Stickball Memories

Just curious, do kids still play stickball?

Probably not. They say it’s bad for the arm to fire a light tennis ball day after day at a strike zone drawn in chalk on a brick wall.

Hmmmm? Maybe so. But playing stickball is what we did whenever we couldn’t round up enough players for a diamond game, and never did I experience significant arm trouble. Early-season tendonitis? Yeah, of course. I think we all battled a touch of that at some point. But nothing serious. That’s what those pungent tubs of greasy Red Hot and liquid Bengay were for. Just rub it liberally into the affected area, work out the kinks warming up and let her rip. The tenderness would linger for a few days, then vanish.

So here I sit, closing in on 70, away from the game I loved for 30 years, pain free and still capable of throwing. No, not like I once could; and, yes, it takes longer to loosen up the cranky old right wing. Plus, my balky left knee complicates matters, altering my landing and follow-through. But once loose, I’m confident I could still sink the carnival dink on a cool autumn night.

Our favorite stickball court was up against the shop-classroom wall in the parking lot behind the high school. The hitter faced the high-school diamond from deep left field. All we needed was three players – pitcher, batter, outfielder – for daylong, round-robin competition. One strike zone fit all, and trust me, it was much bigger than the one you see in hi-def on flat-screen TV these days. That was a negative. It’s always best for a hitter to narrow his or her strike zone. The positive was that a tennis ball is smaller than a baseball and tougher to hit sweet.

I wish I knew that tiny major-league strike zone we see on TV, and, more important, was disciplined enough to make the pitcher hit it during my years as a free-swinging, free-wheeling ballplayer. So, yes, that big stickball strike zone did give us bad habits. Either that or we developed into decent bad-ball hitters. I always thought the strike zone extended higher than the one we see on TV.

The three-man rotation in those old, round-robin stickball contests went from batter to outfielder to pitcher, and we each kept our individual tally of runs. Outs were recorded by strikeouts, anything caught in the air, and ground balls fielded on the pavement by the pitcher. We used salvaged, cracked, wooden bats with taped handles, saving good bats for real games. Impoverished city players were said to use broomsticks, which I never saw.

Our batters were protected from rainy weather under the flat-roofed building’s deep overhang. Far behind the pitcher loomed the high-school diamond’s backstop, way out of reach for us. To the left stood a basketball hoop with a galvanized backboard and metal net. To the right was the “aggie building,” and behind it the garage, where tractors and other grounds-maintenance equipment were stored. We’d drop a marker in short left field to establish a foul line. The right-field line was marked by a lilac bush two-thirds of the way down the aggie building’s west wall.

The ground rules were simple: groundballs past the pitcher were singles; to the lilac bush in the air was a double; past the aggie building was a triple, and to the garage was a home run. Walks and errors also put imaginary runners on base.

Round and round we went, games lasting all day. On nights of Little League games, we’d rush home around 4, get a quick bite, dress in our white, woolen, South Deerfield uniforms with red trim, and head to the little league field at the base of Sugarloaf for a game against Sunderland, Hatfield, Whately, Conway, or Old Deerfield.

Our seasons didn’t end with the school year, just after the summer solstice, as they do today. We played all summer, savoring hot, sticky weather made for baseball.

I never could understand it when, working on the Recorder sports desk, scribes were taking youth-baseball scores for league-championship series before the Fourth of July. Why, I thought out loud, would anyone complete a youth-league season before the best baseball weather arrived?

The answer was that parents didn’t want the season to interfere with their summer-vacation plans. Sad. Who’s youth baseball for, kids or parents? My answer is likely a minority opinion nowadays.

Although playing stickball hour after hour kept us out of mischief for the most part, we weren’t what you’d call perfect little angels. We stretched the rules a little, and practiced individual sovereignty to gather stray tennis balls off the roofs above. Tennis balls broke down when thrown against brick walls and clubbed with bats. Once their fabric cover started to split, balls did little tricks when thrown, and it was only a matter of time before the ball itself split in half. But we had the perfect remedy for maintaining an ample supply.

You see, stickball wasn’t the only summer activity practiced against the high school’s back wall. Tennis players practiced their stroke against the tall gym wall that met our stickball court on the left, and somehow wild mishits put many a brand-new ball atop the 40-foot roof. To collect them when no one was looking, we’d shimmy up the drain spout onto the lower roof on the other side of the gym and climb a sturdy, stationary, metal ladder anchored into the gym roof. We’d gather the balls and throw them down before descending the ladder and circling around the front to gather stray balls from the shop-building roof directly above the stickball court.

Someone could have been hurt badly or killed by a fall from that tall roof, or even that of the lower shop building. But we were careful and no one ever got hurt, not even when we had to run and jump off a lower roof to avoid authorities passing through. In fact, the only roof-related injury I recall occurred after we were in high school, and it had nothing to do with being on the roof. The victim was late friend Franny Redmond.

I can’t remember exactly what we were doing, probably just horsing around after school. Franny had jumped up to hang from his hands on a cross beam out front by the eight doors leading into the gym area. When he released his grip to fall down, his class ring got caught on the crimped lower edge of protective copper sheathing and left him dangling in pain. With his full weight on the ring finger, the skin peeled back into an ugly, bloody mess. We helped lift him up as he used his free arm to pull up and release the snag. Once free, he dropped to his feet, wrapped the wound in a t-shirt, and went to the hospital for repair. I think doctors had to cut off the ring before stitching the wound.

Other than that, never a serious problem we couldn’t escape with aplomb. Small-town devils we were. We knew the routine, not to mention every dark corner in the neighborhood, and stayed on high-alert for “heat” whenever bending the rules.

It was kids’ stuff, not crime. At least that’s how it was viewed when I was young. I’m not sure cops know the difference anymore. Sad indeed. I sincerely doubt we would have “benefited” from being run through the system and punished.


Where Was Bloody Brook’s First Tavern

The question has lingered for nearly a century. That is, where did the first tavern in Bloody Brook, now South Deerfield, stand?

Everyone knows the building’s location in 1932, when South Deerfield building contractor William Gass moved it to its current setting behind Old Deerfield’s Indian House. Today, there it stands as Bloody Brook Tavern museum, Gass’ interpretation of the single-story, center-chimney colonial building as originally constructed. But what lot did this building occupy when constructed around 1750? That’s the vexing question.

Greenfield’s Daily Recorder-Gazette was on the scene for the old tavern’s removal to Old Deerfield. The lead story on August 6, 1932 was headlined “South Deerfield ‘Old Bee Hive’ House Being Moved to Old Deerfield by Gass.” The article, no byline, was strong on tradition but weak on fact – leaving unclear the building’s original location while taking a speculative approach to the year it was moved to its 1932 site.

Because the structure had “stood just south of the Arms pocketbook shop for longer than the oldest inhabitant could remember,” the paper surmised that it must have been moved before or during the railroad’s 1846 arrival to South Deerfield. After that move to what is today 89 Main Street, “improvements” were made with the addition of a second story, an ell, and an 18-by-27 ballroom that was eventually partitioned into rooms for a tenement house. Almost 200 years old and falling into disrepair by 1932, the building was rescued by Gass.

To recount the tavern’s history, the Recorder-Gazette leaned heavily upon its own hardcover Centennial Gazette 1792-1892, which would have been readily available. That’s likely the source for the reference to “the former A.W. Fay place” as the building’s original setting. The Fay farmhouse, more commonly known in deed references as “the Sedgwick Cooley place,” may or may not exist today. It stood and likely still stands on what is today Yazwinski farm at 144 North Main Street.

Centennial Gazette readers would have found the Fay reference helpful in identifying the original tavern site. That was not the case, however, for those reading the 1932 Recorder-Gazette story. By then, Fay had been gone nearly 40 years. Deeds show that Asa W. Fay of Springfield purchased the 84-acre Sedgwick Cooley farm and outbuildings in 1886 from William E. Thayer of Williamsburg. Eight years later, with Fay in financial distress, the property was sold at auction to townsman Azariah Cooley Boyden, who had had deep roots in South Deerfield’s first tavern.

Was it coincidence that Boyden’s mother, Sophia Cooley, had lineage taking her back to the tavern’s beginnings through its first two tavernkeepers – Samuel Barnard (1721-88) and brother-in-law successor Capt. Nathan Frary (1719-94)? Sophia was Sedgwick’s cousin, and the granddaughter of Azariah Cooley (1731-77), who was among the earliest Bloody Brook settlers. Azariah’s widow, Eleanor Wariner, was from the tavern neighborhood, so to speak. Better yet, she had a hand in the Barnard, then Frary taverns themselves as the wife of both men. She married Barnard after her first husband died, then wed Frary after Barnard passed.

From her legacy arose two adjoining North Main Street farms, including two dwellings, many outbuildings, a prolific spring for drinking-water, and more than 120 contiguous acres. Fifty-five of those acres now comprise Bloody Brook Farm, owned by the Yazwinski family. That farm lost its upland acreage in the 60s when North Sugarloaf was taken by eminent domain to create a state reservation.

The two bordering “Cooley” farms show up east of the road and the brook on the 1855 Clark map of Deerfield and the 1858 Walling map of Franklin County. They are marked, north to south, as dwellings of “Mrs. E. Cooley” and “S. Cooley” – that is, widow Esther Packard Cooley (1811-58) and her brother-in-law Sedgwick Cooley (1804-69). Esther was the widow of Sedgwick’s older brother Caleb Allen Cooley (1800-1845), and the daughter of Shelburne minister Theophilus Packard, who, with his wife, shared their daughter’s South Deerfield residence for eight years after leaving the ministry in 1846.

