Home Brew

Friends of Wissatinnewag, Jehovah’s Witnesses, orange flames dancing, firewood popping, gasping, even emitting soft screams from the toasty Rumford fireplace. Just a little tease to an interesting weekend. Interesting indeed.

It started early. A Friday-morning visit from three experts, among them the widow of the co-author of “Manitou: The Sacred Landscape of New England’s Native Civilization,” a bible of sorts. Published in 1989, authors James Mavor and Byron Dix cast somber light on a topic that has stirred interest, spawned new interpretations for familiar sites and created quite a buzz in local coffee shops. If you don’t believe it, check out a Jim Vieira stone-structures presentation. Popular? You betcha, judging from the local lecture halls he fills. Yeah, yeah, I know the guy’s gone a little off the rails with his tales of double-molared giants and the alleged hush-hush Smithsonian conspiracy to conceal them. Still, his slide shows of balanced rocks, pedestal boulders, rocking boulders, stone piles, stone beehives, prayer seats, Manitou stones, mounds, trenches and solstice markers are very real indeed; not only that but they’re “out there” for all to see in the hills that frame our Pioneer Valley.

My guests were drawn by a column I wrote a few weeks back describing and showing photos of a site I believe to be an ancient sacred landscape. Well, those photos of a balanced rock and its companion mountain-top prayer seat buried deep in our western hills created quite a commotion, emails swarming like Northwoods black flies. My suspicion that the site fits a ritualistic-landscape profile had been quickly confirmed by stonestructures.org experts who viewed photos. After a lively string of Q&A’s, these two experts were convinced I was onto something important and told me what else to search for on future visits. Soon after that column hit the street, an email arrived from the woman who arranged our enlightening Friday gathering. She would bring two men with whom she’s currently developing the interactive “Nolumbeka Project” website, where future sacred-landscape researchers will be able to trade pictures, theories and observations. Also, she said, one of the men was eager for a field trip to the site I had photographed, if that was OK with me. Yes, I told her, I was game, would like to share the site with an expert. I have learned from other discovery missions that you can never have enough eyes evaluating a subject. Everyone seems to see something different, has an enticing little tidbit to add, and every shred of information is important when trying to piece together a difficult puzzle … which segues straight into a related topic, that of a welcome surprise our Friday visit deposited on my lap.

I was pleased to discover early in our four-way discussion that both of my male, 60-something visitors carried Indian blood. Even more intriguing was the fact that they were both “Friends of Wissetinnewag,” an activist group some local folks will recall being vocally opposed the controversial Greenfield’s Walmart project. Their contention was that the proposed site was a prehistoric, sacred, indigenous burial ground overlooking an important seasonal fishing site that annually attracted Indians from miles away. According to one of the men, various archaeological digs at that “Mackin site” have unearthed artifacts dating from Paleo points to colonial musket balls, ancient clues spanning some 13,000 years. It’s amazing. Who would have ever dreamed that sitting right there in the comforts of home, warm fire crackling, was the man, a well-known “avocational archaeologist” and Native American historian, who had allegedly uncovered Paleo and/or Early Archaic human remains on Canada Hill only to be accused by a venerable, now-retired UMass archaeologist of planting evidence from a Vermont site. Hmmmm? Interesting indeed. Way more than I had bargained for.

More important than meeting this intriguing man was the fact that I had then communicated at length with both the man who discovered the grave site and the archaeologist who called him a liar. I do recall reading the planted-evidence charge in the paper and immediately harboring a healthy dose of skepticism. I do not, however, recall the source of the accusation being named. Well, now I know who it was, and have better insight, which isn’t to say I don’t respect her. I do, very much. But, wait, get a load of this: In recent months another well-known local “avocational archaeologist” — this one a town official and officer of a respected regional archaeological organization — has been bending my ear about deceptive state and academic archaeologists who are more concerned with secrecy than interactive discovery at rare, important, ancient sites in the upper half of our Pioneer Valley. My source is irked that the findings are inaccessible to him after he pinpointing the sites that have been professionally excavated and explored. “They’ll tell you they keep everything secret to protect valuable sites from looters,” he said. “But, trust me, they’re the only looters, and they’re doing it with the state’s blessing. Shouldn’t the towns and/or landowners of the sites they’re removing artifacts from know what they’re taking? When I asked a high-ranking state official that question, I had to hold the phone three feet from my ear during a loud, 10-minute tirade.”

Although I admit knowing little about archaeological protocol and regulations, this informed source hadn’t introduced me to a new realm of local history. I have for many years been interested in contact-period Pioneer Valley Indian village sites, including the so-called “Pocumtuck Fort” said to be sacked by Mohawks in 1664 or 1665, leaving the defeated local tribe scattered, its fertile croplands at the confluence of the Deerfield, Green and Connecticut rivers wide open for Massachusetts Bay Colony settlement. Then this man, out of the blue, contacts me around Thanksgiving to put a bug in my ear and bring me “up to speed” on recent developments, doing so by delivering a pile of recent scholarly articles along with a stack of state regulations enacted to keep archaeological discovery secret. And now, lo and behold, with that project under way, me poring over his and related data — Bingo! — into my path leaps a sacred-landscape triumvirate to substantiate accusations which, unbeknownst to them, I already knew of. It seemed too good to be true.

“Some would call this a coincidence,” I told my one of my three Friday visitors. “Not me. I believe stuff like this happens for a reason.”

