She is more than Fahrenheit, she is electric, not the lightning kind that will blast you hither and yon, but wired, the connections to all of me, my eyes bright and seeing the stars mirrored in the river, almost where they belong, bucket-spilled or tossed across the sky above Vinegar Hill, above all of Saugus… above old Scotts Mill directly across the street from my house, above the Iron Works from 1636 leaving figures and ideas larger than fossils on the land (like the 300 year-old remnant of the slag pile), above Rippon’s Mushroom House where I’m bound to work in a few years like most of my older pals, above Stackpole Field, where I’m bound to play with some of the same pals… and me on top of Theda Burton’s back side and she is bumping and bouncing and being electrically delightful as we are on a Flexible Flyer sled rushing down Bridge Street toward the bridge, halfway fallen into the Saugus River, and provides but a dangerous and narrow passage across one side of it.
I am in a danger zone too, though pleasure abounds (and I will remember this first ride with her for 75 years.)
She’s 15 and tall and beautiful and electric and has already told a few others that her ticket is punched for the whole night of sledding; and I am 10 or 11 and as innocent as a new spruce sapling on Major Appleton’s Pulpit, where that distinguished major made a speech over 200 years ago denouncing the tyranny of the Royal Governor, Sir Edmund Andros, and eluded Crown troops by hiding in a local woman’s oven. Such impressions float in the air and are grasped in seconds for those aware. History! History! History abounds, lights me up; the red men, the Sagamore, the Sachem, arrowheads and rasbora chips all over the place, ax heads. A geologist finds Saugus red rock down along Cape Cod where it was driven millennia ago. The ghosts of other villages visit here in my little village, this piece of land, this corner of the North Shore above Boston, this little burg breathing of old. How many centuries of unknown dead lie within the graceful, now wooded topping of Round Hill where we hold Easter sunrise services? How many souls there embedded… or freed?
But newness comes on this midst of keen awareness: there is half an airplane in Theda’s yard, an orphaned Taylor Cub, shorn of wings, belonging to her brother Tony, now flying in Europe. There are controls that stand in place, and a seat that fits me, and glass windows I can look out to see, sometimes, the clouds below me. It only waits a mechanic and a teaching pilot and a long due pair of reconstructed wings. I know they will come to new being as soon as Europe quiets down, all that slyness of words slips out of older lips, Tony comes home from his fighter plane or his bomber’s seat.
Unbelievably, that beautiful girl Theda with a lovely figure, a comfortable figure, is somehow forced to share these memories leap-frogging all around me even where the river is banked by reeds like fire arrows at the ready and love-lies bleeding and aruthusa bulbosa and secret flowers with Latin names I haven’t correctly pronounced yet; how interminably they crawl outward, inward, downward, absorbing, taking the parts that Saugus throws into the river: Oh, I have seen the secret drainage pipes, the vine-covered culverts, the diversions some odd characters employ.
But the wind rushes over me. Saugus and history are everywhere and I am captured by my senses. Without doubt we are moving over unseen arrow heads, old Indian trails, and perhaps The Sachem had a teepee nearby, but the First Iron Works in America lies in these grounds, too, and the old Scotts Mill, a red brick mastodon, looms over all. But before all this, before shadows were thrown, I feel the newness, a place that captures any eye, but once there were no eyes to adore it. Perhaps in the silence of a new dawn one man walked onto the scene from afar and saw the river and the salt marsh and the ocean and knew it was a wonderful place. I can see him summon others and they bring their lodge poles and birch bark boats and begin to fish the river and the ocean and dig the clam flats and feed anew on this new place that becomes Saugus. Continually I see the images of the new people who come and hunt and fish and die and bury their dead and accept what is provided in this very fair place.
I hear myself ask… Is it enough to know your place? I am on a sled with a beautiful girl. The electricity comes with another shot. I feel wonderful. I don’t know where or what, but it’s wonderful. If I went searching for it, I don’t know where I’d find it, this feeling of wonder, this new awe.
The electricity comes again. I know it is electricity, the kind I found when I cut an old extension cord with a pair of wire cutters and did not know the cord was plugged in. She has jump in her coils hidden somewhere in that long, soft girl. We pass over the first bump on Bridge Street and my whole body shakes with the quick awakening, a jolt exchanged for a bump in the road, a joy for danger. For a short spell we are air-borne until I settle down on her again. Am I a pilot in the air, or a new adventurer? I have choices that strike gratifyingly quick; my senses leap. Young is beautiful, adventurous. Did who found these shores know such powers? It has to be someone before that gallant Genovese came courting the new landfall, the expanse beyond.
