narragansett

Praying for our dog’s return

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, February 18, 2018.

I wasn’t happy about my family’s move to Narragansett three weeks before I started second grade. I missed my best friend and next-door neighbor, Chris, in Providence. Instead of walking with him on the first day of school, I now had to take a bus, surrounded by strangers.

But things got better when my mother came home one afternoon with a shaggy black puppy with tan and white markings. Mom named the pup Georgy Girl, after the lead character in a recent popular movie.

My brothers and I loved to watch Georgy chase rabbits in a field near our new house, leaping and then disappearing in the tall grass. We laughed when she licked our faces, even though her tongue felt like damp sandpaper.

Thank God we got a dog because there weren’t many kids to play with in our neighborhood off of Point Judith Road. The area’s sparse year-round population prompted St. Mary Star of the Sea Church to recruit my older brother, Rob, and me to become altar boys. It didn’t matter that I had yet to make my First Holy Communion, normally a prerequisite to serving on the altar. Father Hughes, St. Mary’s kindly pastor, granted me dispensation; he needed help, and we lived nearby.

My debut was memorable, though not for spiritual reasons. When it was time for Father Hughes to prepare for the Consecration, I somehow dropped the silver hand washing basin, and it rolled in circles on the green-carpeted altar floor. Attempting to grab the bowl, I looked like Georgy chasing her tail.

Once I settled into my altar boy duties, the language of the liturgy captivated me, as did Father Hughes’ sonorous voice. With his incantations about angels and archangels and “the mystery of faith,” he sounded to me like God Himself.

That made it easy to accept things that might otherwise have vexed an 8-year-old mind, such as bread and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ, and God hearing me when I said my prayers.

The last of these, however, was put to the test later that fall when Georgy disappeared.

“I let her out this morning, and she never came back,” my mother told Rob and me after school one day. Her voice was filled with worry.

Rob and I set out for the leafless woods across from our house. Mom and my younger brother, James, jumped in her red Opel Kadett to comb the streets. When my father got home from work, he joined the search, heading toward Salt Pond. But at bedtime, Georgy was still missing. Unable to sleep, and as upset as I had been in my life till then, I prayed for our dog’s return.

The next 24 hours brought more of the same: anxious walks through the woods, drives through the neighborhood, and calls of “Georgy!” into the evening quiet.

There was still no scratch at the door. On this second night of separation, I tossed in my bed, whispering words to the darkness again.

And then, early the following morning, as my mother drove to the market across from St. Mary’s for a quart of milk, there was Georgy, sitting on the front stoop of a vacant summer cottage. Mom, who said our dog sprang into the car as happy as ever, honked the horn when she got back to our house, and Georgy greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail.

Had my prayers been answered? Did angels intervene? Or was it random luck that my mother had run out for milk at just the right time to find our missing dog? I would wrestle with such mysteries when I got older, but not on this day — not with Georgy safely delivered home and curled up on the couch in our den.

That night, after crawling into bed, I whispered a simple, two-word prayer to the darkness and beyond: “Thank you.”

Navigating stormy days with Dad

fathers_day_003_2017As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 18, 2017.

Paul Simon is known for the chart-topping singles “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” as well as numerous other hits. But deeper cuts from his catalog can be equally rewarding.

“Rewrite,” from the 2011 album “So Beautiful or So What,” is one such tune. In it, Simon sings about a father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm.” The dad in the song says he’s going to change the ending of his story, substituting a car chase and a race across the rooftops, “when the father saves the children and he holds them in his arms.”

After repeated listens, the insight of Simon’s lyrics resonated with me: Nearly all of us would like to rewrite at least a part of our past.

I was 9 years old when my parents separated and my father moved out of our house in Providence. The break-up unleashed a riot of emotions inside me, most of which I did everything I could to quell.

There was an upholstered rocking chair in our living room where I often sat and, in my mind, rewrote the story of my parents’ separation. The biggest change was transforming it into a reconciliation, but there were many others. Things were always better in the rewrite.

However, the reality was that my father now came to see my two brothers and me on Saturdays while Mom was at work.

