Viewed from the outside, and in many ways from the inside, too, my early childhood was idyllic. The oldest of six children in a Roman Catholic family I was born and raised in the quaint and picturesque Village of Shelburne Falls. Our home at 9 South Maple Street had a big backyard with a hill for sledding in the winter, and a flat hilltop for a large garden in the summer. Behind the garden and up the slope, passed the historic Mohawk Trail over which the French-allied Mohawk Indians had transported British captives to New France (now Canada) in the mid-1700s. Across the highway, the slope continued rising till it reached the summit of Mount Massaemett and its old stone fire tower atop a ridge of granite ledges, reached by a hiking trail I used frequently as a boy.
Across the Mohawk Trail’s two lanes and off to the south was a short street where my best friend Tommy lived. Our homes weren’t visible from each other, but they were close enough that we could signal our availability to play by giving a Tarzan yell. We both got pretty good at that, and later in adult life I won a “Tarzan Yelling Contest” at my wife’s company picnic – one of my most satisfying life achievements 🙂 . And still later when I section hiked about 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail over a seven year span starting in 2011, my “trail name” was Tarzan.
Shelburne Falls was small, peaceful and secure. We walked to elementary school and back every day, and when I was a little older I had a paper route delivering the Greenfield Recorder all over town. Several of my stops were in the center of the village, just a quarter mile from my house, including the Rexall Pharmacy, with a soda fountain right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. And the Pratt Memorial Public Library – my very favorite place – where I spent countless hours perusing the collection, typically going home each week with six or eight books. I read more books than any other child I knew, and won the summer reading contest, hands-down, two years running.
The library had a narrow stone ledge about six feet off the ground that ran about 2/3rds of the way around the building, and (when it was closed and none of the adults were around) it was a test of courage and agility to walk the whole length.
A few blocks away, down behind Main Street, the “falls” – known in Indian days as Salmon Falls, were a small but spectacular set waterfalls cascading over and slowly shaping the largest collection of glacial potholes in North America. The biggest was a cauldron-shaped swimming hole maybe thirty feet across and fifteen feet deep that you could jump into from a ledge, but the entire riverbed there was one giant, contorted slab of granite, carved and pocketed like swiss cheese. I spent countless hours there. One of my fondest memories was going down to “the potholes” after an unusually massive rainstorm to see the swollen river flooding over the falls and hitting the “cauldron” pothole, creating a geyser-like vertical plume of water at least fifty feet in the air.
A hundred yards upriver, a steel bridge connects Shelburne Falls with Buckland, and parallel to that is the old trolley bridge, converted in 1929 into the “Bridge of Flowers” a beautifully tended and world famous garden.
I was blessed, growing up, that our big house was divided in two, and my Nana and Gramps (and my two aunts – my Mom’s parents and sisters) lived in the other half. Gramps was a minor league baseball player and worked in his day job as a machinist. Nana was very active at Trinity Episcopal Church, and recruited me to work in their food concession booth at the Franklin County Fair every fall. My first stop every day after elementary school was to see Nana, who always had a snack waiting. And I’d play with “Tammy,” my Aunt Sue’s spider monkey who live in a cage in their kitchen and loved to eat grapes.
As the oldest boy, followed in age by three younger sisters, I had my own bedroom, right at the corner of the house on the second floor, overlooking Maple Street on the front and a mature maple tree on the south side of the house. There was a huge two-trunked fir tree at the corner of the front yard and an old baseball bat someone had left in the crotch of the tree, which had grown around it, so the handle of the bat protruded like the Sword in the Stone of Arthurian legend. On the other corner of the yard, another huge fir tree featured a waist-high gash facing the street and an old license plate was embedded in the wood from an old car-crash.
One weekend my Dad planted a row of Maple saplings across the entire front of the lawn. Those trees which were about an inch in diameter then, are now about a foot wide.
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