Monkey Business In Alcatraz

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While my mother later claimed that I was “the most planned” of her four babies, Mummie had clearly had enough by the time I had come along. Given the extraordinary historical events that framed our family, her children turned out to be divided into two subsets, based entirely on my father’s three-year active duty in the South Pacific during World War II.

Consequently, my only sister, Karen, and my big brother, Chris, turned out to be mid-war and post-war babies. A decade after my oldest sibling’s birth, my brother, Mark, was born in 1953. Consequently, my parents logically decided to have one more child to complete a perfect circle. In their minds, we were supposed to be Karen, Chris, Mark, and Martha – until I popped out a Shaun. Family legend has it that when I descended from my mother’s cocoon in the early morning hours of January 28, 1955, a hellcat had suddenly been set free.

While I turned out to be the spitting image of my maternal grandfather, I also was bequeathed with the only Irish surname of the bunch. Because it had been assumed by the family that I would be a girl, my father, James Lawrence Kelly, insisted that I be given a Gaelic appellation, probably in revenge for 500 years of English maltreatment.

My mother, the former Laura Miller Rice – and Yankee-English to the core, “wouldn’t hear of it.” It froze her already glacial British blood to actually have a child in her brood christened Sean. Consequently, amidst the bowels of the maternity ward at the Massachusetts General Hospital, then known as Richardson House, she anglicized my primary name, much to the relief of her assorted Anglo-Saxon relatives, who hovered around her in Boston that day as if she had somehow just lost the Hundred Years War.

Mummie, who once described herself as “a contemporary” of Elizabeth II, never got over it. Given my parents’ oppositional backgrounds, I inevitably took Dad’s side in the longstanding English-Irish squabble. Until Daddy died 30 years later, I was his “little mick.” Éirinn, go Brách!

Part of my mother, of course, was amused by all of this, but another slice of her viewed my conversion to the great unwashed in abject horror.  “Don’t worry,” I said to Mummie, an avowed member of the Church of England, a few years before she died in 2005. “I have faithfully served for almost five decades as your penance.” Her subsequent laughter was, well, qualified.

By the time I was three, my sister was a sophomore in high school, my oldest brother was approaching adolescence, and little Mark was already attending a local elementary school in our hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts.

Given the repressed ambiance of the 1950s, my poor mother had only one option back then – to be a homemaker. While she broke free and joined the workforce out of both necessity and desire ten years later, her life in 1958 was a relentless series of visits to the market, preparing meals, changing beds, and driving children to everything from games and practices to doctors’ appointments and cleaning the house. Even then, I recognized that it would have been a lot more manageable for her personally if I hadn’t been in the way.  For my more practical, less emotional mother, it created a conundrum: So, what to do about little Shaunie?

In 1958, our driveway at 48 Radcliffe Road was a long, angular one that more than doubled at its base, where it buttressed a two-car garage. By the time I was three, my parents had purchased an outside playpen large enough to house my tricycle, a sandbox, and a few bouncy balls, which I would regularly kick against my playpen’s solid wooden bars.

Mummie would usually deposit me in the outside pen around 9:00 am – except when it was raining – and there I’d stay until she completed her chores – usually by noontime. After lunch and my appointed nap, I would habitually find myself back in the outdoor playpen until Mark came home from school in the middle of the afternoon.

Considering that I was on my own for as much as three hours at a spell – with only a tricycle, a sandbox, and a few balls to play with – I began to befriend whoever came into view. I often chatted away at a flock of chickadees that played above my head in the maple tree that swayed over the broad section of our driveway.

In addition, our neighbor’s effusive Cocker Spaniel, a dog whose name was Clinker, used to race toward me when I entered my playpen each morning. He would then put his bantam nose through the bars of my cage and then proceed to lick my hand. On wintery days, Clinker’s moist nose occasionally kept my hands warm if I had somehow discarded my mittens. More importantly, this most loyal of doggies would sit outside my pen and guard me while I chatted away at him.

Bob, our mailman, would regularly come by at midday and effusively greet us both. “What are you and Clinker up to today, Shaunie?” he’d bellow.

