The “Sandlot Years” – Niantic, Connecticut

The next chapter of my life was both the most memorable and tragic part of my childhood. It’s a time that both good and bad would come together to formulate a time period that would follow me forever and help shape who I am today.  As our family grew we did what most families did, move to a bigger house.  In June 1964 we packed up our belongings and decided to begin a new chapter of our lives in a place called Niantic, Connecticut.  Niantic was in the Village of East Lyme now famous for the dreaded place of origin of Lyme disease – sorry June Bug.  It was and still is a small coastal town located on Long Island Sound.  I guess my parents were drawn to it because it brought back memories of the Jersey Shore and for it’s close proximity to the Groton Navy Base/Electric Boat where my father worked.  The neighborhood they choose was called Roxbury Park.  It was a brand new development like many that were popping up all over the country in the 1960s.  Our house was a nice 3 bedroom Colonial and was one of the first being built in this neighborhood. My parents paid $17,000 for the house which is crazy as you can’t even buy a new car for that price nowadays.  So my beginning experience in my new life in Niantic was not having a lot of kids to play with but having adventures climbing in an out of newly constructed homes collecting nails and leftover wood pieces.  The neighborhood quickly grew and soon the group of friends that I would have many memories with began to arrive: Billy & Mark Vanwart, Mike & Mark Johns, Brent(Don) Hadaway, Skip Salvatore, Joey Coleman, Keith Charette and a few more.  The days were filled with typical adventures boys had back in the ’60s.  Baseball was the sport that seemed to occupy most of our time back then (just like the movie “Sandlot”).  It seems like every chance we had we were playing baseball in the streets of our neighborhood and on local Little League teams.  Back then bats and baseballs I guess were a  luxury.  Since all bats were only wooden back then, they would often break and we would just tape them up and keep using them.  Same with baseballs.  Since we played on the streets most of the time the covers would quickly start to fall apart and we would wrap them in electrical tape and keep using them.  There was an open field in the back of our neighborhood down by the old canal.  It was filled with rocks, old automobile parts, and other debris, not really good for playing sports.  One year, my friends and I decided to try to make it into a baseball field so we all took rakes and tried to level it and remove all the debris.  We had big plans for that field, seed it, line it, build dugouts, heck maybe even allow the town to use it for a price.  Well, we quickly tired of all the work and went back to playing on our sandlots on front lawns and neighborhood streets where often a ball would find it’s way through a window.

Little League back then was big in the ’60s.  Just about every boy played Little League.  The season began with a parade down the center of Niantic and seemed like everyone in the area showed up.  Girls playing sports in the ’60s was rare.  If they did they were called Tomboys.  We had one girl in our neighborhood Patti Salvatore who fit that mold.  The first team I ever played on was the “Red Sox” which explains part of why I became a big Red Sox fan.  Connecticut was mostly Red Sox nation.  Most kids in my neighborhood were Sox fans except Skip Salvator who was a Yankee fan.  Skip was often teased since the Yankees in the ’60s were mediocre and the Sox were the team to follow.  I played 3 years for the Red Sox which was a minor league team.  I was a good pitcher and fielder but my hitting was weak.  I made the All-Stars my 2nd year which was just one-game made up of kids selected from each team.  The big year was when I was 10.  That was the year you could try out for the majors.  That year Mark Vanwart, Mike Johns, Skip Salvatore, Joey Coleman, and I  all tried out.  Skip’s dad was a coach and told me he would pick me if he had enough points.  That was the system they used back then.  Each coach would have points and depending on how a boy was ranked after tryouts each coach would use points to pick new kids for their teams.  Mark was an automatic as his brother Billy was already on a team so he was a brother option that used minimal points.  I felt like I did well at tryouts and we all waited in the neighborhood for Skip’s father to come home after the draft so we would know who made it.  Well, he came home and told us Mark, Mike, Skip and Joey all made the majors but I didn’t.  He said he wanted to pick me but didn’t have enough points left.  I was devastated and I ran home crying.  All my friends made the majors but me.  Well, that year I had my best year in the minors.  I pretty much dominated the league pitching and was often told I should be in the majors.  I thought I was a shoe in to again make the all-star team but my coach said he wanted some other kids to experience being on the team (one was his son who was not a good player) so I was left off the team that year.  I made the majors the next year as an 11 yr old and played for the “Gas House Gang”  though my father would never see me as that winter he passed away (more, later on, concerning my father).  For my mom, the whole Little League experience left a sour note for her.  To this day she stills talks about seeing me running down the street crying after Mr. Salavatore gave me the news. I don’t think she ever forgave him – but life moves on.

