When I was about 10 or 12, there were four places in my town of Norwood, Massachusetts, that stuck, and still stick, in my mind as defining compass points of home and who I was. Two of these markers carried meanings which were public and obvious: Aaron Guilds Rock, which was really a monument, and the Irish Heaven, which was a building, a barroom. Two were private, familial, and impossible for me to understand clearly as a child. Because they were both personal and enigmatic, these were the most powerful places. They were known as “the Crazy Roads” and “New Pond.”
Norwood had some 16,000 people in it when I was growing up there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The town sits 15 miles southwest of Boston, to which it was connected during my childhood by several lines of approach: the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad; the Dedham, Norwood, and East Walpole bus that delivered us in 45 minutes to the Forest Hills station, a two-story wind tunnel which was our link to the magical MTA, Boston s elevated and underground electrified rail network; and a complex series of secondary roads that went by twists and turns through, depending on preference and habit, Westwood, Islington, Dedham, West Roxbury, Roslindale, or Jamaica Plain and on into downtown Boston. These several connections notwithstanding, Norwood in my childhood was not yet a suburb. It was a separate place with its own industrial base of tanneries, an ink mill, and two bookbinderies, and a definite sense of itself, or rather, of several selves. I’m a student of American immigration and ethnicity, and, looking back now, I can see that Norwood had rich layers of cultural identification that today would be labeled “ethnic.” Having grown up with these, I mostly took them for granted, but it has since occurred to me that the clarity and depth of the definitions of otherness there rendered them exemplary, even, I venture to say, archetypal. Certainly, they got me thinking about themes that have since engaged me as a teacher and writer.
All Norwood was divided into three parts: old-line Yankees, ethnic and immigrant Irish, and the “new immigrants” from Italy, Syria, Lithuania, Poland. I knew little of the third group, for they lived in “the Flats,” a wilderness of triple-decker apartment houses separated from the old town proper, in classic fashion, by the New Haven Railroad tracks. You even had to go down under a railroad bridge to get to what was literal terra incognita to me. But the Yankees and the Irish were a different story. I was pretty sure that I knew what each of those terms stood for. Even as a boy, I could feel the tension between the long-established Yankees, who still ran the place, and the Irish upstarts, who, after all, had been there for only a hundred years or so. I was naturally curious. Though we didn’t talk much about ethnicity—it was a less-than-fashionable topic back then—my family still thought of itself as Irish.
The town hall and St. Catherine of Siena Church face each other across Washington Street in the heart of downtown Norwood, and by age 10, I had determined that these buildings were symbolic, adult landmarks for the Yankees and Irish respectively. The town hall was the more imposing of the two—a gray granite-block, pseudo-gothic tower with mullioned windows and a World War I cannon pointing out into the intersection of Washington and Nahatan streets. The church had a yellowish sandstone facade, simple and blank, fronted by a statue of St. Catherine, her back to the street, looking up the stairs at the big oak front doors. St. Catherine’s was a well-heeled, predominantly Irish parish that included a thriving parochial school, grades K through 8. I never felt that we Fannings quite belonged there. This was partly because we kids didn’t go to St. Catherine’s School. There were three of us—me, my brother, Geoffrey, two years younger, and my sister, Patti, born when I was 8. As public-school students, we endured the second-class citizenship of Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes, taught on Thursday afternoons by bone-tired, understandably cranky nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, who had by our 4: 30 starting time gone through the full school day with their own, properly Catholic (and paying) students.
As for the landmarks, to me, the heart of Yankee Norwood was not the town hall but a 5-foot block of rough-hewn granite planted right smack in front of the Morrill Memorial Library on lower Walpole Street, which had been the old Post Road between Boston and Providence in colonial times. As these were the years when I discovered books in a big way, I walked past that granite rock three or four times a week all summer long, carrying Carl Sandburg’s “Rutabaga Stories,” the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, the sports novels of John R. Tunis, and books about archeology, astronomy, the Middle Ages, and spelunking (my then-favorite new word and wildest life plan to date).
