One spring, my old man and I built a soap box racer. This was no jalopy, but a bona fide racing machine, constructed according to official specifications for the National Soap Box Derby, held each year in Akron, Ohio. My entry sported regulation wheels and an innovative brake system specially designed by my old man. Although I enjoyed building this racer with my father, I could sense that my old man had another agenda: He had something to prove.
My mother had grown tired of living with workers in the projects of Jamaica Plain, an ancient Boston neighborhood. She wanted a front porch and her own mailbox. As it turned out, an old buddy from my father’s maritime past was bulldozing some acres of the New England woods to build an electronics factory thirty miles to the north and west of Boston. Since my old man was a self-taught electrical engineer, a gyro gearloose, an inventor and he was pals with the factory owner, a job waited for him once the factory was built.
That’s how my parents, my sister and I moved to the this rural Massachusetts town before rural Massachusetts was called suburbia. Warrington, Massachusetts boasted a population of 5,000 citizens, a pretty place teeming with cows and apples, tractors and farmers, hay-bailers, cider mills, and mechanics.
The FBI called ahead. They wanted the citizens of Warrington to know that a family of Communists had infiltrated the township.
The gentleman who took the call from the FBI was Chairman of the Warrington Board of Selectmen who presided over the town’s quarterly town meeting. He was also a lawyer, the patriarch of a long-reigning, aristocratic family in Warrington with connections to the better banks of Boston and to the gold-domed statehouse of the Commonwealth. On Saturday morning he came to pay us a visit—just thought he’d drop by to say “hello,” get acquainted.
After a pleasant chat full of anecdotes regarding the town’s history this Chairman of the Board of Selectmen told us in no uncertain terms that he didn’t “give a good goldarn what shape or color or political persuasion you folks subscribe to, nobody from Washington, D.C. or anywhere else for that matter…” was going to tell him what to think about his neighbors. Just so long as they abided by common sense, decency, and the statutes of the town charter, we were welcome in Warrington, Massachusetts. And, by the way, he’d love to see us all down at the First Unitarian Church on King Street, Sundays at eleven a.m. “Give you an opportunity to meet some damned fine people in town, here,” he said.
Soon after, we all were invited to a big white farmhouse overlooking Bear Hill Pond. It was summer and school was out. The two families ate lunch and watched the McCarthy hearings on the tiny, blue screen of a brand-new Zenith television set over at the Channing family farm.
Time was lopsided for a New England dairy farmer. Wilbur Channing was up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows and get the morning chores over with before he drove a morning milk route for Herpy’s Dairy. By early afternoon, his work was done until it was time for evening milking. Mary Channing was a farmer’s wife for the 1950s: She helped with the chores, could drive a tractor and clear fouled twine out of the hay baler, kept the huge, rambling old farmhouse tidy and functioning, was active at the church and with the PTA, and paid a lot of attention to her husband, her kids, and her kids’ friends. Unless there was hay to get in, or a piece of machinery or a fence to repair, mid-days were easy, anarchistic times for them. Hence the lunchtime gatherings around the television set.
The Channings ate lunch as if feasts were an everyday occurrence. Later, I learned they were an everyday occurrence: Huge meals, even at lunch, spread out like a stop-action marvel of plenty on the great, round kitchen table. Mary frequently jumped up from her chair to fetch more mashed potatoes and rolls, green peas and squash, all grown in their own garden.
The Channings wanted us to know that they, too, thought it was a damned shame, all this witch hunting in the name of communism and the Iron Curtain. Weren’t the Russians our friends. They were allies during the war? “Why are we now supposed to drop everything, all the friendship and shared sacrifice and all that, and turn ‘em into enemies?” Mary asked in her broad New England accent. “Just doesn’t make sense,” she concluded, as if this was the first time ever that things hadn’t made sense.
Regardless of the support we received from townsfolk like the Channings, my old man was determined to show the farmers, plumbers, and mechanics of Warrington that he wasn’t just some citified, egghead, socialist thinker. Nossir, he was salt of the earth, too. Most of his friends back in Boston were either foreigners, immigrants, or working-class stiffs. Mixed in with the doctors and scientists, the researchers he worked with, were radio and telegraph operators and union organizers and typesetters and merchant seamen—who had joined the Communist Party in the 1930s when it looked like internationalism and labor unions were going to make things okey-doke for the working man and his family.
