Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Snowshoeing in the Swamp

DECEMBER 20, 2008

This winter’s first significant snowfall gave me the chance to practice one of my new favorite “sports”: snowshoeing. When my wife and I lived in Boston, she bought each of us a pair of snowshoes, but most of the time they sat around and collected dust. However, now that we live next to Wilbraham’s White Cedar Swamp, I strap on a pair and go tromping whenever I can. Winter is the only time much this 800-acre swamp is hikable, and there is great appeal in walking from your back door into the woods.

In the photo below, the swamp’s wetlands extend to a ravine behind our house after a heavy rain (background, middle of the picture). The gulley sure filled up after a day-long downpour on December 12 (it was an ice storm north and west of here), and my three-year-old son was ecstatic when I hurled rocks in the water the next day. No rock throwing today, though: I must trudge on.

This huge wetland is the westernmost Inland Atlantic White Cedar Swamp in the country, and contains the state’s largest known population of the rare Bristly Buttercup flower. It also has a healthy population of another rare species: the Hessel’s Hairstreak butterfly, and is home to the largest concentration of the Eastern Worm Snake in the state. Last summer, while driving by the swamp’s southernmost edge on Faculty Street, I saw a bobcat at the woods’ edge.

Let’s follow the deer tracks, shall we? No, deer aren’t exactly rare in Massachusetts these days, are they?

Wild turkeys have also made an amazing comeback. In the photo below, follow the tree in the foreground from bottom upward, and about halfway up you can barely see two turkeys to the right.

Below: graffiti on the back of the 150-unit condo complex known as the Woods of Wilbraham. This project, which cut a 50-plus-acre swath into the swamp’s forested areas, was the source of much controversy when it was first proposed in 1995. It received town approval in 1998, only after the developers promised to build on its access road a bridge over wetlands and a tunnel under the road to allow blue-spotted salamanders to cross.

Area residents and salamanders managed to delay the project, but it was finally built. Unfortunately, development is gradually eating away at the swamp’s borders: in 2005, the town gave the OK to build 218 condominiums on the former 76-acre Oaks Farm off Stony Hill Road. There was concern about four endangered species of salamanders there, as well as the endangered spotted turtle, but they couldn’t crawl in the way of progress.

Then, on December 20, 2008, the Planning Board approved a 26-family home subdivision off Washington Road, which will cut into the northern edge of the swamp. Although there are efforts from the town to purchase the former Presz Farm, to the east of this site, and protect it from development, the edges of the swamp and its wooded uplands seem to be getting quickly filleted, year after year.

For now, however, I’ll enjoy the scenery (below) and not dwell on overdevelopment.

Now I’m heading down the Nine Mile Pond area. One great thing about snowshoeing: if you start to get lost, you can always follow your own tracks (below).

Whoa, what is that wet feeling on my right foot? Oops, I stepped into the marsh (below. It’s been cold lately, but not enough to freeze all the water.

Pow! Pow! Pow!

I hear the shotgun blasts from a hunter. No photos of Nine Mile Pond this hike. It’s time for me to get the fuck out of here—but not before snapping a shot of this tree stand (below).

There are no tracks around the tree stand, but someone’s shooting around here, and I’m not wearing bright colors. Needless to say, it’s safer to hike in January, when hunting season is over. But I had been jonesing for some snowshoeing. Before I go I’ll also get a shot of some White Cedars, which were used to build ship masts back in the day.

I choose to snowshoe with my cross-country skiing poles. This way I can get an upper-body workout, fend off aggressive dogs (I haven't had to yet) and whack the snow from the low-lying branches (below), so I don’t get any snow dumped on me as I limbo-dance under them.

Back to my backyard, where a bench built by my grandfather sat on his lawn in Hungry Hill, and then in his yard in East Springfield. Now it’s mine, with a fresh coat of white paint and snow.

Thus concludes my first swamp trek of the winter. If you’d like to know more about Wilbraham’s White Cedar Swamp, check out an in-depth ecological analysis of the area by William Slezak, which is available at the Wilbraham Public Library. Written in 1975, it’s somewhat dated, showing areas of forest and swamp that are unfortunately now paved over.

These wetlands are also in danger of not being a White Cedar Swamp in the future: as Slezak points out, more development around the swamp increases storm and fertilizer runoff and siltation. This contributes to nutrient enrichment, which is bad for the White Cedars but good for such hardwoods as red maple, so it could become a hardwood swamp.

This area is still a winter wonderland and a natural treasure. It’s even big enough to support a bobcat population, but for how long?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Suburban Legend: The Haunting of Rock-a-Dundee Road

No, there were never any hangings on Rock-a-Dundee Road, nor has a crazy “hatchet lady” ever chased motorists out of the area.

Yes, there is a permanent roadside memorial to a small child who died in 1993.

Yes, a person was stabbed on Rock-a-Dundee Road.

