Saturday, March 17, 2007

I was up at my mother's place Thurday. She lives in an apartment on Main Street in Easthampton. When I was a kid growing up there, Easthampton was known as " Web Town. " This was because of the product made in the mills, which ran like a spine through the center of that dirty old town.

I called it " Basketball Town. " By the time I was a senior in high school, the textile industry, of which the town had long been a part, was heading south. Literally.

United Elastic. Rubber Thread. Those were the names of two of the mills. My mother worked for United Elastic, which was located at the corner of Cottage and Union streets. My father worked in a mill, too. He was a shipping clerk for Hampden Specialty Products, a two story brick building in which folding chairs were made. The kind of chair in which you plant your sorry ass when you're playing poker with friends. The kind of chair we kids sat on when we attended the Irish wakes to which we'd been dragged.

Basketball Town. That's where I lived. That's where I grew up in the 60s. By the time I got to high school I hadn't played much of that game. But my best friend Dick Dubiel did. And so did his brother Bob and his friends.

Roger Walaszek, Skip Jarocki, Jack Zabek, to name a few.

Walaszek went on to captain the Columbia team, which did pretty well in the late 60s. Columbia played the Citadel, on whose starting five was a guard, Pat Conroy.

Walaszek's a lawyer now. Conroy's a famous writer. His novels have been made into movies. Jon Voight played him. Barabara Streisand and Nick Nolte have played characters he's created.

Where was I?

I was at my mother's place Thursday. Mom wanted to show me the cellar, which her landlord had been working on lately. I hadn't been in that cellar for a very long time. Last time I was there was in the spring of 1965. I was a senior in high school.

To get to the cellar we walked down the driveway. The driveway was muddy. I watched my step, as I was wearing good shoes. And I took a look at the barn on whose side was nailed an orange basket. I'd spent countless hours in that driveway. Learning to shoot. Practicing. Anticipating the tryout. So long ago.

I wanted more than anything to make that team. That basketball team, The Eagles. The high school team to which Easthampton paid lots of attention.

My mother and I walked into the cellar. It looked the same and it looked vastly different. The last time I'd been in there was when I was 18 years old. I am now pushing 60.

By the time I was a senior in high school, demons had taken control of my life. I was shy, pathologically so. I'd been a good student in elementary school. All A's. But something happened in high school. The classrooms in which I had fit so well, were now the wrong size.

It got so bad I couldn't go to school. I dreaded sitting in the classroom. I longed to learn, but the places in which we kids were taught scared the shit out of me. The last two days of my senior year I called in sick and spent some time in the cellar. I can't recall now what my parents' schedule was. I don't know if my mother was working at the mill. I know my father was. But my mother...

What was she doing on those two days I hid in the cellar? Was she working at the mill? HAd she been laid off? That happened often back in those days.

She thought I was in school. She thought everything was Ok. I was a good kid, who'd gotten good grades most of the time. She knew I was shy, and it tore her up, thinking she'd passed shyness on to her son. She was a shy girl in high school. High school was a circle of hell Dante would have drawn... if there were high schools back then.

My mother gave me the tour. " Look what Wally ( The landlord ) and Jeff ( his son ) have done, " " she said proudly. I looked around. The cellar, as I remembered it, was a dark, dank place in which unwanted stuff had been tossed. The cellar was thick with junk when I was a kid. It smelled of dead things, mildew and wood that was rotting.

But I was drawn to it then.

Thursday? It was different. Of course it was different. I was 18 then. I'm older, much older than that now.

A cellar cleaned of its junk, smelling much better. What did it feel like being in there? Truth be told, I wanted to come clean with my mother. I wanted to tell her what I was doing those last two days of high school. But I didn't.

Mom and I walked out of the cellar. Walked up that muddy driveway where I used to take the shots at the basket. Did I mention?

I made the team. All that practice. All those shots. Taken from a driveway that was gravel then. It wasn't muddy. Sure, it was a surface not exactly made for dribbling. But it was better than mud.

to be continued...

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