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Chapter XV

Five and a half years younger than Shane, Oona blossomed when she had his company. They must have felt close in their pain, and the quiet support they gave each other may have eased the ache of abandonment they both suffered for so long. Oona was excited to have Shane around whenever he came home to The Old House for his summer vacations. He seemed very special to her, and generally kind and big-brotherly to us both.

We loved going to the beach with Shane, where we could spend the day at Jenkinson's Pavilion and the connected pool. I hadn’t really known Shane much before and I grew to love him. This handsome young cousin of mine was tall, slender and always very tan. He looked so much like his illustrious father, with wide-set, dark brown eyes and a high forehead. He had a kind of shy, lop-sided grin that always appealed to me. I loved hearing him talk to us in his special quiet, soft voice.

Budgie with Dallas and Oona in Jersey.
Jimmy, Agnes, Shane and Oona with Middie dog.
Shane with his prize catch, with Oona and two unknown admiring boys.

Jenkinson’s Pavilion, on the Point Pleasant beach, became a real hangout for us every summer, as well as at times in the spring and fall. It was a big part of our lives, and we would amble along the boardwalk eating popcorn or ice cream, maybe stopping at the Arcade to see who might be there that we knew. My favorite thing was savoring the Italian ices and I still remember my favorite flavors, honeydew and watermelon. There were times when I became distressed as Oona would take one bite from a cone, then throw it away, or buy a big bag of popcorn, eat a little and toss the rest in the trash bin. Coming from a home where every penny counted and they were hard to come by, I couldn’t bear to see her do this. I wanted her to ask me if I would like to take them home before she tossed them. I had been a child of the Great Depression and later realized it had affected me. Oona and Shane’s mother and father certainly had fewer financial worries during that time and the children did not appear to be aware of such things.

Oona and I spent a great deal of time roller skating and going to the boardwalk by the beach where skating down a large bumpy ramp was the most fun of all. The wide ramp, made of heavy boards, slanted from the boardwalk down to the sidewalk. It thrilled us to roll down with the skates going clickety-clack all the way, with the hope we'd be able to keep our balance as the ramp turned from wood to concrete. We got a few bruised knees but it was worth the delight!

When Oona and I joined the Girl Scouts, the Pavilion again became a special place. As Scouts we were learning the Morse Code and how to tie knots of all kinds in the large school gymnasium, but each Monday night we would go with our scout leaders down to the boardwalk where Sammy Kaye and his orchestra took time from their evening entertainment to play for us. They played for the Scouts for an hour and a half, and we loved it as we learned to dance and “jitterbug.” “Swing and Sway with Sammy Kaye” was the highlight of our scouting days. Jenkinson’s Pavilion was where Sammy Kaye had his start, and we were most excited when we heard him later on recordings over the radio.

Early one summer, Oona chose to buy a new rubber bathing suit as it was the latest rage and quite stylish. We swam and played in the pool at Jenkinson’s, when suddenly Oona backed up against the side. She was very upset and called over, “Dallas, go get my big towel in the bath house…quickly, please…!” This modern creation had split right up the back!

The summers were full and we shared good times. Often on the ride home from the beach, Shane would stop at the drugstore and treat us to a Black Cow — root beer with vanilla ice cream. At the end of the summer season it was difficult for Oona to see her brother leave and go back to boarding school. Another abandonment. It must have been equally as hard for Shane to leave and see Oona staying at home with their mother.

In the fall of 1936, Agnes announced her plans to be away from home for the entire winter, going to California and unable to take Oona with her. She rented a house in Key West, Florida, asking Budgie and Nanna if they would take the family, along with Oona, down for the school year. As part of the adventure, we were to travel south on the train. The school principal talked to the family and suggested we go to a parochial school in Florida, because the public schools in the south were academically far behind the northern schools.

The train was exciting for Oona, Robert and me. I recall a rather unusual snowstorm in Georgia as we went through, with another strange memory being the dreadful taste of sulfur in the water on that part of the trip. We could not bear drinking the water and made horrible noises to show our dislike.

