Our Very Own Boo Radley

The scariest guy in our neighborhood was not who we thought he was

Photograph by Universal Pictures

Autumn, for me, has always carried a sweet melancholy and a flood of childhood memories. That wonderful smell of fallen leaves and the scent of new denim jeans for the first day of school brings me right back to my hometown.

I spent my first 12 years (1961–1973) with my parents and two older sisters in the working-class neighborhood of Bloomfield, New Jersey, just outside of Newark. It was a great place to grow up. Lots of kids my own age, mostly first-generation Italian-American families in well-kept, two-family houses with front lawns no wider than a running jump. Everyone knew everyone on the block and we all knew the sound of each mom's call from the open second-floor window. I would meander home late for supper and someone from nearly every stoop would warn me, "You better go straight home. Your mother's looking for you."

We were North Jersey hooligans, to be sure. We knew which porch was best to hide under, which garden was best to steal tomatoes from, which house had the best detached garage or trees to climb. But we also knew which house to most respect because they either held an "old lady" or was a family who had boys in Vietnam.

And, of course, there was Samwall's house. I'm not sure that I'm spelling that correctly, nor do I even remember if it was his first name or last. But that's the way we say it: Samwall. And he was our very own Boo Radley.

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"To Kill a Mockingbird," the film, has always been a favorite of mine and I watch it every fall. Perhaps because it feels, in some fashion, like my own childhood autumn—although not nearly as Southern or quaint. But as soon as I was old enough to explore the block, I quickly learned of Samwall's house and to pass it with caution. It was the shabbiest house on the street, with a wooden ladder perpetually tilted against the clapboard siding, a single work boot atop the two-story roof, a dead lawn and a rusted, burned-out car in the driveway that was, as legend had it, the result of Samwall washing it with gasoline in a madman's tempest late one evening.

If I remember correctly, the story went: Samwall was a scientist and a genius who went crazy and lived with his frail and aged mother who was never seen out of the house. In fact, Samwall himself rarely came out and the two of them could only be seen through the sliver of yellow light under the drawn shades to the living room. This was accomplished by a spine-tingling venture up onto the rickety porch under the cover of night by only the most daring of soft-footed neighborhood boys. Or, a peek into Samwall's basement windows, where one could see racks of old and abandoned mad-scientist test tubes amongst the cobwebs. It was on those rare occasions when Samwall was out—word spread down Grace Street like a wildfire—that his reputation as a madman perpetuated into biblical urban proportions.

On one such legendary autumn evening, my pals and I were playing a game of 1-2-3 Ringolevio (sort of a two-team hide-and-seek) and one of our rarely used and most gutsy hideouts was Samwall's chain-locked, detached garage at the bottom of the tiny slope behind his house. There was only one way in or out, and that was to belly-crawl and squeeze under the rotted bottom of one of the two barn-style doors. It was there in the darkness in the musty, gas and oil smell of the forbidden garage that we began to hear the muffled yells of fleeing children outside. We suddenly realized that Samwall was not only out of the house but headed our way. The bunch of us, maybe five in all, quickly scrambled for the shallow opening under the door with just enough room for one boy to wriggle through at a time. The door rattled wildly as we scraped our backs beneath it, squeezing ourselves under and out as evil directly approached.

As I hurried through, I saw Samwall staggering like a madman down the slope. He reminded me of the rabid dog in "To Kill a Mockingbird" that Atticus Finch took out with his rifle. After he shot it dead, he warned his children, "You don't go near that dog, understand, he's just as dangerous dead as alive."

Samwell was yelling out words that didn't make any sense, except for the clearly audible—and possibly imagined—phrases "goddamn kids" and "kill yas all." We'd all made it out alive, the last one of us barely: Samwell had actually gotten a hold of his arm before the boy pulled away from him and ran like hell with the rest of us.

The final incident came late one warm summer evening when I was just about 12 years old and ever-so-slightly more worldly. A bunch of us were hanging out in the street when Samwall banged out his front door with a metal pipe clutched tightly in his fist. We cautiously watched him, some of us backing away, not knowing what to expect. Samwall walked a crooked path toward the curb, cursing up a storm, spitting out every variation of the "F" word you could imagine. He then lunged to his knees on the grass near the curb where several bound stacks of old newspapers sat and began beating the stacks with the metal pipe. Over and over, spittle flew from his mouth as he swore, bringing the pipe down onto the bundled papers in an uncontrollable rage. It was a frightening thing to witness. Some of the older boys found it amusing, but most of us were just scared and confused. It was then that someone made the comment, "He's fuckin' drunk!"

For all those years, living in fear of the "madman" in the forsaken and friendless house in the middle of the block, it hadn't occurred to me until I was older. Like the misunderstood Boo Radley from "Mockingbird," our Samwall was not a crazed madman at all, but merely a lonely alcoholic who lived with his elderly mother and found a dark escape down the neck of a liquor bottle to murder whatever sorrows had passed through his life.

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Tags: memoirs