... it is time to say goodbye.
When I was about twelve, maybe thirteen, I began calling my father Pop. I felt that
calling my father Daddy or even Dad sounded too babyish. My father was a quiet man
and I have very few memories of him playing with me. He played catch with me once
when I was about eight and he took me once to see a Red Sox's game. That was about it.
But, then, fathers did not pal around with their sons in the 1930’s.
We were not on the best of terms through my adolescence. Pop was a hardworking, non-
swearing Industrial Relations Manager of Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates. He came up
“the hard way”, as they used to say. His father was dead when he was young; making
it necessary for him to work during his high school years and to take full time work
in the summer. He was graduated from high school in 1917. At about five feet four
inches, one hundred and forty pounds, soaking wet, Pop persevered from a minor clerk
in 1917 to Industrial Manager by 1950. In contrast, I was five feet ten inches, one
hundred and twenty-five pounds, also soaking wet. I was a rotten student. On one
occasion I presented my report card having passed only gym. Pop in exasperation
said, “Even a monkey could pass gym!” I made the mistake at supper one evening,
mentioning that I had been sent to the Principal’s office that day. “Smack”, a
backhand to my nose. Startled, I hung my head only to have blood from my nose pool
in my plate. My mother was visibly upset, but said very little. Quiet hung heavy in
the room is what I remember.
There were only a few occasions where Pop lost his temper and hit me. I suppose my
intuition culled the appellation Pop from my psyche as he could “Pop”, but only on
occasion. His mode of disdain was to keep distant. I suppose the more distant he
became the more my engine shut down.
In high school I was miserable. It was in the boy’s room of the high school that
Charlie Steed and I began to talk about joining the Navy. We skipped school one day
and went to the Naval Recruiting Office in Boston Post Office Square. Shortly a
Chief Petty Officer met with my parents and me and talked about the plusses and
minuses of quitting school and joining the Navy. Though not spoken out loud, I
imagine my parents thinking then that maybe the boy will come out of the Navy a man?
The train left South Boston train station in March 1948, headed to The Great Lakes
Naval Center near Chicago, Illinois. I remember feeling apprehension
but exhilarated all at once. Here I was leaving the safety of home and parents while
at the same time breathing a deep sense of being a different me. There was a feeling
of escape, maybe of being released into the unknown that years later I would begin
to come to understand.
We stopped at several stations along the twenty-four hour journey. There was a
short, fearful young man who mailed a postcard home at every stop. I learned later
that the young man did not last a whole week of boot camp. I did not realize it
then, but my awareness of this frightened boy leaving home for the Navy was exactly
what I feared in myself that I was strongly guarding against. I knew boot camp was
going to be tough and I tried hard to gird myself for whatever was to come.
As I now look back and reflect on the experience of leaving home for the first time
at 17 years old, I’m now asking myself how I got there. Why did I so desperately, so
it now seems, have to leave home? The broad answer to that question is that I was
not thriving at home. Why not, I ask myself? I had a very gloomy outlook without
drive to get me where I might go, with what to do with myself. In an effort to
explore this important question I have to take a closer look at my early thoughts
I was born in 1930, in the midst of the great economic depression. My parents,
Charles and May, were married in 1922 and my brother, Charles, Jr., was born in
1923. A threesome for seven years now had to make room for one more. I write, “Make
room” because I have felt for many years that I was an “accident.” My parents were
Roman Catholics, prohibited from practicing birth control, excepting abstinence or
“Vatican Roulette”, as it was cynically called. The family of three was fairly
content to remain a threesome, so I have imagined. This is a feeling I have carried
with me for as long as I can remember. The real question is, is there any truth to
it? The problem with the question is there was never any way to ask the question to
those who had an answer, my mother, father or brother. If I could have allowed
myself to ask my family the question of my being an “accident”, they would be
astounded and think I had lost a screw.
My brother and I had very little to do with each other, mostly because of the
different ages. I don’t remember my brother playing with me when I was little. When
I was about nine, my father made “Bubba” as I called him; take me to see the movie,
“Dodge City” playing at the Capital Theater. During the movie my brother had an
epileptic seizure and had to be carried out of the theater. This sure scared me and
I didn’t know what to do. After a while someone came to get me and I found my
brother sitting on the wall outside, holding his head in his hands. It didn’t occur
to me then but I later considered that a brother, having to make room for a little
brother, was deeply resented, never spoken of, and expressed in an epileptic
I don’t know how it came up, but my mother told me that she wanted to have a girl.
She had girls names picked out. When I arrived she could only think to name me Edgar
after her older brother. My father thought that maybe Edward would be less
burdensome for me.
