Archive for the ‘Random thoughts about life, my experiences, perspectives and more.’ Category

By David Flanagan

There he was, propped up against the dark, rusty, cold metal stairwell on the second floor of 160 Bunker Hill Street in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill housing projects. “Davey, can you help me? Can you take me home?. I looked and realized that it was Jim, one of my neighbors, father to several of my friends. Jim, who must have been in his 30’s or 40 tops, was lying there, legless, totally out of it, less than a quarter mile away from his apartment, his wife and five kids. What does he want with me, I thought?

“Davey”, he cried out. I looked at his hair, which seemed to be desperately trying to escape from under his scalley cap, his sun browned, wrinkled face and tired eyes trying to focus on me. “What do you want, Jim?” I asked, more irritated than patient at his calling me. I felt bad for Jim. This wasn’t the first time that I had seen him, legless, filthy, roasting under a fog of alcohol, asking for some change, a handout, a little conversation perhaps.

It seemed that all Jim wanted from me this time was a lift home. Except in this case, a lift home would be one traveled upon the shoulder of an embarrassed, shy twelve year old. “Come on Jim” I said and helped him from the stairwell. “Put your arm around my shoulder Jim, you’re heavy” Embarrassed, I prayed to God: please don’t let anyone see us limping along or they’ll think he’s my father.

I felt a thousand eyes upon us as we approached Carney Court. Dozens of kids playing out in the warm, summer sun. How could I have thought that our journey would go unnoticed. Stumbling along, moving much slower than I could bear, our trip lasted a lifetime. What if his kids see us, after all Billy and I shared a class at the Warren Prescott and brother Bobby was also a friend. Please, God let this ordeal be over soon.

As we walked across O’Reilly Way, Jim’s arm slipped from my shoulder and we almost fell into the street. My grip held, I propped Jim up and we continued, knowing that relief was only several hundred feet away. But, soon I could see Billy and he saw us.

My mind soaked up the look on Billy’s face with each step as his father and I drew closer, walking arm and arm toward him and our friends. Billy walked over to us and said “thanks Dave” and without saying a word to his father, relieved me of my burden and my shame. I walked away, head down, embarrassed about being seen with Jim and having to deliver him to his son, my friend in that condition. My shame and embarrassment could only have paled in comparison to that felt by Billy and his family.

Over the next few years there would be many other episodes involving Jim and his losing battles with the bottle and self-respect. Battles where there were clearly no winners, only losers. Jim passed away several years later from cirrhosis, but his pride, his will and his family’s hopes died long before he did. Several of Jim’s children ended up involved in violent crimes and were imprisoned in various prisons across the US.

I wonder how different things might have been if Jim had been able to hold a job, behave like a husband and father should, find his way home and win his battle with the bottle. The losing battle that Jim and his family waged against alcohol was fought by many of us in the projects. Unfortunately for Jim and his family, their losing battle with alcohol was a very public one with tragic consequences. For some the battle was far less public but in many cases the results no less tragic.

The story above is true but the names have been changed to maintain privacy and will never be revealed.



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David Flanagan

Herald op/ed page several years ago

Not long ago I read a newspaper account about several of my boyhood friends from Charlestown who were sentenced to life in prison on charges that include murder and armed robbery. Anyone else reading the story might have thought about it a bit then perhaps moved on to the sports pages. But I put the paper down, closed my eyes and drifted back to a simpler time many years ago, when all that my friends and I could think about was how to best spend a lazy summer day.

Looking back, I see a group of teenagers playing cards on the cold, dirty, concrete steps at 17 Carney Court, one of dozens of red brick buildings in the 1,000 unit Bunker Hill housing projects. In the background, that quintessential 60’s song “Light My Fire” blasts from a transistor radio.

As our interest in the card game wanes, our thoughts turn toward whether to play a game of pickup baseball, ride our bikes or head to the nearby Mystic River for a swim. In many ways we were no different from kids beyond the project walls, yet at the same time we were worlds apart.

I see a group of kids dependent upon welfare: living in homes without role models: with visible and not-so-obvious alcohol or drug abuse. Some of these children went to bed each night never knowing what they would wake up to the next morning and praying that the next day would be better than the last.

I wonder about my old friends, about what they have been up to for the past 35 years and whether they are truly guilty of the crimes. I’m flooded with emotions about our childhood, growing up in the projects and the tragedy of living day to day in an environment that offered little hope of fulfilling dreams and goals.

Project kids often do not have access to employment and educational opportunities, family vacations or a night out at a first class restaurant. Nor do they have perfectly manicured lawns, little white picket fences, fine clothes, privacy or even a cellar for saving cherished memorabilia. The often forgotten and maligned project kids sometimes have to step over drunks and drug addicts and wade through human and animal waste to get into their apartments.

