Growing Up In Newport

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When Winfield Townley Scott, the American poet, died in 1968, he left among his papers a warm and engaging account of his early boyhood in Newport, Rhode Island. The lavish world of Newport’s summer visitors with their fifty-five-room “cottages” meant little to him as a local boy—only providing background for a small child’s play and wonder. Mr. Scott’s memoir, entitled Alpha Omega, will be published by Doubleday later this month, and A MERICAN H ERITAGE presents some vignettes from this affectionate reminiscence.

Above Tyler Street, Cranston Avenue made a slow incline past hedges and beech trees and lamp-posts and front doors and two or three little side streets, either way, and ended at Kay Street. Kay Street from Bellevue to Cranston Avenue is mostly faced by fine houses. The kind of house that sits safely back from the sidewalk behind a thick hedge or a wooden-posted, iron-pipe fence, and sometimes with a gravel drive. My sister Jeannette and I discovered this street to be an excellent hunting ground for horse chestnuts, especially one estate whose great trees rose above a really extensive lawn where we had to dare to crawl through the fence. In a decaying back yard nearby we found a tiny gravestone that said (I later found out) in French: “To a poor little Mouse.” But when I remember Kay Street I remember it first of all as the scene of my being arrested by the Newport police.

I had had my brief encounter once with the Newport police in the mighty form of an officer known to all as Baby Shea. That was when I had the bow-and-arrow phase: I was intense with desire, as all boys are at one time or another, to possess a bow and arrow. And at last my parents had given me the money, and I went all the way to the Landers’ shop on Thames Street and bought the beautiful painted bow and two beautiful feathered arrows. Halfway home along Broadway I paused, nose against a store window, to study some musical instruments on display. Full of happiness from my errand and otherwise utterly intent on the shop window, I was startled by a touch on the shoulder and petrified when I looked around and then up and up the vast blue bulk of Baby Shea, complete with helmet and billy stick. I responded at once, not by saying a word, but by wetting my pants.

It was Baby Shea who spoke.

He said, “What’s that you’ve got there?”

“Bow and arrow,” I whispered.

 

“That’s a dangerous thing,” he said, “for a small bye to have. You might put somebody’s eye out, I’m tellin’ ye. If I was you,” he said, “I’d take them things home and put ‘em where you nor nobody else can find ‘em. Then maybe ye won’t be gettin’ into trouble.”

I nodded shakily and began to walk, as well as I could, up Broadway. Half a block on, I turned to see if Baby Shea was still watching me. But no, he had marched placidly off and was bent with interest over a sidewalk stand full of apples. Then I ran, just as fast as I could.

The Kay Street episode was more complex, and it threatened me with the worst eventuality possible (as all boys believed) : going to jail.

It was a drizzly Saturday morning and Jeannette was tagging along after four of us boys. We had tried to skip her. She was smaller and, worse, a girl. Perhaps because none of the other three boys had a smaller sister, they were more tolerant than I. In any case, we finally let her come with us as we set forth to explore further a vacant, shuttered place we had recently discovered a little south of Cranston Avenue on Kay Street.

It was a yellow house made of boards set perpendicularly, its roof and porches all outlined in ginger-bread scrolls. I think now that its architecture is known as carpenter Gothic. To us it was just different from any other house around, and we fancied it might be haunted. Or maybe a witch lived there in the darkness behind all the blinded windows and locked doors. It looked dreary and mysterious enough as we —the other boys were Fred Hall, Donald Manchester, and Brother Barr—trotted into the gravel drive all soft with wet fallen leaves. We lowered our voices, stayed close together, and advanced warily for the mystery of it all. A dark, damp day, pungent with the leaves and bark and earth.

Still, it was day, not night, and we fanned out around the house, quite certain that, as before, we had the place to ourselves. No smoke from the chimneys. No sounds but our own.

Then Brother Barr made an exciting discovery. “Hey, come here!” He was standing by the doors of the yellow barn to the rear of the place, and as the rest of us ran up to him he said, “They’re open!”

Sure enough. And as we pushed the doors a little further apart, our excitement shot up, for there just inside was an automobile.

One by one we all wedged through, into a dim and dusty interior smelling of gasoline and kerosene, hanging with cobwebs and discarded harness and old lanterns. And the great, open touring car. It was absolutely perfect.

We played all over the place, but the marvelous thing, of course, was driving the car. That is, we took turns sitting behind the wheel, moving it what little we could, and carrying on a continual brrr-brrr-brrr sound to simulate the motor. It was the most wonderful time any of us thought he had ever had.