Dates, certain days, have come to possess infinite resonance for me. This date, November 9th, though you may be reading this later, if at all, is such a date for me. For the nation, other resonant dates, for better or worse, in pain and glory, would be December 7th, September 11th, November 22nd. I guess now we will all, for different reasons touching on our deep national division, remember November 3rd, 2020. Indeed, all of history will remember 2020. other dates: June 6th is my late sister’s wedding anniversary — and D-Day. And the day Bobby Kennedy died — and my neighbor Frank Trubucco, and the day a teenage friend Jimmy Sweeney drowned in the Neponset River. May 30, the original Memorial Day and the day my father died in 1964. You, the reader, have your own unforgettable dates.
But back to today, November 9th. For one thing, today is my nephew Edward’s birthday. It alarms me that he’s turning 54, the age of my father when he died. You know that feeling about other, younger relative’s birthdays, and how old they make us feel — and how young my father now seems, to have died at that age.
On the religious, specifically Catholic calendar, this is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Our Savior, considered the mother church of all the splendid and ancient churches of Rome, also called the Church of St. John Lateran. It dates to the third century. Honoring it as the Church does awakens my own tendency to feel a “sense of place” about certain buildings, sacred or secular, or neighborhoods where I’ve lived and my houses or apartments in those neighborhoods.
But then, there are the things that have happened on this date, besides the birth of a nephew. It is also a day, in a certain string of memories, of darkness, dust and, paradoxically, light.
I take you back to November 9th, 1995, Pinellas Park, Florida. A thin, intense 66-year-old man steps off the Greyhound bus into a mild, subtropical autumn dusk…
This was an older friend — twenty years older — from my Boston neighborhood, a retired cop, sports coach, restless itinerant bachelor. He’d come for a brief visit, after which he’d be on the road again. It was good to see him.
We drove west that evening in rush hour ‘s river of red taillights toward the Gulf of Mexico beaches and my little rented place out there. I was working at WTSP-TV Tampa/St. Petersburg at the time. My old friend was finely attuned to the world — sensitive, faith-filled, good company. But it was November 9th and something — one particular memory – kept invading my mind in the presence of this person from the old neighborhood. It had happened just down the street from the house where my friend, named Dick, was born and lived his whole life. It had happened on November 9th, thirty-five years before.
As we drove, I took us back to November 8, 1960: John F. Kennedy was elected President, another memorable election day, another narrow victory margin — about 100,000 votes ( and, I might as well mention, generations of credible talk followed thereafter about voter fraud in that election in “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson’s Texas and Richard Daley’s reputedly corrupt Chicago. ) On the following day, November 9th, a carpenter had punched through the front wall of my family’s small 91-year-old house on Neponset Avenue in order to replace the original narrow double windows with a large, bright, multi-pane picture window. Barely 14-years-old at the time, I was disoriented by this permanent transformation of my childhood cloister, the rush of harsh, naked sunlight into the small living room and, perhaps above all, by the release of sweet-smelling plaster dust into my sanctum; plaster probably dating to the house’s 1869 construction.
I was still smelling that dust a the onset of early darkness when, one by one, my 21-year-old twin brothers Doug and Ron arrived home. ( Doug would arrive in the middle of the coming tragic incident I will describe. All three of my brothers were still unmarried and living at home; sister Anne lived down the street in a three-decker.) My father was home that evening from his coal and oil sales job and all day, as the carpenter named Willy Wendt had been working, everyone had been talking about the election. Doug was in a good frame of mind, having been a big supporter of Jack Kennedy’s improbable run for President at the offices of S.D. Warren Paper Products where he worked in a minor job and where all the managers and major players were Republican and Nixon supporters.
By now my mother had turned on a living room light. Suddenly my 25-year-old oldest brother Bill, ever the joker, appeared standing in the small front lawn, gently and jokingly knocking on the big new front window, yelling, “hey, what’s this?” We would step out to join him, laughing. “I’ve heard of living in a fishbowl,” he chortled, “but this is ridiculous.” Then we turned our eyes toward the warm glow of new window — but then also notice a commotion one hundred yards farther down Neponset Avenue by St. Ann’s Elementary School, my school. Unusually, an Eastern Massachusetts Line commuter bus was pulled over. They made no stops on Neponset Avenue. And we hadn’t, before coming outside the house, noticed — and my brother hadn’t noticed — the orange and silver bus go by our house. They were a frequent sight one wasn’t inclined to notice — each a major connector between the Fields Corner MTA station and the South Shore of Boston. Neponset Avenue was a main thoroughfare for all buses — but Eastern Mass drivers had often been warned to slow down on this thickly settled stretch.
There appeared to be something lying in the avenue. For some reason, our first thought was the neighbor Trubucco’s big, slow-moving mongrel dog. My father, Bill and Ron went down the street to investigate. For some reason, I didn’t. I went back inside with my mother. My brother Doug arrived and, having seen the commotion, also walked down to the scene. After an interval, my sister’s husband Joe ran up to our front door and asked my mother to call the police since they seemed to be slow responding to earlier calls. My mother asked, quickly, assuming someone had been hit, if the victim was going to be all right.
“Well,” said Joe bluntly, “the kid’s dead.”
I’m sure my mother was shocked. I know I was. Neither of us asked the identify of the victim but my brother-in-law, plainly deeply unsettled, must have been the one to impart the information — when my mother asked if death was certain — that the bus wheels had gone right over the child’s head. That, and the knowledge that there was no hope, kept me from walking down to investigate while my mother called police — who in the interim must have finally shown up to what was a horrible scene. I seem to recall sirens. It was brother-in-law Joe who had been walking toward our house on some forgotten errand, saw to it that the body was covered with an available cloth.
