Calm Before the Storm

 

A flock of swans find open water in the outer bay. They have fled their usual habitat, a marshy cove now impenetrable.

 

Full moon tides rise to the height of piers, encrusting pilings and lining shores in bergs.

 

Thickening clouds at sunset foretell a wintry gale tomorrow.

Continue reading ‘Calm Before the Storm’

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Hannah’s Light

plymouth_twin_na

An artist’s rendition of the twin towers and keeper’s house on the Gurnet.  Hannah Thomas would have gone from tower to tower keeping the beacons bright.

The man never expected to encounter Hannah Thomas…certainly not here, quite literally at the end of the earth…and especially not now, on the morning after the first woman nominated by a major U.S. party won the popular vote, but lost the electoral.

The man had never heard of Hannah Thomas.  But there she was.  Right on a plaque: “First woman lighthouse keeper in America.”

How did the man not know this before? He had biked to Gurnet Light several times over the years but never remembered reading this.  Even before he noticed the sign, the man had been thinking about the ugly, strange election.  On his ride to the light house, he stopped to look at the ocean at the second crossover. There are three crossovers along the four-mile, barrier-beach separating Cape Cod Bay from Duxbury Bay.  The openings in the dunes are called crossovers because these cuts allow four-wheel vehicles to cross from a dirt road behind the dunes onto the beach.

As the man coasted up the slope of the second crossover, he was careful to avoid an SUV straddling the sandy rise. An elderly woman sat behind the wheel. She seemed transfixed by the rolling surf and the gray horizon beyond. While there wasn’t a breath of air, the waves produced a surprisingly loud but soothing rhythm.

The woman had turned to the biker and through the open window said, “It’s peaceful, isn’t it?”

He nodded. “It certainly is.”

She smiled. “We need something peaceful today, don’t we?”

The biker laughed. “We certainly do.”

He lingered a few moments, then turned the bike’s front wheel toward the SUV, wished the old lady a “good day” and pushed off the top pedal. The unpaved, four-mile road to Gurnet Point is especially rough after a summer of use. The man tried to push the election from his mind and focus on avoiding deep potholes and large stones.  Sand had drifted onto the road where it meandered closest to the sea.  The prospect of a more cushioned ride beckoned. But the bike’s wheels swerved whenever the man succumbed to the temptation. So, he steered for patches of hard-packed gravel between the sand traps and the craters.

The hard ride made him wonder how many more years he would be able to do this.  Finally, he reached the base of the headland called “The Gurnet.”  Even when he was much younger, pedaling up the steep slope was tough.  The narrow “roads” on Gurnet Point are little more than rocky paths, lined with modest summer cottages sided in cedar shingles grayed by exposure.   Generators, propane tanks and cisterns proclaim this peninsula is not for everyone.  The biker wondered how long it would take for an ambulance to arrive from the mainland.

Mercifully, before he had “the big one,” the biker reached the crest of the two-sided cliff overlooking Cape Cod Bay to the east and the channel to Plymouth to the south.  Behind the rim are earthen works, all that remains of a Revolutionary War fort.  In the bowl of the fortress rises a knoll atop which stands a white shingled light house with a red roof and top.

gurnettoday

The single light remaining today.

This is where he first learns of Hannah Thomas.  The brief history barely mentions more than Hannah took over for her husband, John, when he was killed in the Revolutionary War.  The man always liked the name Hannah.  It’s a strong name.  He thinks that any woman named Hannah must be resilient.  He has to learn more about Hannah Thomas. In truth, not much is known about her.  But this much he discovers:

Hannah was born in 1731. She married John, a surgeon, with whom she had three children.  They reached an agreement with the Colony to rent their land on the Gurnet for a badly needed lighthouse.  When the building was completed in 1768, John was hired to become the keeper, a position he held until he joined the Continental Army in 1776.  That left Hannah minding two beacons, two sons and one daughter.

Gurnet or Plymouth Light had two lights to distinguish it from Boston Light which had only one.  Being a keeper in those days was not easy.  In Hannah’s case, she actually had two separate towers to maintain.  These early beacons required many lamps.  Regardless of weather, Hannah had to light the lamps at dusk, keep the oil filled, trim the wicks at midnight, and clean and polish the lamps and lanterns each morning.  Imagine doing this in a howling Nor’easter on one of the most exposed and isolated bluffs on the Atlantic coast.

No doubt Hannah expected her lighthouse keeping would end when John, promoted to major general, returned from the war. But he died of small pox in June 1776 after helping to defend Boston and then leading troops to Quebec.  So, this single mother remained at her post as the Revolution raged around her, literally.

Because the Gurnet guarded the entrance to Plymouth Harbor, the Patriots built a fort around Hannah’s Lighthouse, replete with six cannons.  Surely this strategic spot was a dangerous one in the battle for control of a new continent.  No doubt she witnessed shelling or braved threats of attacks. By one account, at least one British warship exchanged fire with the Gurnet fort, knocking out one of Hannah’s beacons.

In 1778, an American privateer was caught in a terrible blizzard just off Hannah’s lighthouse.  Seventy-two of the vessel’s crew of just over a hundred froze to death within her view.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, the lighthouse was refurbished and reopened with Hannah still in charge.  In 1786 she decided to hire a friend to take over, but her son, John, stayed on as assistant keeper and would later become the head keeper.

Hannah lived to the ripe old age of 88.  After her, hundreds of women would help keep the nation’s beacons bright, on both coasts and in the Great Lakes, but only 30 women would be officially listed as head keepers.  [Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise and J. Candace Clifford.] Of the 14 keepers of Gurnet Light who would come after Hannah, none would be women.

On his return ride, the biker had wished he would meet up again with the elderly lady at the second crossover.  He wanted to tell her about Hannah.

A Return to Normalcy

Joe stops…ears up…growl low.  He bolts for the sand pit.  The man knows Joe is a pretty tough dog, but still, he’s old, 14 to be exact.   The man calls Joe.  Normally the black Lab obeys.  Not this time.

Joe runs down the dirt road that separates the bog from the wood line.  The brush, pines and scrub oak hide the pit.  No one likes to look at a sand pit, not even a cranberry farmer.  The man needs sand to replenish his bogs.

bog

Joe disappears into the hidden entrance to the pit.   A second dog, a rat terrier, yaps wildly, tugging its leash so hard the man has to tighten his grip.  The frenzied fur belongs to the man’s wife.  The man doesn’t dare walk the little dog unrestrained.  The rat terrier is fearless.  One evening earlier in the year coyotes mauled the terrier so badly it took several thousand dollars to patch him up.

Since then a neighbor’s cat had gone missing, also at dusk.  A few nights later the man heard coyotes howling over in the sand pit.  But it was 10 o’clock in the morning.   Coyotes didn’t like to show themselves in the daytime and anyway, the man had reached an accommodation with the animals over the years.  He didn’t bother them, and they didn’t him.

The man is slim and of average height. But after four decades of cranberry farming, he is wiry and deceptively strong, even at 65.  Still he can feel his energy draining.  Growing cranberries is a year-round, round-the-clock proposition.  Droughts and diseases in summer.  Frosts and freezes in other seasons.

The politicians like to get their photos taken at harvest.  They don waders and “help” corral the sea of floating berries.   They fly in helicopters through blue, October skies over ruby bogs ringed by red-yellow swamp maples.

The man hadn’t harvested his 40 acres yet.  He had never seen his reservoir go dry, until this summer.    He needed enough water to flood the bogs, by his calculation at least 5 inches of rain, and that was for starters.  Once the red fruit was submerged, he would use a machine to detach the berries, which would float to the surface.

The drought was so bad he had jokingly asked his church-going friends to pray for rain.  When the rain didn’t come, he kidded them about their lack of celestial influence.  Finally, he posted on Facebook a photo of himself in Buddhist garb praying at a temple.  The man knew a thing or two about Buddhism.  He had done two tours in Vietnam, and had returned several times in recent years.  He had found the country beautiful.  If he had any bad memories of the war, he didn’t talk about them.

The man hears barking and growling as he nears the opening in the rim of the pit.   In the center of the bowl, Joe and a big coyote circle each other, twisting one way, and then the other, snarling, teeth glistening, muzzles drooling, searching for an opening.  The coyote is one of the biggest the man had ever seen.  He reckons 140 pounds.  As Joe and the big coyote tangle, the man notices a second coyote glaring from the back of the pit.

coyotepic

The man has no stick, no stones.  If it hadn’t been mid-morning, he would have brought his walking pole.  He had never seen a coyote stand its ground before, let alone in daytime.   First the reservoir going dry, now a coyote refusing to back down.   What the hell?

The terrier pulls so hard, the man thinks the tiny dog will slide through its harness.   Thus encumbered, the man alternately calls Joe and screams curses at the coyote.   The second coyote moves closer. Maybe realizing he is outnumbered and getting too old to fight a wild animal every bit as large, Joe retreats. The man picks up the terrier and, with Joe now at his side, runs.

Once outside the pit, the man breathes a sigh of relief.  He knows coyotes avoid the open in daylight.  But when he turns both coyotes are right on their heels, the alpha coyote in the lead.  The man is stunned. These coyotes don’t appear rabid.  If anything, they look too healthy.

The man is shocked when the coyotes pursue him and his dogs across the field to his house.   Clearly this is a battle for territory.  Whatever contract man and coyote had in place was torn asunder with the attack on the rat terrier.

The man puts the dogs in the house and grabs a shovel.   Anger replaces fear for his dogs and himself. Not hatred.  Frustration.  Nature is no longer playing by familiar rules.  His pond shouldn’t be mud.   His back and arms shouldn’t be so sore.  His coyotes shouldn’t be contesting ownership of his farm, the farm his father started and passed on to the man.

So the man chases the coyotes, yelling and waving a shovel.   The coyotes run for the cover of the woods around the pit.   He rearms with a long pipe and follows them, but finds nothing.

A friend wonders if he should take his .22 with him, but he scoffs.  “I’d probably shoot myself.”  His friend knows better.  The man just wants things to return to normal.   He wants to get enough rain to harvest his crop.  He wants to finish farming as he began it.  Then he wants to travel more.  Sit on his couch when he wants to.  Not worry about frosts and freezes and droughts and diseases.

On a following evening, he takes the dogs for a wharvest1alk, this time armed with his stick.  He thinks he catches sight of something following them at the wood line.   Probably just a shadow in the deepening dusk.  Joe stops and stares at the same grey spot.  The big coyote glares back.  The moment hangs like something unsaid but important before the coyote slinks into the gloom.

The man pats Joe and heads home.  As they climb the knoll, the man feels the drops on his bare head.  At long last, it begins to rain.

‘Take a Little, Leave a Little’

Dave and Paul are an odd couple.  Dave’s the captain of the Cathy Ann, a fishing charter out of Marshfield.  A party of six, usually guys with coolers of Bud Light, hires them to go more than 25 miles off the coast to catch stripers, blues, cod, haddock, halibut, and tuna. Paul is Dave’s first mate.Cod

First time I met Dave I had him pegged.  He reminded me of Sean McCarthy, a kid I grew up with harvesting seaweed for money.  Sean and Dave, both gnarly and thick-necked, their springs wound tight, faces red even when they aren’t drinking.

Paul agreed me with me when I observed that Captain Dave seemed pretty intense.

“You got that right,” agrees Paul, a big teddy bear of a man, rounded and beefy.  “I guess you’d say ‘we’re opposites.’” Paul’s crew-cut, moon-face beamed as he stood on the aft deck of the Cathy Ann.  I’m across the four-foot-wide dock separating our boats, lying on the bench seat of Coaster, my bare foot hung over the transom.

Dave would later tell me what I was about to learn, “Paul will talk your ear off.  He won’t stop.  But the customers love him.  You need someone like that who can talk to them.”  I tell him I understand. Once upon a time I spoke for a big corporation with more than 100 million customers.  Ten customers or 100 million, doesn’t matter.  You have to engage the paying public.  That’s what Paul does for Dave.  Plus both are damn good fishermen.

As if I need proof that Dave takes his vocation seriously, Paul offers proof. “Let me tell you a story about Dave.” Betsy, who’s lying on the opposite end of the transom bench, readjusts herself and her Kindle and gives me the “Don’t be a Chatty Cathy” look.  Hey, what can I say, I like to talk to people.  Basically, that was my job.

Paul presses ahead, oblivious to the silent communication of an old couple: “One day we’re out on Stellwagen Bank, and there’s fish, cod, but they aren’t feeding.  We fish for maybe 20 or 30 minutes.  We catch one here and there, but that’s it.  I see that look in Dave’s eyes.  I tell him to just wait a bit more, that they are there, but for whatever reason, they just aren’t biting right at this moment.  But Dave has no patience.

“Even though I tell him he’s giving up too soon, he runs the boat 18 miles to another spot.  We don’t catch much of anything.  In fact, even less than before.  Then we get a call from another boat that the spot we left is now hot.  I look at Dave and shrug.  I can tell he knows I was right all along.  Anyway, back we go and sure enough, we catch 500 or 600 pounds, but the other boats, by that time, they got maybe a thousand or more.

“Dave’s temper cost us big time, and he knew it.”

“So did he start listening to you more after that?”

“Not a hell of a lot.”  He looks at the sky, chuckles. “Yeah, I think maybe so.  We’re a good combination of personalities.”

Like a marriage, I’m thinking.  Paul’s story prompts another question.  “So what’s the etiquette among commercial fishermen on sharing hot spots?”  Betsy closes her Kindle.  Her baby blues shoot harpoons, which I deflect with a turn of my head.  I’m now riveted to Paul, who looms over us like a line-spreader.

Turns out, Paul strongly supports sustainable fishing.  So does Dave. But not every fisherman does.  So that’s how Paul and Dave decide whether to get on their radio and alert other boats to a hot spot. “Depends on the captains.  Once we’ve got a good head start, we’ll radio the responsible ones.  The greedsters, nope.  Our motto is ‘Take a little, leave a little.’

“If we share a spot and a captain comes and fishes it out, we never share again.  Many years ago we found a wreck.  It’s in 60-feet or so on the southwest corner of the bank.  Only one other boat knows where it is.  We’ve never told anyone else.  Once you fish out a wreck, you’d be surprised how long it takes to come back.”

Paul isn’t done talking.  He launches into a treatise on the hills and holes and ridges that he and Dave have fished over the years on the bottom of Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays.   Paul isn’t opposed to federal restrictions so long as they are based on numbers, science and common sense.  Right now commercial fishermen can’t take any cod.   But Paul and other fishermen on the dock say the cod ban has done its job.  Stocks have replenished after near extinction.

Dan, whose boat is docked two slips over from mine, confirms Paul’s assessment on the resurgence of the Bay State’s iconic fish.  Dan is a diver.  He’s an impish fellow who thinks nothing of diving 25 miles out to sea.   He boasts that he speared a 26-pound cod the other day and could have taken an even bigger one, but the big fish was inside a cave and Dan didn’t have the room to maneuver his spear gun.   Dan adds he loves to dive the rock piles and recently came away with a 10-pound lobster.  I can see Betsy squirming at the claustrophobic thought.

The continuing Epistle according to Paul concludes with a sermon on catching tuna.  Every charter boat operates under the same rules:  Customers who hire a boat get to keep tuna weighing less than 300 pounds.  Smaller tuna aren’t commercially saleable.  But giants are.  The boat gets to sell the giants with the guest crew getting a share of the proceeds, typically about a third.  A big tuna, say one weighing 600 or 800 or even more pounds, can be worth $8-$10,000.

“Folks know the deal when they charter,” Paul says.  “A few years ago we had these regulars who in the past had caught lots of fish with us including small tuna, which they got to keep.  So one time with these guys, we hook on to a giant.  We land the giant and the leader of the party, he complains that HE caught it and HE should get to sell it.

“Dave, he has smoke coming out his ears.  I’m afraid Dave is going to toss the guy over.  So I step in and say, ‘Look, when you caught all those 300 pounders, did we complain?  No.  We never said a word. So when WE land a giant, you want to change the rules?  Let me tell you something, every time I go fishing, I think ‘today is the day we’re going to catch the biggest fish I’ve ever caught.’

“No matter how big the last biggest fish was, every time I take a party out, or if I’m going just for myself, I’m always thinking today might be the day I land the biggest fish of my life.  I’m always looking to land one even bigger than the last.  That’s the way I am.  That’s somebody with a competitive nature.

“So I looked this guy right in the eyes.  I smiled and said, “I’m never, ever going to apologize for catching a bigger fish.   And I’m never, ever going to apologize for helping anyone catch a bigger fish.”

As Paul shook his head, I had to ask: “Did that guy ever charter the boat again?”

Paul shrugged, “Nope, he’s never been back.  He’s chartered some other boats, but you know what?… He’s never caught as much fish as he did with Dave and me.

***

 

 

 

 

 

Tomorrowland Is So Yesterday

When we entered the People Mover, a ride that circles Disney World’s Tomorrowland, we were greeted by a vending machine that touts itself as the “Instant Newspaper.”   Back in 1975 its designers boldly predicted that one day we would push a button and a machine like this would print the latest edition.

Most theme-park “guests” probably didn’t notice this relic because they are too busy texting or learning about the death of Prince.  Don’t get me wrong.  While I am no fan of crowds or waiting in line, I pen to praise, not poo-poo, Disney.

We should not be harsh if the futurists of the fifties failed to get things quite right.  Even if cattle cars still shriek through city tunnels, our sprawling airports shuttle passengers on moving sidewalks.   If the rockets of Tomorrowland appear hopelessly nostalgic, our space robots probe the very beginning of time.

The point is that the “newspaper of tomorrow” stands as a stark reminder that no person or group can predict the “next great thing.”  Some kid in some garage or some scientist in some lab or some visionary in some company is sure to surprise us.  Something that doesn’t exist today will become “something we can’t live without” tomorrow.

Which brings me back to Disney.  While many of us can live happily without Disney, the company Walt started “with one small mouse” remains one of America’s great corporations.  “When we start on a project, we are always confident that we will do it right.” That belief is etched in stone on at least one building, but the credo remains in evidence everywhere in Disney World – the obvious attention to detail in the casting, costumes, and exhibits — seemingly sparing no expense to get it right.

That’s not to say that efficiency isn’t important at Disney.  More than 50,000 people a day visit the Orlando Magic Kingdom alone.  To help deal with these mind-boggling logistics, Disney employs the latest technology both “on stage” and “behind.”  For example, “guests” use their My Disney Experience app to check wait times or Fast Pass possibilities.  They enter parks, rides and pay for food and souvenirs using “smart” wrist bands.

At our Disney resort even the paper cups were embedded with computer chips.  We were allowed three refills within two hours.  Place the “connected” cup under the vending machine and the display tells you how many refills are left and how much time remains.  Whether tanking up three times is smart is another question.

The real point is this is just an example of a potentially transformative technology known as “The Internet of Things” – electronic connections of animate and inanimate objects.  We already have smart appliances and smart buildings, and soon perhaps smart cities.  Devices that now monitor our basic vital signs could be connected to health care providers, or advanced to the point where we they could be implanted and alert us to the advent or advance of cancer in real time.

But who knows how the Internet of Things will evolve?  That’s the problem with predicting tomorrow.  Before you tap the next key, it is already yesterday.

Never A Good Time

By Jack Hoey

Dedication: To Ann and Joe Hoey who chose me to love as their son.

Forward

Never a Good Time is a memoir.  I have tried to tell the story as truthfully as possible.  I have changed the names of my birth parents and their other children as well as the towns where “Claire” grew up and later lived. There is no Wallingford or Farmingdale in Massachusetts.  However, my birth mother was raised in a wealthy community north of Boston and was a teacher in a nearby town.

Along with this memoir I have included other personal essays.

Prologue: February 2003

Claire’s wrinkled and blotchy hands gently frame my fifty-six-year-old face.  Like a new mother, she cradles my head.  Her tears follow the ravines radiating from her sun-deepened crow’s feet.  She moves her hands from the sides of my face to hold my chin and touch the top of my balding head.  A half century has passed since last Claire caressed me, John Peter McCarthy Hoey — her first child, her only son.

Chapter 1: Revelation,  May 1985

I know something is wrong when on a Sunday morning in May of 1985, I answer the phone and it is dad.  My dad never calls.  Heck, he doesn’t even talk on the phone. If dad answers when I call, he says “Hello” and then quickly adds in his thick Boston accent, “I’ll get mummer” or “Here’s mummer.”  Not only is it unusual for dad to call, the timing is suspicious.  Not even mum calls on Sunday mornings.

The conversation confirms my sense of foreboding.

“Your mother asked me to call,” dad begins awkwardly.

Instead of calling her “mummer,” my dad is using the dreaded title, “your mother.”  This means he is under strict orders.

Mum is Ann Mary Peters Hoey, born of Irish immigrants in the Roxbury section of Boston in 1914. She is an imposing woman, not only large in girth, but also tall for a woman, especially from that generation.  Most of her life, she weighed more than 200 pounds and, at five feet eight or nine inches, she stood as tall as my wiry dad, who even with a potbelly in old age, probably never tipped more than 175.

“We have something we need to tell you,” dad continues. “Can you and Betsy come over this morning?  I’ve already called Ann Marie and Eddie.  They are on their way over here.”

Ann Marie is my sister and Ed is her husband.   At the time, she is 33 years-old and I am 38.

“Is everything OK?” I ask.  Like mum, Joseph John Hoey also was born of Irish immigrants in Boston.  Three years older than mum, he grew up in the shadow of Bunker Hill Monument in the city’s rough-and-tumble Charlestown section.  He had met mum in a factory where dad was a machinist and she was the operator of machine that turned out snaps and other metal fasteners.

“Something has come up and we need to do this in person,” dad answers cryptically in a raspy voice. His wheezy shortness of breath seems worse than usual, perhaps another ominous portent.

“Sure. Sure.  We’ll be right over.  I hope everything is OK.  See you shortly.”

Needless to say I am convinced that one of my parents is terminally ill.  What other possible explanation could there be?  My wife, Betsy, agrees.  Someone must be dying.

***

We gather our sons, Andy, then 6, and Tim, 3, and I drive our blue Datsun 510 wagon the 15 miles from our two-bedroom, more-or-less winterized cottage in the Ocean Bluff section of Marshfield to my parents  cape-style home in the Sand Hills beach section of the neighboring coastal town of Scituate.  On the way over, we avoid any discussion of the possible reason for this sudden visit and try not to appear anxious in the presence of our children.  When I pull up in front of the house, my sister’s car is already there.  As we head for the front door, I brace myself for the bad news.

Oddly, dad isn’t at the front door.  Dad doesn’t do phone calls, but he does like to greet visitors, especially family.  I open the door part way and shout, “Hello, we’re here.”

“Flash, we’re in the kitchen.”  Flash is my brother-in-law’s nickname for me. Perhaps the news isn’t so bad after all.  Eddie is still joking about my slow wit. Maybe somebody is very sick, but it’s not life-threatening or Ed wouldn’t be so lighthearted.  We walk through the living room, down a short hallway and then turn into the airy kitchen and dining area that run along the back of the house.

Mum, dad and Ann Marie are red-eyed.  Mum dabs her nose with a hanky.  Eddie, normally what some would consider an almost stereotypically effusive Italian-American, stands with his arms crossed, sphinx-like, leaning against the dishwasher.  Indeed, all four have propped themselves against either an appliance or a counter, as if the weight of some awful truth has staggered them.  Appraising the somber scene, Betsy quickly takes the boys into the den where they can play with their stored toys.

***

As I look at my parents’ blotchy, tear-streaked faces, I am now absolutely certain that one of them is gravely ill.  The only question is which one. Unbelievably, dad speaks first.

“Well, we’ve already told your sister and now it’s your turn,” dad trembles.  “You’re sister is adopted and you are adopted.”

My first reaction is relief.  No one is dying.  But disbelief quickly dispels what only a second before had been immediately recognized as relatively positive news.   “Adopted?”

My dad picks up a piece of paper from the counter.  “The state sent us a letter about your sister.  Someone is looking for her.”  Mum starts crying.  “So we had to tell her.  We have to tell you both.”

Ann Marie nods.  “I have a sister who is trying to find me,” she explains.

I gulp, trying to digest the unexpected headline, never mind comprehend its possible significance.  Sister? “So I am adopted too?”

