Vo l . 7 N o . 1 Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands where he had spent World War II. He was my friend Deirdre’s father. He was a serious man who had little time for children, but that night he was wearing a Boston & Maine conductor’s cap and sitting at the controls of the train set he had set up on their second floor by a tall window. I could see the train when it climbed a hill. It was just the two of us for hours. I forgot about Santa Claus. Everyone else must have gone to bed. It was the first time I understood what it means to be alone. Loneliness is a second skin that compresses the heart. I seldom saw Mr. Nason after that, but whenever he did something the neighbors thought was odd my parents would say giving each other a knowing look, “He was in the Aleutians.” Never would I have imagined I would spend my adult life in Alaska and visit the Aleutians where I saw the remains of rusting army Quonset huts that made me think of Mr. Nason.
We had lived in five or six houses before Oak Street. We lived over a former barber shop for a while. People would knock on our door to ask when the shop was going to reopen. The barber’s pole was still outside. It was there I dropped my sister’s kitten off the porch to see if it had nine lives. It didn’t. Oak Street would be our last stop I convinced myself. Who wouldn’t want to live on a street lined with massive trees forever? I imagined jumping into piles of leaves in the fall. Things were looking up. It was 1945. My mother’s brother Leo was also back from the war even if Tosi my other uncle had been killed fighting the Germans in Italy. My Uncle Leo was my mother’s favorite. He was a boxer who had fought in tournaments when he was in the Army. He was as tough as nails and my mother loved it when he came to visit. I was about to enter the first grade at the Immaculate Conception School when we moved to Oak Street. I had hidden under the porch of our previous house on Sycamore Street when I was supposed to go to kindergarten at the public school up the street. It took a week before anyone realized I wasn’t going to school. I would appear when I saw my sister walking home. My career as a scholar was over before it began. It was decided that I should wait a year to begin school. The nuns would know what to do with me. The family who owned the Oak Street house in the 1820’s must have heard rumors of the men from Boston who were buying land in what was then East Chelmsford so
111 they could establish a new town, a town whose mills would be powered by water drawn from the Merrimack River which dropped thirty-two feet below the great falls, falls where Indians once fished for salmon and shad. It would be named after Francis Cabot Lowell, a Boston Brahmin. As every New England schoolboy knows, or once knew: Boston is where the Lowells talk only to the Cabots and the Cabots talk only to God. In the beginning Lowell was a utopia, the polar opposite of England’s “dark satanic mills.” It’s where the American Industrial Revolution began. The mill workers, young women and girls, were drawn from the Yankee countryside, some from as far away as Canada. The wages were low, but work on the farm paid nothing. They lived in company dormitories and walked as one to the mills at dawn and returned as one at dusk. One of their dormitories still stands. They produced their own literary magazine and at least one rather famous poet, Lucy Larcom, whose poems are still in print; however, if they stayed for more than three or four years, a fine oily dust began to fill their lungs, and the sound of the looms never left their ears. But before their planned utopia could become a reality, the investors needed a canal system to bring the water to the mills which were to be built below the high falls and rapids. There was an existing hand-dug canal built by Irish laborers in the 1790’s so cargo could move around the falls. That canal powered the first mills. In 1822, Kirk Boott, one of the investors was chosen to lay out the town and build the mills. He met with Hugh Cumminsky, an Irishman from County Tyrone, and hired him to bring a crew of laborers from Boston to dig the needed canals. The Irish were expected to leave after the canals were finished. They never did. They lived in Paddy Camps at the edge of the town they helped build. I imagine they were proud of what they had accomplished and wanted to show the canals and mills to their sons and grandsons. They soon developed a fierce sense of place. Lowell was their home, and they had a church, St. Patrick’s, to prove it. Even today, it is impossible to visit Lowell’s downtown without crossing one of their canals. My father was born two blocks from the great falls, and my mother was born down the Merrimack below the smaller Hunt’s falls where one of her brothers drowned. One of Cumminsky’s men was a Quinn, my mother’s maiden name. Our house on Oak Street was not far from where my
A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim