Looming Celebrations Stir Memories

Saturday, 6 a.m. Backyard brook rattling. Sparse, wispy-white clouds creeping eastward in the soothing, pale-blue sky. Perfect for pondering, allowing your mind to run free.

Heavy overnight winds and rains have passed, leaving in their wake an ebullient-green yard, the rich, verdant base only enhancing ornamental trees and bushes to their happiest springtime splendor. There is nothing quite like a bright spring morning to stimulate your senses, stir memories.

Returned from a meandering meadow walk, my saturated, worn Gore-Tex hiking boots facing the sun on the flagstone terrace hauled many years ago by oxcart from Charlemont. I’m sitting in a leather recliner, legs outstretched, head and back upright. Facing south toward the closed glen road passing my upper Greenfield Meadows home, wheels spinning, I can detect any passersby over my laptop screen.

I’m moving into a meditative space I have often visited over the past 41 years, one I always welcome and from which I have produced thousands of columns created by whatever spirit moves me. One never knows where fertile curiosity and mischievous imagination will lead on such an inspiring morning, especially following a freewheeling, freethinking ramble that stimulates introspective thoughts, riffs, and melodies worth capturing and sharing.

Never do such unfettered thoughts flow freer than on brisk, solitary walks, one foot in front of the other, heart thumping, blood circulating, sweat dripping, thoughts swirling into a dust storm of stimuli, the topics darting from here to there and back again. When the time and place is right, such a process can sweep you away from a starting point to a magical place you’re not expecting, one worth exploring.

Saturday’s was such a walk. It stimulated my imagination, stirred memories, and propelled me not ahead but back 50 years and more, to younger days relevant to the present.

Actually, for weeks I have been thinking ahead to a couple of looming birthday celebrations local towns will celebrate. The first is Whately’s 250th next year, then my hometown of Deerfield’s 350th in 2023. Preparations already underway for both, with local historians of many stripes swapping insights to be worked into a public narrative and unveiled down the road.

Plus, there’s Hatfield’s 350th this year, which has already been reduced to a disappointing virtual celebration due to COVID-19 demons, likely to be present virtually anywhere, but especially in dense gatherings. Sad indeed. Hatfield is a proud Yankee town that helped seed the Connecticut Valley with families that still populate our hills and dales. We’re talking about familiar surnames like Allis and Arms, Bardwell and Belden, Dickinson, Hinsdale, Jennings, Marsh, Nash, Porter, Waite, Wells, and many more.

Just one more nagging reminder that I’m getting old is the realization that this will be my second rodeo. Because, yes, I was there 50 years ago for the same towns’ last birthday galas, celebrated in villages where as a kid I played baseball, fished, farmed and foraged … and unapologetically raised hell. So, go figure. That’s precisely where my Saturday-morning walk took me: a half-century back in time. I had no intention of going there when my legs started moving. It just happened. Perhaps the result of a wandering, walking mind. Oh my! How times have changed since then.

Take, for instance, 1970 – the year Hatfield celebrated its 300th birthday. Though I undoubtedly passed through, I have little or no recollection of the event. And even what I think I do recall may well be a combination of many similar celebrations I attended in my younger, wilder days. So, fearful that I’ll meld many into one, why bother trying to piece together my Hatfield memories? Facts matter. Especially in print.

What I now know but didn’t back then is that Hatfield actually goes back more than 350 years. From 1659 to 1670, the infant Hadley was, like Northfield, a town split by the Connecticut River. Finally, after years of grievance and requests, the Hatfield folks were allowed to split off into their own town. A century later, in 1771, Hatfield was split in two, the northern half becoming Whately, today the member of a different county no less.

I had just completed my junior year in high school for Hatfield’s last birthday party, a time when Hunter S. Thompson’s “Gonzo” journalism was born. Richard M. Nixon was president, and America was enflamed in protest opposing the Vietnam War and supporting the civil-rights movement. Segregationist Southern governors George Wallace and Lester Maddox still had strong national voices, and were supported by local townspeople my father privately referred to as John Birchers in the pejorative.

A couple of proud, hard-right characters I recall were Deerfield selectmen, another owned a Sunderland business, and still another flipped eggs and burgers at his greasy-spoon in, of all places, the People’s Republic of Montague Center. Imagine that! In an eatery facing the town common, a large Confederate flag hanging horizontally and menacingly above the grill, the proprietor more than willing to share his reactionary views on race and “long-haired, hippie commies.”

There’s no need to mention names. What would that accomplish in these Trumpish times? The men are dead and buried. RIP, fellas.

