“Progress is Not Painless”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on September 30, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The National Weather Service recently confirmed that the summer of 2010 was the hottest in state history due to the number of days a southwesterly airflow brought up warm air from the south. This should sound familiar to anyone traveling near the construction zones in the South End these past few weeks. While the temperature might be dropping now that summer is officially over, things are getting heated in the Construction Triangle between West Broad Street, Main Street, and Linden Avenue.

The improvements to the sewer lines in this area are critically important; after a storm, drivers in this area had to take an impromptu Boston Duck Tour without the amphibious car. Town officials are to be commended for getting this project underway. Unfortunately, progress is not painless. In this case, the Construction Triangle is the place where traffic goes to die. Trying to get to the West Broad I-95 entry ramp is like trying to steer a cruise ship through the Panama Canal. Traffic lights that serve as the locks orchestrate the painfully slow shuffle of cars as they line up for hundreds of yards around California Street and Broadbridge Avenue.

While negotiating the roundabout off Exit 32 has always been an adventure, it has now been reduced to a traffic meat grinder, forcing rush hour drivers to slow from 55 (well, in theory, anyway) to a full stop a mere forty yards from the line of cars trying to enter the traffic circle. Going north on West Broad from Main Street is an exercise in negotiation. Some try desperately to establish eye contact with the driver merging next to them. Others take advantage of open windows, shouting out a plea to be let in. Others play a more dangerous game, nudging their cars into traffic until there’s no choice but to let them in. This game is followed by a round of, “How quickly can I shut my car window so as not to hear them yelling behind me at the light?”

The worst part of this is the hit to the merchants whose businesses must ride out the construction. Some owners saw business decline as much as 75% at the Main Street restaurants inside the Triangle, mostly because people have assumed these places were closed during construction. Others think them inaccessible, and yet only the northbound lane is closed. There’s never been a better time to try these places out. The Cumberland Farms gas station at the corner of West Broad and Linden is its busiest in the state, yet the lot does not appear as full as drivers are routinely orphaned in its exit lane as they struggle to get back into traffic.

I’ve seen the best and worst of my neighbors as I navigate the Triangle. While some bang their steering wheels and scream at every perceived injustice inflicted upon them, many others demonstrate the small acts of compassion (letting someone into traffic as they leave the library parking lot or waving someone through who is stuck under a red light) that speak to the best of the citizens of Stratford. It looks like we have at least another month or two to deal with these projects, but I’ve noticed a subtle shift as I wade through it each day. We’re slowly finding our way as we adjust to life in the Construction Triangle; the drivers seem a little more patient, the waits a little less aggravating, as we anticipate the completion of this phase of the project.

At least, I hope so. 2011 will see several additional projects in this same area, including the installation of a left turning lane on West Broad, the California Street condo channel replacement, and the painting of the Broadbridge and West Broad railroad bridges (not to mention the bulk of the Barnum Avenue streetscape improvements). As Stratford continues to improve, we’ll have plenty of time to practice our citizenship.

“Wampum Doesn’t Grow On Trees”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on September 16, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

It was while riding atop a withered horse at a painfully slow trot through the cheering throngs packing either side of Main Street that I saw it. Leading my horse by the reins in the front of the Memorial Day Parade, dressed in full feathered headband and faux-leather Native American garb, was my dad: Big Bald Eagle.

And he was crying.

Not the flowing, girlish tears I’d cried earlier that day when I couldn’t find my 3rd Year White Feather for my headband. No, he cried the subtle tears of that lone 70’s commercial Indian on the side of the road after seeing a driver toss garbage out the window. Even in that pre-pubescent moment of drunken adulation, astride my trusty steed and waving to the frenzied crowd in my Native American splendor, this was a total shock.

This was not a man who shed tears.

Was it the culmination of centuries of pain inflicted on the once-proud Native American nation? Was it a swelling pride in the fact that his son had finally gotten a chance to ride one of the rented horses for our Indian Guide tribe in the parade? Could it have been the crushing irony of a third-generation Irishman and his son in face paint and feathers leading a parade that celebrated the military deaths of every American except the people we’d stolen the land from in the first place?

