopeless as a ballplayer. Needless to say, my feelings were hurt.
I started going to baseball games when I was quite young, accompanying my older brother and friends. It was easy and convenient to get to Fenway Park from Harvard Square by subway. The fare was a nickel and the price of admission was 75 cents. We always sat way back, usually in the right field grandstand. One player I particularly recall from that time was Billy Goodman. I believe I saw Ted Williams at least once, in a doubleheader, and seem to recall that he hit one of his mammoth home runs way up in the right field stands.
Sitting that far back, I had problems seeing. I couldn’t see the ball per se, and had to figure out what was going on from the movements of the players.
The Yankees, in games I saw, always seemed to murder the Red Sox. I particularly remember a doubleheader when Yankee third baseman Andy Carey had a field day against Red Sox pitching.
Once my friends and I were out on a hot summer day playing baseball as usual – it was August 27, 1955 — and I got home in time to see the conclusion of a Red Sox-Tigers game on television. I was in the living room, and my friends, who were still hanging around, were looking on through a window. The Red Sox, who were losing 3-0, loaded the bases with two outs in the top of the ninth inning and Ted Williams won the game with a grand slam homerun.
Despite my claiming, in retrospect, that I was not a TV watcher, I did watch a lot of baseball. The production quality of sports broadcasts back then was inferior. The camera angles were not good. There was no use of a center field camera. The views were always from behind home plate.
I remember watching Ted Williams bat. He would take a lot of practice swings before getting into the batter’s box, then would spend a lot of time (seemingly endless) knocking dirt out of his spikes with his bat. He wiggled while waiting for the pitch. His swing and grace at bat were something to watch.
There was a Red Sox player at that time, Norm Zauchin, a first baseman who came up in 1955, whom I liked to watch. He had a phenomenal first half of his rookie season. In one game, which I recall watching on TV, he drove in 10 runs. His hitting declined dramatically in the second half of the season. He couldn’t hit curveballs.
We moved to the suburb of Canton, Massachusetts when I was about twelve years old. I was very disappointed about this. To make me feel better about it, my parents showed me the Little League field in Canton. It was like a real, honest to God Major League stadium in miniature. The dugouts especially impressed me. I was thrilled at the thought of playing there.
Later, during the spring following, there was a tryout for the Canton Little League. I tried to do everything to prepare for it. I had a supply of gum to chew just like Major Leaguers did. I was very nervous.
We were given numbers to identify us. The tryout involved fielding — not batting. You would stand in the outfield and a fly ball of sorts would be thrown to you by a coach. You were judged on your ability to make the catch and on your throwing ability after the catch. I felt like I was being run ragged. I tried my best, but I was all tensed up and it was hard to perform under such conditions.
I heard it said once — I think it was a Major Leaguer who made the observation — that baseball is a game that you can’t do well at if you are not relaxed, while at the same time, baseball, paradoxically, requires intense, unremitting concentration.
At the end of the tryout, the numbers of the boys who had been selected were called. If your number wasn’t called, you hadn’t been chosen. This took quite a while, and it therefore took a while for me to realize that I had not been selected by a coach for any of the teams.
When this sunk in, I put my head in my hands and started to cry, bitterly. I couldn’t help it. A rather elderly coach came over, sat down next to me, put his arm around me, and tried to comfort me. He said something like “don’t take it so hard, son.”
The year 1957 was the one in which Cincinnati Reds fans stuffed the ballot box and elected all but one of the eight everyday players on the team as starters for the National League All Star squad. In that year, I became, momentarily, a Reds fan. They didn’t have pitching, but their hitters impressed me. Ted Kluszewski was my favorite Reds player. I remember his cutoff sleeves and bulging muscles. There is a photo of my mother with us children taken in Gloucester, where we were staying that summer. I am wearing a baseball cap with a C for Cincinnati.
Fourth Grade; Miss Iannazzi
In the fourth grade, I had a beloved young teacher, Miss Regina Iannazzi (later Mrs. Burk). I really began to read in her class.
In the front of the classroom, there was some kind of display on the top of the wall in colored paper which involved Indian headdresses and feathers. Kids’ names were on each headdress and you got another feather each time you completed a book. I was the leader.
Most of the books I read, as I recall, were in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. They were popular biographies written especially for children that focused on the formative childhood years of the subjects. I loved these books. I recall reading the ones about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig. Daniel Boone, Meriwether Lewis, and Johnny Wanamaker, among others.
Miss Iannazzi looked like my Mom. I had a nine year old’s crush on her.
She was very nice and let me once at the end of the school day help her carry some things to her car. She asked me if I would like to have some magazines that she had in the car; I was very pleased. But, once, just once, Miss Iannazzi was furious with me. We had to line up at the end of the school day and march out of the building in orderly fashion. I was misbehaving badly; she grabbed me by the collar and was scolding and shaking me. I was startled.
Once, Miss Iannazzi announced to the class that her cat had had kittens and that she had been unable to find a home for one of them. She said she would give away the kitten, but first we had to get parental permission. She said that those of us who thought we wanted the kitten should ask our parents that evening for permission to adopt it. To be fair, she said she would take all the permission letters and have a drawing the next day in which one of the letters would be drawn out of a hat, the winning student being allowed to take the kitten home.
We already had a cat. But, I really wanted to be the one to adopt Miss Iannazzi’s cat. I pleaded with my parents. They concluded: he probably won’t have the winning entry, let him have the permission letter, which they duly wrote. The next day, I took the permission letter to class. It turned out that I was the only student who had gotten a permission letter from his or her parents, so Miss Iannazzi said that by default the cat was mine. I proudly and happily took it home. Now we had two cats!
At the end of the year, I went to my bedroom and cried for a long time because of the loss of Miss Iannazzi.
In the summer of 1956, when I was nine, my older brother and me were sent for two weeks to Camp Massapog in Dunstable, Massachusetts. We took a bus both ways. I didn’t know what to expect, but I got homesick right away. On around the first night, I decided to write to my mother. The counselor in our cabin, a teenager named Fred Jacoby, took this as plainly showing that I was a mother’s boy and made fun of me in front of the other boys. “Look,” he said (or words to that effect), “he’s writing home to his MOTHER.”
I hated camp, everything about it. I was not good at any of the activities, like swimming.
My older brother, meanwhile, was thriving. He was an eager participant in all camp activities. I rarely saw him.
At the end of the first week, there was a visiting day on Sunday. My parents came with my grandmother Handy. I begged my parents to take me home. I was so desperate, I was sure they would comply.
They were uncertain about what to do and decided that they ought to discuss the matter with the camp director, Mr. Tinker, who wore a Smokey the Bear type hat. What Mr. Tinker told them, apparently, was that it would be best if I tried to stick it out.
I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going home. All week, I had been desperately awaiting visiting day as the day of my deliverance. I lost my composure, and as my parents and grandmother were leaving, I was begging hysterically for them to take me with them. As they drove off, I was clinging to the car.
I had not achieved my objective of being taken home, and I felt humiliated to boot.
That evening, I encountered my older brother behind one of the cabins. I had seen very little of him all that first week. I told him that I was going to try to put the best face on things. He said he was proud of me for that. I appreciated his kindness.
My parents did a very good job of teaching us proper manners. When we were leaving church one Sunday morning — the minister would stand at the door and great the parishioners at the end of the service — the minister, Rev. Nicolas, extended his hand in greeting to me. I stuck out my left hand. Afterwards, my mother was very angry at me. She was mortified. She said I should have known better than to shake with my left hand.
