My grandparent’s four-bedroom house at 44 Bark Street, in Fall River, Massachusetts, was slightly larger than the others in the neighborhood, but small by today’s standards. The porch, or piazza, as it was called, wrapped around two sides and made the house seem larger. The piazza was my coign of vantage to observe all movement on the street and in the yard. From the front, I waved to cousin Preston, who pushed his wagon up the hill while crying out, “Any raaags, any bones, any bottles.” I also met the mailman, who handed me letters from his leather bag with a smile. But when my grandmother’s friend, an old crone known as Peggy-with-the-Long-Tooth, came walking down the hill, I hid. She squeezed me hard and kissed me whenever she could, and I could feel her tooth against my cheek.
On the side of the piazza facing the trees and the Victory garden, I looked for Grandma’s pet crow, Martha. In the morning, Gram would step out on the piazza and call, “Come Martha,” and the bird would fly from the apple trees and eat bread crumbs from her hand. Sometimes it would hop to her shoulder and take out, one by one, her hairpins. Martha cocked her head to one side and inspected me, but never came near. I recently found a photo of Martha perched on Gram’s fingers, and Gram saying something, like St. Francis preaching to the birds. Patrolling the piazza was part of my daily routine before my father, uncles, and Aunt Molly returned from the war.
The house had another memorable feature, a stand-up attic that ran the length and breadth of the house. At either end there was a lunette, a half-moon window which provided the only light—the attic was not wired for electricity. The house faced due south so if I went up in the morning the light streamed through the dust motes and gleamed on the pine boards of the floor. On winter afternoons, the light from the north side was softer and slanted differently, transforming the attic into a golden cave, especially on winter afternoons.
To gain entrance, you first had to undergo a trial: the dark closet. The door to the attic stairs was situated at the back of a long closet on the landing of the second floor. There was a light but, perversely, the switch was also at the end of the closet, hidden behind old coats and uniforms. On days when I was feeling brave, I would take five quick steps into the dark, and then grope, and grope, though the densely packed hanging clothes and moth-ball odors for the switch. Sometimes I failed, and ran out. But usually I’d find the switch, open the attic door and slowly climb, pausing when my line of sight was just above the floor to scan for whatever might be waiting for me.
The attic was full of treasures and puzzling objects. Before the war, everyone in the house had worked in the spinning mills, and there were numerous boxes of complicated tools and hardware for the looms, bolts of fabric and rolls of thread, and wooden spools and bobbins of all shapes and sizes. Piled near the chimney were thick display books containing cloth and curtain samples, and boxes of old photographs. Under the south window was a full Lionel train set, and nearby a collection of round black cylinders in cardboard boxes with a photo of a white-haired man on each. The phonograph that played these wax cylinders was also there, and my grandfather, just once, played a song for me, “I Love a Lassie.” The singer, I learned much later, was a Scotsman, Harry Lauder, and the man in the photo was the inventor of the phonograph, Thomas Alva Edison.
Over by the stairs stood a chest of 60 small drawers. Forty-eight of them had the name of a state written on the front, and each contained a corked test tube. Six of the tubes—Massachusetts, R.I., Connecticut, Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York— contained dirt. My uncle Joe had been a Boy Scout and one of his projects was to collect soil samples from all the states. The ambition of this project impressed me deeply, although it was unfinished when he joined the Navy right after graduating from high school. He was on a destroyer in the Pacific. His older brother, Larry, was the crew chief on a flying boat, a Navy PBY, also in the Pacific. The oldest brother, Sandy, was in Gen. MacArthur’s army. On the Lennon side, my father was an army lieutenant in Europe. His youngest brother, Frankie, was in the Merchant Marine, serving on a tanker carrying gasoline to Murmansk, Russia. Hughie, his other younger brother had been in the Marine Corps since 1939, and fought in the battle for Okinawa. Their older sister, Aunt Molly, was a WAC [Women’s Army Corps] stationed in a hospital in New Guinea. Our family, like most of those on Bark Street, religiously followed the war news on both fronts.
