PASSING GRADE by Peter Nolan Smith


My older brother worked too much. Frunk had a big house on Milton Hill and I was in Boston to visit my father. Frunk was at his office, as were most lawyers in Boston on a weekday.

“Meet me a Durgin Park.” I loved their chowder.

“Can’t.” He sounded stressed.

“What about Jacob Wirth.” Their Bratwurst special cost $9.95.

“Can’t.”

“Then I’ll come see you.”

“I’m busy.”

His son attended an Ivy League school. The tuition for pre-med was astronomical.

“Then I guess I’ll have to settle for a visit from your son.”

“Franka’s coming to New York?”

“Yes, he’s a big fan of Taylor Swift and I got him tickets to see her on Saturday Night Live.”

The blonde singer was a country-western pop sensation.

“This coming Saturday?”

“Yes.”

“His mother and I were planning on driving down to Philadelphia and he said he was studying.”

“Maybe he is.”

“NO, he blew us off to see a singer with you. I can’t believe this. I’m working seven days a week, so he can going to New York. What is he thinking?”

“It is a Saturday and I think Franka’s in love.”

“He’s 18. How would he know love?”

“Taylor Swift sings love songs.”

My older brother blew a gasket and ranted at his son and me. I held the phone away from my ear, until his voice resumed a reasonable tone.

“Sorry.”

“I’m not blaming you, but Franka isn’t getting into medical school with a B in biology.”

“Maybe in the Philippines.” MY GP had received his medical license from Dagupan City Univeristy and he hadn’t killed anyone as far as I knew.

“I’m not paying for Franka to have a good time.”

“It’s just one night.”

“You’re right. Franka’s a big boy. He makes his own decisions, but I have to pay for them.”

I understood my brother’s temper tantrum. I supported two families. I ate left-over. More than twice a week.

“So what about Jacob Wirth’s?”

“Naw, I’m just going to wallow in misery.”

“It does love company. Last offer. Franka’s going to SNL. You’re coming to Jacob Wirth’s. I won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”

“I’ll see you in 15.”

We spoke about our youth, eating bratwurst and drinking beer. Several lawyers were at the bar. We had a second beer. I had a third. My brother and I hugged outside on Boylston Street.

“I’ll make sure he gets to bed at a decent hour.”

“What’s the use?”

Later that evening I called Franka and told him about the visit to his father.

“Uncle Bubba, don’t worry. I’m doing fine.”

“What about your grades?”

“They are what they are. I’m trying my hardest.”

“That’s all I can ask from you.”

“See you this weekend. I hope you can introduce me to Taylor.”

“I’ll do my best.” I had graduated ‘sin laude’ from Boston College in the last century, but I could get into SNL to see Taylor Swift and that was the only passing grade I needed to make Franka a happy boy.

And bratwurst at Jacob Wirth’s worked wonders with his father.

As it does with any man.

WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN

Summer ended in 1966 on a Cape beach with me dancing with a girl on the last day of our vacations. WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN played on a radio. Her father beeped the horn. She kissed me and ran to the car. The back of station wagon was packed high. I never saw her wave goodbye, but her kiss lived forever.

Soulful as the song.

Foto of me, my brother and mother. Harwichport 1966.

To hear Percy Sledge’s WHEN A MAN LOVES A WOMAN, go to the following URL.

REST STOP by P. Nolan Smith

On Saturday I traveled north from New York on a Chinese bus.

Greyhound really.

They charge $25.

7am departure.

I fell asleep on the Williamsburg Bridge and woke in the Storrs Hills on Connecticut

The driver was pulling into Burger King.

“Ten minutes.”

I walked inside. Mickie D’s rival was offering a breakfast burrito. I opted to eat the two bananas in my bag.

The other passengers were stuffing down fast food. The feeding fest was an ugly spectacle and I climbed over the barrier to a closed road. A land mover was parked on the asphalt. No one had sat in it recently. The only work in this town was at Burger King. Too many rich people. Too few jobs, but I had one for the first time since March.

New England had been scrapped to the stone bone by the Ice Age. Bogs and ponds and lakes are tattoos of that primordial time. Wetland in the autumn. The sound of cars and trucks on the interstate. The air was cool. Summer was one week back and nine months forward. I felt drops of rain.

The leaves were dull under the overcast. I breathed the air. The damp rot of vegetation was a black hole. In my youth I smelled this scent every October. It was Eau de New England.