We were taught proper manners at the dinner table. This included being taught by our mother how to hold one’s fork and spoon correctly. We were expected not to grab for our food (never to reach across someone else) and to request a second helping politely: may I please have some more? We had pleasant dinner conversations.
Rules for conversation were promulgated also. Not to interrupt, and not to talk while someone in the room was reading. My parents were good conversationalists and taught by example.
We were taught the importance of making proper introductions and how to respond to one (pleased to meet you, how do you do?).
The stress on politeness continued. I recall one time in 1958 when we were moving to Canton. The Abernathy sisters, daughters of the lady who owned the house we were purchasing, came into the living room when my older brother and I were there. After we left, our father was very angry at us because we had not stood up when they entered the room. He said we should have known better.
My paternal grandparents had a TV set in the early Fifties. My parents didn’t at the time. Miss Cuddy, the fearsome eighth grade teacher at our elementary school, thought that this was great. She didn’t approve of television.
On Friday evenings at my grandparents’, we were allowed to stay up late to watch TV. Late meant that we went to bed around nine. Two shows that I recall watching at this time, and liking, were The Life of Riley with William Bendix and I Remember Mama (“brought to you by Maxwell House Coffee, good to the very last drop”). My grandmother also liked a few daytime shows that I recall: a show featuring Bess Myerson wearing a mink coat (The Big Payoff); Queen for a Day; and The Kate Smith Hour.
Around the time I was in the fifth grade, my parents finally bought a TV set. I enjoyed it somewhat — liked some cartoon shows (such as Mighty Mouse) — but never became a TV watcher. I am very glad in retrospect about this.
I do recall some shows that made an impression on me because of my mother’s interest. One was I Led Three Lives. The “three lives” in the title were the protagonist’s outward life as a white collar worker, his secret life as a Communist agent, and his even more secret life as an FBI operative helping to foil Communist plots. My mother explained this to me, and I was very interested. There was such a sense of mystery and intrigue; the Russians were always plotting.
My mother took a great interest in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. I didn’t know what was going on, but I noted her interest.
In 1956, my mother was watching the Democratic national convention on TV when Senator John F. Kennedy, a serious candidate to be Adlai Stevenson’s running mate, made a speech. I didn’t know who Kennedy was. I made a comment to my mother, “his hair is messy!”
When I was a little older, I did like to watch The Lone Ranger and, a little later, Superman programs with George Reeves. And, at Christmas time, I loved to watch the televised film of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. (It is a story that I have read, by the way, over and over again. I never seem to tire of it.) I also saw an excellent television film about the sinking of the Titanic. The scene I remember the best is one in which the naval architect who built the ship is sitting in a stateroom when the Titanic is just about to sink. Someone enters and tells him to leave. He sits there with his head in his hands and the water comes rushing in.
Oh, yes, I liked The Mickey Mouse Club. And, earlier — I forgot — Howdy Doody, which I used to watch at a neighbor’s house because our parents didn’t have a TV yet.
And, during the Davy Crockett craze — I had a coonskin cap, as it seemed did practically every other kid — I was engrossed in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955), the Walt Disney film starring Fess Parker. The fighting at the Alamo between the Texans and Santa Anna’s troops made a big impression me: the stockade and the Mexican soldiers in their blue uniforms trying to scale the battlements while Davy Crockett and his band of backwoodsmen repulsed them.
We always seemed to have pets: cats, tropical fish, dogs. My parents were good about pets and good about taking care of them.
My first dog was Sugar, a mongrel, in fifth grade. We had a problem because Sugar was chasing and biting college students on bikes, so my parents took the dog back to the pound. I was very upset. This was in Cambridge.
Then we briefly had another dog, Cougar, which could not be housebroken. So we had to get rid of Cougar.
Then we got a wonderful dog, Missy, a shepherd collie, when we were still living in Cambridge. We moved to the suburb of Canton, and Missy had puppies. My mother assisted with the delivery! The puppies were adorable.
Missy died in 1959 when I was in the seventh grade, shortly after we moved to Canton.
This devastated me. My father picked me up at the Eliot School. We were on double sessions then because of overcrowding of the schools, and we got out of school at something like 12:30. The first thing I said was “How’s Missy? When is she coming home?” He said, “She’s never coming home.”
I cried all the way home. For the next few days, I was in pain. I would go outside on the back porch, forget momentarily that Missy was dead, and expect to see her, then would remember.
It was a sudden death on the operating table of the vet, who was very sorry about what happened. Missy had had to have an unexpected operation involving a “female” problem arising post-pregnancy.
Right after, we got Robbie, a pedigreed Irish setter. I still have the pedigree. The price was $75, expensive back then.
Robbie used to roam all around town and was known to the townspeople as Big Red. He used to raid garbage pails and would run onto the field during football games.
One school day when I was in the corridors between classes, Robbie got into the building and started following me. I was muttering under my breath “go home Robbie!” while trying not to attract attention to me or my dog.
One day during French class, Robbie started barking at the shadow of a waving flag in the parking lot and our French teacher, Miss McCauley, stuck her head out of the window and started talking to Robbie in French (telling him to go home). I must have told her he was my dog.
Mishaps and Misbehavior
Once, at some indeterminate age, I observed some boys playing with matches in or near our house. It concerned me and presented a dilemma for me. Should I tell my mother about it, since there was a danger of fire? Or should I keep my lips buttoned, since I had been told by my parents that practically the worst thing anyone could be was a tattletale? After much soul searching, I decided that the former concern outweighed the latter and that I had better tell my mother. I told her and her reaction disappointed me. She seemed to think that I was being too much of a goody-goody and was showing a lack of manliness by running to her to tell on someone.
When I was in around the fifth or sixth grade, I learned to ride a bike. It seemed to take forever; I think it was about two weeks. I kept falling off the bike and landing in the dirt, scraping my elbows. I was very frustrated and would vent my anger. Mrs. O’Connor, the crabby housekeeper for Dr. Driscoll, a dentist who lived next door, used to watch me over the fence with disapproval.
My parents bought me a sturdy American bike for twenty-five dollars, which seemed expensive then. It got stolen by some boys soon thereafter, which left me despondent. There was no discussion about getting me another bike. Most people then didn’t have money to spend.
A very short while afterwards, I saw the boys who had stolen my bike on a street corner with it. I started to chase them, shouting, “give me back my bike.” Of course, they took off. If I had been more street smart, I might have approached them stealthily and grabbed the bike.
When I was about age ten or eleven, a friend and I were playing or walking on Harvard grounds, in an area where there was some sort of storage garage and a wooden chute. An Irish-American boy about a year older than me, whom I knew, Charlie Nolan — his family lived at one end of Mellen Street — and his friends tied me and a friend up and tormented us. We were frightened and couldn’t escape. Finally, a working man in a leather jacket came along. We told him what was going on. He untied and freed us while scolding the boys who had been tormenting us. Sometime later, when I was a bit older and stronger, I deliberately picked a fight with the ringleader, Charlie Nolan. and succeeded in pinning him.
In our back yard on Mellen Street in Cambridge, there was a small area enclosed by a wooden fence that we called “the vedge” (for vegetable garden). We were allowed to play there when we were little and dig to our hearts’ content. When I was older, in around the fifth or sixth grade, some friends and I dug a series of tunnels in “the vedge” and covered them over with wooden boards. We took great delight in crawling through this network of tunnels. It is a wonder that they didn’t cave in and that we weren’t buried alive.
