Personal Essay | Next Stop: Back Bay

How important is a sense of place? In this moving essay, best-selling author Hugh Delehanty describes how his misadventures as young man in Boston helped transform him into a writer.

Best-selling author Hugh Delehanty. Photo by Clay McLachlan
Best-selling author Hugh Delehanty. Photo by Clay McLachlan

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Best-selling author Hugh Delehanty. Photo by Clay McLachlan
Best-selling author Hugh Delehanty. Photo by Clay McLachlan

Hugh Delehanty is a best-selling author whose latest work, Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, written with Phil Jackson, debuted in June at number one on The New York Times bestseller list. This essay originally appeared in a slightly different form in Our Boston: Writers Celebrate the City They Love, a new collection of stories by John Updike, Susan Orlean, Leigh Montville, and others. The publisher, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is donating $5 for every book purchased to The One Fund to help the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing.

It was supposed to be our most excellent adventure. My best friend, Glenn, and I–both eleven years old at the time–had talked our parents into letting us go into Boston on our own to see the movie West Side Story, which had just opened downtown. We lived in South Weymouth, a quiet, Norman Rockwell-esque village on the South Shore, then one of the safest towns in America, according to Reader’s Digest. The actor Hal Holbrook, who once lived near my house, said that the primary reason he was able to recreate the character of Mark Twain so well was that he grew up in a world that was remarkably similar to Twain’s hometown, Hannibal, Missouri.

Glenn was a quirky guy. It was no surprise that he later became a biology professor. He was always conducting whacky experiments. Once he carved his name into his arm with a razor blade to see what would happen. (He stopped, thankfully, after the letter L.) Then he almost blinded himself trying to examine the spots on the sun–with binoculars! His nuttiest stunt, however, was firing his brand new BB gun at a hall where a bunch of World War II vets were gathered. I must admit it was fun watching dozens of pot-bellied ex-soldiers, in parade uniforms, running out the door and scurrying for their cars as if they were under attack by a division of Nazis. But the next day the police showed up at Glenn’s house and confiscated his gun.

Glenn and I arrived early at the movie theatre in Boston so we decided to head for the red-light district known as the Combat Zone nearby to see if we could catch a glimpse of the go-go dancers. But while we were ogling the posters in one of the porn houses, three thugs from South Boston sidled up to us and asked where we were from. They seemed friendly enough, but as we moved down the street away from the crowds, they strong-armed us and asked for money. When I told them we didn’t have any, the scariest of the three pressed his body against mine and said, “What’s in your pockets, Weymouth?”

Luckily I had purchased a pair of trick dice at a joke store down the street. When I pulled the dice out, our assailants were so transfixed by them that Glenn and I were able to slip away down a back alley.

As we ran away, Glenn suddenly flashed a switchblade out of his pocket and said, “I should have used this on them.”

“What’s that?” I asked, appalled.

“It’s the knife my grandmother gave me for protection before I left home.”

“Are you nuts? Those guys would’ve killed us.”

* * *

This wasn’t the exactly the Boston I’d expected to find when our family moved to the area a few years earlier. The image my father painted for my brothers and me was that of a refined “city on the hill,” the epitome of culture and higher learning that also coincidentally had some of the best sports teams in the country. What intrigued Dad most about Boston, however, was its vibrant Irish culture. For a man who had the intense pride–and nagging inferiority complex–of many second-generation Irish-Americans, Boston was a place he could call home. Unlike his native New Haven, which had a broad mix of ethnic groups, Boston had a disproportionally large Irish-American population and a long tradition of charismatic politicians with names like Fitzgerald, Curley, and Kennedy. We had moved to Boston from Hamden, a small suburb of New Haven, because Dad had been offered a good executive job in the post office. Nothing short of returning to the old sod in County Claire could have made him happier.

My mom had a good feeling about the Boston area as well, but for a different reason. Her father, who was of Scottish descent, had grown up in Thomaston, Maine, and we had ancestors who had emigrated to Massachusetts from Cheshire, England, in the 1630s. Mom was intrigued with the idea of deepening her Yankee roots in the Land of the Bean and the Cod. In fact, she was so obsessed that during our first year in South Weymouth, we visited Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower no fewer than twenty-five times. What fascinated her about the Puritans was not their charming fashion sense or their love affair with the turkey, but their strong tradition of moral rectitude. Mom felt like a Pilgrim at heart. That’s why she became a second-grade teacher: so she to get students young and fill their heads with her Puritanical views of right and wrong before the dark forces of mass culture and raging hormones put them on the road to perdition.

As for me, I wasn’t so sure. I loved Hamden and I didn’t want to leave. It was my little corner of paradise. Behind our house there was a sprawling, mostly empty cemetery that my friends and I transformed into our private playground. In one section we built a regulation baseball diamond complete with white-line base paths and a makeshift outfield fence. In another section, marked by rolling hills and newly planted spruce trees, we played war games in Army-Navy store camouflage uniforms.

The day we left for Boston I was so upset I jumped out of the car, ran around the house screaming, and wrapped my arms around a tree in the front yard, swearing never to move. Eventually my mother talked me back into the car. But I was bereft for days.

Massachusetts seemed like a foreign country to me. Everybody spoke in a funny accent and used the word “wicked” to describe everything from food to music to pretty girls. And the pizza tasted like glop compared to New Haven’s divine Neapolitan-style pizza.

The main thing I couldn’t understand was why everybody deified Ted Williams and the hapless Red Sox so much. To my eye, Williams was a mean-spirited prima donna more interested in fine-tuning his batting average than winning games. He was a far cry from my hero, Jackie Robinson, who just two years earlier had led my team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to its first World Series win.

It wasn’t until I was in high school and got a chance to explore the city beyond the confines of Fenway Park and the Combat Zone that I began to understand why Oliver Wendell Holmes had dubbed Boston “the hub of the universe.” My guide was my 10th grade English teacher, Miss Toomey, who, for reasons that escaped me, had made it her life mission to turn me into a writer.

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  1. Thanks, Paul. Those were some crazy days in Boston history. The olde, straight-laced city on the hill was–begrudgingly oh so begrudgingly–giving way to the 20th century. But there was no stopping this revolution.


  2. Great essay on Boston or is it a story? Either way Boston during that time is very much alive in all its contrasts through you. Thanks for continuing to write.


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