On the first of these new Saturdays, he took us to Southwick Wild Animal Farm in Mendon, Massachusetts. It felt like a holiday. Mom had bought us new clothes to wear, and my dad took photos.

It would be years before I appreciated the efforts my parents each made to gracefully navigate those early post-breakup days – and how heart-wrenching it must have been for them.

When my father arrived at our house the following Saturday, I greeted him with anticipation.

“Where are we going today?” I asked.

“Nowhere,” he replied, a little curtly, and I immediately wished I could take back my words. I can only imagine the feelings I had unwittingly stirred up.

On a Saturday several years later, under threatening skies, my father and I did go somewhere – down to Narragansett to cut the grass at our beach house. Once a place where our family enjoyed summer vacations, the yellow cottage was now rented out. On weekends, Dad took care of any work that needed to be done there.

Light rain began to fall just as he and I finished mowing the lawn; we drove in his maroon Chevelle to Giro’s Spaghetti House in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father had a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That was good.

It was pouring when we left the restaurant and started making our way north. On Route 95, a gust of wind slammed our car, and I grabbed the passenger-side door handle as we lurched out of our lane. My father turned off the radio. The windshield wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they were no match for the storm. A proliferation of blurred brake lights ahead indicated what must have been a serious accident.

“I’m going to pull off,” Dad said. Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, he guided us down the next exit ramp.

We were in Warwick. Rain pounded the car as we crept along, but at least we weren’t on the highway anymore. I saw a sign for Providence.

“Don’t worry,” my father said. “We’ll make it back OK.” He offered me a roll of peppermint Life Savers, and I let go of the door handle to unwrap one.

It was still raining when Dad dropped me off at our red house on River Avenue. As he drove away, I headed for the rocking chair in the living room. But unlike in days past and days soon to come, no rewrite was required on this afternoon.

My dad had gotten me home. He was happy and so was I.

 

Under the spell of pinball wizards

Tommy_Album-CMYKAs published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 24, 2016.

My brother Rob and I watched with envy as a white-haired man waved his metal detector over the fine sand, like a wizard with a wand. Rob was 12 years old and I was 9. It was early evening in July, and we were standing at the boardwalk rail in the shadow of the stone pavilion at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett.

“I wish we had one of those,” I said, referring to the white-haired prospector’s treasure-finding device.

“Beats our technique,” Rob replied.

He was referring to our practice of combing the beach for money with the only detectors we possessed: our eyes. When we were lucky, we’d glimpse an occasional nickel or dime amid sand-crusted Popsicle sticks and pieces of dried seaweed.

Not on this night, though. With empty pockets, Rob and I started back to our grandfather’s cottage just up the road — until I stopped at a pay phone outside the pavilion to fish the coin return slot. To my surprise, a forgotten dime slid beneath my finger.

“Score!” I said.

“No way!” Rob said.

We headed directly to Adam’s, the variety store and arcade across from the beach, to indulge my latest obsession: pinball. In 1969, the zinging, jangling games were in their heyday. The Who had even released a rock opera earlier that year telling the story of a pinball wizard named Tommy.

But not everyone was enamored with the electromechanical precursor to modern video games. Though rarely enforced, laws banning pinball were still on the books throughout much of the United States. Before the introduction of flippers — the levers that give players a measure of control over the ball — many had believed the machines promoted gambling because they were games of chance, not skill. In New York City in the 1940s, Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia crusaded against pinball, saying it robbed schoolchildren of their lunch money.

No such prohibition was in effect in Rhode Island in the late 1960s — at least not at Adam’s. And the nightly scene in the arcade dispelled any notion that pinball was merely a game of chance. The brightly lit, cacophonous room drew would-be pinball wizards from Point Judith to Narragansett Pier and beyond. My older cousin David was among the best players. He had, to borrow Pete Townshend’s words, “crazy flipper fingers,” and I marveled at his ability to nudge or bump a machine to his advantage without tilting and suspending play.