When I was in around the sixth grade, I carelessly stepped off the curb once in front of our house on Mellen Street and was swiped by a passing car. I was knocked down. The drivers were a nice middle aged couple whose son I knew by name. They were very concerned. I was momentarily stunned but was not injured. They insisted that they should go inside and tell my parents, and I kept saying it wasn’t necessary. The reason was not that I feared my parents would be worried that I was hurt (which I wasn’t), but that I was afraid that my parents would be angry at me for not being more careful and looking both ways before crossing the street.
The couple in the car that struck me prevailed and spoke briefly with my mother.
Our house at 27 Mellen Street was bought by Leslie College in the early 1960’s and is now used for administrative offices. The yard has been paved over. But, when we were living there, we had grape vines and pear trees. My mother used to boil the grapes down and make grape jelly, which she preserved in jars sealed with wax, a laborious process.
We used to have grape fights in the summer. I never particularly enjoyed them; your shirt would get all stained with purple juice. We used — like practically all boys, I would guess — to have snowball fights. I enjoyed them a lot. It was great fun to build a snow fort and stock it with snowballs in preparation for battle.
Sometimes, we threw snowballs at passing cars. Once, an angry driver got out of his car and began to chase me. After that, I desisted from this misbehavior.
When I was in the sixth grade, my friends and I used to hang out occasionally in one of the Harvard Law School dormitories. The Law School was the closest Harvard division to our house; it was just a block away. We did mischief and made nuisances of ourselves.
In the basement of the Law School, there was a Coke machine. A Coke cost a nickel. After you finished, you were supposed to put the bottles back into a wooden crate that contained returns. We would take our bottles to a store and get back a two cents deposit, meaning the Coke cost us only three cents. We thought this was great.
We were raised as Congregationalists, which was the religion of my mother’s family. Our minister, Rev. William H. Nicolas at the North Church, Congregational, was very well liked and respected.
We went to Sunday school regularly. This meant getting dressed up and I didn’t like it because my woolen suits were scratchy. Once, I came home from Sunday school and threw my suit on the floor. My mother was quite annoyed because I didn’t take better care of my clothes.
In the fifth grade in Sunday school, I acted up terribly. This got the attention of Rev. Nicolas, who took the step of removing me from the class one day, because I was being so disruptive, and making me stand by myself outside the class (within the parish hall). This misbehavior was serious. It represented only a brief phase in my development, though. I became a model pupil and student thereafter (both in Sunday school and public school).
I have speculated on what may have caused this brief spell of misbehavior and have some tentative thoughts about it. Something was going on; I think it may have been repressed feelings of anger at my mother that were making themselves felt in this fashion.
In the sixth grade in Sunday school, we had a wonderful elderly teacher, Mrs. Shedd, and everything changed. I enjoyed it so much, was fully engaged, and learned a whole lot about Biblical stories and history. There was something called “released time” then. You would get some time off on a given day during the school week to receive religious instruction at your church. I loved this. Mrs. Shedd taught us stories from Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible.
Also in the sixth grade, an attractive unmarried parish member organized a boys’ choir. She was a big Red Sox fan, a season ticket holder. As an inducement, she promised that any boy who joined the choir would get to go to a Red Sox game at the end of the school year. I joined the choir, and because I was a monotone (as was so determined), I was relegated with other monotone boys to the back row. The first hymn that we performed was “Fairest Lord Jesus.”
We were duly taken, as promised, to a Red Sox game at the end of the school year and were in box seats right behind the Red Sox dugout. We got an autographed ball with team members’ signatures on it. (I stupidly took it out to play with a friend when I was a teenager and ruined it.) The choir director knew the players, and several came over before the game to talk with us. One was the tall pitcher Frank Sullivan. I was very excited. “Frank,” I said, “did you get hurt the other day when you fell into the seats?” He seemed a little confused and hesitated. “Oh,” he said, laughing, “that was the other Frank!” I had seen a photo in the Boston Herald of third baseman Frank Malzone, one of my favorite players, diving into the seats in pursuit of a foul ball.
I have always tended to think everything through for myself and to form my own opinions. There would be a sign on the front of our church in the summer reading: closed for July and August. This didn’t seem right to me. Most of my friends were Catholic. They went to mass every week. The Catholic churches never closed.
I thought: if religion is so important in the life of mankind, how can it be UNimportant in July and August as opposed to November or December?
Sixth Grade; Age Eleven
I did very well in the sixth grade. At the end of the first marking period, our teacher, Mrs. Joyce, told us that someone in the class had gotten two 100’s on their report card. I wondered, who could it be? It turned out to be me. I was genuinely surprised.
I did have an unpleasant experience in the sixth grade in which some of my limitations became painfully evident. It requires some elaboration.
Our math and science teacher, Mr. Wayne, taught us boys, among other things, how to use a film projector. At a certain point on a given week, one of us would be given the task of running the film projector when a filmstrip was being screened for the class.
My turn finally came and I was extremely nervous. I hadn’t followed the instruction. I tried to fake my way through it. Of course, I didn’t do it right, the film got all tangled up on the reel, and the film projected on the screen started jumping.
Mr. Wayne called a halt to it all. He came up to the front of the room from his seat and dismissed me as projector operator. He was busy trying to untangle the film, muttering to himself angrily.
I was extremely embarrassed and felt totally incompetent and humiliated. I have never forgotten about this incident. It still pains me to think of it.
I started playing football in the sixth grade. I was not a fan of pro football yet, but I quickly took to the game. To my surprise, I seemed to be good at it. I think it was actually my best sport, although I never played on a team. I was very aggressive — I think football gave me an outlet in that respect — and good at blocking and tackling.
During this time, we played a sandlot game late one fall afternoon on a lawn on Oxford Street in Cambridge that was Harvard property. We were winning by a narrow margin at the end of the game. The other team had the ball. I made all the tackles on four straight downs and stopped an opposing player just short of the goal line on the last play. I was very pleased with myself.
Once, at a much later date, when I was in my early teens, my older brother took it upon himself to teach me how to catch a pass. He gave me a brief lesson in our front yard one weekend afternoon. He explained it just right, when to catch the ball with your fingertips, when to cradle it against your chest, how to maneuver and position yourself for the catch. After that, I was an excellent pass catcher.
We used to play stoop ball in front of our house on Mellen Street. We used a tennis ball with the fuzz worn off. You would bounce the ball as hard as you could off the curb and a hit would depend on whether it was caught and how far it went. Once, a ball went over my head and I leaped over a hedge in our front yard, caught the ball, and held on to it while toppling over onto our front lawn. I was inordinately proud of having made what I thought was a great catch and kept talking about it. My father told me that the best thing was to be modest and not to dwell on it or try to live on my laurels.
At age eleven, I played briefly in the Cambridge Little League. I remember being quite excited when a handwritten letter came from the assistant coach, who was a teenager, informing me of my selection to a team. The other thing that thrilled me was getting my uniform. We went to a store in Harvard Square to purchase it. It was in a box. It was an exact cream colored replica of a Boston Red Sox home uniform and came with long red socks with stirrups.
I had a paper route for a while in the sixth grade. (I was emulating my older brother, who was a paper boy.) I had morning and afternoon routes at different times. There were a lot of newspapers in those days.
I wasn’t good at being a paper boy. The canvas bag, which you slung over your shoulder, seemed so heavy. You were supposed to learn to roll up newspapers in a certain way so you could throw them; I never quite mastered this. I was very slow in completing my route, and some of my afternoon customers would get impatient waiting on the porch for their paper to come. The pay was something like two fifty a week.
