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

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Fear and Loathing on the Monkey Trail, Part 1

“You guys are fucking dead!” he yelled.

It certainly looked that way—if he and his friends could catch us.

We had shot off our big mouths, and now the chase was on.


The Monkey Trail incident was the first time in my life I thought I was going to be ganged up on and get my ass kicked. Oh, I would go on to endure several group beat-downs in my youth, but the prospect is pretty terrifying when you’re only 11 years old.

JUNE 1974

The day started out innocently enough, with Craig Stewart and I riding our bikes through the Monkey Trail, a wooded lot in Sixteen Acres that connected Donbray Road  and Lumae Street. I don’t know why it was called the Monkey Trail. Go ahead and Google “Monkey Trail” and you’ll get about 180,000 hits. There seems to be one in every city and town.

Countless neighborhood kids used to fly down this particular Monkey Trail on their bikes as fast as they could, after picking up speed on either Donbray or Lumae. It was kind of a daredevil tradition. Pick up a head of steam and take on the trail with all its bumps and see if you can make it to the other side without putting on your brakes.

On this fine summer day, I was 11 years old, and Craig was eight, and after we blazed through the Monkey Trail, we concluded, “Wouldn’t it be fucking hilarious if we blocked the path with logs and branches and shit?” I don’t know which one of us had this brilliant idea, but I, being the older one, will accept the blame.

So there we were, busy at work, laughing our asses off, laying a huge fallen tree and other debris across the trail, when all of a sudden five kids on bikes came whipping around the corner into the trail. The first one put on his brakes and tried to avoid the log by swerving to the left, but he hit it anyway—not head-on—but enough to flip him over the rotting tree and onto the ground. The second kid swerved to the right and his bicycle fishtailed, his rear wheel heading toward the log, so he bailed on his bike and hit the dirt. The other three slammed on their brakes and jumped off their bikes.

Holy shit. We were caught red-handed—both of us holding opposite ends of the log. And these guys were big—three or four years older than us.

“What the fuck? You assholes! I almost fucking got killed!” said the first kid.

“You guys are fucking dead!” said the second.

“No, no, you got it all wrong!” I interjected. “Some asshole blocked the path and we were moving all this crap out of the way.”

“Yeah,” said Craig, unconvincingly. “WE almost got killed.”

I would by lying to you if I gave you detailed descriptions of these guys, even in the interest of writing a compelling narrative by making them scary dudes with scars, and hideously ugly with braces and acne, etc. But the fact is that what they looked like has faded in memory over the years. The only thing I remember about them was that they were big, and they were pissed.

“Yeah, right, you little fucking liars,” said the first one as he brushed dirt off his clothes.

“Oh, you guys are dead,” said the second one.

“We should kick your asses,” said the first kid as he and the second guy took each side of the log and began moving it out of the way. “Hey, you! Fucking four-eyes! Help us move this before I break my back.”

I wore glasses when I was a kid, and “four eyes” were usually fighting words with me, but a challenge at this point was out of the question. We were younger, smaller, outnumbered, and way out of our immediate neighborhood. We were smack in the middle of a wooded lot, so there would be no adult to put a stop to the massacre. While it was the ultimate indignity for me to help them move the log, there was also a sense of relief that they weren’t going to beat us to a pulp. Truth be told, they were probably much too old to give us a beating, although I wasn’t going to push my luck by telling them what they could do with the fucking log.

“Get the fuck outta here and don’t come back!” said the first guy.

“If we ever catch you in here again, you’re dead!” said his buddy.

So Craig and I rode to the corner of Donbray and Martel Road and stopped. And then we started yelling at these guys. I don’t remember who came up with this brilliant idea either. But I, being the older one, will once again accept the blame. From several houses down we couldn’t see them in the Monkey Trail, and maybe we figured they’d walk out to the street, give us the finger, yell a few epithets, and go back and finish clearing the path.

“Hey! Fuck you, you motherfuckers!” I barked. “Ha! Ha! Ha! You guys are a bunch of cocksuckers!”

We were practically doubling over in laughter. Were we insane? Yes. Quite.

“Eat shit!” Craig screamed. “Fuck you, you fucking assholes!”

Suddenly, all five of them came tear-assing on their bikes out of the woods. They had already picked up some speed, and we had just been sitting there. But not for long. We instantly screwed. The chase was on.

Photo: Craig's Apollo Racer, like the one above, was built for muscle, not for speed.

I headed for Wilbraham Road, away from my home, but I figured we could lose them in the woods behind Glickman School if we pedaled fast enough. God, what were we thinking? Why did I assume they wouldn't come after us?