Starting to cry again, dad says, “After we had you for a few years, we wanted to hear the patter of little feet again.” He pauses and gathers himself.  “We wanted to tell you before.”

Mum finally speaks.  “We almost told you when you went to college and then just before you got married. But there was never a good time.”

I begin to sob.  “I don’t know why I’m crying.”

Mum quickly answers. “I know.  I know why you are crying.”

“I don’t.”

She insists.  “I do.”

Still looking at dad, I offer evidence to explain why I’m having trouble accepting the news.  “But our bodies are so similar.”  He shakes his head.  He too understands my shock. “I know. I know.”  Clearly they have both feared this moment for nearly four decades. With each passing year, the dread had only grown.

As if reading my thoughts, mum says, “In those days, this wasn’t something people talked about.  They just didn’t.”

I look at Ann Marie and then back to mum.  “Are Ann Marie and I related?” I catch myself.  “I mean biologically?”

“We got you from Catholic Charities.  Ann Marie came through the State Department of Social Services.  Her mother’s name was Olson.  That’s Swedish. Your mother’s name was McCarthy.  Claire McCarthy.  She was only a high school student, just sixteen years old, when she became pregnant.  She was a beww-tiful girl, beww-tiful…”  Mum breaks down and regains her hold of the counter.

Mercifully, Eddie breaks the ice.  “Flash, the good news is…you are half Italian.”

When the brief moment of levity passes, I seize on Ed’s joke to ask the name of my biological father.  Mum shakes her head, claiming she doesn’t know.  It’s beginning to dawn on me that mum might not reveal any more secrets than absolutely required, if not by law, at the very least, by the most pressing of circumstances.

She allows that she maintained for some vague period of years a relationship with my birth mother and my biological, maternal grandmother, who mum reveals is also named Claire.   “Her mother…,” mum swallows, “the grandmother… (I notice she doesn’t say “my grandmother”)… was a lovely woman, very nice. They were from Wallingford.  The family owned a flower and garden nursery. We exchanged Christmas cards and, when you were little, we even took you a few times for visits. ” As if realizing that she may have divulged too much, mum adds, “The grandmother wanted to know how you were doing.”

Perhaps the visits to Wallingford, a well-to-do suburb north of Boston, struck me as somehow odd.   “How old was I when I was adopted?

“We got you when you were only six days old,” mum replies with a hint of hesitation.

Apparently this level of detail had not been shared with Ann Marie, who asks, “When was I adopted?”

“We didn’t get you until you were about six months old,” mum answers.  She also professes to not know anything about Ann Marie’s biological father but adds that she used to meet her mother, Olga, at a lunch counter in a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in the nearby city of Quincy, to discuss Ann Marie’s adoption. The sister looking for Ann Marie is also Olga’s daughter.

Perhaps partly because I am in shock, but mostly out of respect for mum and dad, I don’t ask any more questions that morning.  The pain on their faces tells it all.  Even though they have revealed the secret, they still don’t want to talk about it.

 

Chapter 2:  Anger and Guilt

Months pass. Neither mum nor dad mention the dreaded “A” word.  In fact, they act as if nothing unusual has happened.

Finally, I don’t recall the occasion, mum and I are having a disagreement about something or other.  “Why are you mad at us?” she asks.  I’m taken aback. Secretly I know she’s right.  I am mad, but nonetheless I still say, “I’m not mad at you.  You just think I’m mad because of the adoption thing.”

Mum stiffens. “It’s very wrong of you to bring it up.  Very wrong.”

In a separate conversation, Ann Marie tells me that she is encountering the same wall of silence.  Eddie asks the question Ann Marie and I are wondering: “How many other secrets do they still have? What else haven’t they told us?”

But the case is closed as far as mum is concerned.  Neither she nor dad will ever again utter a single word about our adoptions.

***

The wall of silence only adds to the anger I claimed I didn’t feel.  Mum could silence any further talk of adoption, but she couldn’t bottle up my emotions.  Shock turns to anger. I still have no right to know?  We can’t even talk about it? I’m still supposed to pretend?  My parents lied to me.  Well maybe not exactly lied, but they hadn’t trusted me with the truth and, they still don’t.  It takes me longer to finally realize that they also didn’t trust themselves.  They didn’t trust that their love for us was enough.  They didn’t trust that they were more than qualified, more than worthy of parenting us.  They didn’t trust that we wouldn’t suddenly dump them for our birth parents.

In the nineteen forties and fifties, couples felt if not shame, at least embarrassment when they couldn’t have kids.  But mum’s and dad’s friends had to know.  More than lingering Victorian mores, I come to believe that mum and dad fear rejection. They are afraid that somehow we won’t love them as much; that physically or emotionally we will abandon them; that we will prefer our biological parents to them.  Their unwillingness to even broach the topic convinces me that they still feel insecure about their relationships with us.  Their lack of trust gnaws at me.

Why don’t they trust us? Trust me? Am I somehow to blame? Don’t they know I love them?  Am I partially responsible for their insecurity?  The feeling I somehow contributed to their fear of rejection leads to guilt.  All children are embarrassed at various times by their parents.  Heck, most TV family sitcoms, at least in the post Leave It to Beaver world, are built around this notion.  There was even a car commercial in which a child helping his dad operate the vehicle’s navigation system opines, “Just because you are parents doesn’t mean you have to be lame.”

Based on my own experience, I suspect that many adopted children grapple with guilt when they harbor such perfectly normal feelings.  After all, adopted children are keenly aware that our parents chose us; sacrificed for us; loved us.  And what we do in return? We hope they won’t say something stupid in front of our friends. We secretly wish we had “cooler” parents.  When I was a little boy, I wanted to live with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on their ranch.

But in the aftermath of Revelation Day, I haven’t worked through these feelings. Only after many years do I put my situation in perspective.  All offspring at various times find their parents lacking in some regard.  Eventually I come to realize that seeing your parents’ frailties and still loving them are simply part of growing up.

But before I come to that realization, I grapple with feelings of guilt as I recall certain moments like the time mum and dad came to visit me in the Jackson Heights section of Queens where I was teaching at a private school.  It was a very hot day and dad was wearing a white tee shirt.  He suggests that to cool off, I remove my collared shirt and go with just the undershirt.  When I decline, he suddenly turns angry and says, “You are ashamed of us.  You look down on us.  You think we’re stupid.”  I assure him that this is not the case, but I am rattled.

This is not the first time dad has accused me of harboring feelings of superiority.  I also wonder if maybe there’s some truth to his accusations.  I was sometimes embarrassed at dad’s fractured grammar and mum’s mispronunciations.   Sometimes I secretly wished they were more educated and polished. When I went to Georgetown, I found myself in a distinct minority of students from working class families.  I was conflicted.  Sometimes I was reluctant to tell fellow students, many graduates of private preparatory schools, that my dad was a machinist in a snap factory.  Other times, I was proud to be a blue-collar product.  And at all times, I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder.  I wanted to prove that I was at least as smart as everyone else, if not the brightest bulb in the class.

Thanks to dad’s work ethic, we always had plenty of food and never wanted for anything important.  When I went to college, mum started working in a local bakery.  But despite their efforts, money, or the lack thereof, always was a frequent topic of concern, at least with mum, who seemed to feel she had married below her true station in life.

Maybe despite all their love, I too felt a bit like mum; like somehow, I deserved better.

 

Chapter Three: Flashbacks and Floaters  

Looking back, it’s hard to believe I didn’t know I was adopted.  Maybe on some level I always did.

When we were kids, Ann Marie once or twice actually suggested that we might be adopted.  After Revelation Day, Ann Marie admits that when she was a child, she actually searched the house, including the drawers of my parents’ dressers, looking for her birth certificate.

I guess Eddie was right to facetiously nickname me Flash.  I was either very slow on the uptake or I did a great job of suppressing any suspicions.  Only in retrospect did I see Revelation Day coming.

When we were growing up, Ann Marie occasionally would voice her suspicions.  Invariably I would point out our resemblances to each other. We were both dark haired and had similar square faces and rounded noses.  “Maybe we were adopted from the same family,” she once said.

I sometimes wondered about mum and dad’s lighter hair, narrower faces and thin, long Celtic noses.  But I simply suppressed any serious doubts.  Once I actually asked mum about my dark features and she explained that dad’s hair was dark when he was young.  I was one of the first boys to shave.  Even despite mum’s assurances, I found myself sometimes staring in the mirror, wondering where I got such bushy eyebrows and heavy beard.

More often I wondered how it could be possible that I was doing so well in school.  Mum always made sure I had plenty of books to read as a child, and she always made sure I was doing my homework.  But I guess I felt like the son of factory workers couldn’t possibly be college material.  On the other hand, I surely wasn’t made out to be a machinist.  When pressed to work with dad on household projects, he would always chide me, “I’ve never seen anyone with such a lack of mechanical aptitude.”

Only after Revelation Day, did I understand why I didn’t pick up the Mr. Fixit Gene.

Speaking of genetics, somehow it never registered with me that both mum and dad have blue eyes while mine are hazel.  Betsy now recalls, “You know, when we first met, I noticed your parents eyes were blue, but I guess I never thought much more about it.”  Join the club.

At my first physical after the revelation, I tell my doctor that I need to update my family history.  “I just found out I’m adopted. I don’t know if I have a family history of cancer, or heart disease.” I also begin to realize that this means my sons also lack half of their family medical history.

***

In addition to recollections of suppressed suspicions, many memories start resurfacing.  When I suddenly see the hidden meaning in what has been a puzzling moment in my life, Betsy wonders aloud if in fact my memory is just playing tricks.  Perhaps I am just imagining these supposed memories.  But these recollections are neither conjured nor flashbacks of suppressed memories.

I remember them vividly because at the time these events or comments seemed odd, or simply seemed to make no sense at all.  These once seemingly disconnected moments bubble to the surface.  They pop into my head like a floater, a drowned person who decomposes enough for the body to resurface.

That’s a gruesome comparison, I know.  What I mean is that these memories refuse to stay submerged.  They aren’t the same as flashbacks of suppressed traumas, which for psychological reasons a person wants to forget.  Floaters are like a lifejacket or a buoy or yes, a dead person.  Floaters are lighter than water.

Flashbacks or floaters, whatever you want to call them, some of these memories pop up right after Revelation Day; others take years, even decades to resurface.  Some are from my earliest childhood; others from young adulthood.

Taken together, these floaters cast my loving, wonderful adoptive parents not in a different light, but a clearer one.  It’s almost as if someone had digitized snippets from a fuzzy old home movie, adding pixels to the fuzzy gaps.

 

Chapter Four: Weymouth

In retrospect, it’s clear that mum struggled with her secret.  Part of her wanted to tell me.  The signals were there if only one knew how to decode them.  Now I do.

Weymouth is a working class, sprawling city south of Boston.  The section we lived in is North Weymouth.  The Fore River marks the dividing line between the City of Quincy and Weymouth.  In the late 40s and early 50s Bethlehem Steel operated a shipyard on the Quincy side and Procter & Gamble had a factory.  The Weymouth side was lined with an Edison power plant, high tension wires and oil tanks.

A few miles south of this industrial area, mum and dad bought their first home in one of the new developments springing up all over America to accommodate the returning soldiers and sailors of World War II.  These were days of modest cape and ranch-style homes.  Our house was near the top of a hill, so high that from our attic I could just make the out fleeting images on the big outdoor screen of a nearby drive-in theater.

***

One of my earliest memories is Mum routinely reading Novenas at night on a green faux leather sofa. I am very young because when I jump up on the sofa (which I’m not supposed to do) and stand next to sitting mum, my head is barely higher than hers.  One night I ask her what she is reading every night.  “These are prayers to God’s mother,” she explains. “I am thanking her and God for you.  I prayed and prayed to the Blessed Mother and to her Son that I would get you.  Without them, I wouldn’t have you.”

But then she starts crying.  “Mummy, why are you crying?” As best a little kid can, I try to console her.  I am upset that somehow I’ve caused her to be sad.

“Because God gave you to me and I’m afraid that God will take you away.”

Mum and dad were wonderful parents.   I felt loved, the most important gift any child can receive. But expressing concern that the Supreme Being may at any time suddenly decide to sweep you away is maybe not the best thing to tell a little kid.

Not surprisingly, I start having trouble falling asleep, fearful that God indeed might take me away, or worse yet, simply appear to discuss my apparently tenuous status in the here and now. I become a bed rocker.  Unable to sleep and feeling anxious, I go through periods where I feel compelled to rock my head back and forth, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes head down, leaning on my knees.

***

Mum’s revelations that Sunday morning explain several more puzzling memories.  I actually remember the lunches at the Woolworth’s in Quincy Center where a dark haired counter lady would invariably wait on us.  When she wasn’t serving other diners, the waitress and mum would talk in hurried, whispered voices.  I never forgot these odd lunches because mum always seemed unusually preoccupied and occasionally agitated when she talked with the counter lady. Mum would want to keep chatting with her long after we were done with our food. I distinctly recall during one of these prolonged lunches that she claimed the waitress was “a friend.”  But I never saw her anywhere except at Woolworth’s.

On revelation morning, mum had shed some additional light on Ann Marie’s adoption.  “Do you remember when we left you for a few days to stay with Rita and Charlie?”  Rita and Charlie McLaughlin were my parents’ best friends. Rita, mum’s bridesmaid, was maybe the only woman I had ever seen who was as big as mum.  She and Charlie had no children but they clearly loved having me around their seaside cottage on Weymouth’s shoreline.  I loved whenever mum and dad drove the short distance to visit Rita and Charlie.  They had a collie, the first television I’d ever seen, and a rocky beach right across the street.  I definitely remember the day mum and dad left me with Rita and Charlie because it was the first time they had ever left me with someone else.  That was also the day I fell in love with the seashore.  I remember playing on the rocks of the McLaughlin’s shoreline when dad’s car came into view. It was nearly sunset, but I had a wonderful day, and while I’ll was glad to see them back, I was sorry that my adventure would be over.

In the kitchen that morning, mum explained, “To get your sister, we had to go to court that day. That’s why we left you with the McLaughlins. As we were pulling up the house, I saw you all alone on the beach. You looked like a poor, little orphan.” Wiping away the tears, she added, “But you were as happy as a clam.”

***

I also remember the day in 1952 when Ann Marie arrived.  There is a knock at the front door.  I open it and standing there is a woman in a white uniform holding a baby.  “Is your mother home?” “Mum. Mum,” I shout.  “There’s a woman at the door and she has a baby.”

As if this delivery is simply the most normal thing in the world, mum explains that this baby is my sister. After the woman in white leaves, she explains, “You remember I told you that you were getting a sister, but that she was too little and too sick to come home right away. Well, now she is strong enough to come home and live with us.”

When I recount this story, Betsy is incredulous. “Didn’t you know where babies came from?  Didn’t you wonder why mum never looked pregnant?”  But mum had already laid the groundwork.  When she had told me I was getting a sister, I asked where babies came from. “From the hospital,” mum had explained.  As I got older, I don’t think it ever crossed my mind why I didn’t actually remember mum being pregnant. Given mum’s largeness, I figured a baby could easily escape notice.

***

Lois no doubt greatly contributes to my fear that I could be with mum and dad one day and, poof, gone somewhere else the next.  Lois is my Aunt Ellen’s daughter.  After Aunt Ellen gave birth to Lois in 1942, two tragedies struck.  First, Aunt Ellen’s husband died of causes never explained.  Then sometime later, Ellen came down with polio.  So while dad was on his way to the Pacific to fight the Japanese, Lois became, in a very real sense, mum’s first ward.  It would be another five years before I would arrive and a decade before the woman in the white uniform would knock on the front door, Ann Marie in her arms.

Aunt Ellen lived with my chain-smoking, alcoholic Uncle Jimmy.  Mum would later explain that they both enjoyed “a good time,” meaning a taste for “the drink”.  Because of my Aunt’s ups and downs, battling polio and dealing with the travails of Uncle Jimmy, Lois would periodically live with mum and dad until Lois graduated from high school.  She became in every sense a sister.  However, she was a sister who would be there one day and gone the next, for reasons that only later in life I would fully understand.

***

When mum would reprimand Lois for her latest unruly transgression, mum would invariably say, “If you were only mine, Lois, if you were only mine…”  After Revelation Day, it suddenly dawns on me that Lois is the only blood relative among the three children raised by mum and dad.  I contact Lois in Florida to ask if she knew growing up that Ann Marie and I were adopted.  She did know but no one in the family ever discussed it, much less provided any details.  No surprise there.  I remind her of how mum used to always say, “Lois, if only you were mine…” and marvel aloud that out of spite or anger during one of her frequent battles with mum, Lois didn’t tell me that I was adopted.  Lois explains that she knew it wasn’t her place to tell me and besides, she didn’t want to incur mum’s wrath by spilling the big secret.  That I also could understand.

***

Throughout childhood, mum regularly calls me special.  I invariably ask, “Why am I special?”  She always answers the same way: “Because you are.  You are special.”

And I would always reply the same way. “I don’t want to be special.  I want to be like everyone else.”  But I never felt like everyone else.  I always felt like I was, or at least I had to be, somehow special.

As I got older, mum bolstered this idea that I was somehow special in other ways.  As I got older and pressed her to explain how was I was special, she would declare, “There are leaders and there are followers. You are a leader. That’s one way you are special.”

She continued to insist that she and I have a special relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus.  The early memory of her crying on the sofa is not an isolated event.  She would periodically talk of Mary’s role.  As I got older, I pressed her on this, and she explained that she didn’t think she could have children, but after praying to Mary, she was able to get first me and then Ann Marie.

***

By far and away the scariest memory of my early years, one that remains as vivid to me today as when it happened, is this scene:

I’m in the lap of a strange woman in the passenger seat of an unfamiliar car.  Mum is outside the car, her head at the driver’s rolled-down window.  I am terrified.  I am screaming and struggling to break free of the strange woman’s arms.  I kick a brown dashboard, pushing off it in hopes of escape.  I’m sobbing and yelling at the top of my lungs, “Don’t take me.  Don’t take me.”

Mum tells the driver, “He thinks you are going to take him away.” She comes around to the passenger side and retrieves me from the strange lady.  I never felt more relieved in life when mum swept me up into her big arms.

To this day, I don’t know who the mystery couple was or where they planned to take me.  But I suspect that at the time I may have thought they were angels taking me to God.

***

I am asked to leave nursery school after tossing a male classmate in the kiddie pool.  I hate preschool.  We are supposed to take naps.  The staff rolls mats on the floor and the other children dutifully lie down and, if not go to asleep, at least pretend to.  I don’t take naps. To me, a nap is just one more chance for God or maybe his mysterious angels to snatch me.

 

Chapter Six: Scituate

We lived in Weymouth until I completed the second grade.  In June of 1955 we move 15 miles south to the picturesque, coastal town of Scituate.  Aesthetics aside, I’ve never understood how this move made practical sense to my parents.  Our new house is much smaller than our old one.  My dad’s commute to the snap factory is even longer.  But I am, to use mum’s phrase, happy as a clam.

Unlike Weymouth, which bordered Boston Harbor, Scituate is on the open ocean. Even better, our small ranch house in the town’s Sand Hills beach section is within easy walking distance to a sandy beach on the Atlantic, a rocky beach in a picturesque harbor, and a waterfront village that had a movie theater and a bowling alley.  There is even an old lighthouse at the tip of the point marking the harbor’s entrance. In short, it is an absolutely idyllic place for an eight-year-old boy.

But from my parents’ perspective, especially my mother’s, our new home is clearly a step back.  In Weymouth my dad had built, with my “help,” a garage attached to the house with what was then called a breezeway. Our Scituate house has no garage. The new house is what real estate brokers euphemistically call cozy.  The Weymouth house had a walkup attic so large my dad was in the process of finishing off another bedroom.  The Scituate house has an attic “crawl space” accessible only by stepladder.  The Weymouth house had a full basement. The Scituate cellar consists of a small area excavated at the base of the bulkhead.  When it rains heavily, the dug-out section fills up with water and more often than not, extinguishes the pilot light to the gas heater.

After the revelation, I wonder if somehow our sudden departure from Weymouth was connected to our adoptions.  The only time I muster enough nerve, I casually ask dad why we moved. He says, “Weymouth was getting to be too much like a city.”

***

Whatever the reason for the downsizing of homes, the first “floater” that bubbles to surface after moving to Scituate is this:

A dog runs into our yard while I’m playing outside and attacks our kitten.  I chase off the dog, yelling, “Get out of here, you bastard.” Suddenly the front door flies open and mum runs out, nearly hysterical. For a second I think she’s worried about the kitten but then I remember she doesn’t even like cats. In fact, this is the first kitten we’ve ever had.

“Don’t you ever use that word again, ever,” mum screams, almost frantically.  Her reaction to a swear word, while understandable, seems somehow over the top, so much so, that actually I say something like, “Geez, it’s just a curse word.”

“You shouldn’t curse at all, but especially that one. That’s one you should never use.  I’m going to tell your father.”  She stresses the “you” and I sense she wants to say something else, but suddenly flustered, turns and goes back into the house.  That night she does tell dad, who simply repeats that this is a very bad curse word, one that I should never use.  I never use the word “bastard” again in their presence, and we never get another cat after the first one disappears.

***

One summer I had a particularly good tan and mum (obviously without thinking) blurts out, “You have a nice golden color. That’s your Mediterranean blood.”

I ask, “How can I have Mediterranean blood if I’m Irish?”

Mum catches herself and with just enough hesitation to create a future floater, explains, “Well, some of the Irish came originally from the Mediterranean area.”  I remember reading somewhere about the dark Irish coming originally from Celtic Spain and assume that’s what she’s referring to.

***

Another summer when I am in high school, I am with my friends at the Knights of Columbus carnival held every July. One of my buddies grabs my arm and says, “Hey, look at that guy over there.  He looks just like you.” I see a young man, clearly older than I, who in fact bears a remarkable resemblance. When I go home and tell mum, she is clearly upset.  “Did he say anything? Was he following you?”  I think these questions odd, but ascribe them to mum’s over-protectiveness.

***

When I express concern over going bald, mum assures me it won’t happen. I point to the fact that her father, known as The Old Gent, was bald as is Uncle Jimmy.  I inform her that baldness is passed on from the mother’s side.  Mum throws up her hands and declares that the bald gene skips a generation. She then adds with firm but cryptic conviction, “You’ll just have to take my word for it. You don’t have to worry about going bald.”  As it turns out, over time my hairline begins to recede as does this memory until it later resurfaces.

***

Floaters stand out for a reason. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing.  I had just helped dad put some things up in the attic crawl space.  I come down the step ladder and mum and dad are in the cramped hallway.  As I fold up the ladder, dad asks if I’ve given any thought to what I might study in college.  He suggests engineering or electronics. Mum stays, waiting to hear my answer.  I remind him that I’m not very good at math so I doubt I’ve got a technology-based future ahead of me. They look a bit crest-fallen.   Hoping to cheer them up, I add, “I just want you to know that whatever I become, whatever success I have, I owe it all to you both.”

Instead of appearing pleased by this heartfelt compliment on their rearing, they both look upset, especially mum, who asks, “Jackie, why do you say that?”

“Because of all you’ve given me,” I shrug.

Mum persists.  “Is that the only reason?”

“Well, yes. I mean, the love you’ve given me especially. I don’t mean just things.”

“What makes you say this now?” mum asks.  This seems so weird.  Why are they upset?

“Well, I just don’t want you to be disappointed if I don’t become an engineer. But I want you to know that I’m sure I’ll do OK and I know I owe you both so much.”  They still seem taken aback but after a bit of hesitation, mum turns and, I’m sure, heads for her Novena book.

***

I flash back to a rainy night.  Dad is driving Aunt Ellen home to her apartment in Boston.  Mum is in the back seat with Aunt Ellen, who has clearly had a bit too much to drink.  I am a boy of perhaps 10 or 11, sitting in the front passenger seat.  Mum and Aunt Ellen are having one of their arguments.  I’m trying to shut out their unpleasantness.  I’m mesmerized by the play of passing lights on the slick city streets.  But the decibel level in the backseat rises.  Mum drops her classic line, “I can’t stand a liar.”

Aunt Ellen guffaws.  “Liar, don’t tell me about lies.  We all have our little secrets, don’t we Ann?”

“Be careful, Ellen,” mum warns. “There are little ears.”