For me, that stone marker was Norwood’s equivalent of Plymouth Rock, and I can still recite from memory the two sentences inscribed on its mottled gray face: “Near this spot on April 19, 1775, Captain Aaron Guild left plow in furrow, oxen standing, and departed for the Battle of Lexington. He arrived in time to fire upon the retreating British.” Here was History with a capital H, thoroughly admirable, even awe-inspiring. During the American Revolution, what would become our town had been the South Parish of Dedham, one of the oldest towns in the state, incorporated in 1636. Norwood hadn’t split off until 1872, by which time the Irish diaspora triggered by flight from the Great Hunger of the late 1840s had already transformed the demography of Eastern Massachusetts. South Dedham/Norwood was one of the places most dramatically affected.
My sense of the Irish character of Norwood in the ‘50s could not have been more different from my idea of the town’s Yankee heritage. As a child, I saw the local Irish genius loci not in St. Catherine’s Church, but centered in a small, low, two-story clapboard building with peeling, gray paint that was tucked between the town’s jail and the electric light company, one block off Washington Street. A short flight of wooden steps led to a cramped front porch less than 6 feet wide and 4 feet deep, stuck up under a gabled, corrugated iron roof. To a stranger in town, it could have been the private home of some down-and-outer, for there was no sign advertising what went on inside. But the door was often open, and from the sidewalk we kids could see the corner of a plain-deal bar and one or two hunched, shadowy, male figures. This was “the Irish Heaven,” or simply, “the Heaven.” It was a barroom—more accurately, a pub, though I certainly didn’t grasp that distinction at the time. What I could discern was a haze of pipe and cigarette smoke and a glimpse of a dart board, and I could just make out the sporadic thunk of darts and clinking of glasses.
There was also a low hum of conversation, some of it in the unfamiliar rhythms of a foreign tongue. I knew the language was Irish, but I had no idea how extraordinary it was to be hearing it, here and occasionally on the downtown Norwood streets. Actually, we had a few Irish words at home as well—gamal for the creator of an embarrassing public spectacle, amadán for clumsy oaf (used whenever my brother or I spilled something messy), and tóin (pronounced “thoon”) for backside, the area upon which punishment for the other two was to be applied. These had been passed down from my mother s mother, who had been born Johanna Frances McAuliffe in Whitechurch, County Cork, in 1879. I’ve since heard from my friend and Gaelic scholar Maureen Murphy that Norwood was a popular destination for chain migration from the villages along the Irish-speaking South Connemara coast. When she was there learning the language in the mid-1960s, Maureen would ask people if they’d ever been to Dublin, and sometimes the reply would be, “Ní raibh mé chomh fada sin, ach bhí mé i Norwood” (“I haven’t been that far, but I’ve been to Norwood”).
Thanks to another scholar-friend, Phil O’Leary, I’ve also come to know that Norwood in general and the Irish Heaven specifically were well known to the most accomplished writer of fiction in the Irish language of the mid-20th century—Máirtín Ó Cadhain. It’s very likely that on some of those afternoons when I was standing outside, he was in the Heaven speaking Irish with friends and relations. Born in 1906 at Cois Fharraige on the Connemara coast, Ó Cadhain was of the people, as he put it in one story, “whose guardian angel was the American trunk, whose guiding star was the exile ship, whose Red Sea was the Atlantic,” and in the same story he describes a girl “nurtured on American lore from infancy. South Boston, Norwood, Butte, Montana, Minnesota, California, plucked chords in her imagination more distinctly than did Dublin, Belfast, Wexford, or even places only a few miles out on the Plain beyond Brightcity” (his name for the city of Galway). Moreover, Norwood also figures in Ó Cadhain’s 1949 masterpiece, “Cré na Cille” or ‘Churchyard Clay,” the first great novel in Irish, which consists of the Connemara graveyard conversations of a whole townland’s worth of deceased local people. In it, a formidable character is the 90-year-old matriarch Baba Paudeen, whose immigration to “that bitter bee-hive” of “Big Brian’s family in Norwood” is one of the novel’s key events. I’m afraid, however, that the exotic linguistic, literary, and ethnographic allure of the Irish Heaven was no conscious part of my perception of the place as a 10-year-old in 1952. No, I saw it as outlandish, clandestine and emphatically disreputable.