Both structures may well survive today, although current Yazwinski farm occupant Poppi (Yazwinski) Kelley offered a possibility that clouds the matter. Her late father was told by someone that his homestead had been moved from another site to its present location long before he bought it in 1950. It’s possible. Many South Deerfield buildings were moved during the 19th century, including two churches and the old tavern of our focus. But the Yazwinski property fits snugly into Connecticut Valley architecture of the 1830s and could easily have been built right where it stands.

The crowded contemporary neighborhood layout suggests that the Yazwinski home was Segdwick Cooley’s and another to the north, a Cape that’s likely older than Yazwinski’s, standing on Capt. Lathrop Drive, was Esther Cooley’s. That center-chimney home now resting on the north side of Capt. Lathrop was owned for many years by carpenter and town official Ed Crafts. Perhaps a more appropriate name for the northern structure would be the Eli Cooley homestead, he the father of Sedgwick and Caleb; or maybe even it was the homesite of Eli’s father, Azariah’s first dwelling.

Of one fact we can be confident; that is that the old Barnard/Frary tavern stood somewhere within the old 84-acre Sedgwick Cooley parcel, bordered west by what is now North Main Street. Given the nature of public houses, the building would have been close to the road. The question is where?

Most likely the tavern stood between the road and Bloody Brook, within a narrow, 700-foot strip of land now occupied by five homes. Think of it: Why would anyone build a colonial tavern on the other side of a brook flowing more than 100 feet from the road? It makes no sense. Taverns served mail routes and didn’t need obstacles for mail stages.

The average distance between road and brook in that narrow strip of land fronting Yazwinski acreage is about 130 feet. That’s enough room for the string of houses now standing there, and more than enough for the historic Barnard/Frary tavern.

Another possibility worth examining is the possibility that the original tavern stood across the street from today’s Yazwinski farm – high, dry and out of the way of spring freshets. But something new must come to light before that can be sorted out. Stay tuned.

Who knows? Perhaps locating the old building’s footprint will be difficult after all these years.

Then again, it could be hiding in plain sight. Afterall, has anyone ever made a serious effort to find it?

A diligent investigator could probably find the buried foundation with a sharp probe. Better still, a metal-detecting wizard could go to work in search of common tavern relics, especially colonial coins. Metal-detecting enthusiasts love old-tavern sites and have been known to bang on the doors of many seeking permission.

Take it to the bank: evidence exists. It’s just a matter of finding it … and solving the mystery of where Bloody Brook’s first tavern was built.

Radical-Right Stuff

Some four months after rupturing my right Achilles tendon, Vernal equinox looming, I resumed my daily morning walks and sent my wheels spinning back to Sixties.

The maiden voyage began just after dawn. I was greeted by neighborhood deer runs carved through patches of shady corn snow, one within a stone’s throw of my front door. Though neighborhood whitetails are basically edge creatures, they’ll march down Broadway in the black of night, the gray of dawn and dusk, and sometimes even at midday, slinking on high alert through foggy, drizzly veils.

It had been a long COVID- and injury-complicated winter, only exacerbated by the vexing deep-freeze we endured for almost three weeks following Presidents’ Day Weekend. I have learned to expect that annual long mid-February weekend to be the gateway to spring. Not this year. Instead, we got one last loud, grumpy snort from Old Man Winter.

My walks began on pavement, not my way. I prefer wooded maneuvers on ridgetop spines and swampy perimeters, but did not want to start on challenging terrain, where I could easily run into trouble coming off a torn Achilles. Why risk slipping and falling on hidden ice or slick mud? Heading toward 68, caution was wise until calf-strength was rebuilt. Setbacks caused by foolish, freewheeling rambles would have been stupid.

I’ve learned that brisk, solitary walks stimulate deep thinking. Get your legs moving and your heart pumping and one never knows what a fertile imagination will deliver. I don’t seem to arrive at that creative place by walking through noisy neighborhoods, surrounded by homes, people, passing cars and other sounds that disrupt or even preclude freewheeling streams of consciousness. It’s natural sounds that carry me off to the pensive place I seek – things like rattling streams, trickling springs, whistling winds and joyous birdsong. That’s what delivers me to that warm, elusive internal chamber I cherish.

Too bad I’m not yet traveling those thinking trails. I have lots to ponder. My last few weeks have been spent revisiting readings from my high school and college years. The impetus was recent films focusing on events like the 1968 Democratic Convention, the resulting Chicago Seven Trial, and the Chicago police murder of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

My college mentor, Howard Ziff, had a front-row seat for all of the above as night editor of the Chicago Daily News. Disillusioned by what he knew were slanted, willfully inaccurate press reports, he changed professions, soon to establish UMass Amherst’s Journalism Department. Talk about being at the right place at the right time. I was there.

The old books I recently retrieved from my study’s shelves were Tom Hayden’s The Trial, Bobby Seale’s Seize the Times, and late, great Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Letters (1968-76), in that order. The Thompson capper pretty much covered it all – from the ugly ’68 Chicago convention, to his own Freak Power run for sheriff, to Kent State, Woodstock, and Watergate, and his friendship with “Rock and Roll President” Jimmy Carter.

Long ago I learned that if interested in what someone really believes, read their correspondence. Which is not to suggest that Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of his own twisted Gonzo branch of New Journalism, ever held back in print. No, not the case.

I suppose I could have dug even deeper by re-examining Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice, penned from Algerian exile. But I didn’t need them. Those first three reads provided more than enough info about the political theater I lived through during the Sixties and early Seventies. Memory alone cannot always be trusted after a half-century, particularly those of us who sampled the forbidden fruits of the times.

Although today’s youth may find it difficult to conceptualize, the Sixties were hopeful, idealistic times of which open defiance of authority and protest in the streets was borne. The first protest I recall occurred in junior high school, when we participated in “skip days” organized by upperclassmen and women who opposed a strict dress code. Draconian rules forbade boys from wearing blue jeans, bellbottoms and sandals, hair below the collar, sideburns below mid-ear, and facial hair. Girls could not wear slacks or shorts, and their skirts could not wander above the knee. Skip days and open defiance of the rules brought fairly rapid change.

Then, in short order, the drinking and voting ages were dropped from 21 to 18. Philosophical justification for the latter was basic: if old enough to die for your country in Vietnam, then you were old enough to vote and drink. Simple logic, eh?

Of course, “traditionalists” pushed back with the disrespect card, but they were outnumbered, as evidenced by the LBJ’s landslide win over ultra-conservative Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Four years later, though, after assassins eliminated the Kennedys, Nixon re-emerged by pulling the segregationist, Southern Dixiecrats led by George Wallace and Lester Maddox into the Republican fold. He dubbed this new, law-and-order Republican voting block the “silent majority,” and rode it to a razor-slim win over Humphrey in 1968 and a landslide win over McGovern in 1972.

The political landscape had been changed for generations.

Something important to remember in light of what’s gone on recently: Wallace picked up a whopping 13.5 percent of the votes running as a third-party, 1968 presidential candidate. That same element survives today.

Fast-forward to 2016, when a controversial New York City real estate mogul, reality-TV star, and con man slid down the glittering Trump Tower escalator to announce his run for the presidency. Against long odds he won by energizing the modern-day silent majority and Southern vote with racist dog whistles. He spoke in incendiary, white-nationalist code and wrapping himself in cheap patriotism. Even worse, he invited underground elements of the neo-Nazi/white-supremacist movement into plain view. These hate groups soon became the hard right-wing base that almost got him re-elected. Incensed by eight years of our first African-American president, they were responding.

Well, we know where this powder-keg empowerment of white nationalism got us. From Charlottesville to the Capitol siege, racist hate groups harkening back to the KKK and the John Birch Society were given a loud, public platform. We watched the “Unite the Right” mobs in hi-def, heard their hateful chants in Dolby sound.

Has anyone forgotten the anti-Semitic chants and tiki-torches of Charlottesville? Not likely.  Some found the scene terrifying. Others cheered it on. Frightening indeed. And while we’re at it, why to this day have we heard nothing more about the motive in the Christmas-day suicide truck bombing in Nashville? Who is being protected? By whom? Why?

It’s too bad Hunter S. Thompson took his own life before the Trump-train whistles blew. He knew what was coming, consistently railing against what he called homegrown “fascists,” “greedheads,” “swine” and more profane monikers too spicey for the mainstream.

Long aware of creeping fascism in Amerika, I have bitten my tongue in print for four years. Friends of mine are Trump supporters. Though I can’t understand how anyone could support the narcissistic snake-oil salesman, why engage in irreconcilable political debate? But now, fresh off Thompson’s Gonzo Letters, chronicling an era I love to revisit, I cannot resist taking a few swipes at the man Spike Lee dubbed “Agent Orange.”

The made-for-TV spectacle we all witnessed during four, in-your-face Trump years only reinforced my long-held beliefs about who was behind the Sixties assassinations. They’re still here, very real and not hard to find. Just look for the swastikas, nooses and rebel flags, and listen for the fascistic, xenophobic rhetoric our European brothers know best.

