I started attending the second grade at St. Mary’s grammar school after our family moved from Bunker Hill Street to Monument Avenue. The next year we moved again, this time to Winthrop Street, directly across from the firehouse and just 20-yards from the school’s front entrance. Nevertheless, I was late for school; a lot. A dismayed Sister Corsini, the school principal, never understood why and frequently threatened to use the “spanking machine” on me.
Looking back, by the time I graduated from St. Mary’s in 1970, both the Charlestown community and the nation at large struggled through some of the most tumultuous times in modern history. JFK, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated; the Civil Rights, Hippie and Anti-War movements were at their apex; the “Boston Strangler” and Charles Manson gained notoriety; the bikini and the “pill” were introduced; Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; Elvis was King and the British Invasion and Motown sound ruled the airwaves; and “The Graduate” and “Easy Rider” became cult classics.
In the world of sports, Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali; the Boston Celtics, winners of 11 out of 13 NBA championships, played in front of half-capacity crowds at the Garden; the Red Sox realized the “Impossible Dream;” Bobby Orr flew through the air; and the Charlestown football “Townies” drew more fans than the Boston Patriots.
Locally, urban renewal gained a foothold throughout Boston ushering in an era of real estate revitalization, development and sales. However, while many prospered the demise of the corner “mom and pop” variety store became inevitable.
Living on Winthrop Street, anything I ever needed was a short walk away. Kay’s Variety featured candy galore, with many 3-for-a-penny and 2-for-a-penny items. Also, at Rose’s, a quarter could get you a bottle of Fanta soda, a pack of Twinkies and a bag of potato chips. I filled many a paper bag from both stores with powdered sugar straws, coconut slices, mint juleps, root beer barrels, taffy wraps, sugar babies, sweet tarts, caramel crèmes, dots, jawbreakers, licorice sticks and fireballs. I could be wrong, but I think penny candy sales skyrocketed whenever “Twinkle” worked the counter with her mom.
Snapper’s specialty was cold cuts (my favorite was baloney and cheese on a bulkie roll) and, of course, the humungous wooden pickle barrel filled with dills. Occasionally, I’d venture into Eddie Henry’s for the most recent “Thor” comic book, to “New” Sully’s for a vanilla coke and French fries, or to Donovan & Fallon whenever I needed to buy a present (Jean Nate or Old Spice) for my parents. Connie McCarthy’s was my choice for purchasing holiday novelty items, especially Halloween costumes.
My father and his six siblings all graduated from St. Mary’s and most of the children of the “greatest generation” who went to school there had brothers and sisters attending as well. The nuns wore old-fashioned “habits” which revealed the outline of their face but nothing else, not even their arms or legs. To me, it seemed like their “habits” were a size or two too small; squishing their faces to the point of almost bursting. The only lay teachers at school were Miss Fava (fourth grade), Miss Bradley (sixth grade) and Mrs. Burns (seventh grade). Quite a few boys (me too) had a crush on Miss Fava and Miss Bradley.
The St. Mary’s schoolyard was a beehive of activity during recess with girls engaged in hopscotch and jumprope, while the boys played “Lion in the Den,” “Red Rover,” “Buck, Buck” and tag. All students wore uniforms (boys – navy blue trousers, matching tie and powder blue shirt; girls – shoulder-length blue plaid skirt) and we kept our books in a navy blue schoolbag.
Monsignor Flaherty, the parish pastor, was held in very high regard while Father Powers’ intimidating presence kept student tomfoolery to a bare minimum. Father Kelley organized a plethora of athletic and social activities and Father Gallagher’s gentle demeanor was a source of comfort to everyone. Classmate Al Copithorn encouraged me to try out as an Altar Boy, which I did, but after one week I was released. My proclivity to fall asleep in the pews during practice became intolerable and I was having enough difficulty trying to speak English, much less Latin.
John Walsh, however, was the unofficial “boss” of St. Mary’s. A muscular, whirling dervish of a man, John solved most problems with his tradesman skills and unmatched work ethic. My dad sometimes sent me across the street to help John with maintenance and janitorial tasks, either to mop and buff floors, vacuum curtains, dust pews or wash windows. I even helped John carry boxes up to the school attic, which was filled with religious artifacts, paintings, statues, candle holders, student desks, chalkboards and other classroom accessories. John taught me the value of putting forth your best effort and taking pride in your work, an important lesson that has stayed with me to this day.
Some of my favorite memories of attending St. Mary’s School include:
The yearly May procession – It was kind of neat walking in formation with my schoolmates up and down the parish streets with hands held together as in prayer. Although we didn’t have to wear the school uniform, our parents still “spruced us up” in our best suit and tie, or dress.
The weekend retreat at the Milton seminary – Me, Stevie Thompson, my cousin Bernie, Joe Langan and Stevie Coyne spent the late-night hours talking to each other; not quite knowing what to do but realizing it was inappropriate to fool around and cause trouble. We played volleyball, soccer and other outdoor activities; learned about chapel meditation and spiritual awareness; but, my favorite part was walking as a group to a nearby Dairy Queen where I enjoyed my first-ever strawberry “parfait.”
The annual Art Fair – I was a perennial contender for an Art Fair award, as were Warren Butler, Bobby Marino, Ernie Humphrey and Mike Fidler, and spent countless classroom hours doodling and drawing on my school books instead of paying attention to the teacher.
The “Thriller at the Monument” – The after-school “battle royale” on the Monument grounds between the heavily-favored Tom Regan and the much-maligned Glen Luce lived up to its hype. Glen pulled off the upset “draw” in front of nearly a hundred onlookers with a series of grappling maneuvers.
Confirmation – It was a defining moment for me to be the center of attention. I also remember crossing the street underneath the railroad tracks and having a pigeon “nail” me on the shoulder, blemishing my new, double-breasted, pastel blue suit coat.
The eighth-grade roller skating trip – I held hands with a girl, actually two, for the first time. Most girls were natural roller skaters, able to turn and pirouette (a la Peggy Fleming) with ease, but I never roller skated before. In what I perceived as my first “chick magnet” moment, Debbie Doherty and Carol Picardi grabbed my hands and led me onto the rink for a stroll. Things were going swimmingly until we approached the first turn, whereby I lost control of their grip and crashed violently into the boards. The girls’ genuine concern and natural maternal instincts greatly lessened whatever pain I was experiencing.
The graduation party – Held at the St. Mary’s Parish Hall basement, the songs of the Beatles, Four Tops, Temptations, Monkees, Supremes and Herman’s Hermits filled the air while chaperones monitored the dance floor and dimly lit corner tables for improper behavior.
All in all, my time at St. Mary’s school included many enjoyable, fun-filled, life-defining moments that I’ll forever treasure.