Short Fiction

The Story of My Hometown, Saugus, Massachusetts by Tom Sheehan

Ah, Saugus, the town I took to Korea many years ago, savored, brought back! Images strike here, deadly accurate in their mark. Metaphors, booted and buckled and loaded for bear, ride horseback through my town, holding forever in place. At times they ride roughshod or, taking a breath, saunter a bit, smelling new-cut hay over hill, or marsh grass caught up in light appreciation of salt about the air, all Atlantic talking.

Realization comes too. Times there were when our river was like an old man trying to get into bed, slow climb at banking, belt or pajamas astray, slight failures. Some springs, it would be caught up in flume’s rush.

Water talks, the sea, the river, the pond.

The town talks. It is heard.

If you ask a hundred old-time Saugonians about our town, those that have moved about this world of ours, many still moving, the chances prevail that you’d receive many different approaches to the meaning of a town, Saugus, Massachusetts, 12 miles north of Boston on the historic North Shore.

It keeps exclaiming itself in the back of the mind, again and again and again. Saugus it says, in a way that never lets go. Saugus, they say. They say it by poem and book, by disc or tape, in words and music, by a study of our old Indians.

From a corner of Cliftondale Square by Surabian’s Store the recalls would spring, or from the old Morrison Drug Store on the corner of Smith Road or a house on Morton Avenue or Myrtle Street that somehow won’t let go its grip even to this day. They’d come from a cliff-face up in the still woods of North Saugus or a late skate on Lily Pond or the Anna Parker when it used to be flooded for winter fun. Or from a game of playing tag on the rising form of the Post Office when it was being built in the Thirties.

All this reverie might begin with the ghost of a father’s lilting voice calling across the cool air just after darkness started its descent. The tone of that voice, its song of airy stubbornness and care, settling its primal demand across a goodly piece of town, across Main Street to the deep end of a hay field near Gustafson’s Florist. It would cross a section of the railroad tracks leaning from Lynn through the heart of the town to Revere on the Linden Branch. It would be a voice calling more than one person home, calling more than one person to memory. With sound there comes images, perhaps faint and distant, but ever real, freewheeling a stream of consciousness. Those who recall might remember a summer cottage, and little more than a shed at that, in Golden Hills or high on Henshit Mountain, having a cellar constructed underneath, getting elongated, widened, being winterized, the walls becoming warmer, becoming home.

Sometimes, a clubhouse in those Thirties, in the tough times, became a full-fledged home, and stands in place yet, in part tribute to its young carpenters. Frankie Parkinson and the Petitto boys, among others, used to talk about their memberships in such clubs, how they came by their building materials, how they got into the real estate business in the first place. Those were marvelous stories of another time, of another liberty and another persuasion; the lumber floating across Lily Pond from a special source, or hauled by sled on mid-winter’s ice, cover and darkness key words of the narratives. After a while taxes were imposed on these crude structures by the police chief, which forced the boys to move, to redraft plans, to rebuild, architects at the outset.

Among old timers, chances are a number of them might recall Blind Leonard living alone in his small shack near what is now Camp Nihan’s waters, across from the North Saugus School. That is now a professional building at what is the newest traffic control point in town. Leonard would walk again for them along Water and Walnut Streets, the cane tapping its steady tap, coming from the bus stop, coming from Lynn, from music, from Danvers where he visited his brother, or from another relative’s house where the lights were kept low. A survivor for the longest time, a marvel for getting done what could not be done, Citizen Leonard.

Too, some of them would remember an eleven-year-old boy at the wheel of a tractor on the family farm alongside Spring Street, where the Full of Bull now sits facing the Turnpike. It was dear friend Eddie LeBlanc, the sun beating down on him, sweat-generating, high August at its work. The old Ford tractor went off to war in 1942 as part of a pile of junk metal collected on the lawn of the town hall or the pile near the State Theater and the railroad tracks. The junk became Corsairs and tanks and LSTs pointing straight at Normandy or the sands of Saipan or Kwajalein, keeping Saugus boys company out there in The Big Noise.