My mother was always sweet and gentle with me. I was always more closely attached to
her. Ma played the piano and I had a passing voice so she would encourage me to sing
along with her playing. Maybe this was her way of dealing with the disappointment of
not having a daughter? I’m sure she did not mean to hurt me, but to feel somewhere
deep that I was less than what was wanted joined me to my mother’s disappointment.
If Ma were here today and if I were to ask her about what I have just written she
would be aghast and absolutely deny it. Of course she would. She might even have
thought me a little nuts. Still, at another level, though I speak the truth for
myself, I feel no resentment toward what I believe to have been my mother’s
subterranean feelings. She always tried to do her best for me.
In September 1936 I entered the first grade of St. Joseph’s School. I would not be
six years old until November. By today’s standards, I was not prepared for school. I
remember I could not draw a straight line on the blackboard when asked and all the
kids laughed at me. School was a struggle from there on in. A way I dealt with this
was to do something funny to get the other kids to laugh. The nuns would throw up
their hands about me and sometimes smacked me on the knuckles with the clapper they
carried around. They wanted to know why I wasn’t a great student like my brother. My
brother was allowed to skip a grade he was so good at school.
I was a string bean with little appetite for food. My mother, grandmother and aunts
were always pressing food on me. I remember my mother telling me that I was a
difficult birth. The doctor had to use forceps to dislodge me. Years later, after I
became sophisticated, I wondered if difficulty with food, trouble with spelling and
numbers, inability to sit still all pointed to me as a special problem. One day,
when I was 6 or 7, I came home with wet pants. This was not the first time, so each
of my parents, in turn, gave four of five whacks on my bare bottom. I never did that
again! Also, there were nocturnal “accidents”. In those days there were no washing
machines. Mother would scrub the wet things in the soap stone sink, never saying a
word to me about it. Looking back, I think she sensed that I was fragile but not at
all understood. Of course, in those days neurological problems were
not heard of.
My friend Joe went to Malden Catholic so I wanted to go. I lasted a year. It wasn’t
that I did anything wrong. I was too afraid of the Brothers. I was a just a poor
student not fit for the Brothers. I transferred to Everett High School where I
didn’t fare any better. The only good thing to happen to me was to fall in love with
Ricky. On a warm summer night we would walk all the way to Bell Rock Park in Malden,
my right arm securely wrapped around Ricky’s shoulder. We didn’t have to say
anything as we were content being with each other. Sometimes we would go to a house
where someone was baby sitting and kiss for hours on end. Ricky was Italian though,
so I could not walk her to her house for fear her mother would find out I was not an
Italian. I think this was the thing that broke us up. She needed to find an Italian
boy to satisfy her mother.
So here I am on the high seas. I was sent to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, CVB 42.
This was one of the biggest ships of the time, the USS Midway, CVB 41 and the Coral
Sea, CVB 43 the sister ships. It was the biggest ship I ever saw. In awe I boarded
and in time became settled in the OS Division. I had become friendly with Murphy
though I never learned his first name. The sailors went by last names I guess out of
some kind of tradition. Murphy said I should put in for the OS Division as this is
where the signalmen lived. I was so accustomed to not having a mind of my own I
signed up for the OS Division. Signalmen, I was to learn, are supposed to learn
flashing light, semaphore and the different hoists from the flag bag. It was all too
confusing to me but I went along with anything said.
Learning the light began to fascinate me. I don’t know how it happened to this day
but I really wanted to learn how to send and receive messages with the light. Murphy
said as the FDR was going into dry dock and I should try to get assigned to the
Signal Tower that overlooks Hampton Roads. Murphy said he was going as this was a
terrific way to learn light and semaphore. I found myself, for the first time,
insisting with Chief Keen that I be sent to the Signal Tower and I would come back
as one of the best signalman he ever saw. So he let me go with that proviso.
The Signal Tower is on top of a six story building with a barracks on the roof. The
Signal Tower itself extends another fifty feet reaching for the sky. It was on this
tower, overlooking Hampton Roads that messages would be sent, to and fro, to the
ships at anchor. And it was on this tower that I received my first message all by
myself. I was elated, brushing the tears from my eyes. I was reading the message,
for the first time, all by myself. It was on this day; no it was the night, when I
became a man.
We made two other trips to the Med., as we used to call it, when I became a “steady
dash man”. This is where you are supposed to send a dash with your light each time
you receive a message. So if you don’t get the message, it gets sent a second or
more times. A “steady dash man” gets the message no matter how fast you send it as
he never misses.
I was encouraged to “ship over” as they say. I was told I’d be Chief Petty Officer
in two or three years. I had gotten some experience in teaching some of the younger
sailors and thought I might want to teach myself on the outside. It wasn’t easy
leaving the guys I had gotten to know so well, but it was my time to leave.
In February 1952, I was honorably discharged from the U. S. Navy. Leaving the Navy
was less easy than I expected. It took a few weeks before being formally discharged.
