Said & Done: Rascals like us never looked back
It was the Devil that made us do it. I refer to the fact that when the spring mood was on us, we skipped school.
The funny part of it was the Devil really did have us by the tail, coercing us down the path to perdition — but we almost never got the Devil for doing what he made us do.
We knew why.
Donald and Harold Martin were our ringleaders. “Mucky” McComb was in the gang — so was I.
Our families were all broke. The Depression gripped our neighborhood the way some great snake puts a stranglehold on its victims. Youngsters were poorly dressed, nearly ragged, and it was only rarely that anyone had more than one pair of shoes.
The Martins’ father was a self-made mechanic who fooled around with wrecked automobiles. “Flivvers” were towed into his yard, hulks with no heart in them. He had a pole tripod rigged to get a winch on the engine. He pulled that out and set it on the ground. There it stayed along with a dozen rusting hulls, waiting for parts that never came. There was no profit in anything Mr. Martin did and his income was a measure of zeroes across the board.
Anyway, the two boys, Donald and Harold, were absent from school one day. Their teacher considered them little more than savages, one foot still in the jungle. Why absent? It looked suspicious.
Harold was the brother in my room. When he turned in his “excuse” to Miss Barrett she read it out loud. “Please excuse Harold. He had no shoes yesterday.”
Good Lord! The lid came off. The Martins, the School Committee, the superintendent, the neighborhood, every clacking gossip — all got their feet and tongues tangled in the very ropy web of charge and countercharge, recrimination, hostility, hate, bitterness. They’re still boiling in that small town where Harold Martin had no shoes to wear one day, long ago.
No shoes. Harold had no shoes to wear. It didn’t bother him, but it pained his poor mother who wilted in the white heat of that publicity.
There was a pretty big hole in the student body when four of us went missing on the same day. After the episode with the Martins, nobody in authority dared risk a repeat, so our absences were never seriously looked into.
There’s a mistake commonly made about boys skipping school to go fishing. We never went fishing. To take out a pole and can of worms in full sight of the community would have been a dead giveaway. No fishing. We were always going somewhere where water charmed and waves beguiled.
Sometimes in late April and early May, the water was much too cold for our swimming. We swam anyway, rosy naked kids’ bodies into the water, blue lips and chattering teeth coming out.
“Mucky McComb” was no swimmer. He was too skinny to float and we almost lost him on one of our stolen parties. He floundered and thrashed so violently when we went to pull him out that he came close to drowning all three of his rescuers.
I suppose we skipped school six or seven times when we were in grammar school. When I think back on the grand times we had, our gang of four young rascals, it seems as though our richest, most extensive history was written in those few sorties away from law and order.
If there was anything like a truant officer in town, we never met him. We never gave him much of a chance to meet us. We were masters at disappearance and hiding, always searching for some place, any place, where we could simply vanish.
We didn’t plan this. It just came over us on the way to school. I suppose we made the break on the basis of a dare. But once we turned off the broad highway, we never looked back. French leave, skipping school — we were gone.
We had several favorite hiding places. The pine and oak barrens near home were high on the list. Like so many of history’s most romantic brigands, we were merry men among the trees, where no sheriff had sufficient courage to look for us. We spent a lot of time in the tops of pine trees. Pitch stuck all over our pants might have given us away, but no one ever thought to use it against us as evidence.
An abandoned rail line ran off one of the main trunks to Boston. We loved walking the “dead men” on a hot day, heat waves shimmering ahead of us, creosote smell of the ties a perfume to boys’ noses.
I went back once to review the grounds on which we had pirated time and so enormously enjoyed ourselves in doing it. The pines and oaks were gone, replaced by homes. The abandoned track had been converted into highway and I was unable to find any of the brooks we had dammed, or the ponds in which we had done our skinny dipping. Humanity had apparently drunk all the water.
We understand the old gents among us who still search for out of the way places where they can disappear from view. There’s something still in these ancients that begets craving for privacy, the deep-rooted need to be solitary, alone.
In light of our own libertine and enormously happy past, we couldn’t fault our old gentlemen for trying.
Paul Seamans is a permanent resident of the Charlene Manor nursing home. A picture window on his room’s west side gives a full view of Shelburne Mountain, a continuing inspiration for “Said & Done.” Some of his columns will have been previously published.