The wind on my face startles and chips at me and there are stars that refuse to go away from the overhead without a bothering cloud and their egos lie paint-brushed upon the river as though they are waiting for summer to come back. I inhale Theda, Saugus, history, winter, a new freedom breaking loose with noticeable abandonment. The moon is loaded with routes and roads cut by scary arms of broken oaks and old elms the way maps can get you lost too. This is where the elms remained standing gracefully huge, healthy and tall in row upon row and street upon street until the blight comes and devours them, seemingly from the top down to the roots.
History surrounds me and is held in a stolen silence for the fortunate who see its edges, who breathe it in, conscious of the leftovers, the once-hot slag pile of the iron works simmering for three centuries, the occasional artifact toed up on a path and smelling of coal and on the coldest days of the year speak solely of steel in a new form, or where arrowheads catch the summer eye or an ax head comes with a shovelful of earth. Johnny Waugh, our mailman, collects so many arrowheads and ax heads on his deliveries, the collection makes me shiver. He eventually delivers his vast collection to the library, dies too young, historian, collector, Indian buff.
Ahead, in the massed spread of the partly buried First Iron Works in America, I see the slag pile, a mound, a ninety-foot sloped mound now covered with snow but once was built on the sweat of indentured Scot slaves, or servants as they might have been called. But it dips to where the river still runs, still calls stars down to its bosom, to the wide curve below the Saugus Town Hall, and in the flat of these grounds lie the Iron Works from 1636 and on for a dozen years under all the pile-on of centuries and I see the impulses in it. But nowhere near electrical. Nothing like that new charge I know with delicious acceptance.
Theda bounces. I shiver. The charge leaks damage, I swear. My mind searches. I see faces of people who used to be here and are not here now. They may have had big lips or big ears or clansmen’s brows, they may have been skin and bones and baggy in their clothes and had eyes like fire pits, their hands calloused tough as old boots, their dreams tossed like flies at sparkling trout, but they were daily covered with slag dust, barrow dust, detritus, the smoke residue those Scots were tied to, for the price of passage might have been a whole lifetime of servitude. I see arms white-gray in the dust, brawny arms sweat runs on, binding them into years, from some highland or mountain pass and the ship that brought them here where I coast on a sled with steel blades, brought them white-gray to my eyes three centuries later, see smoke and char and cinders they worked with, while counting years, if there was any counting to do for them, by them.
I know they had tobacco and grog, but no electricity, except the kind I know, invented back then, and long before, the kind I have from connecting to Theda Burton. I am 11 still and I am riding on her backside and she is 15 and lets me ride 10 times in one night and the wires never short out.
She is soft and I think I could fall asleep on her and the Flexible Flyer until Kingdom comes or that noise in Europe will fill boats and planes to come our way. Her brother is in the Army Air Force and his half plane, the Taylor Cub without wings, sits in their back yard. I think a hundred times about flying that plane and wonder if the wind on my face would have the same edge as going downhill in the middle of all the history that has played out here in this little corner of the world, on top of a girl smelling like a whole flower shop on Main Street beside my aunt’s house.
Planes do anything they are pushed to do … fly over Sumatra or Ceylon, Somerville or City Square in Charlestown where I used to live. And they can drop bombs.
Girls, though, are coy and explosive in themselves, and smile like nothing else in the world.
Just after Tony goes in the Air Force, I am once more sitting in his half plane. It is dark. I am flying thousands of feet in the air, not worrying where I’ll go or how I’ll land when I get there and Theda’s hand is suddenly, out of another night’s darkness, on my shoulder and she says, “You got her off the ground. Pretty good for a young pilot, a young steersman. Where are you headed?” Does she know her hand is full of dreams? Makes night stand at attention? That the view is a permanent treasure and the scalped and neutered oak tree the plane leans on leans its tortured limbs onto a climbing moon Vinegar Hill just let go of, the moon ascending and leaving shadows behind?