Despite his brainy reputation, my old man worked with his hands in Boston-based university hospitals, fabricating instruments that would measure minute electronic pulses in a hamster’s cheek pouch and creating timers that could trigger a strobe to capture an object in motion at just the right millisecond. At work in his shop (he called it a “lab”) he rolled up the sleeves of his blue oxford-cloth shirts and wore bow ties that would not get caught in the rotating chuck of a lathe, drill press, or milling machine. He considered himself to be a worker just the same as the farmers and mechanics in Warrington. So, when he put my soapbox racer together, he made damned sure it was a well- and cleverly built showcase for his mechanical prowess.
Beyond its beautiful, red, official-sized, regulation-issue wheels, this buggy-to-beat-all featured a sturdy plywood and Douglas fir frame covered in tempered masonite. We erected a stubborn post of oak to serve as a front frame member and we contoured hard-to-find, state-of-the-art aluminum tubing into an airplane-style steering wheel. At school, I surreptitiously compared notes with several other kids who were building racers. According to my calculations, nobody had such a machine as mine.
Night after night, the racer took shape under the warm cone of light that separated our work area from the dark recesses of the coal bin and the furnace room. My old man taught me as we worked. I learned how to guide a bucking saber saw along a pattern scribed onto a sheet of three-quarter-inch plywood. He learned how to mix the fine, dry powder of composite resin glue with water in just the right proportions and how to spread the thick, animal-smelling paste over both surfaces before we screwed the masonite skin onto its supporting frame members. I learned how to use a brace and bit to drill the clearance holes for the carriage bolts that would clamp the axle to the floorboard.
At the end of a night’s work, before we shut out the light, we would stand back from the cluttered workbench and admire our progress. I loved to inhale the incense created by our handiwork. Pitch from the plywood and doug fir, vaporized by the friction of drill bits, saw blades, and sandpaper, merged with the fishy odor of the glue pot and the molasses sweetness of my old man’s Pall Malls.
We got down to the final touches, the brakes and the steering gear. Here, we ran into “a few bugs,” as my old man described them. We couldn’t get tension in the cable and pulley steering system, and my father’s specially designed brake wouldn’t always snap back into the “off” position.
While we were trying to work the “bugs” out of this final construction phase, my old man began to lose interest in the soap box racer. Something was happening outside the world we had created in the basement, something big and ominous and unreal, something that took place out there, where soldiers marched on the frozen Korean earth, where men in suits and glasses sat at tables covered with papers and spoke into microphones, and where bathing beauties lined up for inspection by car salesmen.
My old man knew two people who were in prison, in Sing Sing of all places. Sing Sing. It really existed. It wasn’t a movie penitentiary; Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney didn’t spit and snarl through these bars. Sing Sing was a real place, and the people my father knew were real people, a man and a woman with two kids my age.
They were supposed to be spies. Supposedly, they had given secrets about the atomic bomb to the Russians, at least that’s what the newspapers said. The kids at school said they were commies, traitors and that they were going to “get the chair,” both of them, the husband and the wife. I talked back, the way kids do, armed only with the fragments of information he could salvage from my parents’ conversations.
“They didn’t do anything,” I argued. “It’s the government.”
“We’re just trying to scare people about Russia, so we can make more bombs.”
Paul Delamater, a gangly kid with gigantic red ears and a pink-and-black acetate shirt spread his arms wide and open-throated, mimicked the sound of a dive-bomber, with the accuracy and attention to detail that little boys commit to the sounds of war. “They’re commie spies. The FBI caught ‘em and put ‘em in jail.”
“We shouldn’t be blowing up atomic bombs anyway,” I said. “They make poison.”
“Give ‘em the chair,” another patriot advised, underscoring his conviction with the sound of high voltage coursing through flesh, another little-boy favorite.
I was hopelessly outnumbered. It was like arguing the merits of the Yankees in a Brooklyn school yard, only there, the resemblance stopped. It seemed as if the whole world hated and feared these people and they were going to die. Besides, I carried an unrealized, instinctual conviction that, if I tipped his hand, if I spoke out too loudly, something terrible might happen to me and my family.
At home, my old man couldn’t stop talking about these people, the Rosenbergs. First he got real crabby and wrote a lot of letters. Then he went to meetings in Boston after work and didn’t come home all night. My mother got mad at that and asked him a lot of urgent whispered questions about where he had spent the night.
My old man got very sad. He would lie on the couch after work with his hand over his forehead until it was time to go to bed. I knew better than to bother him at a time like this, but I was getting anxious. Race day was approaching, and they still hadn’t worked out the snags in my car.
Back then, I couldn’t have made the connection, but deep down inside, I’m sure I understood that these people in Sing Sing, this husband and wife, this mother and father who were going to get the chair, they probably thought, talked, and acted a lot like my parents when they had lived in the city, served spaghetti and salad and beer to folks who didn’t shave and had foreign accents, listened to music and drank beer and sang.
In fact, the Sing Sing criminals could have been my parents, but no one was copping to it. There was no explanation, no comfort offered, no distinctions made. No one told my or my sister that we would be safe. The evidence at hand bred jeopardy like bacteria in a petri dish: my old man laid out on the couch in some kind of quiet agony, and my mother, cooking and chatting and straightening up, covering up the shadows, acting as if everything was okay. I couldn’t get my old man down into the basement to work on the car. Race day was scheduled for the first week of May and they still had to fix the brakes and the steering.
* * *
The soap box derby race course was laid out on Water Tower Hill, the steepest, straightest piece of road in town. In New England, it is no easy feat to find a quarter-mile stretch of road that runs in a straight line, uphill, downhill, or on level ground. Most of the roads in town were paved-over carriage roads or farming and hunting trails that followed the path of least resistance through the rolling woodlands and pastures. But the town was growing. With the growth came a demand for more water. A few years before, they had erected a water tower on the highest hill on the poor side of town. In order to build the tower, the public works department had cut a road straight up the hill for the trucks that would carry the big, curved sheets of steel to their point of assembly.
One day, I climbed on my bike and headed up Water Tower Hill. I wanted to see what it was going to be like to run his newly built soap box racer down that grade. My friends and I had all been up Water Tower Hill with their bikes, but we couldn’t use it to get over the hill to the lake, so it wasn’t a heavily-traveled kid route. I could pedal two-thirds of the way up, but the top third was too steep. I couldn’t keep enough momentum going, even when I stood on the pedals and cut back and forth across the road. I had to walk, pushing my bike beside me. I wondered how the construction trucks, carrying those huge metal plates for the water tower, had made it up that steep hill.
At the top of Water Tower Hill I turned and looked down the road that would become the track on race day. I was out of breath; my heart pounded in my chest and ears. The road fell away quickly and narrowed into a thin ribbon that played itself out across the pasture below. I stood there alone for a long time, daring myself to take the plunge. What if I skidded on the gravel? Like all kids who lived on bikes, I could easily recall how it felt to pick sand and gravel out of scraped and bloody elbows and knees. But I had to practice for the race, didn’t I? So I would be ready for the real thing.
I decided to let fate take its hand: The next time a crow cawed, I would shove off down the precipitous slope. The next time a cloud passed in front of the sun, I would do it. The next time...
“Chicken,” I muttered to myself. I knew that would do it. I couldn’t stand being chicken. Resigned to his fate, I pointed the spindly front wheel of my bicycle downhill and took the plunge.
The bike quickly gathered speed on the first pitch. The wind in my ears rose from a flutter to a whistle to a howl. The scenery began to blur and my arms ached with the effort it took to keep the front wheel pointed precisely downhill. One wobble on this gravel and it would be all over. The wind roared in my ears like thunder and buffeted at my chest. I flew down the final pitch and blasted past the muddy foundations and roughed-out framing of the new tract homes being put up on the pastureland at the foot of the hill. Tears whipped back from my eyes. The howl of the wind began to die down and I let himself relax. I didn’t have to pedal once, all the way to the main road.
When I stopped at the intersection, my arms and legs felt as if they were going to fall off, and a funny buzzing nattered in my ears. The taunting voice had disappeared. I had proven I was no chicken, that’s for sure. I promised I would never coast down Water Tower Hill again, at least not on two wheels. In my own sturdy, four-wheel race car, well, that would be different.
