I started this blog in my 7th life. Now I’ll take you back to my first life, which by my calculations lasted until I was 15.
It was the summer of 1953. I was 9. Eisenhower was President. I remember the big pin-on buttons that many people wore during the campaign; “I like Ike”. Politics was not really a topic of discussion at our house, but I’m pretty sure my parents liked Adlai Stevenson better.
The reason I remember that summer so well is that it was the first time that my sister Elsie and I, unsupervised by an adult, were allowed to leave the immediate neighborhood. There was a new Community Swimming Pool opened in Boston and we, along with our friends, Eddie and Tommy, begged to be allowed to go. The pool was about three miles from our house, built on the banks of the Charles River, next to the Charles Street jail. The jail contained only holding cells for people awaiting a trial, but to us it was a “Hoosegow” where, just like in the movies, desperados were locked away. We hurried past it each day.
Elsie and Eddie were the seniors of our group, having just that year broken out of single digits. Tommy and I, at nine years old, were the juniors. This is not to imply that Elsie, being one year my senior, was any more responsible for our misdeeds than I. I was more adventuresome and, no doubt, the instigator of many an escapade.
Getting permission to go so far away from home was no easy task for Elsie and me. Eddie and Tommy had it easier, firstly because they were boys (everything was always easier for boys. It’s just not fair) and also because they were minded by an older sister, as their parents both worked outside the house. If I recall correctly, their sister was only too happy to be rid of them for a large portion of the day. But after much cajoling and with promises that we four would always stay together, we wouldn’t talk to strangers, (This promise was particularly hard to keep as everyone at the pool was a stranger to us. But we knew what it meant. We shouldn’t take candy from that nice man in that nice car) and lastly, we had to promise to be home by five o’clock. We were allowed ten cents each for bus fare to and fro plus one penny to get into the pool. The bus would take us the first two miles to Lechmere Station. Then we’d walk the remaining one mile to the pool. We packed peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and left around nine in the morning. The pool didn’t open until ten o’clock, but we wanted to be first in line to ensure we’d get in. So for the first few weeks that summer we all four went to the pool every day that it didn’t rain.
Then, as had often happened, mummy was back in the hospital and Social Services sent a woman to take care of us. Although I don’t remember her name, I remember what she looked like and how she sounded. I’ll call her Miss Gray. She was tall and skinny with a pinched face. I’m sure she must have voted for Ike. Her mouth was set in a permanent frown and her expression made one think that she’d smelled something rotten. She probably did. Mummy was more often than not bedridden and Elsie and I, to whom fell the bulk of the housekeeping, were less than enthusiastic in keeping up with the chores. After all, there were five of us kids plus our father to look after while mom was in the hospital. So Miss Gray had her work cut out for her, but I’m pretty sure she brought the pinched face and sour expression with her along with the brown wig, which Francie, our younger sister, pulled off the first day she arrived. And her voice! She had only one pitch; high and loud. I guess I can’t really blame her; we were no walk in the park. Of course, neither Elsie nor I ever told her about the chores we were supposed to do, so she had the whole house to take care of. The only thing we did concede, however, that we had to make our own beds. The only chore our brother, Tommy, age 11 at the time, was responsible for was a weekly wash of the kitchen floor and occasionally helping with the dishes after supper. Francie, age five, and David, age 4 were just babies and I can’t for the life of me remember what they were like during that summer. Nor do I remember what Tommy was doing with his time. I only remember Elsie and me escaping to the pool with Eddie and Tommy.
At nine o’clock that first day of Miss Gray when we asked for our 22 cents to go to the pool, she said, “no”!
“But our mother said we could go”, we cried in unison.
“Nobody told me that, retorted Miss Gray. You’ll have to wait until your father gets home and ask him”.
“But he doesn’t get home until after 5, then it will be too late. He knows we go to the pool every day”, I cried.
Actually, I had no idea if he knew or not. Our father, like many fathers of that day, was not like the interactive young fathers of today. His job, as he saw it, was to provide for the family. The only thing that entailed was going to work and bringing home a pay check. And when he got home, we were to be seen and not heard so he could relax. I’m sure he hadn’t a clue how we spent our time.