Ellen retreats but not before adding, “I know there are little ears. I’m just reminding you, we all have our secrets.  So don’t get on your high horse with me.”

Decades later Aunt Ellen’s words once again ring in my ears, and I can see the little boy staring into the gloom of a soaked city, pretending he’s distracted, but his ears ringing with the words, “We all have our little secrets.”

***

Mum said on Revelation Day that they almost told me I was adopted before I went to college and again when I graduated. That brings back memories of several other incongruous moments.

Revelation Day was only the second time in my life that I saw my dad cry. The first time was after I graduated from Georgetown in June of 1969:

Mum is trying to put the brakes on a summer romance.  This leads to a heated argument.  I feel like mum is afraid to let go of me. I had always felt like she was overly protective.  I don’t want to be smothered.  I don’t want to be a mama’s boy.  Even though she always said some day some girl would steal my heart, she still seems like she can’t let me go.  No girl is ever going to be good enough.  So when she tries to slow things down, I protest. “You are screwing me up.”

Those words fire up dad with uncharacteristic ardor.  He grabs my arm with one hand and with the other, wags a finger in my face.  “After all we have done for you, don’t you ever talk that way to your mother again.  You don’t know all that we’ve done for you.”  While he doesn’t tell me then that I am adopted, he does reveal a secret, hidden by a lie.

As I mentioned, my dad was a machinist, working for the same company for 46 years at factories in Boston and Cambridge.  Early in my life he worked five days a week and in good economic times, a half day on Saturday mornings.  Weekdays, he would get up before 5 a.m. for the long commute from Scituate, thirty miles south of Boston, and not return until almost 11 p.m.  When I would ask him why he was working so late, he would always say he was “making overtime.”

In the summer of ’69, my claim that somehow mum is “screwing me up” pushes this proud man to tell me the truth about how he earned the extra money for me and the rest of his family.  He bites his lip. “All those years, you thought I was working overtime at the factory, I was actually working a second job at night.  I was a janitor in Boston at the old Traveler’s Building.” As I see his tears for the first time in my life, he spits out what was so clearly to him a distasteful admission: “I was cleaning shithouses.”

***

Mum cries several times just before I get married.  I figure she still just doesn’t want to let me go.  When I ask her why she is crying, she shakes her head and sobs, “You just don’t know; if you only knew.”

“Know what?” I ask repeatedly. But she just shakes her head again.  Angry, I say, “This is not a good thing to say to a child.” I’m embarrassed that I’ve just called myself a child.  “It’s not a good thing to say to a child of any age, I mean…it’s not fair to me.  You are upset and there’s a reason, but you won’t tell me. That’s not right. That’s not fair.”  This must have been the moment when mum came close to telling her little secret which only grew bigger with each passing year.

***

The most recent floater has to be the most astounding.  It’s amazing in the sense that I didn’t finally realize I was adopted.  By this time I was now married and living in Marshfield:

My car is in the shop and I need a cab ride to pick it up.  It’s raining heavily and I’m glad I’ve hired a taxi. While in the cab, the driver asks me if I am related to some Hoeys from Weymouth.  He explains that he has a friend who is a cab driver in Boston and was also a friend of the Hoeys.  I know immediately who the mutual friend is.

“We lived in Weymouth when I was young.”

“What was your dad’s name?”

“Joe.”

“Joe Hoey. I think that was his name. These Hoeys had a couple of adopted kids and the father was a real hard working guy.  In fact, my friend said Joe Hoey was hardest working guy he ever met.”

You would think this encounter would have finally cracked the code, but not for Flash.  I’m slightly taken aback by the cabbie’s story but figure he somehow has the facts wrong. Even if Hoey is an uncommon Irish name, he has to be confusing my parents with someone else. “Well, we lived in Weymouth and my dad was a hard working guy, but my sister and I weren’t adopted.”

The driver starts to say something again, but stops himself.  Finally he says, “Yeah, it’s probably someone else he was talking about.” The only sounds inside the cab after that are the window wipers.  I stare out the rain-splattered window and, like the boy who overheard Aunt Ellen and mum arguing about secrets, decide to think about something else.

Chapter Seven: Curiosity and Guilt

I sure didn’t show any curiosity when the cab driver all but handed me my adoption papers.  But if I wasn’t curious before Revelation Day, I sure am after.  Adoptees who lack information about their birth parents don’t know some very basic things that most people take for granted.  Where did I get my looks? What is my family medical history?  Do have any siblings? How many? What sex? Older? Younger? Do they look like me?  Do they share similar talents or interests? How did my parents meet?  (There’s even TV sitcom based on this natural curiosity.)  Who named me and why? Why was I put up for adoption?

I remind myself that most people would be curious if confronted with the sudden absence of answers to such basic questions.  But nevertheless, I still feel guilt when I first begin to grapple with these strong feelings of curiosity.  Am I being disloyal to mum and dad?  And why bother to pursue the past? Mum and dad would always be my real parents so why bother to find out more about my biological parents?

***

Her name is Susan.  She is the sister who wants to make contact with Ann Marie.  Because Ann Marie was adopted through the state, Susan has the legal right to at least notify Ann Marie of Susan’s relationship.  Ann Marie can then decide whether she actually wants to contact Susan, whose mother also is Olga Olson, the dimly remembered dark-haired lady at the Woolworth’s lunch counter.

Ann Marie and Ed go to the local office of the state’s social services department to see what else they can find out about her adoption.  A smiling female state employee holds up a manila file folder and informs them that it would be a violation of her birth mother’s privacy to divulge the contents.  Seeing Ann Marie’s disappointment, the friendly woman grins and adds, “But I have to step out of the room, and I’m going to leave this here.” She touches the top of the folder lying on her desk.  “I’ll be back in five minutes.”

That’s enough time for Ann Marie and Ed to learn from the documents in her file that Olga changed her mind about Ann Marie’s adoption.   This explains why it took six months before the lady in the white uniform turned up at the door with Ann Marie in her arms.  Mum and dad had to fight in court to win her.

Olga didn’t know it, but she never had a chance.  She was no match for mum’s steel-willed determination.  In Ann Marie’s folder, a social worker describes mum as “strong minded” but having provided a loving home for her adopted five-year-old, son.  That would be me.  Dad is “hard working” and “steady,” but the social worker clearly implies that while dad also wants to have another child, he is not driving the adoption bus.  No surprise there.

The documents contain more details.  The Hoeys are unable to have children. Mum has experienced several miscarriages.  On the witness stand, Olga’s attorney grills them on every aspect of their marriage -the health of their relationship, their care of me, and their finances.  Ann Marie learns her birth father is of Irish ancestry and lived in Quincy when she was born.  His proximity may explain our move from Weymouth to Scituate.

***

Susan has a different father from a later relationship with Olga, making her Ann Marie’s half sister. Ann Marie decides to call her.  They agree to meet at a local restaurant where they have no trouble recognizing each other.  They look remarkably similar.  Occasional phone calls and less frequent face-to-face meetings will follow in the ensuing years.  Ann Marie learns from Susan that Olga had a number of children by several husbands before moving to the Midwest and settling down.  Susan says she actually called Olga, who made clear she has moved on with her life and has no desire to establish a relationship.

Ann Marie doesn’t have much more luck with her birth father.  She finds his Weymouth High School yearbook picture but runs into a dead-end on what happened to him after graduation.   There are simply too many people with the same Irish surname.  It’s for good reason Boston’s South Shore is called “the Irish Riviera.”

***

As the months after Revelation Day become years, I remain somewhat envious that Ann Marie has contacted Susan and that they occasionally speak to each by phone.   But mostly I stay conflicted.

Curiosity, anger and guilt are never far from the surface when I allow myself to think about this long hidden secret.  I find myself staring in the mirror when I shave and trying to picture what my birth parents might look like.  Beyond mere curiosity, I begin to resent not knowing my medical history.  With each passing year more newspaper stories report the huge role genetics play in the likelihood of developing certain types of cancers and other diseases.  When I change doctors or visit a specialist, I have to write “Don’t know – adopted” when I come to the section on family history.  I begin to feel I should have a right to know my family medical history, not only for my own well being, but that of our two sons.

I decide to see if I can find out anything about my adoption by going to Boston City Hall.  I explain to the clerk of birth records that I’m adopted. “I’m wondering if you have a birth certificate for this date with the same first name or since I’m not sure if my first name was changed, possibly another first name, and the last name, McCarthy?”

I present him with my birth certificate, which lists my name as “John Peter Hoey” and date of birth as “August 11, 1947.”  However, the date of the certificate is 1953.

The clerk looks it over and shakes his head.  ‘The only public birth record we’d have for you is this one.  Once the probate court approves an adoption, the birth certificate is changed.  Of course, the records of an adoption are private.  The court seals them.”

He’s telling me that I have no to right to see my original birth certificate.  Frustrated, I state the obvious.  “But I’m the one who was adopted.”

The clerk shakes his head.  “Doesn’t matter. That’s the law.”

I feel angry and stupid.  I should have known.  What a waste of time.

***

But the curiosity doesn’t go away and I continue to feel disloyal to mum and dad.  I think I will feel even more unfaithful if I try to find Claire.  Unlike Ann Marie, I don’t have any long lost siblings looking for me, at least not that I’m aware of.  Since my adoption was through Catholic Charities, a private organization, there is no legal requirement to notify me if some sibling, or even my birth mother, is actually trying to find me.

Since I don’t know if Claire may be looking for me, I’m afraid that I’ll upset her and any other children she may have if I do somehow find and contact her.  I replay the tearful scene in mum’s and dad’s kitchen on Revelation Day. I imagine a proper matron having to tell her shocked husband and maybe even her children that she got knocked up when she was in high school.  Do I really want to put someone through that angst just because I’m curious?

Chapter Eight: Undercover: June 1988

I have a forward-facing window seat on the commuter ferry that runs between the South Shore town of Hingham and Boston’s financial district.  There is a small table between two opposite-facing seats.  I turn the pages of the Boston Globe, which partially lies across my half of the table.  I sip coffee from the paper cup carefully placed next to the newspaper and occasionally glance at the passing harbor islands.  This has been my morning routine since April of 1986 when I joined the public relations department of NYNEX, one of the seven Baby Bells created by the breakup of AT&T.

I was reluctant to take the PR job.  I had left Georgetown Law School in 1974 to become a journalist, and had spent the next 12 years reporting and editing at daily newspapers in the Boston area.  I’m not sure if I believe in destiny, but it’s funny how sometimes we decide to take one path in life over another, only to find the alternate route leads us to the same place.  I left law school at the height of the Watergate scandal.  Like Woodward and Bernstein, I wanted to seek and report “the truth.”  I didn’t want to argue only one side.  I didn’t want to be an advocate.  But as a PR executive, an advocate I became.

From the very first day on the job, I started commuting by boat to the phone company’s Boston offices.  So I was very much in my routine when I boarded the 7:20 a.m. boat on June 27, 1988, found a choice window seat, and started perusing the Globe.  Suddenly, the morning trip became anything but ordinary.

I turn to the “Irish Sports Pages,” otherwise known as the obituaries, and read the top headline:  Claire McCarthy Wallingford native.  I panic.  My birth mother has died.   In that instant I realize I don’t want her to die. I want to see her; maybe even meet her.

Then I read on: …at 90.  This can’t be my mother.

The obituary leads with the time and place of a funeral mass for Claire Howe McCarthy who has died after a long illness.  The obituary continues:

Mrs. McCarthy grew up on the Howe Farm in Wallingford, which her father operated as one of the largest commercial gardens in Middlesex County.  Her sons now operate it as McCarthy’s Farm and Nursery.

Mrs. McCarthy attended the Academy of the Assumption in Wellesley and Vassar College and graduated from Mount St. Vincent College in New York.  She graduated from Wallingford High School in 1915.

Among the surviving children the obituary lists Claire O’Neill of Farmingdale.  Next to the obituary is a photo of Claire Howe McCarthy.  This is the “lovely lady” that mum talked so favorably about three years earlier on Revelation Day. This is my grandmother.

***

Betsy and I slink down in the front seats of our car, which is parked in the lot for St. Margaret’s Church.  I decided to attend my grandmother’s funeral Mass.  The curiosity was simply too much.  This is a chance to see what my birth mother looks like.  But I’m filled with dread.  What if someone asks us who we are?  What if I look enough like her or other relatives that my looks draw attention?  What if I start crying?  Betsy reminds me that nothing could be more ordinary at a funeral than crying.  But what if my birth mother asks me who I am?

It’s ten minutes before 10 a.m. when the Mass will begin.  We can’t wait in the car much longer.  How will I recognize my birth mother? From the obituary, I know that Claire has two sisters.  Mercifully there is no more time to worry about such questions.  It’s now or perhaps never to actually see my birth mother. Undercover, Betsy and I enter the church and take a seat in the back, hoping no one will ask any questions.

Our timing is good because members of the family are still arriving.  There are plenty of them.  My grandmother leaves six children, including my mother; 20 grandchildren, not counting me and 16 great grandchildren.  They are also easy to spot because they walk all the way up the aisle and take seats up front.  Many look like me.  The older men, my uncles I’m guessing, have wiry hair, square jaws, bushy eyebrows, and pug noses.  I wonder if the boys and younger men are my cousins or even half-brothers. The family resemblance only heightens my concern that someone is going to ask who I am.

I strain to study the faces of the older women, hoping somehow to figure out which one is Claire.  Like the men, the women are short and stocky with wavy hair and strong jaws.  From our seats, their faces are hard to see as they are escorted up the aisle. Everyone rises as the Mass begins.  Eight priests, a truly astounding number, line the altar.

The guessing game ends quickly.  The main celebrant of the Mass announces, “Claire will give the First Reading.”  A tiny woman rises.  She is so short she can barely see over the lectern as she reads in a gravelly voice a passage from the Old Testament.  Since we’re in the back of the church, Claire is too far away to see well, but at least now I know which one she is.

In his homily, the priest talks glowingly of my grandmother: how wonderful she was to her children and grandchildren; how she attended Mass daily, always a smile on her face; how generous she was to the Church.  Now I know why there are eight priests.  I also can’t help but wonder what it would have been like if I had grown up with this lovely, laughing grandmother, the lady that mum clearly respected.  The thought only stokes my burning guilt.

When the Mass ends, the immediate family files out first.  My heart is racing; my mouth is bone dry.  Claire comes down the aisle.  Amazingly, she pauses just before the pew where Betsy and I are.    Oh my God, she’s going to ask me who I am.  She clasps the outstretched hand of a woman directly in front of me.  The woman, obviously a good friend, offers condolences, saying something I can’t quite hear that prompts Claire to start crying.  Claire embraces the friend who is taller than Claire.   Claire, tears rolling down her cheeks, looks up into the woman’s face.  I am looking directly down at Claire, inches away from the woman who birthed me.  For a fleeting moment our eyes meet, but hers are glazed with grief.

I want to console her.  But I know I can’t.  This is no time to introduce myself. What do I say?  “I am sorry and by the way, surprise, surprise, guess who I am?”  I am both sorry and relieved when Claire lets go of her friend and resumes her exit.

 

Chapter Nine: The First Letter: July 1988

After the undercover funeral mass, I am more curious than ever.  I know from the obituary that she lives in Farmingdale.  Getting the street address or phone number is simple.  More complicated is working out why I would contact her.  I have a mother, a wonderful mother.   Why upset everyone involved, including me?

Nevertheless I write a letter to Claire.  In it, I introduce myself, explain that I was at her mother’s funeral, and summarize what I’ve done with my life.  But I can’t bring myself to mail the letter.  I am too conflicted.  In my heart I know I can’t even seriously consider contacting Claire while mum and dad are alive.  If they ever found out, they would be hurt.  They simply wouldn’t understand.  I also don’t want to cause Claire any pain.

***

Nearly a decade passes.  Claire and the undercover attendance at my grandmother’s funeral Mass are never far from my consciousness.  In other ways, I also can’t seem to escape the McCarthys.   I begin to notice newspaper and radio ads for the McCarthy chain of garden centers, as well as occasional news articles on the success of the family business.  Amazingly, a McCarthy’s outlet catering to corporate clients opens in a downtown Boston storefront only a few blocks from my office.  When I’m out walking at lunchtime, a red delivery van with a green shamrock logo turns the corner in front of me. The name on the truck is McCarthy Garden Centers.

A memory resurfaces, a floater from when I was fifteen:

In eager anticipation of getting my driver’s license, I buy a 1950 Ford sedan for $50.   All it needs is a new battery, a little body work, and a paint job.  I repaint it light green and then, as an afterthought, I paint on the trunk a dark green shamrock outlined in white.  Under the shamrock I print: “The Green Machine.”  Mum has seen the front of the car, but she’s unaware of my artwork on the trunk.  Proudly I announce that I have a surprise to show her.  But when mum sees the shamrock, much to my surprise, she becomes visibly upset.

“Why did you paint this shamrock?”

“It looks good, don’t you think?”  Mum settles down a bit.

“Yes, yes it looks nice, but why a shamrock?  What made you want to paint a shamrock on your car?”

“Well, I’m Irish.”

Mum exhales, looking suddenly relieved.   “Of course, of course, you’re Irish.  I was just wondering.”

***

The McCarthys even follow me into my work office. NYNEX hires McCarthy’s to provide and maintain plants in its Boston headquarters. So now I have McCarthy’s employees, identifiable by their green golf tee shirts with white shamrocks, watering and fertilizing the corn plant next to my credenza.

As the years pass, the whole idea that I’m adopted seems to become just that – a concept rather than a concrete reality.  Revelation Day, the undercover funeral mass, the McCarthy’s logos take on a surreal or dreamlike quality.   When I see the McCarthy logo, I argue with myself.  On the one hand, I’m related by blood to these people. But I was raised by the Hoeys.  I’m a Hoey.  I was never a McCarthy and I’m not a McCarthy now.

Still, I can’t help but wonder how different my life might have been if I stayed with Claire.  Maybe I’d be managing a garden center instead of a public relations team.  Then another floater arises from the depths:

It’s a beautiful day in late May. I’m in junior high. We’ve never had a vegetable garden and I decide to make one.  It’s hard work but I enjoy digging and planting, a pastime that will remain with me throughout my life.  Betsy will often explain to friends who see all my landscaping, “Jack is never as happy as when he’s digging a hole.”

Anyway, on that spring day when I decide to plant my first garden, mum comes out to inspect.  “What made you want to have a garden,” she demands to know.

“I don’t know. I thought it would be neat to see if I could grow something.”

“You have it in your blood,” mum declares.

“What do you mean?”

She looks taken aback but offers an explanation. “Some people just like the feel of the earth.  I think you might be one of them.” Still looking a bit flustered, she adds, “A lot of the Irish were farmers.”  Then mum storms off.

I’m left wondering if I should be planting potatoes.

Chapter 10: The Christmas Card

Whether mum and dad would have understood my contacting Claire, I’ll never know.   Mum dies in 1996 and less than a year later, dad follows.  When I go through mum’s papers, I find the certificate of my adoption.  It states “that on the twenty-first day of June A.D. 1951 said John Peter McCarthy was by decree of this Court [Norfolk County Probate] adopted…and his name changed to that of John Peter Hoey.”

This is the first time and, I have since come to realize, the only place where I will ever see my original name in print.  It also tells me that for the first three years of my life I was in the care of mum and dad, but not yet adopted.  I was a foster child.

The small envelope mum leaves behind also contains the lawyer’s bill for the adoption petition ($75), a  copy of my Certificate of Baptism on Sept. 7, 1947 (I’m listed as John Peter Hoey even though not yet adopted) and curiously, a Christmas card.

On the front of this Christmas card is a photo of a statute of “the Blessed Family.”  Mary is riding a donkey, the infant Jesus cradled in her arms as she gazes lovingly at him.  Joseph walks slightly ahead but his head is turned back, looking behind at the mother and child, as if making sure they are safe.  He holds the rein of the donkey’s lowered head in his right hand and carries a simple staff in his left.

The second inside page contains a simple printed greeting: Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year

On the back cover is a handwritten note:

Dear Mrs. Hoey,

Hope all are well at your house.  Claire still has two little girls.  Maureen will be six January 3rd and Aileen is three. Claire has told her husband everything so nothing to worry about.

Marie is in a wheel chair all the time but manages very well with her five ages 7, 6, 4, 3, 2.  How many do you have now?

Best wishes, Claire McCarthy

In the upper corner in mum’s handwriting is the notation: “1960.”

From my grandmother’s obituary I know that Claire has a sister named Marie. So obviously mum and my grandmother did have some sort of relationship.  But all I can think of are the words: “Claire has told her husband everything so nothing to worry about.”

Claire’s husband knows about me.  I feel relieved.  This means I won’t wreck her marriage if I do contact her.  But wait.  Mum knew in 1960, when I was 13 years old, that Claire’s husband knew about me.  “…so nothing to worry about.”  What does this mean? Was mum contemplating telling me and had she written to my grandmother to find out if Claire’s husband knew?  Even knowing Claire’s husband was aware, mum obviously still couldn’t bring herself to tell me.

This makes me angry all over again and then of course, I feel guilty.   Mum must have felt some guilt herself.  On the first inside facing page of the card, mum has written:

Jack 39

Aileen 29

Maureen 31

I was 39 in 1986, only a year after Revelation Day.  After finally revealing the secret, mum must have reread this Christmas card and figured out the ages of Claire’s children.

“Nothing to worry about.”  Even after Revelation Day mum couldn’t bring herself to share all that she knew.  She couldn’t bring herself to give me permission.  She could not say: “If you are curious and want to contact Claire, it’s OK.  I will understand.  You should also know that her husband knows about you. Oh and by the way, you have two sisters.”

On the bottom of the back cover of the Christmas card, the location of the statute on the front is identified: The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.  Another floater surfaces:

Mum and dad drive me to Georgetown for the start of my freshman year.  This is my first time at the campus so I’m anxious to explore it.  However, mum insists that we go clear across the city to The National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.   I don’t understand it. I’m going to Georgetown, not Catholic University where the Shrine is located.  Inside the Shrine, mum finds the statute of the Blessed Family.  As I now know, this is only five years after my grandmother sent her the Christmas card assuring her “nothing to worry about.”

Mum kneels before the statute and prays and prays.  I finally say something about wanting to get back to Georgetown.  She stands up, her eyes watery, and says, “This statue has special meaning for me and for you.”

In retrospect this was one of those moments when mum came close to telling me.  On Revelation Day she said when I went to college was one of those times.  But I guess she came to the conclusion that even though Claire’s husband knew about me, it still wasn’t a good time for me to know the truth about me.

The discovery of the legal documents and the Christmas card made my adoption feel more real.  I didn’t know then just how important this card would become.

Chapter 11: Second Letter May 10, 1998

The immediate importance of the card is the liberating news:  Claire’s husband knows.  My grandmother’s assurance to mum, now applied to me: “Nothing to worry about.”  Knowing this and with both mum and dad gone, I finally feel free to contact Claire.   Still I need to build up my nerve. On May 10, 1998 I write another letter and this time, I actually mail it.

Dear Claire,

I am your son, Jack, born August 11, 1947.  I have not contacted you sooner for several reasons. First, I did not know until 1985.  I wrote a letter, which I never sent, after attending the funeral of your mother.

Since I wrote the first letter, my mother and father died, Ann in August of 1996 and Joe in June of 1997.   The second reason I haven’t contacted you is because I didn’t want to disrupt your life.  In going through my mother’s papers, came across a Christmas card from 1960 from your mother to mine. In her note she writes that “Claire has told her husband everything so nothing to worry about.”

The third reason I haven’t contacted you is that I feel ambivalent about the outcome. I am curious to know who my biological father is or was.  I am curious as to how your family came to know my parents.  I’d like to know if I should be concerned about any inheritable diseases.  I have many questions.

On the other hand, I don’t know where this inquiry will lead.  It runs the risk gamut from rejection to more involvement than I may ultimately care to have.

In the final analysis, I decided to send this letter because I don’t want to someday ask, “What if?” I have learned that this is perhaps the most difficult and pointless of all questions to ponder.

So with a firm resolve that this is the right thing to do, but also with an equal measure of trepidation, I invite you to consider calling me and/or meeting me.

You may have seen me on TV as the spokesman for Bell Atlantic (not James Earl Jones!).  I’m sure you’ll readily see the family resemblance.

I then went on to summarize what I had done with my life including marriage and children, and concluded: “Hope to hear from you soon, Jack.”