It’s difficult for me to get my head around archaeological scholars who give lip service to public teamwork and invite community assistance for their projects, then hide the artifacts and discoveries in dark university vaults that are inaccessible to folks who could possibly be helpful. I do understand keeping important, artifact-rich archaeological sites secret to eliminate looting, but I cannot comprehend hiding artifacts and keeping reports confidential. If people knew what to look for, they may bring to light new  exploratory sites. I’m making progress on this investigation and will continue to feed out my discoveries piecemeal, similar to the Atlantic salmon and cougar inquiries I have pursued in the past. Believe me when I say I’m on it. I love this stuff.

But enough of that. Before I wrap this up and return to reading about Algonkian creator and transformer myths and folklore, let’s jump back to my two Jehovah’s Witness pals, bibles and pamphlets in hand. Yes, they pulled their gray Kia SUV into my driveway Saturday morning at 11, just as I was heading out the door to run the dogs. I’ve known one of them for many years, met him as the co-coach of a local baseball team. They stop to chat from time to time on Saturdays, and I must admit they seem to have a sixth sense for arriving at appropriate times. On this occasion, they had somehow sniffed out a horrific suicide that had rocked my family only a few days earlier.

“I don’t know how you fellas do it,” I grinned. “It’s almost like you’ve been sent from heaven. But don’t get your hopes up. You ain’t converting me. I’m destined for the fires of hell.”

They took it in stride, warm smiles, have grown to expect it. Then the unexpected.

“Would you boys care to come in for a minute?” I asked. “I’ve got a nice fire going in the front parlor.”

“Why not?”

And in we went.

I think the boys keep returning because they never know where our conversation will traipse off to. Oh, it could be a theological discussion about the works-and-grace argument of 17th century Boston, perhaps evangelism or corrupt evangelical con men like Jim Baker or Jimmy Swaggart; hey, maybe even an old diamond tale that the former coach seems to enjoy. The one he seems to favor occurred on a 1976 road trip to Half Moon, N.Y., where it seems a local bad boy six weeks removed from his first knee-surgery got himself into quite a tangle during his first at-bat against some highly-touted Sienna College righty who’d drawn  a flock of scouts and a retinue of fans to the opener of a sunny Sunday twin-bill. The old coach claims the jabbering between the bad boy and the umpire started right up on the first pitch, a called strike the batter didn’t like. I’m not sure he’s got the facts straight. I was there but can’t say I remember every little detail. It was long ago. What I do know is that, although this ballplayer could be a challenge, I never knew him to be an umpire baiter. That said, if he thought an umpire had missed a pitch and put him in a predicament, he wouldn’t hesitate to say something. Not show him up, mind you, just step out of the batter’s box, pick up a handful of dirt, spit, look out toward the pitcher and quietly inform the ump that, “You missed that one, Blue.” So my guess is that that’s how this one actually got going. The ump had “rabbit ears,” overreacted, didn’t want to hear it. Isn’t it interesting how these memorable ballpark tales tend to improve, not necessarily mellow, with age? This is an example.

Anyway, the way Jehovah’s disciple recalls it, the argument started right away, on that first pitch. The batter thought it was low and away. The ump said it caught the corner. Then, when the second pitch found the same spot and was called the same way, the private “discussion” at the plate escalated. It’s hard to keep the crowd out of it when the umpire loudly scolds a hitter, authoritatively tells him to shut up and get back in the batter’s box, then strips his mask and yells, “One more word out of you and you’re gone!” That always brings the crowd into the dispute.

Well, knowing the hitter as I did, I suppose he must have thought the umpire’s instructions sounded far too much like some wimpy grammar-school principal, Boy Scout bully or camp counselor trying to play the tough guy, which was never the way to approach him. Irritated and more determined than ever to salvage the at-bat, he bore down and worked the count even by fouling back some tough pitches. Then, when he got his pitch — fastball, inner half, belt high — he opened his hips and smacked a high-rising moon shot far over the left fielder’s head to a place where few balls in that park landed. As he raced triumphantly around first base and knew he was going to touch ’em all, he hollered out to the plate umpire.

“Hey Blue, did you see that one? That’s what a strike looks like. Get in the game.”

Well, that was it. The umpire had had enough. He removed his mask, raced onto the grass in front of the plate, and gave his antagonist the old heave-ho, shouting and motioning with his hand and arm that, “You’re out of here!”

That’s when the coach, Jehovah’s disciple, ran out toward the plate to plead his case.

“Hey, Ump,” he begged. “You can’t throw a man out of a game when he’s still running the bases.”

The umpire looked at him, strolled back to his little white box behind the plate and waited silently for the hitter to finish his home-run trot. As he crossed the plate, the ump followed him toward the dugout, mask in hand by his hip, did a little three- or four-step shuffle, wound his free hand up behind his head, aggressively dropped it forward and pointed to the parking lot.

“OK, now you’re outta here!” he hollered. “Leave the ballpark.”

The banished ballplayer didn’t get into it, just calmly walked to the dugout, collected his bat, glove and hat and sauntered to his car, where the pitcher’s gray-haired Sienna coach approached him.

“Hey, Kid, who do you play for? Never seen anyone hit one like that off my pitcher. That was quite a shot.”

“Blame the umpire,” the ballplayer answered. “He sharpened my focus.”

You know, I forgot to ask my Jehovah buddy what ever happened to that guy who got tossed. A wild one, his detractors always said he’d end dead or in jail. Maybe he’s still kickin’. If so, probably stationed nightly at the local watering hole, reminiscing with gray teammates back to the glory days, their best, before he bangs down one last Jack and passes out in his hands on the bar in the hokey one-cop town he grew up in.

I gotta give those Jehovahs credit. They sure can spin a yarn. I suppose that’s why I ask ’em in … every now and again.

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