So Miss Gray won the argument and we waited for Himself to get home. As soon as he walked in the door, we pounced on him with complaints about Miss Gray. No relaxation for him that day. He told Miss Gray that since our mother permitted us to go to the pool, it was alright with him. Miss Gray responded with a harrumph, and said she didn’t have 22 cents to give us every day. So dad set up a “petty fund” bowl, into which he poured some change. We were to take out our 22 cents each day for the pool, and Miss Gray was to use some of the change to buy candy for the younger kids. Dad would replenish the bowl as needed. For the few weeks that our mother was in the hospital, the system worked to everyone’s satisfaction. We left the house at nine in the morning, took our 22 cents from the bowl (plus an occasional additional nickel or so, I must admit). And we didn’t have to see the pinched-face, wig-wearing Miss Gray until we got home just before she was leaving for the day. I’m sure she also was happy not to see us all day.
While it was true that the bus fare was five cents each way, we had a couple of systems that allowed us to save money in order to buy cigarettes. Yes, it’s true, we were a bit young to be taking up smoking but every adult we knew smoked and we were all in a hurry to grow up. We preferred to smoke Kents. They were much more expensive than other cigarettes, 31 cents vs. 25 cents, but we thought that smoking them would make us seem more adult and sophisticated. It wasn’t easy to come up with the 31 cents, but we were a very resourceful little group. The first system was actually sort of legitimate. With the nickel fare, you could ask for a transfer if you needed to take another bus to your destination. We each asked for transfers and then used them for the bus going home. As I said, it was only sort of legitimate, and it worked well as long as we didn’t get the same bus driver and he didn’t look real closely at the transfer. The other system was simply to run out the back door of the bus without paying. This worked less well as it was easy for the driver to remember us. Anyway, either system plus the occasional extra pinched nickel, saved us enough to buy a pack of Kents a couple of times a week. We’d each take a cigarette and puff away on the mile walk to the pool, happily blowing smoke rings (I was particularly good at that) as we passed the Museum of Science, crossed over the draw bridge, and passed the jail on our way to the pool. Then on the way home, we’d smoke another one and assign someone to hold the pack for the next day. This duty would be rotated to lessen the chances of being caught with cigarettes in our pockets.
At first, we were afraid Elsie wouldn’t be allowed in the pool since there was a minimum height regulation and anyone under a certain height was relegated to the kiddie pool. But Elsie just squeaked by, so our foursome was intact. There were two more rules rigidly enforced before one could enter the swimming area. First, a shower then an inspection of toes to make sure you didn’t have athlete’s foot. I can think of a lot worse things you were apt to catch at a Community Pool that they didn’t inspect for. But we all survived.
Since we four were at the pool almost every day, we became known to the staff and the lifeguards. Twice a day the lifeguard blew his whistle to clear the pool for 15 minutes in order to sweep the bottom for any sharp objects. Of course there was no glass or cans allowed in the pool area, but somehow there’d always be a little stone or something sharp on the bottom. After some weeks of seeing us, the lifeguard deputized us and we became “Junior Lifeguards”. This meant that when everyone else was cleared from the pool, we were “allowed” to dive down and sweep the area. How proud we were! How jealous everyone else was, sitting in the hot sun while we were diving in and out of the pool! And how happy the lifeguard was to be free of that duty!
About halfway through the summer, I summoned up the courage to try the diving board. There were two 3-meter boards on either end of the diving pool with a ten meter board between them. I wasn’t entirely crazy, so I decided to learn diving on the 3-meter board before tackling the 10-meter one. I was a pretty good swimmer and I’d been practicing diving off the edge of the pool, but I was a bit apprehensive about the springboard, so at first I thought I’d just test the spring and jump instead of diving. I remember bouncing up and down on the board then jumping towards the side of the pool. Why I went to the side instead of straight out I don’t know. Perhaps I thought it would be quicker to get out and try again. The next thing I remember was being in the First Aid room with a few worried adults and Elsie, Eddie, and Tommy hovering me. I had hit my mouth on the lip of the pool and broke my front tooth. They told me I sank right to the bottom of the pool, but I don’t remember that. The lifeguard pulled me out and brought me to the First Aid room. They were discussing whether to call an ambulance, but then I seemed to be OK. It’s really amazing that all I did was break one tooth. I wanted to stay and swim some more, but I wasn’t allowed to stay at the pool. After determining that I wasn’t hurt too badly, they released me to go home. So we all four made the one mile trek to Lechmere Station to get the bus home, smoking all the way of course.
The next day on the diving board, I threw all caution to the wind, jumping, springing and diving—straight out the front of the board of course!