Authors: Pete Hamill
He was there, all right. Billy Hamill wasn’t one of those Depression fathers who went for a loaf of bread at the corner store and never came back. He moved through those rooms. He slept in one of the beds. He shaved in the bathroom and bathed in the tub. But for me, he wasn’t there. In some ways, it made no difference. On summer afternoons, I would sit outside the house, in a patch of earth near the curb, playing with a small red fire engine, telling myself stories.
Perhaps my father was in those stories. But he didn’t take me on those long green walks through the endless meadows and dark woods of Prospect Park. My mother did. Nor did he take me to see my first movie. My mother did that too. It was
The Wizard of Oz,
and the streets were dark when we came out of the Sanders Theater and she took my hand and we skipped home together, singing
Off to see the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz, because because because because Because.
I have no memory of him bouncing me on his knee or looking at the drawings I made each day with my box of eight Crayolas. I remember sitting on the stoop, watching Japanese beetles gnaw the ivy that covered the face of the brownstone next door and my mother teaching me a little song to be crooned to another insect neighbor:
Ladybug, Ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire, your child is alone….
But I learned no songs from my father. Not then.
In large part, my father’s absence was caused by his work. He left home before I awoke and returned after I was asleep. So in some ways, I didn’t really miss him. He wasn’t in my presence often enough to be physically missed. Besides, I was too busy learning the names of the world and even having small adventures. Once I went to Prospect Park with Billy Kelly, the boy who lived on the first floor. He was my first friend, a year older than I was, and his family owned 471 Fourteenth Street, the house where we lived on the top floor. Our adventure began in a very simple way. Billy said, Let’s go to the park. And I said, Okay, let’s go to the park.
And yet I knew that what we were doing was full of risk. Most important of all, it was the first time I’d ever gone anywhere without my mother and this act could lead to punishment. She might get cross. She might spank me. I went anyway, trusting Billy Kelly, certain we would be back before my mother noticed I was gone. I crossed the wide avenue called Prospect Park West, following the vastly more experienced Billy, watching for the trolley cars and the few big boxy black automobiles that moved through the streets in those days. We plunged into the park and wandered through that green world whose trees loomed high above us. Soon we were lost. We crossed streams, gazed at lakes, threw stones into the woods, but never could find the familiar playground and low stone wall beyond which lay home. I was filled with panic. I might never see my mother again or my brother Tommy or the kitchen at 471. We could end up in jail or someplace called the Orphanage, where they put kids without parents.
We were still in the park at dusk, when my mother found us. Her eyes were wide and angry, probably frantic. She did nothing to Billy Kelly; that was not her right. But she spanked me.
I’ve been looking
for you, Peter, she said sharply. You had me worried
I cried all the way home, full of remorse, and shocked too, because I had never before seen my mother angry, certainly not at me. And then we were at the house, going up the stoop in silence and into the vestibule and up the stairs to the top floor. Then, suddenly, quietly, she hugged me. And fed me. And put me to bed. The day had been the most turbulent of my short life; but from beginning to end, my father played no part in it at all.
In the summer of 1940, my mother started taking Tommy and me to visit my father where he worked.
You should be very proud of your daddy, my mother said. He only finished the eighth grade and he is working as a clerk. The reason is his beautiful handwriting.
She didn’t explain what a clerk was, but she did show me his handwriting on some sheets of ruled paper. I was just learning to print the alphabet on the same kind of paper, and the shape and steadiness of my father’s handwriting did seem very beautiful. He was working at the main office of a Brooklyn grocery chain called Thomas Roulston & Sons and brought home nineteen dollars a week. The Roulston company was housed in a redbrick factory building near the Gowanus Canal, more than a mile from where we lived. My mother would pack a lunch for him and put Tommy in a stroller and off we would go, first crossing along the parkside, then marching block after block, down the great slope. From Ninth Street, I could see all the way to the harbor, where there were ships on the water as small as toys. I loved arriving down near the canal, where the Smith and Ninth Street station of the Independent subway line rose high above us on a concrete trestle. On some days, a drawbridge would groan and squeal, rising slowly to allow some tough squat tugboat to plow through the canal’s oily waters to the harbor. There was a mountain of coal on one of the banks and a machine for unloading it off barges and another for putting it on thin-wheeled trucks with odd sloped fronts like the points of steam irons. I’d wait beside the bridge with Tommy while my mother took her plump brown paper bag up to my father’s office. He never once came down to the street to say hello to us.
