East Bremerton was called Manette back then, and it had the same
relationship to the Navy town of Bremerton as Brooklyn has to
Manhattan: Inferior. Also, a tall bridge over tidal water connected
Manette featured several World War II-era barracks-style housing
projects, still occupied by holdover military families. Those were the
good neighborhoods, well-maintained by the government, as the homes of
heroes should be. We lived in one of the civilian districts, among the
quonset huts and tar paper boxes that sheltered shipyard scrabblers,
evangelists, hookers, Okies, Irish, and Swedes.
For all that, it did not feel to us like a dangerous neighborhood or a
dangerous town. First graders walked to school accompanied only by
other young scholars a full mile through sometimes inclement weather
and always varied streets and alleys. Armed with good advice — walk
fast; don’t talk to strangers — there were never problems. Strangers
apparently got the message and showed no interest in us.
Each Saturday Leonard Seifers and I would meet at the Perry Avenue bus
stop, then ride, all by ourselves, across the Manette Bridge to
downtown Bremerton for the Saturday Matinee at the Tower Theater.
After feasting on Jujubes, Tootsie Rolls, and Big Screen Serial
Adventure with a lot of other kids our age, we’d catch the Perry Ave.
bus and head home, hours later, still all by ourselves.
So there was really no sense of foolhardiness or irresponsibility on
either my or my parents’ parts when I as a second-grader was allowed
to take the bus to Bremerton to do my Christmas shopping. It would be
an adventure, to be sure. I’d be all by myself this time, not with a
“Are you sure you can do it?” my mother asks, her head bent forward so
she can look squarely into my eyes. “You won’t get lost or lose your
money? Will you?”
“Of course not.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask a policeman for directions.”
“Don’t be afraid to run away if somebody talks to you mean or looks
wrong at you,” adds my father, standing straight up behind Mom. “Find
a cop if you need help.”
Although I hadn’t any idea what looking “wrong” meant, I assumed that
if it happened I’d know it. “I will,” I reply.
I don’t know how much money I had or how I carried it. Did I have a
coin purse? I’m sure I didn’t have a wallet. Maybe I had my money
tucked away in a tobacco-fragrant Bull Durham sack?
Crossing the bridge all by myself in the front seat of the bus where I
looked straight down at the pavement through the stairwell windows,
riding poised within inches of falling-off-straight-into-the-water far
below, I imagined how I would get out of the upside-down bus from
underwater. And then how I would save my fellow passengers, modestly
flaunting my remarkable, Saturday-serial-honed courage and
resourcefulness to reporters afterward. Wasn’t it cold and wet? Wasn’t
the current dangerously strong? How had I managed to save that frail
old man, that helpless woman with her baby? Honestly, I’d protest, I’d
just done what any other boy on his way to buy Christmas presents for
his family would do. And if you’ll excuse me, I’ve still got some
Soon I was off the bus in the middle of holiday-festooned Bremerton,
the streets decorated with evergreens and colored lights, Salvation
Army bellringers on every corner, people dressed up for the holidays
moving quickly from store to store, diesel and gasoline fumes clouding
the air, overlapping Christmas carols from unseen sources: “round yon
virgin mother still we see thee lie right down Santa Claus Lane”.
Everything and everybody was suddenly much bigger than it had ever
been before. Was it already starting to get dark? Did I remember where
to catch the bus home? If I needed a policeman, where would I look?
Was it cold enough to snow?
(End of “A Beggar’s Christmas, 1947″, Part One. Tune in early next
year for Part Two.)