... a twelve-year old confronts the bureauracy of the Civil Defence poo bahs
in how to determine whether an Air Raid Drill is for real or just for practice.
Wide awake, he sat bolt upright in bed when he heard the wailing howl of the air-raid sirens. It was late, pitch black, and everybody would be in bed asleep. This was the unannounced Air Raid drill that they had been warned
that was coming. He had been ready for days. Before going to bed each night he laid out his clothes on a chair next to his bed so that he could dress in the quickest possible time, even in the dark.
He finished tying his shoes, grabbed his armband and helmet, and walked to the stairway where he held his open palm against the wall to guide his careful,one-step-at-a-time descent down the dark stairway. At the bottom his mother was standing there in her bathrobe. Her son was not going to any air raid improperly dressed. “Be careful”, came the expected warning. “Okay, Ma. Don’t worry”, Joey said adjusting the helmet’s strap under his chin.
The helmet was large to begin with, but on a bony, twelve year old it looked gigantic, almost cartoon like. He remembered what a British Tommy’s helmet looked like. This was similar, except it was much deeper, almost like
an egg that had been placed on the smaller of its two ends, then the bottom third cut off. A one-inch rim ran all the way around the bottom. Painted a shiny white it made him look like a runaway mushroom as he ran to his
post to meet Mr. Bowker.
A big difference.
Up to now all the other Air Raid drills in 1942 had occurred about an hour after dark and had been announced beforehand. He had been ready for these, standing at the front door ready to leap out at the first blast of the sirens and run to his post at the corner of Pratt and Oxford streets. This is where he would meet Mr. Bowker, the Air Raid Warden. He was Mr. Bowker’s messenger. A messenger walked with the warden on his rounds. When an undoused light was detected the messenger would run to the house, knock on the door, or ring the bell, or did whatever was necessary to advise the offender of his indiscretion. “Thank you, Joey”, they would say, and Joey would feel the rewards of power as he watched the offending light wink out and leave the home in darkness.
A messenger also carried messages from the warden to headquarters. During every Air Raid drill there was always one message to deliver. Mr. Bowker would give him the word and off he would go, holding his heavy helmet in place, and, at his fastest, run to the basement of the Belmont school. Here, in darkness, the head Warden and his staff, each wearing a white helmet, were seated behind a rectangular table that was weakly illuminated by a shrouded goose-neck lamp. They would look up at him and he would say,
“Mr. Toomey, Mr. Bowker says there is nothing to report.”
Mr. Toomey looked down on a paper that he pushed directly under the lamp, waited for a moment until he found the line that he wanted and checked it with his pencil. He looked up, “Thank you, Joey. Return to your post.” He
learned on his first trip that returning to his post meant going back to Mr. Bowker. The headquarters at the Belmont School and Mr. Toomey would be of major impact on Joey’s young life tonight, the night of the unannounced Air Raid drill.
Joey noticed as he left the house how mild it was. Everything had a foggy look to it in the total lights-out darkness, every roof peak a silhouette against a flat gray sky. He was excited when he realized that he was the only one on the street as he sprinted across Cross Street and started up Pratt Street’s hill on his way to adventure. Just as he ran by the first house he noticed a light. Like a shrill scream it blazed out of a first floor window. He stopped dead.
That’s Chisolm’s house, he thought to himself. He renewed his sprint but now toward Chisolm’s and popped up the steps, two at a time, and stood at the front door in a squinting search for the doorbell. Finding it, he gave it a long, hard push but no one answered. “Lights out, Mr. Chisolm!”, he hollered in what he hoped sounded like a respectful tone. Still, nothing. Even through the door he could hear the bell ring inside. Wow, no one’s home, whadda I do now?
He circled back to the side of the house where the room with the light was located. He looked in through the window into a child’s bedroom. A crib was between where he was standing and the offending light, a blazing bulb in a wall fixture. The window was open but with a screen in place. The sill was shoulder high, he would never be able to haul himself up over it. He thought for a moment and then took off his helmet, placed it open end to the ground, and stood on top of it. Perfect. He pushed up the screen, wriggled over the sill and flopped onto the floor. He got up, went straight for the light, yanked the cord, and thereby stymied all the Nazi bomber formations that were heading straight for Malden.