JULY 1967

Looking back at one of the area’s most bizarre tales:

Two teenagers were making out in a car on the side of Rock-a-Dundee Road in Hampden, Mass., when, much to their dismay, the car wouldn’t start. “I’m walking to town for help,” said the boyfriend. “Keep the doors locked, and no matter what, don’t unlock the doors or get out.”

His girlfriend waited awhile and heard a scratching sound on the roof, but she thought it was the wind blowing a branch, since they were right under a tree.

Awoken the next morning by a Hampden police officer, she was escorted to his cruiser and instructed not to look back at the car. But she did, and saw her dead boyfriend hanging from a noose, his toes barely touching the car roof.

Many communities have adopted this bona fide suburban legend, going back, according to snopes.com, to at least 1964 in Kansas. By the late 1970s the story had spread across the world. Why is this kind of tale associated particularly with Rock-a-Dundee Road? As far as anyone knows, no murderous bloodbaths ever occurred there. Maybe it’s because of the road’s weird name. Rock-a-Dundee—sounds like a satanic chant. Or maybe it’s because it gets pretty damn dark out there in the boonies.

“The Boyfriend’s Death” story originates, no doubt, in tales of real life lover’s lane slayings. Hell, look at the Zodiac murders in the San Francisco area in the 1960s and 1970s. Necking can be fatal if a serial killer finds you. Snopes.com goes on to analyze the girlfriend defying the “don’t look back” order: it seems that taboos are always broken in folklore, and look what happened to Lot’s wife in the Bible when she ignores a similar command.

When we were growing up, we heard the theory that some sort of mob operation—counterfeiting or bootlegging or something like that—had taken place at a house on Rock-a-Dundee Road, and that the perpetrators had spread the haunting rumor to keep people away. If that was the case (although doubtful), quite the opposite has occurred over the past four decades. Thrill-seekers in Sixteen Acres, Wilbraham, Hampden, and East Longmeadow—the local legend hasn’t really spread much beyond this area—have considered it an adolescent rite-of-passage to make at least one chilling cruise down Rock-a-Dundee Road late at night.

Sure, my friends and I went down to Rock-a-Dundee Road a few times in our youth. But we never saw anything. Granted, it’s not a place you want to break down, especially where it turns into a dirt road and goes through a wooded area as it winds into Somers.

Over the years the stories have expanded to include tales of a crazed woman wielding an ax and chasing anyone foolish enough to venture down the road, teenage suicide hangings (the nooses, of course, are supposedly still dangling from the trees), and even an account of a bus running over a small child named John on the road after dropping him off. In this story, after the accident, his parents built a gazebo at the bus stop in his honor, and if you enter the structure, sometimes you can still hear the boy crying.

There is, in fact, such a structure on the road, decorated for the season with large Christmas lights, red bows, and four flat standup wooden carolers. A large boulder sits next to it, engraved with the message “Our bus stop in loving memory of John Shea.”

A note to readers: this isn’t his real name. But out of respect for the boy’s family, I’m not going to divulge it, and I’ve blocked it out of the photos.

A four-year-old boy named "John" who lived on Rock-a-Dundee road did die in the summer of 1993, but he wasn’t hit by a bus. He quietly passed away at home after a long illness, and the gazebo was apparently built as a memorial to him.

The story, of course, has been twisted and adopted into regional lore on the Internet by youngsters fascinated with the paranormal, including one person who claimed he was in the gazebo and felt a sudden gust of cold air, and then an hour later he found a scratch on his face. “I really freacked (sic) out,” he wrote, “because i felt like i was being folowed (sic) the rest of the day.”

I’m not surprised that the gazebo has prompted another Rock-a-Dundee legend: it’s just too tempting to see the rock inscription and skew the facts about the boy’s death to suit a haunting story. No, I didn’t go inside the gazebo once I took the photos. No, I didn’t get a weird feeling when I was there, except for being painfully aware of the fact that I’m a middle aged-man visiting Rock-a-Dundee road again after nearly 30 years. No, the road wasn’t named after the large rock, but that’s what people will undoubtedly be saying for the next hundred years. Yes, I know I am inevitably contributing to the spot’s notoriety by writing about these stories, but so be it.

There is a short YouTube video shot by adventurers cruising down Rock-a-Dundee Road at night. I’m not going to provide the link, because it’s not really worth watching. For a moment it has a humorous Blair Witch Project quality as headlights suddenly bear down on the couple. It's not a murderer, but an irritated motorist who just wants to pass the crawling car. Indeed, people who live on the street are sick of kids cruising up and down their street and turning around in their driveways at night, but they’re stuck with a legend. The YouTubers brought a Ouija board on the trip, and the passenger announces that it has directed him to the letter R. That’s R, I believe, for Rock-a-Dundee Road. No shit. “You couldn’t pay me enough to live on this street,” declares the driver. Believe me, honey, you probably couldn’t afford to live there.

OCTOBER 22, 2008

True story: a 20-year-old man was stabbed on Rock-a-Dundee Road this year. Fortunately, he survived. The circumstances were unclear from the news reports, but two adults and two juveniles from Springfield were arrested and charged with armed robbery, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and possession of marijuana.