“Oh, Bob, we’re just waiting here for everyone to come home,” I’d reply. Bob would then stick his hands through my bars and pat my honey-colored head. Eventually, however, what Clinker and I ended up doing was plot how to scale my playpen in order to escape its clutches. Never underestimate the pooled acumen of a little boy and a pup.

Wearing a dungaree jacket and the prerequisite coonskin cap that seemingly every little boy wore at the time, I figured out that it all came down to a matter of physics. After considerable thought one winter morning, I pushed my tricycle onto the seating end of the sandbox, carefully climbed atop the seat of the bike, and clambered over the playpen and onto the driveway below! I felt like Davy Crockett at the Alamo. The odds had been against me – but I had somehow made it to freedom!

After landing safely on the driveway outside the reaches of the playpen, I immediately sprinted out of my driveway, scurried up Radcliffe Road like a squirrel, and eventually found myself in the grassy barrier of a rotary at the corner of Radcliffe, Brook Street, and Benvenue. There I stood transfixed in the middle of the three-cornered roundabout for several minutes, not knowing what to do as an arsenal of eight-cylinder gas guzzlers – from Chevys to Impalas to Oldsmobiles – zoomed by me.

A few minutes later, a white-and-blue-colored Rambler Six station wagon abruptly screeched to a stop by the circle – its brake lights flashing sternly. The driver’s side then flew open, and Mrs. Nancy Gibbs, my godmother, scrambled out, looked at me, and roared, “Shaunie, where is your mother?”

“At our house, Aunt Nancy.”

“Why don’t I take you home….now.”

The next day, a team of carpenters showed up from my grandfather’s factory in Wrentham, Massachusetts, in order to build a second story for my playpen. When they completed the task, Grampie quipped to my mother, “Laurie, there’s no way that Shaunie can scale this. It’s inescapable. We actually made it seven feet high.”

With that euphoric declaration, Mummie was inspired by her father to rechristen my outdoor playpen. From then on, it became known as “Alcatraz.”

Don’t think that Clinker and I abandoned our efforts to liberate me from this increasingly oppressive jail yard. Physics didn’t work out in this case, but I tried. One day, I even mustered the guts to ask Bob the mailman – in my friendliest voice – to unlatch the door to the pen and let me out.

“I wish I could,” Bob laughed, “but it looks like you’re having too much fun in there. Plus, your Mom would not be pleased.”

“Everyone is against me but you,” I whispered to Clinker after Bob went inside to deliver the mail.

To her credit, my mother began to feel somewhat sorry for me after Alcatraz was built and would force her bathroom window open like a Mercury capsule in order to talk to me as she was cleaning up. One spring morning, when she opened the window and began calling out to me, Clinker, who had never made a peep in his young life, began to bark furiously at her. Mummie was so surprised and offended that the silent Clinker would repeatedly woof in her direction that my mother slammed the window shut.

“That’s my boy,” I petted Clinker proudly.

One afternoon, Daddy showed up from work early because he had a function in town later that day. As he embarked from his car, he came over to converse with his favorite prisoner. Dad then fingered his large paws through the bars and held my hand for a spell as Clinker watched impassively. Fortunately, the normally affable Cocker Spaniel had always liked my father.

After Daddy trudged into our house to change, I noticed some obvious movement in the branches of the maple above my head. I had expected to see my beloved chickadees – or maybe it was the familiar circle of amicable squirrels that leaped from branch to branch incessantly throughout the day. But the ongoing commotion to me sounded more “weighted down.” I looked up with an emerging sense of curiosity.

There, sitting brazenly in a lithe branch directly above me, thirty feet high amid the treetops of Wellesley – was…. a real live monkey.

My blueberry eyes widened as I spotted him. “Hello, Mr. Monkey!” I screamed out. “Do you want to play with me?”

The visiting primate looked at me with existential disdain and continued to sit on his precarious perch. “Come on, Mr. Monkey – we can have lots of fun!”

At that moment, my father was downstairs making a business call while Mummie was upstairs, cleaning her bathroom. When she heard the commotion outside, my mother decided to see “what in the world” I was chattering about. She then opened up the bathroom window just as I was roaring out, “Good boy, Mr. Monkey, yes, come closer! I won’t hurt you! We can be friends!”