To this end, my grandfather had repurposed a large blue-covered book, “The Majestic Line of Brocatelles and Damasks,” intended for fabric samples. On its blank pages he pasted in newspaper stories of the naval war around the globe. It contained accounts of numerous disasters, the sinking of the Arizona at Pearl Harbor, the German battleship Bismarck in the North Atlantic, and the British aircraft carrier Ark Royal in the Mediterranean, as well as photos of the launches of countless destroyers, submarines, and cargo ships. There were several accounts of Big Mamie, the Massachusetts, the navy’s newest battleship, which took part in the Battles of Casablanca and Okinawa. Grandpa Mitchell added the dates of each engagement in pencil. When he gave me the album, I drew crude pictures of battleships, muzzle blasts, and flying shells on the first page, labelled “U.S. WARBOATS.” I still have the book, and show it to my grandchildren.
The attic floorboards did not go all the way to the wall. There was a gap of a couple of feet, and my grandparents warned me incessantly that if I stepped off the boards I’d drop through the floor. I was tempted, and touched the gray vermiculite insulation with my toe, imagining falling into my grandparents’ big double bed. If I stayed too long in the attic, someone, usually my grandfather, would fetch me down. Every Sunday he and I would read the funny papers. Prince Valiant was my favorite—he had terrific blue-black hair and his weapon was The Singing Sword, made from the same metal as King Arthur’s Excalibur. My grandfather chuckled at “Jiggs and Maggie,” about the comic relations of the lace curtain Irish (Maggie) and the shanty Irish (Jiggs). But I didn’t get the humor. He also explained to me the meaning of the various images in Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” This feature appeared in the Boston tabloid, The Daily Record. Ripley’s was my first window on the larger world.
I could read only a little, and when I didn’t understand something in Ripley’s my grandfather explained to me. The images and stories astounded me. For example, a man in India, missing one arm and with only two fingers on the other one, spent 61 years carving a memorial to his missing arm; Mr. Jerry Elmore of Hall, IN cut his third set of teeth at the age of 75; Queen Muhuma of Kenya lived on milk alone for 105 years; a tribe in the Philippines braided a rope to hold the world together; Jir Kondratik of Slovakia could smell though his ears. One item plucked a string deep inside me: Mrs. Roy Kurz of Arlington, CA collected 30,000 buttons, all different, and from every state in the Union, an effort akin to Uncle Joe’s dirt collection.
My grandfather got me a large scrapbook and every day we pasted in “Believe It or Not.” As it grew, the scrapbook became for me the definitive dictionary of oddities, a compendium of the quizzical, the comical, and the nutty that, collectively, I firmly believed, circumscribed the far reaches of reality, the outer rim of idiosyncratic human achievement. My mother read me poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. They were enchanting, but Ripley’s stories had the added advantage of being true, the pure pap of factuality. Every bizarre quiddity had, of course, been scrupulously researched, attested, archived, and verified for authenticity by his team of detectives, else why would the esteemed Hearst newspaper, The Daily Record have published it? I thought myself fortunate to be the guardian, the curator, of this encyclopedia of weird wonders and freakish facts. The scrapbook also had the imprimatur of my grandfather Mitchell, the wisest of wise men.
My father’s last wartime assignment was to visit U.S. Army units in liberated areas of Europe and verify the accumulated service points of GIs, a complicated system insuring that the longest serving rotated home first. During the winter of 1945-46, he was welcomed heartily at U.S. Army bases and plied with every sort of liquor. He told me years later that he was given so much Calvados, a double-distilled French apple brandy, that he used it for anti-freeze in his jeep. A teetotaler before the war, my father learned to drink hard in the army. He was the last one of his family to be discharged. Every uncle, and Aunt Molly, made it home safely, although Uncle Larry spent several days on a life raft after his PBY was shot down in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Uncle Joe, who I idolized, was now 19 years old, and would soon be studying at Brown University on the GI Bill. I asked him if his train set still worked and he took me up in the attic to check it out—he knew exactly where the light switch was in the dark closet. I also asked him about his dirt collection, but he showed little interest in it, which surprised me. While we were up there he located his Eagle Scout medal, and gave it to me. I treasured it for years.
One evening, as I sat at the big round kitchen table with my mother, my grandparents and my uncles home from the wars, my grandmother announced that we’d lost an honorary member of the family: “Martha’s gone wild,” she said.