Jesus, my calves were burning. I had never pedaled so hard. At Wilbraham Road I glanced over my shoulder, but Craig was gone, and the kids were nowhere in sight. Where the hell did he—they—go? Craig must have headed in the other direction, I reasoned, down Martel to Fenway to Fairlawn, and either fled to the Putnam’s Puddle woods on Sunrise Terrace or to the safety of his house.

Oh shit, who was I kidding? They must have caught up to him, I thought. I was much faster, and I had my red Raleigh racer, and all he had was his Apollo Racer. His bike was good for leaving skid marks—he held the neighborhood record with a 52-foot skid—but the thing was heavy and slow, and so was he. Christ, I thought, they probably took his bike and left him on the street, bloody and crying. I rode like a madman down the sidewalk on Wilbraham Road and then flew down Maebeth Street—my street—to Craig’s house.

“Ken!” I yelled to his brother, who was alone shooting hoops in his driveway. “Me and Craig got chased by a bunch of kids! We got separated! I don’t know where he is! We—”

Then Craig appeared out of nowhere, unscratched, unscathed, and sweating like hell. “They… almost… caught… up to me,” he said, panting heavily. “One guy reached out and almost grabbed my shirt—just as I turned into the Mezettis’ driveway on Catalpa. I just rode into their back yard. I don’t think anybody was home.” The pursuers had probably thought that he lived there, one street away from ours, and they apparently gave up and took off, not wanting to face his parents. From then on, he was home free, having cut through a couple of yards to Maebeth. There was no sign of the bastards as we caught our breath.

But being lucky wasn’t good enough for us. Oh, no siree. Craig and I kept urging Dan to exact revenge, even though we were the ones who had acted like punks. No, we didn’t tell him about our swearing and taunting. Ken was 16, and he got his friend Carl, who was also 16, and I had visions of turning the tables on the Monkey Trail dudes. So all four of us walked to the scene of the crime. Craig and I figured the assholes would be hanging around on the path, but when we reached our destination, they were nowhere in sight—and that was a good thing, in retrospect.

And did we have thoughts about blocking the Monkey Trail again during this second visit? Of course. We were little weasels—what can I say? But Ken told us to cut the shit and go home—that was enough excitement for one day.

Photo: My red Raleigh racer, like the one above, was faster than Craig's Apollo racer, but it was only a one-speed. Thank God those kids went after Craig instead!


Moral of the story: if you shoot off your wise mouth, you might just get your ass kicked. Did I learn my lesson from this experience, or am I still a punky kid? Well, 35 years later, I have a message of apology for those dudes on the Monkey Trail: “Fuck you, you motherfuckers!”

Friday, January 23, 2009

Sixteen Acres: What’s in a Name?

Dig my new tattoo, man. Bitchin’, huh? What better way to show my pride in the neighborhood I grew up in, right? It didn’t hurt that much, and the only nuisance was shaving some leg hair.

Just kidding. That’s not my leg. The tattoo belongs to Mike Lowe, who hosted large parties, complete with punk and thrash bands, on his lawn in Orlando, Fla. His property consisted of sixteen acres, and that’s what he called his “concert venue.” He was finally forced to shut down his weekly Woodstock act—the city even shut off his electricity so bands couldn’t plug in—but Sixteen Acres lives on—on his leg, and, probably unbeknownst to him, 1,200 miles north in the great city of Springfield, Mass.

Photo: the horse named Sixteen Acres.

It’s curious what you come up with when you Google “Sixteen Acres”—many Springfield real estate listings, of course, along with the name of a world champion show horse (you can purchase his semen for breeding and they’ll ship it to you). Sixteen Acres is also the title a book about the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in New York (the site, a large haunted hole, is composed of sixteen acres). So the name of my old neighborhood is in some good company: an unofficial hardcore music/kegger party pit, an ad for horse cum, and ground zero for the worst terrorist attack in history.

Sixteen Acres: it’s a pretty weird moniker for a section of a city. Where did it come from? The eastern outskirts of Springfield have been known as Sixteen Acres since 1652. But why Sixteen Acres? There is the distinct possibility that in the 17th century, 16 acres represented a unit of land measure at the time, one that is now extinct, like the now obsolete “rood, or pole, or perch,” according to the Early History of Sixteen Acres, a 1964 publication by the Sixteen Acres Garden Club.

I looked into this theory even further, and it checked out: in olde England, according to this geeky website, four acres made up one “homestead,” and four homesteads equaled one “shareland,” which consisted of 16 acres.

In 1652, a 16-acre plot of land, slightly southwest of the modern day Sixteen Acres center, was granted to explorer Rowland Thomas and three other people. Four years later, Thomas (for whom Mt. Tom is named) received an additional grant of “meadow on Mill River above the falls which are above the sixteen acres,” according to historical records. In 1667, Sixteen Acres had definitely become a place-name, with what is now Wilbraham Road referred to as “the way to the sixteen acres.”

The Early History of Sixteen Acres also reveals the origin of the names of three ponds. I had always assumed that Bass Pond was named after the type of fish, but it was originally known as Bask Pond. In Elizabethan times, neighbors gathered there for a ritualized dip in the spring to clean off their winter stink, and then they dried off by basking in the sun. Venture Pond’s real name was Venturer’s Pond, and Mill Pond was named after a sawmill at the waterfall off Parker Street at what is now South Branch Park.

Sixteen Acres is certainly a desirable neighborhood to live in today, but in the 18th century the land was considered nearly worthless. In 1789, George Washington called Sixteen Acres “eight miles of almost uninhabited pine plain mixed with sand.” A map at the time designates the area as “pine barrens mixed with unimprovable swamps.” This was due to the Native American practice of constantly torching the land’s undergrowth to keep it open for hunting—it was burned enough to consume most of the organic matter in the soil, leaving just the glacial sand.

Nonetheless, it became a farming community in the 19th century, but was still somewhat isolated, being two miles from the Indian Orchard station on the railroad. It wasn’t until the rest of the city became congested that land in the area was in demand, and much of the housing was built after World War II. It’s difficult to imagine two dirt paths at the today’s congested intersection of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street, or the neighborhood consisting of “not more than a dozen houses clustered together,” according to an 1871 article in the Springfield Republican.

Well, there’s your history lesson for today. The funny thing is that many in the area calls their neighborhood “the Acres”—“Sixteen” doesn’t even come into use. But it’s interesting to read about what could be the real source of the name. Isn’t this compelling stuff? You’ve read this far, so it couldn’t be too boring, right?

In The Circle, a 1970 book about Sixteen Acres’ notorious Circle Gang, author James A. Coleman touches on the source of the neighborhood’s name. The gang’s leader, Mike Moran, repeats the often-told story that the name of the neighborhood originates from the exact size of Mill Pond. This is a theory that I had always heard as a kid. “But no one knows for sure,” says Moran. “And I couldn’t care less.”

Maybe you’re with Moran on this one. If that’s the case, you just wasted five minutes of your valuable time, you ignoramus.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Death Match: George “The Animal” Steele vs. the Maebeth Womblies

The scariest moment in my life? It’s a toss-up between being face-to-face with an enraged elephant and being pursued by the most maniacal professional wrestler in the history of the “sport.”

I almost shit a brick when Morganetta the elephant stood on her hind legs and trumpeted in anger ten feet away from me. She was being herded into her trailer after the Sixteen Acres Fourth of July Parade in 1975, but she momentarily turned on her trainer, and I felt sure she was going to stomp both of us. But that fright was nothing compared to the time another behemoth scared me nearly to death.

Fast forward to the following year, when I almost shit a cinderblock as a bloodied, taunted, and enraged George “The Animal” Steele charged at me, my brother, and a couple of our friends from Maebeth Street in the Springfield Civic Center.

All right, I admit it. As Steele chased us, we knew full well that professional wrestling was fake, and that “The Animal” would never assault teenage and pre-teen fans and invite a certain lawsuit, not to mention criminal charges. And I kept telling myself this as he got closer and closer. Nonetheless, when a bald, six-foot-two, 288-pound crazy-looking wrestler closes in, you have to ask yourself a question: do you feel that holding your ground is worth the risk? Well, do ya, punk?

APRIL 1970

Boy did the guys on my street—A.K.A. the Maebeth Womblies—love professional wrestling in the 1970s. It was a lot less overblown back then, the days prior to all the Wrestlemania bullshit in the 1980s, before the “sport” became a mega-spectacle, a titanic force in the entertainment industry, before there was a Hulk Hogan children’s cartoon, for Christ’s sake. Looking back, the golden age of wrestling was so darn stripped down compared with today’s product, now complete with light shows and pyrotechnics with the wrestlers emerging from the dressing room with unprecedented hoopla. Wrestling was a definitely a low-budget affair three decades ago, aired immediately following Roller Derby on Saturday mornings. I was hooked at seven years old, the first time I watched it, mesmerized and terrorized by George “The Animal” Steele as he pummeled some bum mercilessly, pricking him repeatedly with what appeared to be a pin or a needle he hid in his tights.

“Why doesn’t the referee do something about this guy?” I asked my father when he walked into the room.

“You’re watching this garbage?”

“He’s—he’s cheating! He’s hurting that guy! He’s gonna kill him!” I exclaimed.

“Bob, it’s fake. I didn’t know you were watching this. Watch something else. Aren’t there cartoons on, or something?”

Yes, there were cartoons on other channels, and Bugs Bunny was just as violent. But this wrestling stuff was… just…. simply… awesome! The fact that it was scripted made it so wonderfully cheesy. Memo to the ladies: it’s a guy thing, like our love for the Three Stooges. You never quite understood it, and you never will.

How can you not love a “sport” in which a villain such as Stan “the Man” Stasiak rendered his opponents unconscious, momentarily stopping their hearts, with his vicious heart punch? Not many fans remember that Stasiak was for a short time the WWWF champion—it seems the powers that be determined that the ever-popular Bruno Sammartino should be king of the ring for a while, but it would have been an uncomfortable scenario for a “good guy” to dethrone belt holder and fan favorite Pedro Morales. So they had Stasiak do it, and then eight days later Sammartino disposed of the heart-punching heel, ending his short reign.

Was it the ultimate irony—or maybe just bad karma—that Stasiak ultimately perished from a heart attack at age 60?

In wrestling parlance, the evil characters were called the “heels,” cast as “bad guys” to make the “good guys” look like heroes. I don’t know why I idolized the “bad guys” so much—maybe it was because the ultimate villain of my childhood, Richard Nixon, loomed so large in my young life.

The colorful wrestling heels of the Seventies: unlike the steroid pumped morons of today, these guys had personality:

  • The Wolf Man, a Charles Manson look-alike, was led into the ring by a leash and collar by manager “Classy” Freddie Blassie.
  • Bugsy McGraw, the bald psycho who literally barked at his opponent and the crowd.
  • Waldo von Erich, a scary dude inflamed the crowd’s wrath by throwing out the Nazi salute.
  • Sergeant Slaughter, a the gigantic ex-marine, would get right in the faces of referees and opponents and chew them out, platoon sergeant-style. The dirtiest deed in this career was whipping Bob Backlund with a riding crop. He ended every interview with commentator Vince McMahon by declaring “You’re dismissed!”
  • Superstar Billy Graham, the ultimate egomaniac, made a huge production out of taking off his cape and draping it on a pink coat hanger that hung from the top rope. He drew the fans’ ire when he interrupted Peter Maivia’s ukulele solo by grabbing the instrument and smashing it to pieces on the Samoan’s head.
  • The bleached blond Valiant Brothers: “Handsome” Jimmy and “Luscious” Johnny who were hated for ganging up on Ivan “Polish Power” Putski.
  • Spiros Arion, a reviled Greek wrestler, turned on his Native American tag-team partner Chief Jay Strongbow during a match, beat him unmercifully, pulled fistfuls of feathers from his ceremonial headdress and shoved them in his former ally’s mouth.
  • Killer Kowalski, whose signature “Stomach Claw” move paled in comparison to Steele’s “Flying Hammer Lock.”


And then there was the baddest of the bad. The ultimate heel, George “The Animal” Steele, was a sight to behold: hairy as an ape except for his shaved head, bulging eyes at time focused upward at imaginary beings above his head. His wagging green tongue made him look not only profoundly retarded, but also dangerous. With a habit of biting open the ring’s turnbuckles prior to matches and chewing on the stuffing, spreading it all over the canvas, he was….hell, an animal.

So whenever professional wrestling came to the Springfield Civic Center, of course my friends and I were going to get tickets. What the hell else was there to do in the middle of summer in Sixteen Acres? There we were, playing Wiffleball all day, only to retire to my garage when we got too hot in the baking sun. I had accumulated a stack of wrestling magazines, and we’d thumb through them until we cooled down. We’d talk about wrestling for a while, get in arguments about which wrestler could kick which wrestler’s ass, rank on each other’s mothers for a while, and then either resume our Wiffleball game, or splash and dash in neighborhood pools, or see whose bike could produce the longest skid mark on the street, or blow off some firecrackers down the pond. Ya think we were itching for some excitement or what? To be sure, when wrestling came to town, we’d finagle ticket money from our parents and hoodwink one them would give us a ride and pick us up.

I can’t recall many of the other wrestlers on the card the day George “The Animal” Steele went on the rampage, but I do remember Haystacks Calhoun, weighing in at over 600 pounds, was in a tag-team match. The only reason he comes to mind was because, as I reported, I loved the villains, so I rooted against Haystacks, screaming, “You’re a bum, Fatstacks!” and getting chided by some middle-aged white trash woman next to me. “That’s not nice,” she pointed out. Jesus. The queen of etiquette demands proper behavior at… professional wrestling in the Civic Center, where people were flipping the bird at wrestlers and throwing beer and trash into the ring. I also remember Waldo von Eric going after a guy in the crowd who had spit at him, only to be confronted by the fan’s wife. Security personnel managed to persuade him to get back in the ring. Someone also threw a cup of Coke at Butcher Vachon after his match. He wasn’t too pleased about that, but he didn’t pursue the soda thrower. There was no way a wrestler would hit a fan, right?

Well, time had come for the main event: an incredibly portly Dusty Rhodes vs. George “The Animal” Steele in a steel cage match, and I was chastised again by the bitch in the next seat for calling Rhoads “fatso,” and a “load,” etc.

Steele pulled his usual antics, chewing up the turnbuckles and rubbing the stuffing in Rhodes’ eyes, and we knew full well that there was no way the WWWF was going to script a Steele victory over Dusty, the darling of the fans—there would have been a full-blown riot. Of course, Rhodes got abused the entire match, only to pull off an amazing comeback victory and bloodying “The Animal.”

It was time for Steele to exit the cage, and a throng of kids and adolescents rushed up to the area between the ring and runway to taunt the wounded animal. We joined the crowd to get a close-up look at the guy. How often in life to you get to do that?

The gang cursed Steele, hurling crushed cups, coins, popcorn, and epithets, challenging him to fight. As he lurched toward the runway, the motley crew of fans got even braver with his back turned and converged on him.

Then he spun around, screamed, and charged. It was quite a frightening scenario: Steele, with fake blood running from his forehead down to his hairy stomach, on the move, and the crowd did an abrupt about-face and bolted. The taunters became a retreating wave of bodies that slammed into me full force. I was confident he wouldn’t touch a hair on anyone’s head, but there was the momentary terror that this guy was truly losing what few marbles he had in his head. I tried to fight against the stampede, but the sea of humanity pushed me back about 15 feet. To my horror, I saw my friend Craig Stewart lose his footing, go down, and get trampled by the crowd.

As Steele trudged back down the runway to his dressing room, I ran over to Craig and saw several sneaker treadmarks on the back of his Beatles “Let it Be” T-shirt as he lay face-down on the floor, but he was laughing when I helped him up. Fortunately, no fat fuck had stepped on him, and no one had stomped on his head.

We gave Rick Riccardi some shit for helping cause the panic because he had gotten incredibly close to Steele, but had turned tail and ran. “I knew he wasn’t gonna do anything,” said Rick, “but, you know.”

Photo: Steele plays with the stuffing of a turnbuckle he had just chewed up.

I had always loved telling that story. But another guy I went to grammar and high school with had an even better adventure: when I Googled George “The Animal” Steele, I came across a blog by Paul Brown, who, as a junior at Cathedral, actually covered a professional wrestling card at the Civic Center as a freelancer for the Morning Union newspaper in 1981. In the main event, Steele, who was thrown out of the ring, actually landed on the press table in front of Paul, pushed the high-schooler out of the way, took Paul’s chair, and attacked Bob Backlund with it outside the ring. Amazingly, Steele apologized to Brown in the dressing room after the incident. Steele was a perfect gentleman, and he sounded normal.

Photo: “The Animal” had a huge crush on Randy Savage’s valet Miss Elizabeth.

Normal? Steele? When I was a kid, rumor had it that he was a teacher, and I thought, “Wow, if that’s true, I bet none of his students fuck with him.” Well, it turns out that it was true. According to his website, Steele, whose real name was Jim Myers, was a full time high school physical education teacher and football coach at in Madison Heights, Michigan. He earned a B.S. from Michigan State and a master’s from Central Michigan University. The only mental handicap he suffered from was dyslexia, which wasn’t properly diagnosed when he was growing up.

Photo: George “The Animal” Steele and his pal Mine. Mine!!!!!!

You’ll be happy to know that there are many old-time wrestling matches on YouTube, including plenty starring “The Animal.” I happened to watch one in which he whales on some poor stiff, along with vintage bouts with Gorilla Monsoon and Pedro Morales, and a classic brawl with bad guy “Macho Man” Randy Savage. Steele’s psycho act translated well into the over-the-top wrestling of the 1980s, and he was involved in a hilarious “beauty and the beast” infatuation with Savage’s valet, the lovely Miss Elizabeth. Check out the match with Savage, in which he bites the Macho Man’s face, much to the disgust of commentator Jesse “The Body” Ventura. You see, Steele was recast as a “good guy,” a lovable but ugly idiot who eventually kept at ringside a bizarre hand puppet/stuffed animal he called “Mine.” Crohn’s disease finally ended his career in 1989 at age 52, although he did make a few cameo appearances in 1999 as part of a motley crew of wrestlers called The Oddities.

However, in my extensive research on the guy who was the source of my outrage at seven years old—and who was responsible for the trampling of my friend—the most fascinating fact I uncovered was that he turned his wagging tongue green before matches by chewing Clorets mints. Fortunately, for Randy Savage, Steele had fresh breath as “The Animal” pretended to bite his face. And, fortunately, for the Maebeth Womblies, we never got close enough to Steele for a whiff of his minty mouth, because we were long gone the second he came at us.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Those Good Old Cathedral High School Food Fights, Part 2

Am I going to be expelled? Arrested? Excommunicated?JUNE, 1980

Like throwing a Frisbee, I fired my tray with a flick of my wrist, and it landed on another table with a loud clatter. It was bedlam in the cafeteria—food flying everywhere—but the tray got everyone’s attention. A collective “whoa!” was heard throughout the room, and then the cheers and applause during the non-combatants’ standing ovation that followed every food fight.

“What the fuck was I thinking?” I said to myself as I bolt to the door with the rest of the food-covered stampede of students. I don’t know.

“What the fuck were you thinking?” asked my friend Kevin O’Malley as we walked briskly down the hallway, away from the scene of the crime.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I don’t know.” What the fuck was I thinking? Am I busted, or what? Somebody’s gonna rat on me. I threw a tray, for Christ’s sake!

All right, let me confess. I didn’t tell my whole story of the Good Old Cathedral High School Food Fights in Part 1. I mean, what good is a blogger if he isn’t honest, right?

O.K. Yes. I fired a tray during a food fight! But it’s not what you think. I tossed it at an empty table, a few seconds after everyone had cleared away from it. But that fact didn’t make what I did right, and it certainly didn’t let me off the hook. I knew, as I made my way to the bathroom to wipe the sloppy Joe stains off my shirt, that there would be a thorough investigation. Sister Mildred Marengo, who was on lunch duty that day, would be determined to uncover the tray-thrower.

Sure enough, her voice bellowed on the intercom: “All the boys from the third lunch wave please return to the cafeteria and sit in the places you were sitting.”

“OK,” I thought as I re-entered the food-splattered arena its walls, floors, tables, and even the ceiling covered with meat sauce, milk, and jello. “I wonder whose fucking loose lips are going to sink my ship? After all, I heaved a tray!”

Sister Millie was pissed. How pissed? Her hands were trembling as she set up the familiar portable amplifier and microphone. Usually she just went through the motions of trying to find out who started the food fight, and then she inevitably told us to grow up and clean up the mess. But this time it was different. We went back to our chairs, some of which had been toppled. In the confusion I suavely took a tray from another table and placed it on my table, right in front of me. Surely I couldn’t have been the tray-thrower right? Here’s my tray. I’m innocent.

But the ruse was no use. The place was too trashed, the rows of tables zig-zagged and trays scattered everywhere. No one could claim ownership of any tray. But maybe the pandemonium would mask my guilt. I just had to play it cool.

“Throwing a tray—I can’t believe—who would—sigh—this is such a dangerous thing to—I don’t know,” she stammered into the microphone, practically speechless. “Can this person be SANE?”

“No sister,” said a couple of my friends with a snicker. “He’s gotta be insane,” said Kevin O’Malley.

“Do you think this is funny?” she asked Kevin incredulously. “Anyone think this is funny? Throwing a tray?”

“No, sister,” said a few people in unison.

“Which direction did it come from?”

Silence. Thank God.

After a few more threats and admonitions, she ordered us to clean up the mess. Wow, did I just get away with that? Holy fucking shit. No one said anything. How lucky can I get?

Photo: I guess its not just a seventies/eighties thing. Food fights have been quelled at Cathedral in recent years, due to low enrollment and consequently the lack of overcrowded cafeteria conditions that existed a quarter-century ago. But there are still high school food fights in America, and YouTube is full of em. The quality of the footagemostly cellphone videois mostly poor, and the outbursts are lame, but the one pictured at some school called Armstrong, which can be viewed here, isnt too bad. Another one, at a cafeteria at Horizon High School, captures the chaos pretty well. No flying trays, though.

Well, I wasn’t out of the woods. It turned out that somebody had said something. That wasn’t surprising. Hell, a tray was thrown. But as I mentioned, I wasn’t aiming at anyone. Here’s some background: there had been rumors of an imminent food fight during the week prior to the outburst, and on that fateful day word had been circulating since homeroom period that our eruption was indeed a few hours away.

Don’t ask me why food fights—involving dozens and sometimes hundreds of people—broke out at Cathedral High in the seventies and early eighties. Maybe it was the hormones raging and this was a harmless way to release a little aggression without anybody getting hurt. Maybe it was our way of telling the nuns that they weren’t totally in control. Why ask why?

Anyway, on the day of the wayward tray, some jocks at the table next to ours let us know at the beginning of lunch that they would be firing their food at us when all hell broke loose, and we said, “Bring it on.” Then, as Sister Millie made her rounds to the other side of the cafeteria, one of the meatheads from the Italian table wadded up a bread roll and tossed it across the room at the druggie table, and that’s all it took. Instant bedlam. Food flying everywhere. And then the stampede to the doors.

So I tossed the tray. Maybe a psychiatrist could one day help me explain my dirty deed, but I’m guessing that I thought it would be the icing on the cake on a fun-filled food fight. I don’t know. I watched it sail in slow motion, realizing as it was in midair that there would be consequences. When a tray takes flight, the law of gravity dictates that it has to land. Loudly.


Two days later: Shit. Apparently, someone said the tray came from our table. Kevin O’Malley told me that Sister Millie asked him about the flying tray, but he said nothing. So far so good, I thought. The issue will die in due time. Well, not quite.

Three days later: “I got called into 229 this morning,” said Bob Miller. He was referring to the office of Sister Julie Edwina, the school disciplinarian. “She and Sister Millie asked me who threw the tray,” he said. “It looks like they’re narrowing it down.”

“Shit! What did you tell her?”

“I told her I didn’t see anything—that I heard it land, but I didn’t know where it came from.”

“Good thinking.”

“Yeah, well, be prepared for a trip to 229.”

“I guess…”

The funny thing is, they never did call me into Room 229. Sister Millie had given five or six of my friends at our table the third degree—to no avail. She had also interviewed guys from the jock table, and someone told her the general area of the tray’s launching pad, but nothing more specific. I had to give the hockey and football players credit. They may have been assholes, but they weren’t rats. The cliquers knew I threw it, but they didn’t spill the beans.

“Sister Millie thought it was suspicious that everybody saw the tray flying except for us,” said Kevin. “We were the only table that didn’t see anything.”

And I was the only guy from our table that wasn’t questioned. She knew very well who threw the tray. But she wasn’t pursuing it. Why? Again, why ask why?


I walked by Sister Millie at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Holyoke a few years ago, and she gave me a nod of recognition, and then a little smirk, all but confirming what I suspected all along: she knew I played a little tray Frisbee all those years ago. Or did she?

You know, for the sake of this blog, I should give her a call and admit to the whole thing. That would be hilarious. A great interview.


That smirk didn’t mean anything. The fact of matter is that my sailing tray was a direct assault on her lunchroom authority. She might not be a good sport about my confession.

God forgives, but Sister Millie may not.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Fairlawn Cruise: Flirting with Disaster

Come—take the Fairlawn Cruise with me. Turn the clock back more than a quarter-century, when we didn’t have a care in the world, except maybe when we ran out of beer. Yes, that was an emergency. But before we hit the packy to get another six of beer, let’s go on the Fairlawn Cruise—WHICH INVOLVES RUNNING EIGHT STRAIGHT STOP SIGNS WITH OUR HEADLIGHTS OFF.

Reckless? Yes and no. You be the judge. All you have to do is go on the Fairlawn Cruise with us, and then we’ll hit Burns Package Store, and you can give us your verdict.

Just kidding. Burns Package Store closed years ago. So take a virtual cruise with us.

I motor down Wilbraham Road and pass by Fenway Drive every day. In the morning, when I glance at Fenway on the right, and then, a few streets later, Bellamy Road, sometimes my thoughts wander back to an old ritual my friends and I invented: the Fairlawn Cruise. Should I do it again one of these nights for old time sake? Fuck that. But I’ll be glad to tell you about it.

Fairlawn Street runs parallel to Wilbraham Road, connecting a grid of nine streets in the neighborhood where I grew up. Our Fairlawn Cruise began at the intersection of Fenway and Fairlawn (on the right in the photo below—click on it to enlarge), and ended at the intersection of Fairlawn and Bellamy (on the left in the photo). If you click to enlarge the photo, the red "A" marks the former party spot known as The Gully across from Creswell Street. This was tantalizingly close to the finish line. If we were going fast enough by the time we got to The Gully, the Promised Land, Bellamy Road, was at hand.

Oh, to take another downhill Fairlawn Cruise. But that would be impossible today. Well, not impossible—just, well—oh Goddamnit, I can’t! I’m too chickenshit! I’ve got a wife and a kid now!

Let me explain. We used to take the Fairlawn Cruise at night, after shutting off our headlights and car engine. Then, yes, we’d roll on a gradual incline through eight stop signs. I could repeat this maneuver now, and shoot video of the whole thing for the sake of this blog, but alas, there would be no more blog—and no more me—if someone slammed into my car during such a stunt. So you’re going to have to rely on my description.

Fairlawn: what an appropriate name for a suburban street. Let’s take a cruise down Fairlawn Street—past all those nice lawns. Lawn after lawn after lawn of lush, green, fair lawns.

Come on! We’ve got to take a cruise down Fairlawn at two in the morning—from Fenway Drive to Bellamy Road—an all-downhill magical journey. This was a must in the early and mid-1980s. We simply had to do it before retiring for the evening.

So, we’ll put the car is in neutral, turn off the Pink Floyd, roll down the windows, cut the engine, and turn off the headlights. Click! And voila, we’ll start coasting through the first of eight straight stop signs.

That’s what we used to do for a little fun. Don’t ask us why we did it. Just use your imagination and join us. It’s a hot summer night. Can’t you feel the condensation on your beer bottle?

Photo: the intersection of Fenway and Fairlawn, looking downhillthe beginning of the Fairlawn Cruise. Yes, I know theres snow on the ground, Goddammit! Just pretend its summer, OK?

Dangerous, you say? Rolling through eight stop signs with no headlights? Not really. Fairlawn is not exactly a busy thoroughfare. The nine residential streets it bisects are quiet as hell in the wee hours of the morning. No one here but us losers!

On a late summer night—in any season, really—when we agree that it’s time for the Fairlawn Cruise, we drive to the intersection of Fairlawn and Fenway, shut off the engine and the lights, and start rolling down Fairlawn.

Ssssh! It’s so quiet all you can hear is the rubber of our tires crunching on the asphalt, and maybe a few crickets. With the windows down, we’d be able to hear any cars coming, so stop freaking out. There’s Aldrew Street, [STOP SIGN] Catalpa Terrace [STOP SIGN], Maebeth Street [STOP SIGN]. Yeah! We’re almost halfway!!!!

On with the cruise: Granger Street [STOP SIGN]—damn, we’re really picking up some speed now—with all our windows rolled down a pleasant breeze blows through the car as we look and listen carefully for other cars that might interrupt our cruise. Believe me, this is easier to do at night—if we see headlights on any of these streets all we have to do is slam on the brakes, but this is never necessary. Never. I guess we’re lucky. We’re the luckiest motherfuckers in the world!

We’ve got the momentum now. Fucking flying, man! We’re definitely going to make it to the end! Denwall Street [STOP SIGN], Pineview Street [STOP SIGN]. There, past Pineview, on the left, is the wooded area known as The Gully. This is usually a big party spot on Fairlawn, but not tonight—it’s so friggin’ late—no one hanging out to witness our proud feat. We’re on flat terrain now, on the bottom of the hill, but this is the home stretch, and we’re home free.

Photo: The Gully, a notorious party spot in The Acres, is no more. Houses replaced the woods years ago on the Fairlawn Street side, and a dead-end street of single family homes, Lemnos Lane, now fills the rest of the former city property. Who the hell is Lemnos? The street should have been named Lame-ass, after the people who destroyed our party sanctuary!

We cruise past The Gully, past Bellwood Street [STOP SIGN], and finally, Bellamy Road [STOP SIGN]. We made it! Yes!!! WE MADE IT!!!

So, who says there was nothing to do growing up in Sixteen Acres?

Photo: Congratulations, you have made it to the intersection of Fairlawn Street and Bellamy Road, completing the Fairlawn Cruise. Its time for a packy run.