Over the years, peo­ple always asked what was my favorite place of all the towns, vil­lages, bases and bar­racks I’d lived in. My favorite place was the very next place we found our­selves in. That would be North East Mary­land, a quaint and love­ly lit­tle town at the north­ern tip of the Chesa­peake Bay. We lived in a large baby blue two-sto­ry foursquare house on Mechan­ics Val­ley Road. I was sev­en years old and going into sec­ond grade at the Immac­u­late Con­cep­tion Ele­men­tary School in Elk­ton. We would be in North East for two most­ly won­der­ful years, from my point of view any­way. There was a lot to remem­ber there…

The hours seemed like for­ev­er when I was alone, it was the same thing with dis­tance when you’re a lit­tle kid. What seemed like a mile was in fact, only a few blocks away. I was aston­ish­ment to dis­cov­er that on a trip back there thir­ty-four years lat­er with my sis­ter Paula and my broth­er John. We pulled up in front of our old house and got out to stare in awe at this far away place in our past and snapped pho­tos. I’ve car­ried a thick scrap­book of snap­shot mem­o­ries of this place through­out my life.

It was the fall of 1962 when we moved into the blue house. It was the biggest house we lived in up to this point. There were three bed­rooms. My par­ents and my baby broth­er John had the one room, my three sis­ters were crammed into one room and as it would be for many hous­es ahead, Joe and I shared the oth­er. My dad was still a Lieu­tenant J.G. and worked ten min­utes away at the base in Bain­bridge, atop a hill that over­looked the last mile of the Susque­han­na Riv­er as it flowed into the Chesa­peake.

Behind our house sat a huge garage and beside it a trail that led for­ev­er into the deep woods. God, I loved those woods. Com­ing from the rolling grass hills of Cal­i­for­nia, I was famil­iar with small groves of oak trees that grew along the creek beds and the tall gum­my Euca­lyp­tus trees that lined the roads out­side the vil­lage. They gave off a sweet pun­gent smell that waft­ed through the hot air when the wind was right. The Mary­land woods were vast and filled with thou­sands, mil­lions of trees, tall and majes­tic; and for me, a new uni­verse wait­ing to be explored.

My eyes opened to a big­ger world. I became atten­tive to what was hap­pen­ing around me, to my fam­i­ly, friends, and four lads from Liv­er­pool, even the Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States.

The Mechan­ics Val­ley Road I knew, was a string of maybe six or sev­en hous­es that lined the street. As you went down the street each house had a big­ger yard between it and the next. Half way down the street Indi­an Road branched off to the left into a cul-de-sac of three or four hous­es on Falls Road where two friends of my broth­er and I lived. Tim­my and Tom­my Tay­lor lived in a ranch­er sur­round­ed by trees and had a beau­ti­ful view of a wide creek that flowed behind the house. They were twins; both were Vil­lage of the Damned-blond and sport­ed the pop­u­lar buzz-cut that would soon be obso­lete. I have a pic­ture of us, my broth­er Joe and I and the Tay­lor boys stand­ing four across, our hands cupped togeth­er in prayer­ful pose in front of a white stat­ue of the Blessed Vir­gin Mary. Tim­my, or was it Tom­my, looked short­er than his broth­er and had a rounder shaped head.

Return­ing to Mechan­ics Val­ley Road … just across from Indi­an Road were the friends of my par­ents and their bridge part­ners, the Smiths. They con­ve­nient­ly had two daugh­ters and a house full of cats and became a sec­ond home to my sis­ters who always went there to play. My broth­er Joe and I were too big to play any­more and only had to say we’re going down to so-and-so’s house and it was left at that.
Con­tin­u­ing up Mechan­ics Val­ley Road there were two more hous­es and a small cement bridge over the creek. Two of my friends lived on either side of the bridge. Eliz­a­beth Brown, a tiny dark-haired girl with sad eyes lived on the south side of the bridge. The Browns had a small farmette and a large barn beside a small field cut into the woods. On the oth­er side of the bridge, anoth­er eighty yards up, a small brick colo­nial perched on a hill at the top of a long grav­el dri­ve­way. My best friend, Wayne Dean, lived there. Wayne was a tall lanky brown-eyed kid with long arms with the usu­al close-cropped hair. He had black hair, dark olive skin and a big toothy smile brack­et­ed by a pair of deep dim­ples. Both he and Eliz­a­beth were in my sec­ond grade class.

