Chapter One

Boston, June 1956

No one suspected anything, not even my pals. Mom was preparing the family dinner with no idea that this would be my last Sunday at home.

Gramps might have wondered if anything was up but didn’t ask. My Irish grandfather loved Sunday as much as I did, especially if we were having a leg of lamb for dinner. “Ay, we’ll be after havin’ a fine joint today, lad, and a pint or two to celebrate the Lord’s day.” He ate like a horse on Sundays, “packin’ it in” for the week ahead, he’d say. Gramps always had a jug of whiskey on hand, sometimes two. My grandfather and I were a lot alike.

I wanted to tell him of the great adventure I was about to undertake but couldn’t risk it. My parents might think running away was his idea. It was all mine.

In school, I had read about Horatio Hornblower and his glamorous life at sea and then Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, who grew up not far from our house. He’d left home and sailed all the way to California. I loved Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, seeing myself in his wonderful stories of faraway places, strange-looking people, and magnificent adventure. I wanted my own magnificent adventure, just like them.

My plan was ready, hitchhike to New York, get a job on a ship, see Paris, Cape Town, even Rio. I would leave early, before anyone got up. Not even my little brother, Tommy, knew I was running away.

Our bedroom was at the end of the second-floor hall. It had once been a kitchen. The old pantry with its stale smells was our closet. Lime-green bath mats covered cracks in the linoleum, and we draped our towels on pipes to dry. Pennants hung on the walls from the ball games I’d been to with my dad: the Boston Braves, the Red Sox, and a purple pennant from the college he wanted me to go to, Holy Cross. I could usually keep it neat by getting Tommy to do my chores. It was the best bedroom ever.

My side of the bed was next to the window, perfect for sneaking out to the porch roof. We used a stick to prop it open in the summer. Lying in bed, I would look out at the stars, watching them move across the sky and wondering where they went. In winter, the panes of glass looked like maps when they frosted over. Now that summer was here, there were shiny leaves on the branches of the tree limb at the edge of the porch that was bent low enough to slide down.

After dinner that Sunday night, we cleared our dishes and helped Mom clean up. Dad read the paper in the front room. I was changing my mind every other minute, fumbling about in the kitchen, telling myself I was doing things right. My parents would understand that I just wanted to travel a little. Along the way, I would find a phone and call them collect. The first letters they would ever receive with foreign stamps would be from me.

“Begorrah ’n it’s off with ye now, Jack. Sure’n we’ll come to tuck ye in in a bit.”

My mother had insights about me, knew things I did wrong before anyone. “What have ye done, Jack?” was a common greeting, and it usually followed something I had done wrong. I would always go straight to the bathroom mirror to see if the words “he did it” were written across my forehead.

“Begorrah, yer up to something, Jack, and you don’t fool me,” was her favorite saying. If she said it this time, she would be right. I was up to the biggest something of my whole life.

I’d done such a good job keeping my plans secret that she did not know. I’d been good at keeping secrets ever since I’d heard that spies do that. Maybe I’d grow up to be a spy.

When Mom came into the bedroom to kiss me good night, would she know that I would be gone by morning? In the muggy setting of that summer’s evening, she could have brought it up, she could have stopped me, she could have asked why I’d been edgy all week.  She did not.

Irish mothers brought dignity and strength to their families. Circumstances like poverty or illness or loneliness were dealt with privately. My mom understood that it would only be a matter of time before her oldest son decided to go, to seek his own way. She never could have imagined it would happen at age fifteen. I was taller than the other kids and looked older for my age. I felt old enough to take off on my own.

— to be continued —

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