Raising his family outside of Charlestown, Joseph Hart used to mesmerize his children with stories of life growing up in Charlestown – bolstered by frequent visits to the longtime family home on Belmont Street (which the family sold in 2006).
There were stories of climbing up Nanny Goat Hill and having to outsmart the nuns at St. Francis de Sales School when showing up late – of playing ball on the Oilies and trying to find lumps of coal that had fallen off trains by the waterfront in order to help heat the home in winter.
His daughter, Bridget Hart-Kenney, remembered the stories as being amazing when hearing them as a kid. Then, last year when her father got sick with pneumonia, she decided it was time to get the stories down in print for future generations of the family.
That, incidentally, turned into a fascinating self-published book called ‘Papa’s Past’ – which chronicles the ups and downs, the good and bad, of growing up in Charlestown in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Bridget was telling me all the time I should take the time to get all my stories that I used to tell her down on paper,” he said. “She would tell me over and over to do it and I never would. One day she gave me a recorder and said to just tell my stories into the recorder and she would type them all up. That’s what we did together and then she was able to find out how to publish it too.”
Said Bridget, “The idea of the stores came because I always loved his stories he told about Charlestown when I was a child and didn’t want them to get lost. When he got sick with pneumonia, I got a sense of urgency. We want to tell everyone it’s important for everyone to put down their stories for generations to generations.”
Growing up in the Charlestown area, Hart had eight different houses, with five of them in Charlestown.
“We always had third-floor cold-water flats,” he said. “We had candles to see by and the bathroom was in the hallway. You had to heat up water if you wanted to take a warm bath. I had three siblings and we just went ahead an lived the life we had. Some of my stories are really funny and entertaining. Some are not funny and some are sad.”
Some of the stories include:
•Hart recalled having to visit the dental clinic while attending St. Francis de Sales School as a kid. While there was always pain from the drilling of cavities, there was also a reward.
“The bad part was they would start drilling on your teeth once you got there, but it was always a thrill too,” he said. “I loved it because I took my time getting back to school.”
•Growing up on Belmont Street was a very unique experience, he recalled. He would often walk up the street and have to stop multiple times because everyone would want to talk to you – kids or parents. He also recalled playing cowboys all the time in the Bunker Hill Burying Ground. In fact, he said, that was the place they played the most growing up.
•He recalled going down to the docks to Dewey Beach (which no longer exists) and swimming in the Mystic River on hot days in the summer.
•He said the stores on the corners of Bunker Hill Street were landmarks as kids. They would frequently hang out in front of the drug stores at Pearl Street or Mystic Street. In those days, there were many, many stores on Bunker Hill Street.
•Hart said he was part of a group of boys in the Town that had football clubs based on which part of the neighborhood they lived in and what store they would hang in front of. There were the City Square Cardinals, the Main Street Wildcats, and the Elm Street Bearcats. The clubs would often meet down at the Oilies for informal games – long before there was any such organized youth sports.
•He recalled going down to the docks and playing baseball with Philippine workers who had come in on the boats. He said they had amazing pitchers and none of the Charlestown boys could ever hit anything those guys would pitch.
•He said he remembers trying to catch coal from passing trains by the waterfront with his siblings so they could bring it back home to help the family heat their home at 31 Belmont St.
•He also shared vivid stories about the Battle of Bunker Hill Day Parade, and the Loopers that accompanied the Parade afterward.
However, not all of his stories were happy, and Bridget said part of the process was being truthful and telling stories that weren’t happy – but helped her father to heal old wounds he had carried around.
One of those wounds was about his father, who had a drinking problem when he was a kid, but reformed himself by the time his grandchildren arrived.
“I approached this wanting to be truthful and my father did have a drinking problem,” he said. “I didn’t know it growing up but it is why we were so poor. It was because he spent our money in the bar.”
Added Bridget, “We didn’t know anything about my grandfather having that problem. He wasn’t drinking when we knew him. It does show how he changed and was different. You can talk about these things and in doing that you heal an old wound. That’s one thing we tried to do. That was hard for my dad to tell that part, but he was brave. It did end up being a good thing.”
Hart said the book is dedicated to his mother, whom he said put up with a lot and worked very, very hard in many jobs – including cleaning St. Francis de Sales Church.
The book is currently being discussed at senior centers, and Hart has several dates in the future to come speak about the book and his stories at Charlestown senior gatherings. Already, last fall, he and his daughter had a book signing at the Charlestown Starbuck’s with great success.