“Memory is more indelible than ink.”
Left: Helen Levitt, Untitled, New York City (1939)
When the bronze bell in the hallway clanged to life at three each day, it was our signal to head to the door. “That bell is for my purposes, not yours,” crowed Miss Sweeny, that wattle of skin under her chin now fully animated. But to no avail. A classroom full of eight-year olds was already out of their seats, ready to encounter the warm spring afternoon burgeoning just beyond the school windows, and in the streets of our small New England town. Any semblance of an orderly dismissal—boys on one side, girls on the other—was undone by incessant pushing and shoving in line and the energizing, shared vision of escape to a broader world of possibilities.
My four-room school house was just two blocks from home, a modest, two-family dwelling surrounded by a big yard. Not many school buses then; for us, just an aging crossing guard in a bright orange cris-cross vest who hobbled into the street, hands raised, bringing any oncoming traffic to heal. Once across the main street, we fanned out into the landscape at double-time, like an invading army bent on conquest. A man with a parrot lived on the corner in my neighborhood. He was usually sitting in a rocker on his front porch, his large jewel-toned bird confined to a shiny brass cage large enough, it seemed to me, to hold an eight-year old boy. I realized later that he probably positioned himself outside, waiting for me to come by. The bird’s gravely “Hello, Hello!” was a source of endless fascination, a beckoning call to come up the steps to visit. A plate of lettuce leaves and dried corn was always at the ready. As I reached through the open cage door to tentatively feed the sloe-eyed creature, the man would caution, “Keep your hand flat, that beak is strong enough to take your fingers right off.” Message received, and after my brief, tremulous encounter, it was on my way home again, now just a few more houses down the street.
The back storm door invariably slammed behind me, announcing my arrival. On more than one occasion, our neighbor Pauline, or my Aunt Catherine, would be sitting at the kitchen table having tea and lemon Coolers with my mother. On my way by, Aunt would plant a big confectionary kiss on my cheek, any traces of which I would quickly wipe away as I rushed upstairs to change. Within moments, I’d be dressed for action and on my way to the ‘The Woods,’ door slamming behind me to signal my departure. Six guns on my hips, a good supply of caps coiled in my pocket, cowboy hat hanging on a cord down my back, handkerchief tied askew around my neck, Roy Roger-style; only my scuffed Buster Browns betray me as an imposter. I quickly mounted my bike for the day’s adventure. Streamers fluttered off the handlebar grips of my new, red `53 Schwinn, Hornet. Baseball cards were taped to the frame, clattering against the spokes to simulate a motorcycle engine; but in this case, I was heading down the street at high speed on a galloping horse. I soon added my steed to the heap of bicycles already lying in the tall grass at the entrance to the woods, running up to join my friends already at play.
‘The Woods’ was a magical place, where rock piles doubled as hideouts, trails became pathways to dangerous encounters with bad guys, and every tree or plant could be repurposed as an instrument of survival or revenge. There was this gnarly, old growth oak that stood on a rise. “Double dare” meant climbing to a high bough, where any cowboy had a great vantage point for spotting Indian renegades. I recall the perch offering a staggeringly beautiful bird’s eye view of my neighborhood and the nearby Thames River. Real danger existed at the back edge of the grove we played in, though, where precipitous cliffs dropped fifty feet or more to busy railroad tracks and a muddy, polluted riverbank. And yet, we navigated the cliff edge and pathways down to water’s edge without incident.
The high-pitched call of someone’s mother always brought us home in time to clean up, have a family meal, do homework, chores and watch what little bit of TV was then available. I remember being in bed on those nights, cowboy gear nearby for tomorrow’s quest, imagining the tracks down by the river aglow under a gibbous moon. I lay motionless, eyes open, listening to the low thunder of a string of coal cars and the steam engine whistle’s plaintiff wail, an unlikely caravan lumbering through the darkness.
Thank you for reading ARTES Magazine,
Richard J. Friswell, Managing Editor