“Peter,” he said as he settled his elbows on the countertop and the wind rattled his windows. “Is it true that you went to Harvard?”
I felt like I had been punched in the stomach and I almost bent over forward to catch my breath.
“Yah,” I replied cautiously, “why do you ask?”
“Well, what I can’t figure out is why a guy that has a degree from Harvard is going out to work on a crappy day like today. Nobody else is working, why you?”
The answer I tried to offer Herbie fell apart even before it left my mouth. I stood there frozen, my eyes glazed over and a feeling of panic sweeping through my body. Somehow I paid my bill, stumbled out into my truck and made it as far as the laundromat downtown where I pulled in and slowly watched the windshield cover with wet snow. Soon I would be invisible.
When I was a kid growing up in Cohasset, my summer mornings would be spent swimming in the ocean out front of our house. In the afternoons I would either go to sailing lessons or play tennis with friends. Many of my classmates mowed lawns or worked for their parents by the time they were ten. I never had a real job till I was 14 when I worked in the factory that my father owned.
Class lines were clearly drawn in my town. You were either a townie and your dad was a cop or a fisherman or you were a rich kid and your Dad worked in Boston. But because my Dad owned a small furniture factory in town and employed some of my friends’ parents I was cut some slack. Until the 5th grade I had friends on both sides of the tracks. But now as I sat in my truck and replayed the scene in Herbie’s saw shop, I remembered as if it were yesterday that Saturday morning just a few days before the end of summer vacation when my parents told me that I would leave public school and begin attending a small private school in a neighboring town.
I rode my bike down town where I met up with Bobbie and the old school gang and told them about this abrupt change of plans. They said something like “wow, that sucks,” but I could see that it came as no surprise. One of the kids there named Frankie gave me kind of a scary look. His dad was the man who collected our garbage and I had already been on the losing end of a playground fight with him in the second grade.
That next week I started the 5th grade at my new school. It wasn’t so bad. There was a Mr. Russell who smoked a pipe and taught a shop class where we all made a wooden box. Plus I knew a lot of my classmates from sailing and tennis. But I couldn’t wait till the following Saturday when I jumped on my bike and headed down town to see how my old school chums had fared during their first week back at school. As I approached the common, I saw Frankie and some of the old gang. But instead of heading over to them, I stopped. Frankie turned and saw me.
“There he is,” he shouted and everyone jumped on his bike. And at that moment I made a decision I have always regretted. I climbed on my bike and fled. From that day forward, whether in summer fall or spring, I was afraid to bike down town. Whenever I did have to bike past the common, I would get up a head of steam and go flying by. And of course if the old gang were there, no matter what they were doing, they would drop everything and join in the chase. As I replay that decision in my mind, I wonder if things might have been different if I had just stood my ground. My old friends never did catch me but in a sense I never got away.
Many years later, I was driving with my family by Cohasset Common on Christmas morning when I saw a plume of black smoke rising from the chimney of one of its stately homes. I knew immediately it was a chimney fire and probably started by wrapping paper burned in the fireplace. Back in Maine we had an old cape that we heated with wood and we were always on guard for such a fire.
I jumped from the car, ran to the door and knocked loudly, When nobody came I opened the door and entered the front hall. There to my right sitting on the living room floor was a happy family of four enjoying Christmas.
“Excuse me,” I said to my surprised hosts. “I am pretty sure you have a chimney fire and you need to call the fire department now.”
The husband slowly rose to his feet and put on his slippers.
“Look,” I said. “This is a very old house and you could lose it in a few minutes.” I suggested that we take a precautionary visit to the attic.”
“We need to feel all the chimney bricks that come in contact with wood,” I said. “You start up at the roof peak and I’ll work my way down to the floor”. Sure enough, the bricks up at the height of the attic were getting hot.
By the time I made it down stairs again, the family was all out of the house on the lawn watching the smoke. The husband came over to me as the fire department arrived.