Once, they’d remember, there was a freedom and independence and an initiative for the young to grow quickly, to do the manly thing, with whatever consequences waiting to happen. War does that, and the stretch of a town and its young people towards the next level of age. Citizens growing.

But, in all of these acts of definition, there would be a universal feeling underlining each approach. For the truth is you don’t grasp Saugus outright. You don’t jump in up to your knees and know right off what you’ve jumped into. You don’t get to the heart of a town as if a rapid transit has dropped you at the heartbeat’s center. You can see a hundred pictures of what we’ve been, what we’ve come to be. Lily Pond and the dam can leap out at you, as can the Sweetser School and the Felton and the Armitage and the Mansfield and the old North Saugus School. But they’re all gone in their initial sense. The old high school is gone. The State Theater. The Adventure Car-Hop. The Drive-In Theater. All gone. Tony Scire is gone and Reverend Gray is gone and Father Culhane. Dave Lucey is gone and Buzz Harvey and Hazel Marison and Walter Blossom and John A.W. Pearce. Albert Moylan is gone and Vernon Evans and William Smith. Art Spinney is gone and Doug and Bruce Waybright and Doc Williams and Jimmy MacDougall and George Miles and Charlie Cooper and Soupie Campbell.

And Adlington’s and Hoffman’s hardware stores. And Graham’s Market and Braid’s and Sherman’s and the Economy Store and Louis Gordon’s Tailor Shop and Joe Laura’s Barbershop and Ace Welding and Herb White’s Diner and the Slop Shop and Warnie’s Restaurant and Butler’s Drug and Tony Cogliano’s and the Rexall and Charlie Hecht’s in the Center.

Bill Carter’s Bar is gone and Chickland and Ludwig’s Cleaners and Heck Allen’s.

The perishable perish.

They’re all gone, veered off the face of the earth, but we’re still here.

For the time being.

We too shall pass on, yet in the meantime, in the moments of pure reverie of recall, we assess and measure and realize what we’ve become and what we came from.

We remember what we’ve taken out of a place.

Taken out of Saugus!

Through the gifts of Ellis Island, through the pouring out of people from Europe and all the continents, this little town on the North Shore in its day was becoming a little piece of America, a reflection of the larger mirror of this country. We, as a town, as a community in the truest sense, had become an amalgam at one time; but we were not complete. At the ports of Boston and New York and New Orleans through the terrible times of fever and along the cool St. Lawrence Seaway, the boats unloaded their cargo. The load of precious charges was destined to continue the rising of the New World. With them, of them, came the character upon which this town, as with many other towns along the North Shore, finally fixed its form and content.

The enclaves, of course, came into existence. Almost like estates of a sort, they were, like seeking like, economies of kinship, sea fares being paid, sponsorships coming into bloom, cousins coming from the Old World to help with the new farms along Walnut Street and Main Street and Vine Street and Whitney Street. They came to help in the shops and mills at the center of town and along Lincoln Avenue. The character of East Saugus developed beside that of Cliftondale. West Cliftondale bloomed in its own way as did Golden Hills and Lynnhurst, and North Saugus being molded in its near-sovereign outland independence.

Then, eventually, with charisma, with fusion, the edges were joined and the amoebae fully assimilated. We had, at some point, become Saugus.

Once the core of the town had come into being, once the character had been formed, and the energy flowing through it was live and vital, something else happened.

No longer was it what the people had given to the town. From its becoming Saugus, the measurement we had to make therefore came to be what we took from its being. What we took away from it when we left. It became much like looking back and trying to say what you carried away from a school you had attended, that school continuing long after you’ve passed through it.

All were pieces of Saugus carried away from her heartbeat. Like Lily Pond, as it was, gone! That those taken pieces keep getting regenerated is a marvel of township. It is why Saugus is loved by so many, and by so many more who have not yet found out what they carry with them, waiting to steal away in this lifetime. Old friends come back at me in many ways in the spell of time, often special in their wrapping or in their expression.

Don Junkins and Bart Brady Ciampa and Tim Churchard and Jim Smith and Tom Weddle correspond by letter or book or poem, CD or tape. All are Saugonians who had to go away to come home, now my mouth waters at correspondence and is full of Don’s words, (“where have I been all these years?” from his latest book) and they say Saugus to me, all the way from the bull ring he writes about, all the way from a sweetened Iberia, all the way from the back of his head.

