One fall noon in 1910 a crowd of us boys in Boston were craning our necks toward the sky where an airplane was slowly grinding its way in the direction of Cambridge. It was the first airplane I had ever seen, and I felt I was witnessing a miracle. Soon the plane could be seen no more. Not one of us said anything. Then a boy near me, Sidney, said, "I knew he was coming this way." The rest of us looked at him. "Sure," continued Sidney; "that was Atwood in the airplane. I knew." He said this in a way that made us think he had more to say, but he didn't favor us with more information, and soon we dispersed. The next morning the papers of Boston were, of course, full of Atwood's flight, but I continued to feel that Sidney knew more than they did. I had come to have a boundless faith in Sidney's knowledge of the world.
I was nine years old at the time, and he was ten. Besides, he had been in this country five years, while I had been here only a little over two years. He had taken me to my first class in public school; he had taken me to my first baseball game on the Boston Common; he had, in fact, introduced me to America. He protected me from the hoodlums who baited me as a greenhorn, and he told me all about the government and customs of the New World. He was my encyclopedia, my dictionary, and my private police force.
About that time Mayor Fitzgerald was not only the leading citizen of Boston but quite a national celebrity. As "Honey Fitz," premier singer of "Sweet Adeline,” he was known in every city of the country. Sidney once took me to City Hall, and pointed to the window of the mayor’s office.
“That’s where he is now,” he said.
“Maybe he’s out,” I remarked innocently.
"No," said Sidney, "not when the blind is way up, like you see. He always keeps the blind up, when he's in. One of his messengers told me."
"You know one of his messengers?"
"Sure," said Sidney. "He once took me through the mayor's office. I saw it."
I was so impressed that I didn't know what to say. As we walked down School Street, where City Hall is located, I made believe that I was looking straight ahead, but through the corner of my eye I was really looking at Sidney, and I prayed that he would always be at my side, letting me in, however little, on his fund of exclusive information.
A bit later he taught me all the baseball I ever knew, explaining the greatness of Tris Speaker and Honus Wagner, giants of the Boston Red Sox, and the miraculous standing of the Philadelphia Athletics. He tossed off batting averages casually, and freely made predictions about various teams. Early one summer morning he rushed to my house breathless, and told me that if I hurried I might see a baseball game between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Red Sox free that very afternoon. I was so thrilled I almost choked on my breakfast, and then counted every minute till the time of the game. Sidney noticed my excitement and took me for a leisurely walk through the Boston Common. He told me that the two baseball clubs were giving away 100 seats free to members of the Newspaper Boys' Club. I looked at him and said, "But we're not newspaper boys." Sidney smiled and said, "I know. But we'll get in. I know somebody." I felt that the subject was too holy for me to tarnish it with further questions; so I kept mum. We saw the game and now that I recall it I feel almost the same excitement I did then. At the game Sidney gave me all sorts of personal data about the players, and my admiration for him was rapidly reaching the sky.
As the years went on his interest in baseball and politics grew, while mine diminished. However, when the 1916 national election came around, I became excited about the two chief candidates, Wilson and Hughes, and read up a great deal on them in the newspapers. Sidney didn't read as much as I did; nevertheless, I trusted him more than I trusted myself about the progress of the campaign. We were both Wilson men for a reason I can't recall, but Sidney was far more pessimistic about his chances than I was. He said, "You got to face the facts. The country is going Republican." I had read the same thing in the Republican Herald and Transcript and merely laughed at it as partisan wishful thinking, but when Sidney said it I became worried. I asked him how he knew. He said, "You can feel it." At once I was convinced. The night before the election, Sidney told me Hughes was going to be elected, and the news of the following morning certainly confirmed it. That Hughes finally lost and Wilson won, did not, in some strange way, change my opinion of Sidney's expertness, and he himself thought so little of the difference between the actual outcome and his prediction that he didn't even mention it.
When we entered the war in 1917 Sidney, who was only a year older than I, or sixteen, said he planned to lie about his age and join the Marines. One day he told me he had been accepted and I was so stirred I couldn't hold back my tears. He calmed me by saying that he probably wouldn't be leaving for a few days. When two weeks passed, I gently brought up the matter of his leaving, and he told me that the local general of the Marines had given him special permission to remain in Boston for a month on condition that Sidney tell no one. "I shouldn't be telling you this," said Sidney, "but I guess I can trust you. I haven't told my mother about my enlisting.”
Two months passed by and Sidney was still in Boston. This time he himself felt it necessary to make explanations. He said that the same general who had given him an extension before had now given him an "indefinite" extension. For the first time I began to doubt Sidney, and I was so shocked by my own feeling that I deliberately avoided his company for the next two days.
Not long afterward I obtained a promotion in school so that I was in the same grade with him in English High School. Since our classes were at different hours we didn't see much of each other, but near the end of the last year we met often because we both took chemistry with the same teacher at the same study period. Both of us applied for entrance to Boston University and we were both accepted. I wanted to go to Harvard but my family couldn't afford the tuition. I knew Sidney's family couldn't afford it either; so I gave the matter no thought. But Sidney felt that he had to explain. He said the principal of English High School had begged him to apply for entrance to Harvard, because Sidney was "the kind of student Harvard is looking for." Sidney told me that he had said to the principal that he preferred Boston University because "it's more democratic, and while it hasn't got Harvard's name it's really better."
"But it's not true, Sidney," I said. "Harvard has better professors. Everybody knows that. If my family could afford it, I'd want to go there myself. But they can't."