We never went near the place as a family. Barrooms were anathema to my father, and I only found out why sometime after he died, when my mother told me that my father had once told her that when he was a little boy of 10 or so, his father would take him to downtown Norwood and tell him to wait outside a “store” while he did some “business.” The store would always be a barroom. My father would stand there alone—for an hour or more at a time. I could picture him when my mother told the story, and I can see him now—a little boy scuffing his feet and wiping his nose, trying to puzzle out where he might belong in the 1919 passing scene.
Eventually, I realized that neither Aaron Guild’s Rock nor the Irish Heaven was an accurate, encompassing symbol. I came to recognize that my childhood Norwood geography was built on stereotypes, a word not yet in my vocabulary in those years, and a concept not much in the foreground generally on the seemingly smooth surface of American culture in the ‘50s. But of course the Yankees were not as solid, chiseled, austere, and undislodgeably established as Aaron Guild’s monument, and of course the Irish were not as back-street, closeted, and shady as the Irish Heaven seemed to me to be. Indeed, even at l0 or 12, I already knew of exceptions to both distorted rules in the form of local, disreputable Yankees and successful, upstanding Irish-Americans. I had heard quite a bit about Norwood’s two notable, even legendary Yankee eccentrics. Fred Holland Day had been a leading figure in the Boston version of the decadent ‘90s. A pioneering art photographer and the American publisher of Aubrey Beardsley’s “Yellow Book,” Day had spent the last 20 years of his life a virtual recluse in his ornate, faux-Tudor mansion in downtown Norwood. Joseph Ferdinand Gould, Harvard Class of 1911 and the son of a prominent local physician, had set himself up in the ‘20s as “Joe Gould,” a Greenwich Village bohemian with no fixed address who lived on cadged meals and claimed to be writing “An Oral History of Our Time,” a record of all the conversations he’d ever had. He also claimed to be able to speak the language of seagulls. Joe was immortalized in the wonderful book, “Joe,” by the great writer Joseph Mitchell, but I also have first-hand knowledge of his fame. My Auntie Mae, my father’s older sister, had known elementary school classmates of Joe and recalled that he was famous for spitting on girls at recess.
On the other hand, Irish-American successes included a family of doctors very familiar to us. Old Doctor O’Toole had started his own hospital and built a reputation at the turn of the century as a compassionate general practitioner. His hospital had been three houses up from my mother’s home on Wilson Street, and he had brought her and her four sisters into the world. His son, Young Doctor O’Toole, delivered me and my brother and sister, took out my tonsils, and was our family’s G.P. for 30 years. Moreover, in the wider world of sports celebrity, Norwood also boasted of Irish-American native son “Jumpin’ Joe” Dugan, who had been the regular third baseman for the New York Yankees in the ‘20s. In my childhood, Jumpin’ Joe was a lively octagenarian, whose favorite one-liner I myself had heard more than once: “On the road, I roomed with Babe Ruth’s suitcase. He was always off with some broad.”
The interesting point here is that while I knew of these prominent Norwood figures, I did not at the time associate them with their ethnicity. When the Yankees deviated from the perceived norm of respectability, or the Irish from that of disrepute, I simply didn’t see it. I was more Irish Catholic than anything else, but my sense of the local ethnic hierarchy was identical to that of the least tolerant pewholder in the First Congregational Church. The rheumy old men walking unsteadily along Washington Street, muttering to themselves, were obviously Irish, and that made Yankees of all the businessmen in blue suits. The reason for this is obvious to me now, and not far to seek. Already by the age of 10, I had contracted a classic strain of the New England Irish-Catholic inferiority complex. This pervasive disease, still endemic in my youth, was explained in the 1960s with characteristic penetrating bite by the brilliant Harvard scholar of Irish Studies, John Kelleher, as follows:
The Irish-Yankee confrontation [in Boston] is the richest still-unrealized tragi-comedy in American history. On the one side, the Irish, fleeing from a homeland where they had been racked, robbed, and demoralized by an imposed aristocracy of Protestant, Puritan, Anglo-Saxon derivation. On the other, a Protestant, Puritan, Anglo-Saxon people who had, when the Irish arrived, just about completed a city and a society made in their own best image. More thoroughly than ever before in history, the sins of the fathers were visited on the second cousins once removed. The mutual despair and hatred reechoed from the welkin. No wonder that assimilation is not yet quite complete in and around Boston.