BB Guns, Bike Riding and the Beach

Though baseball was a big part of growing up in Niantic we had other outdoor activities that filled our time.  Back then every boy had a BB-gun.  We would spend hours outside shooting things.  We often went down to the canal and shot frogs and birds.  I guess it was those BB-gun outings that led me to hunting when I got older.   Bike riding was also a big thing.  I remember getting my first banana bike which was the popular bike back then.  The seat was long like a banana.  The handlebars were also long and U-shaped- great for popping wheelies.  We would ride all over the neighborhood, into Niantic, to the beach and often go on long bike ride adventures through the woods.  Though bike riding was fun it was on a bike that one of my worst childhood moments came from.  We often road down what we called “The Big Hill” which was a paved road in our neighborhood.  I have no memory of this event but I was told that as I was coming down the hill I lost control of my bike, fell off, and landed on the pavement, sliding until the skin on my knuckles worn down to the bone.  My bike landed in a yard and I lay on the street not moving.  A friend of mine who was there rode to my house yelling to everyone outside what happened and told everyone he thought I was dead.  In the meantime, someone called the ambulance, and by the time the paramedics and my parents arrived, I was laying on the ground thrashing and screaming in pain but have no memory of anything that happened.  I spent almost a week in the hospital and it took months to fully recover from what I remember.  As I mentioned earlier, Niantic is located on the coast on Long Island Sound. That meant we were only a few miles from the beach.  We spent most of our childhood at a place called “McCooks Point”.  It was a small beach with a picnic area overlooking the beach.  Our summers were spent at the beach swimming in the sound, watching fireworks on the beach and playing sports up in the picnic area.  The big highlight each summer was how many times we would swim out to the raft.  I think I was around 8 yrs old when I made my first swim escorted by my father out to the raft.  Me and Mark Vanwart would have a contest to see how many times we would go. I think he won most of the time.  Years later when we had my mom’s 80th  birthday party at McCook’s Beach I swam out with my son Robert and grandson Brody as part of my reminiscing and telling them the story of those summer days at McCook’s Beach.

I had many other memories from my time living in Niantic.  They include playing football for the Waterford Tigers when I was in 5th grade.  I played mostly defense, but I had one opportunity to play fullback on offense for one game. It was against an all colored team from New London.  We were scared because we rarely saw any kids of a different color than us.  Our neighborhood, schools, and town were all white so seeing a colored person was different.  I remember being handed the ball and running up the middle only to be met by two colored kids screaming in my face.  I don’t think I gained an inch and that was the end of my running back career.   Other memories are jumping off the rocks at the local quarry in freezing cold water, jumping off the train trestle into the water down by the beach, and playing basketball in the neighborhood at the court the fathers built for us. Also, there were sleep-outs in the woods, holding onto the electric fence at the small farm in the back, allowing the electric current to flow through us and being brave enough to be at the end when the electric current would zap the last person in line.  We also got into some mischief as kids.  Like the time we threw rocks at a horse named Megan who was on the small farm in the back of the neighborhood.  The police picked us up at the basketball court and escorted each of us home in their car.  Then there was the time Joey, Mark, and I were in the woods lighting matches.  I went home to get my knife only to return to the woods being on fire and the fire department coming out.  We often would run around the neighborhood at night ringing doorbells and hiding and sneaking out at night if we had a sleepover and walking around the neighborhood.  There were also your usual fistfights.  We would occasionally get into fights with each other as most boys probably did back then.  I once jumped a kid at the bus stop and beat him up after he was mocking my father who had passed away at that time.  The principal called me into the office the next day but let me go without punishment when he heard the story.  Oh yes, and who can forget girls.  It was around 10  when girls were starting to become an interest to me and my friends.  I remember my first kiss was around then.  Mark and I were in the woods with 2 girls from our neighborhood and we played truth or dare.  My first crush was with a girl from my school Connie Stevens.  She was a girl who seemed to like a different boy every other week.  We were both in the 5th grade and I think it lasted the usual 2 weeks.  I often wonder if later in life she ever found a steady relationship. I hope so.  I also can’t forget the men/boys’ trip to Vermont.  My dad, Mr. Hadaway, Mr. Johns, and Mr. Van Wart took us boys up to Vermont camping for a week.  My memory of that trip was fishing excursions on the lake and rivers.  The men fished and us boys seemed to only want to play in the rivers.  I remember Mr. Johns getting a fishing hook stuck in his back and the other fathers having to dig it out with a knife.  There was the girl we met on the trip that both Mark and I  fought over for her affections – Mark always seemed to win those battles.  Niantic was also another time in my life where I experienced the loss of a dog.  We owned two female Springer Spaniels (not at the same time) named Kim and Princes.  It was Kim who we were closest too and unfortunately, her life ended tragically one night.  Kim somehow got outside and started to run loose around the neighborhood in the dark.  I don’t remember how long she was out for, but suddenly we heard a knock on the door.  A man was standing there and asked if we owned a small black dog.  My parents said yes and he told them, unfortunately, a dog ran in front of his car right in front of our house and he ran over her and killed her.  My parents went outside and confirmed it was our beloved Kim lying dead in a pool of blood.  That bloodstain remained in front of our house for a while as a sad reminder of our loss.  