Turns out it was hay fever.

My dad was severely allergic to horses yet never said a word about it as I pleaded each year to be one of the riders in the parade. The slogan of the Indian Guides, a program for fathers and sons sponsored by the YMCA, is “Pals Forever.” My father more than lived up to that.

An operations manager for General Electric with a wife and seven kids to feed, time was a precious commodity. Still, we never missed our bi-monthly Tuesday night gatherings of the tribe, a group consisting of nine hyperactive sixth graders and their bone-weary dads. The meetings would begin with the Chief asking one of us to beat the Tribal Drum, once for each of the four directions of the earth and for each boy present. After the prayer to the Great Spirit, the Wampum Bearer collected the tribal dues from each brave. My dad, brilliant with money, was the logical choice for Wampum Bearer.

Wampum was the money we were supposed to earn through our chores for the week, a kind of kiddy tithing we offered up to the tribe. Like the real world outside the tribe, it was an imperfect system. Dave Crowe’s mom gave him five bucks allowance each week for doing nothing, while my dad parceled out my weekly twenty-five cents as if he were donating a kidney. As we placed our wampum in the Wampum Drum, we had to say how we earned it. Dave would mutter, “I took out the trash all week,” even though we all knew his younger brother did. When I got up, it sounded like a Red Cross disaster plan: “First, I repainted the bathroom radiators and put a new coat of varnish on the porch. Then, I cut up two cords of wood and stacked it under the deck for the winter. Next, I cleared the woods around our house of any fallen branches or dead trees. After that…”

My older brother, Golden Eagle, would usually interrupt. “But did you finish cleaning the woods, Little Bald Eagle?” he’d ask.

You always had to tell the truth around the Sacred Circle. “I apologize to the tribe for being boastful,” I’d reply, shooting daggers at Golden Eagle. The other braves would look awkwardly away, avoiding eye contact. There but for the grace of the Great Spirit go I…

Once I asked for a raise in my allowance. “Wampum doesn’t grow on trees,” my dad replied sagely. He gave me an extra nickel a week. He could easily have caved in (like the rest of the dads), but he was teaching me something.

Next, each brave would grab the Talking Stick and give his Scouting Report, our progress toward the next bead, bear claw, or Feather Class. After the old and new business (the Indian Guide Handbook says it all: “Keep all business short”), the centerpiece of each tribal meeting was arts and crafts. Some fathers went all out, spending hundreds of dollars on drum skins and balsam wood projects that would have put the Museum of Natural History to shame. One dad provided the makings for real tomahawks, and another proud papa provided each brave with a handcrafted totem pole to paint!

My dad showed us how to make a stick that, when rubbed, made a tiny propeller spin.

Not exactly head-turner, but it fulfilled his uniquely personal tribal craft code: it took a long time to make, required little setup (and even less cleanup), and had a flashy name. The “Gee-Haw Whimmydiddle Stick” was the staple craft every time the Walshes hosted the tribe. Craft time was followed by refreshment time, which consisted of screaming kids running around the caffeine-addled dads with Twinkies in their hands—just like real Indians!

I never knew he’d spent days researching how to build this Appalachian contraption in the days before the internet.

We’d close with a final prayer to the Great Spirit. I remember asking my dad why we prayed to Jesus on Sunday but to the Native American god on Tuesdays. “In your mind, just change Great Spirit to Jesus,” he replied. Wow, I thought—if only those early Native Americans had known! This really could have saved them some trouble.

It’s only now that I appreciate how much he did for us in our time in the Indian Guides. He showed his family what true sacrifice and commitment meant, refusing to miss meetings despite his exhaustion after long hours at work. He made his children a priority, even when it meant dressing in costume and face paint with a string of bear claws around his neck. He stood by me even as he sneezed and coughed his way down two excruciating miles on the Memorial Day Parade route. He never complained, because that’s what big braves do for little braves. He did it my whole life.

I still have my headband. I still know the words to the “Pals Forever” camp song. As I think back on that day, it’s my turn to shed some tears. My dad, Big Bald Eagle, is my pal forever.