His night vision was destroyed by the glaring bulb, he attempted to blink away the bright spots that were bouncing in front of him now. He turned back, saw the window through the now-fading spots and slowly slid his feet across the floor to keep from tripping over anything. He emerged the same belly-down way he came in, but this time feet first.
His weight was pulling him downward, he grittily held on to the sill to keep from falling while he probed with his foot to find his helmet. Feeling it under his toes, he lowered himself down using it as his interim step on
his return to terra firma. He stood on it one more time to vault up and make a swipe at the screen which came crashing back down. After quickly rearranging his clothes, he reached back down for his helmet, stuck it back on, and took off for Pratt Street at a run.
Mr. Bowker was already there waiting. This was not usually the case. Even though Mr. Bowker lived on the corner of Pratt and Oxford, in the previous drills Joey had been there waiting when Mr. Bowker emerged from his doorway
and descended the stairs all the while arranging his clothing and fastening his belt. “Sirens sound off a little late down by your house?”, Mr. Bowker
teased. Joey giggled.
“No, but the Chisolm’s left a light on so I had to take care of it.”
“He must have been thrilled to have you waking him up for that.”
“No, he wasn’t home.”
“So the light is still on then? We’re gonna have to report him.”
“No, it’s okay, I turned it off.”
“Turned it off?”, Mr. Bowker said alarm raising in his voice. “How didya do that?”
“I went in and turned it off.”
“You walked through the man’s front door and turned it off?” Mr. Bowker said in a much louder voice.
“No, I went in through the window.”
“Joey!, Joey!, Mr. Bowker, exclaimed in a highly agitated voice, “You’re never, ever, ever supposed to go inside anybody’s house, not for any reason! Ever! Don’t you know that?”
“But Mr. Bowker, what if it was a real Air Raid?” As amazed as he was at Mr. Bowker’s response Joey could see that Mr. Bowker was really ripping. He leaned down so that his face was almost directly across from Joey’s and in a near fury said, “We’re not talking about Air Raids here, Joseph, we’re talking reality!”
Things get worse.
Calling him Joseph and not Joey was not a good sign. Another not-a-good sign was that Mr. Bowker started walking down Pratt Street. It was not the regular route. They turned left on Beacon which was a little street that ran across to Tufts. Joey knew where they were going when they turned right on Tufts because it ended almost directly across from the Belmont School, headquarters of their Civil Defense group. “Are we going to see Mr.Toomey?, Joey asked.“That’s where we’re goin’," Mr. Bowker said very purposefully as they crossed the street
and started up the stairs to the door of the Belmont School. After going through the heavy front door they went down the steps and then into the room where Mr. Toomey and his staff sat around the table with the little shrouded goose-neck lamp. They were wearing their white, mushroom-type helmets and serious faces. Joey thought to himself that they really looked like a bunch of dinks.
Mr. Bowker bails out.
Mr. Toomey looked up at Mr. Bowker and said, “What’s this all about?” Mr. Bowker told him what it was all about. What was very clear was that Joseph had done all the terrible stuff at the Chisolm’s while Mr. Bowker was all the way up on Oxford Street much too far away to prevent whatever it was that Joseph did. Mr. Bowker made Oxford Sreet sound like it was in Kansas.
“Was there anyone what witnessed that which was done?” Mr. Toomey gravely asked.
“No”, Joey blurted out but the “how-dare-you look” he got from Mr. Toomey kept him from any further explanation.
“I don’t think so”, Mr. Bowker responded, “but I was way up on Oxford. I
can’t say for sure.”
“Joseph”, Mr. Toomey solemnly said, “I’m sure you can see what was done by yourself here was a terrible thing.”
“But Mr. Toomey”, Joey said almost pleadingly, “What if it was a real Air Raid?”
Mr. Toomey leaned forward, looking straight into Joey’s face and said very forcefully, “There is a difference between a real Air Raid and an Air Raid that is unannounced.”
“How do you know until after it’s over?”, came Joey’s unhesitating reply.
Mr. Toomey gave a long sigh and a collective murmur of disbelief rose from Mr. Toomey’s highly-loyal staff. Mr. Toomey leaned forward again, placed both hands on the edge of the table and started,“Joseph, a man’s home is his castle.” He went on and on in a heavy voice about how awful it is to invade what is most precious to any man. He used words like “violating“ and “intruding” He said “willfully” a lot.