One other very disturbing thing on that part of our trip were the chain gangs that we saw from the train as we traveled though the deep South. Clad in black and white striped uniforms the prisoners worked on the roadsides, chained to each other by shackles around their ankles. The guards appeared big and ugly with rifles over their shoulders. Budgie explained the scene and gave us a long remembered lesson in prejudice and cruelty. Years later in teaching history through music, I was able to relate this first hand to my students while using traditional chain gang songs.

The bridge to Key West had been washed away in a severe hurricane the year before and we traveled to the island on a ferryboat. Once settled into the house on South Street, we found ourselves in a neighborhood with lots of boys who came out of the woodwork when two girls appeared on the scene. Oona and I were delighted, and my mother dismayed, when a knock at the door produced a large box of paper hearts cut from newspapers. Then we heard young voices outside the back window singing songs in Spanish and calling out a word that sounded like “Calinda.” Budgie said, “Do not ask anyone what it means...it might be rude.” Of course we asked about it, and found that our young admirers had been calling us “pretty.”

Key West, Florida, the house on South Street, circa 1936-1937.

Dallas and Oona.

The sunny days in Key West were filled with good times. We roller-skated on the sidewalks and Oona taught me how to ride a bicycle. We spent happy hours swimming in turquoise water on a long beach down the way from the Hemmingway house. Robert had found a friend in an old man next door who took him out on his fishing boat almost daily. The “Old Man” and his wife lived right next to us and they were like treasured grandparents to a little boy who needed not only a father figure but also good friends in his life.

Key West Winter, Robert, Dallas and Oona, circa 1936-1937.

Dallas and Oona.

Soon came the season when small purple and gray stone crabs covered the beach. Oona and I gathered up a dozen or so and put them gingerly into a can we found. At home we divided them up into two small cans so we each had a little “family.” We tied long strings around two of the less fortunate creatures, so they became our “puppy-crabs” while we followed them around the living room on their leashes. At night they went back into the cans with screens on top, but by morning all had escaped. For weeks Budgie and Nanna were finding stone crabs — dead and alive — behind the couch, under the chairs and wherever they could hide. Budgie made us return the live ones to the beach. So much for the poor little critters. Could they ever forgive us?

At the convent where we attended school, Oona and I went early each morning to wait outside the gates before classes began. We hoped to have a quick look at a handsome young choirboy whose name we had learned was Lewis. I doubt Lewis even knew that we existed, but it was fun for us to dream about him at such tender ages. The nuns, dressed in full habit, were strict but very loving. Sister Annette, who taught me in fourth grade, cracked me across the knuckles with a ruler if I persisted in talking with my neighbor, which happened quite often. For some reason I still loved her and knew she wasn’t being cruel. Oona must have been less chatty in class she didn’t seem to have that problem.

When spring came and school was over, we headed back to New Jersey. Agnes had returned from California and Shane was arriving home from boarding school. Oona was happy to be home with her mother and Shane — the family who came and went in her life. Looking back, I believe Oona often took advantage of the two years between us to exert some control over me, which may have helped in her frustration of having no control over an abandoning family. She was able to direct me and I was always there, as were Nanna and Budgie. The three of us were perhaps the only dependable people in the life of this little girl who so desperately needed a reliable and “always-there” family. But they were not her very own.

We had happily returned to the ochre house next door to the O’Neills. Though having enjoyed our stay in Key West, it was good to be home and see our old school friends. One late afternoon Robert and I were playing table games when Nanna came in to tell us to come outside and see the huge dirigible that was going over the house. She told us it was the Hindenberg from Germany. It was very exciting to see it at such close range. Nanna said it was coming down low because it would land nearby in Lakehurst.

We went back in the house to finish our game in the dining room. Suddenly we heard Nanna cry out, “Oh, no! Oh, no!” We raced into the living room to see what had happened. The radio news reporter was telling us the Hindenberg had just gone down in flames over Lakehurst, and they were trying to get everyone off. It sounded like a nightmare! Oona had also heard about it and came over from next door to tell us the sad news. We all sat with Nanna and Budgie listening to the grisly reports. It was hard to believe we had seen it just a short while before, floating up there in the sky above us, when it had appeared so quiet and peaceful. This was May 1937.

