Last night I found out that one of my best friends as a child…in fact, the first friend I made when we moved into our house on Monroe Avenue, passed away unexpectedly yesterday. Tommy was three years older than me, and by the time he reached high school, he wasn’t as interested in hanging out with “little kids” anymore. But those first five or six years I lived in that neighborhood, he was part brother, part hero, and all friend. We were such a close group of kids on Monroe Avenue. You don’t see that anymore. We did almost everything together, as a group. Tommy was a funny, cantankerous, mischievous kid…like all boys were at time and at that age. I have so many memories, but a few stand out more than others.
Like the time he was walking outside of his house with what looked like a long piece of thread, just magically floating in front of him. My mother asked him “What are you doing, Tommy?” To which he responded, “Walking my pet June Bug” upon closer inspection, he had captured an enormous June Beetle and tied a thread around it’s back leg. (The patience this must have taken is, in retrospect, incredible) and he was walking along behind and beneath it as it flew, connected to Tommy by this six-foot-long piece of sewing thread.
He was the engineer and architect of all our tree forts. From the first one we built together in Mr. Ferraro’s tree, to the last one. The one with the fireplace that the dads on the block made us tear down because they felt it was dangerous.
He rode with us, jammed into my mom’s 1968 VW Beetle, heading to Elk Neck State Park to swim in the Chesapeake or to the movies on a summer Friday night. He slept over on weekends and we watched scary movies on channel 17 and ate pizza.
There was one special memory I have of Tommy, and it’s the most treasured one of all. I wrote this story in “Remembering America” a book I published in 2013. It is making me both laugh and cry this morning, as I mourn the loss of my old friend.
Tommy and I grew up in the age where astronauts were heroes, where the moon was the goal of our nation, and where flight…any kind of flight, was a mystical dream to young boys. We all wanted to fly, somehow, and one summer, Tommy and I did something about it. This is probably the only memory I have of he and I doing anything without the other boys on the block. For whatever reason, it was just Tommy and I on this project.
We tried to build a real, working airplane. Here is the story, as I told it in my book. Keep I mind, he was probably 11 and I was 8:
“We were always fascinated with flight, and one summer, Tommy Riccio and I decided to build a real, full-sized glider. Big enough for us both to sit in and fly. We had no building plans and only what material we could scavenge. We managed to get the frame of the wing built in a few days and decided to go ahead and lay on the fabric. We were building this thing like they built the old biplanes back in the day, with a wooden frame overlaid with starched fabric. We didn’t have any canvas so Tommy took some of his mom’s old bed-sheets and we scraped some money together to buy two gallons of heavy starch… the stuff they used to call “dope”.
We stretched the sheets over the wing frame and pulled it as tight as we could and stapled it with heavy duty staples. Then we brushed on several thick coats of heavy dope and let it dry. The dope would shrink the fabric and make it as stiff as plywood but still very light weight. In one weekend, we had our finished wing. It was about 8 feet long, 2 and a half feet wide and had a nice arched shape to it for lift. The middle had an opening of about two square feet where we figured we’d attach it to the body we were going to build.
After about two weeks, we gave up on scrounging together enough wood to build an entire airplane and decided to just have fun with the wing. Tommy and I toted it to the top of the hill in Chelsea Manor Park and took turns trying to get airborne. We laid the wing on the ground, stepped into the two-by-two opening in the middle and pulled the wing up around our chest like an inner tube in a swimming pool. Then we took off running down the hill as fast as we could, trying to feel some lift under our wing.
Believe it or not you could feel yourself getting lifted a bit. We knew nothing about aerodynamics or lift calculations. We never actually got off the ground, but for a fleeting second, when the undersized wing felt like it might, just might get us into the air… we were Icarus, soaring into the sun on wings of our own making. We fell and tumbled down the hill and laughed at each other, and the whole thing looked like those old black and white silent movies about man’s first comical efforts at flying.
We weren’t the Wright brothers as much as we were the Marx brothers in this effort, but we were brothers of another sort, and we did this ourselves with our own ingenuity and imagination. I doubt a kid today would even bother trying to grasp lift, and wing shaping or even know that once, not so long ago… airplanes were made by hand from wood and canvas.
There are days when I just know that I am meant to write. Today, reading this story and remembering my dear friend, is one of those days. Tommy’s mom was like another mother for me and I never went home without visiting her and Mr. Riccio. She passed away earlier this year and to be honest…I haven’t even been able to deal with that yet. I have a letter I started to her family, and haven’t yet been able to finish and to mail, because I can’t get through writing it. They weren’t just my neighbors; they were an extension of my family. They all were on Monroe Avenue, but the Riccio’s especially. When “Mrs. Ric” as I affectionately called her, passed, I felt something in my heart close like a vault. Some living, breathing piece of my past, something that literally made me who I am, was gone and I was not, and still am not ready to say that out loud.
Now her son, the first friend I had when I moved onto Monroe Avenue and I was a seven-year-old little boy faced with the awkwardness of meeting new kids in a new town, and being “the new kid” is gone. I can still see him on that February morning, walking across the street to where I was standing on the wall that enclosed our front yard. The wall that would become the gathering place for our group of friends for 15 years. He came over and said Hi and introduced me to the rest of the “Monroe Avenue Gang” and, after a thorough inspection, they made me one of their own.
Now he is gone. But those memories, those wonderful, sweet, funny, comical memories will never die. Tommy will always be 11 years old in my heart, walking his June Bug, or running down the big hill with a homemade wing around his chest, trying to fly.
You’re flying now, old friend.