Joey wondered what kind of a house Mr. Toomey was talking about and if it was anything at all like the flat that he and his mother and sisters lived in. He was also thinking how sweet it wold be if the Nazis dropped a couple of bombs outside in the school yard while Mr. Toomey was droning on. When he realized that his wish, if it came true, meant someone being hurt he amended it to the bombs dropping on nearby Revere Beach where, in the middle of the night, they wouldn’t hurt anybody.
He wasn’t really sure what it was that Mr. Toomey was talking about. Although girls were not involved in any way, it occurred to Joey that Mr. Toomey sounded a lot like Father Whooley did down at the Boy Scout meetings when he talked about mortal sins.
...and not only that.
Mr. Toomey paused as though trying to remember something else awful to say. He snapped around annoyed as a member of his loyal staff used the pause to interject the words, “breakin an’ entrun.” Rejuvenated by the reminder of a whole new category, Mr. Toomey was off again, this time using phrases like a “permanent stain on your reputation”, and “a mark carried on your record for the rest of your life. Whatever you do, wherever you go, every time you try to get a job, especially at the Post Office, there it will be.” He finished up with references to the Concord Reformatory and the Shirley School for boys. Joey knew what these places were but Goosey Siskind was the only person he knew who was ever sent there. And he wasn’t sent there for going into
anybody’s house when the lights were on, it was for going into Koslo’s Drug Store when the lights were off.
When Mr. Toomey finally came to an end what Joey noticed was that he, himself, was not really feeling bad or embarrassed. It was not like when the ball went through his legs last week and the kids on second and third scored, a misfortune that occurred, ironically enough, in the aforementioned Belmont School yard right next to where he was now. That was something to feel really awful about. He could still remember Bobby Stahler, who was on his team, lamenting, “Right in ya hands!”
He concluded that he didn’t feel bad most of all because he couldn’t imagine anyone not trying to turn out a light after he heard the Air Raid sirens. He thought to himself that Mr. Toomey and his staff didn’t just look like a bunch of dinks, they were a bunch of dinks.
All told, Joey was feeling quite self righteous, but it didn’t last long. Apprehension welled up when Mr. Toomey told him that he was to go to Mr. Chisolm, tell him what he did and that he had better not leave anything out.
He would see Mr. Chisolm down at the City Hall where Mr. Toomey worked and where Mr. Chisolm was an Alderman and attended the weekly meetings of ”the Board.”
Mr. Toomey finally leaned back and said, “You are dismissed.” Joey looked over and said, “What does that mean?” “Go home”, one of the loyal staff members answered for Mr. Toomey. “How can I go home,” Joey asked almost leadingly, “the all clear hasn’t sounded?”
“Go home!”, the loyal member roared. Joey sighed, and before turning to go
back up the stairs said, “G’night, Mr. Bowker.” Mr. Bowker snorted and reacted like he’d been pinched.
Sent home for bein' bad.
As he was walking up Cross Street back to his home he remembered that when a kid did something really bad at school the teachers sent him home. Joey wondered if he was the first kid ever to be sent home from an Air Raid. The All Clear sounded just before he got to his house. He saw the light go on for the back stairs and knew his mother was up. He’d tell her about this mess in the morning and he would tell Mr. Chisolm. He also wondered how Mr. Chisolm’s face would look as he was telling him about going into his house. Sometimes Mr. Chisolm would look furious, sometimes he would look just kind of mad. Mr. Chisolm had a variety of looks each one different for each version that Joey rehearsed, again and again before he finally dropped off to sleep.
The next morning he was still in his pajamas when he told his mother what happened last night. His mother was listening while she was braiding his sister Lillibet’s hair, but looked up now and then to show that she was really interested in what he was saying. “If it's the same Mr. Toomey who works down City Hall and who put me through a god-awful rig-a-marole when I was trying to get your sister’s birth certificate for school, I wouldn’t worry too much.
And I would especially not be worried about what Mr. Chisolm is going to say. He always treats everybody very nice. I can’t imagine that he would say anything mean to you, he’s a peach.” Joey felt somewhat relieved by his
mother’s encouragement but was still uncomfortable about his meeting with Mr. Chisolm.