The year 1970 also produced Kent State, which unfolded on May 4 and likely means nothing to most high-school students today. On that Ohio college campus, an anti-war demonstration blew up into chaos when National Guardsmen shot four protestors dead and wounded nine others to set off a contentious national debate. On one side of the battle line was Nixon’s law-and-order gang, on the other raged the “new left.”

The debate quickly spilled into my junior English class, where a bespectacled, flat-topped English teacher who had been hired after many years as a Greenfield Recorder reporter assigned an essay expressing our thoughts on whether the soldiers were justified.

As I recall, that was our second assignment of the final semester. I don’t remember the topic of the first, only that my grade was an A, and – horrors – the teacher read my paper aloud to the class. How embarrassing for an adolescent lad of my persuasion.

Well, that all changed quickly with my reaction to Kent State. I thought heads should roll for unjustified killings of peaceful protestors exercising their right of peaceful assembly under the First Amendment. That position, penned by the same hand, was met with bright red insults from a love-it-or-leave-it teacher, who gave me a D and unfairly evaluated the rest of my assignments that semester.

Some may call that a lesson learned. Not me. I call it censorship, unwelcome and unjustified in any fair, freethinking, open and honest classroom. Live and learn, I did. Education’s not always everything it’s made out to be. I had met my first bad editor.

I can’t claim salient memories from Whately’s 1971 Bicentennial Celebration, but I definitely passed through. Seems to me there was something happening at the old youth-baseball field off Christian Lane, before the days of Herlihy Park. Maybe a chicken barbecue? Can’t recall.

What I do remember is Ena M. Cane’s update of Temple’s and Crafts’ Whately histories and genealogies with a bicentennial book of her own. Plus, I still occasionally bump into the stoneware jugs sold in facsimile remembrance of Whately’s 19th-century Thomas Crafts pottery.

This time around, Whately Historical Commissioner Dereka Smith is working up a revision of Temple, Crafts and Cane’s town histories and genealogies with a book of her own, while Northfield master-potter Tom White will produce hand-thrown stoneware pottery in the style of historic Whately potters.

As for the 1973 Deerfield Tercentenary, yes, my memories are clearer. That’s a no-brainer. It was held on my stomping grounds. Dwyer Lot, the site of the beef barbecue and Rotary Club Beer Fest, was right across Pleasant Street from the home my parents shared with my grandfather for my first 12 years of boyhood.

Back then, the elementary school was on the other side of Bloody Brook, where there was also a circular, concrete wading pool with a central fountain circulating water in summer. On the open Dwyer Lot stood a roofed pavilion that hosted many a public cookout. Before pavilion construction, the field served as an agricultural plot where silage corn was grown in my youth, even occasional potatoes if I’m not mistaken.

The reason I suggest uncertainty is that I know memory doesn’t always serve one well, especially on familiar turf, where one story can easily run into another over time.

A case in point occurred during the writing of this piece, relating to what I believed I recalled of Deerfield’s Tercentenary. It seemed to me that it was for this very special occasion that a well-known South Deerfield character had taken it upon himself to spice up the party a bit. What he did was hire a pilot friend from Northampton to enhance the Saturday-night fireworks scheduled to be launched from Mt. Sugarloaf.

Apparently concerned that town officials would sell townspeople short, this proud, inventive Deerfield man decided to command a flyover dynamite-bombing mission. Before midnight, he and a friend or two proceeded to toss eight sticks of dynamite out the plane window while flying over Sugarloaf and its northern brother, shaking houses on Mountain Road, Eastern Avenue, and Graves Street, and even breaking a few windows. A police spokesman told the Greenfield Recorder he was confident he knew who was responsible, which was likely true, because it was no secret around town. Nonetheless, no one was ever prosecuted, and the explosive event soon faded into the ether.

So, there you have it. Although I had the story right, the date and event were wrong. The flyover bombing occurred not during the July 7, 1973 Tercentenary, but during the town’s national bicentennial celebration three years later, on the night of July 3, 1976. Thankfully, at the last minute, I fact-checked the incident, which was a cumbersome task. But I finally tracked it down and avoided disseminating inaccurate information in black and white.

That said, you gotta hand it to good old South Deerfield: back then a hard-drinking, hard-working, hell-raising prankster town. Not unlike the Wild West, I’m glad I grew up where I did.

Can you imagine what would become of similar pranksters today? Tossing dynamite from a Piper-Cub window? Are you kidding? Gitmo would be too good for them!


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