A boyhood trip remembered

November 18th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

My recent Insider column describing how Donald Trump and his acolytes were mimicking the cruel and dehumanizing words of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi devotees to fire up Trump’s MAGA cult was heavy with foreboding about the divisive, tar-pit-like times through which we now must slog.

With that in mind, I feel the need to offer something lighter — a lot lighter — for you to consider for some weekend reading. So, pour a libation of your choice, sit back, and let me tell you a story of a time long ago in what seems a galaxy far away. No heavy hitting today.

The Trip

When I was young my Irish Catholic family would take summer vacations during which you’d find all six of us crammed into Dad’s station wagon heading north to Canada.

On those trips, like good Catholics, we’d stop at every Canadian Cathedral we could find along the way. At one of them, one whose name I’ve managed to block from memory, my father, hoping God would make my vision better if I did something painfully devotional — I was born with astigmatism — made me join myriad other masochists climbing the Cathedral’s hundred or so granite steps on my knees. My vision did not improve and my glasses did not join the many crutches and canes hanging from the Cathedral’s walls, but my knees were sore for a week.

On one of our Canadian trips to the city of Quebec we took an apartment in the Old City at the bottom of the Heights of Abraham, the cliffs that General James Wolfe’s English troops scaled in 1759 to capture Quebec from the French general the Marquis de Montcalm’s army in The French & Indian War.

We were on the second floor overlooking an old cobblestoned street. All day long tourist-filled horse-drawn carriages would clip clop below. Every morning as the sun rose the water trucks would come, washing down the street to remove the southbound gifts from yesterday’s northbound horses. In the evenings, after touristing all day, we’d return to the apartment, and the earthy barnyard smell would give us an aromatic greeting.

On another Quebec trip, we stayed on top of the Heights of Abraham at the magnificent Chateau Frontenac hotel. I was twelve years old, and everything about the place had me bug-eyed. At dinner in the Chateau’s formal dining room six waiters in immaculate, starched white coats and black pants with creases as sharp as the edge of an ax, would continually circle the table, taking care of us. In a six-man line, they would march our meals to the table with military precision, each plate covered with a silver domed lid. With a flourish, they would place our dinners before us and then, as one, remove the lids while proclaiming, “Voila!”

But those aren’t the trips for this story. No, this story is all about a trip to New York City when I was 14-years-old.

One evening in June of 1960 during the family dinner my father said, “Tommy, your mother has a surprise for you.” Since I couldn’t recall my mother ever surprising me with anything, except for Christmas, birthdays, and those many occasions she caught me doing something I thought I had successfully hidden from her, I was both curious and wary at the same time.

And that was when Mom told me that, because I had done well throughout elementary school, she was taking me to New York City for a week’s vacation to celebrate my graduation from the 8th grade. Just the two of us.

With the exception of Haverhill, Massachusetts, the city where I was born, population about 60,000, the only other U.S. city I’d ever seen was Boston. We’d driven there a couple of times to look at window displays at Christmas. I’d also gone to Boston on a school bus for a 7th grade class trip to see the movie The Ten Commandments, a big deal Catholic event that was actually Jewish, not Catholic, but, true to form, we Catholics appropriated it, anyway. The Haverhill’s Jewish people gave a “what else is new?” shrug.

So, New York City was, to me, like heading off to Oz, or maybe Disneyland, which had opened four years earlier and was commonly looked upon as the 9th wonder of the world.

A few days later, my mother took me aside to ask if I’d mind if my sister Alana went on the trip with us. Alana was to graduate from 8th grade the following year, and, as there were three more behind her, I think Mom didn’t want to start a precedent of taking a kid to NYC every year.

As this was not a barricade upon which I was prepared to die, Alana joined the expedition.

When the day of the trip arrived, my father drove the three of us to Logan Airport. There, dressed in our Sunday best, we boarded a Northeast Airlines twin-prop plane and flew to the Big Apple. It was the first time Alana and I had ever flown, and we were as dumbstruck as a couple of Catholic kids from the Irish Acre of Haverhill ever got when, about halfway into the flight, our Stewardess — excuse me, Flight Attendant — served us lunch with ironed cloth napkins and our own little, personal, crystal salt and pepper shakers. I needn’t mention flying today isn’t what it used to be then, do I?

