Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Blizzard"--Week 4

The other day my brother Seth sent me a Boston Globe clipping of Mr. Licht's obituary. I can't say I was sorry he was dead, even though a half-century has passed since I last saw him.

Mr. Licht was my shop teacher and coach in sixth and seventh grade. He had served in the South Pacific in World War II, a very tough school, and he tried to teach us what he had learned there, which was to hate the enemy and to lay down as much fire as possible.

He would call us 'girls' if we measured the wood wrong. He would call us 'fags' if we didn't jump right up after a hard tackle. He'd tell us we were scum if we didn't yell at each other in practice. When one of the kids on the team, Chris, went home one night and hung himself with his school necktie, next morning Mr. Licht told us that Chris was weak and soft and wouldn't have been worth anything if he had lived.

I hated that man and all his mean ways and everything he touched. I never played a team sport again. I never made a thing out of wood. Even now, I'd rather be his idea of a fag than his idea of a man.

But I probably would pretty much have forgotten him, if there had not been a winter day in 1957 when he could have killed my brother and me.

Part of Mr. Licht's job was to pick us up in the morning and deliver us home after school, along with 10 other boys, in a big green 1956 Ford wagon, the Country Squire model with an extra factory benchseat in the cargo area. This was the era before seat belts. If the wagon was built to seat nine but could squeeze in twelve little boys plus a grown-up driver, no one gave that any thought. Safety was something we were taught in school: look both ways before you cross the street. It was not something to unduly trouble adults.

It's not quite true that this was the era before seatbelts. Ford offered seatbelts as an option on these wagons starting in 1955, but I doubt I, or anyone other than fussbudgets, ever used a seatbelt until the late 60s, and that '56 Country Squire certainly didn't have them. In 1957, there were no SUVs, no Jeeps or 4WD vehicles on the road, no front-wheel drive cars. Cars were long, low, powered from the rear. When there was snow, the plows came out late, did not have sand or salt, and any driver who expected to get anywhere, even in the suburbs of Boston, had to have chains, but, even so, sometimes snow would be over a car's axles and drag on that stylish lowslung bodywork and fill wheelwells, and then the car would have to be abandoned.

Seth and I heard the muffled sound of chains in deep snow on our unplowed road, only a few miles from the golden dome of the State House. Even with headlights on, the Ford was just a blur in the driving snow. When we got in the car, we were alone with Mr Licht, not a situation I was ever happy with.

On ordinary days Seth and I sat all the way in back. But today Mr Licht told us that we might as well sit more forward, as none of the other kids would be going in to school. He indicated I should ride shotgun in the front seat where usually the oldest boy was privileged to sit. Seth sat behind Mr. Licht.

There were no other cars around, no plows, nothing but snow and wind. After a while, Mr Licht started explaining to me. I was flattered that he would talk to someone like me but worried too...that he would talk to someone like me: a girl, a fag, scum. "We're going to go up Lee St to Route 9 and double back to school. The other roads are impossible."

I could picture the route. But I didn't understand why Mr Licht was telling me this, as if he needed to explain his actions. And I didn't understand how we wound up at Cleveland Circle. Thinking about it today, I'm guessing that Mr Licht had decided to beat it home to Waltham before the storm stalled the car, and that Cleveland Circle was on his way, though not on the way to school.

There were still no cars out, and the snow was as heavy as ever. He pulled into a little roundabout where the buses from Cleveland Circle picked up passengers for West Roxbury. He handed me a quarter (fares would have been a nickel for Seth, a dime for me), pointed toward the bus shelter, and said, "There'll be a bus along pretty soon. It will drop you at the end of your road."

Ordinarily, this would all have been true. The bus would have come, I would ask for the Allandale stop, Seth and I had often walked the three-quarters of a mile down Allandale to our house. Now we opened the station wagon doors, stepped out into thigh-deep snow, and watched the green Country Squire disappear. We sat on the bench in the little shelter. The snow came down everywhere. I was just twelve, Seth almost four years younger.