I was sent to a barracks on the Norfolk Navy Base, Virginia. As I waited, not
knowing anyone or doing anything was the loneliest feeling I ever experienced. As I
write this it is clear to me why. In Navy boot camp, four years before, we recruits
were told it was wise never to get too attached to shipmates. In the military,
persons are there one minute, gone the next. Things like transfers and death, in a
flash, wipe out relationships. Its better, we were told, not to make connections
with anyone. The day I left the FDR there were a few “see ya” comments, ignoring
that we were parting forever. This was the Navy way. A few days before I had a job
and friends. At the Base I knew no one and had nothing to do but wait. I felt in a
kind of limbo, I now realize, leaving guys I had become attached to over the past
four years that I was not supposed to admit to myself. Not being able to recognize
that then, I felt the days would never end until I would finally get back home.
I remember walking into Eddie Gilbert’s drug store on the corner of Hancock St. and
Cleveland Ave. and announced my homecoming. There were a few people there to welcome
me, Eddie Gilbert and a few names I’ve long since forgotten. Then I walked down
Cleveland Ave. seven doors to 84 Cleveland Ave. where I lived. My mother opened the
door and in surprise hugged and kissed in jubilation as I had been indefinite of my
arrival. Mother was all flustered and wanted to know what I wanted to eat. It was
past noon but I said all I could think of was pancakes and maple syrup. So that’s
what I had, sitting again at the kitchen table some fifty years ago.
It was good to be home. It was not long, though, before I felt closed in, a feeling
of being warped in the arms of a stranger. It’s true of what Thomas Wolfe wrote,
“You Can’t Go Home Again”. I didn’t realize then but I do now that I had left as a
boy and returned a man. This is, of course, the meaning of Wolfe’s famous title. The
circumstances don’t change much but the man does. My father was remote as usual. My
brother and I shared a room but that was all. Mother was “infantilizing” me to
It was not long after this that I fell in love with Catherine. She was the
bridesmaid for my friend Jack who was also his cousin. It was at his wedding party
were we were attracted to each other, kissed on the railing of Jack’s house, and
have been together ever since. It was an instant attraction. I didn’t realize it
then but this was the way out. I was discharged in February, 1952 and married in
September, 1953, only 17 months since coming home. My mother said, “You just got
home.” I said it was time for me to be making a home of my own.
Many years intervened until the day that my father took sick. We raised a whole
bunch of kids, Ellie, Liz, Michael & Maura, Peter, Amy, Martha. In 1963 we bought a
five bedroom house in Melrose, MA.to house them all.
Mother was wonderful with the kids, supplying them with toys and love. One day, I
got a call from mother telling me that something was wrong with “Pop” that she
really didn’t understand. By that time I had earned a few degrees so she thought she
would ask me. Turns out that, in talking with my father, he had a severe pain in his
left cheek. Right away, I began thinking of tic doloreux but said nothing other than
he should see a doctor right away. His doctor referred him to a neurologist at the
Lahey Clinic who found a tumor in the cluster of nerves that controls the trigeminal
nerve. He was referred to Dr. Poppin who was the famous surgical neurologist of the
time. I had gone with “Pop” for the first consultation and he wanted me to go with him to
see the surgeon. (I thought that he was seeing me as an asset but said nothing) Dr.
Poppin reassured my father that he had done similar operations many times and would get it all
out without a problem. I, too, felt reassured and told “Pop” that he should have it
done. I remember after the surgery, my father, his head all wrapped up, really
looking for me to appear. I said it looks like Dr. Poppin had done a good job which
seemed to make him feel better.
The aftermath was that the left cheek noticeably sagged. One day he called me and
asked if I would speak to the Rotary Club luncheon about disturbed children as this
was my specialty. I said I would and agreed to pick him up for the short trip
downtown. When I arrived, Mother had prepared his lunch as he would not eat in
public. At the luncheon I learned he was fined two dollars for bringing his son to
give the talk. I don’t remember too much of what I said, but it felt tremendous to
have my father recognize me as a competent person.
A year or so later there was a recurrence of the cancer for which there was no cure.
We tried everything with no help. It was suggested that MIT offered a COBOL X-ray
treatment that might prove effective. I remember driving him to the treatment a
couple of times. My father said, “I think they are trying to kill me.” That put an
end to the treatment.
So my father was brought home for his final days. I would go by the house where I
was reared with one of my kids in tow. Two would have been too many as a crowd of
kids would have been too taxing. On one of these occasions I said something to my
father, I don’t remember what, when he said, “You know Ed, you have done all right.”
Parched for such a sentiment, I was overwhelmed. This was all he ever said, but it
burns in my memory. A man of few words said a lot. “Pop” died shortly after on April
Good bye “Pop”.