An undercurrent before Trump, it’s mushroomed in the public square. Scary indeed.

South Deerfield Memories

Although I’ve been a Greenfield taxpayer for nearly a quarter-century, I will always consider South Deerfield as home. It’s where I learned to read and write, bike and skate, hunt and fish, explore swamps and ridges, pick nightcrawlers, build forts and play ball. It’s also where my kids grew up through elementary school, and where a good many of my ancestors lay buried. So, yes, I can go back home. Mentally, I’m there.

The impetus for my most-recent Deerfield research is the town’s looming 350th birthday. Scheduled for 2023, it has refocused my attention on the mercantile and industrial South Deerfield village and its surrounding neighborhoods known, east to west, as Pine Nook, Sugarloaf, Mill River, Sawmill Plain, Mill Village and Turnip Yard, all of them anchored around a railroad depot that arose in 1846, redefining South Deerfield as the mother town’s commercial hub.

No, I wasn’t there for the railroad’s arrival, which brought the big cities and seaports closer and accelerated incoming and outgoing trade. But I sure do remember the old railroad station; it stood off Elm Street on the way out of town. Traveling west, before the railroad crossing, the small building stood on the right, situated between the tracks and Railroad Street, across from the lumberyard. Whether from personal memory or what I have seen in photos, it’s hard to say, but I was there. The exterior image imprinted in memory displays a deep roof overhang facing the tracks, under it a bench or two for passengers. Inside, the image shows dusty floorboards, more benches, convenient trackside post-office boxes and a wooden counter framing an open service window with a rounded crown.

My mother used to walk us there on nice days to watch the bustling railroad activity, freights picking up and dropping off cargo cars at the fertilizer industries and passenger trains stopping for exchanges. She even took us on a train ride or two for fun. I think before I was out of grammar school, the station was closed; by the Seventies, a dismantled memory.

Old “Nip” Peabody was the station attendant I remember. Though I don’t remember his first name, it was probably Carlton, same as his son, mailman “Bud,” and grandson, basketball coach “Gus.” Anyone in South Deerfield who mattered back then had a nickname.

My fondest memory of Mr. Peabody places him seated in a lawn chair at the west end of wooden, first-baseline bleachers during Sunday-afternoon American Legion Baseball games that drew big crowds to the high-school ballyard. Some of the players I recall were Jimmy Duda, Billy Burns, Skip Gerry and Peachy Traceski. Mr. Peabody wore a small, tidy mustache under the bill of his Navy-blue Thomas Ashley Post 229 American Legion cap, and he’d give us Buffalo nickels for every foul tip we retrieved from the dense Jewett pinewoods behind the backstop. A childhood place for fort-building, bushwhacking and many a partridge flush, we kids knew every abandoned bird nest in those young white pines.

We’d lean against the chain-link backstop to watch the ballgames and chase back into the woods for every foul tip. After the games, having acquired pocketsful of nickels, we’d race on our bikes to Professional Pharmacy, Bill Rotkiewicz’s first downtown drug store in the Bloody Brook Block. It stood the west of the common on the corner of North Main and Elm, between the Elm Street bar and the North Main market. There, we’d spend our earnings on Topps Baseball Cards – a nickel for a pack of five, with a wide stick of sugar-dusted bubble gum inside – and maybe even a five-cent ice-cream cone. Ah, for the days of penny candy and nickel-a-scoop ice-cream parlors.

Too bad my childhood baseball-card collections disappeared. They’d be valuable today. I used to store them securely in shoe and cigar boxes. The last I saw of them they were tucked away in an old, Empire chest of drawers in the garage loft. When I sold that house, they had vanished. Someone must have thrown them out as clutter, eliminating any chance of an adult jackpot. It may have been substantial. The sale of a 1950s collection by my softball teammate from Northampton enabled him to put down a major down payment on an Easthampton home in the 1990s. That’s a fact.

Of course, some of my most valuable cards would have been hated New York Yankees we routinely sacrificed as noisemakers attached by clothespins to our bicycle so that they extended through the spokes. The faster we pedaled, the louder they roared. Great fun. Yes, there were, of course, a few Yankee fans who’d destroy Red Sox cards the same way, but not many. Like horse manure back in the day, Yankee fans are everywhere.

Back to the Legion baseballs we hunted in the pinewoods, we never found them all. Hell no. We were always searching for the ones that got away, intentionally and otherwise. How could a kid develop diamond skills without baseballs? And those balls weren’t your run-of-the-mill dime-store variety, either; they were top-shelf baseballs, the best money could buy, official Reach American League baseballs, no less. Every ball sported a cursive, light-blue, facsimile signature of AL President and Hall of Fame slugger Joe Cronin on its cowhide face. Not bad, eh?

Truth be known, we all accumulated basketfuls of those primo balls. Tucked away in our sheds and garages, trust me, they were put to good use when not accidentally breaking windows or denting some crabby old biddy’s shiny Buick. No, never were we lacking for good baseballs with prominent stitches, great for backyard experimentation with different grips creating funky little ball-movement wrinkles when playing catch.

Had anyone ever discovered our stashes and accused us of stealing, we would have had that covered. Those balls were retrieved hours and days after the games, by which time, in our minds, they were fair game.

How about those nice, new balls we furtively dropped into abandoned robins’ nests? Was that OK behavior in a New England Christian town? Well, maybe not, but I suspect Legionnaires who marched in the annual Memorial Day parade would have let it slide.

But why ponder hypotheticals? We never got caught. Plus, those balls kept us out of mischief … for the most part.


Bill Russell: Winner In A League Of One

Sunday, February 9, 1969, a cold, threatening nor’easter brewing in gray winter skies.

I was 15, a Frontier Regional School sophomore, no driver’s license, hoping the storm would not derail a much-anticipated road trip to Boston Garden. The plan was to attend ABC’s 1 p.m., nationally-televised, NBA game-of-the-week matinee between the defending-champion Boston Celtics and their rival Philadelphia 76ers – play-by-play man Chris Schenkel and color analyst Jack Twyman at the mics.

Henry Boron was driving. He owned a small downtown market in South Deerfield and had established some impressive Celtics connections. Son Rickey, Frontier’s first 1,000-career-point basketball scorer, attended and eventually rose to counselor at a pair of summer camps owned and operated by Celtics teammates. Sharpshooting Hall of Fame guard Sam Jones owned one; backup backcourt mate Larry Siegfried the other.

Henry, no shrinking violet, had built relationships with many Celtics at the camps, including Hall of Fame coach/general manager Red Auerbach. Leave it to Henry, a first-class schmoozer and well-known Hinsdale railbird. The rugged, outgoing, square-jawed grocer had no fear, was not taciturn by any stretch. He had social skills, was good with kids, and loved a good laugh or small-town prank.

What a great time the late Sixties were for Connecticut Valley basketball fans. Two hours east, future Hall of Fame player-coach Bill Russell’s incredible run of 11 NBA championships in 13 years was nearing the end simultaneously with the Amherst emergence of Julius Erving – a skinny UMass sophomore forward from Roosevelt, New York. The kid could jump through the roof, and Erving fever was selling out Curry Hicks Cage. The valley had never owned a talent like Erving, who, after blossoming under late UMass coach Jack Leaman, went on to a glorious Hall of Fame NBA career.

Word of Erving’s Yankee Conference high-wire act traveled like wildfire through the valley. You had to get there early to attend his 1968-69 freshman games, in the days before freshmen were eligible for NCAA varsity basketball. Even though dunking was then forbidden in the college game, Erving’s preliminary 6 p.m. freshman games were sold out, standing-room only once word got around. No lie, the lines for game-day ticket sales and free student admission started forming at 4:30. I saw it with my own eyes, and got there early with my dad.

But let us not digress. Back to that memorable 1969 Celtics-Sixers showdown.

Though I wasn’t privy to the household “negotiations” leading to Henry Boron’s decision to brave the looming storm, I’m sure his son’s pleading was the deciding factor. A gambler at heart, Henry must have figured he’d roll the dice and live with the outcome. Forecasters predicted a midday start for the storm. He may have hoped we could get there and back before all hell broke loose.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Honestly, I have no recollection of the ride to Boston, and can’t even recall who else was with us, if anyone. Though I believe someone else was there, both Borons are dead and so could be the other passenger for all I know. I asked around and could not come up with a fourth or fifth party.

What I know for sure is that I was there, and we witnessed a classic Celtics win before surviving a harrowing journey home through a blizzard in one piece. Treacherous Route 2 was clogged with stranded vehicles in the breakdown lane and jack-knifed tractor-trailers flipped on their sides in the median strip. Henry would plow past the stranded vehicles, snow flying over the roof of his Chevy three-seater station wagon, tooting the horn with taunting laughter to unfortunate marooned motorists.

“If you let your foot of the gas in conditions like this, Boys, you’re all done,” he’d say, appearing to enjoy the challenge.

As it turned out, we were in good hands. By the grace of God and Henry’s driving skills, we miraculously made it all the way home, likely a rare feat that day for folks in our predicament. Few would have attempted the 200-mile round trip to begin with.

After we got home, schools were canceled for two days while Franklin County dug itself out from a storm that, according to the February 10, 1969 Greenfield Recorder, dropped up to 22 inches in some places. Even the mail was halted when trucks could not get to western Mass.