This doesn’t sound like the kind of random slashing that is the stuff of Rock-a-Dundee road legends, but I’m sure in time the story will be amended enough to be incorporated into the area’s mythology. After all, we have the Internet now to speed up misinformation.

Memo to dead boyfriend, hatchet lady, and "John": you’ve got company—knife man.


Monday, December 15, 2008

An Elephant Invades Sixteen Acres

Photo: In 1968, Morganetta was the “anchor” for Western New England College sophomores in their annual tug-of-war battle with freshmen. With her “help,” the sophomores (the Class of 71) won. The elephant returned to Sixteen Acres for the neighborhood’s Fourth of July parades in the 1970s, which proceeded down Wilbraham road, from the college’s parking lot to Sixteen Acres Center, where a furious Morganetta frightened me nearly to death in 1975. She appreciated her road trips, but her living conditions sparked a brouhaha in Springfield in 1979 when the Humane Society demanded her transfer to a better zoo. Did she stay or did she go?

JULY 4, 1975

The raging elephant prepared to charge me. She reared up, raised her trunk, threw her front legs upward, and trumpeted in anger—and I did some serious backpedaling. After all, she wasn’t in her cage at the Forest Park Zoo. We were in Greenleaf Park, a baseball field, and there was no fence between us.

Maybe Morganetta was more than just a little cranky and tired—she had just finished walking the mile-long Sixteen Acres Fourth of July Parade. One thing was for sure: she certainly wasn’t in the mood to be prodded into her trailer by her keeper.

In fact, she was downright pissed! And I almost pissed myself when she lunged. But no, she didn’t trample me or tear her trainer limb from limb. In fact, she suddenly just chilled out, and I realized she was indeed going into her trailer peaceably. No more outbursts. I would survive.

Looking back, I wouldn’t say that I was traumatized. I put the incident in the category of one of those milliseconds of pure terror that everyone experiences—like almost getting in a car accident before realizing you’re not going to crash after all.

True, not every 12-year-old faces what he thinks is an imminent elephant attack. But I probably deserved it.

About half an hour earlier, at the intersection of Wilbraham Road and Maebeth Street, I had dared my friend, Al Hostetter, to light up one of those little round superball-sized smoke bombs and roll it into the parade. And he took me up on my dare. I had “marched” in earlier parades in uniform with my teammates from the Sixteen Acres Lions little league team, but in 1975 I had “defected” to another team: the St. George Olympians. So I wasn’t in the parade that year, but I was going to have my fun anyway. I thought that it would be a howl to bowl a smoke bomb at my former teammates. I lost my nerve, but Al was more than happy to do the dastardly deed.

“Now!” I said. Al flicked his Bic and rolled the smoke bomb, which billowed a thick yellow cloud and was soon being kicked around by my old team, desperately trying to boot the bomb to the curb.

We thought that was hilarious, but a moment later we were absolutely screaming with laughter when Morganetta, right behind the team, became alarmed by the smoke. As the trainer tried to calm her down, the elephant took a huge shit in the middle of the street, and the rest of the marchers had to walk around the pile. The parade parted like the Red Sea.

Granted, elephants have great memories, and I reckon Morganetta, retiring to her trailer, saw me and decided to scare the crap out of me after we scared the crap out of her.

Morganetta was always a bit mischievous, stealing my little brother’s mitten off his hand once. (We had to get her keeper to retrieve it.) She also escaped as a calf and was captured on the corner of Dickinson Street and Trafton Road. But her antics sometimes backfired on her—there was the time she endured a rectal exam because her keeper thought she had swallowed her leg chain and padlock, but it was later found hidden in a pile of hay.

Photo: Morganetta is pictured as a five-year-old in 1969. Note her controversial leg chain. Yours truly is bravely facing the elephant (Click on the photo to enlarge): I’m the kid in the striped shirt behind the pole on Morganetta’s immediate left. My brother is standing on the far left with a bag of peanuts and wearing a nearly identical striped shirt.

Morganetta was named after Morgan O’Connell, who had campaigned to add an elephant to the Forest Park Zoo. She was brought to Springfield from Thailand in 1964 as an infant, when the 300-pound pachyderm’s diet consisted of 14 quarts of grain, 15 pounds of hay, and 10 pounds of chopped fruits and vegetables. Tethered much of her life by a short chain tied around her leg, she loved the chance to get out and roam, performing in the Shrine Circus and walking in the Sixteen Acres and Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day parades.

Photo: Morganetta marches in a parade on Sumner Avenue in 1967.

The Shriners, who had sponsored Morganetta’s flight from Thailand and ride from Logan Airport, once brought her into a bar on High Street in Holyoke after one of the parades. For some reason, they couldn’t get her out the door she came in, so the picture window of the bar had to be taken out to remove her.

