When I was six years old my small world was called Hano. It consisted of Blaine, Hano, Everett, and a few other streets. About the only thing that grew in Hano were weeds breaking through cracks in cement and an occasional stalk of rhubarb that would grow in an alley beside someone’s house.
Wherever there wasn’t a building, cement or asphalt covered the ground, except for a few streets still covered by cobblestones. The empty fields where buildings once stood were covered with broken bottles thrown by men angry at life or sometimes just drunk.
I too hurled empty bottles into the air and watched them spin and spin like they’d dance forever. But they always returned to Earth and smashed with a sound that thrilled my little boy brain. Over the years, I probably contributed as much broken glass to those fields as any man.
The best place in town for me to be was playing on the 20 sets of railroad tracks that ran through Hano. I used to balance on one rail and try to walk a mile without stepping off. When a slow-moving freight train came along, I’d run alongside as if in a race. Surrounding the tracks were smokestacks, factory buildings, and Dorothy Muriel’s Bakery that mixed aromas of baking bread and pies with stinking industrial smoke.
Above the rails the Everett Street Bridge stood above the tracks on steel stanchions that beckoned me to climb them. The steel girders holding the bridge aloft were ladders I could climb to the underside of the bridge. Birds built nests there from twigs, pieces of string and other things, and then laid their eggs. To see a cozy nest with little chirping chicks made the treacherous climb worthwhile.
Gaining confidence, I soon climbed to the top, forty feet or more above the road that crossed the bridge. Once on top, I could see far away downtown Boston’s buildings that glittered in the sunshine, their windows gleamed like faceted diamonds.
If I looked down, I’d see anything on the tracks that moved. If a freight train happened by, I’d watch and smell the acrid black smoke from the locomotive as it swirled in circles, climbing to the sky. White steam flowed around the engine with a cowcatcher in front, and when it rolled on by with its wheels clickity clacking on the tracks, and the engine singing that choo choo Charley song. I wondered if I’d survive if I jumped from the bridge onto a box car. Tempted to try, but never did. At times I’d race along the tracks and hop aboard a ladder on the side of a boxcar attached to a slow moving freight train and climb to the top. Once there, I’d jump from car to car as the train rolled and rocked on down the tracks. Cowboys did this in movies popular at the time. I thought it a brave thing to do until a boy I knew fell beneath the wheels. His brother carried part of him home to show his mother, he wouldn’t be coming home for dinner—ever again.
One bright and sunny day I found a place beside the tracks where trees and weeds grew as tall as me, Behind the Harvey Steel Factory, I thrilled to be in what I called the woods. My friends and I gathered railroad ties and used them for walls to build our own cabin in our wilderness.
Hidden by grass, growing on a small hill, our log cabin was a secret place. No one but us kids knew it was there. Soon after we built it, we heard that a hurricane was coming up the East Coast. To get ready we put cardboard on top of the ties for a roof and covered the ground with it too. Inside was so cozy I’d rather be there than home. I could imagine I was Abraham Lincoln or even Davy Crockett hiding in my cabin waiting for rebels or Indians to come. If they did, I’d shoot them with an arrow from the bow I made by bending a green branch and attaching a string.
The hurricane came while I hid inside my cardboard cabin. The wind blew hard and rain began to fall. I heard every drop hitting the roof, some slow and others like a beating tattoo, a sound so sweet and comforting I wish I had it on tape. When memories arise, I still hear those raindrops beating on my cardboard roof until it collapsed from the pounding it took. Once the roof was wrecked, I ripped off my shirt and ran in the downpour feeling the windblown rain stinging my skin. I watched the flood beginning as water heavily flowed to sewers, overflowing them and making deep puddles in the street. What a thrill to be in the middle of a tropical storm called a hurricane. If I hadn’t been six and believed myself immortal, I would have been scared when the flood came and washed me away.
Down the sewer I went, down the drain in a swirl to be expelled into a cresting river full of floating debris like me. I called for my mother and heard no answer, other than the one from Mother Nature who unleashed lightning bolts to light my way. I saw a giant turtle with snapping jaws and knew it saw me as a floating meal.
If the turtle ate his fill, would there be any part of me left to show my mother I wouldn’t be coming home again? I cried for her and only heard sobs from my little boy lips as I washed up on the shore without becoming lunch for a snapping turtle my mother had warned me to avoid.
I ran home to her, expecting to be greeted with warmth and love for having escaped a horrible fate. I ran through the door yelling, “Mom, Mom, I’m home.” And the words from her lips, “Where have you been you little bastard?” assured me that nothing had changed.