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On Sunday, December 7th, 1941 the Japanese Empire dropped bombs on United States military facilities at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, which for America, marked the beginning of World War II. Although not recorded anywhere else in history, except under "1941 Births" in the "Town of Townsend Annual Report," one bomb did hit the United States mainland just the day before. Striking precisely at 8:03 Saturday morning, twenty-four hours earlier, exactly to the minute. The device landed right in the center of a small town in north central Massachusetts, named Townsend, population 2,226. The bomb wasn't dropped from a high flying Japanese aircraft using the latest in air to ground weapon technology of the time though. Instead it was delivered the old fashion way via a true-blooded American woman using the "push," "breathe," and "push" method. An ordinary delivery really, been going on the same way since the beginning of man. Unlike what had occurred in Hawaii, the arrival wasn't a surprise either. Just a natural childbirth, nine months to the day, right there in the center of town. The deliverer, my mother, Virginia Mary May. The delivered; me. A boy weighing just over seven pounds. I was different however. The doctor first told my mother she had delivered a beautiful baby girl, then said, "wait a minute, wait just one minute here, this girl's ah boy!" Either I was very chubby, or yet to get stubby, I'm not sure. I was so young at the time, I can't remember. I can only hope that the ensuing confusion had something to do with my paunch, and not the other thing. During the excitement of establishing my gender, the doctor failed to recognize something of greater significance. He never noticed that I also came equipped with a time-delayed fuse, which would sputter and fizzle for thirteen years, give or take a few months, before setting off the bomb. Something he never told my mother about. Wasn't his fault. Never saw it. Had he picked up on it, he could have warned her; "Virginia, be prepared for the worst!"
Virginia Mary, named after the Virgin Mary of Catholic fame, named her little destructive device William, after her husband, my father, who had been blessed with the name for no particular reason. We had different middle names, his Edwin and mine Edward, so by law I wasn't even considered a "junior." Couldn't even be classified a "second" for that matter, although "William the Second" would have been a name I liked. Amazing how some names self elevate, while others don't. The highest plateau I ever reached was Billy. That was the name people called me during my grammar school years. As I grew older my father changed my middle name from Edward to "Boy" and started calling me "Billy Boy." He could have used William Edward, my legal name, but never did. Too distinguished. Too acclaimed. He wanted a name that never reached the mountaintop. Even Billy Edward, which reached a lower plateau, wouldn't work. Too elevating. Too adoring. Too uplifting. He needed a name that bottomed me out. One that would take the steam out of my adolescent engine. Not to slow it down, but, stop it. Something that would bring my juvenile wheels of wisdom to a screeching halt, leaving me in the dust of a bad decision to ponder the consequences of the wrong I had done. One that would match his feelings of dismay brought on by my lack of common sense. A verbal ass kicker. In his wisdom he created a name that left me stranded on the valley floor. A nickname with a knockout punch; "Billy Boy." Wasn't a pretty name. Wasn't meant to be. "Billy Boy" always got my attention.
Although Virginia's delivery was immediately felt, especially by her, the full impact of her personal attack on Townsend would not be realized until my slow burning fuse finally reached puberty's powder keg. When I finally blew. When Virginia should have been "prepared for the worst," but wasn't. Wasn't her fault. She was never warned. Never had a clue. Didn't see it coming. How could she? The doctor had failed to warn her, and immaturity didn't exist in her Catholic world of the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost. One minute she had this little flower of faith growing in God's garden of grace, and the next, a blooming idiot on her hands.
This second impact came late in 1954 and unlike the initial one in December 1941, wouldn't be instantaneous. The intensity of this secondary blast would take time to develop. Very much like a thunderstorm rolling across the Kansas plain. Just a faint noise at first, bounding along the edge of audibility, flashes of lightening illuminating the dark horizon every now and then, out there, somewhere, off in the distance, posing no threat to anyone near. Interesting to watch from afar, slowly moving east, growing louder and louder as miles of earth got slowly swallowed up by Mother Nature, getting closer and closer, until being spit out in a wad of anger when the storm struck. This final finish of fury often referred to by people living in the Midwest as, "when all hell broke loose." That best describes my young life, the latter expression summing up my teenage years for sure. Those early years of growing, going mostly unnoticed, off in the distance, a few faint sounds now and then, with a flash here and there. Never a brilliant flash, just an occasional semi-bright one. Slowly growing in strength as the early years passed by, building with intensity until adolescence hit with full force. When Virginia's little bomb exploded sending shrapnel of "Billy Boy" hormones flying off in every unwanted direction. I guess it could have been worse, had those years been compared to a tornado leaving a massive path of destruction along the way. I wasn't that bad. My trail of devastation wasn't wide, or my actions that extreme, just annoying. So much so, many adults often referred to me as, "a royal pain in the ass." I fully understood why they felt that way, but I could never figure out why they honored me with "royal." I wasn't even British!