Don Junkins is in Deerfield, Massachusetts, retired but writing strong as ever, the metaphor saddled and ready. Bart Ciampa makes music in Vancouver, and puts it on CD’s and sends them my way where they curl into soft and aging nights. So does the music and poetry of Tim Churchard in cool West Lebanon, Maine, where he teaches and coaches, the Irish drum and the guitar loose in the night. In far off Waldwick, New Jersey, Jim Smith writes letters full of music and intelligence and first choices of a select mind. They come five and six pages at a time, robust, explosive, wandering his tastes, sorting them out for me with gunfire delivery.

Now I read Don Junkins’ new book, Journey To The Corrida, as I am surrounded by Bart Brady Ciampa’s exquisite trumpet on his own CD from Vancouver way, hearing his Latinas Reflexiones, and he does all the instruments, one atop the other, pretending it’s about the Southern Desert, and all the time it’s all about Saugus.

Bart and Don, what a pair! What a pair! And they level out with Tim Churchard and his music, and their long ties, and how they graced the same field as Tim and I did. And geologist Tom Weddle, unfailing communicator, writing elegantly of Tontoquon the Indian who roamed the banks of the Saugus River a few centuries ago. And we all, to a man, love Saugus for what she is and what she has been in our lives.

It was my son Timmy, whose home is in Franklin, Maine, who said, “So you and your pals are writing a book about Saugus in this past century. For example,” he continued, “tell me about the Forties. What were they like? Why do some football players from those times write poetry? Or what in East Saugus made such music in the beginning that it now comes out of your computer, all the way from the West Coast? Or how do you hibernate in the night with an old teammate’s book of poems, or another’s sheaf of letters?”

It was not smugness on his part. But I did not know if that choice of his was spontaneous or specifically directed, as if he had in mind a period related to his own age, young, impressionable, bursting, a place where we all have been.

It was a catch in the throat, I said. I tried to explain it to him:

There was a time in the high school corridor when a girl turned away from me and walked elegantly off to her lifetime, smiling to this day, a raving beauty yet, mother-proud, bearing regal in her skirts just cut so, and the perfect edge of temperament.  It was the time when I slyly tore open my brother’s fragile V-mail letter from the wild Pacific before anybody else could get to it, its onionskin quality like a manuscript marked up by an editor serious at life.  It was hearing my cousin’s telephone voice from a Port of Embarkation hidden somewhere on the East Coast, for the lone single last time.

I remembered how he’d call with that falsetto air to his brother while skating in the swamp near Siaglo’s piggery on Longwood Avenue. He was mimicking Richie and Sumner Sears’ mother calling out for them, the night late, the cold stealing down atop us mindless except for small joys.

Or it was seeing a neighbor’s son heading home with one olive drab pant leg sewn much higher than the other one.  It was watching newsreels, like Pathe News, at the State Theater on Friday nights, not really knowing what the gunfire and sudden combustion was all about, that gray mass of exploding sand or snow up there on the screen, now and then body parts in the mix, or hearing the high screech of shells or a plane diving off the clouds as if those sounds had been artificially appended to the film. Wondering if those sounds could be real. It would be early in the Fifties I’d come to know them for what they were.

It all came down eventually to my lost brother, locked up forever in my mind. There is a catch in the throat, a first order of breathlessness I remember behind my eyes with a clarity that could disturb some minds.

It was suddenly finding someone whose ear, like mine, could turn quickly to a cool jazz musician right after hearing Puccini at his very best {that in New Jersey, Jimmy Smith would give anything to hear the trumpet and flugelhorn I’m tending on right this minute). Or knowing what Auden had to say about another poet, “In the nightmare of the dark/All the dogs of Europe bark,” the words on the porch on Main Street falling from my Grandfather’s lips. It was as if the old gent were reading from an Old-World cairn, the Red Fergus put away or one more of the warring O’Sheehaughns. The words were blessed and lovely, full of a music I vaguely could begin to hear, to recognize as my own. And a massive war about to begin that would change everything we knew or could feel, the measurements of that war forever at hand.