The most popular game at Adam’s was Hayburners, and when David dropped a dime in its coin slot, kids gathered around to watch. It was only a matter of time before the machine’s clicking digits rolled past the free replay mark, sounding the sharp, distinctive knock that every pinballer coveted.

I waited for the crowd to thin before placing my dime on Hayburners’ glass to reserve the next game. Unlike The Who’s Tommy, I rarely played “a mean pinball,” and figured the fewer the onlookers, the better.

But a funny thing happened on this particular night: I found the magic touch. I finessed shots to high-scoring rollovers. I hit targets again and again. I made deft flipper saves to maintain play.

“Only 100 points to a free game!” Rob said, as I launched my final ball.

It would have been my first time. Heart pounding, I made another flipper save. The ball ricocheted from a rubber kicker to a slingshot pad, then arced toward the right-hand out lane. I was a split second away from seeing my dream vanish — if the ball continued on its path, the game would end!

Instinctively, I gave the machine a hard sideways jerk. Hayburners instantly went dark — I had tilted. The ball rolled over my lifeless flipper and disappeared.

“You were so close,” Rob said, making the knot in my stomach clench tighter.

Someday I’d be a pinball wizard, I told myself as we walked home to Papa’s beach house. I just needed more practice — more dimes.

Early the next morning, my brother and I scoured the beach for coins.

Saying goodbye to the family beach house

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2015.

I spent my summers as a boy at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression, and my Auntie Tina’s powers of persuasion.

The popularity of Fords and other automobiles prompted the paving of Point Judith Road in 1928, easing access to the shore. FDR’s Public Works Administration developed the beaches at Scarborough and Sand Hill Cove in the 1930s, accelerating the transformation of Point Judith Neck into a popular summer vacation spot. Modest cottages sprang up in increasing numbers.

As for Auntie Tina, her husband, Frankie, purchased a tiny house three blocks up from Scarborough in 1951, and she convinced her brother-in-law, sister, and uncle – my grandfather – to buy adjoining lots. (Technically, Tina was a first cousin once removed, but that translated into “Auntie” in my mother’s large, close-knit family.)

My grandfather built a three-bedroom cottage on Elizabeth Road in 1957, three years before I was born. It was a study in funky woods: vertically grooved plywood siding (known by its trade name, Texture 111) and knotty pine interior walls. The house, painted vibrant red with white trim, faced south, allowing sunlight to pour through its big picture window. Relatives and friends poured in, too – the front door was always open.

Going to Scarborough as a kid meant curling waves and salty skin, hot sand underfoot and frozen Charleston Chews in hand. Someone would invariably ask Uncle Harry if he was going to swim to League Rock, which juts out of the ocean almost a quarter mile off the shore.

“Water’s too cold,” my uncle would say, as if that were his only reason for deferring.

Lifeguard whistles turned my head often: Was someone being swept away by the perilous undertow that my mother and aunts warned me about? Crackly PA announcements sounded a common refrain: “Attention please, we have a little lost boy …”

Fortunately, I was never that lost boy. At the beach, I always had family close by.

When it rained, we played cards back at the house – rummy games on the porch for the kids, canasta in the kitchen for the adults. My cousin Anne usually won the penny pool, while Auntie Etta was forever ruing the cards she was dealt: “What rotten paper!”

On August 2, 1975, temperatures in Providence reached a record high of 104 degrees. My grandfather closed his baby clothes store on Federal Hill, and just about everyone in the family streamed to Elizabeth Road. At 10:00 that night, some of us were still down at the beach, soothed by the cool caresses of the ocean, like a great, moving well of ink beneath the hazy moonlight. Amid invisible splashes, I tried to block the opening scene of “Jaws,” the summer’s blockbuster movie, from my mind. It didn’t work.

The entire family came together again the following Sunday to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Papa stood in the backyard, smoking a cigar and smiling as the party swirled around him. I never asked, but I was pretty sure this is why he had built the cottage – to have a place at the beach where his children and grandchildren (and, someday, great and great-great grandchildren) could gather.

The house stayed in the family through 2014, when we lost the last of a line of legendary matriarchs, sweet Auntie Marie. A “For Sale” sign went up, and someone from New York bought the property in a blink.

