Clearing the Air

Here I sit, vacation relaxed, yet compelled to write about a leftover subject I couldn’t get to last week that fits snugly into this, the week of Casey Anthony’s surprising Florida acquittal. My story is about an unfortunate defendant who, like Anthony, was falsely accused and, unlike Anthony, didn’t live to tell about it. Nope. The South Deerfield suspect from the mid-1960’s was tried and convicted by public opinion, then put to death in a most horrifying manner.

To begin, some readers may recall that a couple of weeks ago I mentioned my catalpa allergy. I said I should have known the deciduous trees we called “banana trees” as kids were in bloom, because of the sniffles, watery eyes and irritating random itches I was experiencing from the neck up. I have for as long as I can remember believed that the culprit for my birthday-time discomfort was pollen from catalpas in full bloom but, to be honest, had absolutely no clue why. And, frankly, I never gave it much thought before a distant Connecticut Valley cousin and loyal Ashfield reader enlightened me with a post-column e-mail that set my wheels a spinnin’ toward scientific discovery. Maybe it’s something I missed along the way in school, distracted by something sweet and young, or maybe I was never taught anything about pollen in the classroom, definitely a possibility. For Chrissakes, I lived on the site of the Bloody Brook massacre — whoops, I mean battle — and never learned a thing about it or King Philip’s War until I decided to do independent adult research, formal education by then a tiny speck in my rearview mirror. Anyway, there I go again, getting distracted. See how it happens? Nothing sweet and young nearby, but still distracted. Back to the subject at hand: catalpa pollen.

Cyberpal Andy Smith, whom I have met but usually communicate with by e-mail, was the man who alerted me to my inaccurate perceptions about the banana-tree pollen. Himself an old beekeeper and gardener, Smith understands the intricacies of pollen delivery to different plants and wasn’t hesitant to inform me that I was sorely lacking in that area of expertise, as evidenced by blatant column mistakes. You see, according to Smith, there are two types of pollen in this world: one carried by winds, the other by bats, birds and bees (oops, there I go again with my carnal distractions). Big, showy flowers like those on catalpa trees attract flying critters to deliver their pollen, while the windborne pollens come from ordinary flowers you can walk past without noticing. The pollen from big, showy flowers is too heavy to be carried any distance by wind, thus the need for transporters, and thus the reason why, in Smith’s humble opinion, my allergy was not to catalpas unless the blossoms were smack-dab in my face.

“You are falling victim to (my best guess) grass pollen being flung into the air in large quantities by farmers cutting hay,” he wrote. “Or perhaps it’s some other plant’s airborne pollen you are reacting to. But I would bet money it’s not catalpa.”

Smith underscored his contention with a common example of the wrong plant getting blamed for allergies, that being the showy goldenrod, which is often blamed for ragweed coughs and sniffles. “Ragweed has green flowers you hardly notice and it billows out billions of airborne pollen that people breathe in and suffer,” he wrote. “Goldenrod pollen is big and heavy and needs to be carried by honeybees and wasps and butterflies. Its pollen isn’t bothering anyone, but since it’s the plant people see flowering when they’re sneezing, it’s the one they blame.”

So, I stand corrected for the world to see, undaunted and unashamed. In fact, I’ve now exposed myself as previously clueless on the matter; however, I must say I welcome any such corrections that prove educational. Regardless of what my old teachers would tell you, I enjoy learning and always have. Enough of that, though. No more distractions. On to another subject, that of confirming Smith’s informed opinion by figuring out the origin of my misdiagnosis, and by relating that discovery to the gory execution of an innocent South Deerfield catalpa next door to the dwelling I started calling home as a young teen.

Again, first a little background. I had immediately responded to Smith’s friendly e-mail by yielding ground and admitting I was no expert on pollen distribution, as if he had to be told. I admitted that I had no clue where my catalpa-allergy diagnosis came from but said it could have been from testing at Boston Children’s Hospital, or perhaps from a local doctor. I told him I’d ask my mother. She’d know. And indeed she did. Fact is there never was anything scientific about the diagnosis. No, it had been purely observational and deductive, just as Smith surmised.

“Don’t you remember that catalpa tree next door on Pleasant Street, over by Zimnowski’s? Mother asked. “Well, every year when that tree was in bloom you had hay fever, so I figured that’s what you were allergic to.

“‘Topher’ Bill was allergic to catalpa blossoms, too. Phil and Kay eventually had their tree cut down because of it.”

Hmmmm? Do you suppose “Topher’s” allergy disappeared after the man behind the chainsaw hollered “Timmm-berrrrr!”? Probably not. But who could have possibly questioned the credibility of his parents, the esteemed A. Phillips Bill and wife Katherine.” Kay was a Decker of late 19th and early 20th century South Deerfield royalty, Phil a veritable math prodigy of Bostonian blueblood ancestry, descending from none other than Revolutionary banker William Phillips, the wealthy benefactor of prestigious New England prep schools Phillips Academy in Andover and Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Everybody knew Kay from her days as a substitute teacher in the local schools, a job far below her calling or social standing, probably just a way to cure boredom and help put food on the table. As for Phil, well, he was a bit eccentric but quite a unique and interesting character, professorial in appearance, his glasses always a little off-kilter. Local legend had it that Phil had graduated from Exeter and Dartmouth College, where his father was Dean of Men, and was teaching math under Deerfield Academy Headmaster Frank L. Boyden at age 19, if you can imagine that. A South Deerfield man who knew him well from his moonlighting” days as the human computer for a South Deerfield land-surveying company said precocious Phil was so smart in grammar school that he skipped from the first to fifth grade. Quite a feat. The crews would bring him their daily field notes before 5 p.m. each day and he’d have them all computed — flawless, of course — before supper.

Respect for the Bills’ wisdom wasn’t the only factor leaning toward the validity of their son’s catalpa allergy. Town doctor Kenneth Rice’s home and office were right across the street from the Bill residence, so one could have easily assumed the good doctor had had a hand in the diagnosis and tree removal. Sort of a perfect storm, it appears.

You’d have to know the key players to truly enjoy this tale. But looking back, it strikes me as funny that a stately tree died and a legend endured for half a century. Then, two short weeks ago, a reader’s critical note and a simple query cleared the air, so to speak. No, that annual late-June hay-fever epidemic in my old neighborhood was not caused by catalpa trees, but rather by summer hayfield harvests.

Go figure.

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