After lunch, I can remember standing with Alana and Mom looking out one of the plane’s small windows at New York City far below. The tall buildings that seemed crammed into and growing out of Manhattan looked small enough for me to reach out and pick up with one hand.

When we got to New York City we checked into a suite at the Statler Hilton Hotel. Then we went for a walk, an illuminating, eye-opening walk. The streets were seas of yellow taxi cabs, and it seemed as if every one of them had full-throated horns honking. Sidewalks crowded in every direction, New York City was chock full of people who did not look like us. Haverhill, very white Haverhill, had nothing like this, a phenomenon my sister and I did not appreciate until years later.

We spent the next week seeing the sights. We went to Radio City Music Hall to see a movie and watch the Rockettes do their high kick thing. Spent a day at the Cloisters. Took an elevator ride to the top of the Empire State building. Got sprayed on a boat going to the Statue of Liberty, which Alana and I climbed to the top while Mom watched from the ground. If Mom climbed a three-foot stepladder, she’d go all wobbly in the knees. At the top of the Empire State Building she’d stayed as far away from the edge railing as possible, so she was not about to climb Lady Liberty’s 162 steps.

One of the highlights of the trip was having lunch at Rockefeller Center. It being summer, I arrived in a shirt, but gentlemen, even 14-year-old gentlemen, were required to wear jackets and ties. So, a waiter brought me one of each out of the many the restaurant kept for the ne’er- do-well not-suitably-attired crowd.

Rockefeller Center was a great place for people watching while downing an expensive lunch. We sat in the English Grill on the north end of the plaza as Prometheus watched over us. I did not spend much time looking at Prometheus. Seen one 18-foot-tall, gold-gilded cast bronze sculpture, seen them all. I was more interested in ogling the midtown Manhattan lunch crowd, all of whom seemed to ooze confidence I had never seen before. Later in life I would learn they were as insecure as everyone else; they just faked confidence better.

One day we had lunch at Tavern On The Green, the ridiculously expensive Tourist Trap restaurant, in Central Park. After lunch, we took a horse and buggy ride through the Park, during which I mentioned to Mom that the southbound end of our Central Park horse was behaving better than the Canadian variety.

The evening before we would leave Gotham and return to humdrum life in Haverhill, we had dinner at the Rainbow Room on the 65th floor of Rockefeller Center. Standing in front of the room’s huge windows looking at New York City’s thousands of night lights far below, I became frozen. My eyes must have had the gleam a baby’s get the first time they see snowflakes falling.

The Rainbow Room was a restaurant and a night club, and after dinner we stayed to hear the Guy Lombardo orchestra play a set. At Mom’s persistent urging, Alana and I even made a poor attempt at dancing. Our years of weekly Wednesday afternoon lessons at Ruby K. O’Neill Sweeney’s Dancing Studio back in Haverhill didn’t seem to be doing us much good in the Rainbow Room.

The next day we boarded the same Northeast twin-prop plane for the trip back to what passed for our reality. The Stewardess was just as nice, the salt and pepper shakers still crystal, but something was missing. Expectation no longer sat in the air.

The memory of my trip to New York City in 1960 has stayed fresh ever since. A few years later, I would learn how privileged my upbringing had been. A humbling moment.

I wouldn’t return to New York City until another graduation, this one from high school. On that trip there’d be no Mom. My friends Dave and Greg would, on Dad’s dime, be my trip companions. I’d stay, once again, at the Statler Hilton where I’d have my own room and where we’d spend a few nights drinking in the Hilton’s Penn Bar. Didn’t do that with Mom.

During the days, we’d wander around New York’s World’s Fair recovering from the night before and ogling futuristic sights that everyone thought would one day be commonplace. Nobody required that I wear a jacket and tie on that trip.

But that’s a story for another day.