I turned around to face north. The clouds parted for several heartbeats and I hurried across the cracked pavement to snap a photo.

This moment was only one.

There have been millions of seconds sliced into billions and trillions.

But only one of these.

The bus was ready to go

The North waited for me.

With patience.

Friends and family too.

I ran back to the bus.

It was good to be back in ageless autumn.

If only for a weekend.

Another Awful Afghan Autumn

Another autumn has passed for coalition soldiers stationed in Afghanistan. The Taliban rise from the opium fields and the fighting season this its stride. Hardliners in the Pentagon are pressing President Obama to stay in place. He has said yes. I am seriously disappointed by his decision, because most couldn’t located Afghanistan on a map or find New York.

So what to do?

Pull out?

Not easy.

16,000 British troops withdrew from Kabul in the winter of 1842.

Only one soldier made it to safety.

Bomb the shit out of them.

The Russians tried that.

The USA too.

I hate to say this, but the best policy would be to reinforce the troops there with a plan to get the fuck out in the summer and pay the right people bribes for a safe exit.

Nothing else will work.

Nothing.

ON THE SOUTH SHORE by Peter Nolan Smith KINDLE VERSION

I was lucky enough to live through the 1960s as a teenager on the South Shore of Boston.

Home was still home to us.

My friends and I led charmed lives at the Quincy Quarries, Surf Nantasket, and Wollaston Beach

ON THE SOUTH SHORE recounts those lives.

The time was short, but retelling these tales brings back those years, if only for a moment.

They were good ones.

Here’s an excerpt from THE HOLE OF HEAVEN

According to the Old Testament God banished Adam and Eve from Eden for eating apples and this Original Sin condemned future generations to this mortal coil, however humans have defied this divine decree with repeated attempts to recreate Heaven on Earth. Most of these utopias have been short-lived, for nothing irked the true believers more than people enjoying the rewards of a good life in the present and in 1965 the teenagers of Boston’s South Shore celebrated the pursuit of earthly happiness at the infamous Quincy Quarries.

The spring-fed pits offered pleasure without any parental supervision and the passage from boys to men was achieved by a leap off the craggy cliffs into the rock-bound pools. The sun never shined so bright as on the rims of The Hole Of Heaven and Josephine’s, but Brewster’s Quarry was the favorite haunt for the thousands of teenagers devoting their youth to the life of a fallen angel. An anonymous teenager had named the vast abyss the Hole of Heaven back in the 40s, however these summer swimming holes were not natural to the glacier-carved Blue Hills.

Stonecutters had carved granite from steep ledges to build the Bunker Hill monument and the first train in America had hauled these gigantic slabs from the ever-deepening pits. These indestructible blocks had provided the building material for countless courthouses, wharves, and lighthouses on the Eastern Seaboard, but in coming of steel and glass skyscrapers exiled the construction of granite monuments to the history books.

Stone ceased to serve the living and only undertakers could feed their children from the tombs of the dead, so in 1963 the stonecutters turned off the water pumps and the quarries were flooded by the springs running deep under the earth.

The aquifer held generations of pure water. Its color was emerald green and every April teenagers from South Boston, Dorchester, Quincy, and my hometown flocked to the quarries like Celtics fans to the Boston Garden.

In December of 1963 Arnie Ginsburg declared that the Kingsmen’s song was the worst record he had ever spun on his NIGHT TRAIN show. The WMEX DJ was no teenager. LOUIE LOUIE hit #1 in the winter of 1964 and every garage band in Boston covered the A-major standard. The drummer saying ‘fuck’ had nothing to do with its success. America was leaving the 1950s for good.

Boys and girls made out at the Mattapan Oriental Theater during Saturday matinees. Hair crept over ears and shirt collars like uncut lawns. Our parents battled this rebellion with edicts against kissing, drinking beer, rock music, long hair, dancing too close, and certain friendships. Whole towns were declared off-limits and no forbidden destination proved more irresistible to young boys than the Quincy Quarries south of Boston.

These teenage oases were only accessible by foot. LOUIE LOUIE played on transistor radios, while boys and girls basked in the summer sun. The Kingsmen’s song had legs.