This piece appeared in May of 1960, just about a month before I graduated from high school. Though I didn’t come across it till years later, here, at the symbolic end of my official experience of Norwood, was an expression of the pervasive, though largely unstated, ethnic dichotomy that had so influenced my view of the world as a child.
In these same years, two other places in Norwood also loomed large in my developing map of myself. Neither was ostensibly ethnic, though one did become the catalyst for my first detailed questioning about family history. These places were the Crazy Roads in summer and the iced-over New Pond in winter. My first explorations of each carried powerful, opposite charges—one frightening, the other exhilarating.
On hot July mornings, my friends and I would ride our bikes out Nichols Street, away from town, past two boarded-up, never-lived-in houses—the first and last of a new development (the ‘50s term for subdivision) that had never gotten off the ground. Half a mile farther on, we would turn onto an unmarked asphalt road, hidden by encroaching greenery, that went straight in for 50 yards, then forked left and right. Scraggly, new-growth, 20-year-old trees and thick clumps of thorny bushes and weeds jostled one another for light. We would skid our bikes quickly into the left-hand turning, and immediately we were out of the known world. As the hum of crickets grew louder, the road suddenly forked again, and we found ourselves inside a maze. This was the Crazy Roads. There seemed to be miles and miles of these roads, twisting back on themselves, intersecting and springing out like the snakes with their own tails in their mouths that create the interlacing knots in Celtic illuminated manuscripts. But the aim here was not the celebratory mimicry of God’s intricate designs. Rather, as was clear to us even as children, these roads were a plain, sheer waste of energy and time. Our name for them conveyed this naturally, and there was something profoundly disturbing about this place—not only the scary likelihood of getting lost among the swervings and crisscrosses, the scruffy, random, unchecked tangles, but also the tangible, mute evidence here that adults could screw up badly, permanently too.
I recall the first time I got lost there. Riding in ahead of my friends with foolhardy boldness, in 10 minutes and several turns I was disoriented and beginning to panic. Spotting a treeless, open area ahead to my left, I assumed with great relief that I had reached the outside world of Nichols Street again. Instead I found myself in a desert landscape, a circular, flat plain, wider than a football field is long, studded with huge boulders and surrounded by 20-foot cliffs of loose sand. Two burned-out, 1940s black sedans sat on their rims in the center. At once I recognized this as a legendary Norwood place that I hadn’t been sure even existed—the Old Sand Pit. This was where high school boys with their parents’ cars were said to drink and make out with their girlfriends. Here, by the lights of my pre-Vatican II, Thursday-afternoon Catholic tutelage, was the palpable evidence of Sin (with a capital S). All around were piles of beer cans and the blackened remains of scattered bonfires. As well, I discovered for the first time artifacts that were the height of the forbidden—discarded girlie magazines, in their early-’50s format of black-and-white nude figures with eyes masked by sinister black rectangles. Small wonder that this proscribed and threatening place soon began to appear in my pre-adolescent dreams and reveries.
There was a further, personally disquieting dimension to the site as well, one of which I became aware shortly after my first visit. One day, my father told me that the sand pit had been gouged out when the roads were being built. The sand had been the main ingredient in the asphalt surface. He knew about this, he explained, because he had helped to build the Crazy Roads. They had been a project of the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of Roosevelt’s ideas to relieve the Great Depression. While he was telling me, some of this sank in as historical in a sort of sad, family way, and it was this bit of information that got me interested in my father’s background, about which, after many ensuing years, I now know more than he did.
