[Recently in cleaning out one of my file cabinets in my law office in preparation for handing over the day to day operations to my younger partner so that I can pursue some other things I found some old stories that the late lamented Peter Markin had written and which had been published in the early 1970s in the East Bay Other, an alternative newspaper published out in the Bay Area now long defunct, from the days when all things were possible coming out of the 1960s. Markin was the corner boy supreme in our old neighborhood, was the guy who got us headed out to the West Coast when all hell and heaven was breaking out there. He didn't make the long haul, maybe couldn't when the deal went down but here he is day-dreaming about his youth. Hope you want to read the piece and think about your own family histories-Sam Lowell.]
By the late Peter Paul Markin:
Do you need to know about all the little trips over to Treasure Island, a picnic spot down at the Merrymount end of Adamsville Beach, that I have threatened to talk about in previous entries? Trips that kind of formed the bookends of my childhood. Jesus, no. A thousand time no, and I say that having lived through them. My childhood memories overall can be best summed up in the words of the now long-departed black rapper extraordinaire, Biggie Smalls. He expressed it best and spoke a truth greater than he might have known, although he was closer to “hip-hop nation” than I ever could be, or could be capable of – “Christmas kind of missed us, birthdays were the worst days.” Ya, that’s the big truth, no question, but not the little Treasure Island truth, wobbly as it might come out. One such episode will give you an idea of what we (meaning me and my brothers) were up against but also, in the end, why although there were precious few wonderful childhood memories that are now worth the ink to tell you about, this one serves pretty well. Let me have my say.
There was a madness in this country in the 1950s. No, not the Cold War atomic-bomb-is-going-to-get-us-we-are-all-going-to-be-dead-next-week or “better dead than red” kind of madness although there was plenty of that, but a madness for the automobile, the sleeker, the more airplane-like, and more powerfully-engined the better. And, it wasn’t just, deafeningly mad as they were, those guys in the now almost sepia-faded photographic images of tight T-shirt wearing, rolled sleeve cigarette-packed, greased Pompadour-haired, long side-burned, dangling-combed , engineer-booted, chain-wielding, side of the mouth butt-puffing , didn’t care if school kept or not types bent over the hood of some souped-up ’57 Chevy working, no sweating pools of sweat, sweating to get even more power out of that ferocious V-8 engine for the Saturday night “ chicken" run.
And it wasn’t even those mad faux James Dean-sneered, "rebel without a cause"-posed, cooled-out, maybe hop-headed guys either. And it was always guys, who you swore you would beat down if they ever even looked at your sister, if you had a sister, and if you liked her enough to beat a guy down to defend her honor, or whatever drove your sense of right. And, of course she, your sister no less, is looking for all she is worth at this “James Dean” soda jerk (hey, what else could he be) because this guy is “cute”. Go figure.
No, and forget all those stereotypes that they like to roll out when they want to bring a little “color” to the desperately color-craving 1950s. This car madness was driven, and driven hard, by your very own stay-at-home-and watch the television, water the lawn, if you have a lawn and it needed watering and sometimes when it didn’t just to get out of the house, have couple of beers and take a nap on Saturday afternoon father (or grandfather, I have to remember who might be in my audience now) who always said “ask your mother” to blow you off. You know him. I know you know him he just has a different name than mine did. And maybe even your very own mother (or grandmother) got caught up in the car thing too, your mother, the one who always say “ask your father”. You know her too, don’t say no. I hope by now you knew they were working a team scam on you even if you didn’t have the kind of proof that you could take to court and get a little justice on.
Hell, on this car thing they were just doing a little strutting of their stuff in showcase, show-off, “see what I got and you don’t” time. Come on now, don’t pretend that you don’t know what I am talking about, at least if you too grew up in the 1950s, or heard about it, or even think you heard about it. Hey, it was about dreams of car ownership for the Great Depression-ed , World War II-ed survivors looking to finally cash in, as a symbol that one, and one’s family, has arrived in the great American dream, and all on easy monthly payments, no money down, and the bigger, the sleeker the better and I’ll take the heavy- chromed, aerodynamically-designed, two-toned one, thank you. That was how you knew who counted, and who didn’t. You know what I mean?
