A Short Look at the Great God Shove


I hit the bottom landing and burst out into the Saturday sunshine trying to warm the cobblestones of Boston’s Charlestown. There’d be the bully Shove again this day. It had been that way since the beginning.

A late October breeze whistled in from the Mystic River and the Charlestown Navy Yard where my father’s Marine Barracks loomed over the wall. Pennies and nickels for a 25 pound bag of coal jingled in my pocket. Soon the stovetop would be a mickey-brick red. I could smell the toast set on the stovetop for seconds. Burnt was the way I liked it. Well-done, filling the air with burnt aroma. Aromas, in Charlestown, in 1935, were important.

Charlestown was a yardstick for measuring things. For me, at 7, a little wiser than I should have been, it presented a geometry not taken lightly. Perception began with four-decker tenements walling around me, sheer as drab cliffs. A pale green façade might come along and pass quickly. Daydreams were an opiate in the air.

A drunk shivered and smelled in the doorway of No.2 Bunker Hill Ave. For him there was no place to go. Locked into Charlestown gave you grace for survival or a slow death, but did not give promise of escape. Escape came in books I read or over the Navy Yard’s fence, iron wrist-thick, pointed at its top, with the harbor beyond.

Before turning the corner I looked up Bunker Hill Ave., past four-decker cubic blocks, the red-mickey-made Bond Bread factory square as a prison face, and St. Catherine’s Church. Hobie’s garage-like beanery was stuck in between two tenements, an afterthought, a pony stall in a Clydesdales’ barn. Over the horizon, where The Elevated ran two ways out of Sullivan Square, one way went deep in-town. The other headed off to Everett and places beyond, where trees grew in great clusters and fields leaped and the wind sang a different tune. Here it shrieked around clapboard corners and up slim alleys where neighbors touched each other.

I knew Shove’d be in front of Halsey’s Market. I’d have to run the gauntlet again. Taunts and small pains were due. Shove, the bully, 17 years-old, and me, his favorite target. He didn’t have a sloped forehead, a bulging jaw or a strange look in his eyes. I never heard he was dropped on his head as a baby. Nothing said anything about him except he bullied.

He leaned against a wall, like a firecracker ready to pop. Why he picked on me only he and I knew; Shove would get as much of me until revenge came.

Shove thought it’d never come. But I knew different. It was in the air.

He idled against the wall the way he imposed himself on others. But was a strange mixture to say the least. Shove was the neighborhood hero. A lean super first baseman and long-ball hitter, a driving tailback who cracked daylight more often than not, a vicious tackler, speed and power in each fist, he could arc a horseshoe into the air to ring at flight’s end. Out of town he’d be a ringer in any game.

Shove hated me for a special reason, the catalyst being my father, striking in his dress blues, three stripes up and down. But, in Charlestown in 1935, survival was a matter of self. I complained to my father only once. “He’s always pushing me, trips me, knocks me over barrels, breaks my bottles outside the store. He grabbed my back pockets and split my pants down the seam, then laughed crazily.”

For righteous indignation I waited, for explosion, for crimson anger to fill his face. Waited on him to pound Shove into unconsciousness. My father had the fists Harry Greb had.

That explosion simmered. He looked at me, nose unbent and clean, thugs never getting inside his left jab. The collar of his dress blues blouse was opened as it was only at home

“Sonny, I’ll never chase him or disgrace the uniform, but if I turn a corner and he’s there, he’ll never belly up to you again.” Aware of my understanding, he kept talking. “What you have is a problem.” He said you with firmness. It was not the first time I’d been challenged by my father. “You’re 7. He’s 17. That’s a big difference, isn’t it?”

I nodded a yes.

“You have every right in the world to protect yourself. You can use a bat or a hunk of iron pipe, but don’t get hurt by him. You’ve as many smarts as most kids your age. Use them.”

There it was! In 7 years that was my greatest challenge. My toes tingled, ears buzzed. An unknown charge surged through me. A chill went up my back.

He patted my head. Revenge’s delicious air came on stronger than the coming meal, even as he stirred fried onions into the mix.

Later I had a glass of root beer. He ladled up beer from an open crock, told stories about Paris Island, Quantico, Nicaragua, and his younger days in Charlestown. We sat in the kitchen of the second floor flat, the stovetop a dull red, oblivious of the prison we were in, nested and happy for the moment, smiling at old stories told anew. Strains of the dominant male were working their way across the face of my soul.

I dreamed of punishing Shove. I had the license. Didn’t my father commission me to get Shove by any means? Wasn’t I the oldest of the brood, the biggest dreamer?

I’d get Shove. He’d bow before me. It was only right. Evil thoughts passed through me. He was dismembered at wrist and ankle. A Machiavellian enterprise crushed his eyes bloodless, made him a laughing stock of that triangle running from City Square to Sullivan Square to the Mystic Bridge and back to City Square along the huge black iron fence of the Navy Yard. Inside that triangle, long on one side, I would fix The Great God Shove forever.

Tom Sheehan