***

I do not hear from her soon.  Days pass, nothing.  Weeks pass, nothing.  Finally Betsy says what I already think.  “Obviously she doesn’t want to contact you.  As a woman, I can understand that.  I’m sorry but don’t take it personally.  She probably just wants to go on with her life.”

I say I understand.  I claim I’m not hurt.   But I don’t fully understand, and I do feel a sense of rejection… again.  I know she was only in high school when she got pregnant.  I know she has “her own” children.  But “she has told her husband everything so nothing to worry about.”  I don’t want to bring up old, perhaps painful memories.  But I want to know what everyone takes for granted. I want to know who my birth father was.  I want to know if I’m a ticking biological time bomb, carrying defective DNA for some inheritable disease that explodes whenever a McCarthy man reaches 60.

Months pass, nothing.  The months become years.

Chapter 12 Third Letter: October 20, 2002

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I departed from Logan’s Terminal B for LaGuardia to attend what was supposed to be a one-day meeting at Verizon’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan.  On its approach, my plane banked around the World Trade Center, the twin towers gleaming in the early morning sunshine of that now infamous day.  I was in a black car on my way into the city when I noticed smoke coming from the World Trade Center and suggested the driver turn on the radio.  The first plane had hit.  I spent the ensuing days and nights in a makeshift command center helping produce press releases and statements on Verizon’s efforts to restore communications so that Wall Street could reopen the following Monday.

The attacks reminded all Americans of the fragility of life.  We were deeply moved by the final words from doomed passengers and trapped office workers.  Some of those messages were left in voicemails. A week after the attacks, I found myself issuing statements on Verizon’s efforts to save those final voicemails for loved ones.

I’m not saying that September 11 was the reason I sent Claire another letter.  I think at some point I would have any way.  But I think the events prompted the timing of the letter I sent one year after the attacks.  It’s clear from the letter that I was very much concerned that death would steal any chance of ever finding out the complete truth.

I felt I just had to try one more time.  Maybe the first letter was off-putting, too open-ended.  Maybe I shouldn’t have written about possibly meeting her, or listing all those questions, or even worse, saying I had lots of questions.  Who wouldn’t be unnerved?  Maybe it was the PR guy in me, but I thought that perhaps I just didn’t do a good job honing the message.  Lord knows, I had more than four years to reflect on why I was trying to contact Claire and what I hoped would be the outcome.

Betsy didn’t want me to send another letter.   “She’s already made clear that she doesn’t want to have any contact,” Betsy said.

“What do I have to lose?”

“I’m concerned that she probably won’t respond and you’ll feel rejected. I just don’t want you to get your feelings hurt.”

I knew Betsy was probably right, but I sent the letter anyway.

Claire McCarthy O’Neill:

Claire,

I thought I would write one more time.  Since last I wrote, I have a much clearer sense of purpose in contacting you.  I can fully understand why you prefer not to respond.  But since we both are running out of time, I thought I’d write again – before it’s too late.

First, I have no wish to disturb you or disrupt your life in any way.  I will not contact you ever again after this letter, unless you explicitly ask.  Second, I want to thank you for giving me life.  I have a wonderful wife and two wonderful sons.  (Since your genetics are involved here, you should know that my oldest, Andy, has graduated from Dartmouth, and his younger brother, Tim, is now a junior at Harvard.)

On that last point, here’s what’s on my mind, and how you can help if you wish.  I simply want to know two things that most people take for granted.  First, I would like to know the ethnic background of my biological father.  His last name would be terrific; the full name even better.  Most people take for granted knowing their ethnic background.  When you are adopted and you don’t know, the hole you feel is not simply idle curiosity. I’m sure you’ve read about this phenomenon.  It’s real. Take it from me.

Second, I’d like to know if there are any inheritable diseases in the McCarthy-Howe clan? Certain types of cancer, like that of the colon or Alzheimer’s? Every time I go to a new doctor, I’m always asked these kinds of questions.  This would be potentially helpful, not just to me, but also to my boys.  As you know, science now realizes how much of a factor genetics play.

I believe that one day the law will recognize the right of adoptees to have this kind of basic information.  At the same time, I realize that you are not obligated to respond.

However, I do hope that you provide this information before it is lost forever.  You have nothing to be concerned about.  I want nothing more from you than this.  I fully understand why at the age you were, and in the times that you lived, why I was given to Joe and Ann Hoey.   They loved me and they were good to me, and you should feel very good about having chosen life in 1947…not only mine and my sons, but the generations that will hopefully follow.

I hope you will allow me to fill out that genetic tree with the basic information I’ve requested.

Most sincerely,

John Peter (“Jack”) Hoey

***

About a week later, at 10 p.m, the phone rang.  The caller was a woman with a heavy Hispanic accent.  “I am sorry to call late at night. I got your letter about your mother.  I got your other letter too, years ago. When I got another one, this one, I took it to my friend to ask what I should do.  She is standing here with me.  She say I should call you and tell you your mother is not here.  She move.”

“You got the first letter I sent?”

“Yes, yes.”

“What did you do with it?”

“I threw it away.”

Threw it away? Jesus.  I am incredulous.  She forges ahead.  “Your mother move. I buy her house just before you send your letter the first time.  When I got this one, I thought I should do something.”

“Where did she move?” I hold my breath.

“She move to California. But I don’t know what place.  Her husband, he die.  She move to be with her daughter.”

From the Christmas card, I know Claire has two daughters and I know their names.

“She has two daughters.  Do you know which one?”

“No, I only know she move with her daughter, the one who live in California.”

“They are named Aileen and Maureen.” Damn, they would have sounded similar.

“No. I don’t know.  I am sorry.   I am sorry to call late.”

I am steaming.  Late? I want to scream, “Lady, you are calling four fucking years late.  How could you read a letter like that and toss it?  Couldn’t you pick up the phone?” But I keep a grip on my outrage and instead I ask as calmly as I can, “I would appreciate it if you would please send me back the second letter.”

“Yes, I will send.” She never does.

Chapter 13: Finding Claire

I relate the story about the nitwit woman to Ann Marie.  She suggests that I contact Susan, the very same half sister who forced mum to finally spill the beans.  Ann Marie explains that Susan has created an online registry for Massachusetts adoptees looking to connect with their birth parents or separated siblings.  Maybe Susan can help.  Perhaps Claire has even registered on Susan’s website.

Ann Marie gives me Susan’s email address and her website.  What do I have to lose? At least thanks to the Christmas card, I know the names and the ages of Claire’s daughters.  She is living somewhere in California with either a daughter named Aileen or Maureen.

I register on Susan’s website.  Claire is not looking for me. I send Susan an email introducing myself and explaining the situation. With such bare bones information, I ask if Susan thinks she can help me find Claire.  Within minutes Susan responds; she has access to motor-vehicle registration databases and other resources and is delighted to help.  She includes a photo of herself; her resemblance to Ann Marie is obvious.  Susan’s email signs off with: “Faith-Hope, God Bless and remember ‘All things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.’ (Matthew 21:22)

I believe in God but I don’t think the Divine gets involved in human details.  Nevertheless, I thank Susan and remark that she resembles Ann Marie.  Susan’s emails, all ending with the scripture from Matthew, started coming fast and furious.

“Hi Jack.  I was wondering if you would think that I look like Ann Marie.  I think so too! I quickly ran Claire on my old disk.”  At the bottom of the email, above the line from Matthew, are the names of Claire, Brian, Aileen and Maureen O’Neill, all listed as still living in Farmingdale.  Their birth dates are included.

This doesn’t deter Susan who explains she is working with two little ones under her feet and a phone that doesn’t stop ringing.  “Give me a bit of time and will run her on my newer disk to see what comes next and then I will run her on another source for the CA address…By the way I can’t believe that woman  threw your letter out!! WOW!!”

I am on the edge of my computer chair waiting for Susan’s next missive.  It comes less than hour later.

“Hi again Jack.  You know when I think about it I can’t believe the woman that opened the letter could be so cold!  Anyway this is what I’m getting on Claire.”  From one database is listed a Claire O’Neill with a matching birth date living in Truckee, California.  From a second database, Susan provides what she believes is Claire’s phone number.  But Susan isn’t through.  “Don’t do anything yet Jack.  I have a lot up my sleeve for tools in finding out things about people.  Let me see what else I can find for you through the course of the day.”

I thank Susan profusely; her response: “Please no thanks. I still feel bad that Ann Marie was dealt such a shock way back when.:)”

In a couple of hours, Susan emails again.  The match is definite.  Living near Claire in Truckee is Aileen O’Neill.

Chapter 14: ‘This is Claire’

This time I’ve learned my lesson.  I send a registered letter with a photo of myself.  A few days later, around 10 p.m., the phone rings and I answer.  “Hello.”  A pause.  “Is this Jack?”  The voice is loud, gravelly and obviously belongs to an elderly woman.

“Yes.” My heart is pounding.  Another pause.

“Well, this is Claire.  I got your letter.”

“Well, hello. I’m so glad to you called.  I’m so glad I finally get to talk to you.”

Claire doesn’t hesitate a second.  “I thought about you every day of my life.  All these years I’ve wondered how you were doing.  I hoped I would hear from you, but as time passed, I never expected that I would.” She starts to choke up.  I’m close to losing it myself.

“I hope my letter didn’t upset you. As I said in the letter, I don’t want to disturb you in any way. ”

“I consider it a gift, a blessing.  I thought that all these years you hated me.  I thought that was why you never contacted me.  I never dreamed that the Hoeys never told you that you were adopted.”

For the next 90 minutes we talk.  By the time we’re talked out, I understand why Claire is pleased that I’ve contacted her.

“You asked about your… your, I guess you would call him your biological father?”

“Or birth father,” I suggest, while almost hearing a drum roll in my head.

“Yes, your birth father.  Well, he was, or maybe still is, I don’t know if he’s still alive, but he was a  second-generation Italian American.  I don’t know if he’s still alive.  He was 27 when I met him. I was 16.  His name was Tony, Tony Valenti, but I forget, if I ever knew, how they spelled it.  I think it was V-A-L-E-N-T-I.  His family was from Malden and he worked in his uncle’s auto shop in Medford.”

Holy crap, Eddie was right, even if he was joking. I’m half Italian.  Here I was thinking all these years that I was of Irish ancestry on both sides.  I’m also trying to digest the fact that I may have resulted from what could be statutory rape.  I also can’t help but make a mental note that Malden is a working class city while Wallingford is upper middle class.

Claire seems to find it cathartic to tell me her story.  She roars ahead in a thick Boston accent.

“What I remember about your…your birth father, was that he was muscular, had a moustache, and drove a motorcycle, a Harley Davidson.  I was in a candy store with my girlfriends when he walked in, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, and he went up to the counter and bought a package of cigarettes.  He said hello and asked me if I wanted to see his motorcycle parked outside.  He asked me if I wanted to take a ride and I did. We went to places like Revere Beach.”

“What I remember about your father was that he was a good man, a gentle man.  There was no violence or anything like that.  He was willing to get married.  But I knew the marriage wouldn’t work.  In those days, there was a lot of prejudice against Italians among the Irish and the English.  My father was a lawyer in Boston.  He warned Tony to keep away from me or he’d be in trouble.  Tony’s parents were good people, down-to-earth.  They didn’t want me to get an abortion, but if things didn’t work out with Tony, his mother suggested I try taking a very hot bath.  But I didn’t want to do anything that would harm the life inside me.”

Claire’s gravelly voice starts to tremble.  “You were inside me when my high school photo was taken.  Into every classroom you went my senior year.  We never missed one.”

Claire graduated in June, seven months pregnant.

“The summer you were born my parents sent me to a home for unwed mothers in Jamaica Plain.  It was an awful place.”  Claire’s voice rises what seems like an octave higher, and she begins speaking even faster.  In future conversations, whenever she recounts this obviously traumatic episode, she slips into this same agitated state.

“I don’t know why my parents sent me to such an awful place.  The day before you were born, one of the girls and her baby died in labor, right there in that house.  I started to feel the contractions and I thought we were going to die too.  Then the authorities came in and ordered the place shut down.  I didn’t know what was going to happen to us.”

In that first call and in subsequent conversations, Claire invariably returns to the night before my birth. A young unwed mother just like herself has died.  Alone and experiencing contractions, Claire is placed in the backseat of a Boston police cruiser. That drive is seared in her memory.  Whenever she speaks of it, her raspy, clipped speech seems to jump into an even higher gear.  “There were two police officers. I remember it was a warm, rainy night. I remember how the lights reflected on the slick streets. I was in labor and never so afraid.”

I find myself wishing I could reach out and hold her hand.  I have subsequently found online a photo and brief history of this former home for unwed mothers.  The large wooden building, which still stands, is tucked away on a dead-end, side street.   The site was deemed ideal because it was away from the rest of the neighborhood, the perfect location for an era that believed in hiding unpleasant secrets.

Unfortunately, Claire didn’t escape from the trauma of being sent away to have me and then being coerced to give me up.  The wounds as a raw as her breathless retelling of what happened next.

“You were born early the next morning.  I know for a fact that without the help of Jesus and Mary, we would not have made it.  They were looking out for you every step of the way.”

I begin to realize how deeply Claire believes in her faith and how those beliefs both sustained her and restrained her throughout her life.   This is also when I begin to learn how much Claire reminds me of Mum.  How many times did Mum express a similar belief in divine intervention?  But when it came to me, Mum and Claire wound up praying for opposite outcomes.

“I prayed that God would let me keep you.  I knew from the moment of your conception that you belonged to me and with me.  I did not have what it would have taken to fight the firestorm that surrounded me.  I would spend a lifetime regretting what I did.”  She breaks down. “What kind of mother gives up her own child?”

I know it’s time to say something.  Claire finally slows down enough to give me the opening.  “Given your age, and given the age you lived in, you really didn’t have a choice.  You were 16 and he was 27.  You were from a well-to-do Irish family.  He was an uneducated Italian from the wrong side of the tracks.  The decision was never yours, except for the biggest and best choice you made, which was to give me life.  Without Claire, no Jack.” I venture a small laugh.  My words seem to help her, at least for the moment.  She begins talking again, but this time at a more normal cadence and pitch.

“Did you know that I named you?  I called you John Peter because I hoped that would help convince my parents to let me keep you.  My mother lost a son at birth named John Peter.  Six days after you were born my father and mother drove us to Weymouth to the Hoeys.  My father never spoke a word to me the entire time.  Not one word.  He said he would never talk to me again until I married a good Irish Catholic boy.  My father and I were close before I got pregnant.”

But Claire’s parents never relented in their conviction that she should give me up and move on with her life.  “Never once did I get any expression of support for keeping you.”

“I held you in my arms at your baptism, tears in my eyes, the Hoeys right there.  The following week I started classes at Mount St. Mary’s College in New Hampshire.  It was basically a school for women to become teachers.  I got a masters from Tufts and was a reading teacher all of my life.  Anyway, despite my father’s warning, Tony came to see you in the hospital right after you were born.  Then he even followed me to St. Mary’s.  Tony actually showed up at my orientation meeting in the college auditorium.  There he was wearing his biker’s leather jacket, dungarees and boots.  Tony still wanted to get married.  I still knew it wasn’t meant to be. ”

“I held off for three years on your adoption.  I kept hoping my parents would change their minds.  You were with the Hoeys, but they would bring you for visits.  They would talk with my parents in the main parlor while I took you to play in the back of the house.  At first I would hold you in my arms, later when you learned to walk, I would hold your hand.  At least I had a little time to be with you.

The last time we were together, I picked you up and told you that you were going to come live with me.  I looked into your eyes and tears started rolling down your little cheeks.  That’s when I knew I had to let you go.”

Claire breaks down again, and then gathers herself.

“I could see how much the Hoeys loved you and wanted you.   I knew they would take good care of you, but I was afraid that they wouldn’t educate you.  They were working class people.  So I was amazed and so pleased to read in your letter that you went to Georgetown.  When I looked at the photo you enclosed, I knew that Jesus and Mary answered all my prayers and then some.  A Georgetown University graduate.   This is my finest hour, my grand finale, and you gave it to me.”

“You asked about inheritable diseases.  Your grandmother died of Alzheimer’s but she lived to be 90.  I enjoy very good health. In fact, I haven’t been to a doctor in 20 years.  I ran the Boston Marathon when I was 55.  I still walk for several hours every day and when I turned 72, I ran four miles. I was a little sore the next day.” She laughs.

I tell Claire that I’m also a runner and recently ran the Boston Half Marathon.

“Well, good.  Keep it up because the men in the family are a different story.  They tend to take things too seriously.  They are prone to hypertension and high blood pressure.  Your grandfather died at 57 of a cerebral hemorrhage.  Your uncle, Edward, he also died in his 60s of a stroke.”

I tell Claire that I was treated for hypertension when I was younger, which is why I started running.  She also warns me that alcoholism runs in the family.  She says, “I started drinking beer with the younger people after running.  I had to stop altogether.  Do you drink?”

I confess that I do drink, but that so far I’ve been able to keep it within bounds.

“Well you need to watch it.” She is starting to sound like a typical mother.  Claire then lists all the various members of the family who have battled the disease.  Despite the warts, Claire extols the virtues of my genetic inheritance, particularly the intelligence quotient.

“Your grandmother went to Vassar but her father thought it was too liberal and made her go to a Catholic women’s college. My father also sent me to a two-bit women’s college but I got my masters from Tufts.  Your grandfather, as I said, was a lawyer and all your aunts and uncles are well educated.  Aileen is an editor and writer for a college magazine. Maureen is a doctor, a psychiatrist. That’s why all these years, I was worried about your education.  I knew you had to have some brains but I didn’t think the Hoeys would educate you. I thought you probably became a laborer.  I pictured you working on the Big Dig.”

I laugh. Not to brag, but to make her feel better, I explain.  “Claire, I have a corner office that overlooks the Big Dig.  The Hoeys always encouraged me to read.  I always had books around.  They bought a set of encyclopedias.  My dad would always say, ‘What you don’t know, you can learn by reading a book.’”

She then gives me a quick genealogical history of the English and Irish sides of the family.  Her mother’s family, the Howes, first came to Salem, Mass. in the 1630s.  She says the family is related to President John Adams and promises to send me the family tree.  “You have some of the best genes in the world.”

Claire would later tell me that her father, who so deeply opposed keeping a half-Italian grandson, had himself been the victim of prejudice.  Her English grandparents seemed to have looked with disfavor on an Irish son-in-law, even though he had risen to rank of captain in the U.S. Army Calvary under General John Pershing during World War I.   According to Claire, her father never was really happy with his life.  “He should have stayed in the Army,” she repeatedly said.  “On the day he died of a stroke, sitting on the porch steps holding his head with a terrible headache, the tenants on the family farm had been taunting him that he would never inherit the property because he was Irish.”  He was only 57.

“It’s probably for the best that you went with the Hoeys.  I could tell that they really loved you.  I was sure of that.  But being working-class people, I was afraid they wouldn’t get you educated.  And now look at you, a corporate executive.”  Claire pauses as if trying to clear her gravelly voice.  “There’s another big reason you were better off with the Hoeys.”

Then she tells me in a matter-of-fact tone about her marriage to Brian O’Neill.

Chapter 15 Claire’s Marriage

Claire’s marriage is relevant here only because it bears directly on her expressed belief, repeated in many conversations, that I was better off raised by the Hoeys.  As with her traumatic ride to the hospital to give birth, she would retell this fateful part of her life again and again.

“After I left you with the Hoeys, my father said he wouldn’t talk to me again until I was properly married.  Well, I did what my father wanted me to do – I married a good Catholic.  Brian O’Neill. Take it from me, Brian would not have been a good role model for you, a boy I mean. It was hard enough for the girls.”

“About two weeks after we were married I made a discovery.  I was in my closet looking for one of my dresses when I realized Brian had been wearing some of my clothes.  It took my breath away.  I didn’t know what to do.  Finally I built up the courage to confront him.   Brian immediately broke down.  He wept and said he would totally understand if I left him.  He offered to walk out of my life there and then.  That’s when I heard a voice.  Not a voice in my head.  I know the difference.”

Some people think I’m crazy.” She actually laughs. “I know the difference between your inner thoughts and a real voice.  This voice was as real as yours.  The voice said as clear as can be, ‘If you stay with him, you will be blessed all the days of your life.’”

I am totally unprepared for Claire’s revelation.  I am focused on trying to anticipate the circumstances that would lead a mother to give up her child.  Here was a young woman who not only grappled with that decision, but also whether to stay in a marriage with a cross-dresser.

“Do you know what a transgender person is?”  Claire asks.  She doesn’t wait for the answer and presses on, as if giving a lecture that needs to be finished before the class-bell rings.  “A transgender person is trapped in the body of the other sex.  Brian was a woman in man’s body.  I should have realized something was wrong early on.  As I looked back, Brian never really touched me.  How we ever had two children I’ll never know.”  She chuckles again.  “It’s funny, when I tell people about Brian, they wonder if I’m queer.” She laughs again and continues.

“Brian was a teacher like I was.  To help put Maureen through medical school, he worked nights tending bar.  He would come home so tired, he would put his head on the kitchen table and cry from exhaustion.”

I think to myself that Brian’s holding down two jobs reminds me of my birth father.  Good dads do what it takes to feed their families.

“I probably should have ended the marriage. Several times I almost did.  I think that’s why I started running.  To get out of the house.  To try to forget things.  I would run and run, sometimes for hours.  Sometimes not knowing even where I had been or where I was going.”

“I guess I also felt like Brian was my cross to bear.  He needed me, and when I learn now how you turned out, I realized that God had kept his promise. I was blessed.”

While my head spins, Claire’s mood suddenly darkens.  She returns to blaming herself for being too passive.

“I should never have given you up. I should have been more aggressive.  I didn’t have the courage to stand up for myself.  I sure hope you didn’t inherit even a tiny sliver of my lifetime trait of non-aggressiveness.  If you aren’t passive, I am grateful to Tony.  I should have had the where-with-all to stand up and say, ‘To hell with all of you.  John Peter and I can make it.’”

Her emotion grabs me and I find myself saying, “I don’t know how you would feel about this, but I’m wondering how you would feel about meeting me?  If you don’t want to, that’s fine. No pressure.  I’m just wondering.”

“Oh, I was hoping you might say that.  I’d love to meet you, but I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything for me.  If you don’t even want to talk again, I’ll understand.”

Chapter 16:  Finding Tony

During the conversation with Claire, she never expresses regret at not marrying Tony instead of Brian.  However, she encourages me to try to find Tony quickly, given his age.  I don’t need any prodding.  If Tony is alive, he would be 82.  I swear again at the nitwit woman who tossed the first letter I sent to Claire.  Because of the nitwit, I lost five years.  He’s probably dead, but maybe not.  I turn once again to Susan.

The next day I email Susan telling her about my conversation with Claire.  I give her the headline: Claire is pleased, even relieved that I called.  I relay the scant information Claire provided on Tony.  I add that Claire isn’t sure of the spelling but thinks his last name was spelled Valenti.

Within hours Susan’s email appears in my inbox.  I gird myself for disappointment.

WOW, Jack!! This is awesome news!  It’s always great when a birth mom is happy to hear from an adoptee…I have found a lot of older birth moms are scared to death and often deny being the birthmother at all.  Claire must be a sweetheart!  Well, guess what, you are right. It is spelled Valenti.  It’s kind of funny I was adopted by Italian parents and was brought up Italian. (thank God!!) Ha ha!  Looks like Tony married a much younger woman.  Here are all the residents, DOBs, etc….oh and his phone number.

Not only is Tony alive, he’s living in the nearby city of Quincy, Massachusetts.  He indeed does still go for younger women. His wife, Lucy, is 20 years his junior.  Also listed are two sons, one 38 and the other only 27.  I try to grasp the idea that I have discovered a half brother who is only four years older than my older son.

Susan ends her email on a cautionary note:

Jack, I will hunt around a bit more tonight.  I can tell you I believe he is alive…and still at this address.  So I have to ask…how are you going to handle him? Seems to me the public relations side of you knows just how to approach.  I am really impressed with the response you got from Claire!! Again WOW!!

The next day Susan emails twice more.  She is no longer so sure that Tony is alive and well and living in Quincy.  Her first email carries in the subject line: Tony moved.  His last known address now appears to be in Allston, a section of Boston.  However, Susan says she has yet another database to check, but has forgotten the passwords. I will write again later.