I didn’t last long, but I wasn’t fired. I quit. I told our boss, Mr. Gladden, that I had to quit because of my parents, that I was waking them up when I got up early. “I haven’t heard that one before,” he said, not being for a moment fooled by my excuse.
Beginning in the sixth grade, I became an avid reader of baseball articles in Sport magazine. There was an advertisement in Sport for a simulated table baseball game called APBA. (I did not know it at the time, but the letters stood for American Professional Baseball Association.) It looked intriguing. I responded to the ad and materials came in the mail that made me very desirous of purchasing the game. The price was $18.75, which seemed a little steep then, though it was actually quite reasonable in view of the product and turned out to be incredibly so in view of the hours of enjoyment I got out of the game.
There was a foldout brochure. And, there was a sample player card for Ted Williams! The brochure included an account of and box score for a simulated game replaying a 1957 World Series game between the Yankees and Milwaukee Braves in which Warren Spahn struck out 14 batters (in the simulated game, that is). It seemed so real, and the idea of a table game where you could play Major League baseball games at home with “real” players intrigued me. I was hooked.
My older brother and I purchased the game. It was, as I have noted above, a baseball simulation table game using cards to represent each major league player and boards to represent different on-base scenarios — e.g. “Bases Empty”, “Runners on First and Third,” “Bases Loaded” — with the results corresponding to the roll of the dice and the corresponding number on a player’s card, with the roll of the dice used to generate random numbers. You would check the board for a given situation (runner on first, say) to see the result. Funny things could happen: an injury, an ejection, a rainout.
The game could be played against another person or in solitaire fashion. I always played games by myself, so that I was “managing” both teams (making the lineup, substitutions, pitching changes, etc.), and I announced them out loud as the game progressed. (I had vague thoughts about becoming a baseball announcer and admired announcers such as the Red Sox’s Curt Gowdy and Ned Martin.)
I kept score for each game and recorded statistics in a ruled notebook. It was amazing that, in most cases, the players’ performances came close to matching their real life statistics. (The individual cards represented real players, and had ratings for batting, fielding, base running, pitching, and so forth.) You could make managerial decisions: elect to bunt, say; or stipulate in advance that on a single, a runner should not try to advance to an extra base because the runner was rated as slow.
Some funny results occurred.
In one simulated game that I was playing, for example, Tom (Ploughboy) Morgan was pitching for the Detroit Tigers. I seem to recall that the score was 10-0 in favor of the Tigers, partly because Morgan, who was pitching in relief in the simulated game, had hit a grand slam home run.
In real life, Morgan, in 1959, the season on which his APBA player card was based, hit two homeruns in twenty-three at bats. This gave him as an excellent rating on his APBA player card as a power hitter.
I was doing play by play, as per custom, for the simulated game in my room.
If you got the result of a 23 or 41 – i.e., this result on the game board corresponding to whatever the dice roll showed — you would get something unusual, say an injury, a rainout, an ejection, or a weird play.
The Tigers, as I said, were leading by around 10-0 somewhere well into the simulated game and the opposing team batter got a dice roll of 26 (or some such number), which I think corresponded to a 23 on the game board, with a result that on the game board read “ball — pitcher ejected for disputing umpire’s call.” This was odd in that the Tigers were leading by ten runs or so at the time (in the simulated game I was playing). Even weirder was the fact that Morgan had hit a grand slam homer to break the simulated game open. So, why would he be arguing over a ball call!
Imagine my difficulty in explaining this to my “listening audience.” I did the best I could to make fantasy baseball match reality by making up a convoluted explanation that Morgan had been thrown out of the game as a joke.
Each year, APBA would come out with a complete set of player cards, based on the prior season’s results, that cost six dollars. They would mail rosters to game owners in advance. When the rosters came out, I would scan them eagerly. In those days, there were eight teams in each league, and each team played 154 games in a season. I played just over half a season, over 300 games, for the 1959 National League, kept box scores for each game, and compiled statistics.
The company’s headquarters were at 118 E. James St. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It turned out that the “company” was a single statistically minded baseball fan, J. Richard Seitz, who had created the game in 1951 and marketed it from his home.
In the summer of 1962, my father, mother, younger brother, sister, and I took to trip to Pennsylvania to visit my older brother, who had a summer job there. We took a side trip and drove through the beautiful Amish Country, making a stop in Lancaster, which I had requested.
It took my father a while to find 118 E. James Street. We finally found it and it was just an ordinary house. It turned out that it was the residence of APBA developer and owner Seitz and his mother.
We went to the post office to inquire and were told by a friendly postal clerk that, yes, we had the right address and that Seitz occasionally stopped at the post office to mail APBA games to costumers.
Around this time, the company came out with a pro football game with player cards with ratings for running, passing, kicking, blocking, and defense.
My father got me the APBA football game, which I had requested, for my birthday. They had a policy of usually requiring two to three weeks for shipping, but my Dad wrote them a letter pleading for expedited delivery and got it in about three days. Then he handed me an envelope that had in the return address on front the APBA Game Company and their address, below which my father had written “from a big game company” with his own cartoon-ish drawing of a factory building with smokestacks with smoke billowing from them.
The APBA football game had player cards representing the 1958 NFL season. That was the season of the championship game between the Colts and Giants which the Colts won in overtime on Alan Ameche’s touchdown run. I played that game over and over again with the APBA simulated table game, and I also played games with various other teams such as the Browns, Rams, and Packers.
Once, my older brother and I decided to replay the Colts-Giants playoff game against one another. I forget which team each of us chose. But, at the end of the game, my team was behind by a few points and I had the ball on something like the opposition’s 27-yard line. The way the game was designed (each play represented a designated portion of “the clock”), I had one play left.
The APBA football game required you to make coaching decisions. My older brother set his defense, wisely, for a pass play. I rolled boxcars, two sixes, on the dice. This roll of dice would give you the best result for a given situation. There were boards for end run, plunge play, short pass, and long pass; I had elected short pass. For that situation, and, taking into account the respective team ratings for offense (blocking) and defense, the result was disappointing. The gain on the play was one yard short of a touchdown. I was certain that for a dice roll of boxcars, I had scored a touchdown. (If I had chosen a long pass or run, I would have scored.) I was so frustrated and upset, I actually started to cry. It seemed that my older brother always won.
My time spent playing APBA board games comprised some of the happiest moments of my life.
In Cambridge, I had a nucleus of four close friends: Francis Donlan (Irish American), Eddie Rizzo (Italian American), Johnny Fitzgerald (Irish American), and Bobby Burns (Irish American). They were very important to me and I feel they played a decisive role in the formation of my character.
I am mindful of the views of psychoanalyst Harry Stack Sullivan, who observed in his writings that preadolescent relationships are crucial to the development of character and that having one or two meaningful relationships at this stage can make all the difference.
There is such freedom to share at that age. We would have vehement discussions and get into such arguments. Sometimes, they would involve religious differences; my four close friends were all Roman Catholic.
Once the subject of intermarriage between the races came up (although we wouldn’t have used such terminology). I said that I would marry a Negro (the term used then) woman if I loved her; it all depended on that. My friends scoffed at this. But I believed that I was right in principle. I discussed this argument afterwards with my mother. Her response was disappointing to me. I had not expected it. I had thought she would agree that I was right. But, she said that although in principle such a marriage would not be wrong, one had to be aware that there might be problems because of societal disapproval.