Our family had many relatives from New York who often came down on weekends. They were not Boultons, but were a big part of our lives and very interesting people. Once Uncle Owen Williams, Nanna’s brother from the mid-west, came with his four children to visit. Marnie took the train down from New York and joined us. We had a jolly and memorable time, going to the beach and playing games.

Cecil Boulton (right) with brother, Owen Williams and sister, Margery Williams Bianco, 1940. Margery and Francesco Bianco with Suzie dog, 1940.
Cousin Pamela Bianco and Budgie. Pamela (center), news clip with friends.

Other relatives we really loved to see were Marnie and Francesco’s grown daughter, Pamela Bianco. She was an artist and also lived in the city. Oona would come over from The Old House and join in the fun. Pamela always made us laugh with her antics and wonderful British accent she would never lose. One evening she told us about her new underwear with roses on them, and then proceeded to jump up, hoist up her skirts and dance about the room with her new underwear well displayed and singing about it with a marvelous British accent!

At the age of twelve, Pamela had been a child prodigy with an exhibit of her artwork at the Leicester Galleries in London, England. Walter de la Mare, the poet, saw her drawings and wrote a series of poems to compliment them, all becoming a precious book called Flora. The writer Richard Hughes called Pamela “that wonderful painting child.” She grew up continuing her fine art work and illustrating many books, including her mother's story of The Skin Horse, which was our favorite.

When I was eleven and Oona was thirteen, we attended the same junior high school in West Point Pleasant, but were two grades apart. After school we spent time together, going to the beach and “hanging out” in good weather, or going to the Point Pleasant Pharmacy and meeting our friends, Mavis and Amada, and sometimes a girl named Faith Springer. Sitting in the high old-fashioned booths we usually ordered our favorite drink, a cherry coke with vanilla ice cream.

Oona loved giving boy-girl parties in The Old House and I was always included. We danced to records on the phonograph, and sometimes, without our parents knowing, we would play spin-the-bottle. Very daring and so young!

The year of 1939 I was twelve and had become quite aware of my mother and grandmother being very concerned about the news. They were both avidly political and Nanna seemed to take great pride in declaring herself a socialist. Robert and I had to be very quiet each evening when the adults listened intently to the radio with Boake Carter and Lowell Thomas reporting the news of the day. I remember their concern over many of the stories that came through and stories which stayed with me.

Budgie loved to listen to Marion Anderson and told us much of what she knew about her life. The Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) would not allow her to sing at Constitution Hall because she was dark skinned. Budgie pointed out that this was another example of racial prejudice. I also recall how furious Nanna was when Henry Ford, with his auto engineering, had been given a medal by the Nazi regime. Then Charles Lindbergh, who flew across the Atlantic in 1927, received a medal from Hitler! Mother told us all about the Nazis and Hitler in Germany, and the family listened to much of the news about the war in Europe and in Russia. When I shared some of these stories with Oona, she didn't seem interested and did not care to talk about them.

Oona graduated from eighth grade at West Point Pleasant and I went with the family to her graduation. I was feeling awfully sad because it meant I was losing her in the fall. In September she would go to a boarding school called Warrenton Country School in Kentucky, and so far, far away! She was home in New Jersey for the summer and Shane came home from school for his annual visits. This was our last summer vacation in New Jersey, and we made it a special time together.

Autumn came all too soon and Oona and Shane left. There was a big empty space in my life. When would she come back to The Old House again? Somehow I knew things would never be the same.

After that, aside from our summer vacations, I didn’t see Oona much at all. I kept track of her after she left Warrenton Country School in Kentucky and moved to New York City with her mother. A decision was made to have her go to Brearly, a finishing school for wealthy young women, and after entering school at Brearly, she became “Debutante of the Year.” It was 1942. She was in another world and I missed her terribly. She had been such an important part of my life.

The family was excited when two years later in 1944 Agnes had finished her book, The Road Is Before Us. An excellent book review appeared in the Herald Tribune book section. Margery saved the clipping.

Book review of Agnes Boulton's The Road Is Before Us,
Herald Tribune, October 21, 1944.

  Chapter XVI


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