After a while, he said, "I'm cold."

I said, "Shut up."

We waited. It would have been very nice if a warm bus had pulled up and opened its doors. The driver would have said, "You kids must be freezing. Go over by the blower." He would have slipped Mr Licht's quarter into the change maker on his belt, given us two dimes and a nickel, and we would have put the money into the pedestal-mounted fare counter. There would have been two dings as the coins dropped. Seth and I would have sat by the blower, and I probably would have hit him on the arm three or four times before we reached our stop. Then we would walk home and have lunch, tuna sandwiches being my favorite.

Seth said, "What if the bus doesn't come?"

I said, "Shut up."

I didn't need Seth's two cents' worth to make me doubt that the buses were running. I kept my eye on the rise in the road where I knew the bus would appear if it appeared. First its yellow brow, then the black sign with 'West Roxbury' in white letters, then the split windshield, like two eyes, wipers humming, and finally the dirty orange bulk of an MTA bus. I wanted to be sure that, if the driver couldn't turn into the roundabout because of the drifts, we could dart out of the shelter in time for him to see us and stop.

But the orange bus did not appear.

Seth may have sniffled; he may have complained again about the cold. I certainly was cold (this was the era of very bulky, not very warm winter clothing) but, surely at age 12, I was too old to sniffle.

Eventually, some things became clear: the bus was not coming; it was very cold; home, perhaps a two hour walk on a pleasant spring day, was not within our reach. I had a dime and could find a payphone at Cleveland Circle to call my mother, but how could that help? She was no more likely to be able to drive than Mr Licht or the bus.

I pulled Seth to his feet. "We're not going to wait. We're going to Aunt Blanche's."

"How will we get there?"

"We're going to walk. It isn't far."

"Do you know where it is?"

My mother did not visit her sister Blanche very often--Christmas and Thanksgiving. But I thought I did. I said, "Yes. Let's go."

On that pleasant spring day, Aunt Blanche's was probably a ten-minute walk from the bus shelter. On this day, it took us half an hour. There were drifts, there were sniffles, there were heavy galoshes (another feature of winter clothing in those days), there were cold wrists and wet wool mittens and snow melting on our faces and on our necks. There was my uncertainty about directions and my realization that the houses in Aunt Blanche's neighborhood had all been built at about the same time, and all of them seemed to have red brick fronts, white trim, and heavy black front doors. The snow made them all look the same anyway.

Eventually we arrived at what I hoped was the right door. I rang the bell. Distant chimes. I didn't want to be rude, but I rang it again. I heard someone on the other side, and the door opened.

My Uncle Ricky stood there, staring, certainly not expecting to see two nephews appear out of the blizzard that had locked Boston down tight and certainly not recognizing Seth or me with our snow-covered clothes or faces.

I said, "It's John and Seth, Uncle Ricky."

Uncle Ricky had come from Germany thirty years before, and he had an accent I loved to hear. His accent seemed to coat every word with chocolate. Even just my name now dripped with it. "John?"

Then he turned and shouted over his shoulder: "Blanche, come here, come quick."

Then he turned to us. "Boys, what are you doing here? What happened? Come in, come inside. Blanche, they want some hot cocoa. Now tell me what happened."

I still don't really know what happened. Why school wasn't called off earlier. Why we were picked up. What led us to Cleveland Circle. Why Mr Licht imagined a bus when there was no bus. What would have happened if I hadn't remembered Aunt Blanche and known the way to her house. Whether children could really die in a blizzard just up the street from Cleveland Circle.

I do know that we spent the night with Aunt Blanche and Uncle Ricky because there was no question of driving. That we were made much of and praised for our pluck. That Uncle Ricky kept saying, "What was he thinking, what was he thinking?"

Even those words, words of anger and dismay and puzzlement, were wonderfully sweet in his mouth.

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