Thursday, May 25, 2006

Simpler Times

Idylic childhood memories... Were they really like that, or do I have selective memory? Hmmmm, Well, since I have ample substantiation from older brothers and sister, I'm gonna have to go with the former, rather than the latter, thank God!

I really did have a killer childhood, it was Grand. I grew up in Concord, Massachusetts, home of the Old North Bridge, the Shot Heard 'Round the World, and the birth of the American Revolution. It's an old, old town, and at the time, pretty sleepy. It was and is a tourist haven, but back then, towns didn't really gear their whole commercial being around supporting tourism: Tourists came, but if they wanted film, they went to Anderson's Photography like everybody else. If they were hungry, they went to the Country Store, or one of the other real restaurants in town where we went too. Tired? The Colonial Inn, (Built in 1794), right on the Commons in the middle of downtown, a stone's throw from Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, (Where anybody famous from Concord History is buried - Thoreau, Hawthorne, Alcott, etc). Now, downtown Concord is wall to wall cutsey shops, expensive boutiques, and trendy eateries. Then, it was a working downtown of real stores, with real people and lives.

Our house was built in 1882. 339 Main Street, Grey with white trim, as a lot of local houses were and are. Exterior house colors are strictly controlled by the town council's Historic Board; only the official colors that were available and prevailent in the old days are allowed in historic areas, of which this here is one! Three stories plus a full basement. Five bedrooms and 3 baths. Full attic, too. The coal guy came and opened the little chute down to the basement coal bin and delivered down that, and then we shoved coal into the furnace. The streets were lined with huge old Elms, and in the summer, their formed cool, living tunnels. Sadly, they are almost all dead now, victims of Dutch Elm Disease...

My dad taught Econ at Harvard, and mom painted for a living. I'm the youngest of 4. Timmy, the oldest, is now a Methodist priest. Annie, the Sole Sister, was hailed by the New York Times Book Review as, "One of America's Five All Time Best Garden Writers." Sammy works for Microsoft. And then there's me. But back then, it was four kids running around in a small town where everyone knew everyone and nothing happened without that being the case. If you showed up at the drug store with $5, they called mom to make sure it was OK. If you went to McCone's to buy a pocket knife, they called dad to make sure that was cool, too.

We lived a few blocks from downtown, an easy walk, though if you were going to Macone's Sporting Goods for a new hockey stick, that might be a mile, so you'd take a bike. Like Charlie, we had 'monkey bikes' with sissy bars and occassionally chopped forks, (After Easy Rider showed, especially), but something like 4 of us wiped out badly on them and the parents put the kabosh on further modifications...

Schools were maybe a mile away, but we walked or took the bus; sometimes we took cross country skis, which was very cool. The dead of winter in close-to-the-coast Massachusetts could and did mean really cold weather a lot - below 0, with wind chill on top of that, so you had to be careful from time to time. In '67, it snowed over six feet, and we tunneled under the deck and around the backyard, much to our delight and mom's satisfaction, since we didn't ruin the pristine views...

Behind the house were the railroad tracks, and on the other side of them were, well, The Other Side Of The Tracks, which was a poorer section of town. Our Nanny, (Yes, we had a Nanny), Jennie Di Salvatore, lived kitty corner behind us, so she always had a good eye on what we were up to... Two doors down on the same side of Main Street lived my God Parents, Bill and Jackie Payne. they had a huge barn and behind that, a pile of slate shingles that were good for all kinds of stuff kids do. John Roberts was three doors down the other way, and had the coolest book collection. He recently found me across the years, via the internet, and said he'd remembered me, "At about 9 years old, walking down the alley with a copy of 'The Hobbit' stuffed in your back pocket." John and I were bad, sneaking cigarettes and blowing up plastic army men with ellicit fireworks smuggled from Montana...

Across the street and through the Reece's back yard led you to the river, and that's where we kept our boats: Canoes, dingies, and anything else we were trying at the time. We built flat-bottomed 'Hydros' for a while there, but they handled really badly and we gave 'em up. Then came kayaks, with wood frames and painted canvas skins; they worked well, but would and did get punctured every now and again. Spring through fall, life often revolves around the river. This is the Sudbury River that flows by the houses and fields; downstream a couple miles, at Egg Rock, it meets the Assabet and forms the Concord River. If you ever read your Thoreau, you know about these streams. They're slow, shallow and dirty, most of the year, but they flood in the winter before the freeze, and again, big time, in the spring, annual events we look forward to with great relish!

