‘A little shack by the railroad track.”
That’s how my parents would affectionately refer to my childhood home in Haverhill. “Shack” was crucial for achieving the rhyme but inaccurate for describing the house. Built in 1925, it might not have been a mansion, but it was hardly a candidate for Shanty Town. Literally the “last house on the left” on a narrow dead-end street, it had one small bathroom, three modest bedrooms, and, beginning in my high school years in 1971, a comparatively sizable addition that quickly became the home’s social centerpiece.
Not all of the rhyme was exaggerated. We did live near an active railroad track, a winding river, and thick, inviting woods, which, taken together, provided a setting for countless flights of imagination.
As I child, I convinced myself that the adjacent tangle of trees was, at various times, populated by Nazi soldiers, extraterrestrials, Dracula, the Mummy, and Bigfoot. So of course on a given summer’s day, or after a grueling few hours in grade school, I would bravely disappear down its haphazard dirt path to see whether I could find them. I never did. A stray bunny, occasionally, but never a goose-stepper or vampire.
I ran away from that home once. This was due, no doubt, to some cruel indignity foisted upon me by my parents (“No, eat ALL of your vegetables!”). I “ran” about 20 yards to an opening in the brush by the dirt path. I brought with me a pillow, a wind-up alarm clock (a runaway doesn’t want to oversleep), and a peanut butter sandwich.
There I sat, waiting for my frantic mother to run weeping to the front door, begging my forgiveness. She never did. That’s probably because, had she glanced out the living room window, she would have seen me sitting on a pillow glumly eating the sandwich. Not the stuff of maternal meltdowns. Once it became clear my dramatic gesture had gone unappreciated, and with dinnertime fast approaching, I gathered up my now-leaf-encrusted pillow and unused clock and skulked back into the house.
Despite that pathetic attempt, I often entertained more adventurous escapes. What kid living within earshot of a train track wouldn’t? As Paul Simon once sang: “Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance. Everybody thinks it’s true.” And I most definitely did. The plaintive cry of a train whistle and the clattering of the cars on the tracks were magic noise. They made that small house at the end of the street seem more like the beginning of a journey.
Lying in my bed listening to the passing trains, I often conjured up scenarios of the colorful people undoubtedly on board. Hobos, statesmen, and stowaways, oh my! And I imagined I could be a character in those stories, too. All I had to do was go down the winding, sun-dappled path, wait by the tracks, and hop on the next rapidly moving string of cars. Easy peasy.
While I thankfully never followed that impulse, those hypnotic sounds planted an important seed of wanderlust. My bedroom library, which had primarily consisted of a massive and meticulously kept comic book collection, began adding books by Hesse, Kerouac, Thoreau, and Emerson, anything from anybody who wrote about the unfettered spirit.
Years later, in the spring of 1980, I was 25, living on my own, unemployed, and a little too financially unfettered. Behind on my rent and sliding deeper into debt, I made an offer to a radio station in New Hampshire that, hallelujah, was accepted. For a month, I would hitchhike across America, filing three reports a week about the places I visited and the people I met.
Accompanied by a hefty backpack and a copy of Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” I set out. I got rides the typical “hitchhikey” way, in cars and trucks. But I also got them in a more unconventional fashion by going to airports and introducing myself to pilots of small planes. That mode of travel got me across the Great Lakes and down the northern California coast. I never did hop a train. Still, the magic noise of those childhood railroad cars and the early wanderlust it stirred had served me well.
The radio series was a success. It led to the station offering me a job hosting a nightly radio show, which later led to a Boston TV producer offering me a job hosting a weekly television show, which led, yada, yada, yada, to me fronting a celebrity ballroom competition.
How I even thought to turn a desire to wander the countryside into a radio series requires going back to the first time I ever spoke into a microphone, to the kitchen of the “little shack by the railroad track,” and to my dad. It was there and thanks to him that my love affair with broadcasting began.
He, my younger sister, and I would often huddle close together at the kitchen table, talking and singing into the microphone attached to his cassette recorder. On other occasions, he’d entrust the cassette player to us to play with. I’m listening to one of those recordings as I write this, from 1962, when I was 7 and my sister was 3. She and I are ad-libbing a shrill and silly newscast. Jump cut. Now I’m singing “Climb Every Mountain” along with the “The Sound of Music” soundtrack. Jump cut. Now I’m doing a Yogi Bear impression. It sounds like a peewee Ed Sullivan Show on a sugar high.
Jump cut again to 1971. I’m 16, sitting at that same kitchen table with another cassette tape recorder. Instead of a hand-held microphone, I have a device that plugs into the recorder on one end and attaches via a suction cup to the phone’s earpiece. My parents are out for the evening. My sister is sleeping at a friend’s house. I’m home alone so, as an almost 10-year-veteran of faux kitchen broadcasts, I decide to do what seemed completely logical at the time; I cold-called two of the Three Stooges.
First Larry, the frizzy-haired Stooge, whom I tracked down at the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills, Calif., then Moe, the bossy Stooge with the bowl cut, after a genial Larry actually offered me his home number. They were my first celebrity interviews.
When the impressive phone bill came, my Dad paid it with only the slightest reprimand. He had, after all, created the chatty monster.
Jump cut to 2009, and the surviving tapes of my teenage interviews with Moe and Larry became the subject of a special on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM channel. Then, last year, as I was driving down Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles on my way to a “Dancing with the Stars” production meeting, I coincidentally tuned in as the special was being replayed. Fifty-nine-year-old Tom was listening to 16-year-old Tom on a recording made on a long ago night in a cozy “shack” that was always furnished with love, support, and laughter.
Who says you can’t go home again?
Watch Bergeron discuss the Stooges interviews:
Tom Bergeron, a Haverhill native, hosts “Dancing with the Stars,” which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC. Send comments and your 550-word essay to firstname.lastname@example.org. We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.