So much is gone from the Boston we knew then: the Braves, the Victory Gardens of World War II, and, most notably, that wild city block we called The Mountains. Only the gnarled old oak at its edge remains, only that and seemingly smaller now, but, then, I am larger. The oak stands beside an aqua-colored motel, which sprawls where The Mountains—and, in a sense, the Boston I used to know—were. Once there was Scollay Square, that sailors' delight. Now something called Government Center sits in its place, and you can't even get a decent tattoo anymore.
Boston was a two-team baseball city in the mid-'40s. The Braves were years away from Milwaukee, and each kid in my crowd thought he was Spahn or Williams or, in my case, Red Sox Shortstop Vernon Stephens. My batting stance was very wide, almost like Junior Stephens', everyone said. So I kept making it wider until I could hardly stand up even while waiting for a pitch. And I would fall down with every wild swing. Once I pulled a long foul. After that each time I came to bat the other kids would say, "Boy, if he ever connects...." I hardly ever did, though, and I kept falling down, content with my reputation as the biggest threat on the block. Hitting was my obsession, but that was all I knew of baseball.
What I really loved was to be on The Mountains, a tiny urban oasis of hills and dales and secret groves. That was where we had our rock fights, raining jagged, egg-sized chunks of granite from a cliff onto the kids from another neighborhood. Finally one 6- or 7-year-old too many ran screaming down the hill, blood pouring from his head, and the rock fights ended abruptly. They had lasted only a year or two, and I've never understood what provoked them. But as with so many other things in those first 12 years of my life—the games, the madness and the growing up that came so suddenly—the rock fights are impressed forever in my mind, like a prom flower in a scrapbook.
My family lived on the second floor of a brick apartment house at the top of a hill, with a porch overlooking The Mountains. The oak tree was just below, and behind it a circle of bushes and small trees surrounding a clearing—our boxing ring. Six or eight of us used it one spring. I wasn't the tallest or the strongest or the heaviest, but, as in baseball, I was considered a threat. My opponents were always warned, "Watch out for his uppercut." I liked that, and out I would charge, my right arm a driving piston. But I never hit anyone very hard, and a younger, smaller kid named Denny Miller always beat the hell out of me.
To the left of the clearing was a terrific cliff made of pudding stone. I now realize it was, at best, nine feet high. Beneath the cliff was a large hollow or bowl, and on its far side, partially buried, were the remains of an old brick wall that we dug away at over the years. I told myself I might become an archaeologist when I grew up, but I never bothered to learn the age of the wall or its origin. Now no one ever will.
The Mountains was the place to which we escaped. It was a time for that. I was three when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and I recall my mother switching off the lights at night as neighborhood men in air-raid-warden helmets stood on the sidewalks, gazing at the sky. When you are four or five years old, seeing something like that colors your whole life. At school, while the girls sketched hairdos, the boys drew pursuit planes, diving, climbing, shooting and crashing. The fighters were what we saw when we looked at the sky. To get closer to the real thing we stood on the cliff, and for half a decade every plane that flew over our neighborhood was "in trouble."
"Look, the wing's falling off."
"The engine's on fire."
"He'll never make it to the airport."
All the boys on our street made model airplanes, intricate webs of balsa-wood sticks covered with tissue paper, stretched skintight. Most of us took weeks to finish a plane, but an older boy named Herbie could put one together in a day or two. He was our idol. When he had completed a model and brought it outside, a crowd was always waiting, and the same thing always happened. He'd lead us to the cliff, wind up the model's rubber band and, as he launched the plane into the air, set it on fire. It would float out over the hollow and disintegrate in flames, just the way all the other aircraft that flew over our neighborhood did.