I’ll always be a working-class ‘40s/’50s kid from East Greenwich, Rhode Island. It was a great town for kids, partly due to the settings – Scalloptown, Jigger’s Diner, Sunset Rock, the Academy, Allen’s Hill, Earnshaw’s drugstore, and so on – but it was the local characters who added the richness.
The population in those 20 years grew from 3,800 to 6,100, most of whom lived or worked in the tiny crowded triangle bounded by Greenwich Cove, Division Street, and First Avenue/Rocky Hollow Road. It was like living in a Pieter Breughel painting.
During the ‘40s (especially) if you saw somebody anywhere in that triangle – even if you weren’t acquainted – you could usually make some kind of identifying remark: she works at the box factory, he’s a quahogger, they live up on the hill.
Our lives are partly shaped by our social interactions with others, and no two of us have exactly the same mix of friends and acquaintances. Peripheral people to me – say Grumpy Crompton or Foggy Baton – might have been central to your life, but they still provided color for mine. I can’t tell you exactly what influence Tiny Wilson or Joe Hump or Silent Al had on me, but it was surely of some significance; otherwise why would I remember them so clearly? The same is true for Tar-Tar Ucci (pronounced Tuddah Yewcie), Bo-Peep Northup, and Swede Oltedale.
I shared a bedroom with my brother Slush (as he was known in those days), lived next door to Punkin Drew, and was friends with Lolly, Doodie, and Bubba Jones; enjoyed naughty laughter with Pudgy Robinson, schemed with Jimmy Ryan, and drank beer with Vinnie (The Senator) Putnam; visited Cheerio Clarke in his photography studio, sat on the courthouse wall with Bobby DeRensis, and hung out with my cousin Howie and his cousin Kirk; bunked school to distribute flyers for Pete Haswell, sold quahogs to Old Man Finn, and was taught eighth-grade arithmetic by Coach Carcieri.
If any two or three of these (among scores of others) hadn’t existed I wouldn’t be precisely the same person today. Nobody would be aware of any difference – not even myself – but I’m glad they all had a hand in somehow shaping me.
You’ve probably noticed the lack of females. There were many of them—my mother and sisters, neighborhood girls, friends’ mothers, classmates, teachers, and later on, girlfriends. But in those years when I wasn’t alone I was nearly always with male companions of all ages and I wouldn’t have understood why it should be any different. I still relish the camaraderie of Bunny Swann’s poolroom where we could swear, smoke, and spit on the floor, unseen by any censorious female eyes.
The paucity of females no doubt affected me as much as the presence of all those males, and I’m surely different as a direct result – perhaps not as good a person. It now seems normal to have an equal number of male and female friends, but I’m still glad I grew up rubbing shoulders with the likes of Ducky Kettle, Frenchy Lacross, and Torchy Tortolano. Surely something rubbed off. I just don’t know what.
Don Rice is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. His latest book is Who Made George Washington’s Uniform?