This book is mostly about "Billy Boy," an all wise, all-knowing, annoying teenager of the fifties. Some tales of "Billy," the good Catholic boy, are included in the beginning in an attempt to show "how," "when," and "where" the transformation from one to the other occurred. The "why" of that change, are left for the reader to judge. To tell the story of "Billy Boy" without a smattering of "Billy" would be difficult, if not impossible. This is about an age of great discovery, when my young and fertile imagination knew no boundaries. When a voice kept shouting deep inside my head, telling me over and over, "someday you will become famous Billy." How, the voice didn't say. Just that I would. When making money was central to my existence, because I didn't have any. When I went from those innocent single digits of youth to those double digits of trouble. When I possessed immense knowledge. When I knew it all. Why I hadn't been named Albert, after the intellectual mathematician Albert Einstein was perhaps the only thing I didn't know back then. Instead I was named William, after my father, who often told me, "Billy Boy" (emotionally upset), "there are two ways of learning in this world, the hard way and the easy way, and you 'Billy Boy' (getting even more agitated as he spoke) will go through life learning the hard way."
This is my story, as bad as it was, as good as it was, it was what it was, as best I recall. It actually happened! So come along with me. Indulge yourself. Climb right in. I'll drive. "License?" you ask. I don't have one yet, but I know how to drive. Plus there's only one cop in town. We'll just check to see where he's parked and go the other way. Impressed? Hey, I'm on the stick. Sit right up here next to me in the front passenger seat. Come on. Let's go. You won't even have to buckle up, because we'll be cruising down the back roads of the fifties. I can even get some rock and roll music on the radio if you'd like. Cool huh? You might even hear "Click Clack" by "Dickie Do and The Don'ts." Don't let the name scare you. Maybe Dickie did, but the Don'ts didn't, and I won't either. Trust me. I'm Catholic. Take a break. Loosen up a little. Let yourself unwind. Relax. Enjoy the ride. You're in for a kick. I promise. Come on. Get in. What are you waiting for? Let's split!
I grew up in Townsend Center, 232 Main Street to be exact. In what third generation residents called the "Old Higgins Place." For some reason, old timers referred to new people's homes according to the previous owner's last name. Probably an easier way for them to tell the newcomers without actually calling them such. So although my last name was May by birth, I was third generation Higgins by tradition. I liked living at the "Old Higgins Place." George Washington had lived at Mount Vernon, and here I was, Billy May, living at the "Old Higgins Place." Made me feel important. Distinguished to a certain degree. Fit right in with that voice that kept running around inside my head, telling me over and over that I'd be famous someday. To me, living at the "Old Higgins Place" was a sign of great things to come. I could imagine after I was dead and gone, people would come to tour the home on Main Street where I grew up. Just like they did Washington's. The "Old Higgins Place" where Billy May once lived. The Mount Vernon of Massachusetts.
The "Old Higgins Place" was vintage New England, built around the turn of the century with materials readily at hand, wood, plaster, and bricks. On the left side of the house there was an attached barn, which my father had converted to provide cover for an automobile, the horse and buggy days a thing of the past. The addition of the garage gave the house a touch of affluence. Except for the people in town, no one knew what was behind the garage door. Strangers driving past might think there was a new Cadillac parked inside. Might think we were rich, but we weren't. We didn't own a Cadillac. My father parked our family's four door 1938 Oldsmobile in there. What he called the "Black Beauty." The thing was actually two toned, having a black top with the lower portions an orange brown color. The latter created by excessive rust. The older guys in town called it a "shit box," probably because of the similarity of the bottom color. My father often talked to the "Black Beauty." Mostly when he was in the garage trying to start her up. He'd say things like, "come on you little stinker, start!" Or "you don't want to start, you don't want to start? Fleck's junkyard is right up the street!! Is that what you want? Is it? Is it?" Whenever my father drove me anywhere I would lay on the floor in the back so my friends wouldn't see me, especially the girls. I knew when I became famous someday I'd own a brand new red Cadillac convertible. I'd sit up nice and tall in it too, for everyone to see. Especially the girls. Until then, I settled for hiding in the back. Having a "shit box" parked in the garage was a true indicator that not much money was spent on the transportation needs of the May family. We weren't poor, just "strapped for cash," as my old man put it.
My house looked very much like all the others along Main Street. Sitting on a granite foundation with white clapboards, black roof and a small patch of grass out front. The place seemed to fit right in. Throw in a few flakes of snow and a horse drawn sleigh and you'd have a scene right out of Currier and Ives. This seemingly tranquil outer appearance only masked what was going on inside. My house was different. My house was haunted. Not just by any ghost, but by the big daddy of them all, the Holy Ghost! Most Catholics lived in regular houses, just like the Baptist, Protestant, and Methodist did. No big deal. They went to church ONCE a week and came home to a normal house. Four walls and a roof. Everybody was happy. No problem. Not me. I went to church EVERYDAY and came home to a Catholic house! The only thing missing on the outside to correctly identify its extreme Catholic orientation was a steeple, topped with a gold cross.