When Morganetta was young, her keeper used to take her for walks around the X neighborhood, and he even brought her up on porches to greet admirers. According to local lore, she was also led into the former Lancer Cafe (now Coconuts). But the U.S. Humane Society complained about her living conditions, including the short chain. The zoo responded by building a larger outside cage with a moat, a pool, and a strong fence, and her fans rejoiced at the fact that she could roam free in the warm months. Nonetheless, when she was 15, the Humane Society persisted, pointing out that she was still chained inside during the winter, and suggesting that she be transferred to a zoo that was better suited to handle her.

I remember the big debate. Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle thought the controversy was quite amusing, taking great pains to ridicule Springfield as a hick town, and writing that Morganetta was likely not an elephant at all, but a large pig that us yokels just think is an elephant.

Her keeper (pictured with Morganetta below) weighed in, saying it would be cruel to separate Morganetta and him by three thousand miles, but the Parks Department did just that, shipping her to the Los Angeles Zoo. She died seven months later—of a broken heart, many insisted.

Some, the Boston Globe included, romantically—and mistakenly—believe that Springfield native Theodore Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, modeled the elephant in his children’s book Horton Hears a Who after Morganetta, but it was written in 1957, long before she was born.

Still, her legacy continues to live long after her death, as a costumed mascot at Forest Park—minus the leg chain, of course.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

A Sixteen Acres Pond Suddenly Vanishes, Part 1

Photo: Dam(n), how time passes bytrees have grown (left) where there was a pond 26 years ago.


I was sitting in the dentist’s chair in February of 1982 when I received news that would hurt me more than any dentist’s drill. “Springfield is minus one pond now,” said the voice on WSPR. “The dam at the pond known as Putnam’s Puddle was breached yesterday, and all the pond’s water rushed downstream, knocking down several trees. Fortunately, officials say, it happened late at night—apparently no one was injured at one of the city’s most popular ice skating areas.”

“Good thing we weren’t down there,” I mumbled in gibberish as the dentist cleaned my teeth.


“Uh, nothing.”

Although this happened when I was home during my holiday break in my freshman year at college, it wasn’t farfetched that we would have been hanging around at the pond that night. Granted, I was a little too old—and it was a little too cold—for boozing in the woods. But hell, the drinking age in Massachusetts was 20, I was 19, I didn’t have a fake ID to get into a bar, and this pond was conveniently located several houses away from my home on Maebeth Street. My friends and I, who called ourselves the Maebeth Womblies, had done plenty of partying over the years at our two big gathering spots there: The Pothole and The Dam, and now the latter was gone.

Rich Davis (not his real name) and I grabbed a couple of beers from my fridge and we walked down the ravine that day to see the devastation: the thick layer of ice had collapsed in huge sheets throughout the pond. “DO NOT CROSS” police tape surrounded The Dam area. At first glance the structure looked intact, but upon closer inspection we could see that there was a gaping hole in the foundation.

“Damn,” said Rich.

“Not any more,” I replied
“Good one,” he said.

“Let’s go to The Pothole.”

We trudged up the path and downed our beer at The Pothole, where we hadn’t been since the fall. The Womblies usually didn’t party there much during the winter, although we did build a fire in the woods once in a while if there was nowhere else to go. But Rich and I felt we had to have a drink in tribute to Putnam’s Puddle. We caught our first fish there when we were kids, and the 50 acres of woods that surrounded the pond had an “OK Corral” kind of wildness about it when we were growing up: no adults there to monitor our every move, to tell us to stop blowing stuff up with M-80s or to stop throwing crab apples at cars speeding by on Sunrise Terrace. We lived a Lord of the Flies existence. When we encountered neighborhood bullies at the pond, or when my friend Rick Riccardi stepped on a wasp’s nest and was stung about 30 times, we were on our own.

There were two kinds of kids at Putnam’s Puddle: us and the “kids on the other side of the pond.” With a body of polluted water separating us, there were the inevitable screaming matches and threats, usually prompted by either side lobbing rocks or shooting bottle rockets across the pond when the other gang was fishing. These missiles created huge splashes and scared the fish away.

“Who threw that? We’re coming over there! We’re gonna kick your ass!”

WE'RE gonna kick YOUR ass! We’re heading down to The Dam RIGHT NOW!”

“Good! We’ll see you at The Dam, motherfucker!”

Of course, neither group would go to The Dam (pictured again below from our side) to engage in mortal combat. At least we didn’t.

The Pothole was the ideal hangout: we had dug a foundation and we had grandiose plans to build the ultimate party palace with scrap wood. That plan was abandoned due to laziness, but we did affix a large plywood sheet atop one side of the hole, which gave us shelter when it rained.

Putnam’s Puddle was a man-made pond, hand-dug by the Works Progress Administration laborers during the Depression and named after Roger L. Putnam, mayor of Springfield from 1938 to 1943. It was once a popular swimming hole, but it was polluted with sewage runoff by the time the Womblies started going down there. The pond was overrun with algae and leeches, but it wasn’t a bad fishing spot, where you could catch lots of pumpkinseed, smallmouth bass, and the occasional perch.

In the 1980s and 1990s the city had plans to fix The Dam and refill the pond. After all, for 45 years the structure had prevented sedimentation downstream. But ever since the concrete behemoth broke, Breckwood Pond, which Putnam’s Puddle emptied into, was filling with more and more silt every year. In 1992 nearly half a million dollars was set aside from a Parks Department account to repair the dams at Putnam’s Puddle and Mill Pond in Sixteen Acres Center, but nothing ever came of the projects. Four years later, Springfield was supposed to receive state money from an open space bond to restore Putnam’s Puddle and dredge the rapidly shrinking Breckwood Pond. But nothing happened. Now Breckwood is half the size it was a quarter-century ago, and Putnam’s Puddle is now a piddling stream.

Where did the money go? You got me. The Putnam’s Puddle area, choked with brush, reeds, and other vegetation, is now practically bone dry. The ravine is in its pre-Depression primeval state, with The Dam a Stonehenge-like reminder of another time, when it was a prime recreation area in Sixteen Acres—and the hangout of the Maebeth Womblies.

Photo: Judging from the leaf buildup, the absence of party debris, and the lack of a well-trod pathway, it's obvious that no one meets at The Pothole (pictured above) any more. In my recent visit down there I did find, closer to The Dam, some clothes hanging on a branch, and next to it a roll of toilet paper secured inside a zip-lock plastic baggie. So someone is evidently spending a lot of time in the Putnam's Puddle ravine, but not at The Pothole.

Here is some video I shot of The Pothole as it exists today. Much of it is caved in. In its heyday, it was the perfect "fort," nearly invisible from Sunrise Terrace and from the pathway below.

Read Part 2!

Monday, December 8, 2008

Those Good Old Cathedral High School Food Fights, Part 1


“I heard there was a food fight yesterday,” said some freshman I was eating with.

“Oh really,” I replied, uninterested. I had heard rumors about Cathedral High School’s food fights. A few kids throwing their lunch around. Big fucking deal. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I was ignorant of the true magnitude of these events. We keep eating, and then I hear some shouting. I turned around, but nothing is happening.

“What’s going on?” I asked the guy across the table.

“Somebody threw a roll or something,” he said.

I kept gawking. Everybody was looking across the room, but all was calm.

“Big deal,” I said. “Some big fucking food fight. Whole lotta nothing going on.”

A minute later I heard—and felt—a loud rumble. Wow. What the hell is that? An earthquake? I turned around again. No, it wasn’t not an earthquake. It was more like a cyclone—of food, plastic bowls, trays, milk cartons, and silverware. Food flying everywhere. Look at these motherfuckers, I thought. About 300 upperclassmen, going wild—all covered with American chop suey, chocolate milk shakes—you name it. The pelting sound of food hitting people, walls, and floor. The cacophony of chairs sliding back and toppling, the clattering of trays, the chaos of all these food-splattered students getting the hell out of there, stampeding to the exits. Jesus, I’d never seen anything like this. What…bedlam. I looked at the long rows of tables, now zig-zag lines. At that point in my life this was the closest thing to a riot I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

After a few seconds of silence, the remaining 400 or so students give the food fight a standing ovation.


The aftermath: Inevitably, after every food fight, Sister Mildred would get on the intercom. “Would all the BOYS in the first (or second or third) lunch wave please return to the cafeteria and sit in the places you were sitting?” she would ask tersely.

“AH HA HA!” laughed the students in every classroom. “A food fight!” said the school in unison.

All the guilty participants, food-stained and laughing, would revisit the scene of the crime and sit amidst the filth as Sister Mildred dragged in a microphone and a small amplifier, trying to get to the bottom of who started the battle.

“I am sick of you people throwing food like children!” she shrieked, generating even more laughter.

“You think this is funny?” she asked. “How would you like to get expelled?” She threw around the words “expelled,” arrested,” and “violent,” “childish” a few times. Yes, we know, sister. Violent behavior. Childish. But we have to have our food fights. Why? Good question. We don’t have an answer. After getting nowhere in assigning blame, she made everyone clean up the mess.


There were several food fights a year, especially toward the end of the spring term, when the school had extra teachers on lunch duty to prevent such bloody uprisings. Some of the eruptions were small, involving around 50 boys—they were always boys—but every so often there was a biggie.

Still, I remember nearly my whole sophomore year going by without a food fight. “When the fuck is there going to be a food fight?” we asked. We waited and waited. But nothing. I’d lob a ketchup packet or a roll into the crowd to get things going, but there was no retaliation. Although there were several promising scenarios—a bit of food or a milk carton tossed across the cafeteria, followed by lots of students yelling—the incident always petered out when the nuns came a-runnin’, saying, “Don’t you dare!”

Then it happened. The end of sophomore year in 1979. The mother of all food fights. It started in one section of the cafeteria and kept spreading, like “the wave” at Fenway Park. In no time 500 or 600 students were involved. Even many of the girls got into it.

“Would EVERYONE in the third lunch wave please return to the cafeteria and sit in the places you were sitting?”

“AH HA HA! A fucking food fight! Finally!”

And so it went in the cafeteria of Cathedral High School in the late ’70s.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Art of the Splash and Dash in Sixteen Acres

Maybe it’s just “an Acres thing,” but when I tell people about my friends and I jumping in strangers’ pools when we were growing up, they look at me in disbelief. Well, aside from playing Wiffleball, what else was there to do in the summer?

JULY 1977

You look out your window. A bunch of neighborhood kids are splashing around in your pool. Uninvited. What do you say to them?

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Not surprisingly, that was the usual reaction from housewives when four or five of us—and sometimes more—jumped into their pools. We were practicing the age-old ritual of Splash and Dash—what some punks call pool-hopping. A bunch of us used to invade a pool, splash around, raise hell, and then, when we wore out our rude welcome, stampeded into another pool. We’d typically hit half a dozen pools within six streets—and sometimes even more on a good, hot summer day.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Jesus Christ! Get the hell out of here!”

Yep. That’s what the housewives usually yelled. Housewives. Oh, excuse me. The politically correct term now is “homemakers.” Well, back then they were housewives, and we usually did our misdeeds during the week, when their husbands were at work, so there was no risk of a violent confrontation—usually.

Why did we do this? Well, it was fucking hot during the summer, and none of our families had pools. The nearest pond, known as Putnam’s Puddle, was polluted. The pools in the neighborhood were going to waste on weekdays—they were calling out to us. And we answered the call. I Splash and Dash, therefore, I am.

You know, I don’t know what was more pleasurable: doing a cannonball in someone’s pool during a when it was 97 degrees out, or seeing the expression of shocked amazement on the face of the pool’s owner. Maybe it was the combination of both—along with the cammeraderie, and the thrill of stampeding in and out of yards—that seduced us so. Illegal? Yes. Immoral? Far from it. There was no outdoor public pool in Sixteen Acres. And we were bored.

So if someone broached the subject of Splash and Dash during a heat wave, when we were sweating our asses off playing Wiffleball, the decision was always unanimous.

INSTIGATOR: “Let’s do a Splash and Dash.”

ME: “You know, that’s a good idea.”

ANOTHER FRIEND: “Yeah! Splash and Dash. Let’s do it!”

These were chaotic scenes, but that’s not to say there wasn’t some planning in these adventures. Indeed, huddling beforehand, we expertly mapped our strategy at least three or four pools ahead. “OK: we’ll do the Whites, the Rutiglianos, the Grimaldis, and then the Morans!” (not their real names) We had enough sense to avoid the yards patrolled by vicious dogs. And we rarely hit any pools beyond Aldrew, Catalpa, Maebeth, Granger, Denwall, and Pineview streets. We just didn’t know what could be awaiting us outside of that grid. Someone with a gun? Who the fuck knows?

Of course, there were unfortunate incidents to put a damper on our summer fun. They were unavoidable. For example, even though we wore sneakers during our exploits—because we had to run like hell and climb fences—injuries still occurred. Bruises and scrapes. And then there was the time Adam Ferry dove into the shallow end of a pool and came up with a bloody nose. He was lucky he wasn’t paralyzed. He was stunned, but that didn’t stop him from continuing the Splash and Dash once he recovered.

Another time we made the mistake of jumping into a pool whose owners had a couple of older teenaged sons at home. Most of us split in different directions when they came out, but these guys got a few of their friends together, and before you know it, there were two carloads of goons looking for us.

And these guys were persistent. They didn't get our of their cars, but they didn't give up the chase. Dave O’Brien and I stayed together and cut through yards to get away, but wherever we surfaced on the street, there they were. This went on for about an hour, but an hour seems like an eternity when it’s starting to get dark out and you’re running through bushes and over fences, yard by yard, trying to make our way to The Pothole, our hangout in the woods at Putnam’s Puddle. That’s where the other Splash and Dashers were undoubtedly regrouping—we’d be safe there, I thought, as Dave and I hid behind a shed, panting in exhaustion and swatting at mosquitoes that were swarming us. But we were still five or six houses away from the woods.

DAVE O’BRIEN: “Well, I guess the Splash and Dash is over.”

ME: “Yep.”

DAVE O’BRIEN: “You know, I got pretty sweaty and dirty from all this running and shit.”

ME: “Me too.”

DAVE O’BRIEN: “We should probably hit one more pool before we get to the woods. I fucking smell.”

ME: “Yep. You do.”

DAVE O’BRIEN: “You too. I guess the Splash and Dash isn’t over.”

ME: “Nope.”

In case you’re wondering, we made it to the Promised Land: the Pothole, and we were nice and clean, thanks to the Johannes’ pool.

Well, it turns out that the Splash and Dash isn’t just an Acres thing. It’s listed in the Urban Dictionary under “pool hopping.”

Yes, the YouTube generation has carried on the art of the Splash and Dash. Check these videos out. It’s mild compared to what we did, with our stampeding and raising hell, but at least the practice is alive and well.

These folks pictured above, as well as at the top of this blog entry, offer a “tutorial,” but they only do one pool:


Seeing one of these guys nearly fall on his head scaling the fence reminded me of the time Dave O'Brien climbed to the top of a high wooden gate, thinking it was locked. But I merely opened the gate—with him on it—and he almost wiped out.

This fellow below is splashing solo (and escapes via car), but at least he jumps into two pools:


The Urban Dictionary's definition of pool hopping pretty much sums it up:

“To jump into a pool that is not your own and escape before po po* come. This act was very popular circa 1975, but has faded as of late. The few and the proud who keep this teenage tradition alive should be honored.”

*The acronym “po po,” defined by the Urban Dictionary, stands for “pissed off police officers.”

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Pestering Poor Partricia Hale, the Witch of Sixteen Acres

Isn’t there a witch in every neighborhood? I’m not referring to someone who practices the Wiccan religion, or some Goth who thinks she has supernatural powers. I’m talking about some old bag on your street who nobody likes, so everybody calls her a witch. After all, why do you think the word sounds so much like “bitch”?

This Massachusetts tradition of labeling bizarre outcasts as witches dates back to the early 17th Centuryeven before the Salem Witch trials. Suppose there is some deranged, withered hag in YOUR neighborhood like my former next door neighbor Patricia Hale, some miserable wretch who constantly spies on you and lives to tattle, telling your parents in lurid detail about your misdeeds. What do you call her? A witch, of course. Admit it!

Like Patricia Hale and the alleged Salem witches, this kind of freak is an obvious target for persecution. Well, we may have been cruel to Patricia, but at least we didn’t execute her. We did, however, execute the ultimate prank on her—a stunt that was five years in the making.


The Golf Ball Incident
(The names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Don’t pity poor Patricia Hale. She was a witch.

So we tortured our next door neighbor. Mercilessly. And she loved us for it.

Patricia Hale loved it when we yelled out “Hale smail!” This was our ebonic way of declaring that she emitted a foul odor. And she was overjoyed when Craig Stewart chucked a brick at her mailbox, leaving it with a big dent. She made a big frigging deal out of a dented mailbox, deeming it “a federal crime.” I mean, what else was this divorced old bag going to focus on during her pathetic drunken life?

“She’s gonna love this!” I declared just before I drove a golf ball against her aluminum siding with a hockey stick. “Score!” yelled Craig, doing his best imitation of Bruins announcer Fred Cusick. This was even better than the time Craig and I hocked a couple of loogies on bedroom window, and then had to listen to her theory that the dried globs must be spit because birds can’t shit sideways.

“I still think it’s bird crap,” I told her. What was I going to tell her? That Craig and I had a spitting contest on her window? “The wind must have blown it on the window,” I explained.

“Why is it only on your side of the house, where everything happens?” she said, no doubt alluding to the sneaker mark she found the previous week on her siding—a product of one of Craig’s Bruce Lee kicks.

Before I move on with the golf ball story, let me digress into the footprint incident. Her discovery of the sneaker print prompted the witch to invade our Wiffleball game and try to compare the mark to the bottom of Craig’s sneaker, demanding that he lift his foot up so she could see the tread mark. When he wouldn’t, she tried to examine his sneaker print in the worn down “batter’s box” in our yard. He slammed the bat on the dirt, destroying the evidence in a puff of dust.

“Hale smail!” yelled Adam Ferry as she walked away. Fucking witch.

Or maybe she was talking about the time Ron Williams whacked around her flowers with a sickle he found in my garage. Ron really had it in for her, and he gave her little “garden” a good little thrashing, petals and leaves flying everywhere, and then he took off. When her car pulled into her driveway an hour later, we know the witch was going to freak.

“I want to know which one of you is responsible for destroying my red peony bush!” she shrieked as I was about to pitch.

“Jesus, her pee-neey bush,” chuckled Craig.

We all began to laugh. Then we tried to ignore her, but she started sobbing, so we had to call a time out and gather around her ruined garden. After she threatened to call the police, Stan Janek went over Ron’s house, and when Stan told him the cops were coming, Ron brought his father back to the scene of the crime, Thank God my parents weren’t home. But I knew they were certainly going to get wind of this travesty.

“My garden!” she wailed. “Look at it! I have no recourse but to call the police.”

“That isn’t necessary, ma’am,” said Ron’s father authoritatively.

“Yes! It is!!” she replied, her voice breaking with emotion.

“My son and I—how can we appease you, ma’am?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“We can pay for the damage,” he offered. “How much do you think would cover it?”

“How can I put a price on a life’s work!!” she bleated.

Her life’s work. A fucking pee-neey bush. Well, she accepted the payoff of $15 and shut the fuck up.