An hour later she emails back that her latest search shows the only Tony Valenti living in the U.S. as located at the Quincy address.  However, the listed date of birth is for his older son.  Their father, my birth father, may have died.  Susan closes with a suggestion: You may have to write to the address and make a big SR after his name.

***

Except for my biography and the reasons why I’m contacting him, my letter to Tony is quite from different from one I sent to Claire.  In retelling Revelation Day, I include Eddie’s joke that turned out to be right: “The good news is you’re half Italian.”  I also state up front that Claire told me “that you were a very good man, but that you were 27 when she was 16 and became pregnant, and that her parents were unhappy that you were of Italian descent.  They were prejudiced, as I’m sure you know.”

“You should also know that she was very happy that I contacted her…Claire and I are going to exchange photos, and I am going to visit her in California where she lives with one of her two daughters.  I would like to see what you look like, and if possible my two half brothers.  I am enclosing a recent photo.”

I conclude the letter: “I am also interested in knowing more about the Valenti family tree…I’m still getting used to being half-Italian, but I can tell you that it has already filled a void by finally knowing something that most people take for granted – the name and ethnic background of those who gave you life.”

I follow Susan’s advice when I address the registered letter to Tony Valenti SR.  I silently pray that he’s still alive.

Chapter 16: Talking to Tony 

Tony is very much alive.  As was the case with Claire, he calls the evening of the day he opens my letter.  We talk for an hour.

In a gruff but friendly voice, he breaks the ice by assuring me that longevity runs in his family. The men live into their eighties and the women into their nineties.  He says simply: “We don’t have health problems.  We just die of what I guess you’d call old age.”  Like Claire, he is a lover of the outdoors. He fishes year-round and hunts.

Tony is the son of Angela Guardino and Oresto Anthony “Tony” Valenti.  Angela came to Massachusetts at the age of 13 from the mountainous Abruzzi section of central Italy.  Tony arrived at Ellis Island at about the age of 21 from Lanciano on the east coast of Abruzzi.

“Perry Como is from Abruzzi.  All the good people are from Abruzzi.” He laughs, although a tone of pride hints at some element of seriousness.  Like Claire, he’s proud of his ancestors.

Tony’s parents moved from New York to Malden where Tony grew up.  When he was 15, a teacher started hitting him.  He grabbed her hand and she ran out of the classroom in fear.  Tony walked out the door and never came back.

He went to work at his Uncle Joseph’s auto body shop until he was drafted into the Army in 1941.  A sergeant saw grease under his finger nails and embedded in his knuckles.  That’s how he became a mechanic instead of an infantryman.

After the war, he returned to the auto body shop and later took courses to become a machinist.  My adopted father also was a machinist, I tell him.

But Tony is much more interested in Claire.  “I loved your mother.  She was just the cutest thing.  She was a doll, a real doll.  When I was at the hospital with you, they asked me if I wanted you to be adopted.  I said ‘I will keep him if Claire will marry me.’ But her parents didn’t want me around.  Her father told me if I didn’t keep away, I’d get into trouble.”

In spite of her parents’ objections, Tony reveals that he and Claire went to see a priest.  “The priest was kind of mean.  He was not…what would you say?… forgiving.  I’m not very religious, which maybe didn’t help.”

I can’t help but think that Tony’s lack of faith was probably the least of the cards stacked against him.

Tony confirmed that he followed Claire to St. Mary’s College.  “Yup, I went into the auditorium and sat right down beside her.  But she wouldn’t have anything to do with me.”

But Tony never forgot her.  When one of Claire’s brothers died, Tony saw the obituary which included Claire’s hometown.  “I looked up her address and drove to her house. But I couldn’t build up the nerve to get out of the car and go up to the door, so I went home.”

His story reminds me of my undercover attendance at my birth grandmother’s funeral mass.

I ask if he would be willing to meet in person.  We agree to meet on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Tony asks if I have any photos of Claire.  I tell him that I have her high school and college graduation photos as well as a current picture.  I am taken aback when he asks me to bring them.  I wonder what Lucy will think?  My imagining Lucy’s reaction to Tony waxing nostalgic over Claire’s photos is broken by Tony’s voice.

“Do you know your mother’s nickname?

“It’s Bird. Next time you talk, tell her, ‘Hey, Bird, Tony says hello.”

Chapter 17: Meeting Tony

Betsy and I go to Ann Marie’s and Eddie’s for Thanksgiving.  I’ve already alerted them and Susan that I plan to meet Tony Friday night.  Eddie waves an Italian flag as he greets us at his doorway.  He hugs me and kisses me on both sides of the cheek; once we’re inside, he gives me a braid of garlic and a book entitled How to be Italian.

I’m not sure any book can prepare a 55-year-old person for meeting his birth father for the first time.

***

The next day, the day of the evening I am to meet Tony, I receive a letter from Claire.  In it is her staff photo as an elementary school teacher and a shot of her training for the Boston Marathon.  At the time she was 55, the same age I am at the time.  In her note Claire tells me that she was at my baptism and was the one who named me John Peter.  Even though I had found my adoption papers when mum died, I still assumed that what I had always been told was still true: that I had been named for my grandfather, John “Jack” Hoey, and that Peter was a nod to mum’s maiden name, Peters.  The surprises seem to just keep on coming.

***

I take a deep breath before ringing the bell.  Betsy is by my side, holding my other hand. I feel like I can’t breathe.  A door shade silhouettes a man’s figure, which slowly looms larger.   The door opens.   The first thing I notice is the Harley Davidson tee shirt and a thick moustache, which is white like his beard and long, wavy hair, which like mine, is natty on the sides but wispy and, in some places, non-existent on the top.

“Come in, come in.”  We stand in the doorway for an awkward moment looking at each other. We are about the same size, but his facial features are broader, his hands and wrists thicker than mine, and when he shakes my hand his bicep bulges to a size I’ve never seen on a man his age.  He looks a decade younger than his age. Around the neck of his Harley tee-shirt I can see that we share a hairy chest.

As we enter the house, Tony bluntly admits, “This is like meeting a stranger.”

“Yeah, but I knew you’d be a good looking guy.”  He laughs and yells out,  “They are here, Lucy.”

Lucy is only seven years older than I.  Her hair is colored black; she clearly is of Mediterranean descent.  She is all smiles and shows no signs of finding the situation in the least uncomfortable.

“Hey, John, or is it Jack?”

“I go by Jack but my legal name is John. If you called out, ‘hey John’ on a bus, I wouldn’t turn around.”

“Well, Jack, so how does it feel to be a goom-bah?” She laughs heartily and we all join in, but part of me wonders what the heck I’m doing here.

As we move through the kitchen into the living room, I notice that boxes are piled everywhere.

“We’re selling the house,” Lucy explains. “Please excuse the mess.”

Once we’re seated, I begin showing Tony photos of me from childhood. He shows mild interest but quickly and enthusiastically asks if I brought any pictures of Claire.  I make eye contact with Betsy, afraid to even glance at Lucy, who I assume must be embarrassed by Tony’s request.  I finally manage the nerve to look at Lucy.  She is unfazed by her husband’s request.

“I guess he always liked younger women,” Lucy shrugs.  “You know he’s only a year younger than my mother?”

I reluctantly pull out the photos of Claire and hand them to him.  His eyes light up as he thumbs the prints.  When he’s finished, he asks how she is doing and when am I going to see her.  This is getting more bizarre by the minute.

“We’re going to go out there in February.”

Lucy continues to smile as if Tony’s keen interest in Claire is perfectly understandable.

Tony and I begin looking at each other more closely.  Glances turn to stares.   Hoping to move the topic away from Claire, I venture to say I think Tony and I share some resemblances, to which Betsy and Lucy concur. However Tony says he thinks I take more after the McCarthy side.

Offering him a compliment, I say, “Well, I wish I had inherited your muscles.”

“If you go to the gym, you’ll look like this,” Tony says, flexing his right bicep. “I haven’t been lately, but I’ve got to get back.”

“He’s still in pretty good shape, but things are catching up to him,” Lucy says.  She eyes Tony like a horse owner appraising an aging stallion.

I ask again about family diseases.  Tony says his parents and grandparents all lived well into their nineties.

Tony asks me if I would like to see his machine shop and trophies in the basement.  Betsy stays behind with Lucy in the living room.

I’m expecting to see maybe bronze-colored trophies from some men’s bowling league.  But the trophies turn out to be the heads of three deer staring with glass eyes from the wall above his workbench.  Tony points to the buck in the center, which sports the largest antlers.  Tony proudly recounts the hunting trip to Vermont when he tracked the big buck clear across the New York state line, even though Tony didn’t have a license to shoot there.

“Do you hunt?”

I confess that I don’t.

“I also fish.  I fish all year round.  Smelt in the fall, ice fishing in the winter.  How about fish? You fish?”

“I used to fish when I was a kid.  I had my first boat when I was 12. I love to be on the water.”

“The Valentis are from a town in Italy called Pescara. I think it means fish or maybe fisherman.  But a lot of them were blacksmiths.  They were there so long that my father said some of the family tombstones, when the archeologists dug down, the names were written in Latin.”

He’s equally proud of his lathe.   “I still make things,” he says, rubbing the side of the machine.  “I’m putting a lawn mower engine on a bicycle.”

“What are you going to do with a motor-bike?”

He looks at me like I’m a dope. “I’m going to ride it.  I won’t go too far, but when the good weather comes again, it will get me around.  I miss having a bike.  I had a Harley.  I had an Indian.”  Many men his age are in nursing homes.  He’s still riding motorcycles.

I remind him that “my”… I pause because I don’t want to insult Tony…“adopted father” also was a machinist.

“I knew that.  I knew the Hoeys were from Boston and he was a machinist and that they called you Jack.  I wondered how you were doing all these years.  I guess you did alright.”

“Claire told me about how she met you in a corner variety store.  How you asked her if she wanted to see your motorcycle.”

“Your mother was a doll.  We got along real good.  She was fun and easy to talk to.”  The deer heads hang over the conversation.  “I was on my bike when I saw her get on a bus with a girl friend.  I followed the bus until she got off and went into the store.  I went inside and asked for a package of cigarettes even though I didn’t need any.

He chuckles.  “I guess today you’d call me, what…a predator.”  He laughs again.

***

As we are leaving, I thank Tony for allowing me to meet him and for giving me life.  “Since you are Italian and I’m half Italian, I’m going to give you a hug.”  Maybe Eddie’s book did help.  One thing is for sure: This is one Thanksgiving I’ll never forget.

On the way home, Betsy tells me that while Tony and I were in the basement looking at tools and trophies, Lucy revealed that until I sent my letter, Tony hadn’t told her about me.  Despite Lucy’s apparent equanimity with Tony’s interest in Claire, Lucy resented not knowing.

I found myself hoping I hadn’t put a strain on Tony’s and Lucy’s marriage.

 

Chapter 18: The ‘-eens’

After the visit, Tony and I talk by phone and discuss getting together right after the holidays so our children living in the area can meet each other.  On the appointed day, Tony, his younger son, Louis, and his daughter, Darlene, arrive at our house.  Conspicuously absent is Lucy.  Without offering a reason, Tony simply says she couldn’t make it.   Tony’s older son, Tony Jr., is working in Las Vegas.  Our Tim is home on break from Harvard.  Andy is working in New York.

Louis looks every bit as young as his age; he’s easily Tim’s contemporary.  He has my deep set eyes and a similar nose but Lucy’s darker looks.  In contrast, Darlene is fair with reddish hair.  The four of us pose for a photo, arms around each other as if I’d always been part of the picture.  We also take a shot of Tony, Tim and me.

After some pleasantries, I finally build up the nerve to express what’s on my mind.  “I’m sorry Lucy couldn’t make it.  I sure hope I haven’t caused any problem.”  Tony says nothing.

Mercifully, Darlene breaks the awkward silence.  “Did Tony tell you that he and Lucy are getting a divorce?” She doesn’t wait for answer. “That’s why they are selling the house.  It has nothing to do with you.  Tony has become too old for Lucy.”

Although relieved that the split precedes my surfacing, I say, “I am sorry to hear this.”

Tony shrugs, clasps his hands tightly in his lap, looking older and smaller.   “These things happen I guess.  Lucy wants her freedom.  She’s still young.  She should have her…her freedom, if that’s what she wants.  That’s why I was asking so much about your mother, about Claire.  I guess I’m going to be free too.”  He doesn’t look at all like a man ready to embrace a return to bachelorhood.

“Frankly, I was wondering when Betsy and I went to meet Tony.  He kept asking about Claire with Lucy right there.”

Tony finally talks again.  “I guess I should have told Lucy about you.  I guess there was never a good time.”

I laugh. “I don’t mean to laugh, but that’s what my mother said when she finally told my sister and me that we were adopted.”  I give Darlene and Louis the Cliff Notes version of Revelation Day.  Darlene looks like she has swallowed the proverbial canary. “Did Tony tell you about Kathleen?”

“No, I didn’t tell him,” Tony says, sounding a bit irritated at Darleen’s disclosure. “Before I married Lucy, I was married for a short time.  It didn’t work out.  We had one daughter, Kathleen.   I don’t see her much.”

I’m thinking: Four -eens.  You can’t make this stuff up.  Tony appears uncomfortable discussing his first marriage or Kathleen.  He changes the topic back to Claire. “Do you have Claire’s phone number?”

“Yes.”

“Do you think she would mind if you gave it to me?  I’d sort of like to talk to her.  See how she is doing.  Tell her it doesn’t have to be anything serious.”

After a second or two of processing this unexpected request, I say, “Let me ask her how she feels. I’m not sure I should be the one to decide.  I think it’s up to her.”

“Yeah, yeah, you are right.  Tell her I’m going to be free soon.  But it doesn’t have to be serious. We got along real well, your mother and me.”

Holy cow, I’m thinking.  After all these years Tony is still carrying the torch for Claire or at least a memory of a teenage girl he followed to a corner store.

Chapter 18: Meeting Claire

After the first phone call with Claire, we start to exchange letters.    Claire encloses her high school and college graduation photos with a note reminding me that she named me; she also again expresses her regret that she didn’t have more strength to stand up to her parents and her how pleased she is that I ended up with a college education.

I send her photos of my family. In her next letter, Claire provides the full names of my great- grandparents and a brief biography of my grandfather, Charles Bernard McCarthy, who became a lawyer after serving in the U.S. Army Cavalry with Dwight Eisenhower in World War I.

I also begin exchanging emails with Aileen who says she’s told Maureen about me.   Maureen, a child psychiatrist at the Mayo Clinic in Minneapolis, isn’t interested in corresponding.  She has warned Claire that I’m simply curious and will lose interest as do most adoptees who find their birth parents.

I feel an urge to prove Maureen wrong, but I also know she’s right about the strong tug of curiosity.

In my next letter and phone, I firm up plans to visit Claire in February.  Claire responds:

Dear Jack,

I feel so very peaceful in knowing you are coming to see me and Aileen…You can stay here if you want to. I was interested to hear of your visit with Tony.  The very very best part – 94-99 years 2 generations. It doesn’t get better than that….Nov. 1, 1938 my mother gave birth.  He was baptized John Peter.  I named you John Peter.  I thought and hoped it would help me to keep you…

 Claire

Claire and Aileen have both told me that Claire lives a secluded life on her small farm, so I’m not totally shocked when I read Claire’s note in her Christmas card:

Just received your card. Wish I had a more religious card to send.  I do not send Christmas cards.  I do not go out to eat so when you come we will stay here.  If signs of spring have come, we can take a walk. I do not cook but will have a few things.  In other words don’t come really hungry!! I deeply hope you will be happy to come…I especially like your work picture.  I am looking at it now. Claire

In my next phone call with Claire, I provide Claire with a detailed description of meeting Tony including his obvious interest in her and pending divorce from Lucy.  I make it a point to mention that Lucy is much younger than Tony and that he apparently never lost his interest in younger women.  I also mention that he still has a moustache, muscles and a motorcycle or at least a motorbike.  I wonder if I’m trying to play cupid as I finish the recap by relaying Tony’s request for her phone number.

After a moment of hesitation, Claire says, “Oh my, I don’t know.  I live a quiet life here with my animals. I’m almost what you would call a recluse.  I don’t go out much, except to go to Mass on Saturday or to buy food.  I’m trying to avoid any more pressure in my life.  I’ve given up any thought of ever having a man back in my life, that’s for sure.  I’ll have to think about it.”  She pauses. “Don’t give him my number right now.”

I tell her that I completely understand her reluctance, and that is why I didn’t give him her phone number. “It’s your decision. You should do whatever you want to do.  I’m sure he’ll understand.”

***

In the days leading up to the flight to San Francisco, I become increasingly anxious. The whole thing just seems to so bizarre. I ask myself why I am traipsing across the country to meet a veritable stranger.  But I simply feel compelled, like a metal shaving drawn to a magnet.  On some level I know there was never a doubt in my mind that I would meet Claire, if she would let me.

We spend the first night with old friends who live in a suburb of San Francisco and the next morning head to Truckee, which is near Sacramento.  Claire lives on the outskirts of Truckee in an area that remains surprisingly rural.  The road leading to her farmhouse is unpaved.  We spot her mailbox at the end of a dirt driveway that curves back into a windbreak of trees and shrubs.  The overgrown vegetation almost entirely hides an unpainted cabin-like dwelling.   Claire apparently wasn’t kidding that she had become a recluse.

As soon as we reach the front porch, the door opens and Claire pulls me inside and begins patting my face like I am a newborn.  “Oh, I’ve been waiting all morning, standing right here.” Her voice is even louder and cadence more rapid than in our phone calls.  I concentrate on not losing my composure.  I don’t want to upset her.  Somehow I understand that I need to take my cue from her.

We stand in the hallway as she pats my face.

Claire’s cabin is as rustic on the inside as on the outside.  The walls and cabinets are all unpainted pine.  She leads us into the largest room, which has glass sliders leading to a fenced pasture.  In the field are a small flock of sheep and two donkeys.  On the back porch, an old border collie basks in the winter sun.   “I live here quietly with my animals.  I like having donkeys and sheep, the same animals that comforted the Baby Jesus.”

Wood is stacked along one wall and in a corner sits a wood stove.  “I split this wood myself,” she says proudly.  “I also swim every day.” She points to a small in-ground pool in the backyard.  “It’s therapeutic.”

We sit down on an old couch.  I am grateful to have something to break the ice.  From a bag Betsy pulls out a photo album.  “I thought you might like some photos of Jack from various times in his life.”

I pray the pictures won’t upend her.

The two of us provide commentary as Claire thumbs through pages.  “This is Jack’s high school photo,” Betsy explains.  “We think he looks a lot like you did in your high school photo.”

“Oh my God,” Claire marvels.

“This is from our wedding,” I feel compelled to needlessly explain when she reaches that page.  Betsy has also included family photos from various times in our lives.

The album is clearly a hit. Claire is visibly moved by Betsy’s thoughtfulness.  The final photo is from Tony’s visit to our house.  “This is Tony, his son Louis, our Tim, and of course me.”  Claire says nothing for a moment.

“I’ve been thinking about Tony’s wanting my phone number.  I have to say, it would be nice to have a man in my arms again,” she says with a hint of a grin.  “But since Brian died, I’ve been preparing my immortal soul for heaven.” Tony won’t be getting her phone number.

I feel like the visit is going quite well when Claire suddenly shifts gears.  As she has done in our phone calls and letters, she once again blames herself for not standing up to her parents.  Yet again she relives the nightmare hours leading up to my birth: the pregnant girl who died at the home for unwed mothers, Claire’s going into labor herself, and her frightening ride in a strange car to the hospital.  Her voice rises and she begins talking so fast that she gasps for air.

I again remind her that her decision was perfectly understandable and requires no explanation.   She repeats her main concern, back then, that the Hoeys would not encourage my education.  As in our phone calls, the fact I went to college, especially a Catholic institution, settles her down, at least for the moment.

In one breath, she says, “I think you were better off with the Hoeys.”  In the next, “I will always regret my decision.  You belonged with me.”

A welcomed break occurs when Claire decides it’s time to call Aileen and tell her we’re here and it’s OK to come over.

****

Aileen in person is much prettier than her photos.  She has a mouth that is a virtual carbon copy of Claire’s and mine.  She seems to take in easy stride my sudden entry into her family’s world.  “Claire had told us she had a son when she was very young.”  Aileen herself is an unwed mother of a teenage girl.

***

In addition to being a virtual recluse, Claire wasn’t kidding about not having much food.  She opens up her kitchen cabinets. The only items are peanut butter, bread, cereal, tea and coffee. That’s it.  But Claire is proud of her limited selection. “I know they say peanut butter isn’t good for you, but I haven’t been to a doctor in twenty years.  I don’t trust them.”

I remind Claire and Aileen of my offer to take them out to dinner.  Claire reluctantly agrees.  “Claire doesn’t like to go out,” Aileen says.  She points to a window encased in overgrowth.  “We’ve tried to get her to hire a landscaper to cut back the bushes but she doesn’t want to do it.”

“I don’t want to get ripped off.  Everyone is out to take advantage of old people,” Claire says, her feistiness returning.

***

Aileen suggests a local steakhouse.  When I order beer, Claire eyes the mug. “Do you drink a lot of beer?”

“I have one or two most days.”  I don’t tell her that on other days, I have whiskey.

“I used to drink beer.  I’d go out with the other runners after a run.  They were younger than I was.  I found myself drinking in the morning. One morning on my way to the liquor store, I realized I had to stop.  So be careful.  Alcoholism runs in the family.”

I begin to think that maybe Claire and I do share some compulsive tendencies.  We’re both obsessive exercisers.  We both tend to fall into repetitive routines, which if broken, cause us great anxiety. With some guilt and even trepidation, I order a second beer to go with my steak.

***

When we get back to Massachusetts, I receive a letter from Claire:

Dear Betsy and Jack,

It is now the morning after.  I am sitting by my wood stove turning the photos over and over.  Each time I rest upon your high school and college picture (sic). I then look back at my high school and college picture.  In each and every aspect the resemblance is so very powerful.  I look out and up to the heavens and know that Jesus and Mary have intervened.

When Aileen returned home last night, Meghan [her daughter} had left a message wondering how the day had gone with Jack.  Aileen told her “Everything was just so beautiful.  I saw 50 years of pain melt away.”

Through my tears John Peter I say to you and Betsy – Thank you for coming so many miles.

Aileen’s words to Meghan says it all.

Claire

 

Epilogue

But all the pain didn’t melt away. After the visit, Claire and I corresponded for about a year.  However, I periodically continued to call her on the phone.  In April of 2006 I visited Claire again while on a business trip out West.

On the February day I visited Claire at her farm in Truckee, California, Tony’s photo appeared on the front page of the Quincy Patriot Ledger, the daily newspaper where I had once worked.  I sent Claire the photo. It was picture of bearded Tony, bundled in a hooded parka, ice fishing with a buddy.  Tony appeared larger than life.  Like Claire, Tony was a lover of the outdoors, a free spirit.   Unlike Claire, he could act and never again think about the consequences of his actions.

In 2010, Claire asked me if Tony had ever told me about Spider?  I said no.  “Spider was his best friend.  He was a biker too.” She told me that when she and Tony had intercourse for the first time, she bled heavily, so much in fact that she and Tony became frightened. “Tony was afraid to take me to the hospital.  He was afraid he’d get in trouble.  So he asked Spider. Tony told Spider to say that I fell down at a construction site, and that’s what Spider told the doctor, but I don’t think he believed him.”

In one of her last letters to me, on the occasion of my birthday in 2004, she wrote in part:

As I have in the past many decades, my entire being reaches out to you – my little baby boy that I never knew.

There is so much pain. There is peace and there is joy…

No earthly person knows my pain…when all is said and done the human psyche never really changes.

I will always think of you and I will always hold you close.

After the visit, Claire did hire someone to trim her overgrown shrubs and trees.  She also reconciled after a longer period of estrangement with Maureen.

Initially Maureen showed no interest in contact with me.  But she sent me an email in 2007 and we finally  met that year in New York City.  Like me, Maureen also is a compulsive runner and enjoys sailing.