Funny thing is she answers her own question and offers an impression, her head cocked at a jaunty angle, her deep black hair catching midnight in a glance, “Off to manhood one of these days,” and a kind of dry sadness fills her eyes, which seem to carry a star or two for extra baggage, like the river does on so many nights even when the ice comes with a safer crossing than the old bridge. Stars, even the dead ones, still find their way wherever. I wonder if Copernicus, Galileo, da Vinci, or Newton knew all that.
On a smaller scale, I wonder if I’ll ever know what she knows.
“Johnny has the plane’s wings in the cellar,” she explains. “Almost fixed them up before he signed up. Now my mother says she worries every night that he won’t come home again and get those wings out of the cellar. She says she doesn’t mean it, but she does. Mothers are supposed to worry about everything.”
She sounds like one of my teachers, who used a ruler on Rod Jenkins’ hand once right in the coat room until Rod pulled his hand away and she caught her own thigh, high up, the sound of red pain following. That’s history too.
As Theda talks about the idle wings in the cellar, ideas and images scatter my brain, each one taking hold for minor seconds, small mirrors, pages flipping madly in a book. Then an aeronautic image takes control. On the previous summer my father took me to Muller’s Airport in Revere, sometimes called Riverside, and we got in on the tail end of a plane story, proving to me that planes could go anyplace in the performance of assignments or deeds.
The airport manager, a friend of my father’s, told us that another Taylor Cub, besides the one I “flew” on deep nights, had landed weeks earlier and the pilot, after taxiing to the main hanger, asked the airport manager if there was a trustworthy young man around who wanted to earn himself some money. The manager produced such a young fellow who was given a hundred dollars for himself and instructed to go to Suffolk Downs and bet another certain amount on a certain horse in a certain race, wait for the pay-off, collect, and bring the winnings back to the pilot. He is also told, “And keep your mouth shut, tell nobody, and there will be future errands.” The pay-off is huge, delivered, and the errand boy provides his home phone number where he might get future messages to meet the plane and place a bet.
As the manager says to us, “Last week he must have gotten the call, the plane came in, taxies up to the main hangar, and the pilot and his passenger see the crowd of other young folks around the airport, obviously having received information that the hot tip is due, the fix in. The pilot guns the motor, runs the runway strip and takes off. He hasn’t come back yet.” (The plane, we’re advised, belongs to a high police official in Buffalo, New York and is never seen again at the Revere airport.)
My brother spent hours making model planes from kits produced by Paul Guillow’s Company in Wakefield, then he’d fly them off our third floor porch when we lived in the other end of town and a Hart Bus Line bus would run over them or a Hupmobile or a Graham or a DeSoto, all gone their own way too, just like his model planes disappeared under stronger chassis with tires larger than manhole covers.
But now it’s winter, flight restricted, and I am trying to decide if winter comes up the river or down off Vinegar Hill, it comes so suddenly. Up the river, it would come in blocks of ice, solid shadows, part of the Atlantic surge; off the hill, it would come in drafts of cold air, gusts of wind off the peak of the hill, carrying parts of Lynn with it, the GE plant, smells of the city; I couldn’t make up my mind because both entries had special touches of special places.
“Let’s go again,” she says. “The stars are beautiful. The night is so beautiful. My mother worries about Tony and Europe and England where she came from.” It is as though she is swapping this time for some other time, some other place, and I think that is what dreams are like. I ask myself, am I a dream sharer? Does she share something with me I can’t reach yet?
There’s only the electricity… and the river… and the stars… and the flightless plane until I am in control… and this whole flower shop that is all mine for another plunge down Bridge Street into history… and into what is coming to me like flipping the pages of a calendar.
We get to the bottom of the hill and pass, with excitement, across the damaged and dangerous bridge.
Pal Georgie says, “It’s about time I had my chance to ride.” He’s bigger than me, older by a year or so. And handsome in a dark way.
Theda stands upright with her Flexible Flyer. “I sold all my tickets to him.” She points to me, the stars in her eyes. “They’re good until midnight when we all head for home.” She looks like the queen of the hill when she scans the face of her wristwatch and says, “He has almost an hour left.”
Suddenly we hear from the Town Hall the blasting of the fire alarm, and a minute later two fire engines, their red lights flashing along the river, are heading away from us, heading for the southern end of town, the sirens blaring through the night. I hope all goes well there at arrival, that a sudden new history is not being made, like a false alarm, of sorts.
I have my own alarms sounding, too, my own history being made, starting with these moments.
Header photograph: By John Phelan (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons