Growing up DownEast

A story by Darrin MC mclellan from 1970

Memories of a Pirate Sweater

We fancied ourselves the Little Rascals of the neighborhood. There was, by order of age John then me, Darrin (ten days apart), and John's brother Eddie, younger than us by a year. We met when John and I were in second grade Eddie was in first; I was trying to fly a kite with no wind and John followed closely by Eddie came over and tried to help me. Not sure if the kite ever flew that day but the friendships we started that day were the basis of our childhood and young adulthood.

As we age we tend to remember things differently, exaggerating some incidences, totally forgetting others (sometimes this is best) or just unwilling to confirm or deny others even happened. As we grew we added others to our group Craig, Jamie, Matt, Jeff and Hoon. I’d like to try to capture what growing up in the seventies and eighties was like for the benefit of my kids as well as yours. Maybe, just maybe through the following short stories, I can give them a mind’s eye of what growing up in rural Maine felt like. I hope you enjoy them.

Kite Wars 2nd Grade

It seems logical that a friendship started on flying kites would also have a kite flying story to tell. Like all second grade boys, we were fascinated by things that flew. Bugs, birds, paper airplanes or the occasional illegal bottle rocket would keep us entertained for hours. With flying model airplanes well out of our price range we turned to kites as a way to have something to fly, but also have some control over, in our minds it was a cheap model airplane but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit.

Let’s start from the beginning just after the three stooges met.

John and Eddies parents were building a house in the small woods directly behind my parents’ house. My sisters and the Doyle girls used to explore that mini wilderness and thought of it as the Amazon but now in its place stood a house. We weren’t entirely upset by this as a new house met the possibility of new kids to play with. John, Eddie and their sister Julie, were all in our age range and fit into the neighborhood wonderfully. Across Garfield Street there were three recently built houses. John's cousin Danny lived in the center one and the Moodys lived in the one across the Street from John and Eddie's house and behind those houses was a giant field that was great for flying kites.

The Moodys had twin boys, Matt and Drew, that loved to tag along with us older boys sometimes. We played guns (I know taboo now but common place then), Hide and go seek, tag and so many other games I can’t even recall their names. Beyond that field were the Garfield Street Apartments, they were state assisted housing that we called Sesame Street, not sure why but “Sesame Street” was huge back then. The Yardley’s lived in a yellow house off to the right of the street that led into Sesame Street and they had kids our age as well as kids that were older than we were. Darren was a year older than John and I, and was twice our size throughout our childhood. Every time I see The Christmas Story during the Holidays I think of Darren every time I see Scott Farcus on screen. Darren is a star player in this story as you will see shortly. Mr. Smith lived on the corner in a big blue house I think he worked for the railroad and the Murrays live directly across the street on the opposite corner of Garfield and Lafayette Streets.

Now that you have an idea of the layout of our neighborhood I feel I need to explain something. Back in the day hand knit sweaters were very popular. I have more than one school picture taken in a hand knit sweater that was made by my loving mother. Both John and Eddie’s mother and my own mother were knitters and did some beautiful work. They would follow the intricate patterns and “Knit one pearl two” for days and sometimes even weeks. It was not only time consuming but costly as well. The yarn used to make these sweaters wasn’t cheap and the patterns they bought to follow were a cost as well. Thinking back they probably could have bought a sweater cheaper but it would never have been as warm or as fashionable as the hand knit ones were. John’s mother, Janette, had worked long and hard on this one particular sweater, I still remember it well. It was grey with a zippered front and black trim and very warm looking. But what I remember most is the Pirate that was on the back.

It was every kids dream to have a scalawag complete with an eye-patch and a bloody knife in his mouth (I may have embellished a bit there but please refer back to my opening statements) to wear proudly on his back for all the other kids to be jealous of. I still remember John's mom shouting after him to keep that sweater clean or there would be consequences when he returned (she might have said “hell to pay” but I have learned to never paint someone’s mother with a tainted brush). She was as proud of that sweater as John was wearing it.

Picture this, John, Eddie and myself, three excited lads, kites in hand walking across the lawn towards the field on a nice spring day for some kite flying fun. Broad smiles replacing the worries of arithmetic and reading lessons ready to just be boys and have fun. We cut through the Moody’s yard down a small hill and headed to the center of the field. The wind was blowing from the direction of the Yardley’s house but it was just a slight breeze so we would need to run our kites into it until they gained enough height for the stronger winds to catch them then we could stand back and watch them fly. We didn’t mess around flying kites we wanted them to go high so we had extra spools of twine in our pockets. The kites were allowed to pay out to the end of the first roll of twine and then we would tie the second roll on and keep launching it higher. After a half hour or so we had our kites at height with two rolls of twine. They were in a good updraft and the wind pulled at them, it was the perfect kite flying day. We would move the string in a figure eight and the kites would follow suit, I remember it like it was yesterday.

In all the awesomeness that was occurring we had failed to notice we had gained an audience. Darren Yardley was heading our way. An intimidating figure for a second grader, he might as well have been Godzilla rising out of the sea attacking a Japanese fishing village. Although we felt helpless we were not leaving our kites to just fly off, but two rolls of kite twine doesn’t roll in very quickly. We wound and wound and wound and wound (you get the idea) until he was almost upon us.

I don’t know if you know what a Burdock bush is but they grow prolific in Maine especially in fields. We were all the time bringing them home unintentionally on our socks and pant legs. When your dog ran through a patch of these it was easier to have your dog shaved than pick them off. One thing Burdocks stuck to profusely was wool yarn; you know the kind the aforementioned Pirate sweater was knit with. Well Darren Yardley bends over and pulls a whole Burdock bush out of the ground (Very impressive to us at that age) and started beating John on the back of his brand new Pirates sweater. I swear I could hear the pirate cussing, or maybe it was John, but I’ll never tell. After thoroughly plastering Johns sweater with burdock he cut our kite strings and proudly walked back to the yellow house on the corner. Our heads hung low as we made the, what seemed like, miles long hike back to our houses.

I know John's mother made a phone call down the street that night, but I honestly can’t remember what happened. All I know is the Pirates sweater was never seen again. Our kite flying continued and by the time we had grown large enough to not be intimidated by Darren Yardley, we were all friends and were no longer interested in flying kites.

Darren Yardley called me last year and we talked for a while, I see him when he is home and we talk about the old neighborhood. We weren’t scarred for life and at no time do I ever remember the word bully being used. It was what it was we were kids all trying to find our way in this world. We all turned out fine, well except the Pirate sweater.

Here it is installment #2. Thanks John Driscoll for the idea.

It’s funny how our entire childhoods are defined in neat little blocks. You’re born, then you take your first step,s and before anyone has a chance to get use to the idea of having a baby you’re a toddler then WHAM! Kindergarten is starting. Our existence for the next twelve years is based on being a first grader, second grader and so on separated by two to three months of summer vacation, being a “grader” becomes our identity. As we age it gets harder and harder to remember events based by what grade you were in or what age you were. I think that’s when we start remembering things as “When I was in Elementary School” or “I think I was in Middle School or High School”. I like to call it Event-based recollection. As I said before we all tend to remember things a little differently and add our own embellishments to these memories. Sometimes we mix up people or may think something happened to one person but it was actually someone else but the memory is still there. I think this is our minds way of not forgetting important events of our past. Anyway the following story happened around fourth grade. I like to call it………

The Great Garfield Street Green Apple Campaign

In the previous story I mentioned the Moodys lived across the street from John and Eddie in a single story yellow ranch-style home. It had a garage in the basement that Mr. Moody used to keep his drag car in. He liked to drag race in Penfield, New Brunswick and always had a car he was working on. We all found it quite interesting. You could hear him “testing” the motor at all hours of the night and day. The garage to the house was accessed by driving down the small hill that led to the kite field and turning back towards the house. The entrance was built like it was an afterthought. Earth was dug out and reinforced with railroad ties and there was barely enough room to squeeze a car through, but Mr. Moody managed. As I mentioned before the Moodys had twin boys, Matt and Drew; they also had a daughter but she was born a year or two before they moved back to New York.