In 2007 I received a phone call from Kathleen Valenti, Tony’s daughter from his first wife.  Kathleen was living on a mountaintop in Tennessee.  Her mother was only 18 years old when she became pregnant. Like Claire, Kathleen’s mother was Irish.  However, she was a drug addict; that’s why the marriage ended in divorce.  Kathleen came to live with Tony’s parents in Malden. Kathleen sent me photos of Tony, including one where he’s sitting astride an Indian motorcycle, looking much as he must have when he followed Claire into the candy store.

As for Tony, he clearly was disappointed when I told him Claire wasn’t interested in talking to him. I explained that she really did prefer to continue living a quiet life with her sheep and donkeys.   He seemed to understand.

As with Claire, I periodically called and visited Tony.  In January of 2009, I received a letter from a lawyer representing Tony’s estate.  This is how I learned that he had died in December of 2008.  The letter informed me that in his will Tony had disinherited Kathleen and me, but we had the right to contest it.

I immediately called Darlene to express my condolences and assure her that I had no intention of contesting Tony’s will.   She told me that he had been found dead in his chair, the victim of a heart attack.   I ended the conversation with my honest appraisal of my birth father, based on mere hours of actual face-to-face contact: “He seemed like a nice guy.”

***

Later I read more carefully Tony’s will, signed in March 2003, two years after my contacting him and after his divorce from Lucy.  The disinheritance section contained these ironic words: “I intentionally and not as the result of accident, mistake or inadvertence omitted to provide for my son, John P. Hoey…”

I thought about the man who did provide for me.  I thought about the man who was my real father.  On his deathbed, Joe Hoey looked me in the eye and said, “You were a good son.”

I replied, “And you were a good father.”

Among mum’s papers I found a poem.  Just as Claire’s pain never fully melted away, Mum’s fear that she would lose her adopted son never fully left her.  Although the poem’s title is “For All Parents,” the subject of loss must have carried special meaning for Mum.

I’ll lend for a little time, a child of mine, He said.

For you to love while he lives, and mourn when he is dead.

It may be six or seven years, or twenty-two or three.

But will you, till I call him back, take care of him for me?

Mum’s note read simply:

Dear Son, I love you.

It included one request, a quotation from a source that wasn’t cited:

Lay this body wherever it may be.  Let no care of it disturb you; this only I ask of you, that you should remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.

From my odyssey, finding and meeting my birth parents, I came away with a much deeper and more profound appreciation for the only parents I knew.  My only regret is that they never lived to hear me say that.  There never was a good time.

 

 

The Candlepin King

A Short Story by Jack Hoey

Forward and Dedication

The Candlepin King is a work of fiction.  Some of the real people, places and events that inspired this story are explained in the Author’s Notes.  Coincidence of actual persons and the characters depicted are just that – coincidence.

Dedicated to the owners and operators of America’s bowling centers, who give young and old the matchless experience of a game that is not played on a screen; and to my wife, Betsy, who long ago dared me to imagine.

The Candlepin King is copyrighted March 2016 by Jack Hoey.

Prologue

A candlepin stands 15 ¾ inches tall.  The name comes from its cylindrical shape, which is slightly tapered at each end.   The ball is only 4 ½ inches in diameter, about the size of a softball, and weighs no more than an individual pin. Unlike the larger balls in ten-pin bowling, candlepin balls have no holes for fingers.

The national popularity of big-ball bowling made it synonymous with attempting to knock down 10 pins arranged at one end of a 60-foot-long lane.  In fact, there are at least two other significant versions of 10-pin bowling.  Duck-pin uses small balls like candlepins combined with figure-8-shaped pins that are smaller and squatter than “regular” ten-pin.

poster

All three varieties score using 10 frames or boxes per game or “string” as it is often called in candlepin. The combination of smaller, lighter balls renders scoring in duck-pin and candlepin significantly more difficult than ten-pin. So duck-pin and candlepin bowlers are allowed three balls per frame rather than the two permitted in ten-pin. Even with the advantage of a third roll, scores are much lower than in 10-pin. Professionals generally score 120 or better while occasional bowlers are usually quite happy with an 85 or 90.

Candlepin bowling never caught on outside of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and the Canadian Maritimes.  So it is hard to imagine today just how popular candlepin bowling was in the decades after World War II.  During the height of the game’s popularity, 10 candlepin bowling shows were broadcast weekly. The ratings for one televised competition, aired on Saturday mornings, sometimes exceeded those for the Red Sox, Celtics, or Bruins.

Since the game was invented in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1880, no candlepin bowler has ever recorded a perfect 300 game.  No one ever will.  But wait.  Every candlepin fan in New England also thought no bowler would ever get the chance to score 500 in a three-game, televised match.

Chapter 1

She yelled across the narrow counter to the boy.  Behind were three girlfriends. “Three games. I wear a size 7…usually.”  She felt like she had to shout to be heard over the cacophony of balls rolling, pins cracking, and players shouting.   As if that was not enough, a ruby-red juke box blared the big hit from Gene Chandler, “The Duke of Earl.”

The boy shouted back. “Strings.  Games are called strings.”  She noticed his eyes were set deep and they were hazel.  He turned around to find her size in the wooden cubby holes that divided the shelving behind the counter. His wavy, dark hair curled over the collar of his red shirt.  He has the wide shoulders and narrow waist of a swimmer.

The boy extracted a pair of red and gray bowling shoes, grabbed an aerosol can, and sprayed into each one.  Whether the deodorizer helped, she couldn’t tell.   The air was permeated with a musty smell of sweat and hormones.

He handed her a scoresheet and a stubby, indelible-black pen.   No cheating allowed at the Arcadia Bowlaway.  He pointed to a small sign across the top of the shelving.  “It’s 75 cents a string, but you get three for $1.50.  The shoes are fifty cents, so that’s $2.”

While the girl fumbled to find two bills in her purse, he checked her out.  She had dark, straight hair with bangs across her face.  She wore a white sweater, plaid skirt, and bobby sox.  “Are you new in town?  I don’t recall seeing you and…well…I think I would have… remembered, I mean.”  They both blushed.

“Yes.  We moved here last month from the city.  My parents fell in love with Arcadia.  The ocean and the fresh air and well, everything.  I go to Notre Dame Academy.”  It was a Catholic school for girls in a nearby town.

“So how about you?  You in love with everything?”  The girl raised her eyebrows and unconsciously stepped back.  “About Arcadia…do you like living here so far?”

“Seems a tad parochial.”

“Parochial?  That’s Catholic.  No wonder you think this place is boring.  You just haven’t haven’t met the right people.  You go to a parochial school. I go to Arcadia High School. I’m Mat Kane.”

She shook her head and laughed. “My name is Molly Mahoney. Nice to meet you.”

One of Molly’s girlfriends grew impatient.  “Come on, Molly.  Stop flirting.”

“Nice to meet you Molly Mahoney.   Take lane 7.  That’s a lucky lane.”  He pushed a button below the counter and the light over lane 7 turned green.

Mat couldn’t keep his eyes off Molly.  He watched her take her first turn. When she came to the line again, he leaped over the counter.   As Molly selected a ball from the rack, Mat came up behind her and tapped lightly on her shoulder.  Startled, she turned quickly and juggled the ball, nearly dropping it.

Smiling, Mat spoke loudly to be heard above the din. “Sorry, I thought maybe I could give you some tips?” Without asking, he took the ball from her.  He cupped it in the palm of his right hand.  She noticed he had long fingers for his size, which she guessed correctly at about five-feet-ten.

“First off, you want to grip the ball with your fingers.  You control it with the tips of your fingers.  Hold it firm, but not too tight.”  Molly’s three friends watched from red-plastic seats horse-shoed around the scoring table.  They looked at each other and giggled.  Molly turned as red as Mat’s jersey.

Mat seemed oblivious to the other girls. “OK, so next comes your stance.”  He walked to the foul line and turned around.  “Give yourself some room for error so you don’t foul.”  He took a quarter step towards Molly. “Now give yourself three big steps.”  He counted them off and turned back to face the lane. “Hold the ball slightly above your waist.”

ballinhand

“You mean below her chest,” one of Molly’s friends shouted.  More laughter from the peanut gallery.

Undeterred, Mat pressed on with his tutorial.  “You right handed?”  Molly nodded. “OK, me too. So I like to put a little weight on my right leg.  Now for the approach.  It’s going to be three steps.   Left, right, left and release.  Keep your eyes on the target at all times. Focus is the key.”  He turned, stared at her for what seemed like forever, and then returned to face the triangle of white pins with red ringing their middles.

“The follow-through is the final thing to remember, and it’s the one most folks forget.  That’s why you see bowlers ending up off balance and falling all over the place.”  His enthralled audience of teenage girls laughed.  “On that third step, your eyes are still on the pins, but keep your head down as you let the ball go at the bottom of the swing.  By follow-through I mean that you let your right arm come up after you’ve released the ball.  I’ll show you.”

Mat shifted his weight slightly to the right and brought the ball back behind him until it was slightly above parallel with the floor.  As graceful as a dancer, he took three steps and slid.  At the bottom of his down swing, the ball fluidly left his hand and rocketed down the lane.  The impact produced a sharp crack.  Pins flew in every direction, a few spun, a one wobbled before toppling.

Mat pushed the button that activated the pin-setting machine.   A board descended and cleared the pit of the fallen wood. Mat said, “Don’t worry about speed.  Accuracy is more important.  When you are starting out, you don’t need to have a full back-swing like I do.   Any questions?”

“No.  Thank you.  You are a good teacher, Mr. Mat Kane.”

“Well, I had a good teacher myself.  Lesson is over.  I’ve got to get back to work.”  He started to walk back to the counter, hesitated, and turned around.  “Hey, Miss Molly Mahoney, what are you doing tonight?”

Chapter 2

Mat Kane learned to bowl candlepins when he joined a boys’ league that met every Saturday morning.  The Bowlaway was located on the second floor of large, wooden building.   A hardware store occupied the first floor.  The entrance to the lanes was at the rear corner of the building.  If you didn’t know it was there, it was easy to miss.

As he ascended the creaky stairs, Mat loved to hear the “goll roll” – the sound of the balls rolling down 60-feet of hard maple – and then cracking into the pins – followed by the “glung, glung, glung” of them falling.  He liked the sweaty smell that greeted him at the stairwell landing.  Especially on a cold winter day, opening the top door and walking into the lanes was like entering a different world…a brighter, warmer, place than the sleepy fishing town of Arcadia.

***

Mat Kane quickly caught the attention of the Bowlaway’s manager, Dan “Muscles” Gerrity.  It happened during a league contest when Mat threw three strikes in a row.  It was apparent to the wiry Muscles, who had been quite a candlepin bowler himself, that this Kane kid was a gifted candlepin bowler.

Muscles encouraged Mat to compete for an appearance on The King of Candlepins, the most popular televised bowling show in New England.  Muscles knew that Mat needed money for college.  The winner of the Saturday morning contest took home $500, big money in 1962, and the right to come back the following week.  The loser got $250 with both competitors having the chance to win bonus money for stringing together three or more consecutive “marks” – strikes or spare.

Muscles’ motives were not entirely altruistic.  He was a betting man.  In fact, it was rumored that Muscles was a bookie.  He ran numbers on the horses and the dogs, football games, and as the popularity of candlepins soared, bowling.   Muscles’ knew a sure thing when he saw one, and Kid Kane was the real deal.

But first Mat Kane had to qualify for the big show.  To do that he needed to win the regional “roll-offs” held by the TV station in the week preceding the broadcast.  Muscles offered Mat a part-time job at the lanes so he could polish the kid’s mechanics and prepare him properly for the big show.  Mat’s father had died of heart attack when Mat was 12.  His mother had a fondness for fun in general and men in particular.  So she moved to Boston to become “a career girl.”  Mat was left in Arcadia to live with his mother’s sister and her husband.

Aunt Rose and Uncle Joe were kind but far from well off.  Uncle Joe was a conductor on the Boston-New Haven Railroad so he was away a lot.  Aunt Rose ran a boarding house on a side street up the hill off Front Street. Mat was given a room, but he was expected to do his share of chores and find a job if he expected to have any spending money.  His mother had promised she would help support Mat, but somehow she never quite got around to sending a check.  Some unexpected expense seemed to always arise.

So it was that Mat Kane was delighted when Muscles Gerrity offered him a job, and outlined a plan for Mat to become the youngest contestant and winner in the four years since The Candlepin King first went on the air.   Mat’s graduation was only a month away, as was his 18th birthday.  With Muscles coaching, Mat would practice until both men felt he was ready for the roll-offs.

Muscles had plenty of time to mentor Mat.  Muscles’ wife had died five years back when Muscles turned 50.  They had been unable to have children.  Since his wife’s passing, Muscles had stopped competing in the men’s league. He drank more, smoked more. He found himself not wanting to go home when the lanes closed.  Mat gave him a better reason to stay late.

Chapter 3

Mat borrowed Muscles’ battered Ford beach wagon for his first date with Molly.  They ended up where all promising dates in Arcadia ended up…at Lighthouse Point.  For those who actually bothered to look at the boats moored in the harbor behind protective jetties, the parking lot provided a great view, at least until the windows steamed up.

The moon was up and its reflection fell across the dark water.  Molly asked, “What do you plan to do after you graduate.”

“I’ve been accepted to the University of Massachusetts, but I’m not sure I can afford even UMass.” He told her about his plan to become the Candlepin King.

“You are good teacher.  You showed me that today.”

Then they kissed for the first time.

***

Their romance took off.  They became almost inseparable.  Wherever they went, folks remarked that they made for a fine looking couple.  At first, Muscles was worried that Molly would distract his star pupil.  But just the opposite happened.  Mat never missed a practice, and he concentrated on every roll as if it were the deciding score in a televised match.

When Muscles finally declared Mat ready, he entered the roll-offs for The King of Candlepins.  The first week, Mat made it to the semi-finals before losing to a seasoned professional and frequent competitor on the Saturday show.  Mat was downcast, but Muscles seemed more confident than ever.  “You done good, Mat,” Muscles said. “That guy had it going today.”

The following week, Mat reached the finals, but again lost to a grizzled veteran with gray hair and a beer belly.  This time Mat had an unqualified meltdown.  On the drive back to Arcadia in Muscles’ battered beach wagon, Mat all but screamed at Muscles.  “This is ridiculous.  Some of these guys are old enough to be my father for God sakes.  They’ve been bowling since I was in diapers.  This was a stupid idea.”

Muscles pulled over.  Lit up a cigarette and looked at Mat hard.  “You finished?  Let me tell you something.  I’ve been around this game as long as anyone.  I know you can do this, because I’ve Dane it.”  Mat looked puzzled.  Muscles continued: “When I was 19, I entered the state championship.  Of course, no TV back then.  I was the youngest ever to qualify for the final.  Nobody gave me a chance.”

“You won?”

Cigarette dangling from his mouth, Muscles brought his index fingers to within a hair of touching each other.  “Nope.  But I came this close.”  They both laughed.  “Next week you are going to qualify.  Third time’s the charmer.”

***

Muscles was right.  In this third week of regionals, Mat qualified for the biggest show in New England bowling.   Never had someone so young bowled against grown men in televised competition.

When Saturday morning arrived, Aunt Rose awakened Mat early.  The show was broadcast from the Boston Bowladrome.  The plan was for Muscles to drive Mat and Molly.

When he rolled out of bed, Mat’s legs felt wobbly, his head woozy.  Aunt Rose had prepared a big breakfast, which Mat did his best to keep down. Just as Molly and Muscles walked into the boarding house kitchen, Mat ran to the bathroom.

When he returned to the kitchen, he announced, “I’m not ready. Maybe next year.”

Firmly, Molly said, “Nonsense.  You are just nervous.  OK, maybe a little scared.  That’s OK.”

Muscles nodded.  “Just remember the three most important things in candlepin bowling…”

Mat unclenched his teeth and rolled his shoulders. “First, concentration.  Second, concentration.  Third, concentration.  OK, you guys win.”

Kissing him, Molly grabbed both his hands.  “No, Mat.  YOU win.  YOU are going to be The Candlepin King.”

Chapter 4

The King of Candlepins followed the usual format for a championship match: three games or strings called a Triple.   As usual, the palatial Boston Bowladrome was packed for the show, although a larger than normal number of young people were waiting for the 11 a.m. live broadcast to begin.

The host was a popular local TV sportscaster named John Tobin.  Tobin took candlepins as seriously as his audience, and he knew the game inside and out.

Marty Levin was the owner of the Bowladrome, New England’s biggest and most modern candlepin lanes.   While Tobin was tall, tanned and lean, Marty was maybe five-foot-four on a good day, and looked like he had never seen the light of day, or a meal he didn’t like.  He was rumpled, bald and wore heavy black glasses.   When Tobin and Levin were together, folks joked behind their backs that they looked like the then-popular, comic-strip characters, Mutt and Jeff.

Mat could not have faced a tougher opponent.  At 34 years of age, Frank DiMeco had recently established a new state record for one string of 231, and had appeared 21 times on The King of Candlepins, more than any other contestant since the show went on the air in 1958.  DiMeco’s current reign stood at three weeks.

Muscles had warned Mat not to let DiMeco intimidate him. As if Frank’s feats weren’t enough to instill fear in an opponent, he strolled over to Mat during warmups and hissed in his ear, “I Don’t know how the fuck they let a kid on the show.  I’ll try not to embarrass you too much.  I Don’t want to see you wet your pants with the camera going.”

Mat was so shocked he was speechless.  Seeing the exchange, Muscles asked, “What did Frank say?”

“Let’s just say he didn’t exactly wish me good luck.”

The veins in Muscle’s forehead looked like they were ready to pop.  “He’s always been a prick.  Remember, his league average isn’t much higher than yours.  It’s not age that counts. It’s the number of pins you knock down.”

***

Tobin began the show with on-air introductions of the contestants.  “Hi, everybody and welcome to The King of Candlepins.  We have an interesting match for you today. Let’s start as we always do with our challenger.   Today he is eighteen-year-old Mat Kane who comes to us by way of the Arcadia Bowlaway.” Tobin deftly pulled Mat closer to the mike.  “Mat, you are our youngest player to qualify, and here you are facing Frank DiMeco.  Frank has been on this show a record 21 times.  Quite a challenge.”

“No question about it.  I have been a big fan of Mr. DiMeco.  But I think I have a chance.  I am lucky to have had a good coach.  Mus…er…Mr. Dan Gerrity has helped me improve my game in a short period.”

Tobin smoothly picked up on it.  “For those too young to remember, Dan Muscles Gerrity was a three-time Massachusetts Candlepin Association champion in the 1940s and early 50s.  You are already quite a bowler yourself, Mat.  I see your highest previous score is 189.  That’s impressive for any candlepin bowler at any age.  Good luck today, young man.”

Mat was glad to have the interview end.  He just wanted to start knocking down pins.  He quickly took his seat, exchanging nods with Frank as he replaced Mat in the spotlight. Tobin: “Frank DiMeco needs no introduction to our regular viewers.  Frank, this is your third straight week.  What do you know about young Mr. Mat Kane?”

DiMeco was like Jekyll and Hyde depending on whether the camera was on.  With a mike stuck in his face, he acted every bit the sportsman.   “John, Mat has some impressive scores, especially for someone his age.  He seems like a nice kid with a lot of poise.  So I plan to just try to bowl as well as I can.”

“Well, you are on quite a roll.  Thanks, Frank.  Good luck.  When we come back, we’ll see if the youngest competitor in the history of our show can dethrone our most successful bowler since we went on the air in October of 1958.”

***

After the commercials, John Tobin no longer appeared on camera.  From here on, the focus was on the bowler, the ball, and the pins.   “We are underway, with our challenger, Mat Kane of Arcadia, Massachusetts on the line.” Mat smoothly rolled his first ball down the center of the lane.  “Just missed the head pin, leaving the four horsemen left side, and the 8-pin and the 10-pin on the right.”

rack

Candlepin arranges and numbers pins in the same way as “ten-pin.” A sample of  simple scoring is below.

 

Tobin after Mat’s second ball: “1, 8 and 10 still there.”  Mat hung his head momentarily.  Molly whispered, “Come on Mat. Concentrate.”  She reached out to hold Muscles’ hand.

Third ball: “8 and 10 out of there…the headpin never did go down.” The screen showed a scoresheet with 9 in the first box under Mat Kane.

As Mat went into his approach for his first ball of the second box, Tobin intoned, “Mat has a current league average of 124…Four pieces of wood by the 6-pin…the 7-pin is alone on the left.”

Wood is the fallen pins.  Unlike in ten-in bowling, all candlepin wood does not have to be scoresheetremoved.  Playable or “live” wood is any fallen pin that doesn’t end up in the gutter. Deadwood is also any pin that touches or goes beyond a line two-feet in front of the pit.  Depending on its position, live wood can be a candlepin bowler’s best friend or worst enemy.  Sometimes the fallen pins can be used to knock down standing pins that are far apart.  But wood can also protect standing pins.

Second roll: “Just missed…another 9.”

“And now our defending champion, Frank DiMeco of Waltham.  Frank has won three weeks in a row.”  Frank rolled a blazing ball down the center of the lane.  Every pin scattered but one, which wobbled as a fallen pin twirled around it.  “And he starts by nearly rolling a strike.  It looked like the 6-pin was going to go down, but it stayed up.”  Second ball: “He makes his first spare.”  On his bonus ball Frank obliterated all but one pin and hammered another spare.

Frank already was ahead 29-18, and he hadn’t even rolled his bonus ball, which would be added in on his next turn.

Starting off his third box, Mat settled down.  He left one pin and made his first spare.  On his bonus ball he again left only one pin and racked up his second spare in a row.  Sensing this might actually be a contest, Tobin put some oomph in his commentary. “And he’s all over it!”  Mat sat and for the first time actually looked like he was enjoying himself.

“Frank DiMeco on the line again. He’s working on his second spare… and he has a fill of 7 and no wood to work with on a tough split.” A fill is the number of pins felled on a bonus ball.  Tobin was right about the degree of difficulty.  Frank left one pin for a 9.

After three boxes Frank was still ahead by 8.  In the 4th box, both men spared but Mat’s fill was 7 and Frank’s 5, cutting the lead to 6.  Both rolled 9s in the 5th.

In the 6th, Mat turned things around.  He spared and rolled a strike on his bonus ball, and then spared again, making for three consecutive marks.   “And that’s $50 in bonus money for three consecutive marks,” Tobin exclaimed.  “For each additional consecutive mark, it’s another $50.”

Frank looked grim as he stepped up to the line.  He rolled a 10 and a 9, and suddenly the kid from Arcadia was up by 15 through 7 boxes.

Tobin was getting into it himself.  “Mat Kane back on the line for the 8th and looking to fill his last spare…and it’s a big 8.  The 4- and 7-pins left with wood in front of them…Yes, another spare! Four consecutive marks, and that brings Mat’s bonus total to $100! This young man seems to have found his groove.”

Mat returned to his seat and watched as Frank answered with a spare and a fill of 7 on the bonus.  Muscles leaned over from the spectator seats.  “Hammer it, Mat.”

Mat rose to roll the bonus ball from his spare in the 8th.  Tobin resumed: “Mat Kane with more bonus money still alive…and A STRIKE!  He now has five consecutive marks for $150 in bonus money.”

Mat added only 7 on his strike, but he had finished with an impressive 158.  Frank DiMeco was in a very deep hole as he came to the line to roll his final two frames.  He made 10 in each.

Mat Kane had crushed Frank DiMeco, 158 to 125.

On camera again before the first advertising break, Tobin smiled widely, or as the locals might say, ‘looked happy as a clam’. “If young Mat Kane is nervous, he sure isn’t showing it.   A very strong start for our young challenger.  I’m sure our current king, Frank DiMeco, is disappointed. Let’s see if the veteran can regain his winning form when we return for today’s middle match.”

Chapter 5

During the break, Mat huddled with Muscles and Molly.  Muscles: “You look nice and smooth, Mat.  Don’t change anything.  Just stay focused.”  Mat wiped his face with a towel again and nodded.  He glanced over at Frank’s table.  DiMeco glared back.

Seeing DiMeco’s dagger-stare, Molly gently squeezed Mat’s arm.  “Don’t let him get to you, Mat.”

The reigning Candlepin King always started the middle match.  Frank began with a strike and never looked back.  Mat struggled to put marks together and his fills were never as high as DiMeco’s, who was clearly on fire.  The result: DiMeco 161, Kane 132.