Heck, that 50s big old fluffy pure white cloud of a dream even seeped all the way down into “the projects” in Germantown, and I bet over at the Columbia Point “projects” too, although I don’t know for sure, and in the thousand and one other displaced person hole-in-the-walls “projects” they built as an afterthought back then for those families like mine caught on the slow track in “go-go” America. Except down there, down there on the edge of respectability, and maybe even mixed in with a little disrespectability, you didn’t want to have too good of a car, even if you could get that easy credit, because what we you doing with that nice sleek, fin-tailed thing with four doors and plenty of room for the kids in the back in a place like “the projects” and maybe there was something the “authorities” should know about, yes. Better to move on with that old cranky 1940s-style unhip, unmourned, uncool jalopy than face the wrath and clucking of that crowd, the venom-filled, green-eyed neighbors.
Yes, that little intro is all well and good and a truth you can take my word for but this tale is about, if I ever get around to it, those who had the car madness deep in their psyche, but not the wherewithal- this is a cry, if you can believe it today, from the no car families. Jesus, how could you not get the car madness then though, facing it every night stark-naked in front of you on the television set, small as the black and white picture was, of Buicks, and Chevys and Pontiacs and whatever other kind of car they had to sell to you. But what about us Eastern Mass bus dependents? The ones who rode the bus, back or front it didn’t matter, at least here it didn’t matter. Down South they got kind of funny about it.
As you might have figured out by now, and if you didn’t I will tell you, that was our family’s fate, more often than not. It was not that we never had a car back then, but there were plenty of times when we didn’t and I have the crooked heels, peek-a-boo-soles and worn out shoe leather from walking rather than waiting on that never-coming bus to prove it. And not only that but I got so had no fear of walking, and walking great distances if I had to, all the way to Grandma’s Young Street, North Adamsville if I had to. That was easy stuff thinking back on it. I‘ll tell you about walking those later long, lonesome roads out West in places like just before the mountains in Winnemucca, Nevada and 129 degree desert- hot Needles, California switching into 130 degree desert-hot Blythe, Arizona some other time, because it just doesn’t seem right to talk about mere walking, long or short, when the great American automobile is present and rolling by.
It’s kind of funny now but the thing was, when there was enough money to get one, that the cars my poor old, kind of city ways naïve, but fighting Marine-proud father would get, from wherever in this god forsaken earth he got them from would be, to be polite, clunkers and nothing but old time jalopies that even those “hot rod” James Dean guys mentioned above would sneer, and sneer big time at. It would always be a 1947 something, like a Hudson or Nash Rambler, or who knows the misty, musty names of these long forgotten brands. The long and short it is, and this is what’s really important when you think about it, that they would inevitably break down, and breakdown in just the wrong place, at least the wrong place if you had a wife who couldn’t drive or help in that department and three screaming, bawling tow-headed boys who wanted to get wherever it was we were going, and get there-now.
I swear on those old battered crooked-heeled, peek-a-boo soled shoes that I told you about that this must have happened just about every time we were going on a trip, or getting ready to go on a trip, or thinking about going on a trip. So now you know what I was up against when I say that when I was a kid. Like I already told you before, in some other dream fragment, I was an easy target to be “pieced off” with a couple of spoonfuls of Kennedy's potato salad when things like that happened. Or some other easy “bought off” when the “car” joke of the month died again and there wasn’t any money to get it fixed right away and we couldn’t go more than a few miles. I blew my stack plenty and righteously so, don't you think.
So let me tell you about this one time , this one summer time, August I think , maybe in 1956, when we did have a car, some kind of grey Plymouth sedan from about 1947, that year seems to always come up when car year numbers come to mind, like I said before. Or maybe it was a converted tank from the war for all I know, it kind of felt like that sitting in the back seat because as the middle boy I never got to ride “shot gun” up front with Dad so I bore the brunt of the bumps, shakes, blimps, and slips in the back. I do know I never felt anything better than being nothing but always queasy back there.
This one, this beauty of a grey Plymouth sedan, I can remember very well, always had some major internal engine-type problem , or telltale oil- spilling on the ground in the morning, or a clutch-not-working right, when real cars had clutches not this automatic stuff, making a grinding sound that you could hear about half way around the world, but you will have to ask some who knows a lot more about cars about than I do for the real mechanical problems. Anyway this is the chariot that is going to get us out of “the projects” and away from that fiery, no breathe “projects” sun for a few hours as we started off on one of our family-famous outings to old Treasure Island down at the Merymount end of Adamsville, about four or five miles from “the projects”, no more. It was hot as blazes that day that’s for sure, with no wind, no air, and it was one of those days, always one of those days, you could smell the sickly sweet fragrant coming from over the Proctor and Gamble soap factory across the channel on the Fore River side.