I remember thinking at the time, “What a start in life!” My father had been 20 years old when the market crashed in October 1929. Pretty much on his own since his teens, he had received little in the way of guidance from his family, which had had its share of troubles. His great-grandfather Philip Fanning had been born into a Catholic family in the Protestant-dominated Northern Irish city of Belfast in 1828 and was most likely a Famine-generation immigrant to Boston, where his son John was born in 1854. This son earned the nickname “Walking John” by leaving his wife and children sometime in the 1890s, never to be heard from again. (He died in St. Louis in 1950, and someone there sent back an obituary.) One of his abandoned sons was my grandfather Charles, born in 1876, whose middle name of Winslow alerted me to a further startling fact—our own buried Yankee roots. I subsequently learned of other formidable family names as well. My grandfather s mother had been Sarah Rebecca Radcliff, and there were also Bradfords and Drapers lurking farther back in the shadows. These were names to conjure with, indeed, but as I soon realized, of absolutely no consequence for us. Any vestiges of Yankee clout had been wiped out well before my father’s time. His mother also had been Irish, from a family of “two-boaters,” who went first to New Brunswick and later on to Boston. Her name was Mary Shedd, and she had died at age 39 during the great influenza epidemic in April 1918, leaving my grandfather to raise four boys and a girl on his own. Furthermore, it looks as though the most successful thing about Charles Winslow Fanning was his name, for my grandfather worked and failed at a number of trades, among them dry-cleaning, dry goods, and running a gas station. “The less said, the sooner mended” is the Irish phrase that comes to mind.
I recall feeling vaguely uncomfortable when I first learned of my father’s association with the Crazy Roads. It seems to me now, in perhaps romanticized retrospect, that this was where he lost his own way in the world. In his late teens and early 20s, he must have worked at many odd, temporary, discouraging jobs to help shore up the family, especially as the Depression hit and intensified. Finally he was taken on by the CCC to do pick-and-shovel, essentially meaningless work, building roads to nowhere for minimum wage. Often I’ve imagined what it must have been like for him out there in a hot, summer sun, digging out rocks and slashing brush, shoveling sand into the asphalt maker, spreading the black goo out over the tamped-down, leveled surface. Arduous labor, and without even the second-hand recompense of contributing to the logic that any road ought to have—making it easier to get from one place to another. Where was the promise in that?
Much later I learned of an Old-Country analog, the “Famine Roads” created under the half-hearted public-works relief efforts devised by the British government during the Great Hunger, by which the starving native Irish could be provided the money to buy food without experiencing the dangerous precedent of getting something for nothing. I’ve seen one of these roads in the County Clare limestone wilderness of the Burren: a stone route through a land of stone, rocks and boulders organized and piled with such care that, mortarless, they still form a distinguishable roadbed 150 years later. This road also goes nowhere. It begins on a high plateau above the sparkling Western sea and ends in the middle of what W.B. Yeats called “cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn.” The abrupt termination marks either the cutting off of public-works money or the final debilitation of the walking scarecrows who were doing the building.
I have managed to construct one positive association with the Crazy Roads, emerging from the fact that, like the Famine Roads in Ireland, they also were built to last. Indeed, they were passable roads throughout my childhood and beyond, and when I was in high school, they became the base for a new subdivision that eventually helped turn Norwood into a suburb of Boston. However illogically, I have come to connect the workmanship that went into the Crazy Roads with my subsequent understanding of my father’s pride in doing as good a job as possible, all along the way. After war work as a welder at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, he became a waiter for a local catering company and a school custodian, and he worked both jobs for the last 25 years of his life. He was often praised for the way he kept his school building, and one college summer, I worked beside him for two weeks and saw first-hand the scrupulousness of his labor. Room by room through the dog days of August—and there were 30 classrooms in the Norwood Junior High School—he was down on his knees, scrubbing the year’s worth of dirt and shoe marks from baseboards, the ephemeral spotlessness of which no one else was ever going to get close enough to notice.