What got me thinking back to the memorable storm and Celtics win 52 long years ago was former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s record seventh Super Bowl win on February 7. Accomplished at the unprecedented age of 43 over the favored, defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs in his first year with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Brady’s latest Super Bowl title secured his status as the greatest quarterback, maybe even the greatest football player, of all time, not to mention one of the classic winners in any of North America’s four major professional sports.

I have no qualms with any of that, and have in recent years been in Brady’s corner regarding the debate over who was more important to the Patriots dynasty, Belichick or Brady. But when Boston talk-jocks Felger & Mazz anoint him as our No. 1 all-time, all-sport winner, it is clear to me that they’re wet behind the ears and never saw Russell play. He isn’t even Boston’s greatest winner.

Although I am not questioning Brady’s greatness, for my money, Russell is our greatest winner. The numbers speak for themselves. No one can match his career’s 11 titles in 13 years. The man didn’t have enough fingers for his championship rings.

During the years of Celtics glory with Russell, the 6-foot-10 center lost only two career best-of-seven playoff series. The first was a 4-2 1957-‘58 finals loss to the St. Louis Hawks in which he barely played due to a foot injury. The second was a legitimate 4-1 defeat to Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1966-‘67 Eastern Conference finals.

Russell responded to that first loss with eight straight NBA titles, then avenged the loss to Wilt’s Sixers with two consecutive championships before retirement. The proud Celtics warrior must have been insulted when experts had the audacity to crown the 1966-‘67 Sixers as the greatest NBA team of all time after halting the Celtics’ unparalleled streak of eight straight titles.

To display their indignant mettle, Russell’s Celtics dethroned those Sixers the following year by climbing out of a 3-1 hole to beat Philly in their best-of-seven 1967-‘68 Eastern Conference finals before beating the Los Angeles Lakers in six games for the title.

Then, after a lackluster fourth-place Eastern Conference finish in 1968-‘69, 35-year-old player/coach Russell took down the powerful Knicks and Sixers before outlasting the favored Lakers and new wunderkind Wilt Chamberlain with a Game 7 road win in Russell’s final NBA game.

Russell is American sports’ greatest winner, better than Brady, better than Maurice “Rocket” Richard – whose 11 Montreal Canadiens’ championships matched Russell’s total with the benefit of five additional years – and better than any New York Yankee. Brady has won seven Super Bowls in 20 seasons or, to be fair, seven wins and 10 appearances in 18 full seasons.

The remarkably durable Brady did not play as a rookie, and lost another season to a serious knee injury sustained in the season opener. Other than that, he answered the bell.

I feel fortunate to have witnessed Brady and Russell, and bristle at the uninformed opinion that Russell’s accomplishments are irrelevant because they occurred so long ago. Felger would have you believe Russell went back to the days of the two-hand set shot. It’s not true. In my opinion, Russell would have been dominant in today’s game, as would Hall of Fame teammates John Havlicek and Sam Jones, and opponents like Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain and Hal Greer, Willis Reed and Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

Remember, in Russell’s day there were far fewer teams and also fewer “cupcakes” on an 82 schedule. Plus, because teams played each other so often, the rivalries were more intense than today.

I got to see Russell’s greatness up close and personal that day of the 1969 storm. Having injured a knee against the New York Knicks a week earlier, he was questionable for the game. So, we were relieved upon learning by inside information that he was expected to play.

Our source was none other than Auerbach himself. How? Well, Henry Boron had tickets waiting for him in Auerbach’s desk, and his office was our first stop once inside rickety, smelly, old Boston Garden. Henry walked right into the office like he owned the place and left us seated in a narrow waiting room facing two or three pretty, long-haired teenage girls as he boldly rapped on Auerbach’s door.

“Come in,” we heard muffled from behind the closed door, and in went Henry, disrupting a meeting between Auerbach and then NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy, whose daughters were seated across from us in the lobby. Henry soon emerged with a fistful of tickets for midcourt, courtside seats right behind the ABC announcers, compliments of the Celtics.

How could a teenage boy forget a day like that? It was surreal.

Anyway, the game itself turned out to be an overtime thriller, won by the Celtics, 122-117. Down 110-108 with three seconds remaining, the Celtics called timeout to set up a last-second play attempting to tie it. Remember, there were no 3-pointers then.

Coming out of the break, Havlicek was stationed near the ABC broadcasters for the inbounds pass, which he lofted high toward Russell, jockeying for position in the paint with Sixers center Darrall Imhoff. Russell, who had already blocked two shots in the final minute, timed his jump perfectly, gracefully soaring over Imhoff for a two-hand slam to tie it 110-110 at the buzzer, sending the game into overtime.

It was classic Russell – 35 years old in his final season, no less. Favoring the sore knee, he came off the bench with his team trailing by 10 in the first quarter to lead the comeback win. He finished with nine points, three assists, and 23 rebounds, not to mention the late-game heroics, all on a tender knee.

The online box score shows Sixers’ small forward Billy Cunningham (later Erving’s Sixers coach) leading all scorers with 37 points and the Sixers with 19 rebounds. Chet Walker added 26 points, Hal Greer 16.

Boston was led by tireless Havlicek’s 31 points to go with 12 rebounds and seven assists. Sam Jones and Don Nelson added 24 and 21 points, respectively.

As was the norm in Russell’s day, the Garden was about half full, with an announced paid attendance of 6,095. Who knows if our party was included? Maybe so.

Upon exiting the building for our car, the blizzard was roaring, the parking lot and vehicles buried under several inches of snow. First, we had to clean off the car and get out of Boston. Then we had to make it all the way home to South Deerfield. There were no guarantees, but we made it.

Three months later, on May 5, the Celtics and aging Russell bounced back from a 3-2 best-of-seven deficit to beat the host Lakers, 108-106, in Game 7 at LA’s Fabulous Forum. It was the game of Don Nelson’s famous 15-foot jump shot that bounced around the rim and took forever to drop through the net; better still, the game when overconfident Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke, buoyed by his new 7-foot-1 toy named Wilt, was unable to release thousands of celebratory balloons suspended high in the rafters for a postgame party.

Colored blue and gold with the words “World Champion Lakers” printed in bold, black letters, the balloons clung in nets to the ceiling as the jubilant Celtics celebrated their second straight title, both over LA, and their eleventh in 13 years. It was a fitting tribute to North America’s greatest all-time sports winner – William Felton Russell – whose feats may be forgotten but will likely never be duplicated.

Russell didn’t come to play. He came to win, and the man won like no other, including Brady, great in his own right but no Russell, no matter what blabbering talk-jocks Felgie & Mazz would have you believe. They’ve only seen the goateed No. 6 on YouTube and have no clue what they missed.

Such a dismissive attitude toward Russell’s greatness is understandable. He never got a fair shake in Boston.

Workin’ A Woodshed

An attached woodshed is a grand luxury appreciated by few in these days of pellet stoves and those natural-gas, faux fireplaces that bring ambiance and warmth behind a glass-faced firebox with ornamental, fire-charred, ceramic fire logs “burning” inside.

By definition an attached woodshed is a roofed structure joined to a dwelling with interior entry that spares occupants the inconvenience of stepping outdoors to fetch fuel for the fire. Yes, it’s true that such “outbuildings” and the route to them are typically unheated. But that’s just a minor inconvenience compared an outdoor wood crib or stacked pile that entails shoveling and slippery footing through icy winters.

Into my woodshed I have over 23 years thrown in 161 cords of wood dumped in front of its five-foot-wide sliding door. Call me traditional. I heat my old home primarily with wood, and do truly appreciate the convenience of such a functional space for wood storage. A slate-roofed ell extending north about 35 feet from the back of the kitchen, the route to it takes me through a shed between a water heater and cast-iron cookware pantry.

The dimensions of our woodshed are 21 by 15 feet, including an old 10-by-4 coal bin along the south end, it butting up to an enclosed 18-by-3 walkway to a plastered, 50-square-foot, four-hole privy at the rear. Imagine that, back in the day, you didn’t even need to step outside or shovel a winter path to a cold, breezy backyard outhouse. All it took was a short, cool 35-foot walk out the back kitchen door.

Though the privy hasn’t been used in 100 years, it’s still there for posterity, I guess. A blast from the past. A conversation piece. The next homeowner will probably either remove it or convert the entire ell into modern, heated living space after installing a new furnace and upgrading 35 or 40 drafty windows with something modern, air-tight and efficient. Not us. We’re retired.

I’d hate to compute the number of miles I’ve walked between that woodshed and our soapstone woodstove, which has never skipped a beat. What I know is that the distance from the stove-side wood cradle to the pantry door is 15 feet. It’s then another 13 feet through the shed to the woodshed door. From that threshold to the back door leading outside alongside the privy, it’s 21 feet. So, that adds up to a round trip of 75 to 80 feet, the second half loaded down with a heaping armload of heavy cordwood piled head-high on my right arm. The daily chore keeps my blood circulating, my legs moving, and my forearms and biceps just active enough to prevent winter rigor mortis from setting in. Chalk it up as good, old-fashioned country living.

My annual heating season lasts about seven months. The daily trips to the woodshed represent only a sliver of the labor required to heat with wood. I don’t cut my own wood. I buy it cut, split and delivered, seven cords a year. My work begins after the vendor dumps a load in front of the sliding, five-foot woodshed door. I must then throw it inside, forming one massive pile cascading down from the outhouse hallway’s wall and another lesser mound of smaller fireplace logs in the nook between the outhouse and back door. By May, most of it is burned.