I still have that class pho­to of us pos­ing in gawky inno­cence, shoul­der to shoul­der stacked three rows deep in front of a fresh­ly washed chalk­board framed with hand cut paper leaves in a vari­ety of fall col­ors. In the mid­dle front, the only black kid in our class, a boy wear­ing bot­tle thick black-framed glass­es, is hold­ing up a plac­ard with our school name, teacher’s name and the room num­ber. Wayne was one of the taller kids stand­ing in the back row. Eliz­a­beth was in the sec­ond row doing her best to look hap­py. (It makes me want to cry.) I’m sit­ting like an Indi­an brave, cross-legged in the front row, all the way on the right, direct­ly in front of our teacher, Mrs. Coop­er, with her black bouf­fant hair­do and cat-eye glass­es.

Because there were so many of us, our dri­ve­way became anoth­er bus stop on the route to school. It wasn’t a long ride to Immac­u­late Con­cep­tion School, maybe fif­teen min­utes, even with all the stops along the way. Wayne and I usu­al­ly sat togeth­er and made fart­ing sounds, much to the amuse­ment of those with­in earshot and we gulped air to expel explo­sive belch­es. We were tal­ent­ed in the man­ly arts. I have to say I still have a good chuck­le at a good fart or burp. I can’t help it.


After lessons in Mrs. Cooper’s class, we went to our after­noon reli­gion class. We were in the mid­dle of instruc­tion on the rev­er­ent sacra­ments of Bap­tism, Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and Holy Eucharist-prepar­ing for our upcom­ing First Holy Com­mu­nion Day when it hap­pened. Out of the blue, or rather, into the blue, there was a def­i­nite and unex­pect­ed bleat when the Sis­ter bent over to pick up a piece of chalk. We all heard it. A chain reac­tion of smoth­ered gig­gles broke out. The Nun was so flus­tered she lost her train of thought and dropped the chalk again.

Oh my God! It was anoth­er one, muf­fled some­what in the lay­ers of robe. She made a fee­ble cough­ing sound for cov­er, but it was too late. She looked behind her with a Medusa-like glare as though some­thing or some­one else was respon­si­ble for the deed. We were stone qui­et as books and papers were raised to hide our faces. Appar­ent­ly there were some atmos­pher­ic con­se­quences because she thought­ful­ly rolled open a win­dow before con­tin­u­ing her les­son from that side of the room as though noth­ing hap­pened at all.

That was fun­ny.

Sis­ter Mary Flat­u­lence was a big woman stuffed tight as a sausage into her black and white habit. The only flesh you could see was her puffy pink face framed in starched white cloth from her chin to her fore­head and the thick bulging hands at the end of her long flared sleeves. She wore a wed­ding ring on her left hand because she was mar­ried to Jesus. Her whole head was wrapped tight, includ­ing her ears. But her hear­ing was sur­pris­ing­ly sharp, con­sid­er­ing, and she could pick up a whis­per from across the room or the sound of gum being chewed, which wasn’t allowed. On her right side, heavy Rosary beads dan­gled from her waist and made a click­ing sound as she walked sus­pi­cious­ly between the aisles look­ing for cheaters. She was one of those strict Nuns who would remind you of the years you’d be spend­ing in Pur­ga­to­ry… if you didn’t shape up. Pur­ga­to­ry is a weigh sta­tion for atone­ment before they let you in the pearly gates.

You didn’t want to cross her because she would pull out a ruler from a side pock­et lick­ety-split and smack it hard across your knuck­les. If she missed she made you hold your hands out and got you real good. My knuck­les were worked over a few times that year. I remem­ber her bulging eyes and the sat­is­fied smirk on her face. She enjoyed it all right. She was also a pinch­er and would painful­ly jerk you up by your ear and make you stand in the cor­ner or out in the hall­way depend­ing on the trans­gres­sion. Then you had to deal with the Moth­er Supe­ri­or who drift­ed through the hall­way like a black wraith look­ing for souls to suck out. She wasn’t hap­py to find out there were trou­ble­mak­ers dis­rupt­ing her class­es. At least she wasn’t a pinch­er, an ear puller, a farter, or car­ried a ruler. But the Moth­er doled out pun­ish­ments in her own way. She car­ried a pock­et full of plas­tic white (girls) rosary beads strung on cheap string and pull one out to dan­gle it in front of your face. Your pun­ish­ment was to pray the rosary for your sin­ful soul and make sure you include the Fati­ma prayer. (“O my Jesus/ for­give us our sins/ save us from the fires of hell/ lead all souls to Heaven/ espe­cial­ly those in most need of Thy mer­cy. Amen.”)

