George was the only son of eight children and third oldest. His mother’s parents (our Nana Boudreau’s) were born in Sicily and immigrated to Boston making her a first generation American and us one quarter Italian. My grandfather was pure French-Canadian, his parents having moved to Boston from St. John, New Brunswick with original roots in Richmond, Nova Scotia. But that’s really all I knew about them. He served in the army in World War I and was discharged in 1918. He’d died in 1955 before I was born, just as I assumed my mother’s father had since he was never mentioned. It turns out he had died in 1968, never discussed and long-estranged from the family, so I never knew either of my grandfathers.
Dad’s parents still lived there in the Mission Hill projects at the time of his discharge following a short hitch in the Coast Guard during World War II where he served as a cook in a ship’s galley. He used to tell us he was an aerial gunner who “shot down those damn gooks” and we should have been there when his ship went through the Panama Canal to see such a sight as the locks were opened and closed, raising and lowering the massive grey hull. Funny enough, I did end up actually seeing that engineering marvel during my travels with the Air Force. We later learned he had merely cooked, and although he could technically be pressed into action as a gunner when it was all hands on deck in battle, the only action his ship ever saw was when it sailed on that training mission that took it down to Panama for a ride through the canal and back up to the Coast Guard Station in Boston from which it was based.
He wasn’t quite the Admiral Nelson type as he tended to describe himself in his stories, and I could more imagine him running the bars with the boys in safety back in Boston in the now long gone Scolley Square, a mecca for servicemen, than his being engaged in naval warfare.
There’s a cracked black and white photo of him somewhere that shows him wearing one of the old style pea coats, his hands stuffed into the side pockets, and a white Coast Guard cap cocked jauntily to one side almost touching his eyebrow. He looked like a teenager, and his face was thin and gaunt, and he was smiling, a cigarette dangling almost straight down from the right corner of his mouth. His expression belied any of the dark thoughts that I assumed must already have already been percolating in his mind. His thinness made me wonder if he’d had to eat a bit extra to make the weight to enlist in the military just as I had.
So when he met my mother in late 1950, it seemed he’d just come back to Boston from living in Texas for a while, and moved back into that small apartment in the projects in Roxbury with his parents, that oddly enough, was just a few hundred yards from where we’d all later end up at 33 Plant Court. He spent the next few years bouncing from job to job, mostly as a laborer. As a high school dropout he didn’t have many skills beyond the cooking he’d learned in the ship’s galley, but there were plenty of industrial jobs around at the time so he ended up working at warehouses, loading docks, and factories in towns like Chelsea and Medford, and one of which for some reason I always remembered that was way up in Lowell, about a forty minute drive from Boston, at one of the now long-dormant brick factories with their spewing smokestacks.
Other than my mother dragging me along with her one December day in the early sixties for the long ride up Route 3 to pick up Dad from work, Lowell was “foreign” to kids like me from “JP” where we were now living following, yet again, another eviction. To us, places like Lowell, we presumed, were populated by dangerous and territorial kids, far afield from the sanctuary of our own friends and neighborhood. I couldn’t say now where the factory was exactly, but I remember being amazed at all of the huge, beautiful brick buildings and the sense of strength the city seem to give off. It didn’t look scary to me.
I sat in the back seat, shivering, as the car heater had given out weeks before, and listening to my mother cursing that Dad was late getting off work and her constant muttering saying “where the hell is he?” Finally, just as it was getting dark, Dad came out from the heavy metal door by which we waited parked at the back of the building. The sky was steely colored, and the feel of snow to come was in the air making the skyline look more white than gray in contrast to the bright red bricks of the factories. Ma slid over to the passenger side of the Rambler’s bench seat as Dad got in and took the wheel as he always did, not saying a word to either of us. Quickly, we were back on Route 3, headed south as both of my parents blew cigarette smoke out of their cracked windows. As we drove, I remember thinking Lowell was nothing like I’d imagined it would be. Way more interesting than intimidating, but once back in Boston I didn’t give it another thought until 1990.
I was stationed with the Air Force about fifty miles north of London and taking a creative writing class I’d chosen as an elective in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree at night, when the professor told us of his personal adventures with a band of drop out writers and poets, including a guy named Ken Kesey, that called themselves the “Merry Pranksters.” This led to more revelations about this “revolutionary” group of writers and an introduction to Jack Kerouac and his works, and to learning how the Mill City, as it was called, and his having grown up there served as his muse for an impressive body of literary work. I sat in class thinking how it seemed impossible that having been born less than an hour from Kerouac’s very stomping grounds that I’d never heard of him, his book “On the Road,” and this phenomenon that came to be called “the Beat Generation” of which I later learned he was a reluctant pioneer. Reflecting on Lowell now, in a classroom a world away, I remembered Dad coming out of that factory door so long ago, and my mother and I sitting and shivering in the parked Rambler waiting, lost among the bricks.
To be continued….