As the show went to break, Tobin set the stage, “Well folks, we’ve got an exciting finish perhaps in the making.  After our first two games, it’s our Candlepin King, Frank DiMeco, with a combined score of 286 and our teenage challenger, Mat Kane, only three points back at 283.  We’ll be right back to see who wins the third and deciding string.”

When the show went live again, the younger spectators whooped and whistled.  But a group of men standing behind the seats looked troubled.  They had bet on what they thought was a sure thing…Frank DiMeco.   In the betting gang was a crew-cut, beefy hood named Bobo Buckley.  Bobo did not wager himself.  He was a bag man for the Honorable James “Sonny” Sullivan.

Sonny could not be seen on camera with bookies and loan-sharks.  Sonny had a reputation to protect.  He was a distinguished member of the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, otherwise known as the House of Representatives.   Sonny practiced “law” over the family bar in Boston.   Being a summer resident of Arcadia, Sonny was well acquainted with the town’s bowling prodigy.  But Sonny had not had enough faith in young Mat Kane to bet against the legendary Frank DiMeco.

***

Candlepin fans would talk about the rubber game between DiMeco and Kane for years.  Through five boxes, the score was nearly even: 72 for DiMeco and 71 for Kane.  But that meant Mat was still 4 under the lead.  Mat bowled consistently, but couldn’t shake DiMeco who matched him box for box.

As Mat rolled his final ball of the 10th box, Tobin framed the drama: “So Mat Kane rolls a 138 for his final game, and ends with a triple of 421.  As our regular viewers know, our competitors receive $100 in bonus money for any triple of 400 or more.  A lot of bonus cash and a great debut for young Mr. Kane, but will it be enough?  Our reigning King, Frank DiMeco has been in pressure situations many times before.”

In his 9th Frank spared and raised his fist.  Mat remained stone-faced.  Tobin sounded like a kid in a candy store: “This is going down to the wire, folks.  Frank DiMeco needs just 10 pins in his final frame to tie Mat Kane’s triple total of 421.   Another mark will win it all…”

“…OK, DiMeco at the line now, his title on the line…”

Frank hammered what looked like a sure strike.  The pins seemed to explode.  So did Tobin’s commentary: “The walls come tumbling down but…woah…wait…and the king still stands.  I thought it was a strike, but the 5-pin refused to go down.”

In a full rack or triangle of 10 pins, the 5-pin is set in the center.  Surrounded by others, the 5-pin came to be known as the king-pin.

The camera was on Frank DiMeco who stood motionless, his arm hanging, ball gripped in his hand, with no sign he planned to actually raise it and roll his second ball.  The camera switched back to the pit.

Momentarily Tobin was caught off guard and then realized what was going on. “The wood is still rolling.  That’s why Frank is waiting.  He’s hoping the downed pins roll into a better position, or are declared dead.   There’s our line judge, Bowladrome owner Marty Levin, looking it over.”  The camera panned to Marty sitting in a chair in the next lane, squinting, and finally declaring the wood ‘Live’.

Shaking his head, DiMeco tried to gather himself.  He took a deep breath, went into his approach and rolled as fast a ball has he had ever bowled.  The ball traveled like a missile and slammed into the log-jam around the king-pin.

“ROADBLOCK!  The wood won’t cooperate.  But he still has a chance to tie for the match.  Folks, we’ve never had a tie.  But if it happens, my producer tells me both bowlers would come back next week….and this is it, Frank DiMeco at the line, trying one last time to get the king-pin.”

Frank failed.  The live wood saved the king-pin, and defeated the reigning Candlepin King.

The young audience went wild.  Mat jumped up.  Molly ran to him and kissed him square on the lips.  Muscles beamed until he saw Frank DiMeco striding toward Mat.  But to Muscles’ surprise, Frank extended his hand.   It was all for show.  “Congratulations, kid,” Frank said loudly.  Then quietly he added, “You got lucky today.  Maybe you won’t be so lucky the next time.  See you soon, kid.”

Mat was too stunned to reply.  In any event, Tobin grabbed him for a closing interview. “Mat Kane, our new Candlepin King.  Today, young man, you are no longer Kid Kane.  You are King Kane.”

Chapter 6

The nickname stuck.  King Kane went back the following Saturday, and the Saturday after that, to successfully defend his title.  With each winning week, Mat’s following grew.  The Boston newspapers all did feature stories on Mat “King” Kane, the teenage heartthrob, the cause celebre of a resurgent interest in New England’s odd-ball version of bowling.

Decades before Tiger Woods, King Kane attracted boys and girls to take up a sport.  Youngsters in droves joined junior leagues.   More men and women signed up to bowl on weekday nights. Bowling operators were understandably ecstatic.  And for a time, so were Sonny Sullivan’s “clients”…until the odds of anyone beating King Kane became too tempting.

***

Mat’s run on The King of Candlepins didn’t change his life entirely.  The money from the show wasn’t going to make him rich, but it would help get him through UMass.  So he kept working at the Bowlaway where younger bowlers and their mothers asked him for autographs.  Aunt Rose made sure he didn’t neglect his chores at the boardinghouse.  “Now, Don’t you be getting too full of yourself,” she warned.  Aunt Rose viewed good fortune as a sign that bad things were sure to happen at any moment.

Aunt Rose was not entirely wrong.

***

The Irish first came to Arcadia in the mid-19th century.  They fished, lobstered, and harvested a commercially valuable variety of seaweed that also grew on the rocky shores of Ireland.  The 20th century brought a second wave of Irish-Americans — summer residents from middle-class Boston neighborhoods.   Boston’s South Shore became known as “The Irish Riviera,” a title it bears to this day.

Among the more illustrious “summer bums” of this bygone era was Boston’s legendary mayor, James Michael Curley.   Depending on your religion and politics, often one-in-the-same, Curley was either a savior or a scoundrel.  In the Curley tradition, another ethically flexible Boston pol began summering in Arcadia.

Sonny Sullivan stood well over six feet and had broad shoulders and a barrel chest.  He was blessed with a thick head of wavy, brown hair which turned silver at an early age.  He was dubbed “Sonny” to distinguish him from his father, who was simply called “Sully.”   Sully, who had been a ward boss for Curley, operated one of the many non-descript watering holes in one of the many Irish neighborhoods of Boston.  The fake brick front of Sully’s bore no sign.  None was needed.  If you didn’t know where Sully’s was, you didn’t belong there.

Sonny Sullivan grew up in the family tavern where the young boy gained a priceless education in life on the edge of the law.   When a favor was not returned, a vote not cast, a promise not fulfilled, a loan not repaid, there was a price to be paid.   But Sonny’s education was not limited to the school of hard knocks.  Thanks to his father’s resources, Sonny became a “Triple Eagle” – meaning that he graduated from Boston College High, Boston College and Boston College Law School.

Fresh out of law school and with the backing of the Curley machine, Sonny easily won election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives.   Attorney James Sonny Sullivan was never known to take a case to trial.  Mysteriously, civil disputes were dropped or settled; criminal charges dismissed or reduced.  In short, Sonny became a political fixer and Ward healer extraordinaire.

Once ensconced on Beacon Hill, Sonny Sullivan never left.  Every two years he was reelected, usually unopposed, as the Yankee-dominated Republican Party lost its grip on the body politic.  Not surprisingly, Sonny’s wealth grew with his power.  After one summer in Arcadia, he plunked down enough cash to convince the owner a beautiful Victorian cottage perched atop one of Arcadia’s many cliffs to sell.

That Sonny Sullivan would wind up living in the home built by Daniel Ward could not have been more apropos.

***

Daniel Ward immigrated to Boston from Ireland in the 1840s.  While visiting Arcadia, Ward discovered growing on the rocky shore the very same Irish “sea moss” that he and other lads had gathered for profit in the old country.  Extract from the marine algae was used in foods, drinks and cosmetics, as it is to this day.

So began what would become a major industry in Arcadia: the harvesting around low tides of what the Irish had called carrageenan.  Ward offered to buy whatever Irish moss the locals could bring him, thus creating and then cornering the market.

Like other enterprising Arcadians of the period, Ward supplemented his regular income by salvaging whatever came ashore from storms and shipwrecks.   In the days before modern navigation, the treacherous coast of Arcadia was dreaded by seafarers who labeled it “the graveyard of ships.”   After major storms, whole families regularly patrolled the shores waiting for something valuable to wash up besides Irish moss.   When a ship actually sank, battles erupted over salvaging rights.

In 1853 a ship called the Forest Queen floundered off Arcadia.  She was carrying 12 tons of silver.  Only one bar of silver, weighing seventy-three pounds and bearing the stamp the Emperor of China, was ever found…at least officially.   As luck would have it, Ward was living in a shack on the beach where the Forest Queen went aground.  He would always claim that he never found the treasure, but soon thereafter Ward built the largest home in Arcadia on the cliff that would take on his name.

So it came to pass that Sonny Sullivan, whispered to made his fortune by ill-gotten gains, began summering in Daniel Ward’s big yellow Victorian cottage with a wrap-around porch and carriage house.

Chapter 7

One of the many lessons Sonny Sullivan learned in his father’s pub was finding loyal help.  That was how Bobo Buckley had come to be standing among the heavy bettors on the Saturday that Mat Kane became the Candlepin King.

Bobo started as a bouncer at Sully’s.  If he had another first name, everyone had forgotten it, including Bobo.  As a troubled youth, Bobo distinguished himself as a gifted, if sometimes dirty, golden-gloves boxer — initially in reform school and then in prison. Over the years, Bobo had gone to fat, but he remained a fearless street fighter.

When asked about Bobo’s checkered past, Sonny would claim that he had taken Bobo under his wing to give him a new purpose in life.  That was maybe half right.  Instead of solo crime, Buckley joined the organized variety.

So when the Boston mob decided to fix The King of Candlepins, who better to rig the result than Marty Levin and Sonny Sullivan? Marty and Muscles already had a business relationship.  Muscles ran his numbers through Marty’s operation.  Sonny summered in Arcadia where Bobo helped protect his interests.

From his office at the Bowladrome, Marty called Muscles to give him the word. “Muscles, Marty here, how ya doing?  So your boy is still on a roll.  Three straight weeks.  He could break Frank DiMeco’s record.”

Muscles figured Marty had an ulterior motive for calling. “Tell me something I Don’t know, Marty.”

“Your kid is going to face Frank again.  He made it through the roll-offs.  He’s back for Saturday.”

“No surprise.  It was only a matter of time.  Mat knows if he beat Frank once, he can do it again.”

Marty cleared his throat.  “Yeah, yeah, Muscles. That’s why I’m calling.  There’s huge interest.  Never seen anything like it.  The ratings will go through the roof.  The rematch is good for everybody.”

“Nice to know, Marty.  Thanks for the update.”

“This rivalry, Muscles.  This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You know what I’m saying?”

“No Marty, I Don’t know what you are saying.  I’m just a simple guy.”

“Yeah right.  You are dumb like a fox.  Look, like I say this rivalry, we could milk this for all its worth.”

“Throw the match?  You want us to throw the fucking rematch?”

“Think of it as renting the title.”

“Think of me shoving the head-pin up your ass.”

“Calm down, Muscles.  You and I go back a long way.  This is a business proposition.”

“Look, Marty. I’ve never fixed a bowling match.  Sure, I’ve run numbers.  If people want to gamble, they should be able to.  I bet you some day the state takes over gambling.”

“It already has, Muscles.”  He got up from his chair and tried to see through a dingy window.  “Muscles?”

“Don’t tell me…it’s Sonny.  Sonny fucking Sullivan.”

“This is bigger than Sonny.  This is bigger than all of us.  That’s what you Don’t understand, Muscles.  Sonny has business partners.  They see a real business opportunity here.  Sonny told me over at BC he learned a Latin saying, carpe diem.  Seize the day.  That’s all we’re asking, Muscles.  A beautiful thing, pumping in the interest. Like wrestling.  Put on a nice show and everyone’s happy.”

“Everyone except Mat Kane…and me.  Sorry, Marty.  I know this kid.  He’s a straight shooter.  No way he would agree to this.”

“I’m just the messenger boy. I’m supposed to tell you, the kid wins Saturday, you will never run another number.”

“Fine. I’m out.  I Don’t need to take bets.  With Kid Kane, my bowling leagues are bursting at the seams.  It’s almost like the old days.”

“Yeah, well, that’s nice, Muscles.  But I’m afraid it’s not that simple.  No towing the line, no more Bowlaway.  The landlord would be looking for a new manager.”

Muscles felt the anger building.  Just at that moment, a young boy lobbed a ball into the gutter.  “Is that a threat?”

“No threat.  Just the deal.  Who do you think really owns the Bowlaway?”

“Sonny.  I should have known.”

“Actually, Sonny is just another shady lawyer, Muscles.  He hides made-men and their money behind dummy companies so no one can ever figure out who really owns what.”

“Well, you know what, Marty? This is one dummy nobody owns.  Take my job.  I Don’t give a shit.”

“They figured that, Muscles. You aren’t the one who could get hurt.”

Muscles took a deep breath. “OK, Marty.  I’ve got a message for you to bring back to your masters.   Anyone touches Mat, I’ll kill them.  You got that.”

“Yeah, I got it Muscles.  But before I deliver that disappointing answer, I want you to think about something. You care for this kid.  Don’t you think you should let him know the score?  Shouldn’t it be his decision, not yours?  I’m just saying, Muscles, as a friend.”

Muscles knew they had worked out their play. “OK, Marty.  But I know what Mat is going to say.”
“Listen, I know you Don’t believe this right now, but I don’t want to see Mat get hurt either.   You need to work on him.  Sometimes we all have to bend a little.  Do things we don’t like.  Let me know by noon tomorrow, Muscles.”  The line went dead.

Chapter 8

“I can’t believe this shit,” Mat said, looking at Muscles in disbelief.  He had relayed his conversation with Marty Levin, almost word for word.  Mat and Muscles sat at the scoring table in Lane 7.

“It stinks, OK. It stinks.  But I Don’t want you to get hurt.  That’s why I had to tell you.”

“Why don’t we go to the police?”

Muscles laughed.  “You think the Arcadia Police or the Staties for that matter can protect us from the mob?”

“I’d like to go up to his big cottage and lob him off the cliff.”

“Pleasant as that would be, Marty is right.  Sonny is just one side of the same dirty coin.  He is the tail.  Cut off the tail.  The head still bites you.”

Mat bounded up, took the first ball in the rack, and rocketed a strike. The crash of pins didn’t help.  He turned.  Muscles was holding his head in hands.  Mat walked to him and Muscles finally looked up.  Mat: “You know my answer.”

“I know.  Never had a doubt.  So what are you waiting for?  Keep bowling.” Muscles started to walk back to the counter.

“One thing, Muscles.”  Muscles stopped and looked back. “Don’t say anything to Molly or Aunt Rose and Uncle Joe.  No need for them to worry.”

Muscles nodded, turned, and walked away to the sound of a ball rolling and then, pins falling.
***

The next morning Muscles relayed Mat’s decision to Marty Levin.  “Marty, you can also tell Frank we’re giving him a chance to prove it wasn’t bad luck he lost.”  Muscles didn’t wait for a reply.  He hung up and went back to work.

That evening Muscles and Mat were closing up the alleys as usual.  Mat was dust mopping the lanes and Muscles was adding up the day’s receipts.   In walked Sonny with Bobo in tow.

Muscles looked up.  “We’re closed.”  He put his head down again.  Dust mop in hand, Mat rushed to the counter.

Sonny raised his both hands, palms held out. “Whoa.  I come in peace.  Unless you do something stupid, in which case Bobo will slice you to ribbons.”  Dutifully, Bobo whipped out a switch-blade and popped it open.   Mat stopped in his tracks.  Sonny turned to Bobo: “OK, put that away.  “

Muscles said, “Yeah, Bobo.  Good dog.  Nice dog.  Go chew a bone.”  Sonny had to step sidewise to block Bobo from lunging for Muscles.

“That’s enough, both of you.  Look, I Don’t like this situation either.”

Muscles, calmed slightly: “Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps saying.”

Sonny smiled.  “Unlike Marty Levin, I have clients who are entitled to…”

Muscles: “Don’t give me that bullshit, counselor.”

Sonny pressed on.  “Sometimes clients take my advice.  Sometimes they Don’t.  But they never like it when someone tells them to go fuck themselves.   That makes them unhappy.   Right now they are very unhappy.   They are unhappy with me.  They think I can arrange anything.  They are unhappy with you, Muscles.  You had a nice thing going.  On the side.  A small book to help cover the rent.   You had protection all these years, and how to repay their kindness?  And you Mat.  They want you to go to college. They like you.  Hell, they love you.  You are like the fucking Elvis of candlepins.  The kids love you.  King Kane is good for the game, and what’s good for the game is good for my clients’ business.”

Mat leaned the broom against the counter.  “What is good for their business is to keep the game honest.  Once word gets out that the matches are rigged, candlepin bowling becomes a joke. It will become like wrestling already is, and boxing is becoming, and who knows what’s next.”

Sonny laughed.  “Ah, the innocence of youth.  I heard you were a smart kid.  But you’re naïve.  John Q. Public isn’t going to find out, and besides, we won’t fix all the contests.  Just the big ones, like yours and Frank’s.   You guys are the first.  You might say you’re the guinea pigs.”

Muscles: “The only guinea is that friggin’ wop, Frank DiMeco.”  Even Bobo laughed.

“I always admired you, Muscles,” Sonny continued. “You could have been the best candlepin bowler in the history of the game.  The only thing that beat you was the bottle.”  This time Mat had to hold back Muscles while Sonny did the same with Bobo.

When both stood down, Mat said, “Look, Mr. Sullivan.  I Don’t want to cause any trouble.  But I can’t do this.  I just can’t.  I don’t know if I can beat Frank DiMeco again, but I need to find out.”

Muscles: “Time to slither back into your hole, Sonny.  And take Rin Tin Tin with you.  Next time you might want to put him on a leash.”  Bobo pulled out the switch-blade again, but before he could even open it, Muscles raised a pistol from below the counter and aimed it at Bobo. “I’d hate to have to put you down, Bobo.”

Sonny raised his hands, palms out, once again.  “Too bad, Muscles.  You are going to lose your lanes.”  Sonny moved his eyes to Mat. “And knowing my clients, I fear you are going to lose your meal ticket here.”

***

Molly could tell something was bothering Mat.  On Friday afternoon they went to Nesbitt’s, the local luncheonette where coffee and gossip were served endlessly.   Of course, everyone in the place wished Mat good luck.  Once they found a booth with some privacy and ordered their usual Cherry Vanilla Cokes, Molly asked, “OK, Mr. Kane. Is there something I need to know?”

Mat tried not to act alarmed. “What makes you say that?”

“I know you.  Maybe it’s this rematch, but I don’t know why.  You know you can beat Frank DiMeco.”

Mat twirled his straw in the fizzy head of his Cherry Vanilla Coke.  He looked up and said, “That could have gone either way, Molly.  I had some luck.”

“Yes, and you also had skill.  Doesn’t Muscles always say bowling is like life?  Good breaks and bad.  Besides, isn’t this your chance to show everybody that beating Frank DiMeco was no fluke?”

Mat managed a smile. “I hate it when you are right.”

“So what does Muscles say are the three most important things in candlepin bowling?”

“Concentration.  Concentration.  Concentration.”

“OK, so let’s give our Cherry Vanilla Cokes our undivided attention.”

Chapter 9

In the week leading up to the match, the Boston newspapers and the TV station that carried the show had tried mightily to interview Mat, but he refused them all.  Muscles explained that Mat didn’t want to let the hoopla distract him.  But even without Mat, the media had no trouble finding proud Arcadians willing to talk about their TV star.

Decades later candlepin bowlers would still talk about the legendary rematch of Mat King Kane and Frank DiMeco.  The King of Candlepins would never again match the ratings for that Saturday show.  Shoppers stopped to watch in stores that sold TVs.  Patrons gathered rows deep around bars.

Never again would candlepin bowling be as big.

Bowlaway faithful gathered around a battered, black-and-white propped on the shoe counter.  Uncle Joe and Aunt Rose did their best to maintain order.

Demand for TV tickets was so great that the station paid for additional, temporary seating.  Among those who had no trouble getting a ticket was Sonny Sullivan.

Mat and Muscles made their way through the spectators who came early to watch the bowlers warm up.  As they passed, Sonny he reached out and grabbed Mat’s arm.  “Good luck, kid.  You may need it.” Muscles pulled Mat away.

***

For John Tobin the day was already a resounding success.  “Well folks, this is the match we have all been waiting for.  The last time these bowlers met, out of 841 pins felled, only 1, fittingly the number 5, the king-pin, made the difference.  Mat Kane hung on in that one.  So will Frank DiMeco retake the crown once again?  Or will King Kane continue to rule.  Stay tuned.”

What followed was the most amazing Triple in the history of candlepin bowling.  Mat and Frank traded strikes, spares, and big fills on their bonus balls.  In the first game, Frank bested Mat: 172 to 147.  In the middle round, Frank again won, but his margin narrowed: 166 to 160.

Going into the final game, it was DiMeco 338, Kane 307.  However, it quickly became apparent that the real drama would be whether either player, or perhaps both, could break a record.  No candlepin bowler on the show had scored a triple total of 500.  Indeed, players received a $100 bonus for accumulating 400 or more.  The highest triple had been a 481.

***

Mat started off with a strike, followed by a spare with a bonus of 7.  The only box in which he would not roll a mark was a 9 in the 3rd.  Of his seven consecutive marks, six were strikes, the last a strike on a spare in the 9th.   As Mat came to the line for the 10th and final box, Tobin made sure the audience understood the possibility that history might be made.

“So it comes to this.  Eighteen-year-old Mat Kane has two balls left to drop 9 pins.  If he does, it will be our first triple of 500.”

Molly and Muscles had to clasp hands again.  At the Bowlaway, Aunt Rose blessed herself and Uncle Joe downed a shot of Jamieson.  The locals pressed against the counter, chanting “Come on, Mat.  Come on, Mat.”

At the Bowladrome, Sonny did a double take as Marty Levin whispered, “Go for it kid.”

Then disaster struck.   On his first bonus ball, Mat missed the head pin and punched out only the 2-pin and the 8-pin.   Tobin sounded deflated. “Oh gosh. He has left himself a wicked hahd [hard], Half Woostah [Worcester].   A Half Woostah Left to be exact.  What a tough break for Mat Kane.  He really has his work cut out for him if he hopes to reach that elusive 500 plateau.”

Legend has it that the colorful term was coined during a state tournament in the 1940s between teams from the cities of Worcester and Boston.  When a bowler from the Worcester team punched out the two pins, a Boston player taunted him: “You’re halfway back to Woostah.”  A Half Worcester Right is when only the 3- and 9-pins fall.   And yes, two half Worcesters – felling the 2-3-8-9 — do equal a Full Worcester.

Mat stepped to the line for his final roll.  Molly chanted quietly: “Concentrate.  Concentrate.  Concentrate.”  Mat aimed for the pocket between the 1- and 3-pins on the right side.  It was a crack of tumbling pins heard round the state.   Every pin but one had fallen.

Mat pumped his fist and then leaped in the air.  Muscles and Molly hugged and the audience stood and clapped.  Tobin exploded: “He did it.  Five hundred.  Mat Kane has rolled our first five-hundred-triple. “

Mat felt a pat on is back and turned.  It was Frank DiMeco.  “Congratulations, kid.  That wasn’t luck.”

“Thank you, Mr. DiMeco.  That means a lot coming from you.  You’ve got quite a triple going here yourself, so good luck on your final frames.”

The camera captured DiMeco’s uncharacteristic act of sportsmanship.  Tobin: “Frank DiMeco comes over to congratulate Mat Kane.”

Frank DiMeco finished with a 150 for the third string, bringing his total for the match to 488.  Both players had broken the previous high of 466.  Mat congratulated Frank. Their photo shaking hands would appear on the sports pages of every daily newspaper in the state.

An enraptured Tobin wrapped up. “What a beauty!  I’m just glad I was here to see this.”

One spectator didn’t participate in the celebration.  Bobo Buckley bit his lower lip and headed for the exit.

Mat stayed after the broadcast to sign autographs and do interviews.  Already he was being asked if he was confident that he could extend his winning streak next Saturday.  As a Boston Globe reporter put it, “If Frank DiMeco can’t beat you, who can?”