In 1956, during the Eisenhower-Stevenson presidential contest (the first time I had had an awareness of politics), I was totally pro-Eisenhower. This was because my parents at the time were staunch Republicans. (They had been raised that way. They switched, completely, at a later date.) I wore an “I Like Ike” button in the schoolyard and got into arguments with my friends. They were practically all from Democratic families and were Stevenson supporters. At that time, I liked Vice President Nixon, Eisenhower’s running mate, too. I thought he was handsome and had the same views and background as my parents.
I was bitterly disappointed about moving to the suburbs – indeed depressed over it — because I loved Cambridge and valued my friends. My father was not receptive to my complaints. He said almost flippantly, disingenuously, that my friends could visit whenever I or they wished it. Of course, I hardly ever saw them again.
Further Reflections about Cambridge
I liked the cozy urban environment and the stimulation of being in Cambridge very much. I loved that I could take public transportation to Boston. I liked walking on the wide red brick sidewalks and going to Harvard Square, which was just a few blocks away. Moving to the suburbs made being driven essential for transportation. This was a major difference.
I liked Christmas shopping by myself in Harvard Square and put a lot of thought into buying gifts for my immediate family on a very limited budget. Once, while shopping there during the Christmas season, a panhandler asked me for money and I gave him something like 85 cents, which was a large amount for me. I felt compelled to do it, thought it was my Christian duty and that it was better to give than receive.
Christmases were great in our family. Our parents made them special. I loved emptying out my stocking on Christmas morning to see what little gifts and goodies were inside. We used to always go to Jordan Marsh, the largest department store in Boston, during the Christmas season. I loved the elaborate holiday displays and was thrilled by the toys. My father seemed to delight in it as much as we did. We also had a Christmas tree which my mother took charge of decorating (with our help). We had a crèche with straw and figurines for Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and the lambs that I loved to look at when I was little. I loved Christmas carols, which we used to sing at home and in church, and knew them all by heart.
On Christmas Eves, it was very difficult to get to sleep, we were so excited. On Christmas morning, we would get up early and go into our parents’ bedroom: can we open our presents now? I found it hard to comprehend that our parents wanted a few more minutes in bed and didn’t want to get up immediately to start opening presents.
My parents absolutely loved Thanksgiving and knew how to do it, thanks no doubt to their New England roots. My mother would make a very big turkey, much bigger than we actually needed. She would get up very early to put it in the oven. My father would always carve — in fact, he did so at all meals. I always thought that this was quite a task and achievement and that I would never be able to learn to carve myself. We would have several kinds of pies, all of them homemade, of course. We had all sorts of side dishes.
We spent many holiday dinners at my grandparents’ and many as hosts. We also had lots of guests, family and friends. We would invite people who didn’t have a place to go, such as graduate students, some of them from abroad, who were tenants in our house in Cambridge. Our Sunday dinners, too (non-holiday), were enlivened by guests such as the local minister.
We spent that summer just before we moved to Canton in Gloucester, where my father was working for the summer. I did not particularly like the rocky beaches and cold water.
It is a fact that I have always loved the seashore and ocean, but that I never learned to swim. This despite the fact that I took swimming lessons several times over. I have never been graceful, never really learned to skate either. I was very uncomfortable, fearful, in the water. My inability to swim was a source of embarrassment to me and produced feelings of inferiority.
In the summer of 1964, I had a job as a night clerk at the Oak Crest Inn, a shabby hotel in Falmouth Heights, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod; it paid thirty-five dollars a week plus room and board. I got a job at the same place for my good friend from Canton Johnny Harris. Johnny and I went to the beach one evening and I swam out over my head, too far. I was desperate and barely made it back, dog paddling all the way.
Seventh and Eighth Grades; We Move to Canton
The day after we moved to Canton, in September 1958, I enrolled in the Eliot School on Chapman Street, in the seventh grade. I rode my bike; it was a little over a mile. I was wearing a gray sport jacket and a sport shirt. My mother offered to take me, but I insisted on going myself. This kind of surprised my new teacher, Mrs. Sullivan. When I showed up in the hall, my soon to be classmates were very curious.
It all seemed very different to me. Among other things that day, we sang the song “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers,” with Mrs. Sullivan leading on the piano. I had never had a teacher play an instrument in class before and, strange to say, it seemed unusual to me.
I eventually came to the realization that our seventh grade class at the Eliot School was behind our Cambridge school by what I would now say was a year or so. I was well prepared and ahead of the rest of the class in subjects like arithmetic.
One day a while later, something embarrassing occurred that was my own fault. Mrs. Sullivan said that the four top students in the class in arithmetic (if I remember correctly) should relocate to seats in the front of the room. I can’t recall why; perhaps it was because they were to be exempted from normal instruction. At any rate, after a minute or two, I concluded that I must certainly be one of the four students and thought, why wait for her to call my name, I will just go and take my seat at the front of the room with the select group. Mrs. Sullivan was quite annoyed at my presumption. She made me go back to my regular seat and later brought this up again as an example of my high opinion of myself.
One time Mrs. Sullivan was telling the class about a TV show involving detectives that she liked. For some reason, she asked me to tell what it was about. There was something clever about the plot formula of the show. Not being a TV watcher by any measure, I was totally unfamiliar with the show, had never seen it. But, I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know, so I said that the idea behind the plot was “to catch the criminal.” I thought a generic answer would be adequate. Mrs. Sullivan was annoyed and said, that’s not the answer.
We used to play soccer at recess in the Eliot School back yard, which seemed usually to be muddy. I hated it. After a while, I stopped playing. I used to stand on the sidelines and spend recess talking with another student, Robert Sheets, who didn’t like soccer either. We would get into deep conversations. I thought that someone would notice our delinquency, but we got away with it.
Hockey has always been very popular in New England. It was a sport I liked, but I never really learned to skate. My older brother, who picked up sports easily, became a very good hockey player.
I could skate a little bit better with a hockey stick, because I could lean on it. Once, on Dean’s Pond on Sherman Street near Canton Junction, I almost scored a goal. The puck was kicked out at the last minute, and one of the players said “good try, Roger.”
Once, our seventh grade class in the Eliot School went skating on Bolivar Pond in Canton with our Phys Ed instructor, Mr. Gibson. I was struggling and lurching around on my skates. A classmate, Bobby Oliver (son of a professional golfer), who was skating in the opposite direction shoved me and told me to get out of the way.
In the middle of seventh grade, a new high school building was completed. The old high school, which my older brother had been attending, was right next door. Our class and Mrs. Sullivan moved into the old high school building, which became a junior high school.
Junior high school was pretty much of a waste, with poor teachers and some mean students. I learned very little. I recall only one exception among the teachers, Miss Hanlon, an English teacher. She seemed to think well of me and of my appreciation of reading.
Once we were reading Steinbeck’s novella The Red Pony and I made what seems in retrospect to have been a perceptive comment about the boy, Jody’s, father. I said that he was a certain kind of stern father who had trouble showing affection for his son. I was thinking of my relationship with my own father. Miss Hanlon appreciated these comments.
In junior high, I was terrified because of my absolute mechanical ineptitude, about taking shop with Mr. Howard, a well liked teacher and all around good guy.
Our big project for the year was to make a tie rack for our fathers. We spent months on it. We had to do things like cut grooves and varnish it.
Near the end, I had to put my tie rack, which was nearly completed, into a vice for some critical operation. I tightened the vice too much and the tie rack split, ruining my year’s work. I was mortified, but fortunately Mr. Howard did not notice.
