Late at night, a young boy lies in bed in his room. By all rights, he should be sleeping. Outside his window, the streets of Springfield, Massachusetts, a small industrial city ninety miles west of Boston, are quiet. All the movie theaters have already let out for the night. The restaurants have long since locked their doors. Even the trolleys have stopped running. Because Prohibition has been the law of the land for more than a decade, there are no boisterous downtown nightclubs or loud neighborhood bars where people can drink legally. Yet as everywhere in a nation that professes one code of morals in public while practicing another in private, many of the good citizens of Springfield are out drinking all the same.
Unable to sleep, the boy waits. Will his father come home? And if he does, how will it be? The usual sound of stumbling, followed by the front door slamming loudly and then the heavy tread of his feet on the creaking stairs as he makes his way to his bedroom? Or will it be worse? As he lies awake in bed, the boy dreams of heroes. Huck Finn smoking a corncob pipe with Jim as they float down the Mississippi River. Horatio at the bridge. Lancelot setting off to find the Holy Grail. Tom Swift in his magic flying machine. Each week, the boy checks out and reads ten books from the public library, a big graniteandmarble building constructed with Carnegie money. His library card is both a passport and a round-trip ticket, allowing him to travel freely through realms of gold. But sooner or later, even the greatest tale of heroism and adventure in some faraway place has to end. And then the boy finds himself lying in bed late at night surrounded by silence and darkness, waiting for his father to come home.
Flesh of the same flesh and blood of the same blood, the boy and his father, Timothy Francis Leary—called “Tote” by all who know him in this city where he was born and who now works as a dentist at 292 Worthington Street—share the same name. In speakeasies all over Springfield where people drink openly but not legally, Tote is well known. Late at night, after the speakeasies close, he can often be found buying liquor on the darkened front porches of nearby houses in Winchester Square, where bootleggers live. What began as a fondness for drink has become for Tote Leary in the past few years something darker and more self-estructive.
Already the boy has made up his mind that he will never be like his father. He will be a hero. Strong and courageous as Socrates at the moment he was offered hemlock. Brave and bold as Ulysses returning home after a twentyyear absence. But there is also something heroic about running away from it all like Huck and Jim. Floating down a river like a child, adrift from all cares and responsibilities. As the boy lies in bed, unable to sleep, he considers his choices. At the moment, all he can do is wait.
For all he knows, his father may not come home tonight. In many ways, that might be best. If his father were out of the picture for good, then the boy could stop wondering if he is destined to become him. Just wanting his father gone is an evil thought, a sin, one of many to be added to the list he has begun to compile. Although this is yet another sin, the boy already knows that God the Father and all the saints in heaven will never be of any use to him. Only he can save himself. In order to do so, he has divided his life into separate selfsealing waterproof compartments. Unlike his father, he will never sink to the bottom of any sea. Far too strong and much too determined, he has a face for the father who does not come home, a face for the mother who is there even when he does not want her to be, a face for his greatuncle the priest to whom he never tells the complete truth even in confession, and yet another face for the uncle who has succeeded in business but is not at all what he seems to be. Dreaming with his eyes wide open about heroes he has only met in books, the boy lies in bed unable to sleep. Tim Leary is waiting. For what, he does not know. In his long and eventful life, it is but the first of many questions to which he will never find an answer.
No child chooses his place of birth or the family into which he is born. Every child does, however, select the adults after whom he patterns himself. Early in his childhood, Tim Leary made a conscious decision to identify with his father’s family. To him, they seemed “urban, urbane, welltodo, and . . . glamorous.” Far more than his father, it was his paternal grandfather, Dennis, that Tim Leary would most closely resemble as an adult. A watchmaker by trade, Dennis Leary conducted his business for forty-five years in a jewelry store on State Street in downtown Springfield. Eight feet wide and thirtysix feet deep, the store housed his extensive collection of theater programs, including one for Our American Cousin on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre. Dennis also collected old baseball guides. He filled scrapbooks with articles that interested him. At his death, he had 120 of them.
A great student of Shakespeare, Dennis often journeyed to Boston to take in shows starring such actors as E. L Davenport (his favorite), Edwin Booth, and Edwin Forrest at the Boston and Howard theaters. Until the end of his life, he could recite from memory long passages from his favorite plays. At the age of seventyfive, Dennis liked to embarrass his teenage granddaughters and their boyfriends by yanking aside the velvet curtain separating the front hall from the parlor in his fine Victorian house at 254 Central Street. Stepping forward as though onstage, he would launch without preamble into Othello’s final soliloquy. Plunging an imaginary dagger into his chest, he would end his impromptu performances by falling dead to the floor. More than sixty years after his death, one of his great-greatgranddaughters affectionately described him as “a little eccentric and given to theatrical moments.”
It was on the top floor of his house, where Dennis kept his large theatrical library, that his grandson first remembered meeting him. On a wintry evening, tenyearold Tim Leary sat on the floor reading a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi as Dennis complained about his children, calling them all “hellraising illiterates.” Praising Tim for being the only one in the family who really liked to read, Dennis told his grandson never to do anything like anyone else. He urged him to find his own way and to be one of a kind. Embroidered on a heraldic shield, the words could have served as the Leary family motto. For Dennis never did anything by half. Neither would his grandson.
A photograph of Dennis and his wife, Sarah, taken in 1925 reveals a good deal about them. Already married for fiftyeight years, Dennis and Sarah stand together in front of their home. The look on Sarah’s face plainly says that all this is silly business and hardly worth the bother. Shorter, stouter, and far less elegant than her husband, she seems stiff and ill at ease. Hamming it up for the camera, Dennis has his left arm around his wife’s shoulder and his right hand on her arm. ...