This past June, I headed to Narragansett, and Scarborough, for the first time since the sale. When I turned the corner at Elizabeth Road, I gasped: the house’s familiar red paint was gone, covered now with grey vinyl siding.

My reaction surprised me, and then I chuckled. What had I expected – for the cottage to stand unchanged forever, like League Rock out in the swells off a beloved stretch of beach?

It will always be my grandfather’s house to me. Vinyl may have buried its grooved wooden siding, but it can’t obscure the memories I have of summers spent there.

What a blessing they were.

How My Second Grade Teacher Saved The New Kid’s Day

john print/cursive

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal on September 21, 2014.

Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started putting words on the blackboard, my stomach tightened. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphs?

It was the first day of second grade at my new elementary school in Narragansett, and not much was going well. I didn’t like being the new kid in class. I didn’t like riding a bus to school. And now, sitting at an old wooden desk with its useless inkwell hole, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was writing words on the board in cursive.

I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters. Back home, you didn’t learn cursive until you reached third grade.

My family had moved to Narragansett in August, to a cedar-shingled Cape about 200 yards up the road from Salt Pond. I was a world away from the double-decker in Providence where my grandfather lived upstairs and my best friend was next door. Now, when I looked across the road, there was nothing but uninviting woods. By bedtime, the solitary streetlight seemed only to accentuate the darkness.

Still, there was one upside to the move: we had gotten a dog. Georgie was 100% mutt, with a soft, black coat and watchful eyes. Each morning, she greeted my brothers and me with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At night, she sometimes slept on my bed, and I kept my feet warm by sliding them beneath her.

But on that first day of school, with Miss Martin’s cursive spelling words vexing me, Georgie seemed as far away as our old Elmhurst neighborhood.

I said nothing as everyone began copying the words onto their paper. Eyeing the first one, I strove to duplicate its slanted lettering as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I was relieved – my words were a reasonable match to the ones on the board.

Miss Martin looked up from her desk. She had short blond hair and perfect red lipstick. Her voice was clear and friendly. “Don’t forget to put your name at the top of your paper,” she said. My stomach tightened again, only this time it was worse. What did “John Walsh” look like in cursive? I had no idea.

I anticipated the comments I’d hear from my classmates in the cafeteria at lunchtime: “Hey, there’s the new kid – can’t even write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials on TV: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

I squirmed in my seat, moved my pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H the only way I knew how: in stop-and-go print letters. When we passed our papers forward, I buried mine at the bottom of the pile.

That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think. I wanted her to like me.

The bus ride to school seemed shorter the second day. I made friends with a kid named Jeff. His teeth were crooked, just like mine. School was better, too. Miss Martin’s flash cards turned math into a game. And playing tag during recess was fun.

When we returned to our classroom, our spelling papers from the previous day were waiting on our desks. Holding my breath, I saw that my paper sported a red-ink “Good!” and a silver star. And below my blocky J-O-H-N W-A-L-S-H, Miss Martin had written my name in cursive as beautiful and neat as the dress she was wearing. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out; nothing but a sample signature delivered silently to me.

I appreciated Miss Martin’s discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding, even love.

That night, as my brothers lay on the floor watching Lost in Space on our black-and-white TV, I sat at the desk in our den and traced Miss Martin’s sample signature over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John Walsh.”

I went upstairs, brushed my crooked teeth, turned out the light in my room, and fell into bed. As I slid my feet under Georgie in the darkness, being the new kid in class didn’t seem quite so bad any more.

What My Parents Didn’t Know Didn’t Hurt Them

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But what about my brother and me?

With summer nearing, there was work to be done at the gray beach house – grass to mow, hedges to trim, walls to paint. My parents gave my older brother Rob and me our chores one bright Saturday morning – clipping the edges of the lawn and sweeping the porch. But tedium soon gave way to goofing around – Rob was eight years old and I was five – and we were relieved of our duties.

“Go play – just don’t get into any trouble!”