These kids must learn how to endure the sneers and taunts of those living outside the projects, and how to smile cheerfully while silently seething when someone calls them a “project rat” and tells their children to stay away from “them”. Kids from the projects must learn to distinguish the echo made when a 38 caliber is fired from the sound of fireworks and to look the other way when they see something they shouldn’t have seen. Above all project kids must strive to never, ever lower their eyes and stare at the ground in shame when asked where they live.

I can’t help but wonder about what effect the unique, personal challenges each of my friends faced as kids may have had on their ability to “make it” and prosper within society. Each of us knew what the others were going through we just chose to remain silent about it, hoping that by maintaining our “Code of Silence” things would get better but they never did. Regrettably, many of these kids did indeed live “lives of quiet desperation”.

Then it seemed as though hardly a month passed by without hearing about the death of one of our friends succumbing to the thrust of a knife, a flash from a gun or the ravages of drugs. The helpless and often terrifying feeling of never knowing who might be next or whether the madness would ever end. Wakes and funerals packed with grieving friends and heartbroken family members numbed by the senseless passing of children far before their time.

Normally, I am cynical toward those who seek to blame an individual’s antisocial behavior on his socioeconomic background, parents, or self-esteem. However, deep within me I know that a number of my friends would not have been murdered or incarcerated, and wouldn’t have committed crimes or abused drugs if they had been exposed to a bit more compassion, hope or opportunity as youngsters.

A lack of opportunity or hope is by no means an excuse to commit a crime or to hurt another, but I suppose it is possible that those without either may fall victim to external influences and temptations at a greater rate. Returning to the present, opening my eyes, I thought, “There but for the grace of God, go I” before I turned my attention to the sports pages.

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A version of this was on The Patriot Ledger newspaper editorial page several years ago when it was originally written.

My son recently overwhelmed me with one of those dreaded questions that we enlightened parents are supposed to be able to answer but cannot because there is no logical response that will make sense to a young, innocent mind.

“From out of the mouths of babes” as they say, came the question that has stymied the most learned of philosophers, psychologists and parents. Dad, why is there so much violence in the world? he asked, signifying the end of innocence, a final farewell to Bert and Ernie and an entrance into this sometimes unforgiving world we live in.

I told my son that there really is no rational explanation for violence or for hurting another, but there are many possible reasons why these things occur. In all honesty, I had no idea whatsoever how to frame a response that would make sense to both father and son.

If my son were older I might have told him that there are about six billion distinct individuals in our world from extremely diverse backgrounds. Each one of these individuals is fighting for his fair share of an economic, ideological, religious and political pie that is simply too small to satisfy the needs of all.

By dint of birth, chance, perseverance or hard work some have prospered, many have failed and most of us have managed to survive by meeting each day’s challenges head on. We are all pawns in a grand chess game and somewhere, far beyond comprehension there is a Grand Master moving us across the chessboard of life. None of us asked to be here yet we are forced to compete against one another to survive.

In thinking about my son’s question I found myself wondering about why all of the violence occurs, how it all began and whether it will ever end or just keep spiraling out of control. Each dawn brings news of an even more senseless, horrifying act of savagery than the day before. Open up the newspaper, turn on the radio or tune into any television station and you will find instances of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man.

We fight, kill and sometimes go to war over religion, possessions, and ideologies, misunderstandings, for pleasure or to earn our fifteen minutes of fame. Unconscionable acts of violence are committed out of jealousy, love, hatred, contempt or because we are too mentally incapacitated to know the consequences of our actions.

When an act of violence occurs we thank god that it didn’t happen to us, we shake our heads and grieve for the victims and then go about the business of living our lives until news of the next day’s madness reaches us. Stronger locks, more powerful weapons, brighter lights, harder punches and firmer resolves are developed in order to survive and avoid being victimized by others.

Any parent who tells his children about the evilness within our society is morally bound to similarly remind them about all of the goodness, love, charity, generosity and compassion that also exist. The late Mother Theresa and her lifelong dedication and love for the poor and the infirm immediately comes to mind as a ready example of the kindness and goodness that abides within us.

You should tell your children about the woman who unselfishly offers her precious bone marrow to help a dying stranger half a world away or the philanthropist who anonymously donates millions to charity. Remind them also of the couple who opens up their hearts and home and adopts an unwanted, unloved child giving him their unconditional love and a decent shot at life.

Talk to your kids about the volunteer and charitable organizations such as Big Brothers-Big Sisters, the Salvation Army, and countless others who work tirelessly to help those less fortunate. Remind them of the Samaritan who stops along a desolate highway at 3:00am to help a stranded motorist or the woman who volunteers in hospitals or homeless shelters to help make life a bit more bearable for those in need.

