Summer memories

Originally published in the East Boston Sun Transcript on June 29, 2001.

Summer arrived last week, officially ushering us into the season of beaches, barbecues and outdoor recreation. Schoolchildren are celebrating the end of classes and basking in the promise of weeks spent sleeping late, playing games all day, and a sun that seems reluctant to set well into the evening.

For me, every summer brings back memories of childhood and, in particular, the experiences I had in the early 1970s at a summer program I attended. I believe that those days were important in shaping the adult I became.

Through fifth grade I went to the James Otis School, which was just around the corner from the apartment in which my family lived. I was a good student and, apparently because of that, my parents were invited to have me participate in a wonderful program over the course of several summers.

Mornings in July and August, Monday through Thursday, two yellow school buses would pull up as I waited with friends at the corner of Paris and Marion streets, right across from the Otis. One of the vehicles was driven by a stout man who wore a blue shirt embroidered with the name “Sparky” above the pocket.

The buses rolled north to Route 1 and then onto 128. The younger group went to an airy one-story school in Beverly, which was quite a change from our lovable old brick structure.

The older kids received even more of a culture shock when they were transplanted from the busy streets and three-deckers of Eastie to a beautiful building that looked like a mansion and was surrounded by acres of trees and grass in the wealthy town of Hamilton.

It was certainly a different world.

I went to Beverly for at least one year; whether I attended longer than that escapes me. It is, however, the three years I spent in Hamilton — at what I now know is the Pingree School — that impacted me a great deal and left me with indelible memories.

When Sparky came to pick us up on those summer mornings, there were already a number of kids on the bus. The first stop had been in Dorchester and the youngsters who boarded there were black. For white kids from Eastie, this was something else that we were not used to seeing.

In Hamilton we played games, ran around outside, and made arts & crafts projects, but we also gathered in classrooms to do some math and reading. The counselors were friendly and gentle, and I remember mornings and afternoons spent blissfully occupied with being a kid.

The Pingree School

I spent time with my friends from the Otis, but I also got to know the other youngsters — the boys and girls from the other side of the tunnel who I had never seen on the streets of East Boston. They turned out to be just like my friends — funny and smart and nice. One boy who sticks out in my mind was named Miles, and he would make us laugh every day.

The highlight of the summer was a camping trip in southern New Hampshire. We set up tents on the shore of a pond, played capture the flag in the woods, and gathered around a campfire to sing and tell stories at night. All of this was thrilling for a bunch of city kids.

As we walked back to our tents in darkness, the sky revealed a canvas of stars that I never knew existed, and in the morning I awoke to a chorus of songbirds that sounded almost alien.

We camped for two nights, and on the middle day we set off to climb Mount Monadnock. We packed lunches and filled canteens and then began walking up the inclining path, heading for the 3,165-foot high summit.

Three years in a row I started out with the others, but each time I failed to reach the top of Monadnock. The final year I would have been 11 years old. On that journey I walked most of the way with a boy from Dorchester named Demetrius. For more than three hours we pushed ourselves and encouraged each other, though we said little. I never forgot his name or that day.

Years later, working at the Salesian Boys & Girls Club, I often took kids from East Boston camping in Monadnock State Park. We hiked up the same trail on that mountain, and every time we reached the summit I stood sweaty and triumphant, remembering my climbs as a child.

Three years ago, on a summer afternoon, I retraced the route that I remembered Sparky driving, and I found the white mansion. I walked into the building and explained to a woman in the front office that I had been there as a child. To my surprise, she allowed me to wander around the place unaccompanied.

There were the classrooms and the library and across the way, the open fields. It was all still there. Out back, there were kids splashing in a pool that I didn’t remember being there when I was a camper. I stopped to watch them for a moment, trying to remember what it felt like to be a kid in the summer.