The catch in the throat became the names in thick black type in the local newspaper pages: Basil Parker, Larry Daniels, Tommy Atkins; boys who would never again make the walk along Summer Street or Appleton Street to Stackpole Field, a walk that I would make for four years in the same Forties they trod it. A walk that teammate Don Junkins would write about, the catch again in the throat, deeper, like a barbed hook had set, clutching what was soul.

The list of names came growing and running through the streets of the town; the Kasabuski brothers almost in one pained but exhilarate breath (them together forever), Vitold Glinski and his pal Alexander Chojnowski from East Saugus practically together again, Walter Barrett missing in the Pacific, Charlie Lenox killed in France, Al DeStuben wounded in Germany. The list grew and grew, the catch in the throat thicker, heavier, a weight coming with it, like measurement taking place, hand spans, arms’ length of things.

My heart is forever locked into this town whose streets I walk the way I might one day walk another paradise. If there is one like this, if it is one, I can earn my way to, where the river comes pale and palpable in its touch at East Saugus. If it is one where you can look across to Lynn, where old pilings and boats worn out by muscle and devotion continue their journey back into the earth. Where the marsh turns suddenly brown, then white, and where friends, the old and the new, the lost and the forlorn, herald every corner I turn, telling me they love what I still have.

Yes, Timmy, here is part of it, the Forties, the pain, the grace, the recall, the sound of another’s words, another’s music, coming to me at the same time. The images sound. Bart Ciampa’s trumpet or Tim Churchard’s banjo plays like one of Don Junkins’ or one of Jimmy Smith’s metaphors. There is no mouth, no voice, but a place…Saugus! God, I am still here, smack dab in the middle of it all.

Remarkable, Donny. Remarkable, Bart. Remarkable, Tim. Remarkable, Jim. Remarkable, Tom Weddle. Ah, yes, Timmy, remarkable, the Forties.  For two years those Forties and all the years since ran through our minds as we set them down in our book, A Gathering of Memories, Saugus 1900 – 2000. For two years we garnered and gathered and placed them in order and ordered them in place, scribing a pass at a collection of memories. And it came about, after a total and consuming labor of love, an endless poke at the imagination. Saugonians from forty-seven states and places outside our borders have ordered the book. John Burns and Bob Wentworth and our committee prepared for them a true feast for the memories.

The book sold out in a few months, all 2,000 copies including the last five damaged copies, after doing our own warehousing, packaging, mailing for months of pure excitement. Five hundred more were printed and sold. A perennial scholarship stands, The John Burns Millennium Book Associates Scholarship for Saugus High graduates. It was a noble effort.

Perhaps, that too will be remembered as a piece of Saugus.


Tom Sheehan 

Image – Daderot / CC0

5 thoughts on “The Story of My Hometown, Saugus, Massachusetts by Tom Sheehan”

  1. They say you can’t go home again, but I think you can take it with you, as illustrated in this story. “From its becoming Saugus, the measurement we had to make therefore came to be what we took from its being” The sounding of the people’s names, the tone of the father calling, Brady Ciampa’s music…echoes and memories of what was. I’m a big fan of local histories; I enjoyed this one.


  2. Hi Tom,
    As always with your writing, you show knowledge, respect and an overall empathic acceptance.
    Brilliant as usual!


  3. Just bumped into The Saugus Book and was taken breathless and taken away by the word-journey through time and place, right down to the names and the texture and form of everyday objects, and the passion that digs down to the marrow. I’m humbled as a “poet” and inspired anew by what I’ve read. I downloaded the book. Won’t let it go. The narrative style is what I’ve adopted as important to poetry.


  4. I really like the expressive writing and particularly the flurry of paragraphs starting with conjunctions: ‘Too’, ‘But’, ‘And’. I think doing this brings a more lyrical syntax to your writing, which it definitely has – such a strong voice. I loved the line at the start ‘the town I took to Korea many years ago’ – I’ve lived abroad for many years myself and this sentence really spoke to me.


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