Column: Guessing at the lessons I wasn’t taught

  • Paul Keane. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 7/13/2019 10:40:06 PM

I guess the thing about my childhood in Mount Carmel, Conn., in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s is that nobody explained frightening things to me — or as far as I know, to any of my childhood friends.

In my church on Whitney Avenue, Mount Carmel Congregational Church, there was an organ with a memorial plaque on it for Peggy, the young child of our minister and his wife. When I asked what happened to her, I was told she had run out onto Whitney Avenue and had been killed by a car. Nobody ever explained to me how the adults had allowed her to wander free enough to run out in traffic.

Don’t run out in traffic was the lesson, I guess.

When I was in sixth grade, my younger brother had classmate, a boy, whose baby sister was kidnapped. His mother had left the baby in a carriage in the lobby of a store in Hamden while she went shopping inside with a friend. When she came out, the baby was gone.

Days later, the baby was found in a plastic bag near Lake Whitney and the mother was questioned by police. No charges were ever brought. No one ever explained to me how two adults could agree that it was all right to leave a baby alone in the lobby of a store.

Don’t leave your baby in a carriage unattended was the lesson, I guess.

My neighborhood was a grid of four streets and Legion Field, a playground. It abutted the Mill River and water company property, mostly a woods of tall, white pines. Kids snuck under the wire fence and fished and swam in the river. One day in March 1961, after sneaking onto water company property (as we all did), my 10th grade friend, George, found a body in the woods. It was that of an old man, and his face was totally flattened. The police discovered the man had lived on James Street, just two blocks from my house. He had been missing for several weeks.

In an email, my friend David Johnson, now Hamden’s town historian, recounted the scene he witnessed as a child: “Dr. Sterling Taylor investigated. I can still remember when he turned the body over, the man’s face was flat, like it was run over by a steam roller. ... It was a Mr. Cornell, who, as I recall, had been reported missing New Year’s Eve.” No one ever explained to me how a man could be missing for two months and die in the woods so close to his home.

Don’t go walking in the woods alone if you are old was the lesson, I guess.

In high school, a very handsome Jewish boy in my class was dating a Catholic girl. One day, the boy found poison in the janitor’s office and took it. He died in his sister’s arms in a school hallway before the first period bell. The boy was protesting the parents’ refusal to allow inter-religious dating. No one ever explained to me how adults could allow religion to frighten a child literally to death.

Don’t date outside your religion was the lesson I guess.

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated five months after I graduated from high school. No one ever explained to me, or to anyone else in America, how the president of the United States could be shot and killed in broad daylight, on television, in front of thousands of people.

Watch out for strangers with guns was the lesson, I guess.

In my first 19 years, no one ever explained to me that there are frightening things in the world. I learned that for myself. We were taught to stuff our feelings and not talk about them, except in secret with our pals. That’s how kids were raised in those days.

Today, nothing is hush-hush. Kids are frightened in different ways. Too much information too soon.

Paul Keane lives in Hartford.




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