Back home, however, my old man was still caught up in the plight of those two supposed Communist spies, the Rosenbergs. I couldn’t understand what they had done wrong—if they had done anything wrong—and, according to his father and his father’s friends, a case against the couple had been built up in court by cowardly and crazy people—turncoat “friends” of the Rosenbergs who would say anything to stay off McCarthy’s blacklist, or to please “the authorities,” whoever they were. The Rosenbergs were about to be executed any day now. It all seemed crazy and weird to me, but very far away. I wanted my old man to stop being so upset about the whole thing and help me finish my soapbox racer before it was too late.
I decided that on Saturday I would try a different ploy to coax my father off the couch and out of his sadness. So after they’d all gone to the grocery store and done a few errands, my old man took his customary horizontal position on the couch.
I sat on the arm. “Hey, Pop,” I said, all casual-like. “I’m going downstairs and workin’ on some of the stuff the car needs. See ya.” I plunged down the basement steps, turned on the shop light, and began making noise with hammers, drills, and sanders. I had no idea what I was doing, but I didn’t care. I wanted to see what my old man would do. If he’d help me finish or not. I wanted to get that car ready by race day. Besides, to get the subject off the commies and the electric chair, I’d been bragging to the other kids for weeks about how cool my racer was. I’d never live it down.
My plan succeeded: Depressed though he might be, my old man wouldn’t let the brainchild of his genius slip through his hands. Down the stairs he came, brusque and grumbling but, in that one Saturday, we fixed the steering, cut and mounted a slab of tire tread onto the foot of the oh-so-clever brake mechanism my father had devised, and painted the car’s fuselage a bright fire-engine red.
After my old man went back upstairs, I opened a can of yellow enamel and hand-wrote his name just below the rim of the cockpit, the way I had seen it done on the soap box racers that had made it to Akron, Ohio for the Nationals. The yellow lettering ran onto the still-wet red enamel, but I wiped each letter with infinite care, tidying them back with a turpentine-soaked rag.
Half the town must have turned out on race day. At least all the guys my age and their dads were on hand to check out each other’s cars or to feel dumb and out of it because they hadn’t built a racer. I felt very important as we unloaded the bright red machine from the trunk of my parents’ Henry J., a lemon of a car that the Kaiser automobile company had come out with the year before. It was supposed to be a people’s car, a practical, no-frills, down-to-earth vehicle for the working guy, but, in reality, the car was a piece of junk that began to overheat and fall apart about a month after my old man brought it home. It was embarrassing to own one. But there we were, and I had one of the best-built soap box racers on Water Tower Hill, so the heck with the Henry J.
Each entrant had to measure and weigh his vehicle in front of the authorities to make sure it fell within the official Soap Box Derby regulations for size and weight. As we jockeyed the racer onto the scale, my old man got busy wisecracking to the other dads about how good the car was. I couldn’t tell if he pulled too hard, or if I stumbled on the edge of the scale but I plunged forward and smashed my nose on the car’s plywood backrest.
My nose stung right between the eyes. I yanked my end of the racer off the scales, but my nose stung and I felt half-blind. How was I going to see my way down the hill? I was terrified, but I kept the pain and fear to myself as we loaded the racer into the back of Johnny Contadini’s dad’s plumbing truck and whined slowly up Water Tower Hill in first gear.
My old man asked how “we” were doing. I said “good,” but I couldn’t see what “we” had to do with it: I was going to take the plunge down Water Tower Hill, not him.
A quartet of dads hefted the racer down from the truck and rolled it to the starting line for a practice run. I had borrowed a football helmet from my next door neighbor, Franny (for Francis Xavier) Carpenter. I pulled on the helmet and a pair of leather gloves my mom had bought me specially for the race, but I still felt shaky and blinded from the fall on weight scale.
But the top of the hill and the starting line was crawling with kids and their dads and I wasn’t going to let anybody see how scared I was. I wiggled down into the confines of the cockpit. The car was pointed straight down Water Tower Hill with two burly adults holding onto the rear axle. The race marshal nodded and dropped a green flag, the two burly men let go on my practice run.