Once, the school bully, Bob Dudley, shoved me on a stairwell and hurt me with an insult that still rankles and which I prefer not to repeat even here.
In the fall of 1959, when I was in eighth grade, there was a Thanksgiving game between our high school team and our archrivals from the neighboring town of Stoughton. We junior high school students were given special permission to attend a pep rally on the day before the game in the auditorium of the new high school next door. It was inspiring to see the players on the stage. One of them, Kenny Oles, an undersized running back, got up near the end of the rally and said in a piping voice, “we’re gonna win, we’re gonna win.” We were big underdogs; Stoughton had lost only one game all year.
We won 18-8 in a fantastic game that was very close despite what the final score would seem to indicate. I had a very good view of the game because in those days there was room to stand right on the sidelines, which most spectators didn’t, for some reason (but which I did). I distinctly recall all the details of the game. It was one of the most exciting sporting events, including professional sports, that I have ever witnessed.
One day in Canton, when I was either still in junior high school, or just beginning high school, the topic of writing came up at the dinner table. My older brother told us that a girl in his English class had turned in a paper in which she used the obsolete word yclept, meaning named or called. She was ridiculed by the English teacher, Mr. Tighe, for needlessly using flowery, antique language. This was something new to me. I had thought that you were supposed to use big words — and possibly arcane ones too — in writing to make an impression. Oh, no, my father replied, one was supposed to use the plainest words one could find to convey one’s meaning. This was a revelation to me.
My parents joined the Unitarian church in Canton. My father was organist and choir director there. This was important to me, since I became very involved in the church youth group.
We had a wonderful Sunday school program in the Unitarian church called The Church Across the Street in around 1959-1960. Mr. Dennis Sanford was our Sunday school teacher. He was superb.
We visited a Buddhist temple, a Christian Scientist church, and many other churches which I forget, plus a Catholic church. After mass, we had an audience with the priest, who was very nice.
He asked after a short while if we had any questions. I raised my hand and said, yes, I did have a question. I wanted to know, if God was good and all powerful, why did He let evil exist (and in fact predominate) in the world?
The priest had a hard time answering me. I was very into rational discourse. I persisted. The priest did his best to answer me and kept his composure, but he seemed a little flustered. It was kind of an awkward standoff.
Our minister, Rev. Allred Fowlie, was there on this occasion and he told me afterwards, when we were going home, that the priest had asked him, had I been coached by anybody to ask this particular question? Rev. Fowlie told the priest, no, I hadn’t.
Rev. Fowlie then asked me, where do you get such questions from? Don’t you know, he said, that religious thinkers have been struggling to answer this question for centuries? (I learned later that St. Augustine in his writings and preaching gave some of the best answers.) I did not know this at the time. I told Rev. Fowlie that it had just occurred to me as a natural question to ask based on my own reflections and that I hadn’t intended to be a smart aleck or wise guy.
Porgy and Bess
In the summer of 1959, my father took my younger brother and me to see the film Porgy and Bess. It was an unforgettable experience.
We took the train to Boston from Canton Junction.
I recently had the opportunity to see the film again. For a long time, it had been unavailable. I was disappointed in it, in retrospect, from a cinematographic point of view.
The score was something else. We got the soundtrack album and I played it over and over and over. The music affected me like no other music has before or since.
It got into my brain and stayed there.
Which is not to say that I have not heard greater music. But there was something unique and special about Porgy and Bess. And, the film score was outstanding, in my opinion — the orchestration especially.
I mention it here because it was a very special experience for me, one which I feel I owe gratitude to my father for. My parents loved Gershwin. You could feel my father’s excitement at seeing the film.
Incidentally, there was copy on the sleeve of the LP saying that Bess was a “loose” women. I didn’t know that that meant.
When Porgy sang “I Got Plenty O’ Nothing,” I thought it was a joyful song (as indeed it is) expressing noble sentiments. It made me very happy. I hoped that I could be a true Christian and would never become a money grubber. I was surprised to read somewhere not long ago a comment that Porgy has sold out with such sentiments and is showing himself to be in effect a stooge of the exploitive capitalist system (or comments to that effect).
Freshman Year in High School
I have very vivid memories of the fall of 1960, when I was a freshman in high school. It was such a beautiful Indian summer. The season of fall in New England is incredibly beautiful. Nothing can match it, the crisp air and the foliage.
In the fall of 1960, a Sarah Vaughan song, “Seranata,” was a hit and seemed to be being played on the radio all the time. The song and that period in my life are linked in my mind.
I was thirteen going on fourteen. For some reason, I was feeling everything keenly. The weather, especially. It was such a beautiful fall. Took your breath away. Warm but not overly warm days with lots of sunshine. Gorgeous foliage. The kind of fall weather only New England has.
I was excited to be in high school. I had several mediocre teachers, but I had an outstanding teacher, Mr. Badoian, for math, which was exciting.
We had Mrs. Lowry, an adequate but somewhat prim and unexciting teacher, for English. We read Dickens’s Great Expectations in an abridged version; the plot seemed kind of ridiculous to me, plus you didn’t get many of Dickens’s master stokes of characterization. We also read Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, a standard high school book for those times. I remember exactly one line from the poem:
But, unrequited Love! thy dart
Plunged deepest its envenomed smart,
I had a three-ring notebook with loads of papers, every assignment, that I always carried with me. Plus, I took all my books back and forth with me each day. They were an armful and I used to carry my books next to my chest like a girl.
I was very motivated to do well and worked very hard in school, too hard. After supper, I would shut myself in my bedroom and do homework until about 11 or so, by which time I was exhausted and had to go to bed. Sometimes, I would get up at around 5 a.m. to finish my homework. I was so tired in the morning. It was so quiet and lonely with no one else awake yet.
A boy in our neighborhood, Sandy Gaines, who was a year ahead of me in school, had gotten all A’s in his freshman year at Canton High. (He transferred the next year to a private school, Exeter, and wound up attending Harvard.) I was impressed and thought of this as an incredible, almost impossible, achievement. I wound up getting all A’s myself in my freshman year in every subject.
In my freshman year, a classmate, Bob Seavey, and I went to see the film Parrish (1961) with Troy Donahue, Claudette Colbert, and Karl Mauldin, which I liked (I very much enjoyed the music) in Boston. Bob was pleased to show me how to get there: on Cliff’s bus (down Route 138) to Mattapan, on a streetcar from Mattapan to the Ashmont MTA stop in Dorchester, and by subway to downtown Boston. I spent about $2.50 on refreshments; my mother was annoyed at this extravagance.
In my freshman year when I went out for baseball, my brother, who was on the varsity baseball team, observed me during batting practice on his way home from school. I didn’t know he was watching. I was doing well and he couldn’t stop complimenting me all the way home. You can’t imagine how good I felt.
In my sophomore year, there was a speech teacher in Canton High School, Mrs. Fertman. I took a “mini course” in public speaking with her.
Mrs. Fertman was young and perky. She was very enthusiastic; seemed quite motivated; also seemed kind of insecure.
A classmate, John Bosanquet (discussed below), played some sort of prank on Miss. Fertman, put something over on her in class.
Mrs. Fertman approached me later and asked me about it. I don’t recall exactly what she asked me, something like who did it or what was up? I said I didn’t know, which was NOT true, because I did.