For a second, Mummie smiled, thinking that everything I seemed to imagine was real to me at the time. However, when she looked at me and observed an authentic monkey cheekily perched on a lingering branch, not above me, her gray eyes instantly became as large as planets. I suddenly heard her bellow through the window: “Larry!!!!!! There’s a monkey perched right above Shaunie in Alcatraz!!!!!!!!”

Before I knew it, my father raced out into the driveway, unfastened the door, took my hand, and quickly escorted me inside.

I began to ask him if I could invite Mr. Monkey inside to play, but Dad rapidly clutched the phone and began spouting forth his implausible story to our operator, who instantly connected us to the Wellesley Fire Department. They hurriedly showed up with sirens off and captured the offending primate five minutes later.

Apparently, a careless employee at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston had left an individual monkey cage open during feeding time the previous day – and “Jimbo” was subsequently reported as missing. 13 miles and a day later, Mr. Monkey, aka “Jimbo,” tried to make friends with me.

In my mind then, I had been denied the opportunity to play with another new friend by the Wellesley Fire Department.

Alcatraz was eventually carted off and given to some other family, who then proceeded to barricade in another unfortunate toddler across town. Later that fall, I formally entered nursery school – and the liberating world of education.

I was finally free.

14 years after my visit from Jimbo the Monkey, I found myself in the classroom of the legendary Wellesley High School teacher, Mr. Wilbury Crockett, when he brought up the topic of “early childhood memories” as a conceivable canvas for self-expression. Mr. Crockett, who would eventually steer me into the dominion of teaching, had long served as a personal mentor for hundreds of Wellesley High School students over the years, including, most famously, Sylvia Plath ’50.

Not long before she died in 1963, Sylvia wrote a tribute to her old Wellesley High English teacher: “If we discovered abilities and interests we never knew we had, it was he who awakened us to them. If we made dreams become realities, it was because of his daily encouragement, unceasing inspiration, rare wisdom, and insight. For those of us who flourished under his guidance, Mr. Crockett was the teacher of a lifetime.”

As my peers and I sat in his junior English class on that scrubbed-up spring morning in Room 206 in 1972, Mr. Crockett passionately reminded us how writing is the equivalent of looking into the proverbial rear-view mirror. “Class, we cannot possibly go forward without processing where we’ve been. The ‘now’ we experience might soon be in the past, but in a certain way – it will always be etched in your mind in the present tense. Nothing is truly ever left behind. Those singular moments are waiting to be unearthed – and scrutinized. When you discover this,” Mr. Crockett exclaimed, “it will be a revelation. It will actually set you free.”

To clarify his point, he then read us the following passage from Yeats: “The world is full of magic things/patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Silence enveloped his classroom as the twenty-seven of us took it all in. Mr. Crockett began to look benignly at each of us and stopped when he saw that I had suddenly broken into an expansive smile. At that moment, my mind ventured back to those long-ago days in my driveway where Clinker and I had somehow endured the manacles of a playpen with a forbidding name.

“What are you smiling about, Shaun?” Mr. Crockett asked.

“Well, Mr. Crockett, I once lived in Alcatraz, where I was forever pining to escape…but a monkey saved me in the end.”

He glanced at me for a long time, chuckled to himself, and then gave me the best compliment I ever received as a student.

“Now, Shaun, that’s something that Sylvia might have said.”

A Postscript: In 2012, when Wellesley High School opened its new multi-million-dollar facility, it rededicated its new student study center, “The Wilbury Crockett Library.” Mr. Crockett’s old door from Room 206 is proudly displayed as a cherished artifact in the new library. Adjacent to the door is a plaque honoring Sylvia Plath, lovingly given in her memory by the Class of 1950. In a protected bookcase in front of the library is a copy of The Colossus, Plath’s first major book of poetry, which was published in the fall of 1960. When he received his own signed copy from his former student the year it was first published, Sylvia wrote: “For Mr. Crockett — in whose classroom these poems have root.”

 This article was written in memory of both Mr. Crockett (by one of his Crocketteers) – and our dear Sylvia, the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts’ enduring muse.


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