Niantic Comes to an End

As I mentioned at the beginning,  Niantic was the most memorable and tragic times of my childhood.  It was December 31, 1968, when our world would be turned upside down.  Apparently from what we were told, my father was walking to the parking lot at his work to get home early because it was New Year’s Eve.  As he approached his car and reached for the car door an eyewitness said he clutched his chest and fell over from a massive heart attack.  The ambulance took him to the local hospital in New London but they could not revive him.  I don’t remember all the events that unfolded that night but I recall my Mom being surrounded by my neighbors who she called over after she got the news.  We were far from family as many of the neighborhood families were, but a few families, the Hadaways, Johns, and Vanwarts were like family.  I could hear her crying in the kitchen and heard someone on the phone talking to someone (apparently it was either my Uncle Donny or my Grandfather – POP-POP) and I heard the words “Bob has died”.  I was sitting alone in the family room trying to process what I heard, maybe they are talking about someone else, not my father.  Then Mr. Hadaway came walking into the family room – he was my fathers’ closest friend from the neighborhood. He sat next to me and told me the news – our lives, my life was about to take a drastic turn.  That night and the next month was a blur.  My uncle and grandfather drove from New Jersey that night to be with us.  My father was buried in New Jersey on a cold January day in 1969.  I tried my best to be the man I should.  I went along with my Uncle during the preparation – picking out the casket and the suit he would wear.  I remember after the funeral they had a reception back at my uncles’ house in Denville.  I mostly sat by myself in the den wondering why they were having a party in the other room – this was the first time I ever experienced a death that close.  We ended up moving back to New Jersey once school was out that June. It must have been a difficult time for my mom to be away from family those months.  Right before we moved my Mom would be celebrating her birthday, the first of course since my father’s death.  I knew it would be a sad day for her and wanted to do something special, but what can an 11 yr old boy do?  The answer came from a TV show.  The little boy on the show got a small job and saved enough money to take his Mom out to dinner.  That was it, but how and where?  Who would hire an 11 yr old boy?  When I was young we often raked leaves or shoveled snow for money but it was not that time of the year.   I decided to ride my bike up to this Deli at the end of our neighborhood and start there.  I went in, asked for the owner, and told him my story.  I guess he felt sorry for me (I told him about my father dying) and decided to give me some odd jobs around the store.  One was cleaning the grease caked under the vats above the grills, scrubbing them with ammonia, it was horrible but I did it.  I think the job lasted a week or so.  During that week, I would lie to my Mom about where I was going.  I did tell Mrs. Hadaway about the job (she was my Mom’s closest friend in the neighborhood) and she helped cover for me. I finally earned enough money to take her out to a local Pizzeria where we both had a spaghetti dinner and a coke.  My Mom still talks about that dinner to this day.   For me, the reality of moving from Niantic was starting to hit me.  I thought we would live there forever.  It was the greatest place to live.  I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.  My little league team, “The Gas House Gang”, gave me a going-away party, so did my friends in the backyard of Joey Coleman’s house.   We left Niantic in June 1969. I went with the movers. Mr. Hadaway and Mr. Johns, my mom and sisters came a few days later.  Life continued onto another chapter.   With Niantic now behind us – it was time to start new, meet new friends, have new adventures and begin new memories, time for  – THE RANDOLPH YEARS.