A day or so later, Mrs. Fertman encountered me on the stairs between class periods. She was crying and very upset. She had found out the truth and that a prank had been played on her. She said something to the effect that she had thought she could trust me — of all students — and now I had let her down, that she had given up her faith and belief in teaching. I didn’t know what to say.
I have always felt bad about this incident. The reason I didn’t tell her anything was because I had been taught by my parents to never squeal on anyone and therefore felt I had to keep silent although I felt totally sympathetic with her; hated to see her upset; and, most of all, hated to disappoint her high expectations of me.
Mrs. Fertman didn’t quit.
John Bosanquet was a classmate of mine at Canton High School. We were in all the same classes.
John was energetic and bright, full of vim and vigor. He would oftentimes play the role of Peck’s Bad Boy. He was always joking and liked to tease me.
John and I sat at the same lunch table in a group of four. He liked to talk about TV programs, in which I was not at all interested. One of his favorite programs was “The Flintstones.”
John used to call me Mr. Woodn’t, Dint, because I had trouble pronouncing wouldn’t and didn’t correctly.
John was a highly motived student. His dream was to attend West Point.
I shared John’s paper route with him for a while. I think it paid $5 a week and we each made $2.50, which seemed like decent pocket money then.
One day, in 1962, during his sophomore year, John was completing his early morning paper route — before school, as usual; by this time, I was no longer sharing it with him. He was going downhill on his bicycle, had just turned the corner onto Sherman Street, was near the Canton Junction RR station, when he was hit by a small truck. A student in the lunchroom told us that the truck driver went into shock and was crazy with grief.
John was in a coma for a day or two before he died. It was my first experience with death — I didn’t anticipate it. I asked my mother, “He isn’t going to die, is he?” She replied that he could die, and, in fact, there was no hope for recovery. I was shocked, devastated.
I remember the wake. John’s family was Episcopal. He was in an open casket in his Boy Scout uniform. He didn’t look quite like himself — not surprisingly, one might say (perhaps insensitively).
John’s funeral was very sad. I was one of the pallbearers. I vividly recall the burial. It was a cold, damp, dreary winter day. Our math teacher, Mr. Badoian, was there in a threadbare coat with his hat in his hand. A fellow student, Judy Johnson, standing behind me, was in tears.
I recall that I was dismayed and couldn’t believe it when I heard two guys on the basketball team discussing the upcoming game that night and whether or not the opposing team would be playing man to man. They were doing this, sotto voce, during the saddest point of the ceremony, the actual burial, when John’s casket was being lowered into the grave.
Further High School Reminiscences
I had a funny experience once when I was in high school.
I had completed an assignment, a brief composition. I seem to recall that it wasn’t for English.
I was in our kitchen, holding the paper in my hand. It was handwritten – like all my assignments in those days — on white, lined, three-hole punch paper.
I was pacing, reading my paper over. I dropped it. I stooped down to pick it up. It wasn’t there!
I looked all over. No paper. It seemed to have vanished – literally – from my hands into thin air.
I never did find the paper and I had to write it all over again.
A LONG while later, I happened to open a little compartment of sorts at the bottom of the dishwasher. My paper was there in the little compartment, intact.
What had happened was a very random occurrence of which, one would think, the odds were a thousand to one.
When I had dropped the paper — on the kitchen floor, as it seemed — a current of air — strange that this would happen since I was indoors — had caused the paper to swirl and then waft, float, toward the dishwasher door and pass unimpeded through a narrow slit at the bottom.
Once – I believe it was in my junior year – we had an assembly which consisted solely of a concert by a schoolboy from a neighboring town who was a violin prodigy.
He was anything but a cool cat. He was dressed formally, wore glasses, kept bowing deeply. He was greeted with derision by my fellow students in the audience.
He seemed oblivious to the hoots and the fact that he was being made fun of. He kept bowing deeply and conveyed the impression – by no means defiantly – that it was music and only music that mattered to him.
Then, he played the finale of his assembly concert, “The Swan” from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals, a piece of music that I had never heard before.
I was awestruck by the lyrical beauty of the piece and overcome with emotion.
In sophomore year, I had Miss Roach for English. She was not a good teacher. But, we read Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in her class. I absolutely loved them. My father was moved when he heard I was reading them to say that he, too, had read Idylls of the King in high school and he, too, had loved them.
I wrote a short story in Miss Roach’s class. It was closely modeled on Ring Lardner’s great baseball story “Alibi Ike.” My story, like Larder’s, was written in the first person in the language of an uneducated ballplayer. It was about a one armed pitcher.
I got to read the story in class and everyone (Miss Roach and the class) liked it. But the bell rang before I could finish the story. Miss Roach suggested that I could finish in a subsequent class. But the next day no mention was made of my story, so I timidly asked at the end of the period if at some point I could be allowed to finish the story. Miss Roach said time had not permitted but maybe it would be possible in the future.
It never happened.
My good friend Johnny Harris (mentioned briefly above) was very good natured, NEVER got angry. We spent practically all our time playing ball together. It didn’t matter whether there were other players or not. We were continually playing catch in our front yard and devised games, such as one on one stickball, one on one football, running bases, and so forth. In cold weather, we would spend hours indoors in my house playing a table hockey game with metal figures representing pro hockey players (in authentic uniforms) that were controlled by a lever, with a marble for the puck.
Johnny came from a working class family that lived fairly close to us on Chapman Street (just past Sherman Street, where the local train stop was). His parents were always very nice to me and were good to their three children. (Johnny’s brother Bob Harris was also a good friend.)
Johnny was a big sports fan, and I used to go to the Boston Garden with him. It was an old arena that has since been replaced by TD Garden. The Boston Garden was dirty and smoky, but it was a cozy, intimate, and wonderful arena to be a spectator at. I saw my first pro hockey games with Johnny and got to see Bobby Orr of the Boston Bruins in his rookie season when he was just eighteen. You could see right away that there was something special about him.
Thanks to Johnny, I was a spectator at the game on April 15, 1965 when the Celtics’ John Havlicek stole the ball to win the Eastern Conference championship.
I was not a good basketball player, but I became a big fan of the Celtics. I was a fan of players such as Bill Russell, the backcourt duo of Bob Cousy and Bill Sharman, the Jones Boys (Sam and K. C.), Jungle Jim Luscatoff, Frank Ramsey, Tom Heinsohn, and later John Havlicek.
It all began when, in seventh grade, I came down with strep throat and was confined to bed for a couple of weeks. That was in many respects a very nice time for me. My parents outdid themselves when it came to caring for you during an illness. I spent my sick time devouring oranges and also, during this brief period, listening to the championship series between the Celtics and the St. Louis Hawks on the radio. The announcer was the legendary Johnny Most. The Hawks won the series in six games. Bill Russell was sidelined for most of the series with an injury. Hawks star Bob Pettit scored 50 points in the final game.
Liberal Religious Youth
I have written elsewhere about my very active involvement in Liberal Religious Youth (LRY). It was a very important aspect of my adolescent years in which I matured, developed intellectually, made very important friendships (some of which have endured), began to realize my capabilities, and showed an ability to undertake responsibilities. I think, too, that the experience revealed to me important aspects of my character which came into play. For instance, I had innate respect for other people and they in turn respected me. I began to realize that people valued me for my character traits and my intellect.
An anecdote from those days may fit here. A fellow LRY member, Linda Gulbrandsen — a high school student from Wellesley Hills whom I had a crush on — was at our house in Canton one Sunday afternoon. The date was February 9, 1964. She mentioned that the Beatles were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show that evening; it was their first appearance on the show. I said, “Who are the Beatles?”