“Hey, thanks for stopping. No telling were this could have gone. My name is Frank .” He grasped my hand with both of his and shook it warmly. I told him I was glad I could help.
As I left Frank and his family and drove back to my childhood home, I felt I had crosses a small bridge of healing. I had moved to a farm in Maine to leave Cohasset, Milton Academy, Harvard and my privileged background far behind. Working in the woods as a logger was about as far as I thought I could get from being the next Irish Catholic president of the United States. But Herbie had ‘outed’ me that stormy winter day in Maine. He stirred up the old ghosts. How long had I thought I could run from my past? And what was so wrong with my past that I needed to so carefully cover my tracks?
As the snow continued to fall in front of the laundromat, I revisited in my mind the Cohasset Commons and I rewrote history. I see a fall day, the leaves are turning, and I am biking to town to see my friends and tell them about my new school. As I approach them, they turn and one of them scowls. They all jump on their bikes and head towards me. But now I stand my ground. They ride up to me, crowd in real close.
“We’d thought we’d never see you again,” Bobbie says.
“What’s it like to be around a bunch of rich kids all day long?” Frankie taunts.
Now it’s time for me to speak.
“I really miss you guys. The new school is ok. There is a nice teacher who smokes a pipe and we all make wooden boxes together.”
My friend Eddie moves in close. “Do you know that your dad kicked me and my dad off your rocks this summer when we were fishing. My dad told me he used to fish there when he was a kid. Shit, who do you think you are?”
Eddie had never mentioned this to me before. I remember that night. We were all sitting there in the dining room having supper when this kid and his dad walk over the rocks in front of our house and start casting for stripers. My dad gets up and starts for the door. They are quite far off and I can’t see who they are.
“Dad,” I said. “Why can’t they fish?”
“I am sorry,” he replied “but our agent says he will cancel our insurance policy if I let them fish. He says that if they get hurt on the slippery rocks, they could sue us.”
I was just a small boy and I felt so helpless.
“You must think you’re pretty cool,’ says Frankie. “You living in that big house and my dad comes to collect the garbage. But my dad is just as good as yours.”
The boys push in a little closer. “I am sorry,” is all I can say.
Then I add, “I am just a kid. I don’t have a lot to say in what goes on or where I go to school. All I can say right now is I don’t want to loose you guys as friends. “
We all look at the ground, scuff our toes, then somebody says something about either all going down to the station to watch the train come through. Or maybe someone knocks me down and steals my bike. But whatever happens, in this version I stand my ground, I do not run. I do not give fear time to take root and flourish. I do not become the Indian scout that is dragging his blanket over the high mesas covering his tracks. I am just a 10- year old kid who is trying to do the right thing.
I fell asleep by the Laundromat and when I awoke it was near lunchtime. I drove home slowly as the snow piled up on the roads. I never did go to work that day. I stayed up late that night and when I finally climbed in bed next to Marty I took forever to fall asleep. I kept going back to my childhood, following myself as I moved from classroom bomb drills to bicycle riding to gathering crabs.
Years later, while feeding the horses their lunch, Willie joined me in the field as I was putting hay down. As he munched away, I could barely remember what he looked like as a small colt. His massive neck and legs now worked in harmony to eat the green forage lying on the snowy ground.
There was a tractor working across the street and when it lifted its bucket unexpectedly and pounded the ground to break through the frost, my 2000 lb bundle of muscle spun around, kicked his two rear heels high in the air and set off running down the hill and across the brook away from the fearful sound. Willie’s predecessors that survived in the wild would have died if they refused to honor this fear, this instinct to survive.
I ran from my old gang not because they had ever caused me harm. I ran because somewhere in my young mind I felt that I was part of an injustice. On some level I knew that it was unfair that Eddie and his dad could not fish off our rocks. But I did nothing to stop my father. I loved my dad. He was not a bad man, he was just afraid to lose his insurance policy. Willie was showing me how fear was a part of my genetic makeup and my response was to run. I was more like Willie than I ever imagined.