The most strenuous work is throwing the wood into the woodshed and raking up the aftermath debris from the backyard. But there is still much work to do after the wood’s inside. I perform weekly sorting and reorganization chores, piling totally dry pieces in one pile and heavier, semi-seasoned chunks in another. That done, it’s easy to keep a good mix coming in for placement in the stove-side cradle, where the heat of the stove drives out moisture from damp pieces.

Additional daily chores inside include removing ash into a coal hod each morning and sweeping up debris on the floor every time you replenish the wood supply. Once a week, I empty the coal hod into a pile outside next to the brook. It’s a routine I’ve performed for most of adult life, 23 years at my present Greenfield address.

Yeah, yeah, I know I’m getting old and that it’d be easier to heat with oil, cheaper and more responsible to go solar. But I love dry wood heat, a luxury that can be visited when chilled and abandoned for cooler space when warmed to satisfaction.

Keeping a good, hot fire is no less of an art than maintaining an organized, functional woodshed. It seems I’m always sorting through wood in various stages of seasoning to produce optimal, hot, steady fires that limit creosote buildup in the chimney. Hot fires over 400 degrees Fahrenheit produce far less creosote than slow, smoldering fires registering less than 300 degrees on the stovetop thermometer.

You have to live with slow, dampered-down overnight fires when sleeping, but there’s an art to that, too. That’s where big, bone-dry all-nighter logs come in handy. I separate them out daily and keep them handy in the woodshed. Placed on red-hot coals before retiring for the night, these large, heavy chunks – preferably high-BTU woods like oak, hickory, black locust, or rock maple – are reduced to hot embers that easily revive a morning fire. Just open the damper, triangulate three hardwood logs seasoned grey and dry, and wait for the flames to joyfully dance. From that point on, an attentive firekeeper can effortlessly maintain an efficient fire by paying attention, never allowing it to burn down too low.

Focus pays dividends. Neglect causes problems.

Complicating matters this winter has been the right Achilles tendon I ruptured while pheasant hunting two days before Thanksgiving in a dense swamp. The first two weeks were the toughest. Hobbled and unsure of the extent of my injury, I continued to lug wood from the woodshed daily, being extra careful not to take a misstep. I had good and bad days before finally getting to a doctor two weeks after the injury and returning with a protective walking boot.

Although the imbalance of the boot’s three- to four-inch heel lift took some getting used to, it compressed my Achilles to promote healing and, better still, soothed my re-injury anxiety. I learned to cope with the awkward device and became more and more mobile as the days progressed. By week seven of the boot, I was able to start removing a layered lift a week until all four were gone.

Now, though still wearing the boot, my foot is flatter and walking is much easier. Through the whole ordeal, I’ve managed to cut that mountain of woodshed cordwood in half without further injury – a miracle in its own right. Through experimentation, the boot gave me more and more confidence and reduced my peril.

So, I guess you could say I got through it without catastrophe. Another of life’s unexpected misfortunes mostly in the rearview. What can you do but grin and bear it?

Uh-oh. My wife has bad news. The dishwasher didn’t drain after a sub-zero overnight. Must be the hose that drains through the dishwasher is frozen. Shoot! I thought the installer took care of that. Oh well. Never a dull winter moment in an old New England home.

Gotta go. Where the hell did I put that old brown hair-drier?

Sugarloaf Site Update

Septuagenarian archaeologist Richard Michael Gramly Ph.D. never allows the so-called Sugarloaf Site – a Paleoindian caribou-hunting encampment dating back nearly 12,500 calendar years – to wander far from his fertile imagination.

The site, a vast, sandy, outwash plain deposited during the deep time of peri-glacial Lake Hitchcock drainage, sits on the southwestern skirt of Mount Sugarloaf. Gramly, called Mike by friends, performed two important archaeological excavations there, one in 1995, the other in 2013. He doesn’t hesitate to call the treasure trove “the largest human population aggregation and artifact deposit of its time and culture in America, insofar as we are aware.”

Gramly, 74, knows of what he speaks. He is among a handful of the most experienced Paleo or Clovis-era experts in North America, with important digs such as Dutchess Quarry Cave, Vail Site, Hiscock Site, and Bowser Road to his credit, all of them and notable others here in the Northeast.

A high-energy bundle of intellectual curiosity, Gramly has made waves over the past 30 years by challenging modern cultural-resource-management paradigms that have greatly changed the archaeological landscape since he earned his Harvard doctorate in 1975. Over the years, he’s become a rebel outlier, some may even say renegade, and an outspoken one at that. Due to irreconcilable differences with the professional and/or academic community, he allowed his professional affiliations to expire before 1995, when he founded the Amateur Society of American Archaeologists with his very own Persimmon Press. Even his harshest critics cannot claim he didn’t put his money where his mouth was.

It’s true that funding for archaeological exploration and publishing is difficult without independent wealth, affluent benefactors, and/or financial support from government or private academic sources. Yet Gramly, committed and creative, always seems to find a way.

Though one never knows what the topic will be when his name appears on caller-ID, you can be sure it’ll be interesting, often captivating. Since 2015, he’s been chasing around the country on his own dime trying quite successfully to place human hands all over existing museum collections of ancient mastodon remains previously thought to have died of natural causes.

The impetus for this study was his own 2014 and 2017 skeletal mastodon-recovery missions at Bowser Road in Middletown, New York, where he identified clear evidence that the beasts had   fallen to human predation and been the target of ancient rituals involving bone weapons crafted from mastodon rib.

In his “spare time” last year, he not only identified an important new gem-like translucent yellow Southwestern stone used in ancient Stone Age tool-making, but also discovered its lonesome, high-altitude source in the arid Nevada mountains. Remarkably, this remarkable stone. valued as a lithic commodity in the New World, is almost identical in appearance to a rare African gem-like material known to the Old World as Libyan Desert Glass.

As for the Sugarloaf Site, nestled along the South Deerfield-Whately line, Gramly recently received corroborating radiocarbon dates for calcined bone fragments gathered from an ancient hearth during his most recent excavation there. Told of new, improved, more-precise radiocarbon dating capabilities, in 2019 he sent samples for analysis to noted Paleo expert James C. Chatters, Ph.D. of Applied Paleoscience and Direct AMS Radiocarbon Dating Services in Tempe, Arizona. The results, which were delayed for months by COVID-19 constraints, basically confirmed previous radiocarbon dating of calcined bone from the same hearth by Beta Analytic Radiocarbon Dating Services in Miami, Florida.

Also confirmed was the upper Pioneer Valley site’s contemporaneity to another important Clovis site in Ipswich, known in the field as Bull Brook. Gramly believes many of the same hunters used the two sites, which lie about 100 miles apart.

Although the new Direct AMS radiocarbon age of 12,470 years old, give or take, adds about 120 years to Beta Analytics’ number for identical bone samples, both labs are in the same neighborhood, so to speak. Let’s be honest: What’s a mere 120 years weighed on such a deep time scale? It’s like comparing inches to miles.

Remember, we’re not talking about 1,250 years but 10 times that, a time span that’s nearly unimaginable to modern mainstream perceptions. Think of it: that’s more than 10,000 before Christ.

And to think the site is right here in our midst, situated a half-mile from the Sunderland Bridge, watched over by a peculiar, twisted mountain known to some as the Great Beaver’s Head – a landmark that has served distant travelers dating back at least to our nomadic Paleoindian hunters following caribou migrations.

Gramly believes the evidence suggests that the Sugarloaf Site existed for eight to 10 years as a seasonal encampment serving 200 to 400 roaming caribou hunters who followed north-south herd migrations, traveling from summer to winter feeding grounds and back. The Sugarloaf Site was an advantageous location where herds could be forced down a narrow ravine carved into the landscape by Sugarloaf Brook. The herds would have passed through twice a year, spring and fall – the latter likely the time for hunting, according to Gramly, who doesn’t rule out spring hunting as well.

The hearth containing what are most likely calcined caribou bones was exposed within a feature Gramly believes was one of six “Clovis men’s clubhouses where tools were maintained and conversation must have flowed.” These workshops would have been strategically located to shelter the hunting parties from wind, cold, and sandstorms while they performed essential butchering, cooking, tanning, and flint-knapping chores.

Accepted on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980, some of the Sugarloaf Site is today under protective covenant following UMass Amherst archaeologist Tom Ulrich’s 1978 recovery survey that found priceless Clovis artifacts on the then new Deerfield Economic Development and Industrial Complex (DEDIC). Once Ulrich’s survey was complete, his UMass supervisor, the late Dr. Dena Dincauze, ordered a strip of the “Ulrich Locus” buried under a long, lean, 10-foot-high mound of dirt that still stands today. Then, 15 years later, following Gramly’s 1995 excavation, Dincauze’s intervention led to the state’s purchase of the site to prevent further exploration.

And there it sits today, “protected” from further study.

On the east end of the 300-foot mound of sand, dubbed “Mt. Dincauze” by critics, stands a soft-maple tree taller than the roof of an adjacent tobacco barn. The tree is an organic monument standing in celebration of modern cultural-resource-management protocol some would call archaeological neglect.

Gramly is a charter member of that traditional club. He believes a serious researcher could spend a lifetime of discovery and interpretation on the iconic site.

Childhood Winters Ain’t What They used To Be

Winters were busy during my South Deerfield childhood, in the days before smartphones, smart TVs, PlayStation, Xbox and 24/7 cable television. Frankly, we did just fine, thank you, without the modern devices that today keep kids sedentary indoors.

The village itself was much different, too, with much more of a small-town atmosphere, Billy Rotkiewicz’s Frontier Pharmacy at the center, across from the downtown common. He filled prescriptions and held court while his waitressing crew was busy serving ham and eggs and home fries, hamburgers, hotdogs and French fries, ice cream cones, frappes and sundaes. All the latest small-town news and scandal, and even a little prankster mischief passed through the place daily.

There were many winter activities to keep a young boy active. We skated Bloody Brook, skied Boro’s Hill, slid down Gorey’s Hill on toboggans and flying saucers, built forts in the massive snow piles along the western perimeter of the high school parking lot, and played basketball on Phil Bill’s driveway or, better still, along the edges of varsity practices in the high school gym. All of it contributed to good health, fitness and rosy red cheeks.

Skating required clearing frozen Bloody Brook with shovels after each snowstorm. We’d lug our skates and shovels down to the Pleasant Street bridge, clear off an elevated shelf on which to lace up our skates and leave our boots. Eventually, we’d clear a milelong skating lane from Yazwinski Farm to the culverts tunneling under Route 5 & 10 behind Urkiel’s house. This chore was performed by skating in unison with the shovels out in front of us like little snowplows, widening the path as the day progressed.

We loved to horse around under the bridges on North Main Street, Pleasant Street and Conway Road. At the bulbous spots, such as the small ponds above the bridges and the natural little aneurysms here and there, we’d clear out miniature, banked, rectangular hockey rinks with makeshift goals at each end. When the air was cold and the ice was right, it kept us busy and out of mischief. Well, sort of. Mischief was never far away from my gang. Somehow we amused ourselves without handheld contraptions, video games and Comcast.

I don’t know why our favorite sliding place was called Gorey’s Hill. Probably because the Milton and Helen Gorey family lived nearby at the end of Eastern Ave. Actually, the hill abutted Sonny Boron’s backyard across the street from Gorey’s. On a good day, you could ride a toboggan all the way into the ditch carrying Sugarloaf Brook under Cross Street near Bucky Kuzdeba’s driveway. We learned to be careful when the snow was fast and runs reached that ditch. Covered by snow down there was a metal pipe marking a property corner, a hazard that ripped many a nylon parka and even drew occasional ribcage blood over the years.

The top of Gorey’s Hill, south of Frost’s home tucked into a quiet wooded terrace overlooking Cross Street, was just a stone’s throw from the base of the three-season Indian trail we often climbed to the North Sugarloaf cave, sometimes more than once a day. I doubt that townie kids use that trail, the cave or Gorey’s Hill today. Recently, facing that western face of North Sugarloaf from my mother’s driveway, I remarked to my wife that it was hard to imagine once scaling that ancient, embedded vertical footpath with ease. I wouldn’t even attempt it today. Too steep. My old, battered legs ain’t what they used to be.

Just getting to Gorey’s Hill was a project. It involved pulling an eight-foot, Adirondack toboggan and a flying saucer or two on a route from Pleasant Street to North Main Street to Braeburn Road to Graves Street to Cross Street and up the hill. After snowstorms, the path from the base of the hill to the elevated launching pad became easier to travel the more you used it, great exercise any way you cut it. Likely too much work for Computer-Age kids.

I don’t recall why we’d choose on some days to instead ski at Boro’s Hill, a quarter-mile due east of the Bloody Brook Monument. That too was a project. It entailed carrying cumbersome skis, poles and boots while breaking a path through deep snow to the base of the mountain. Once there, the work only increased. We’d pack the slope manually on side-by-side ascensions, short-stepping our way to the top, our skis perpendicular to the ski trail. The short downhill runs were our reward. Then we’d trudge back up to the top sideways, widening the trail as we went. When the skiing surface finally widened to our desires, we’d stop packing and climb to the top facing straight uphill with our skis opened in Vs.

Seems I recall giving Yazwinski’s Hill a try or two for a change of scenery, but Boro’s was taller, steeper and wider. Remember, those were the days before the Kelleher Drive and Captain Lathrop Drive developments. Back then, open land interrupted by slim tree lines extended all the way from Hillside Road to Graves Street. Although there’s still a fair amount of open land on that fertile plain today, it has shrunk considerably, not nearly as much as the open land of my childhood between Eastern Avenue and the Little League Field at the base of Mt. Sugarloaf.

Building snow forts also required physical labor. We used shovels and gardening tools to hollow out snow banks into a series of igloo-like chambers connected by short tunnels we’d crawl through. Where was my claustrophobia back then? We’d dig out a door at each end, openings we were extra careful to hide when we left them unoccupied. We’d do so by filling in the openings with large snowballs we’d smooth with our hands before kicking loose snow over the patches and roughing them up to hide any discernable manmade lines. We didn’t want to expos our secret hideouts to vandalism by kids passing through from other neighborhoods. It worked. Never were our snow forts discovered and destroyed. Eventually they’d just disappear with snowmelt as the winter waned. Fun while it lasted. These days, we rarely get enough snow accumulation for such forts, no matter what the climate-change deniers tell you.

Lastly, of course, there was basketball, our winter mainstay, especially for those of us who lived near the high school. Maybe we were pests, but the coaches running varsity practice put up with us shooting baskets at side hoops away from the action. The boys’ coaches were less tolerant than legendary girls’ coach, Vi Goodnow, who gave us far more sideline liberty. That, I never forgot. Thus, I remained loyal to Vi to the bitter end, when I was covering her teams as sports editor of the local newspaper. She deserved respect as the force behind western Massachusetts girls’ athletics as we know it today. Yes, the lady from Buckland wearing the plaid, pleated skirt was a pioneer – a dedicated trailblazer who hated to lose and seldom did in the early days, before men started coaching girls’ teams to level the playing field a bit.

Shooting baskets along the edges was only a small part of our basketball routine during my grammar school years. With the statute of limitations long ago passed, I can now admit we soon learned how to spring open the double doors on the northeast side of the gym. All it took was a quick, powerful outward pull on the two exterior door handles in the middle to spring the doors open. Bingo! Free reign to the gyms. For such clandestine efforts, we rarely dared to occupy the big gym with fold-up bleachers because we could be seen from outside. Instead, we played in what we called the small gym, which became secondary in the late 1950s. Located in the basement of the original, two-story Deerfield High School building, it was far from regulation size but more than sufficient for neighborhood boys seeking an indoor winter court. If we heard someone enter the building, we’d scurry to grab our basketballs and loose clothes and flee up the stairs and out the front doors facing North Main Street. Never once did we get caught. Slippery little devils, we lived nearby, had refuges, knew every escape route and could move fast.

On pleasant winter evenings after school, we had permission to use the garage hoop above Mr. and Mrs. A. Phillips Bill’s North Main Street driveway. I feel privileged to have known Phil Bill, an eccentric math prodigy who by age 18 had graduated from Dartmouth College and was teaching math at Deerfield Academy. Teacher by day, he morphed at night into a gin-fueled human computer for the Gordon E. Ainsworth & Associates surveying company. Wife Kay was a homemaker known to high school students as a substitute teacher.

Usually, six of us would play rotating, two-on-two games to 20 until suppertime, when Mrs. Bill would often approach us from the side door to tell us it was time to wrap it up. Mr. Bill was working and getting a little cranky. We’d finish our last game and head home for supper. By the time I was in junior high school, my parents had bought the house next door to the Bills, where my 91-year-old mother lives today, isolated in this lonely pandemic.

Today’s South Deerfield village is a far different place with a larger cast of characters. There’s no devilish Billy Rotkiewicz stirring things up at Frontier Pharmacy, no “Pistol Pete” Kuchieski patrolling the streets, no skating on Bloody Brook, sliding on Gorey’s Hill or skiing on Boro’s Hill, no basketball high-school-gym break-ins, and no Tanqueray-soaked human computers getting cranky while on suppertime overload.

Current residents have no time to ponder what they’re missing. Not now, anyway. Too busy frantically searching for that PS5 everyone has to have and cannot find anywhere – a fruitless pursuit that’s driving them crazy.

A Fateful Fuller Swamp Hunt

Fuller Swamp isn’t a welcoming type of place that invites you in for coffee by the kitchen fireplace. No, not quite. The call from Fuller is more like a challenge or foreboding taunt. Something like, “Come on in if you dare and give it your best shot.” No promise of success, never an apology to weak-willed, mud-splattered, burdock-covered retreaters, of which there have likely been too many to count.

A spring-fed, late-Pleistocene, relict channel of the Deerfield River located between Mill Village Road and Route 5 & 10 in Deerfield, the deep, dark swamp is tucked along the eastern base of a tall, steep land shelf known in Deerfield parlance as Long Hill. The wooded, cattail jungle is traversed by a power line along its southern perimeter and has, for the few hunters who venture in, grown nothing but more difficult to navigate over the past 50 years. Though historically a haunt for bird, waterfowl, and rabbit hunters, it can also attract the hardiest deer and bear hunters as well. Why not? Wildlife gravitates to such rich, fertile swamps where the eating’s good.

As a young man, the place referred to in townie local lingo as “Fuller’s” was part of my weekly valley pheasant-hunting itinerary west of the Connecticut River. The well-worn path led me from Little Naponset at the south end of Hatfield to the North Meadows of Deerfield, mostly in swamps bearing names such as Mill, Cow Bridge, Bashin, Hopewell, Stonecrusher, Savage’s, and Pogues Hole. Also, of course, intimidating Fuller’s, thus named because of its history as part of the old Fuller Farm, where nationally recognized Deerfield artist George Fuller (1822-1884) was born and raised. Today, an octogenarian Fuller descendant, the widow Mary Arms Marsh, lives there, selling seasonal produce at her roadside Bars Farm Stand, one of my regular summer vegetable stops. Mary and I carry the same Arms DNA, so I view it as family.

As captured on 19th-century canvas, the Fullers harvested cranberries in the bog behind their hipped-roof, Federal home across the street from the even earlier Allen Homestead. They also cut hay in fields that in my day served as marshy Melnik cow pasture, now overgrown wasteland populated by alders and poplars, thorns and vines, cattails and hummocks hiding treacherous pockets of black, sticky mud that can swallow a careless, freewheeling man in a jiffy.

How could I ever forget the day when, hunting with dear late friend and former Frontier baseball coach Tommy Valiton, I stepped on a thin, silty, harmless-looking trickle of a spring stream exiting the swamp’s interior and quickly found myself submerged to my chest? I stopped the slide to oblivion by reaching out my arms and shotgun and eventually hoisting myself back to my feet. No place for the weary or weak of spirit – Tommy was thoroughly amused. His mischievous smile said it all. Yes, he was humored to have borne witness the type of next-step’s-a-Lulu tale that’s told and retold for decades.

Then, of course, there’s another old hunting and softball buddy who’s often accompanied me to Fuller’s over the years. I call him Cooker and it was he who coined the term “Fuller Swamp Music” for the loud, humorous profanities inevitably uttered by shotgun-toting hunters who brave the Fuller brambles. His pronunciation of the word swamp rhymes with ramp or camp, his best attempt at a backwoods, hillbilly dialect.

Yes indeed, the place can draw loud, nasty cussing from even the pious, which fits neither of us. We have both sung Fuller Swamp Music to vent rage brought by wet, mucky misfortune of one little misstep. We know coming in that it’s almost impossible to avoid such catastrophes when focused on a gundog hunting fresh scent and a flush.

Still, we keep coming back for more. It all comes down to finding dense, semi-penetrable coverts where wise, late-season pheasants reside. That description fits Fuller Swamp to a tee, and brings us to my most recent, disastrous Fuller’s adventure that could well be my last. Yeah, I suppose it’s possible, yet not very likely.

The tale unfolded late in the day on November 24, two days before Thanksgiving and four days before the end of pheasant season. I was hunting with a buddy I affectionately call Killer because of his uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and hit his mark. Accompanying us was Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of an English springer spaniel gun dog, owned by Cooker and bred to attack punishing cover.

With stocked pheasants getting tougher to find coming down the stretch, we had first ventured into Fuller’s a week earlier. On that maiden voyage, we nearly turned back at the midpoint when unable to find even the hint of a trail to follow and were thus forced to break our own. Mind you, breaking such a trail is no easy task for two spry young lads, never mind two old diehards with a combined age of 143 years.

Complicating matters was a nagging cramp Killer had been experiencing in his right calf since September. He’d been treating it with overnight muscle relaxers prescribed by his doctor and daytime ibuprofen to limit inflammation, but the medicine brought only moderate relief and he couldn’t shake his nagging issue. Physically compromised in his 76th year, he was nonetheless ready and willing to go daily, oozing painful enthusiasm through tough cover. Problem was that his discomfort and concern only waxed as the season endured. Maybe it was unwise to continue pushing it if he wanted to get through deer season. So, yes, it was high time to start balancing his love of wing-shooting with his love of the looming deer season and tender venison backstraps, sizzled rare in the bacon fat of a black Griswold skillet.

We parked separate vehicles after 3 p.m. in the Long Hill shade under the power line overlooking the southwestern corner of Fuller Swamp, just below the site of a recent fatal automobile accident. Partly cloudy skies were graying and the temperature was dropping into the low 40s, perfect for Fuller’s.

We figured it would take us about an hour to hunt the familiar, rectangular, 20-some-acre covert that has always been productive. We knew Rexxie would be up to the task. The question was: could we stay with him and reward him with retrieves for his flushes? A tall order for even a young man, it helps to know the game and the swamp.

We passed under the power line and descended down a steep 15-foot escarpment to the wetland, crossing a decayed pallet snowmobile bridge into the old pasture. From there we plowed east along the edge of a long, tall alder stand leading to a north-south game trail that would take us where we wanted to go. About halfway to the thin trail used by deer, coyotes and even pheasants, Killer halted to admit he could go no farther. His freakin’ calf was killing him, and he didn’t want to push it.

No problem. I told him to position himself in an opening with shooting lanes and just stand there as Rexxie and I circled west, north, and back south toward him. I knew there was at least one cackling rooster in there, one that had eluded me, Cooker, and Rex the previous day. Given that we were already there, I might as well take a quick loop and call it a day? Who knew? Maybe a wild flush would pass him.

Ole Killer was a little cranky but still game, more than willing to take a strategic stand. The man loves to hunt, to shoot, to watch athletic flush-and-retrieve gun dogs do their thing. Plus, we’ve hunted together for many years and he was confident I could stir up a little action.

I reached to end of the alder row and followed its northern perimeter west before angling toward a productive plateau overlooking a muddy ditch and marsh. Rexxie was all business, bouncing over dense cover out in front of me. I felt a sudden urgency to reach high ground 25 yards away in case he flushed something. Crossing a small patch of low, viny cover to reach my intended destination, my boot got tangled in the vines. I stumbled forward and immediately knew I could not avoid my second fall of the season – not bad for a battered old warhorse. I extended my elbows, forearms, and shotgun in front of me to cushion a low-impact, controlled fall. On my way down, I felt my Achilles tendon pop: not a comforting development.

Uh-oh. I knew what I was dealing with as I lay on my belly, unsure if I’d be able to get back on my feet. If the answer was no, it may have taken a helicopter to get me out of there. I laid my gun to the side, used my arms to prop myself to my knees, unloaded the gun, dropped the shells into my vest pocket, wrapped my hands around the barrels, and used the gunstock to push me up onto my feet. Unsure what would happen if I put weight on my injured leg, I took a cautious step and was surprised that it could support my weight without collapsing. Whew! Maybe I had dodged a bullet.

As I carefully maneuvered out of my tangle, I heard the telltale cackle of a cock pheasant behind me, looked to my left and, sure enough, a rooster passed me 40 yards out. Facing turmoil, I had momentarily forgotten all about Rex, who obviously was still on a mission.

It’s unlikely I would have shot even if my gun had been loaded. Distracted by the injury, I was not prepared. That’s the bad news. The good news was that the bird flew toward Killer, who I could not see. I yelled loudly that a flush was coming his way but received no response from him or his gun before the rooster landed between us, maybe 100 yards south of me.

I walked 10 yards, picked up a game trail and slowly followed it toward the pheasant. Once in the neighborhood, I whistled to Rexxie, who soon appeared, blowing past me with a noseful of excitement. It’s fun to watch.

“Killer?” I hollered.

“Yeah,” he growled from about 50 yards away, t’other side of the tall alder screen between us.

“Heads-up. The bird’s between us, and Rexxie just went in there.”

Seconds later, I heard the “cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck” of another rooster flush, followed by the deafening roar of Killer’s trusty old Remington.

“Didja get him?”


“Attaboy, Killer!”

Rexxie quickly retrieved the dead bird. I rejoined Killer and told him of my injury. He dropped the rooster into his gamebag and we embarked on our perilous journey back to my truck. Using our unloaded shotguns as expensive walking sticks, we carefully limped a quarter-mile out of that thorny, slimy hellhole fully aware that our season was over.

Finally, two weeks later, after limping around the house between icy then hot soakings, and avoiding medical establishments during the COVID scare, I found my way to the orthopedic surgeon for bad news. I had ruptured my Achilles tendon, which I can’t say surprised me. That’s what the telltale pop screams when it happens. The question was: How had I been able to walk away? Luck, I guess. Maybe even friendly swamp spirits.

So now, here I sit, confined to a walking boot and sentenced to a potentially long, tedious winter recovery. Have I experienced my final Fuller Swamp hunt? Maybe so, but don’t bet on it. I’ll likely return because I love it. So do Killer and Cooker, buddies who’ll come along for the ride, chasing wet, thorny cackles to Fuller Swamp Music that ain’t gospel.


Some Pheasants Win

The deck is stacked against our ring-necked pheasants these days, when hunting for them has, unfortunately, become strictly a put and take game.

The beautiful, pen-raised gamebirds arrive at selected coverts open to hunting – mostly state-owned Wildlife-Management Areas – crated four to a box in racks on the back of stocking trucks driven by MassWildlife personnel. These men and women follow weekly routes to release birds bought from private vendors into habitats that can support them. Few of them survive the six-week season. Those that do have little chance of seeing spring, even if they find their way to neighborhood birdfeeders bordering swamps, meadows and cropland.

The biggest problem pheasants face, other than shrinking habitats brought by development, is predators, which – with leghold trapping outlawed since 1996 and birds of prey under federal protection decades longer – have multiplied greatly since I was a South Deerfield boy. Back then, in the late 50s and early 60s, we had no coyotes or eagles and far fewer hawks, falcons, foxes, fishers and bobcats. I vividly recall spring pheasant broods feeding like barnyard fowl under our cherry tree fronting three tidy rows of peonies.

We looked forward to the annual visits of such adults and their broods before the field and wetland in the backyard became Frontier Regional School athletic fields and the agricultural fields to the south and west became South Deerfield Elementary School grounds, bordered on the south by cattail marsh and Bloody Brook. Of course, that was also before hens became fair game in the 1980s, before Route 5 & 10 was rerouted away from the center of town, and before Interstate 91 was built, cutting off a continuous mix of open farmland, fields, marsh, and woods extending uninterrupted to the base of the western hills. It was all great pheasant habitat that produced an annual crop of “native” birds.

The reason for the quotation marks around the word “native” is that, in fact, pheasants are not native to New England, or North America for that matter. The Asian gamebirds were instead “introduced” here in the late 19th century for hunters. Even the broods I remember were produced by holdover birds that had survived the hunting season and mated with protected surplus hens stocked annually by state-owned game farms to encourage “wild” brood production.

When pheasants came to Massachusetts during the Gilded Age, it was fashionable for men of status to hunt, own gundogs, hire trainers and game-keepers, and start and/or join trendy hunt and sporting clubs, where top-shelf bourbon and heroic sporting tales flowed freely over toasty fieldstone fireplaces.

Even that has changed dramatically today. Yes, there are still hunters and sportsmen’s clubs, but today hunting, and especially put-and-take hunting, is largely viewed as barbaric and immoral, not at all cool, especially in effete academic communities like our Happy Valley, once the state’s finest pheasant country. Development and 21st-century public perception has changed all that, not to mention the focus of outdoor writing.

Yeah, sure, hunting and fishing tales from the Field & Stream and Outdoor Life genre still sell in Alabama, Texas, and the Dakotas, but not here, and not in urban and suburban markets. The best outdoor writing these days is about nature and conservation and maybe even the hunter/gatherer cosmos of primitive man. Orion magazine is the gold standard, supplanting literary Gray’s Sporting Journal. What it peddles is relevant and sells, not blow-by-blow accounts of gunners and archers downing a big buck or bear, or wing-shooters executing impossible shots on cackling pheasants flushed and retrieved from wet, thorny cover by gundogs of aristocratic pedigree. Once public-square fodder, those tales are no longer suit the mainstream.

Something I learned many years ago, primarily from email interaction, itself relatively “new,” is that the reading public prefers tales about the one that got away through guile, instinct, or pure coincidence. Readers are not interested, more likely disgusted, by accounts of hunting kills, such as a big buck shot through the heart and lungs and quickly bled out by a lethal, state-of-the-art broadhead.


The story I am about to share fits this preferred mold. It’s about a cock pheasant that had over a few short weeks learned to survive hunters against stiff odds in the mixed wetland into which he was stocked. Far more likely to occur late in the season, this long-tailed rooster had learned to elude gundogs and hunters. It can happen.

Most of the pheasant-hunting pressure in the Valley has been intentionally redirected over the past 20 or 30 years from private land to the aforementioned Wildlife-Management Areas, places like Bennett Meadow and Pauchaug Brook in Northfield, Poland Brook in Conway, Montague Plains, and Leyden. Most of these coverts are stocked at least twice a week, with some getting a daily dose that draw overflow crowds – not my cup of tea.

The thorny, viny covert I most often hunt, a mix of alder swamp and overgrown dairy pasture and hayfield, is deeply stained with my family DNA. I have hunted it for nearly 50 years and know it top to bottom. Since the state bought it some 20 years ago – setting off a flurry of subsequent purchases bringing the total to nearly 500 acres today – the surrounding hayfields have grown in, doubling or maybe even tripling the prime pheasant habitat. So, yes, stocked birds have a chance and can offer challenging hunts in difficult cover that presents many screens and obstacles obstructing sight lines.

When young, I could pick my way through the deep, dense alder swamp along the southern perimeter. Today, that swamp is impenetrable due to ever-increasing beaver activity that brings pockets of deep water and thick, thorny undergrowth. For birds and beasts, however, this alder jungle that once lured many a migratory woodcock flock is a place of refuge, where they can escape from humans but not furry predators. That even goes for farm-raised pheasants that soon discover escape routes to and feeding zones within the safe haven. Once they’re acclimated to the habitat, the stocked birds flush into the swamp to escape hunters and fly in and out of it to feed on seeds, berries, and grasses. The longer they survive, learning to flee the sounds of human voices and whistles and dog bells, the better at escaping they become.

So, there we were, two of us, hunting over Sunrise Rex, a 15-month-old dynamo of a springer spaniel owned by a field-trialer friend who allows me to hunt the dog when he’s working. After my gundog, Chubby, died suddenly and tragically on the final day of the 2019 pheasant season, I figured I was in for a couple of lean years. Not so. As it turns out, I now had young Rex at my disposal and, miraculously, my fall routine didn’t seem to skip a beat. Incredible… unexpected

Young Rex was there, tagging along as a three-month-old pup on Chubby’s final few hunts last year, displaying great desire and athleticism. Now he has grown tall and lean to rapidly and admirably fill the void left by Chub-Chub, which is saying something. Replacing that veteran gundog, who, by the way, carried not an ounce of fat despite his name, was no mean feat. Chubby was essentially a flawless flush-and-retrieve gun dog with indomitable spirit, a superior nose, and extraordinary agility and stamina. He went through tough covers aggressively and effortlessly, never seeming to tire. Rexxie, a big, athletic dynamo, is cut from similar Sunrise Kennels cloth, and shows the same attributes, right down to impossible blind retrieves that can be quite shocking.

On this particular late-afternoon hunt, we had pounded about half the covert without a flush and it was beginning to feel like one of those rare outings without so much as a wild flush. Yeah, yeah, Rexxie lit up a few times and went into his telltale hops through high cover that often portends a loud flush. But he had flushed nothing in productive cover he knew well.

Then, from afar, I heard the familiar call of a cock pheasant emanating from the direction of the impenetrable alder swamp. Unable to pinpoint more than the general direction from which it came, I decided to give it a whirl and cut across high cover to get closer. There, I thought, Rexxie may get enticed into an enthusiastic search mission that’s always fun to watch.

But no, despite hunting aggressively and penetrating some 40 yards back into the swamp’s edge, the pheasant went silent and Rexxie flushed nothing. The bird must have heard us approaching and wisely shut up.

Oh well, time to circle back to the truck and call it a day. Who knew? Maybe we’d bump into a bird on the way out.

After walking maybe 50 yards in the direction of my buddy, I heard a flushing cackle from deep in the swamp that caught my attention. I turned to look and soon caught a cock pheasant angling away from us across the field toward my truck. Hmmmm? How about that?

I marked the landing near a young oak wearing its rust-colored leaves and told my buddy to circle into position before I worked Rex toward him. He did so, taking maybe five minutes to get into a familiar spot with many shooting lanes where he’d stood many times before. It helps to know a covert.

When I got to within 50 or 60 yards of my buddy, Rexxie hunting between us, the dog caught fresh scent, came to a screeching halt, changed direction, and went into what I call his high-RPM mode: red hot. He thought the wind-washed rooster was near, and it’s never wise to doubt him. He circled the same spot two or three times, hopping several times and widening the arc as he searched. Finally, he lit up on a path created by hunters and raced down it toward the back corner of the small alder patch we were hunting.

Uh-oh, I thought, a runner.

I quickly backtracked 35 yards to the northeast corner of the alders and took a stand in a familiar spot from which I could see out over dense cattails bordering the big, impenetrable alder swamp. I would have liked to position myself closer to the cattails about 40 yards south but didn’t think I had time. So, I got into position where many shooting lanes were available and rolled the dice. Rexxie’s animation told me that a flushing cackle was near. I liked my chances where I stood.

I soon heard the flush, shouldered my shotgun, and never had a freakin’ chance. The rooster flushed straightaway over the cattails and into the alder refuge. Maybe dumb luck, the bird took its only escape route. Neither of us had a shot.

The rooster had won the game. Acclimated to the covert and the sounds of pursuing hunters, he’d recognized danger, fled afoot, flushed and escaped to see another day.

“How many times do you think that bird’s been flushed?” I asked my buddy after reuniting and hunting back to the truck.

“Plenty,” he answered, “and we may yet flush him again.”

Very true.

To be honest, I don’t often give stocked pheasants much credit for intelligence. This was an exception. That rooster had outmaneuvered a great young gundog and two experienced wing-shooters who knew the escape routes and shooting lanes.

Within sight of my truck, I heard a distant squawk, turned, and noticed a red-tailed or sharp-shinned hawk perched high in an old, deeply furrowed poplar tree overlooking the impenetrable alder swamp to which our pheasant had escaped. That can be a problem. Both hawks prey on pheasants when the find them out in the open. So, even when they learn to human hunters, pheasants are never safe from furry and feathery predators.

Thus, the chances that the pheasant which escaped us will see spring is slim indeed. Like I said before: the cards are stacked against them in what has become strictly a put-and-take game.


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