Mr. Moody had built his boys a fort in the field behind their house, the same field in which we liked to fly our kites. The fort was built on four posts and was about six foot square. The floor was raised a couple of feet off the ground and the walls were about 4-5 feet high. The ceiling had a two foot by two foot hatch cut into it that allowed you to get on the roof. Once on the roof there were no railings just the top of the posts sticking up in each of the four corners. I actually think Mr. Moody started building this as an elevated dog house for their dog, Brownie, but his kids commandeered it as their own. The Garfield Street Apartments were at the other side of the field. I remember Mr. Moody being a great supporter of the visual arts and as a result Mrs. Moody would get him a subscription to Playboy magazine every Christmas. They would come in the mail with a plain sleeve of brown paper to hide the Playmate of the month that would grace the cover. I still remember the mailman, Mr. Chaffee, delivering them to the Moody’s house in the old US Mail Jeep. Since Mr. and Mrs. Moody worked until five and the twins were at the sitters John, Eddie and I would take them out of his mailbox and “preview” the newest additions to Mr. Moody’s collection. Without even realizing it we were Federal criminals before we were even teenagers. We would read the articles and jokes but never look at the pictures, and then we would put the brown paper sleeve back on the magazine and, under cover of darkness, put the magazine back in the Moody's mailbox.

Now back in the 70s we didn’t have any IPod, IPad, or I Macs we had Apples of a different kind, the kind you eat and there were apple trees all over the neighborhood. Our parents would always have us clean up the fallen apples in the fall before they had a chance to rot and make a mess out of the lawn. One day while doing this we got the idea to sharpen a stick and use them to pick up the apples and put them in the bucket. We would take the bucket to the field between our houses and dump the apples in a pile. It wasn’t long before we figured out that if you used the stick to fling the apples we could eliminate the bucket and the apples would still end up in the field. That lasted all of five minutes before we started flinging them at each other. We discovered the longer the stick the more speed and distance we could get out of the apples. Wanting to know just how far we could fling the apples off the end of a stick we loaded up a bucket with apples, grabbed our sticks and headed to the kite flying field for our experiment. Off we went across John and Eddie’s front lawn, across Garfield Street and to the Fort behind the Moody’s house. The first couple of apples went far but not far enough, we needed bigger sticks. After the trial and error of different size sticks we figured a stick about 5 feet long and about ¼” thickness would give us the best strength, speed and distance for our particular kind of apple. We also found that if you get a running start and swing the stick from your hip you could increase these factors three fold, so much in fact that the apple would actually touch down in the middle of the playground in the Garfield Street apartment complex, aka Sesame Street. The distance between the Fort and Sesame Street was in reality close to 100 Yards but to us those apple may have well have landed on the moon. To the kids playing in the playground those apples might as well been meteors coming from space. We could see them point and yell then a couple of them took off. Of course this made us fling more apples.

Unbeknownst to us, a group of our classmates that lived down the street and in Sesame Street were doing the exact same thing behind the Garfield Street Apartments. The kids that ran off the playground were running to get them and it wasn’t long before they materialized from around the corner of the apartment buildings. There was much pointing and hand waving mostly directed in our direction but we didn’t stop. We were having so much fun we didn’t realize that we had fired the first shots of the Great Garfield Street Crabapple War. Before long the kids vanished behind the apartment buildings. After five minutes or so they reemerged with buckets of apples and more kids. They hadn’t yet figured out the length of the stick secret we knew so their apple bombs were falling short of our location. We would fire into the middle of their group and they would disperse, we would all laugh. This went on until the twin’s father whistled for them to come inside and we all left to go do our school work and get ready for school the next day.

The following day at school, rumbles of war were heard up and down the hall ways. We had attacked Sesame Street and they were angry. They started recruiting kids for their side and we started recruiting kids for our side. There was going to be an apple fight at three o’clock between the Sesame Street kids and our group. We just had John, Eddie, myself and the twins. We recruited Jeff, Danny and his brother John from down the street. Recess came and went, any talk of Peace was fruitless, and war was inevitable. We anxiously waited for the bell to ring to release the walkers so we could run home, change our clothes and prepare our Fort for the attack that was coming. The Elementary School was only a little over a block from our houses so when the bell rang we took off running. We were all running up Garfield Street, and the Sesame Street kids took off running through Mahar Lane as it was a short cut. I still remember collecting apples, cutting spare sticks and stocking the Fort up with snacks in case this was a long war. We took some old rotting ply wood out of a junk wood pile in the Moody’s back yard and nailed them length-ways one on each end of the fort with nails we took from John and Eddies or my father’s personal stock. These should provide us with protection from flying apples we figured and give us room to move around safely outside during the battle. We all got inside the fort and waited. We talked about our battle plan and shared the snacks we had brought. Then we heard it.