But I do remember him sitting in the kitchen one bright Sunday afternoon in May. Suddenly among us there was a fat blond baby in a tiny crib. A white cake lay on the table and my father was there, bigger than he’d ever seemed before. He was celebrating his own birthday and the birth of my sister, Kathleen.
Through the door that afternoon came Uncle Tommy, gruff, friendly, my father’s brother, and his wife, Aunt Louie, followed by another brother named Uncle David, tall and lean and grave, and his wife, Aunt Nellie, who was chubby and large and laughed a lot. Behind them came other men, great huge men with sour smells clinging to their jackets and enormous feet encased in shiny leather. They all wore hats and smoked cigarettes and laughed very loudly and drank beer from tall glasses and giant brown bottles. After a while, one of them began to sing, a sad mournful song. When he was finished my father rose and started singing too. His song was funny. His eyes danced, he smiled, he gestured with his hands to emphasize a point, used his eyebrows for other points, and when he was finished they all cheered. The baby cried. My mother picked her up and went into the other room while my father filled his glass with beer, took a long drink and started into another song. For a long time, I sat on the floor near the window, watching this magic show.
N THE FALL
, I started kindergarten at PS 107, down on the corner. We played with blocks. We learned songs. We made paintings and cutouts. Then it was winter. Great piles of snow filled the schoolyard for weeks and once on a class trip to the park I took a great mound of pure fresh-fallen snow in my mittens and began to eat it. I didn’t know exactly why; the snow was just so clean and white that I wanted it inside me. But the other kids laughed. I was mortified by their laughter and wanted to run home, but the teacher said, It’s all right, young man; if you want to eat snow, there’s no rule against it.
My mother had friends on the street: Mrs. Hogan directly across the street, Mrs. Fox, Mrs. Cottingham, who lived near the corner across from the schoolyard. Now I had another friend: a beautiful girl named Roberta Perrin, who had dark hair and lustrous eyes and inspired in me some vague desire; her mother and mine were also friends. Roberta was in my class at kindergarten, and I liked being with her more than with my friend Billy Kelly, who was now in first grade. After school, I found my way to her areaway, which was always dark under great thick-trunked trees, and we played together. When I ate snow, she didn’t laugh. There was a grocery store on the corner, run by Syrians, but my mother didn’t shop there; she went to a Roulston’s branch a block away, loyal, as always, to my father. Except for those long journeys down to the canal, the world was a very small place.
Just before Christmas that year, we woke to the sight of a tree with shiny colored bulbs and tinfoil decorations my mother made from the lining of cigarette packs. We had no blinking lights. There must have been Christmas trees in our house before then, but I don’t remember them. This was a special Christmas. I was given some toys, some candy canes, and a copy of
A Child’s Garden of Verses,
by Robert Louis Stevenson. My mother read from it to me, over and over, showing me the letters and the words. Then it was summer again and we were taking our long journeys to the Gowanus Canal. Now Tommy was walking and Kathleen was in the carriage. My father still didn’t come down to see us. One sunny day I asked why.
Oh, he’d love to come down, my mother said. But the stairs are too hard on him. He works all the way up there.
She pointed to the top floor of the six-story building.
Then why can’t we go up and see him? I said.
Because they don’t let kids in the building.
Well, there must be two hundred men working for Roulston’s. If every man had three kids visit him at lunchtime, there’d be a riot in there.
She laughed, told us she wouldn’t be long, and hurried into the building. I stared at the top floor, wishing my father would come to a window and wave at us. He never did.