Mat pointed out how close the two matches had been. “There were plenty of great bowlers in New England, and none better than Mr. DiMeco.  He will be back.  You can bet on it.”

A chill crawled up Muscles’ spine.

Chapter 10

It was mid-afternoon by the time Mat, Muscles, and Molly made it back to the Bowlaway.  When they walked in the door, the place was packed.  Aunt Rose and Uncle Joe had hastily organized a celebration.  Nesbitt’s provided the sandwiches, soft drinks, and coffee.   Believing in Mat, Aunt Rose had baked dozens of cookies that morning.  Uncle Joe had directed the hardware store to fashion and hang a banner across the back wall.  In big blue letters, the new sign proclaimed: “Arcadia Bowlaway – Home of the Candlepin King”

Kathy Nesbitt, Arcadia’s gossiper-in-chief, summed up the town’s feeling.  “Nothing much ever happened here, Mat, until you came along.  Today you made us all feel proud.”

***

That evening Muscles pulled Mat aside as he was leaving the lanes with Molly, Aunt Rose and Uncle Joe.  He hugged Mat, and said quietly, “You did good today. And I’m not just talking about the score.  Hopefully everyone sees this was a great day for candlepins.  But keep your guard up, Mat.  If Bobo so much as looks at you cross-eyed, call me.”  Mat nodded.

By Wednesday it seemed as though maybe Sonny’s “clients” had reconsidered.  Bobo had not been spotted, maybe because Sonny hadn’t been to his summer house since the match.  Muscles knew this because he paid Jigger Johnson to stake out Sonny’s place.

Jigger did odd jobs in the establishments along Front Street, including the Bowlaway.  He started his day by sweeping the narrow, windowless confines of the Grog Shop, the hardest core of the many pubs along the harbor front.  That task earned Jigger his first drink of the day, a Grasshopper.  Refueled with “Irish Mist,” Jigger turned to washing glasses and what few dishes were actually required for the patrons.

From there, Jigger ambled to Nesbitt’s where he worked for breakfast.   By then he needed to steady his nerves and headed for the Arcadia Grille.  And so it went until the afternoon when Jigger staggered up the stairs into the Bowlaway.  When Mat was in school, Jigger reset stuck pin-setting machines, swept the floor, and enjoyed sharing some Jamieson with Muscles.  Needless to say, Jigger was among the most dedicated of revelers at Mat’s celebration.

It should also be noted that Jigger was a scary figure.  He was taller than most men of his time, but that was just the beginning.  His rectangular head perpetually tilted forward from atop his rectangular torso.  He did not so much walk as lurch from side to side on rectangular legs.  The net effect was a startling resemblance to Frankenstein.  At least that’s what every kid in town whispered.

As he shuffled daily along the narrow sidewalks of Front Street, children and even some adults gave Jigger a wide berth.  When he had passed, they would furtively look back.  But truth be told, Jigger was no monster.  He was at heart a gentle giant.

***

Wednesday evening Mat was finishing up a practice string while Muscles watched.  The ball’s “goll-roll” and the “glung-glung-glung” of the falling pins kept them from hearing Bobo.  When Mat turned to push the reset button, Bobo was right behind Muscles with a gun at the back of his head.

This time Bobo brought reinforcements: two companions also holding guns.

Mat didn’t need to say a word.  Muscles read the score in his face.  “Don’t move or I’ll blow your fucking brains out,” Bobo said.

“He’s got a gun,” Mat confirmed. “Do what he says.”

Bobo’s older sidekick had a bent nose and a pudgy body. The younger guy was skinny and had long hair slicked in a ducktail.  Bobo ordered Bent Nose to retrieve Muscles’ gun from below the counter.  Keeping his gun on Muscles, Bobo moved around the horseshoe-shaped seating to face Muscles.  Meanwhile Ducktail kept his weapon on Mat.

When Bent Nose returned he was carrying rope and duct-tape.  Bobo nodded. Bent Nose tied Muscles to the seating, which was bolted to the floor, and taped his mouth.

Bobo looked down at Muscles, grinned and smacked him on the right cheek.  “OK, wise guy. I’m going to make you watch.”

Bent Nose grabbed Mat’s left arm and Ducktail took his right. They slammed him face-first on the scoring table.  Bobo moved to the table and pulled Mat’s head up by his hair.  But instead of looking at Mat, he looked back at Muscles and shook his head as he said, “Lane 7.  I thought this was supposed to be a lucky lane.”

Muscles yanked at the rope but he was helpless.

Bobo pulled out the switch-blade, popped it open, and with his left hand, grabbed Mat’s right.  With Ducktail still holding Mat’s right arm, Bobo pressed down, and sliced off the top third of Mat’s three middle fingers.

***

When Mat failed to come home on time, Aunt Rose called Molly to see if he might be there.  Worried, Molly went to the Bowlaway.  Later it would be said that her scream could heard from one end of Front Street to the other.

Chapter 11

Mat King Kane sliced off the ends of three fingers while fixing a pin-setting machine.  That’s the story Muscles and Mat concocted.  The media lapped up the irony of the tragedy.  But Arcadia Police Chief Owen B. O’Brien, otherwise known as OB, wasn’t buying it.  Neither was the emergency-room doctor who did his best to reattach the severed tips.

Waiting for Mat to come out of surgery, OB tried to pry the truth out of Muscles.  When Molly went to the bathroom, OB said, “Those were clean cuts, Muscles.  So what really happened?”  OB and Muscles had gone through the Arcadia schools together.  So Arcadia’s police chief  knew Muscles well, and he could tell that inside, Muscles was seething.

OB continued to prod and press: “I want to get the pieces of shit that did this just as much you do.  You try to even the score yourself, you are going to lose, Muscles. Maybe poor Mat, he gets hurt even more. This isn’t a game anymore.”

“No shit, Dick Tracy.  In case you haven’t notice, OB, a lot of games in this country aren’t games any more.  They are businesses, legit and otherwise.”

“So let me help, Muscles.  Let’s nail the mother fuckers that did this.”

Muscles shook his head.  “I have to do this my way, OB.  With all due respect, even the cops Don’t always know who is on their team.  Like they say, “A fish rots from the head.’”

***

When Molly and Mat got home, he went straight for his trophy, which Aunt Rose had displayed for guests on the butler pantry in the dining room.   Mat seized the trophy with his left hand and headed for the front door.  “Oh my Jesus,” Aunt Rose exclaimed, raising her hand to her mouth.

Molly pleaded.  “No Mat.  Please.  Please don’t do it.”  She stood in front of the door.

“Get out of my way, Molly,” Mat yelled.  He lifted the trophy as if he were going to hit her.  “The doctor says there’s a good chance you’ll be able to bowl again.  Besides, it’s just a stupid game.”  Mat looked at her in disbelief. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean that.  I know how important bowling is to you.”

“Do you?  Candlepins was the one thing I was really good at.”

They didn’t notice that Muscles had come in through the kitchen door at the rear of boardinghouse.

Molly said, “That’s not true, Mat.  You are smart.  You’ve been accepted to college.”  A tear rolled down her cheek.   “You want to end up like Muscles?  Another townie, hanging around, trying to relive the past?  Another Front Street drunk?  Is that what you want, Mat?  Because that’s not what I want.  I want to do something with my life, not hang around Front Street and watch life pass me by.”

“You know what you are Molly?  You are a goddam snob, that’s what.  Muscles isn’t a doctor, but he helped me, and he’s helped a lot of other kids.   He taught me a lot more than just how to roll a ball.  I’ve seen him take money out of his own pocket for somebody hard up.   Some through no fault of their own; others because they bet too much or drank too much.   I’ve seen him give lessons to kids who are too young to appreciate how lucky they are to have him instructing them.”

“Fine, then be a teacher Mat.  Help other kids find out what they are good at.  Help them like Muscles helped you.”  Molly looked up and saw Muscles for the first time.   She began sobbing and ran out the door.  Mat turned, saw Muscles, and followed Molly.

As Molly ran down the hilly sidewalk to Front Street, Mat lifted and smashed the bronze statue of The Candlepin King.

Chapter 12

Two weeks passed with no sign that Mat and Molly would repair the rift.  Mat’s hand remained in a cast, but he at least had gone back to the alleys when Aunt Rose hounded him “to get off his royal arse and stop feeling sorry for himself.”

Mat helped as best he could with one good arm, but he spent most of his time watching the bowlers and sulking.  Jigger filled in for Mat as best the giant man could.  Jigger could barely squeeze into the narrow opening that led to catwalk above the pits.  Watching Jigger try to clear a stuck pin or jammed machine was painful for all concerned.

Meanwhile Chief OB O’Brien hadn’t shaken his sense of foreboding, nor had he given up hope he still might head off more trouble.  He decided to pay another visit to the Bowlaway.

“Well, if it isn’t the three Musketeers,” OB said, looking at Jigger spraying shoes, Mat sulking in a corner, and Muscles reading a Boston tabloid behind the desk.  OB turned to Mat.  “How’s the hand?  You’ll be on TV again before you know it.”

“I Don’t think so,” Mat mumbled.  “It’s hard enough to finesse a ball when you have normal fingers.”

This time OB locked in on Muscles. “Listen, I know you guys think this is over my head and you know what, you are right.  But you idiots aren’t the only friends I have.  I know a lieutenant in the Staties, works with the FBI’s organized crime unit.”

Muscles put down the tabloid.  “Look, OB, the Feds have been after the Irish and Italian gangs since you were blocking and I was scoring touchdowns.”

“You wouldn’t have scored shit, it weren’t for me.”

“While I was getting laid by the cheerleaders, you were doing exactly what the Feds have been doing…playing with themselves.”    Mat managed a smile.  Jigger appeared more bewildered than usual.

Even OB chuckled.  “I love you too, Dan.”  OB paused and looked at Jigger and Mat.  Mat straightened. He couldn’t remember the last time he heard anyone use Muscles’ first name.  OB said, “I like you all, but I won’t be able to help if you do something stupid.  Just remember that.”

***

The black Lincoln Continental pulled into the driveway in front of the carriage house.   The blue Massachusetts Government license plate read: “HOUSE 47.”  Bobo exited the driver’s seat and went around to open and hold the right rear door.  Out stepped Sonny who straightened himself after the 50-minute trip from the city.   As Sonny unkinked, Bobo dropped like a sack of potatoes.  At the same time Sonny felt the wrong end of a gun in the small of his back.   Looming over the unconscious Mr. Buckley was Jigger, smiling and holding of all things, a candlepin.  A red blotch on the pin’s end matched almost perfectly the color of the ring around its middle.

Mat stepped into the circle of light from a spotlight over the wide carriage doors.  The white cast on his right arm made him an easy mark.

Standing behind Sonny, holding the gun, was Muscles.  “I think this is what you wicked smart guys call poetic justice.  Assume the position and turn around slowly, Mr. Representative.” Muscles noted the distinct absence of Broken Nose and Ducktail.  “No extra henchmen this evening?”

“Those weren’t my guys, Muscles.  Matter of fact, what Bobo did, he did on his own.  My clients did not sanction hurting your boy.  They aren’t that stupid, and neither am I.”  Sonny looked down at the lump on the ground.  “Unfortunately, Bobo here, he’s every bit that dumb.”

Muscles shook his head. “Sorry, Sonny.  You are a smooth talker, that’s for sure.  But I Don’t believe you.  You were the one, delivered the threat.  Why shouldn’t I think you were the one, made good on it.”

Sonny looked ready to panic. “You have to believe me.  When Bobo wakes up, ask him.  He paid those two hoods from his own money.  Just ask him.”

“Even if true, that was your money, Sonny Boy.  Or your clients’ money.  Either way, dirty money.”

“Politics is a dirty business, Muscles.  You are right.  I was tapped on the shoulder to convince you they meant business.”

“You mean it was bluff?” Doubt appeared for the first time on Muscles’ face.

“The wise guys, they know they need King Kane as much as candlepins does.  They know revenues are down for the alleys.  They see the bets dwindling.  They know people today want easier, simpler games.  More strikes.  More action.  That’s why ten-pins is killing you Muscles.  That’s why candlepins never caught on in the rest of the country.  Hell, nobody can even figure out how to keep score.  Frankly, candlepins already is chump change, at least to my clients.  They have plenty of greener pastures.  And anyway, after the show Mat and Frank put on, there was no way they were going to hurt the Elvis of candlepins.”

“So if your clients didn’t want Mat hurt, how come Bobo is still walking around?”  Bobo moaned as he slowly regained consciousness. “At least until tonight?”

“Bobo acted very unprofessionally.  He let his personal feelings get in the way.  That can be fatal.   His mistake could cause a lot of trouble for my clients.  They are displeased with Bobo’s rogue revenge.   You want them to take care of Bobo, consider it Dane.”

Mat could no longer remain silent.  He held up his right hand.  “Unprofessional? You call sawing off my fingers un-FUCKING-professional.  We ought to hack BOTH of you up for shark bait.”

“Take it easy, Mat.  I understand you are upset.  I am prepared to compensate you for…”

“I don’t want your filthy money, asshole.”

Muscles returned to Sonny’s question about Bobo’s fate.  “Thank your clients for the offer, but we’ll handle Bobo, and tell your clients they don’t have to worry.  Once we even the score with Bobo, as far as we’re concerned, this sick game is over.”  Muscles nodded at Mat and Jigger. “Put him in the trunk.”

Mat opened the trunk of the Continental.  Jigger lifted Bobo’s not inconsiderable deadweight with ease and dumped him in.  Bobo moaned louder as Jigger folded Bobo’s legs inside, and closed the trunk.

Sonny looked nervous again. “Where are we going?”

Muscles looked down at the trunk.  “Bobo is going for a swim.”

“Bobo can’t swim.  Everybody knows that.”

Muscles nodded.  “Time Bobo learned.”

Chapter 13

In those days a narrow, two-lane road twisted along the salt marshes of the Arcadia River.  Sandy hills had once overlooked the river.  The sand was mined until all that remained were cratered pits, deserted buildings, and a dilapidated dock once used to load barges.

The remains of a wooden tower stood on the inland side of the road.  It had once been connected by a bridge to another tower on the river side.   The purpose had been to convey the sand from pit to barge.

So it was that the Continental with the license plate “HOUSE 47” slowly entered the abandoned sand mine.  The moon was full.  The tide was high.  No coincidence.  Muscles had it planned.  The moonlight creased the dark tower.  Wood stilts and tumble-down sheds cast a web of shadows across the dusty lot.

Mat steered Sonny’s land yacht with his left hand.  Muscles rode shotgun, or more accurately, handgun.  Jigger rode in back with Sonny just in case he tried something stupid.  Mat parked with the headlights pointed to the end of the pier, cut the engine, but left the beams on.

They got out.  The air was rich, earthy but also salty.  It smelled of muck, marsh, and river.

The headlights illuminated the sorry state of the dock.  Crooked pilings poked above rotted decking.

Jigger opened the trunk.  Bobo was conscious or at least aware that this was a very unpleasant evening.  He tried to stand, but couldn’t, ending up on his knees.   Blood continued to run down his left cheek as he looked up at Sonny.  Muscles saw and said, “Sonny can’t help you tonight, Bobo.  You’ve been a bad dog, a very bad dog.  You know what happens to bad dogs.  They get put down.”

Sonny said, “Come on, Muscles.  Let’s stop this right now.”

“Shut up, Sonny.  For once in your grimy life, shut the fuck up.”  Muscles nodded to Jigger who dragged Bobo, kicking and screaming, to the end of the pier.

Bobo pleaded.  “I can’t swim. Tell them, Sonny.  I can’t swim.”

Muscles prodded Sonny forward, followed by Mat who looked like he was in trance.  Muscles bent down and put his face an inch from Bobo’s bloody face. “I told you Bobo.  If you hurt Mat, I’d kill you.”  Muscles nodded at Jigger.

No one had ever seen Jigger move fast, which is maybe why he took even Mat by surprise.  In a blink Jigger picked up the beefy Bobo and pressed him over Jigger’s blocky head.   Jigger paused for a second and hurled the screaming Bobo into the darkness.   His final cry was so loud a flock of pigeons took flight from the somewhere in the tower.

Muscles, Mat and Sonny looked over the decaying wood ties that curbed the pier’s edge.   Sure enough, Bobo had sunk like a stone.  The only evidence of his plunge was a circular ripple that faded as it widened.

Mat turned to Muscles.  “I’m sorry, Muscles.” Mat hopped on the curb.

Muscles reached for Mat, but he wasn’t fast enough. “Your hand, Mat, you’ve only got one…” But before Muscles could finish the warning, Mat was in mid-dive.

It seemed like an eternity before two heads appeared.  Mat had his left arm around Bobo’s chest, but Mat couldn’t keep both of them afloat with the cast on his right hand.  In seconds, they both vanished.

Almost to himself, Muscles said, “Oh for Christ sake.”  Then he dove.

Jigger looked at Sonny with a raised eyebrow as if expecting the counselor to brief him on this unexpected turn of events.   Sonny shrugged.  “Don’t ask me.  I just came along for the ride.”

Jigger looked stricken and finally managed to utter: “I can’t swim either.”

“Why you looking at me.  Jesus, you’re the one who tossed him.”  Jigger maintained his death stare.

“Fuck me.  I can’t believe I’m doing this.” Sonny leaned over the edge of the pier, surveyed the three bobbing heads, and then climbed the curb and cannon-balled into the perimeter of the churn created by all the thrashing.

Muscles helped Mat to shore while Sonny kept Bobo afloat.  When Muscles returned, each took a side and beached Bobo like a dead whale.   If Bobo hadn’t drowned, he wasn’t breathing either.  In the moonlight, they could see his face was blue, except for the gash which had turned dark.   Sonny pushed down again and again on Bobo’s bloated belly.  Still nothing.   “He’s gone.  You assholes killed him.”

By this time, Jigger had joined the rescue.  He knocked Sonny aside and resumed the CPR.  Suddenly Bobo gurgled and vomited what looked like a gallon of briny water.

***

On the return drive to Sonny’s, a revived Bobo was allowed transport in a seat rather than a trunk.  A seemingly contrite Bobo said, “Mat, I am sorry for what I done.  Muscles got under my skin.  But I should have kept you out of it.  Gone after him man-to-man.”

“He has a way of getting under a lot of people’s skins,” Mat answered.

Muscles was unbowed.  “Bobo, don’t go trying to blame me.  I should have let you go out with the tide along with all the other scum, and I would have, if Mat hadn’t tried to play lifeguard.”

Mat couldn’t resist asking, “Would you have, Muscles?”

“Would I have what?”

“Let Bobo drown?”  The question elicited more than passing interest from the still recovering Bobo, who now appeared more alert.

Muscles pulled out a cigarette .  He rolled it between his left index finger and thumb, contemplating the question.   He scratched his head with his right hand, wiped his brow, pursed his lips, and said, “Well, we’ll never know now, will will?”

Mat smiled.  “I know.  I know you Muscles. You wouldn’t have killed him.”  Muscles lit the cigarette and shrugged.

Sonny shook his head. “Look, can’t we just end this circle-jerk once and for all?  Mat, whaddya say?

Mat pursed his lips, expelled a breath, and shrugged. “Far as I’m concerned, it is over.  Push came to shove, if you’ll excuse the pun, and I couldn’t let Bobo drown.  So that’s that.”

“Bobo?  You sure look like you’ve had more than enough.”

Bobo nodded and asked, “What about our wise-guy clients.  They are still pissed at me.”

“Don’t worry about them, Bobo.  I will tell them about your swimming lesson.  They will understand the score is settled. They Don’t want any more bullshit because of this misunderstanding…so what about you, Muscles?

Muscles rubbed his forehead and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “I want what Mat wants.  If he wants to start over, so do I.”

Chapter 14

What Mat wanted more than anything was to start over with Molly.  When she left her house the next morning, Mat was sitting at the curb waiting. He rose to meet her.  “Hi.”

“Hi. I’m sorry what I said about Muscles, and bowling, and even Arcadia.  You were right. Sometimes I can be snob.  You are honest.  That’s one of the reasons I love you.”

“And you were right…about a lot of things…not everything, but a lot of things.” They both laughed and kissed.  “Besides, we had to talk again.  It’s over, Molly.”

She looked stricken.

“Not us.  I’m talking about the show.  No more threats. No more people getting hurt.”

She searched his eyes. “How did that happen?  You and Muscles didn’t do anything…bad…did you?

“You’ve watched me bowl, Molly.  I never cross the foul line.  But, do I have a story to tell you.”

“Well then, Mr. Mat King Kane, come inside and tell me how you managed to pull off another amazing victory.  And when you are finished, we will go down to Nesbitt’s and give our Cherry Vanilla Cokes our undivided attention.

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Author’s Note

The Candlepin King is a work of fiction.  However, residents of Scituate will quickly recognize the Satuit Bowlaway as the inspiration for the setting.  The Satuit Bowlaway was located over a hardware store off Front Street.   Ironically both the alleys and the store closed as this story was being written.  When I bowled there as a young boy on Saturday mornings, Don Muscles Dwyer was the manager.

satuit2

The Satuit Bowlaway before its closing in March 2016.

One Saturday morning I did hammer a triple.  In addition to constituting three strings, a triple is also three consecutive strikes.  Muscles told me I would make $100 in bonus money if I tripled on Candlepin Bowling, the most popular and longest running of 10 shows that aired in New England during the height of the game’s popularity.   While Candlepin Bowling provided a vehicle for the fictional story of Mat Kane, the fictional attempt to fix the outcomes of an imagined show, The King of Candlepins, is just that – a fabrication of this author.  Moreover, I am unaware of any organized betting on bowling, although it’s easy to imagine it, which is what I have attempted in this story.

I have tried to use candlepins as a fresh metaphor to explore a familiar phenomenon: the social and economic changes that swept our society in the second half of the 20th century.  As I hope the story illustrates, candlepin bowling was once immensely popular in New England and Canada.  It is a fact that the ratings for Candlepin Bowling were sometimes better than for Boston’s professional sports teams, and it ran from its inception in 1958 until 1996.

But as the new millennium approached, our culture was changing profoundly. Video games were on the rise, and candlepin lanes were closing.  By 1990, two-thirds were gone.  Factories were also disappearing.  Fewer workers had time for Wednesday night leagues.

Candlepin bowling retains an avid, if diminished, regional following.  Lane operators have changed with the times, adding more amenities, prizes, and video games to attract and retain youthful bowlers.  State associations and the International Candlepin Association continue to promote the game.

Finally, a word about candlepin bowling records, which I am proud to say are all held by Bay Staters.  Sorry, but like Mat Kane I remain, in Molly’s estimation, parochial.  The men’s record for a single string is 245, set in 1984 by Ralph Semb and tied in 2011 by Chris Sargent.  The highest single string by a woman belongs to Brenda Lamagdeleine who rolled a 207.

The highest three-string total in the 38 years that Candlepin Bowling aired was indeed 500.  However, the bowler was Paul Berger, not “Mat Kane.”  Berger bowled his legendary triple in May of 1992 when he appeared on the show for an unprecedented 43rd time.

Bergerbowl

Paul Berger from the TV broadcast of  Candlepin Bowling in 1992 when he bowled his legendary 500-Triple.

In 2011 Mark Ricci set a Massachusetts Candlepin Association three-string match record of 519.  During a five-game match, Chris Sargent added to his legend when he rolled 530 for his first three strings.  Danna Sue Banzi holds the women’s record for a three-string match with a 463.

Paul Berger compiled his 500-Triple in 1992 as a seasoned professional.  “Mat Kane” broke the seemingly impossible barrier in 1962 as an 18-year-old.   I chose his age and 1962 because, although we didn’t know then, it was to be the last year of America’s youth.

In many ways 1963 was a watershed year.   Our soon-to-be assassinated young President sent military advisers to assist South Vietnam with its growing insurgency.   The struggle to end Jim Crow in our own South encountered violent resistance.  Martin Luther King was among civil rights marchers arrested in Birmingham.  Selma Police Chief Bull Connor unleashed  dogs on attacking marchers in Selma, horrifying the nation.  Activist Medgar Evers was killed.   King led the march on Washington and gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.   In addition to first becoming aware of the Viet Cong, 1963 was also the year many of us first heard of a drug called LSD and four British musicians called the Beatles.

–Jack Hoey, March 2016


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