Stagger Lee and Dicky Cee

By Bruce Mastracchio

We came of age in the 1950s. Most of our crowd were either 13 or 14 when a dark-haired, swivel-hipped, guitar-playing young man from Tupelo, Mississippi, came before us in all his gyrating, soul-singing glory. Elvis had arrived just in the nick of time. For music, and for us.

A movie came out called Rock Around the Clock, with Bill Haley and the Comets.

Rock n’ roll was born. It was revolutionary and exciting, but disgusting to adults. We were there for its birth. For us, it was a wonderful time.

The girls got into it first. My two sisters, Karen and Gail, and their two “sisters” Elaine and Linda, were the best at the new dance steps and, as they used to practice at our house, I was often brought in as a “partner.”

It was thus I started to learn the intricate steps of the new rock n’ roll dance, the jitterbug.

I actually practiced a lot, with a broom, and basically became the first boy in our crowd to do the fancy steps and moves of this new dance craze that was sweeping the country.

Father Joe, with help from some of the parish men, had already built a teen center in place at a renovated horse barn just behind the old Our Lady of Mercy Church on Main Street. It had a big, shiny, new dance floor and a jukebox. We were in like Flynn! We would get the jukebox going and practice our moves all over the floor.

Soon, Benny, Joey, Vinny and the other guys were coming to our sessions and learning how to dance the new dances.

Besides the jitterbug, we soon had the Stroll, the Mashed Potato, the Pony and the Twist added to our repertoire.

We also found it was a good way to pick up girls. Guys who could dance were in demand. They were also in short supply, so they had their pick of the “chicks.”

Not long after that there came a show on television that would change our teenage lives forever. A young disc jockey by the name of Dick Clark started a show in Philadelphia called American Bandstand.

Shortly after we would know it on a more intimate basis, and for a lot of teens, especially the girls, it would become a daily religious experience. For some of us, we would meet it up close and personal. We would never be the same again.

The night was clear
And the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down
I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin’ at the two men who were gamblin’
In the dark
It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven
Billy swore that he threw eight

I will remember that song forever. Good old Stagger Lee set up another life-changing experience for me. Here is why.

A couple of years after we had started in with that new rock n’ roll dance craze, Father Joe decided to have a money-raising dance for the CYO at the fairly new Our Lady of Mercy School auditorium. He also announced that he would hold some dance contests, and that the winners would get a week in Philadelphia and appear on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand television show.

It was exciting just thinking about it.

I could see no way that my sister Karen wouldn’t win. She was paired up with Joey M., Linda paired up with Benny, and Elaine was my partner.

The song we got to dance to was “Stagger Lee,” sung by Lloyd Price. Elaine and I had practiced a routine that we could do with our eyes closed. Fifty years later, we could still do that dance. We wowed the judges that night, and at the end, Karen and Joe, Linda and Benny, and Elaine and I had all won our way for the trip to American Bandstand!

The trip came the next spring. We all piled into Father Joe’s station wagon for the trip to Philly.

It was exciting. We got there on a weekend and did the obligatory sightseeing. We saw the Liberty Bell, crack and all; Freedom Hall; a statue of Ben Franklin; the Main Line, and a host of other sights. There was no Rocky statue back then, so naturally we didn’t see that.

Monday morning came fast. We got down to the studio and there were three lines of kids already in place. One was for guests to the show, like us. One for kids who were just trying to get in for that day, and one for the “regulars,” the semi-stars of the show who were there day in and day out and who had become national celebrities in their own right.

As we looked over, though, we were startled by an unbelievable sight. The “regulars” were putting on lipstick and powder! Not just the girls, but the boys, also! We boys were shocked! We had never seen such a thing. Though we later learned that the makeup made them look better for the TV cameras, it made little difference. It would color our perception of American Bandstand forever.

We also found out you didn’t need all that makeup to stand out.

We were representing the Our Lady of Mercy CYO and we were scheduled to give Dick Clark an award right there on national television! Imagine that. Regular kids from little old EG, the greatest little town in the center of the greatest little state, in the greatest country in the world, right up there on the national stage for the whole country to see! It was going to be “outstanding” as they used to say in the Corps.

But, we hadn’t counted on Elaine – forever to be known as the infatuated swooner and traitor – but I rush myself.

We had watched American Bandstand religiously, especially the girls. The guys didn’t watch it as much because it came on in the afternoon when we were at practice. But, we did get to see it occasionally, and we were impressed.

However, once we entered this American shrine, things were not what they had seemed.

Basketball bleachers were on the left. The dance floor, which looked huge on TV, was quite small. The records, on the wall, behind Dick Clark’s podium, had writing and scratches on them. There were three cameras to the right side by side with a red line in front of them. On the fourth side was a curtain.