The gray house was bounded out back by a stone wall. Woods stood beyond. “C’mon!” my brother said. The two of us climbed over the wall and Rob beelined for the first flat rock. When he flipped it over, two snakes squiggled away. Rob grabbed one right behind its head and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he said.

Bullfrogs croaked from a nearby swamp. Rob tiptoed toward the muck, motioning me to stay put. He squatted at the water’s edge, frog-like and frozen. Then, with a start and a splash, he snared his prey, mid-leap. The capture was temporary. Rob loved anything with four legs or wings or fins or fur or, in this case, webbed feet. He returned the frog to the edge of the swamp.

We found some old boards and plywood half-buried in leaves and dirt – perfect for building a tree fort, my brother said. I ran to the shed to get a hammer and some nails. When I returned, we hoisted the boards and plywood twelve or so feet up a tree and laid them across two forking limbs. Rob started hammering, and soon we needed more nails. I climbed down the tree to run back to the shed, but I didn’t get very far. Just as Rob’s shout registered in my brain – “WATCH OUT!” – the plummeting hammer conked me on the head – “OW!OW!OW!” – and I was belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRY DON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an emerging egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up. The plywood had given way and Rob was backwards-somersaulting to the ground.

WHOOMMPPP! Rob lay on his back in a clump. Now it was me in his ear: “DON’TCRYDON’TCRYDON’TCRY! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

It was a close call – Rob had missed a big jagged rock by a few inches. When he got his breath back, we decided to leave the woods, before we could inflict further harm on ourselves.

My mom saw us trudging back to the gray house. “What have you guys been up to?”

“Nothing,” Rob said.

It wasn’t exactly a lie; more like an omission of details… OK, call it passive lying, the kind practiced by generations of kids before us, and certain to be practiced by generations to come. If Mom and Dad ever knew…

I felt the bump hidden beneath my hair. Rob rubbed his ribs. As our mom turned away, we shared a conspiratorial smile.

An Ending I Didn’t Have To Change

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I’m a writer, so I spend most of my time rewriting. In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser says that “very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” How true.

Paul Simon writes great pop tunes. On his last album, there’s a song called Rewrite. The title caught my eye, and the melody pulled me in to the lyric. That’s where I discovered the song’s wisdom. Sometimes, we’d like to rewrite our past, just as we rewrite sentences.

One night after listening to a Celtics game, my father told my older brother and me that he and my mother were separating; the following morning, he would be leaving. I was nine years old. The news filled me with dread. I loved to spend time with my dad, listening to games and talking about music or school. What would happen to us now?

There was a rocking chair in our living room. When no one else was in the house, I rocked in the chair and rewrote my parents’ separation. Things were better in the rewrite.

The Vietnam vet in Paul Simon’s song takes refuge in the same escape. In the final verse, the vet plans to eliminate the pages about the father who has to leave his family, though “he really meant no harm…”

         Gonna substitute a car chase

         And a race across the rooftops

         When the father saves the children

         And he holds them in his arms

*          *          *

Two months after moving out, my father is driving me home. It’s a Saturday – that’s when we see each other now. Gray clouds scud across the sky. We stop at Giro’s in Peace Dale for a quick bite. My father has a couple of beers, but no whiskey. That’s good.

It’s pouring rain when we leave. On Route 95, gusts of wind slam our car, pushing us out of our lane. My father turns off the radio. The wipers beat like frantic metronomes, but they are no match for the deluge. Blurred brake lights report an accident up ahead. Cars pull over, flashers flickering. “I’m going to get off the highway,” my father says. We splash down the next exit ramp.

We’re in Warwick. I’m not familiar with the area, but my dad is; he lives there now. Rain still pounds our car as we creep along, but my dad is in control. I see a sign for Route 1. My father lights a cigarette. “Don’t worry, Big John,” he says. He puts the radio back on and asks me about school.

It’s still raining when we get to my house in Providence. I run up the driveway and dash through the back door. As my father pulls away, I head for the rocking chair. I’m relieved, and not simply because I’m out of the storm. My dad got us home. He is happy, and so am I.

No rewrites today.

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