Strangler Redux

Strangler Redux

There was another reason that my mom and my gramma were upset after the woman was strangled down the street on September 8, 1963.
A few days before the murder, my gramma, who had the room at the front of our apartment, answered someone knocking at the front door.  She opened it and was greeted by a man dressed in work clothes and claiming to be there to inspect the furnace. My mother joined gramma at the door to see what was going on. But the man departed soon after.
My mom tells me now that after the murder they had the suspicion that the “furnaceman” was actually the Boston Strangler.
This is all that my mother remembers today, but I remember something in addition. I didn’t learn about this until after we had moved to Brockton Massachusetts a few years later.
I distinctly remember her getting a visit from a policeman. Albert DeSolvo had confessed to being the Boston Strangler and was then serving his sentence in a prison near by.  This officer was following up on the details of his confession.  DeSolvo had described coming to our apartment on Lafayette Street in Salem. Described the welcome mat outside our door, and gave a description of my gramma who answered his knock. He was at the point of entering when he changed his mind because he heard children playing somewhere within the apartment.
I remember feeling grateful. Grateful that my gramma was not a victim of the Strangler. And awed that my brother, my sister and myself had some part in it.
Still, I sensed at a deeper level there was Someone else to whom thanks was due.

Louie Louie, the Kraut and the Strangler

or Murder on Lafayette Street

Louie Louie the Kraut and the Strangler

It was the dawn of rock’n’roll into my consciousness. The West Coast had Wolfman Jack, but here in the East it was Juicy Brucie blasting out “Louie Louie” on the airwaves of WBZ Boston. The whispers of its rumored nastiness swirled around me. But the terms bandied about by my classmates had no reference in my understanding, and though mildly curious, it’s taboo nature held me back from further inquiry.


It was also the time of my new German nemesis (see my 6/6/13 post for the first).


Klaus is a bit of a mystery in my memory. I don’t remember him being in any of my classes at Saltonstall.  Perhaps he was older.  The other kids, unkindly, called him the kraut, or rather cruelly, the Nazi.  His father had served in the German army during WW2.


What I knew for sure was, he had it in for me. It wasn’t apparent at first. Somehow he knew of my propensity for “adventure.” He told me once he would show me a short cut. Before I knew it I found myself in someone’s private backyard and being confronted by its angry owner. The irate proprietor was at a distance from us on his back porch. Klaus ran to one of the corners and pulled down a trellis, despite the yelling man and together we ducked out.


I was slow on the uptake but finally figured out that he was trying to get me into trouble. And I didn’t know why. Until…


Some time later, Klaus cornered me between our apartment building and the next in a narrow gap that let out onto Lafayette Street. He neither punched nor hit me, he just exuded belligerence. He placed a hand on each of my shoulders, and if I made a move of any kind, he counter moved to pin me. Then he told me I was not to have anything to do with a certain girl. I knew the name. She was in my class and quite possibly the cutest. But I don’t think I’d even said two words to her. I was scared of girls and painfully shy.  I’ll admit to a little boy crush for Shirley Temple that was followed by the then current one for Hayley Mills (and soon to be superseded by one for Julie Andrews). I thought myself too young for any such involvement. This I told Klaus. I didn’t see him around after that. I guess whatever fear he was dealing with was assuaged.


Across Lafayette and down the block, another scene of violence unfolded, severer by far than my little drama. I had seen an ambulance double parked out front, and learned with the rest of the neighborhood that an older woman had been found strangled in her apartment.  Her name was Evelyn Corbin and because of the circumstances of her murder, she was added to the list of victims of the Boston Strangler – number 11.


My mother and grandmother were understandably upset.


Ambush on Lafayette Street



On that short walk between school and our apartment, I developed a habit of walking swiftly, which is something I’ve kept up since then. I would pass up other kids right and left and leave them in the dust.
My brother and sister traveled the same route, but usually not with me.
Normally the trip was uneventful. We saw the seasons come and seasons go by the trees that lined Lafayette street.  Winter followed fall and spring winter.
One day a singular event broke in on this normalcy.  I was zipping along the sidewalk at my usual furious pace, when I noticed my siblings walking together about a block ahead. Then, a smaller kid, who had been walking behind them, caught up and stopped them, and began harassing them. I saw red. I did not break into a run, but I did lengthen my stride even more; and had enough time to plot out just exactly what I was going to do. I saw it all clearly in my mind’s eye all in advance.
The kid’s back was to me, and he had no idea that I was right behind him. I reached out and grabbed his coat between his shoulder blades, bunching the material as my fist closed, and then lifted him bodily into the air.  I could feel him go limp.
Then I told him through gritted teeth that he would never touch my brother or sister again; and shook him for good measure.
He was in a panic and shivering.  He asked in a tremulous voice who I was. So still holding him aloft, I turned my wrist, pivoting his body 180 degrees until I could stare him straight in the face.
Curiously, or maybe not curiously, he seemed relieved that I was not an adult, and began to recover his bravado.  But I could tell it was all an act as I set him down and he backed away.
My mother used to watch for us from the bay window of their room at that time of day. She saw it all, and never said a word, (which I just learned about this last week).  Although from her viewpoint she thought I had tossed him into the bushes when I let him go.