I knew the prayers of the Rosary by heart (except for the Hail Holy Queen part at the end) and was always sin­cere as I mum­bled through the med­i­ta­tive mantra of the beads. You begin with the Apos­tles Creed, fol­lowed by one Our Father, three Hail Marys, a Glo­ry Be, and the Fati­ma Prayers. Next, come five mys­ter­ies, each con­sist­ing of one Our Father, ten Hail Marys, a Glo­ry Be, and, if desired, the Fati­ma Prayers again. You’d fin­ish with the Hail Holy Queen if you knew it. I nev­er thought then, and still don’t, that prayer qual­i­fied as a pun­ish­ment.

First Com­mu­nion

It was in the after­noon on a Fri­day, Nov. 22, 1963 when John Fitzger­ald Kennedy, The Pres­i­dent of the Unit­ed States was assas­si­nat­ed. I was in the Church of the Immac­u­late Con­cep­tion rehears­ing for my upcom­ing First Holy Com­mu­nion sched­uled for the week lat­er, a day after Thanks­giv­ing. We were lined up in seg­re­gat­ed rows of boys and girls prac­tic­ing our pro­ces­sion to the altar rail, where we would kneel in front of the parish priest, Father Lynch, hold­ing our heads up, mouths open like hun­gry chicks as we were fed the body of Christ.

The Moth­er Supe­ri­or flew into the room, her black robes flap­ping behind her. She looked scared and held her hand over her mouth. It was some­thing seri­ous because the nuns and lay teach­ers sit­ting in the front row imme­di­ate­ly jumped up and rushed to gath­er around the dis­traught Moth­er.
Every­thing stopped.

From where I was, I could see the Moth­er Supe­ri­or was hold­ing her heart, breath­ing deeply as she tried to regain her com­po­sure. But she couldn’t; over­whelmed in the moment, she could only weep. I lost sight of her when she must have said it. Gasps, moans and a shrill scary cry echoed through the room. Almost in uni­son they made the sign of the cross. One of them kept say­ing over and over, “Oh my God! Oh my God!” They left the chapel for a cou­ple min­utes as we stood in befud­dle­ment, still in line as we exchanged ner­vous glances. The lay teach­ers returned, cling­ing to Father Lynch, who asked us to fol­low them back to our rooms.

We were told: “The Pres­i­dent had been shot as his motor­cade passed a bunker in Dal­las, Texas.” Mrs. Coop­er stood with her back to us as she silent­ly looked out the win­dow and prayed.
We all prayed.

As I did, I imag­ined a strange scene from my lim­it­ed ref­er­ence of Texas, derived sole­ly from the many TV West­erns I had seen: It hap­pened in the mid­dle of nowhere on a flat sun-baked desert land­scape filled with giant prick­ly cac­tus, the kind with big arms that reached to the sky. The President’s car passed in slow motion in front of a square cement bunker with a black slit open­ing toward the top, just big enough for a gun bar­rel to stick through. The assas­sin, a guy in a black cow­boy hat, spit out a wad of tobac­co, licked his thumb and wet the sight at the end of the bar­rel, then took aim. It was a long mus­ket rifle, just like in the Alamo. There was a loud crack and a puff of white smoke. The Pres­i­dent was rid­ing shot­gun and smil­ing like he always did, and must have got it right through the heart. Tex­ans were good shoot­ers and could hit a sil­ver piece out of the air, dead cen­ter, like it was noth­ing.

At 2:30 PM, in a CBS news bul­letin, Wal­ter Cronkite put his thick black-framed glass­es on and read from a Tele­type hand­ed to him from off screen. The news flash was offi­cial and he announced that the pres­i­dent was declared dead at 1 PM Cen­tral Stan­dard Time. He took his glass­es off momen­tar­i­ly and checked the clock before con­tin­u­ing, “… 2:00 East­ern Time, thir­ty min­utes ago…” He slow­ly slid his glass­es back on and put his head down to the side, gulp­ing back his emo­tions as he tried to swal­low the enor­mi­ty of the sit­u­a­tion.

Mrs. Coop­er told us weeks before that we were ready for Holy Com­mu­nion because we had reached “The Age of Rea­son.” That day I couldn’t think of one.