All this was exactly sixty years ago today. The triad of disorienting occurrences — the historic election of a native son, the ripping open of my house and that smell of dust (the big picture window is still there today and I think of this day when I see that window and almost smell the ancient dust) — most of all, the violent death of a child keep that date, November 9, 1960, alive in my mind.
The weather was mild — one of those late fall, mild November days. The victim was 6-year-old Jimmy Dwyer, youngest of a well-known neighborhood family of older brothers and sister Noreen. They lived up behind the school. The father was a fire captain. I’d heard one story that he’d even responded to the scene of his youngest child’s death. I had never met this child. Jimmy had been with the third oldest brother Tommy, age about 12, and had gone for an errand to Aggie’s Variety Store on Southwick Street. Tommy was in the St. Ann’s Band and happened and have given Jimmy a drum stick to hold. On the return trip, they’d crossed the street in plenty of time. The on-coming bus might have been speeding. Jimmy had dropped the drum stick, broke free of Tommy’s hand and dashed out….
When everyone returned to the house, Ron sat stricken at the dinner table. Dad and Bill were not much better — but it had been Ron who, seeing Mrs. Dwyr coming down the paved schoolyard, rushed with others to restrain her. It was traumatic. He sat silent and stricken. There was little more than a mention of the exciting election news.
I can only imagine how the bus driver feels now should he still be alive — of felt to his dying day.
When I reminded Dick of that incident as we drove toward the Gulf on November 9, 1995, he put his face in his hands. He remembered Jimmy Dwyer’s eyes, big and brown like a fawn’s.
In the dark, as the moon rose that night on Indian Shores, Dick and I walked five miles up the beach, talk of the death forgotten by now. I reminded Dick — who, as noted, had retired as a Metropolitan Police Officer — of November 9, 1965, another dark moment — but dark for an entirely different reason. The lights in the kitchen at 210 Neponset Avenue dimmed. Out that big picture window, the lights straight ahead up the hill of Boutwell Street dimmed, then rose again, then died for good. This was the Great Northeast Blackout all the way up to Niagra Falls. Manhattan had vanished before astonished pilots’ eyes. Dick, working as a cop that night, saw minimum looting, then people pulling together, students stepping in to direct traffic where streetlight had failed and police were spread thing — a bright moment in the darkness.
Dick, typical to his itinerant ways, bought a bike the next day and was off on his rounds. In his life, he’d traveled through France, Sweden, Iceland, coaching baseball.
One year after that blackout, five years after Jimmy Dwyer’s tragic death, on November 9th, 1966, son Edward was born to my brother Ron who, six years earlier, had absorbed a mother’s terrible grief . Nephew Ed is a criminal defense attorney now.
One day early in this century, covering a fire in South Boston as a TV news reporter, I was approached by the president of the firefighters union, Ed Kelly — son of Noreen Dwyer. He knew I was from Neponset. I don’t have to tell you the first thing that jumped into my mind: this stalwart, grown man and public figure standing before me was the nephew of the six-year-old killed that terrible November 9th. We talked about it. Ed, of course, had not even been born on that date. But he said everybody from that neighborhood of my generation remembered it. (Sometimes, it’s the terrible things you don’t witness with your own eyes that bother you most. I’ve seen dead bodies in the road as a reporter — but the death I didn’t see that November night has stayed lodged in my mind. In part, that’s because the victim was so young and innocent; also, undoubtedly, because that death — the terrible manner of it — was often spoken of, not always in a respectful way, by ghoulish children.)
One day not overly long ago, I would learn of the passing of a neighborhood contemporary, Greg Burke. Greg’s brother had been a chum of Tommy Dwyer. It was mentioned to me that Tommy had been at the wake, a handsome grown man, Vietnam veteran, with a wife and family. He had moved to the northwest and built a home for himself out there. I was so happy to hear all this — to know he survived that trauma — and the war in Vietnam. It remained a terrible cross for the parents. Sister Noreen Dwyer, for her part, became a very active member of St. Ann’s Parish, a beautiful person, a selfless organizer. God protect all of those Dwyers, including Ed Kelly.
Friend Dick Duchaney died of ALS on September 4, 2001 at age 72 at the Soldier’s Home high on a hill in Chelsea, Mass. He’d requested to be there with the soldiers he so loved. Dick had never gone farther than the seventh grade in school, been both a soldier and a sailor, kept going back to school all his life, fighting the odds, learning and rushing at life. He hated being a cop, especially a traffic cop. He was a self-described odd ball, devout, sometimes tortured in mind and spirit, living out his days in that house where he was born, always taking on coaching jobs — baseball, basketball, football.
His sister, a nun, and her fellow Missionaries of St. Francis sang at his graveside on a brilliantly sunny Friday of his burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Dorchester. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.
Four days later, terror struck in Manhattan. The world’s cloister was punctured like that old wall in my house. Dust filled the air. I was there; I smelled it. Dust and darkness all around though it was brilliantly sunny.
I saw that tall familiar odd-ball soul from the old neighborhood getting off the Greyhound in the dusk, November 9 — now twenty-five years ago. And I think of that post election night sixty years ago. The darkness of The Great Blackout. The birth in ’66. Happy birthday, Ed Wayland.
This November 9th, in that Roman Basilica across the ocean and in the midst of our own post-election turmoil in a very divided nation — in this Florida house that is now, for however long, my home, I pause and pray for Dick, Jimmy and all the faithful departed. Amen.