She said, “Come on, you know – you must know.”
I said I honestly didn’t know who the Beatles were. I had never heard of them.
I did not watch them that evening, but I came to know who they were pretty soon thereafter.
It’s a story that illustrates that I was kind of removed from ordinary life in those days, so engrossed was I in my studies and related pursuits.
I became a classical musical enthusiast — began to become knowledgeable about it — during my high school years. The first classical record I bought was Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Some critics regard it is bombastic, but I disagree and have always loved the piece. I also purchased an inexpensive LP of Beethoven’s fourth symphony. I liked it, especially the opening which starts with the music sort of creeping up on you.
A friend of mine in high school, Arthur Contois, used to call me at home and get into long discussions with me about classical music. He had interesting opinions which I did not necessarily agree with, but he was the only fellow student I knew who had the least interest in classical music. He told me that it was an incontrovertible fact that Mozart was incapable of expressing any emotion whatsoever in his music (!).
Arthur was wildly enthusiastic about Haydn. At the time, I had scant acquaintance with Haydn’s music, and, if asked to comment on it, would have probably said it was music for fuddy-duddies. How wrong I was and how right Arthur was!
Upon graduation from high school in 1964, I was given a portable stereo by my parents. It was a wonderful surprise and a treasured gift. With it, they gave me an LP of Brahms’s first symphony. I greatly admired this piece and found the fourth movement to be stirring.
Once, my high school friend Ira Priluck, who became a successful ophthalmologist – one of very few Jewish students I knew at Canton High School — prevailed upon me to let his brother Howard give me an intelligence test. Ira’s brother was a graduate student at Boston University.
He was very impressed by how well I did in some parts of the test — in fact, most of it. He gave me a long series of numbers and asked me to repeat them backward. I did this correctly and he said he had never seen anybody be able to do this before.
He asked me a question, why should one not associate with disreputable people? I told him I did not agree with the premise. He seemed impressed that I could think for myself and jotted something down.
I was doing great and feeling pretty good about it. Then, he administered the last part of the test. It had to do with mechanical stuff. There would, for example, be a drawing of a guy rowing a boat with only one oar. You were supposed to be able to tell what was wrong in the picture.
I was helpless at this part of the test and failed it miserably.
My friend Ira, who had a high opinion of my academic ability, asked his brother if he thought I would get into Harvard. Ira’s brother said he didn’t know.
Ira’s brother asked me after the test was over if I would like to know my IQ. I told him I would rather not. The reason was that I didn’t want to be categorized by a number. I would guess that my IQ is relatively high, but not that high, not outstanding.
Ira’s brother told me there were a lot of areas on the test where I had done remarkably well, for example, the ability to repeat a long row of numbers backwards. But he said that my weakness on the mechanical part of the test was a real problem. He didn’t quite say this, as I recall, but it seemed to reveal a major weakness on my part in terms of practical knowledge and problem solving ability.
I was flying high when I took the test until we got to the end, the mechanical part. I must say it was a real letdown to me to find out my weaknesses in that area.
In conclusion, I should say something more about my reading and something more about my education.
I had a superb public school education, beginning in elementary school. Although my family was not wealthy and I was living in a small town during my adolescent years, I believe I got just about as good a high school education as anyone can get, rivaling a fancy private school. I was very fortunate in having the best teachers in high school because I was placed in the top tier class. This included outstanding teachers in English, math, foreign languages, and history.
I was an indifferent science student. I had little interest in it and not much aptitude either. I talked my way out of chemistry because I wanted to take Latin as a second language. This neglect of science courses proved to be a handicap to me in later studies.
I loved foreign languages and had great aptitude for them. I loved my French teacher, Miss McCauley, whom I had for two years.
I worked VERY hard at English and math and received instruction that has stayed with me all these years.
I was an eager reader in my early years and preadolescence. It helped greatly that my mother loved to read and had a keen appreciation of good books. She conveyed all this to me in spades.
When I got to high school, I actually read less – my studies took up so much time. For recreation, I loved to read baseball books, both fiction and nonfiction. I was exposed to some great baseball writing.
I did a fair amount of reading during summers when I was in high school, good books like Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography. Schweitzer’s autobiography made a big impression on me. There was something about how he made the choice to give up a comfortable life and his present positions to help less fortunate people that impressed me greatly, also how hard it was for him to complete his medical studies but how he persisted and finally managed to become a doctor.
One book I should mention is St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I read in a cheap paperback edition in my senior year in high school. It was among a few classics I read for extra credit. It bowled me over.
I also took a great interest in sports as a participant and fan. I was always outdoors playing football and baseball with my friends. In high school, I was on the freshman basketball team and on the junior varsity baseball team. One of the baseball coaches treated me miserably, which I have never forgotten or gotten over. My major sport in high school, actually, was track.
In track, my best times were 14:47 in a cross country race (two and a half miles), 5:22 for an indoor mile, and 2:30 in the half mile.
— Roger W. Smith
Note: A discussion with an ophthalmologist with whom I had an eye examination yesterday (March 27, 2017) seemed to confirm some of my suspicions about what caused me to develop the condition of amblyopia, also called “lazy eye.” It is quite rare, affects a very small percentage of the population. I asked him about its causes. He said it could be caused by various factors, ranging from genetic factors to environmental factors at the time of birth. I told him that I was about six weeks premature and that I was kept in an incubator for a long time. I asked him, could this be a possible cause? He said it certainly could. I then did a bit of research on my own on the Internet. It appears that deprivation of oxygen to blood vessels in the eye of a newborn can impair development of vision in the retina. This seems to confirm what I have always suspected, and it also uncannily underlies the antipathy I have always felt over being denied fresh air and confined in spaces with poor ventilation.
“Roger W. Smith, 50th class reunion essay, Canton High School, Canton, MA”
Roger W. Smith, 50th class reunion essay, Canton High School, Canton, MA
comment, Carol Hay
March 27, 2017
Roger, I’m not trying to approve or disapprove of your autobiographical essays. My comments weren’t intended to be judgmental at all — just observational. I just think it’s unusual that in everything you’ve posted, Ralph and I never appear, even though the rest of the family is often mentioned and it is all about your family life growing up. It doesn’t bother me and I don’t have any overriding desire to be mentioned — just seems curious. In order to write an autobiography, wouldn’t it seem logical to include major family occurrences such as having new siblings? How does this betray any confidences?
Thank you for writing this. It inspired me to try to do something similar. I just randomly stumbled on your article when doing a search for “baseball”, and it had me enthralled: this simple bio from a random guy.
Thanks much for your comments. Since you are interested in baseball, be sure to click on the “baseball” category on this blog, since there are several other interesting baseball-related articles. Good luck with you own autobio.
Carol — I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”
I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.
I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.
I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.
My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.
So, what individuals, persons get included, as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?
Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and my first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.
How Ralph’s birth would come into play does not seem pertinent. I was still age three when he was born. And, a sort of diaristic account of everything that occurred in the family and milestones was not what I intended. I certainly do recall your birth and how exciting it was for the family and me, especially to have a sister.
In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.
A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
I am attaching a Word document which includes discussions of Joyce’s narrative technique. I once attended a lecture by an English professor at Brandeis University who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.
Regarding subject matter – and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.
A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?
Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.
I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.
Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. Our family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.
This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of our family: ME.
My former therapist observed that writing is at bottom a self centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.
Very good writing, purposeful, plain, and powerful!