I now see that pride in whatever job of work he did was what my father had on which to ground his adult life. I also see now that it couldn’t have been enough. He was a quiet man, just under 6 feet tall, straight-backed, with a beautiful head of hair which was his one conceit, an aquiline nose (we called it “Roman”), and lightish-blue eyes. A handsome man but somehow irrevocably disappointed. My father didn’t smile much around the house, and I don’t recall him ever laughing out loud until we got our first TV when I was in eighth grade, at Christmas 1955. But after that, he laughed hard at that glittering pantheon of early television humorists: Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, Phil Silvers as Sergeant Bilko, Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny, and—his special favorite—Groucho Marx hosting “You Bet Your Life.” It’s interesting to me that today all would be labeled “ethnic.” Perhaps they articulated to my father’s generation parts of itself otherwise unavailable for scrutiny in the homogenized 1950s. Later on, my brother Geoffrey, who worked through high school and college for the same catering firm, found out that on that job, our father was a noted wit, full of subtle humor—in short, a different person. I got another surprising insight when a high school classmate of his with whom I was doing college summer work told me that in his teens and 20s, “Chick” Fanning used to “fight like hell.” Again, a glimpse of someone I didn’t really know all that well.
My fondest childhood memory of my father is the weekday afternoons when he would stretch out on his bed after work with the newspapers. I would climb up beside him, and we would do puzzles together—sometimes the crossword but more often something called the “Twistagram,” in which you were given two letters to start off with and a series of tricky definitions of words of three, four, five, six, and seven letters, using the available letters and adding one more each time. The result was a pyramid of words that, if I remember right, were somehow thematically connected. The answer was available on another page of the same paper, which made the activity more rewarding than the crossword, for which we had to wait 24 hours. To this day every time I lie down with the paper, the luxurious feeling of stretching out and the sound and smell of crinkling newsprint bring me back to those quiet late afternoons. I couldn’t have known it then, but at those times, my father and I were as close as we were ever going to be.
He was very good at these puzzles—good enough to give me one more piece of evidence of just how incongruous a match he was for his custodian’s job. Our home life was full of more such evidence. I do not recall a single instance when a tradesman crossed our threshold to do a job of work. (This was fortunate, as we pretty much lived from paycheck to paycheck and could not have afforded many such visits.) Certainly, we had no fewer domestic nuts-and-bolts crises than any other New England family of five living in a house built before 1875. But my father handled them all. He did all the plumbing, wiring, and appliance repair. He fixed the broken windows. He scraped and hung wallpaper. He painted whatever needed painting, inside and out, and he put the shingles on the roof. Nor did we support Norwood’s automotive repair industry. My father never owned a new car, but he kept our fitful parade of clunkers running by not only changing the oil, filters and plugs but also performing major surgery when necessary on the radiator, brakes, transmission and engine. Whatever needed doing, he did it. (In fact, he must have saved the Norwood public schools thousands and thousands of dollars over the years. In this, at least, he was well suited to his job.) One of his favorite expressions, always delivered with self-deprecating wryness, was “Jack of all trades, master of none.” But to us he was master of the whole physical world.
It now occurs to me that I last saw my father in this role. He was working on the car out in the garage late on a Sunday evening in the spring of 1971. I had been home for the weekend and was about to drive back to my apartment in Cambridge. It was 8:45 and not quite dark yet. I called out, “Goodnight, Dad.” He came to the open garage door wiping his hands on an oily rag, waved, and said, “Goodnight, Charles.” And that was it. Two nights later, he dropped dead while working at his second job. He was waiting on tables at a high school sports banquet and had just carried a load of dishes into the kitchen when he collapsed with a massive coronary. He was 62.
My last defining Norwood place is New Pond, so called because it had been made in the ‘20s by damming a local brook. The memory of one winter day’s discovery there remains the most vivid of my childhood. This was an experience of breaking free of confining categories that seemed to me reinforced by the three other benchmarks.