We got the old heap loaded with all the known supplies necessary for a “poor man’s” barbecue in those days. You know those cheap plastic lawn chairs from Grossman’s or Raymond’s or one of those discount stores before they had real discount stores like K-Mart and Wal-Mart, a few old worn-out blankets fresh from night duty on our beds, some resurrected threadbare towels that were already faded in about 1837 from the six thousand washings that kids put even the most resilient towel through in a short time, the obligatory King’s charcoal briquettes, including that fear-provoking, smelly lighter fluid you needed to light them with in those barbaric days before gas-saturated instant-lite charcoal. For food: hot dogs, blanched white-dough rolls, assorted condiments, a cooler with various kinds of tonic (aka soda, for the younger reader) and ice cream. Ya, and some beach toys, including a pail and shovel because today, of all days, I am bound and determined to harvest some clams across the way from the park on Wollaston beach at low tide just like I’d seen all kinds of guys doing every time we went there so that we can have a real outing. I can see and hear them boiling in that percolating, turbulent, swirling grey-white water in the steaming kettle already.
All of this stuff, of course, is packed helter-skelter in our “designer” Elm Farms grocery store paper shopping bags that we made due with to carry stuff around in, near or far. Hey, don’t laugh you did too, didn’t you? And what about hamburgers you say, right? No, no way, that cut of meat was too pricey. It wasn’t until much later when I was a teenage and invited to someone else’s family-famous barbecue that I knew that those too were a staple, I swear. I already told you I was the “official” procurer of the Kennedy’s potato salad in another dream fragment so I don’t need to tell you about that delicacy again, okay?
And we are off, amazingly, this time for one of the few time in family-recorded history without the inevitable- “who knows where it started or who started it” -incident, one of a whole universe of possible incidents that almost always delayed our start every time our little clan moved from point A to point B. Even a small point A to point B like this venture. So everything was okay, just fine all the way up that single way out of “the projects”, Palmer Street, until we got going on Sea Street, a couple of miles out, then the heap started choking, crackling, burping, sneezing, hiccuping, smoking and croaking and I don’t know what else. We tumbled out of the car, with me already getting ready to do my, by now, finely tuned “fume act” that like I told you got a work-out ever time one of these misadventures rolled around, and pulled out every thing we could with us.
Ma , then knowingly, said we would have to go back home because even she knew the car was finished. I, revolutionary that I was back then, put my foot down and said no we could walk to Treasure Island, it wasn’t far. I don’t know if I can convey, or if I should convey to you, the holy hell that I raised to get my way that day. And I did a united front with my two brothers, who, usually, ignored me and I ignored them at this point in our family careers. Democracy, of a sort , ruled. Or maybe poor Ma just got worn out from our caterwauling. In any case, we abandoned a few things with my father, including that pail and shovel that was going to provide us with a gourmet’s delight of boiled clams fresh from the now mythical sea, and started our trek with the well-known basics-food and utensils and toys and chairs and, and…
Let me cut to the chase here a little. Of course I have to tell you about our route and about how your humble tour director got the bright idea that we could take a short cut down Chickatawbut Street. (This is a real street, look it up. I used to use it every time I wanted to ride my bike over to Grandma’s on Young Street in North Adamsville .) The idea of said "smart guy" tour director was to get a breeze, a little breeze while we are walking with our now heavy loads by cutting onto Shore Avenue near the Merrymount Yacht Club. The problem is that, in search of breeze or of no breeze, this way is longer, much longer for three young boys and a dragged out mama. Well, the long and short of it is have you ever heard of the “Bataan Death March” during World War II. If you haven’t, look it up on “Wikipedia.” Those poor, bedeviled guys had nothing on us by the time, late afternoon we got to our destination.
We were beat, beat up, beat down, beat around, beat six ways to Sunday, beat every way a human being can be beat. Did I say beat? Oh ya, I did. But Ma, sensing our three murderous hearts by then, got the charcoals burning in one of the fireplaces they provided back then, and maybe they still do. And we were off to the races.
Hey, do you really need to know about mustard and relish crammed char-broiled hot dogs or my brother’s strange ketchup-filled one on white-breaded, nasty-tasting hot dog rolls that we got cheap from Elm Farms or maybe it was First National, or my beloved Kennedy’s potato salad that kind of got mashed up in the mess up or "Hires" root beer, or "Nehi" grape, or "Nehi" orange or store–bought boxed ice cream, maybe, "Sealtest" harlequin (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla all together, see), except melted. Or those ever- present roasted marshmallow that stuck to the roof of my mouth. You’ve been down that road yourselves so you don’t need me for a guide. And besides I’m starting to get sleepy after a long day. But as tired, dusty, and dirty as I am just telling this story… Ah, Treasure Island.