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Rites of Passage :: Nonfiction :: - (Short Story)
Growing up in Locust Point, just after WWII, along South Baltimore’s harbor, had some special memories for me. One of them was learning how to swim in the waters of the harbor. The foot of Hull Street, where the water was at least 32 feet deep, and murky as heck and full of chemicals, was where the local kids went swimming. For some, like myself, it was for the very first time.
"A lasting, high and happy memory."
-- Ben Johnson
“Hey, get ready, I’m coming in,” I shouted.
“You sure are,” a voice behind me snapped loudly, as he grabbed me forcibly by the back of my white-colored jockey shorts and by my left shoulder and simultaneously pushed, shoved, jolted and lifted me high up and over and into the cold waters of Baltimore harbor, landing me at least three feet out from the pier, which hadn’t been used for years to dock ships.
WAM! Before I knew it, my body, all ninety pounds of it, was splitting the water like a tomahawk missile and heading feet-first down into the deep. I was shocked to say the least. I must have went down about four or five feet before I could stop my steady descent. Then, I started climbing quickly back up towards the top. I could see the light from the morning sun. The water was dirty there, real dirty, since the Proctor & Gamble Plant, was located only 300 feet away at Haubert St. It worked 7/24 making soap, like “Ivory,” regularly dumping its chemicals and waste materials into the once pristine waters of the harbor. This was long before there were any Environmental Protection laws. There was hardly a kid in Locust Point who had swum in the harbor who didn’t have problem with his ears. I say “his” because the girls never went swimming in the harbor. Don’t ask me why, they just didn’t. I pushed the water down frantically with my hands by my side as I began my ascent. I was scared shitless! I couldn’t swim a lick! I realized that I could die!
I was bluffing about wanting to go into the water with my neighborhood buddies from Locust Point, in South Baltimore, only about a mile from historic Fort McHenry. At least, four of them were already in the water, urging me to come in and join them: “Spanky” Ridgeway, “Duke” Brown, “Porky” Bloom and George Kelly.
Spanky was a real character. He loved to do the Tarzan yell from the movies of that period. You could tell he was coming to join up with you on any outing by listening for that voice of his screaming out that tune. Some of the neighbors thought he was whacky. The water there at the foot of Hull Street was about 32 feet deep. In fact, I had run that “I’m coming in” act plenty of times on them before, without going into the water to enjoy the fun. It was part of my routine of coming down to the harbor to go swimming with the local gang: but I was too frightened to actually get in and join the boy-ohs. I must have been about ten years old and it was just after WWII. This time, fate intervened in the process, via the arms of one of the older guys from the neighborhood, Eddie Mitchell. He also hung out at the water’s edge. I think he simply got tired of watching me pulling my fake act on everybody. He decided for me! Lucky for me, Mitchell was also an excellent swimmer and an all around athlete, ready to come to my rescue, if necessary.
Mitchell was Polish and lived in the 1300 block of Haubert St., a block from our house and across the street from my favorite aunt, Mary Lardner Hughes, born in Galway, Ireland. Mitchell’s name had been anglicized. He was built on the small side, always wore a crew cut and was fairly athletic. His dad was a stevedore boss on the docks for the Terminal Stevedoring Company and his mom loved to play seven draw poker. Years later, Mitchell joined the U.S. Air Force and was involved in the Vietnam War. On a bombing flight from Guam to Vietnam, his plane exploded on take off. Everybody onboard was killed. They said that Mitchell was ready to be discharged from the service when the tragedy occurred. I was stunned when I heard that news, as were all Locust Pointer who knew and loved Eddie Mitchell.
When I got to the top of the water, I could hear and see everyone up on the dock was cheering for me. I doggy-paddled my way towards the pier, taking short but quick strokes. When I got close, Mitchell got me to extend my right hand up and he lifted me out of the water in one motion. More cheers! I had done it! I had swum in the harbor! Yeah! I was ecstatic. It was like how I would feel years later in 1954, after scoring the winning goal against Poly when I was playing soccer for Calvert Hall College High School and we beat them, at Clifton Park, by a 1-0 score. I can’t ride pass that field even now, without remembering that golden moment. The same goes for my first swim in the harbor.
It was time to celebrate with another ritual. After we all got dressed, we headed back up Hull Street to Jake’s store. I think it was probably July or August. As for our wet jockey shorts, we just rolled them up into our towels. Nobody owned a swimming suit.
Jake’s store was located two blocks from the harbor on Hull Street and only a stone’s throw from the ILA local 829’s hiring hall. This was the place where the longshoremen went in the morning to get hired for day on the freight carrying ocean vessels. Jake was a Russian and he had an Asian look to him, like he had came from the most eastern part of that huge country. I got a bottle of Pepsi and a pretzel. I think it cost about 15 cents. The gang of four was with me and we all headed across Marriott street to Weil Brothers, a ship chandler outfit, to feast in the shade on his side step and recount the triumphs of the morning.
After that first swim, I couldn’t wait to repeat that moment. Just about every day during the summer months, I headed down to the foot of Hull St. with the gang in tow for another go at it.
We liked to go swimming at dusk, too. It was cooler then. Around that time, an excursion boat, the “Moonlight Cruise,” would regularly leave Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and head out into the bay for a ride that lasted about three hours. The boat would sail right by our swimming hole at the foot of Hull St. Young couples liked the cruise since there was dancing, drinks and live music available. When the boat got opposite of where we were standing, about 7 or 8 of us, would wave frantically, jump up and down, and shout to the folks on the boat. They would wave and shout back. Then, we would all drop our jockey shorts, turn around quickly, and “moon” the Moonlighters. We could hear them gasping, cursing us, and then roaring with laughter as the ship made its way down towards Fort McHenry and out of the harbor. It was a show we liked to put on, and I suspect the captain of the vessel probably got to look forward to it, too, after many repeat nightly performances by the Locust Point boy-ohs.
by courtesy & © 2010 William Hughes
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