Returning to Niantic Through the Years

I have often thought of my years back in Niantic and look back on them fondly.    I have been back several times over the years and each time a flood of memories fills my heart.  Though the town has changed a bit there is still the small-town feel to it.  I love walking down the streets of Niantic, seeing the same movie theater where we all went to as kids to see “Old Yeller”, or passing the store where my friends and I found a wallet full of money, giving it to the store owner, and receiving a $.25 reward.  Even the Pizzeria I took my Mom for dinner for her birthday is still there but under different owners.   I love taking walks along the beach at McCook’s Point,  – seems much smaller these days than what I remember, but still brings back those summer memories.  When my son Robert was living in Boston I would often try to swing by and visit Niantic for the day.  When I would return I would often think about my boyhood friends and what became of them.  I saw them a few times when I went back in the first few years but as years went on I lost track of most of them (Mike and Mark Johns were at my wedding years later).  The only one I was able to keep some sort of track was my best friend Mark Vanwart.  We were practically inseparable growing up.  We seemed to do everything together, we even joined the Monkees fan club at 8 years old when they were becoming popular.  I often heard about him through Debbie Hadaway and Johnny Cabral who we have kept in touch with.  Debbie was the daughter of Don & Jean Hadaway, she babysat for us often and Mark and I had a secret crush on her as kids. Years later she ended up marrying Johnny who was Mark’s uncle.  He was the cool uncle who would come around to see Debbie.  He had a boat and he would take us out on the ocean.  One year when we were young, Mark, Brent and I broke Johnny’s nose.  We played a game where you try to squeeze the air out of someone and make them pass out.  We did that to Johnny and ended up dropping him on the pavement, face first.  He still recalls that story years later.  Debbie and John invited us all back for a picnic at McCook’s Point and took us out on their boat.   Just last year they invited us up to Niantic to take a ride on a Tiki boat down the inlet, a business they started.  To my surprise, Mark was there with his wife.  We did a lot of talking that night about our childhood and what happened to some of the other kids in our neighborhood.  Mark confided with me on that boat ride that he remembers well the night my father died.  He told me he remembers his own dad sitting in the basement crying when he heard the news of my father’s death.  My father was well-liked by the men in that neighborhood and his death affected them all.  His death seemed to always be with me through the years.  I often wondered what he would have been like through the years, would we have stayed close in my teen years,  and how would life had turned out if we stayed in Niantic. Those things I’ll never know, but I can imagine them in my mind, it always ends well.   I once went on a personal journey when I went back to visit Niantic after visiting Robert in Boston.  The day started in Mystic Seaport just walking around.  I then went into Groton to the EB Base where my dad worked and I walked up the hill my father walked each night.  My Mom told us he would often say to her, “that hill is going to kill me one day”.  I wanted to experience his final journey here on earth. It was an emotional journey for me.  I ended the day walking around Niantic myself, then headed to the beach to sit and think about life long ago, a time that lives fondly in my mind and heart.  I’m glad each of my children has gotten to visit Niantic and of course, my Mom’s 80’s birthday celebration there at McCook’s Point was something I will never forget.  Today when I see documentaries of the 60’s I learn how troubled those times were.  The Vietnam War was raging, young people rioting, the drug culture beginning, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, there were 3 assassinations in that time period, but for us living in Niantic, we were sheltered from all that.  Life seemed perfect, full of baseball, doing the twist at neighborhood garage parties, riding bikes, shooting BB-guns, going to the beach, and just being kids.   I will end with this, my entire life I have always had a deep emotional bond to Niantic, being the last place I ever saw my father.  I once heard a comment that explains why such a deep bond exists in me to a place I lived long ago, it went like this – “when someone experiences a tragedy in their life a piece of them stops growing emotionally at that moment in time”.  So  I figure deep inside me, there is an 11-yr-old boy still sitting back in Niantic waiting for his Dad to come home from work so he can tell him about his day.   Each time I return to Niantic that 11 yr-old boy stirs and longs for days long gone.

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