From 1957 to 1960, we lived in exile in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where I attended fourth, fifth and half of sixth grade at Nathanael Greene Elementary School.
We lived just a block away at 45 Amherst Ave., a small, dark green Cape overgrown with trees and shrubs on a shady postage stamp lot so tight that only the width of the driveway separated it from the Dykers’ house on the left and the Rosses’ house on the right.
Because we moved so often when I was a boy, I don’t have any friends who pre-date 1960, when we returned to Maine. I think about those lost friends sometimes and wonder what ever became of them. Strange to think that those kids grew up, graduated from high school, maybe college, perhaps served in the military, got married, got jobs, had children of their own and are now grandparents if they are still alive.
To me they will always be 11 years old.
Pawtucket was a very Italian city. My friends were Michael Cocci, Rocco Parente, Peter Izzi, Bob Golia and Dawn Ventura. George Ross next door was one of my few non-Italian friends. He was Greek. I was nothing, an all-American mongrel.
Most of my classmates attended St. Maria Goretti, the Catholic church a few blocks from the school. The school was named after a Revolutionary War general. The church was named for a saint who was stabbed to death at age 11 when she refused the sexual advances of an older boy. St. Maria Goretti is the patron saint of rape victims.
We moved to Pawtucket from Groton, Massachusetts, a peaceful and idyllic small town. By comparison, Pawtucket was something of a shock – busy, crowded, dangerous, wild. If you went to Providence, you might get polio. If you stayed home, the Russians might drop an atom bomb on you.
We played cars in George Ross’s driveway, parking our big plastic Cadillac Eldorados, Lincoln Continentals and Chrysler Imperials under hostas the size of trees. I couldn’t wait to grow up to drive one of those great boats for real. Instead, I grew up to drive station wagons, SUVs and compact cars with none of the cache of 1950s luxury sedans.
Inspired by TV crime shows like “Dragnet,” “77 Sunset Strip” and “The Naked City,” we’d sit in the blue-and-white ‘52 Plymouth Belvedere and stake out the back yard, where a gutted catfish lived for weeks in the in-ground garbage can after my failed attempt to clean it.
Pawtucket when I was eight, nine, 10 and 11 was a largely uncivilized place. Sam Mitchell, the previous owner of our house, would occasionally show up drunk, having forgotten where he lived, and pound on the door to be let in. We wild boys got up to all kinds of mischief, some of which might have killed us.
One day, for instance, we crawled about 200 yards into a storm drain culvert with our shirts full of dried grass. We lit the grass on fire in a manhole beneath Smithfield Ave., causing flames to shoot out of the manhole cover and us to scramble back out coughing and sputtering from the smoke.
On the playground, we played muckle-the-guy-with-the-ball, a savage game in which everyone tried to tackle anyone foolish or brave enough to run with the ball. It was like full-contact tag. When it snowed, we pelted trucks with snowballs from behind Cocci’s greenhouse and ran when truck drivers slammed on their brakes and chased us. At the slaughterhouse down by the rail yard on the Providence line we tried to ride the penned-up pigs and did errands for the workers in exchange for fresh cow horns.
My parents’ friends were my father’s Met Life colleagues – the Gilkisons, the Shaheens and the Haroutunians. Adults were wild in those days, too. They had cocktail parties, dressed like up like beatniks, played “Mack the Knife” over and over on the hi-fi, danced the jitterbug and ate fondue. They risked their lives daily to sell insurance and collect premiums in the Providence housing project where an iron lung was the reward for swimming in the public pool.
All this excitement caused me severe headaches and upset stomachs. Dr. Moreno up at the corner made house calls, but he could never get there fast enough. My pain subsided as soon as he was called. Just the acknowledgement of my suffering was enough to alleviate it.
In the fall of 1960, my grandfather announced his retirement from Met Life, allowing us to return from seven years in corporate exile. President John F. Kennedy was elected in November. We moved back to Maine in December. The old life ended and this one began.
Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.