Sidney pooh-poohed this, and I had no more to say. I couldn't understand why he had lied to me, and I felt I couldn't face him again. But when I recalled how he had shown me around the city in my greenhorn days and protected me against those who baited me, I relented and saw him every now and then, secretly hoping that he would change. He didn't. His tall tales became more and more fantastic. Once he boasted that the president of the university was so impressed with his knowledge of American history that he invited him to his house for Sunday dinner.
“Did you go?” I asked.
"Wouldn't you?" he asked and continued by giving me details of what he ate, what he and the president discussed, and what sort of woman the president's wife was. Sidney said all this so calmly that I again believed him until he confided to me that the president's daughter had taken a shine to him. It was common knowledge among the students that the president had no children; his only son had died the year before. I was about to remind Sidney of these facts, when he smiled and said, "Helen is her name. Nice, eh?"
"Yes," I mumbled, and decided to let it go at that.
By this time mutual friends had remarked Sidney's propensity to lie, but I couldn't get myself to agree openly with them. Sidney must have known what his friends were saying about him, but apparently it made little difference to him. His lies, in fact, increased in number and color. He claimed that he was doing confidential work for the Boston police force and was behind the conviction of several notorious criminals, though he didn't give names or other details on the ground that to do so would ruin his usefulness to the police commissioner. Once I met him near the South Station and he at once told me that he had just returned from Washington, where he had to report to a high official in the Department of Justice.
The next few years I saw little of Sidney. He was eventually admitted to the Massachusetts bar, while I roamed around the country more or less aimlessly. I was confused as to what I wanted to do; so I moved from city to city and changed from job to job. Sometimes I'd be away from Boston for as long as seven or eight months. When I returned Sidney and I always managed to meet, and he never failed to tell me something fantastic. He seemed to make up his stories as he talked. When he was less than two years out of law school, he confided to me that the corporation counsel of the City of Boston had offered him a job as chief of his tax department, but Sidney refused because he didn't want to get "lost in detail." Six months later, he said, he had been approached by the attorney general of Massachusetts to accept a position as special assistant attorney general to prosecute gambling throughout the state; Sidney had refused this, too, because he "didn't want to stop people from playing an ordinary game of cards."
Just before he married his wife, Muriel, he told me that she was so wonderful a pianist that Koussevitzky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, had begged her to play concertos with his orchestra, but "Muriel had to say no, because she was interested only in playing Brahms and Chopin concertos, and these two composers are not Koussevitzky's strong points." Muriel, he added, was not only a woman of musical integrity; she was also extremely well-read, and for some months now he had been trying to keep up with her:
"I read the Sunday New York Times from page one to the last; everything, except the silly society news, of course. It's a real liberal education. I read the Book Review word for word. Muriel told me about it. Great. I find it really keeps me in touch with all the latest books. Do you read the Book Review?”
“Oh, I glance at it, read some of the reviews, skip the others,” I said.
"Mustn't skip," he said. "You never can tell what you miss that way. I read everything. You should do it yourself."
I said I would think it over.
In time he became the father of two children, a boy and a girl. The boy, he said, had an IQ of 165, a super-genius, and the girl was showing astounding gifts as a sculptress. Both of them were way ahead of their fellow pupils in public school, and he bemoaned the fact that private progressive schools, at least those in the neighborhood of Boston, were not quite good enough for them either. "I'm sure they could pass the entrance examinations to Harvard and Radcliffe, but I'm not letting them take the exams because they wouldn't feel at home socially with the older boys and girls. It's better not to rush young children too much, even if they are unusual, don't you agree?"
Sidney had a modest law business in Boston, but he assured me that his little office was no indication of his importance. "If I were only free to give you the names of the people who come to see me here! Only the other day, a high Washington official was here and said I could have a federal judgeship in Boston. Senator Walsh saw the President, who submitted my name to the Judiciary Committee, but the chairman said they had been appointing too many Boston lawyers to the Boston Federal bench and he thought it's time they appointed someone from the middle of the state, Worcester or Springfield or Fall River. But Senator Walsh said he'd talk to the President about me again."
Our entrance into the war flabbergasted Sidney, because he had been telling people, including myself, that we'd never be in it. Then he began passing out inside information on the progress of the war. In the summer of 1941 he predicted that the English would lose Egypt and Suez. "High officials in the War Department have already discounted all of Egypt. One of them saw me only a couple of days ago. But the United Nations will get them back." Not one of us had the courage to remind Sidney of his prediction when General Montgomery drove the Axis out of Africa, and Sidney himself apparently forgot about it. In- stead he told several people that the Justice Department had asked him to draw up a temporary constitution for conquered Italian Africa and also for Italy proper when Allied troops occupied it.
A few weeks afterward I got a letter from Muriel, Sidney's wife. She had never written to me before. She apologized for writing to me this time: "Sidney has been enough of a trial to you, without my adding to it. But this time I'm desperate. Please help me. Sidney has not been home for ten days, and I'm frightened. The police have hunted for him in Boston, but without success. Perhaps he's in New York. I know it's silly for me to ask you to look for him. I thought perhaps you'd have some idea where he is. I'm terribly worried. Thank you.”
I immediately went to the New York police, who told me the Boston police had already notified them. The next day I learned that Sidney had committed suicide by inhaling gas in a shabby Boston lodginghouse, where he had rented a room. Beside his body was found a book entitled How To Conquer Fear.