Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brooklyn's Tom Sawyer

One of my favorite childhood books was Tom Sawyer. Mark Twain received  more critical acclaim for his companion book, Huck Finn, and deservedly so, but there were more serious themes in that story like race and class prejudice. Tom Sawyer was purely a love song to boys. It was especially appealing I think to city kids like me who envied the life young Tom led. Twain had the gift of seeing the world through the eyes of a boy, and the skill as a writer to take us into that world. The tale is based, Twain says, on characters he actually knew growing up in Missouri in the mid-1800s. The adventures that Tom lived were enough to enthrall any boy...cleverly making whitewashing his Aunt Polly's fence sound so appealing that he got other boys to pay him for the privilege of doing the work, running away with Huck and Joe Carter to become pirates, hunting for hidden treasure in a cave, witnessing a murder and testifying against the very scary Injun Joe in court.

As much as I ate up these adventures, it was hard coming by anything comparable in the middle of concrete-covered Brooklyn. We had no caves, no woods, and no streams to fish or raft on. We did have fact, on Pitkin Avenue, just a short walk from my house, was the headquarters of the notorious gang known as Murder, Incorporated or The Brownsville Boys. Most of the killers were Jewish gangsters from Brooklyn neighborhoods of Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill. In addition to carrying out crime in New York City, and acting as enforcers for mobster Louis "Lepke" Buchalter, they accepted murder contracts from mob bosses all around the United States. While Tom was brave to testify against Injun Joe, testifying against Murder, Inc. in Brooklyn was a one-way ticket to the landfill.

Speaking of the landfill, it was the scene of one of my Tom Sawyer-like adventures. Along Pennsylvania Avenue down near the Belt Parkway was an enormous landfill that we called simply "the dump". It covered acres and acres, and a lot of it had become wooded and overgrown. I had a pretty good bow and real arrows; I don't remember how I came by them, but they worried my mother very much, and rightly so. One rainy day I became bored and set up a target inside the house. It consisted of a large cardboard box filled with newspapers. I painted a bulls eye on the side of the box and set it on my mother's bed. We lived in what were called "railroad rooms" meaning one room led through a door into another in a straight line, like railroad cars. I positioned myself in the rear bedroom and attempted to shoot an arrow through two doorways and into the cardboard box.

As I watched, the flying arrow skimmed over the box and embedded in my mother's mahogany dresser! Panicked, I pulled the arrow out and used a pencil to color the exposed wood in the foolish hope that Mom wouldn't notice. Fat chance. She was going to destroy the bow that night, but I convinced her to spare it on the condition that I would only use it in the back yard. (And now, back to the dump). One day soon, bored again, I sneaked the bow out of the house and biked down to the dump. Sea gulls were known to congregate there and, like my hero Tom Sawyer, I planned to stalk one and shoot it. I crept up on a flock of feeding gulls, aimed and fired. To my amazement and horror, I hit one. It took off with the arrow still in it, and I was immediately flooded with remorse. I hoped against hope that the poor creature would make it somehow, but I knew I had done a terrible thing.  

Killing animals to feed your family like people did in Tom Sawyer's day is one thing, but to take one of God's beautiful creatures just for sport or to have a trophy for your den wall is wrong. Hunting is hugely popular in America, but I think any interest I may have had died that day at the dump.


Children's Craniofacial Association


Joseph Del Broccolo said...

You don't really appreciate God's creatures until something like what you described occurs! I once killed a squirrel driving, and the feeling of sadness stayed with me for days!
Have a Happy Birthday, the seagull probably deserved it.

Jim Pantaleno said...

Actually, the seagull owed me money and I just got tired of waiting. Happy Birthday to you too paisan.