He had gone through a rather uncomfortable day at school recalling the variations of looks on Mr. Chisolm’s face that, in his anxiety, his imagination had conjoured before dropping off to sleep the night before. Back home, he watched for Mr. Chisolm’s black Plymouth to turn up Pratt Street and then into the driveway. It was the signal that would enable him to tell his mother that Mr. Chisolm was home. She had warned him not to go over to Chisolm’s until she said it was all right. When his mother finally said okay he was off like a shot, clattering down the front stairs, bolting out the door, and sprinting across the street to Chisolm’s. He could see the doorbell very plainly this time and could feel the sweat in his palm as he reached out to push the bell.
Facing the music.
His heart was pounding as Mrs. Chisolm, holding a baby on her hip, opened the front door. “Hello, Joey”, she said looking down at him with a big smile, “what can we do for you?” She was always very nice to everybody and all the neighborhood kids liked her. Even so, it took Joey two tries before he could say, “I gotta tell Mr. Chisolm something.” Mrs. Chisolm looked quietly mystified but said, “Sure, come right in.” As Joey stepped across the threshold into the hallway, Mrs. Chisolm called out, “Earl, it’s Joey Rattigan from across the street, he’s here to see you.” “Be right out.” Mr. Chisolm responded from the bedroom.
While they were standing there Joey said nodding to the infant, “You’ve got an awful pretty baby, Mrs. Chisolm. My mother says she is a little doll.” “Why thank you Joey,” Mrs. Chisolm answered , beaming, “and tell your mother thank you, too.”
Mr. Chisolm walked out during Joey’s highly successful buttering up of Mrs. Chisolm. “Hi, Joey,” he said expansively, “What’s up?” Joey told him what was up in a soft just-above-a whisper voice. He was watching Mr. Chisolm’s face to see which of the expressions he’d be showing but there was only a soft smile and nothing that looked anywhere near being mad.
When Mr. Chisolm asked him how he got in the house he chuckled with an admiring nod when Joey told him about using the helmet to boost himself up. “This is Mr. Toomey from down the City Hall that we’re talking about
here?”, Mr. Chisolm asked. When Joey said that it was, Mr. Chisolm shook his head a little and said, “That sounds about right.”
“I didn’t touch anything, Mr. Chisolm,” Joey could feel the tears burning on his bottom eyelids. Mr. Chisolm quickly reached out and put his hand on Joey’s shoulder.
“I know you didn’t, Joey. I know you wouldn’t,” he said consolingly while giving Joey’s shoulder a little shake. I’m thankful that you came in and turned out the light. After all, what if it was a real Air Raid?”
The exasperation almost exploded out, “That’s what I told Mr. Toomey!”
“And what did he say?” Mr.Chisolm asked softly.
“He said there is a difference between a real Air Raid and an Unannounced Air Raid.”
“And did you say anything to that?” Mr. Chisolm asked.
"Yah, I did. I said how do ya know until after its over?”
Mr. Chisolm exploded into laughter, he was slapping his thigh, and went on in peal after peal. He laughed so hard that he scared the baby and she started to cry. Mrs. Chisolm began to bounce her up and down but had a hard time shushing her because Mrs. Chisolm was laughing, too. “Oh God, what I’d give to have been there,” he said looking over to his wife.
After composing himself he put his hand on Joey’s shoulder again, looked straight into his face and said, “Joey, I’ll take care of things with Mr. Toomey. I don’t want you to worry about this, not even a little bit, do you
understand?” he gave Joey’s shoulder a series of firm shakes as he was saying this. “What you did was very smart, the City is very lucky to have such a conscientious messenger like you.” Joey wasn’t quite sure what conscientious meant but it sounded pretty good the way that Mr. Chisolm said it.
Mr. Chisolm slipped his arm around his shoulder and started gently moving him toward the door. “You’re doing a good job, Joey keep it up.”
After he had walked out of the front door Joey turned around, looked up and said.”Thanks, Mr. Chisolm.”
“You betcha, Joey.” He had taken a couple of steps down when Mr. Chisolm called out from the doorway where he was standing, “How’s your Mother?”
Joey turned back and said, “Fine, thanks, Mr. Chisolm.”
“Tell her I said hello.”
“Okay, Mr.Chisolm, I will.” He gave a quick wave before he turned to continue to make his way down. As he heard Mr. Chisolm close the door behind him, he thought to himself, As usual, Ma is right. Mr. Chisolm is a peach.
Joe Sullivan, September 16, 2014