These selfless acts of kindness and love provide ample evidence that despite our diversity and urge to survive; man’s innate goodness thrives and far surpasses the evilness that sometimes threatens to consume us. To my sons David and Evan and their friends I would suggest that while there is indeed evilness in our world, it pales in comparison to the beauty and goodness that may be found all around them.

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One recent Sunday morning I found myself sitting alone in the center of the finished part of our basement otherwise referred to as the “kids” side. David and Evan were upstairs doing who knows what. David, ten and eight year-old brother Evan must have declared an armistice because that morning it was so quiet in our house it was downright scary.

Like the proverbial calm before the storm, the silence of these lambs could only portend ill will for dear old dad. The war and pestilence that threatens to consume our world will surely fall by the wayside long before those two find out how to get along.

Come to think of it, if David and Evan are that quiet, what am I doing sitting here in the cellar. Maybe I should run upstairs and check on things, for surely they must be up to something. Better to be safe than sorry I suppose. Wait a minute, is it my imagination or is that the smell of wood burning, the sound of glass breaking, and the wail of sirens growing ever closer.

Oh, well, since neither of the boys is screaming bloody murder and it’s been well over an hour since the last body slam was executed, perhaps I should leave well enough alone. Besides, now is as good a time as any to sort through the mass of toys and games that surround me and try to figure out what to do with the ones that have long since outlived their usefulness.

It is highly unusual for me to have the “kids” side of the cellar to myself because the boys have fiercely protected their turf since we moved into our home a few years back.  Today, I have infiltrated the enemy encampment and must act expeditiously to carry out this critical mission before my foes discover that security has been breached. Armed with only a handful of plastic trash bags I set out to sift my way through the rubble.

Throwing things away has always posed an extraordinary challenge for me, a self-avowed pack rat suffering from a multigenerational inability to part with things great or small, new or broken, necessary or needless. So there I was on an exceptional Sunday morning, surrounded by videogames, Legos, books and magazines, board games, rubber action figures lying face down in the most unnatural of positions and limp and lifeless stuffed animals. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure I thought, and who really knows whether those stuffed animals or broken games will one day become collector’s items.

Where have the years gone I thought looking around and picking up toy after toy each with its own remarkable story to tell? Oh, if only Floppy the rabbit could tell me about the secrets whispered to him by David and the conversations that only the two of them shared over the years.

The battered old baseball that Evan forever bounced off our tired cellar walls which cracked just a tiny bit more as his arms grew stronger and his throws increasingly more accurate and powerful. Flipping through the yellowed pages of Good Night Moon I drifted back to those many evenings when I would tuck the boys snugly under their covers and read that enduring, wonderful classic and countless others over and over. “Daddy read the story again”, David or Evan would plead and I would do so until they could no longer keep their tiny eyes from closing.

Drifting back I thought about the many nights that I would look at David and Evan lying in their beds so peaceful, warm and safe and wonder how I will feel one day when they are no longer ensconced within our home under my watchful eyes. What thoughts will race through my mind once they are teenagers and late coming home from a party or not coming home at all?

How about the hundreds of checker games, board games and fish that I played with the boys letting them win over and over again because I couldn’t bear to see the tears and frustration over not being able to beat their old man. Now I have all that I can do to beat David and Evan at anything, particularly games requiring dexterity and speed such as the videogames that we sometimes play and I always lose. What about the thousands of throws that Evan and I have exchanged over the years in preparation for his eventual career in professional baseball.

I sat there thinking about how one day I would again reign supreme over the “kids” side of the basement. King once again of the cellar, master of all I survey. Never again to be relegated to lifting weights alongside the washer, the dryer or Hewby’s litter box. But my victory would be a hollow triumph and one that would come with great anguish. One day, the cellar will indeed fall silent, but it will be an eerie silence that begs for the days when David and Evan, my babies were living under our roof.

Clutching Floppy, gently stroking his aging fur and giving him a kiss I felt tears welling up in my eyes and sensed the underlying feelings of helplessness in knowing that we are all losing the battle against time. Thoughts of watching my sons grow up to be men and going off to follow their dreams, wherever they may take them.

Sooner than I can bear to imagine David and Evan will be off to college, perhaps married, maybe even living out of town or even worse out of country. No longer would I have the pleasure of telling the boys to turn down the TV, the delight in hearing their laughter and the joy of wiping the cookie crumbs from their face. Standing up, putting the bags aside I decided that perhaps today was not such a good day to clean out the cellar, the finished side, the “kids” side.

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