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This is my former backyard at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts where we moved to that summer from 33 Weston Street, two blocks away. It was a four-family house painted light gray with slatted wood siding and we lived in the second floor apartment above our heads.
My uniform’s clean so I know it’s before a game. I always felt an obligation to get it dirty, to prove that not only did I want to win but that I’d slide head first into a base to do it.
To my left, glove hand, affecting his best “I got a million of ‘em” pose, is Uncle Dave, my Great Uncle. A good guy, generous, loud and gregarious, a corona was always squeezed between his fingers. He lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and made his living as an auto mechanic. At one point, before he retired and sold the building, he operated a two bay garage without gas pumps, repairs only. My father insisted I was in it several times, I’d enjoyed playing with the tools and poking my fingers in the tubs of grease, but I have no recollection of being there. I do remember Uncle Dave drove a 1950s model Hudson, one of those gangster-type cars that was all slopes and silver detail. On the weekends he and my Aunt Grace visited us my brother and I would insist he take us for a ride, which he always did, out to the quiet back roads of Lexington and Lincoln and Wayland. We’d usually be settled in the spacious back seat all ready to go before Uncle Dave and my father got in and Uncle Dave released the emergency brake.
It was always exciting to see Uncle Dave, though when I was small, probably up until the age I was in the photo, he had a penchant for tickling me and keeping at it until tears streamed down my cheeks to the point I wasn’t sure if I was laughing or crying. Then, from my middle teens on, he was always telling me, “You’re doing good things, Paul, not like some of these other kids today.” I was never sure what I’d done or said to merit that comment since my main activities were playing sports, getting into trouble at home and in school and trying to talk girls into going here and there with me. Maybe those weren’t such bad things to do after all?
The last time I saw Uncle Dave I was a college freshman on Christmas break. My parents made it a point to take me up to Portsmouth to see him even though I didn’t want to go and made a big fuss about it. We argued, but their explanation of matters finally won out. A lot had changed since I’d last seen him. Uncle Dave had been having health problems for a few years, but now he was in a wheelchair, no longer the big, outgoing personality, but a quieter, sad presence. Diabetes had progressed to the point where both of his legs had to be amputated, cut off just above the knee. His face and torso were thin, as if hollowed out. Up at his place, we spent the afternoon watching a college basketball game. Uncle Dave smoked a cigar as we talked. Talking about me, our family, everything but him and how he was feeling. Before we left that evening I shook his hand and I think we both knew we were saying goodbye for the final time.
That’s my father to my right. He was a machinist and tool designer, and as you see he smoked cigars too, a habit he might have picked up from Uncle Dave, one of his favourite people.
“Stogies,” my father called them. “Why I think I’ll have a stogie. No, you can’t have one so get away from there.”
El Producto was his brand in those years when they were made by hand. He bought them by the box and I collected the empty ones, which, with the Spanish language name and trademark design, always started a reel of images rolling in my head of an exotic country with palm trees, white beaches, girls in bikinis, thatched roof huts… A place far away from Waltham, which in those years was a struggling city of small stores and too many bars and not enough money and the factories my parents and my friends’ parents worked in and couldn’t wait for the end of the week to be out of for a few days. I filled those boxes with my most precious objects: baseball cards, small vintage toy cars, a ring, a wristwatch, anything that had meaning to me. I labeled each with a black marker and stacked them on my bookshelf. Then, as the collection grew, my father puffing away at the rate of about two a day in between a couple of packs of Lucky Strikes, I stood them in a column in a corner of my room like a file cabinet that could only be opened from the top.
One evening that summer (or the one after it?) I challenged my father to a race down the driveway you see by the white picket fence, about a hundred feet to the sidewalk. I beat him, pulling away and bursting into the street. I knew he hadn’t let me win, like he’d let me take a game of Eight Ball to keep up my interest on those occasions he took me to Vern’s Billiards over on Felton Street. My easy victory was a surprise to both of us, I think, and I knew another race would end with the same result so I never asked him again.
My father seems happy in the photo. It’s one of the few pictures I have where he’s smiling for the camera, showing the viewer the moment was pleasant, his number one uncle was visiting, his son had a ballgame they were going to take him to after a picture was taken (by my brother?) to fix the three of us in time. In many of the other photos I have he appears so uncomfortable I wonder why he ever agreed to let the other person take it, or if there had been a tremendous struggle for the camera afterward to try to get at the film to destroy it? Not that he was always unhappy, or incapable of finding pleasure in an activity. But there was some deep problem bothering him he never talked about or sought help for, that kept him brooding and on edge.
Was it from the war? His physical wounds from that brutal conflict were obvious. An Army Sergeant assigned to an artillery unit in WWII, he was in Italy when his knee and shin were ripped open by shrapnel. The scars were wide and deep. More painful to look at than live with, he assured me.
I knew the story. The flashing, deafening explosion, him blacking out, awoken the next day in a pain so excruciating he fainted in bed, a vein removed from the thigh on his right leg fused with others in the damaged one, six months recuperating in an army hospital…
But what of his wounds that couldn’t be seen? I wouldn’t find out until after he died that he was taking a tranquilizer every day. It had been a surprise to my mother too. “He didn’t tell me anything about it,” I recall her saying at the time my brother found the small container of pills under the front seat of his car.
I suppose my father was one of the storied silent soldiers who came back from Europe after World War II and never talked about it except to say it was a bastard, a hell, whatever, and he’d never wish an experience like it on his worst enemy. I’ve no doubt he had what was called “shellshock” then but is now referred to as PTSD, a condition out of the closet and taken seriously.
This is the period of my childhood I look back on with the fondest recollections. The rest after that seemed an extraordinary struggle, filled with my father’s anger and arguing between him and my mother, enormous frustrations expressed by two people who didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to try to make their life together better. It continued until my father died in 1993, long after I’d left home. I’m not sure what had happened that turned them on each other like that. Maybe it was something that was brought forward from a period of their lives before I was born? Or did it start right after the explosion that tore into my father’s leg and shocked his psyche?
This picture softens those memories. I’m glad I found it a few years ago in an envelope in the back of a cabinet in my mother’s apartment to remind me of my father during that time, of my Uncle Dave, and 36 Eddy Street.