Jumping off a cliff worked better to a dirty sax than the Beatles’ saccharine harmonies of I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND. The feuds between towns and gangs were put on hold at the quarries. Teenagers came for fun, a swim, the thrills, and refuge from parents, priests, teachers, and police. The authorities tried their best to shut down this paradise, for unfortunately the quarries were a magnet for accidental drownings and drunken mishaps. Joyriders drove cars into The Hole Of Heaven to imitate James Dean’s chicken run in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. One or two of these daring acts ended in misadventure.

Many of the stories about the bottomless pits were urban legends. The most famous was that of a kid jumping off Shipwreck’s craggy prow and landing on a submerged car. An antenna pierced his arm. This gruesome tale was retold each summer, as if the accident had occurred recently, although its origins were lost in the haze of myths.

Parents vigorously petitioned the Quincy mayor to shut down these threats to their children’s well being and his police and town workers responded with uncharacteristic vigor.

The Quincy garbage men dumped old telephone poles into the water. Teenagers used them for logrolling contests or wired them together for sunning rafts. Police raided the quarries. They were too out of shape to catch young legs.

The town was accused of ignoring its civic duty and in August 1965 a selectman from the shipyard suggested pouring refuse oil from ships into the quarries. Three tankers were parked overnight by the edge of Brewster’s to unleash their foul black liquid into the main pool with the dawn.

That evening I sat on a lawn chair to observe a meteor shower. Bats flapped their wings through the soft summer air and a light wind hushed through the trees. A whooshing boom shattered this suburban calm.
My eyes widened as a flaming mushroom cloud roiled over the woods.

Seconds later two more fireballs scorched the night sky.

I jumped to my feet, fearing that the Russians had nuked Boston, and crouched under the picnic table in anticipation of the shock wave. Several minutes later my mother came out of the house and ordered me inside.

As a 13 year-old boy I obeyed her 99% of the time.

The morning’s newspapers reported vandals had torched the trucks at the quarry. The police had no suspects, although the teenage grapevine introduced a trio of heroes to the South Shore.

Donnie, Lee, and Eddie.

I had never been to the quarries.

Neither had my next-door neighbor. Chuckie was my best friend. We wanted to see the torched trucks and told our parents that we were going to the town pool. Three of our friends joined us and we tramped out of our suburban neighborhood into the Blue Hills. The trek took a good hour. We talked about the divers off the Acapulco cliffs.

None of us planned on diving off Rooftop, Brewster’s most famous leap.

“WHow hard can it be.” Chuckie was a good diver. His family had a swimming pool.

Feet-first sounded safe and we scrabbled through the maze of abandoned stones to the edge of Brewster’s Quarry. Rooftop was a slanted slab of granite fifty feet above the water. The sheer drop looked more like a hundred. We stood with our feet glued to stone. The older teenagers on the ledge clucked out calls of chicken.

“Are you going or what?”

“Leave them alone.” A good-looking teenager in cut-off jeans came over to us. He was about 17, which was a golden age for teenagers. We listened to his every word.

“The best way to jump is feet-first. You put your feet together and hold out your arms to keep your balance. It looks high, but there aren’t any ledges under Rooftop, so you’ll live no matter what.”

The tanned teenager went back to his friends.

Keep on your sneakers. It’s easier climbing out of the quarry with them on.

“Thanks.” Chuckie rubbed his hands together. “There are five of us, right?”

We nodded meekly and he pointed to me.

“I’ll go first, you’re second, then you, you, and you. We yell out ‘Geronimo’. Are you with me?”

“Yes,” We shouted in unison. Our parents had forbidden the act, our teachers had warned of the danger, and the police would arrest us for trespassing on private property. Their collective disapproval was all the encouragement thirteen year-old boys needed to set us free. We stripped off our shirts and stashed them under a bush.

Without warning Chuckie threw himself off the cliff.

His cry of ‘Geronimo’ died with a splash into the water. His head bobbed to the surface and he shouted my name. I ran until air was under my feet and plummeted off-balance to smack into the water on my side. I surfaced with a whoop. I was ready to jump off Rooftop again and the gleam on Chuckie’s face confirmed that he was with me 100%.

With a shriek our friends appeared high overhead suspended in mid-air before falling in arcing trajectories. Jimmy also landed on his side, Sam on his belly, and Ralph cannonballed into the water. They broke surface and we howled for joy.

We had safely survived the plunge and we repeated the jump it again and again throughout that summer and the ones to follow, but by 1967 America wasn’t the same America as in 1965.

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