My nephew Mark O’Hara, young, it seemed, just yesterday, turned 60 today. He was born August 25, 1962. On that night ( believe he was born at night), I was sitting on Jimmy Sweeney’s back steps on McKone Street, Dorchester, watching some kids play cards and thinking how I didn’t seem to have the gumption to join in. Would I look like someone who didn’t know how to play cards? How did the word get to me that I was an uncle again? Did I already know this fact? This was my sister’s fourth child. She would have one more, Kathy, in February, 1964.
As for Jimmy Sweeney, who, like me, was 16, my memory moves to an early summer’s day the following year. I joined him and, I think, Peter Ivans and Billy Martin and maybe somebody else in a walk across an empty field and under the Southeast Expressway from the First Boston 10-Pin Bowling Alley. It was dark, but we were going to go swimming. I was always trying to fit in. And I really didn’t quite fit in.
Jimmy was talking about the girls that hung out with us. He had Kathy Graham from Westglow Street as a girlfriend in those days. It’s interesting. I’d had a crush on Kathy in the 6th grade. Jimmy was talking spiritedly about how “they (the girls) wanted “it” but were afraid of it.” I think all of us were afraid of “it” in those days. I’m not even sure, being very naive and sheltered, that I was sure what “it” was. And none of us, I suspect, had had “it” at that point and my own sense was that “it” was something you had only under sacred, marital circumstances. My reticense on that score was extreme. I was afraid of “it”, too, I guess. (It would be about six years before –under very non-marital, immoral circumstances — “it” came about for me — that circumstances would converge in my restive, advancing, virginal life that I would, for pay, in the tenderloin called An Jung-ri outside the gates of Camp Humphrey, Pyong-Taek, Republic of Korea — partake of “it”, twice in one night. It was a terrible way to be introduced to something so sacred.
But there we were, about four of us, walking over to Tenean Beach,our little city beach, in the dark, Jimmy talking about “it.”
Once there, once in our bathing suits that must have been under our clothes, we were all a little skittish about the dark water at fairly high tide in the enclosed urban inlet that was Dorchester Bay whose actual relationship to the reality of the open ocean seemed as remote as a puddle might be to the Great Lakes. It was Jimmy Sweeney who suddenly, boldly made for the water, running and spashing up to his waist, then diving. We followed. Then everybody moved over to the high old wooden pilings of the old Lawley Shipyard at the far end of the beach and Jimmy and Peter and others climbed up and I, again typically, stayed in the water below, too timid to climb up and balance on the large, oil-soaked old beam. Somebody said, “it’s okay, don’t worry, stay there” to me. Maybe it was Jimmy. That made me feel better, accepted.
And I guess we dried off — did we have towels? — and that was that. I probably went home. We all went home. It was the night of June 5, 1963, early summer.
The next day I was at my post outside the Elm Farm supermarket down behind my Neponset Avenue house where I loaded groceries in cars. Greg Burke with another kid (don’t recall who) came running across the parking lot and said to me, “Greg, Jimmy Sweeney is dead.”
It was June 6, 1963, my sister Anne’s 4th wedding anniversary. D-Day, too, of course. But it was also the day of the funeral, I believe, for Pope John XIII. Catholic Schools were out. Jimmy Sweeney went to a public school (English). He played hookie to join his Catholic school friends in order to go diving and swimming down at the old remnants of the railroad bridge that once crossed the Neponset River south of the Neponset River Bridge. It’s all gone now, and was fairly dangerous. Jimmy had leaped or dove into the water and one of the other kids –I’ve been told — cannonballed him, just horsing around. There was a collision. Jimmy didn’t come up. It must have been a terrible moment. He must have been knocked unconscious. Police were eventually summoned by someone (who is still around who was there that day?) and a diver named Pasquale pulled Jimmy out of the river. That was according to a small item in the newspaper headlined BRIDGE DIVE KILLS DORCHESTER YOUTH.
But was it a dive, or the dive on top of him? There was a wake and a big funeral and burial at Holyhood Cemetery way off in Brookline, real foreign territory for us Dorchester kids — but it’s where the Kennedy parents are buried, and some of the children, and former Mayor Maurice Tobin, and my maternal grandmother. I’ve never been back to Jimmy’s grave. On the job once, I did show a young phographer the Kennedy grave, impressing him, I’m sure. And I looked for–and found — my grandmother’s grave up the hill.
But that’s the memory thread that comes out when I think of the night of August 25, 1962, the birthday of Mark Aherne, 60 tonight.
It’s midnight, the clock gong is ringing in the parlor. It’s August 26, the day I had my last drink of alcohol in 1987. My 35th anniversary then.
Every day is something, isn’t it?