Anyway, back to the golf ball incident. After I had used her house as a driving range, she came home and inspected her property for damage, as she always did, and she once again put a halt to yet another Wiffleball game and called me over, declaring that there was a golf ball mark, complete with the dimple pattern, on the side of her house. “Yeah, I guess that could be a golf ball mark,” I told her upon close inspection. “But, you see, we don’t have golf balls. We don’t have golf clubs. We play Wiffleball.”

“Well, I’m calling the police,” she said as she stormed toward her door, her marionette-like hinged jaw thrust forward like a bulldozer blade.

“Wait,” I said, thinking quickly. “All right, I was fooling around—I was slapping around a golf ball with my hockey stick. I was using my fence as a goal, but one of my shots got away. I hit your house. It was an accident. I’m sorry.”

“Well, OK,” she said as she turned around. “I won’t call the police this time. Just—just do this kind of thing on the other side of your yard. Or go play ball at the Glickman School. They have a huge field there.” She marched back to her house.

“Hale smail!” yelled Adam Ferry as she opened her door. She spun around, shot us a furious look, then went inside.

“Hale smail!” bellowed Craig as she slammed the door.

At this point, you’re probably feeling somewhat sorry for Patricia Hale, with her blubbering and all. Don’t let the crying fool you. She relished being in the spotlight.

She loved all the small-time vandalism shit because, you see, she was lonely. We provided excitement in her life. At least we were paying attention to her, because Lord knows she was obsessed with us. She always kept her windows and shades open about two inches, and she watched us like a hawk. Once, when Bob O’Brien got Craig in a headlock and threw him on the ground, we heard this screeching coming from out of nowhere: “You leave him alone!! You leave him alone!!” Jesus, that ruckus was coming from her window—she was checking out the fight the whole time! Classic! And there she was, defending Craig, the guy who hated her guts, the one who did the most damage to her property!

One night, after my Dad, my brother, and watched a Red Sox game on the TV in our porch, my father told me to make sure the car was locked before we went to bed. I went out to our driveway and, sure enough, our car was unlocked, so I opened the door, and a blood-curdling scream shattered the silent sultry summer night. Jesus fucking Christ! What the fuck was that?

“Oh, I’m sssorry,” she slurred through her window slit as my father came running out of the house. “I thought someone was breaking into your car.”

“What’s going on out here?” asked my father.

“Nothing,” I said. “Mrs. Hale is spying on us again.”

“I’m not spying,” said Patricia. “I thought I heard someone was breaking into your car.”

“Go to bed, Patricia,” said my father.

NO, don’t feel sorry for Patricia Hale. Again, when I tell you she wanted so desperately to be tortured by the neighborhood kids, you had better believe it. She had nothing going on in her life. Nothing. Except being at the mercy of our cruelty.


Patricia Hale must have really loved it the time her shoes went missing. The old souse used to stumble around doing yardwork in her bare feet, comically and maniacally rearranging her sprinklers and drunkenly weeding her garden. So one day, when Craig was thirteen, he walked by her yard on the way to my house, spied her shoes about five feet from the curb, and the minute she walked into her back yard to move a sprinkler, he snatched the shoes in one quick motion and tossed them into the bottom of a huge pine tree across the street. The tree was on the lawn of this hillbilly family who would never even dream of pruning this monstrosity, so the branches on the lower part of this evergreen were so overgrown, and the shoes were so obscured, that there was no way anyone was going to find those fuckers—for five years, that is. Yes, five years later they would finally come back home to Patricia Hale.

No, she didn’t interrupt any more Wiffleball games after her shoes vanished. She didn’t ask where the hell they were. She started giving us some space. We had stepped over the line, and we could see the fear in her eyes. This was just plain cruel on our part. In her view, we were fucking psychos. Possibly homicidal. I mean, who the fuck would steal a poor old woman’s shoes?

The answer: Craig. But Craig giveth back the shoes after he taketh them away.

April 1985

No lie: five years later Craig and I were throwing a football around in the street, and after one of my errant passes, he had to dig it out of the bottom of the same pine tree. He wasn’t having much luck, so we grabbed a couple of hockey sticks to move some branches around and try to fish it out, and guess what we found, aside from the football. We each had a shoe stuck on the blades of our hockey sticks, contemplating our next move.

“Holy shit,” I said, laughing so hard that tears were coming down my cheeks. “What are we gonna do with these? Fling’em on her roof?”

“No,” said Craig with a mischievous look in his eye. “I’ve got a much better idea.”

You know very well where we had to put those rotting shoes, covered with dirt and pine needles. Yes, in the exact spot on the lawn where she had left them. We had forgotten about those shoes, and she had probably forgotten about them after a couple of years. But the good Lord didn’t, and he directed that football—and by extension us—right to Patricia’s long lost shoes.

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? I sincerely hope that Patricia got a good laugh out of that one, because we sure did, and so did The Almighty. I never saw her reaction, but it must have been priceless.

Yes, we were cowardly bastards, destined to eternal damnation, but we were in agreement with the Supreme Being on one important principal: Hale smail!