Life for me revolved around hockey, and the river. We played hockey year 'round; street hockey in the summer, and once it froze, (Usually around early November), it stayed frozen through March. There was neighborhood hockey, (On backyard rinks), league Hockey, (Real rinks, at like 6 am or 10:30 at night), school hockey (After school), and river and pond hockey, (All other times). Across from the Reece's, on either side of Nashawtuc Road, were fields and forest. All of it flooded before the freeze, and then the skates were on. I probably learned to skate before I could even walk. Everyone in our family learned with The Red Sled, a little light-weight wooden sleigh with metal runners. You used it to hold you up while you learned how to balance and power stroke, and older siblings pushed little ones too small to skate around in it too. You could walk down to the Reece's with skates on, (With blade guards, of course), and shove off for the fields from there, or walk down Main to Nashawtuc and lace up there. On nice afternoons, the whole town would be there skating. Peanut McCone brought his little cat, (From over on McCone's Pond off Lowell Road, of course!), and scraped off rinks for the all the groups that needed them. You'd have a little guys rink, a Jr. High rink, a high schoolers rink, a 20 something rink and an old farts rink or two, and hockey was played on em all. The plain ol' recreational skaters would sashay through the rinks watching games, or go down the river for miles and miles. The only interuptions were caused by occassional cracking, (More common in the spring), or Geese. At the hard bends of the river, (Upstream by River Street, and downstream closer to Egg Rock), there was almost always open water, and the Geese congregated there: From time to time, for reasons known only to Geese, they'd all take off with a serius bout of honking and flapping wings... They'd also poop all over anything underneath them, hence the interuptions... As made popular by the Wayne's World movie, street hockey games would indeed pause at the cry of 'Car!', but river and field hockey halted with a holler of 'Geese!!' Nobody likes to get pooped on... I'd say I became a good stick handler as a hockey player because of growing up there. If we didn't have a game up, we'd take sticks and pucks and head off in among the frozen trees for hours, pretending they were the hated New York Rangers, the Hommes Canadiens, or Philly's Broad Street Bullies; we'd blow past 'em with ease and elan to score yet another goal on some hapless keeper.

And there was always sledding on the three-humped face of Nashawtuc Hill - Always popular and always a great ride. You could take the big ol' wooden jumps there too, if you were older and looking to show off, or young and feeling especially bold.

Spring meant floods, which created all kinds of opportunity for kids - the fields were flooded, so in boats of whatever vintage, you could poke through those same trees and fields you'd skated on a few weeks back. There wasn't fishing early on, but there were frogs and turtles to catch and race - Always a good time!

April 19th brought the biggest day of the year, the annual recreation of the first skirmishes between British regulars and the Rebel Militias, when troops from Boston sallied forth, investigating reports of arms caches hidden in the villages of Lexington and Concord. You'd have to be up and out to the Park, (Minute Man National Historic Park), and the Butterick Mansion, by 6:30 a.m. if you wanted to see the Red Coats crossing the 'Rude Bridge' and getting fired on by the first salvoes of Minute Man cannons. If you lived along the route, or stayed up real late the night before, you could hear Dr. Prescott ride by like the wind, shouting, "The Redcoats are coming, the Redcoats are coming!" Notice I said Dr. Prescott and not Paul Revere? That's real history, and not common myth. Fact is, Revere was captured at a British checkpoint before reaching Lexington and Concord; his companion, Dr. Prescott, escaped and carried the message that cold morning in 1775... The Minute Men live on to this day, in the families who's ancestors fought the actual battles. If you're a male born to such a family, it is given and expected that you will join the Regiment of your forefathers. It's a high honor for anyone chosen, and that's the case on both sides. The parade starts at 10 and runs for a good hour, at least. After that, the parties start, and they'll go all day, no doubt about it.

No other day comes anywhere close to being as big a To-Do in Concord, not even the 4th of July or Christmas. This is the cradle of the Revolution, and nobody forgets it.

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