The screaming was horrific and as we exited the fort we could see where it was coming from. It looked like the battle scene from the movie Braveheart. One kid was leading the charge and they were all yelling, there must have been two to three thousand of them charging straight towards us. In all actuality it may have only been twelve or less but we knew they were heading our way. We all spit on our hands and swore to fight until the last man was standing. Then a loud thump came from our left, a solid green crab apple had hit the plywood we had just installed for our defense. Not only did it hit it but it went straight through the rotting wood, we were in trouble. We took comfort in knowing we would not die without having seen a woman’s boobs, even if it was only in a magazine (Thanks Mr. Moody).

As the apples hit the fort and the plywood we loaded up our sticks, spread out, counted to three and let them fly. I think we hit a couple of the enemy and they went down. Come to think of it I think they all went down in the grass to hide from our incoming apples. We had stock piled two five gallon pails full of apples and had a bunch of loose ones scattered around on the ground outside the fort. The Sesame Street kids weren’t as well prepared and had to keep retreating to get more apples. I remember this being a Friday in late September so we had no school the next day and could stay out a little later. This was a good thing, as apple wars were not fought on our parents’ schedule. After a couple of charges by our enemy we were running out of apples, all we had were the loose ones laying around. Looking over the plywood we saw that the enemies’ apples that hit the plywood were on the ground in front of the shields. To collect these would place someone in the direct line of fire from our enemy. We had a quick caucus and elected the twins be the ones to gather those, they were younger than us and were dispensable. I seem to remember one of them getting hit but, like I said before I couldn’t tell which one it was even if I had wanted. One thing the twins were was tough, and with tears in his eyes he vowed revenge. As we made final preparations for the onslaught of a freshly stocked enemy we knew we were under supplied and out manned, we would have to give it our all.

THUMP. Thump THUMP THUMP THUMP! The battle had begun. John and I took up position on the left and started pummeling apples one after another Jeff, Danny and the other John took up position on the right. We put the twins inside the fort and Eddie jumped up on top with an old metal disk sled as a shield. The apples continued in both directions for what seemed an eternity. Until we heard Eddie yell ARRRGGHHHH!!!! Followed by the god awful CRUNCH! of plywood being broken.

Now let me tell you there are two things in a young man’s life that he never forgets the first; seeing someone get hit or kicked in the testicles for the first time, the second; when he himself gets hit or kicked in the testicles for the first time. There is something about witnessing that pain that scars you forever, that moment is etched in your very being, it becomes a standard by which all pain is measured. Your first breakup with a girlfriend will hurt but it is nothing compared to being hit in the jewels. I now feel you, dear reader, are prepared for what follows. Almost immediately there was a cease fire, no one called for it, everything just kind of stopped. I looked up on top of the fort but Eddie wasn’t there, only the metal sled he had been using as a shield. My thoughts turned to he had fell off the roof and broken an arm, if only that was all it was, but he wasn’t that lucky. As we approached the other side of the fort we could see Jeff, Dan and little John staring, even the Garfield Street Apartment kids had dropped their apples and sticks and were running towards our location, but not in a threatening way. John and I finally got around to the other side of the fort and saw why--there was Eddie straddling the piece of plywood that we had nailed to the side of the fort. His feet, dangling one on each side, weren’t even touching the ground and I don’t think he could even breath he was in so much pain. Everyone was just staring not sure what to do.

John and I tried to lift Eddie off the plywood but we were to short so we did the next best thing, we kicked the plywood free from the fort and Eddie rode that piece of plywood all the way to the ground with a great THUD!. We all looked at each other, Sesame Street kids and our band of brothers all circled around Eddie lying painfully on the ground half under a rotting sheet of plywood. Questions were going through our minds "Will he ever walk again?" "Will he be able to go to school on Monday?" "Will he ever be able to father a child?" Slowly Eddie started moving. We waited to see what his first words would be. You could cut the tension in the air with a knife. Then his lips started moving, he could talk he wouldn’t be left a mute to live out his days in silence! Our excitement began to build, what would he say? After brushing himself off and still grabbing the affected area Eddie finally spoke in a half hearted muffled way "I’m going home." That was it.

The apple war was over as quick as it had started. Like all wars no one really remembers what led up to it but we, as young impressionable boys, all learned a very important lesson that day. Fighting never has a happy ending, someone always gets hurt. Whether it’s a physical "Kick in the nuts" or a figurative "Kick in the nuts" your brothers will rally around you. I just don’t think you can be taught this lesson with an Apple IPad.