The racer began to roar down the steep opening pitch on its hard, rubber-rimmed wheels. The car bounced over the asphalt, but I kept it on the course. After all, I had made it straight down Water Tower Hill on two wheels, hadn’t I? I knew he could make it easy on four, even if my nose was banged up and …
In the midst of the rattling roar, the steering cable tore away from the right side of the front axle and came whipping back across my helmet. The steering went loose in my hands and I became a passenger. The car took a hard left off the road, leapt a ditch, plunged through a thicket of underbrush, and smacked into a telephone pole.
I remember sitting in the cockpit, listening to the silence. I may have hit his head on the steering wheel, but I couldn’t recall a blow. I heard men’s voices far away.
A lady’s voice said “Oh my god, oh my god.”
I pushed myself up out of the car and crawled through the underbrush onto the asphalt. Everybody was staring at me. I felt my face redden with embarrassment.
My father arrived out of breath. He grabbed my shoulders, looked at me, wide-eyed. “Are you okay?”
I turned around and went back to my racer. Silently, I pushed through the men and boys that surrounded my car and picked up the loose end of the steering cable.
My father crawled through the underbrush, looked me up and down, turned me around, and dusted me off. “Look at that,” he said to the other men, pointing to the front of the car. “Not a scratch.”
I coiled up the cable, stuffed it into the cockpit and began to drag the soap box back onto the road. My old man joined me.
One of the burly men slapped me on the back of my helmet and said “attaboy.”
I heard cheering and applause as more faceless men pulled my racer back up the hill. As I re-tied the cable to the steering bracket, my old man explained to the assembled males that this was rudder-control cable for airplanes, the real thing. It hadn’t broken, you see, it had just come loose from the turnbuckle.
The practice session was over. Race time. One car after another rolled away from the line and disappeared over the crest of the hill only to reappear long moments later, played out at the bottom of the hill. Most of the cars were raggedy little things with wobbly wheels, but they all made it safely down the hill in one swoop.
I sat on my car, not speaking until it was my turn to race.
My father sat down beside me on the car and looked into my eyes. “You sure you want to go through with this?” he asked.
“If you don’t know, how am I supposed to?” I felt angry, betrayed, alone. Before my old man could answer, I climbed into the racer, settled myself into the seat and pushed against the brakes until my feet burned. “If my brake cable snaps. . .” I didn’t allow himself to finish the sentence. If something busts this time, I thought, what happens? What if I’m going even faster, near the bottom of the hill?
The questions raced through my head. I felt as if another person inside me raised my hand in the air and—for the second time—the burly men pushed me to the start line. The flag dropped, the burly men let go, and Water Tower Hill began to pull me forward. The rising sound of the wind formed a tube separating me from the people and the foliage on the roadside blurring them into elongated splashes of color as I gathered momentum. I felt alone and safe with nothing but the sound of my car and the rattling vibration of the car at speed. The telephone pole hung over me, frozen for an instant in stop-action against the sky and then I was past it. Free and on my own, I could see the finish line, far away but crystal clear.
I was in charge. I felt strong, excited. My body strained forward, urging my car down the course. I whipped out onto the flats past the newborn suburban homes and flashed across the finish line.
I came in second, just behind Johnny Contadini. Johnny’s dad had slipped a flywheel from an old Chevy underneath the seat of his kid’s racer before the little bastard flew down the hill. The added weight gave Johnny the momentum he needed to rattle into first place. Two weeks later, Johnny Contadini and his dad went on as local champs to the Soap Box Derby Nationals in Akron, Ohio. Johnny finished 137th and I stacked my racer on its nose out of the way at the back of our garage.
Two weeks later, on a Sunday, the Rosenbergs were electrocuted at Sing Sing. They said that Ethel Rosenberg didn’t die right away. They had to give her two or three extra jolts of high voltage to kill her.
My old man never got the job at his friend’s factory. Their first contracts were to build servo motors for the U.S. government. He couldn’t get a security clearance for government work because he had been a communist back in the 1930s. He had to look for work back in Boston, which was fine with him, because that’s where all his friends were. He never did land a steady job. Instead, a made a living through his scientist friends who tacked him on as incident in their research budgets. He got us through, but I had learned something fundamental. Alone in my car, no one could touch me. I was in control of my life, of my heart, my feelings and my direction home. I never forgot that.
# # #