Me in the Details

I never used my Classics Illustrated comics for book reports.  I reported on books from the library.
The branch library nearest to us in Salem was across Lafayette Street  and a few blocks further on.  It was a cinder blockish building, and rather small.  I haunted the shelves with juvenile literature on the look out for adventure.
I remember reading those series that most boys would pick up, the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and his Electric whatever, and histories of the FBI and the Secret Service and the like.
And then there was Jules Verne:
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
Around the World in 80 Days
The Mysterious Island
Five Weeks in a Balloon
Master of the World
Journey to the Center of the Earth
(And surprise of surprises, here I discovered that Verne had written a sequel to Swiss Family Robinson which definitely satisfied my thirst for adventure in print).
All made it onto the big screen in this era (except that SFR sequel).  Verne as an author was a popular source for the movies.
And I saw them all.
One I always remember with fondness was The Mysterious Island.  Together with my brother and sister, I trekked downtown to the New Plaza theater.  The Plaza theater opened in 1913, burned down a few years later and was rebuilt as the New Plaza in 1917.  It was an old movie house with a flat floor and a balcony supported by pillars that would obstruct your view if you sat in the wrong seats.   My dad had told us a story about the theater, probably apocryphal, that once in the showing of a sea picture, a leak in the roof above the stage let in a deluge from a rainstorm that flooded onto the auditorium floor bringing with it hordes of fleeing rats.  My sister sat with her legs curled up underneath her on the seat.
Anyway, all the adventure was on the screen this matinee.  A daring prison escape by Union soldiers in a hot air balloon, and castaway on an island in the Pacific, encounters with giant crabs, a giant prehistoric bird, giant bees, an undersea monster (the artistry of the fabulous Ray Harryhausen), shipwrecked women, Captain Nemo and his submarine, pirates and exploding volcanoes.
We hurried home and told the entire story to our parents. I recounted every detail fresh from my memory.
Which leads me back around to book reports and how I stumbled over details.
I don’t remember the title of the book for which I wrote the report.  It was a biography about a figure from the Colonial or Revolutionary War era.  In my report I fixated on his swiveling eye, the ability to look at someone to the side of you without moving your head.  The teacher took me to task for not writing more about what the book was actually about.  And then demonstrated for me that the swiveling eye was not all that uncommon of an ability by calling out a student who was at the periphery of her vision.
Lesson learned (but I still like details).
Plaza MsytIsle

HQ for Adventure

Lafayette St Apt


Our apartment in Salem was also on Lafayette Street.  So it was a short walk to and from school every day.
The building consisted of four stories, with businesses on the ground floor and six apartments on the three floors above. Ours was on the third floor on the left as viewed from outside the building.
The front door opened onto a small vestibule and hallway.  A small room was on the immediate left, which during autumns and winters was my grandmother’s.  Straight ahead was a room with a bay window which according to the normal plan, was the living room.  But for our purposes it was my parents’ bedroom.  There was a small room at the back of theirs that was my sister’s.
Taking the hallway to the right of the vestibule led to the rest of the apartment.  It was a long hall, broken by a right turn and followed by a left turn that led to the dining room.
The dining room also doubled as the living room with the kitchen beyond that.  A back balcony perched off the kitchen where my mom would pin up clothes to dry.
I shared a room with my brother.  It opened off of that first right turn of the hallway.  We had twin metal beds, painted to look like wood with a fancy heraldic type chevron as a decoration.  From our window we only had a view of the apartment building across the way, but a bit of Salem poked up into view beyond it – the three smoke stacks of the Salem coal-burning power plant.
Such was our apartment, and the headquarters for the adventures of my young life.

Saltonstall School and JDs



Saltonstall School in Salem Massachusetts was located (and still is) on Lafayette Street, one of the main thoroughfares leading south out of the center of town.
Though it may have been the very symbol of a prison to some of my classmates, it wasn’t to me. I had no animus against school, I just wouldn’t ever voice that opinion in front of any of my classmates who were JDs. Like Lon.
Lon was the tough guy in the schoolyard. He was also one of the shortest guys in the same. And because I was one of the tallest (and a newcomer and wore glasses), I was a target for his Napoleonic complex.
There were never any overt threats, no lunch money stolen (I always had a sack lunch anyway), no fisticuffs, just the hint that it was possible. I believe that for Lon it was an issue of respect, for that is what I earned from him one winter in the schoolyard.
The schoolyard immediately behind Saltonstall was an asphalt immensity, flat as a pancake except for the hillside to the right, also macadamized. Only in winter did it lose its austere aspect, when the snow blanketed the yard. Our knees were in danger otherwise, and the clothes that covered them. (Speaking of which I resisted all efforts to make me dress for the weather. I didn’t bundle up with a winter coat or gloves, and I absolutely abhorred wearing a hat or more particularly in this instance a woolen cap. Vanity thy name is Ralph.)
Well, being warned off the obvious snow ball fight, creativity sought another outlet. I made my way up that little hillside, took a run to gain some momentum and slid down the hill standing. This was in my dress shoes, for I wouldn’t wear boots either. Soon others, including Lon, were doing the same, in the same spot, and then all along the whole length of that hillside.
Repeated runs down the hill compressed the snow more and more. And each time the hill became slicker and slicker. And we were all going faster and faster as the compacted snow changed to sheer ice. I was the only one who always kept his feet beneath him. Others had their feet swept out from under them or wiped out in some other way.
By the end of the day I had earned the respect of many, but especially from Lon.
Class photo