It’s nearly dark at 4:30 on a crisp, cold, early-January afternoon at New Pond during Christmas vacation from sixth grade. I’m far from being a good skater, which adds a touch of danger to what I’m about to do, for I know that every year people drown by falling through the ice on one or another of the dozens of ponds that dot the bumpy crust of Eastern Massachusetts. Already this winter two boys have drowned in our area, one in this very pond. But three weeks of temperatures in the teens and single numbers have allayed most parents’ fears. The ice looks thick and safe.
As I sit on a log, lacing up my skates, I can see three small fires reflecting off the ice. One is at the edge of the narrow, snow-crusted beach just ahead. I can hear the crackle of the burning pine brush and smell bubbling resin, and I’m just in range of the shimmering heat. Another fire is some hundred yards down the curving shoreline to my left, on the edge of a thick pine wood that I recall as being hard to reach on foot in the summer. The third fire is the most intriguing. It’s on the tiny island in the middle of the pond, a place I’ve never been in summer because I can’t swim yet. But I remember having seen swimmers—high school kids on dates—sunning there when we’d been on shore picnicking. There are several small evergreen trees, rocks and bushes, a swatch of sand. To me, it’s an exotic place, a hitherto unreachable site of ritual boy/girl activities well beyond my ken and a favored location for my cozy daydreams of escape and self-sufficiency. (Last summer I read both “Treasure Island” and “Robinson Crusoe.”)
Now I can make out shadowy figures in the light that flickers off the rocks and water. And suddenly it dawns on me that I can get there on my own two, skating feet! I’ve been dropped off with friends, but they’re all hockey players and are already on the ice, joining pick-up games. Thus I’m alone as I stand and walk unsteadily down the beach and step out onto the ice. The moon is up and nearly full, so the hockey games will last at least another hour. I skate out toward the island, first slowly, then picking up speed, and my heart beats faster and faster. But as I get nearer, something curious occurs. This centering place of my summer dreams starts to turn ordinary. Even the spectral moonlight can’t keep this from happening. The flickering light of their fire brings out the faces of teenagers rapt in their own dance of awakening, but these are kids I know, the older sisters and brothers of my friends and classmates. They’re laughing, singing scraps of a song I’ve heard on the radio—Hank Williams’ “Poor Old Kalija.” They warm their hands and toast what look like hot dogs, and just now the sharp pork smell comes across to me—a link with summer, but even so, one that further demystifies the island.
Abruptly I decide not to glide into the little cove. I’m shy of these older kids, and more important, wary of ruining my imagination’s lake isle. Nor will I explore the island’s other side, for I’m reluctant to witness the still lyric woodsiness dissolve into the merely mundane. So I lean and swerve left and continue on past the middle of the pond. I can’t see the ice all the way to the other bank, and thus I do not know whether the solid surface will extend or thin to danger or even end in open water. Just as this chilling prospect hits, I clear the island’s sheltering lee, and a strong gust of wind at my back pushes me on out, so strongly that to stop I would have to drop to my knees and skid.
I’ve never gone this far out before. But fear gives way before my awed apprehension of the expanse of black, black ice, the crack and boom of the ice settling as the temperature drops, the pure, clear air, the moon a dazzling white, its craters outlined as on a map. Orion, the mighty hunter, with his four-square marking stars, my talismanic constellation since the astronomy part of last summer’s reading binge, heaves up toward mid-sky, jauntily tilted off center, yet a massive and serious presence, a whole other galaxy hanging from his belt.
I push farther and farther out. The sounds of hockey games and songs and shouting recede. The three fires flicker and blur. Alone on that sweeping stretch of ice, I feel something for the first time, a sense of release into possibility. I could not then have said these words, but I’m convinced that at that moment I began to see myself as a separate person, maybe more than the constraining sum of my ethnic, social, and economic parts. Here is where I realize that there is an adventure opening up over my head and under my feet. I feel my skate blades respond to the pressure of will. I am cutting a gradual, slow arc. It’s a signature: risky, congruent, my own.