[“Extra-Ordinary” is the title of my never-finished, never-published memoir, or is it an autobiography? The title is a play on the word extraordinary, which denotes something anything but ordinary. By putting in the hyphen my intent is to communicate that the only thing exceptional about my life is that it has been ordinary to the extreme. Get it? There’s a reason this has never been published. I will occasionally share scraps of it with my fellow great apes in The Jungle. SB SM]
Shooting the Wad
My Aunt Margaret died in 1963. She was the fun-loving of the Foster girls. She married Arthur J. Feltham, and the two of them led a life that, by the rest of the family standards, was quite glamorous. They drove to Florida in his Cadillac. I remember seeing a picture of the Felthams posing with Babe Ruth.
Aunt Margaret and her spinster sister Myrtie lived on the East Side of Providence, not far from us, so visits were a fairly regular affair. Aunt Margaret was generous and had a bit of a tomboy in her. She would often hide a $5 or $10 bill and set my sister and me on a treasure hunt to find it. There was always one for each of us.
Aunt Myrtie, by contrast, was dignified, formal, and proper. She was not a barrel of laughs.
(My grandmother is Edna, the dark-haired one second from the left in the middle row. Margaret is the vivacious one in the top row, standing with the men, and Myrtie is bottom right. The handwriting is my mother’s.)
Aunt Margaret’s death caused a couple of important changes for the Morris family. First, it was decided that we would move into Margaret’s handsome white, brick house on Taber Avenue to help care for Myrtie. Secondly, my mother inherited a small sum of money that, very uncharacteristically, she decided to blow all at once by taking the family on the Grand Tour of Europe. She shot the wad.
Post Island had always been our family vacation. Why even consider going anywhere else? But my mother was determined to make the trip happen. My sister would be graduating from high school in 1963 and heading off to college. We had never really had what could be described as disposable income, so it was now or never. It was a great decision on her part.
The trip was months in the planning, mostly using Fodor’s Europe on Ten Dollars a Day as our Bible. The Johnsons, Rita and Charlie, our Post Island neighbors, were recruited as travel buddies. They were almost polar opposites of my parents, but the four of them got along famously well.
By the time June rolled around the trip had been planned with the precision of a military operation. We departed from the pier in New York City aboard the Italian ship, the Saturnia.
We pulled away from the pier with the ship’s horn thundering amidst a cascade of colorful streamers. It was terribly romantic, even though I was only 15 and hadn’t quite figured out what romance was all about. The ship was built in the mid-1920s, and this trip was one of its last trans-Atlantic crossings. There was still a lot of Old World charm, but even more old world wear and tear.
There were three classes on the ship–First, Cabin, and Tourist. We were in Cabin class (as always, in the middle). We ran into my music teacher from Moses Brown who was travelling in Tourist. Our cabin was small and cramped; his, by comparison, was Third World. A day or two out we encountered a storm, a real one. We weren’t allowed on deck but could only look at the snarling North Atlantic through spray-splattered windows. Ropes were put up so that we could negotiate the corridors without bouncing off the walls. Some comic relief took place when we went to watch the evening movie. The ship was pitching and rolling so much that they removed all the chairs, and we all had to sit on the floor The ship rolled left and the audience, like a well-trained chorus, slid left. Then the ship rolled right, and we slid right along.
Life onboard ship was different, but tedious. Meals, served by Vittorio and Umberto, were consistently good. My parents and the Johnsons engaged in non-stop speculation about what romantic engagements were taking place amongst fellow travelers. We won a prize in the costume contest when my mother managed to take the ladder from our cabin bunk bed and to convert the whole family into a facsimile of the Saturnia.
Land was a welcome sight. As we steamed up the Rio Tagus to Lisbon, all our senses were alive. We toured the city in a horse-drawn carriage. The Grand Tour had begun.
Lisbon was magical, especially for a 15 year old, whose only exposure to European culture was visiting Boston’s North End. We ticked off other great ports in the next week. Gibraltar, Barcelona, Naples, Palermo, Dubrovnik, Venice. Dubrovnik was the most beautiful; Naples the smelliest; the catacombs in Palermo the most gruesomely memorable. Venice was a perfect place to make our sea-to-land transition. From there we picked up a Volkswagen Microbus, my father at the wheel, and hit the continental road.
Charlie instantly established himself as our resident Ugly American, refusing to make any concession to national custom or tradition. He refused, for instance, to learn anything about local currencies or exchange rates. Lira, pesos, francs … all were lumped into his category of “chinka-sortas.” If he needed to buy something, he’d just reach into his pocket, pull out a handful of mixed coins, and proffer them to the vendor, saying “Here … take some chinka-sortas.”
Down the backbone of Italy … three sweltering days in Rome … up the coast to Portofina and the French Riviera … through the Alps to Austria … across Switzerland to the vineyards of France … and then Paris. None of us had ever been to Europe, but my French training at Moses Brown had prepared me for some of the cultural nuances, so when it came to translating road signs and figuring out the Metro in Paris, I was the lead dog.
My French teacher, Theodore Whitford, was a world-class Francophile. Of the many virtues of Paris, the one he praised most highly was the produce market of Les Halles. I was determined to go, even though you had to be there before 5 am to catch any of the action. My father was not about to let me venture off by myself in the pre-dawn darkness and dutifully trudged off with me. We were rewarded with a bustling, colorful panorama that easily exceeded even Mr. Whitford’s description.
As we prepared to leave Paris and begin the long journey home, I made my most prized souvenir acquisitions, a deck of playing cards featuring bare-breasted women, and a ballpoint pen, picturing two women wearing bathing suits The suits, however, were actually a layer of colored ink. When inverted, the ink drained away, leaving the ladies in the natural pulchritude. Boy, was I going to be popular on the first day of school!
We took a train to Le Havre, where we boarded the SS France, a brand new cruise ship that supposedly set new standards for comfort and luxury. For me, however, it just meant more boring days at sea. The only highlight is that one of the nightly movies was Irma La Douce starring Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon, which was set in Les Halles, the area just frequented by me and my father. Even dad was impressed by my foresight on this.
A Door Closes
Back at Post Island, I bought a used Harmony guitar at a pawn shop in downtown Quincy and spent the rest of the summer uncharacteristically indoors at the cottage, trying to play catch-up to The Beatles. The same cast of characters were there–Bobby, Ricky, David, Dennis, Brian–but things had changed. Girls had arrived on the scene, and that complicated things. Also, relationships had developed with “off-Island” kids (and by that I mean kids who lived about 300 yards away) so there were new personalities in the mix. Some kids started smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. It wasn’t bad stuff, but the page had turned. The carefree days were now gone. One door had closed; another soon opened.
In the summer of 1963, at least for a while, I felt anything but ordinary.