My mother took her religious beliefs to the extreme. She was a strict, stern, devote, dedicated, resolute Catholic mother, straight to the core. The rosary, crucifix, and the sign of the cross were an everyday part of her life. Sunday Mass, First Fridays, Stations of the Cross, Novenas, dried palms hung behind crucifixes, and fasting during Lent were central to her existence. If you changed her religious practices, took away the pork and added kosher food, she could have easily passed for a Jewish mother. She called the shots. She was in charge. The boss. Commander in Chief, second only to Christ himself. She not only plotted my course, she was at the helm steering my ship. She knew where I as headed even when I didn't.
Although we lived in Townsend, I'm sure if my mother had her way we would have lived at the Vatican in Rome, or as close to it as possible. We didn't have much money, and we didn't speak Italian, so tragically (for her) living near the Pope was out of the question. The closest my mother ever got to the Vatican was a set of eight small dinner plates our parish priest brought back from Rome and gave to her. Little did she know that her weekly twenty-five cent donation to the poor box, and the dollar she dropped in the basket at Mass every Sunday funded his trip. Paid for her plates too, which were white with fourteen carat gold edges, decorated with various scenes of the Vatican appearing upon them. The plates weren't really hand painted as she had thought. The designs were created by a simple decal transfer process. Probably crafted by some poor Italian kid in a sweat shop a few kilometers outside of Rome, whose boss kept yelling at him, "hey pizon, whasa matta yu, getta ya self biz, no mor fool ah round!" Regardless, these plates were special. Extra special. These were the holiest of holy. They were never used for eating. They weren't big enough to hold a full meal. Instead of serving any culinary purpose, the eight little wonders from Rome were displayed on individual holders in our dining room, four on each side of a large imitation painting of the last supper. A Christian contradiction of sorts, the last supper and no supper sharing the same wall. Their fragile dormant existence evoking one of the five cornerstones of the Catholic Church; FEAR! Breaking one of them would have been as stressful as the crucifixion itself. If one had suffered such fate, the spot where it broke would have to be scrubbed clean, prayed over, and the pieces blessed with holy water before proper burial in the backyard, complete with smoking incense. This duel display was my mother's very own, and one of many, visible Catholic shrines throughout our house. Over each bed in our house hung a crucifix, with dried palm bows left over from the previous Palm Sunday hung behind them. Our Philco console radio even had a crucifix hung above it, which I'm certain watched over all my cowboy heroes as they rode across the airways. Must of. They always got the bad guys. At least one wall in every room, if not two, displayed a picture of Christ. In our front room we even had a picture of Christ when he was a baby.
Many people, mostly non-Catholics, believe the baby picture phenomenon started with the invention of the Kodak box camera back in the late eighteen hundreds. Not so. Baby pictures go all the way back to the time of Christ. I know. We had one. Taken in the year 0002. He was dressed all in white, with fair skin, pink cheeks, blonde hair, blue eyes, and a golden halo around his little head. The halo was real too, not air brushed on, as was the common non-Catholic belief back in the nineteen fifties. Christ's baby picture hung on the wall right in the middle of our Catholic front room. Just below his baby picture hung mine. My picture had been taken for the town baby contest that was held in the summer of 1943. I was dressed in white, with fair skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes. I was missing the halo. Another thing the doctor failed to notice during my delivery. Not a birth defect, simply an oblivious omen. One more invisible sign of bad things to come. I didn't hang beside baby Jesus, but below. He was better looking than I was. Better hung too. Next to my picture, inside a separate frame, was the newspaper article that told all about the kid that won the contest, the kid that came in second, the kid that came in third, and how I, along with twenty six other uglier kids, had been awarded "Honorable Mention." "Honorable Mention!" "HONORABLE God Damn MENTION!" Can you believe it? You don't hang "Honorable Mention" on the wall for everyone to see. First prize, sure, you hang first prize on the wall. Possibly second. Third place, you put the newspaper article behind the picture for safe keeping. "Honorable Mention?" You burn "Honorable Mention!" You don't advertise to the whole world that your kid is ugly. You don't even tell anybody, let alone allow someone to read about it. No one ever said, "you know the kid I mean, the one that won first prize in the baby contest, you know, Billy, the good looking kid that lives down at the Old Higgins Place." No one ever had any reason to say that. Why? My mother openly advertised I came in last, that's why! With HONORABLE MENTION hanging on the wall all you would have heard was, "you know the kid I mean, the one that lives down at 232 Main Street, the one that came in tied for last place along with twenty six other ugly little porkers, and only got HONORABLE MENTION in the baby contest. You know the kid I mean, the May kid, the homely one." I didn't need to be reminded of my shortcoming every time I walked into the front room, with my very first failure posted on the wall for all to see. Hanging there halo-less, just below the almost two thousand year old first-place finisher from Bethlehem.
Excerpted from BILLY BOY by WILLIAM MAY Copyright © 2011 by William May. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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