In the fall of 1941, I entered the first grade at Holy Name of Jesus elementary school. My mother took me by the hand to the schoolyard and then went away. A white brick school building rose like a fortress before me, three severe stories off the ground. At a right angle to the school was the back of the church, its bricks painted the color of dried blood. Those walls and the wire fence blocked any possibility of escape, and I was swiftly trapped in a wild sea of strangers. There were seventy-two boys in 1A that year, and a tall nun with creamy skin struggled to tame us. This was no easy task. On the first day, one frantic lank-haired boy danced on top of a desk. Others shouted encouragement, squealed in delight, whined, thumped each other, and slammed the desktops. I sat there, wishing I was home, alone on the stoop watching Japanese beetles or staring out the window into the safe stillness of the green garden. Somehow I got through the day. I was assigned a desk. I started writing letters of the alphabet in a composition book with a black-and-white cover. The boys calmed down. Sister asserted her command.
A few weeks later, there was great excitement everywhere: car horns blowing, bells ringing in a hundred church steeples, sirens screaming from firehouses. The Dodgers had won the pennant! I wasn’t sure what a pennant was, but it must have been a glorious thing to win, for we were given the day off from school and my mother took us on another long walk, to Grand Army Plaza. There we stood, among thousands of joyful strangers, on the new steps of the gleaming white Brooklyn Public Library and watched the Dodgers parade in triumph up Flatbush Avenue on their way to Ebbets Field. The ball players were huge tanned men with great smiles and enormous arms, sitting on the backs of convertibles, waving at us all. That night my father came home with two large bottles of beer and sitting alone in the kitchen (because my mother knew nothing of baseball) he celebrated the great triumph while listening to reports on the radio.
Just remember one thing, McGee, he said to me, in a grave voice. The Dodgers are the greatest thing on earth.
In school the next day, I told some of the other boys that the Dodgers were the greatest thing on earth. They all agreed with this, of course, and so did Sister, who had us pray for the Dodgers as they moved on to the World Series against the Yankees. But then a Dodger catcher named Mickey Owen dropped a third strike, the Yankees won the World Series, and we all had to wonder if God was a Yankee fan. That couldn’t be possible. God was a Catholic, wasn’t he? And since the Dodgers were from Brooklyn, they must be Catholics too. Or so we thought.
As young as we were, we were learning fast that year about the presence of calamity in the world. The Dodgers were only the beginning. On December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I have no clear memory of that Sunday or of Franklin Roosevelt’s famous speech on the following day. But I can still see my mother in the kitchen a few weeks later, cooking dinner and listening to music on the radio. Then an announcer interrupted to describe through veils of static the fall of Manila. He was telling us about explosions and gunfire and Japanese soldiers coming up the street when the broadcast abruptly stopped and another announcer, free of static, spoke softly about the war and this defeat. Suddenly, my mother was crying.
Those poor boys, she said, and hugged me. Those poor boys….
She then explained to me that we were at war. I started to cry too. Not because of the war or the poor boys in Manila, wherever that was (the name itself provoked only an image of vanilla ice cream). I cried because I had never seen my mother cry before and I didn’t like it. I could cry. Tommy could cry. Baby Kathleen could cry. We were kids. My mother wasn’t supposed to cry.
That night, when my father came home, he bumped into something and woke me up. I got up and tiptoed toward the kitchen, stopping in the dark of the next room. His face looked different, his jaw hanging loose, his slick black hair disheveled and wild. He sat down hard at the table and knocked over a glass of beer. My mother was no longer crying but she was what we kids called “cross.”
Ach, Billy, she said, and started wiping up the beer with a dishcloth.
Don’t say a thing! he said sharply. Just get me my bloody dinner.
She turned away and I thought she was going to cry again. Then he saw me.
What the hell are
looking at? he said to me. Get into bed.
I saw how upset she was and I started to whimper.
You’ve got damn all to cry about! he said.
she said. You’re upsetting him! And you’ll wake the baby.
He ignored her and pointed a finger at me.