On top of that, the Philly kids were not friendly and, once the music started, there was an all-out rush to get in front of the cameras. Pushing, shoving, kicking were all part of it. We guys almost got into a couple of fights and Benny was even trying to get a rumble started with some of the regulars after the show. Unreal!

But, there is a sidebar to this story. My mother, God rest her soul, wanted to see her kids on TV. She worked in Providence as a telephone operator. Somehow, she got her boss to let her off a bit early so she could see her kids on national TV, but the only place with a TV was a nearby bar. My mother didn’t smoke or drink.

So here she goes. A 47-year-old woman, into a bar. She orders a soda and sweetly asks the bartender if he would put American Bandstand on the TV so she could watch her kids dancing up a storm in front of a national audience.

She repeated that action all week.

She later told us that we could be seen no matter where we were because we were taller than most of the kids on the show. We didn’t know that as we kicked and clawed to get ourselves seen by America.

Now back to the “swooner.” On the third day we were scheduled to present our CYO Award to Dick Clark. We got to the lines with the plaque and were excited for a lot of reasons. It was Elaine’s birthday, so besides getting the spotlight as we presented Dick Clark with our award, Elaine and I would be in the “Spotlight Dance.” Just she and her partner, alone on the stage in front of the whole world.

Guess who her partner was? Me! I was excited!

But as someone once said, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

“The best laid plans of mice and men, do oft go astray.” Either way, I didn’t know it, but I was doomed.

Elaine was so overcome with excitement and emotion that she passed out in the line. They had to call the rescue squad and cart her off to the hospital.

In the excitement, the plaque was put down as we tended to Elaine. In the confusion, it got lost.

The remaining five of us entered the show, but, besides concern, we were also uncertain as to what was going to happen. We did manage to get word to Dick Clark about Elaine and the plaque. Then we settled down to have as good a time as possible, under the circumstances.

Lo and behold, midway through the show, Elaine returned from the hospital. She had just been overcome by excitement, was calmed down and was fine.

Then Dick Clark announced that he had received a plaque from a CYO group in Rhode Island and he held up “our” plaque and thanked the group that had brought it.

Apparently, one of the AB crew had picked the plaque up outside and brought it to Mr. Clark. The cameras were supposed to have panned us, seeing as we didn’t get “our moment in the sun,” but apparently they missed us on the pan.

Then Dick announced that one of the Rhode Island group had a birthday and he called Elaine down. He gave her a brief interview and then asked her who she would like to dance with in the “Birthday Spotlight.” I was starting to make my way down to the floor when she said, “I want to dance with Dennis.”

I was stunned! We had worked so hard to be here. It was going to be our moment to shine in the national spotlight – two kids from EG – and she picked one of the “regulars,” her secret heartthrob, one of those rouge-wearing, lip-stick smacking, midget dweebs from the show! We were all stunned.

The music started and she got her spot on national TV. She and Dennis. I will never forgive her for that.

But, like all things, this too passed. All in all we had a good time. I think it was the first time any of us had ever stayed in a hotel. Though the AB studio was a bit of a letdown, it taught us a lesson that things are not always what they seem. Dick Clark was, though. He was every bit as advertised, witty and funny with personal charisma. We thought he would go far and he did, though he fell victim to his stardom and had a facelift that didn’t fit.

I learned a lot on that trip. It was a good time and a good learning experience. Though I knew that I would always remember that trip, once I got back to EG, I never watched American Bandstand again. Not once. Not ever.

Of course, life goes on. I am older and right now can barely walk, nevermind dance. If I can’t get back to it, it will be something I will miss. Music and dance have always been a big part of my life. Music is my life, not my livelihood, and sometimes I have to dance to keep from crying.

But, as I always have, I will adjust, like I always have – no matter what – and the tunes will continue to reverberate through my head.

Stagger Lee told Billy, “I can’t let you go with that. You have won all my money and my brand new Stetson hat.”

Stagger Lee went home, and he got his .44 …

He said, “I am going to the barroom just to pay that debt I owe.”

Go Stagger Lee!

“Stagger Lee,” said Billy, “Oh, please don’t take my life. I’ve got three hungry children and a very sickly wife.”

Stagger Lee shot Billy, oh he shot that poor boy so hard, ‘til the bullet went through Billy and it broke the bartender’s glass.

And now I dance into the sunset, with love. Hope you enjoyed this story. As I typed it out I had Channel 924 on the TV, the Solid Gold Oldies channel.

The tunes were all there while I typed to keep from crying. And the last song they played was “Stagger Lee.”


Bruce Mastracchio weaves experiences of his youth into gold and EG News is privileged to run his pieces on an occasional basis. If you like what you read, search Bruce’s name using the magnifying glass search icon in the top right corner of the website. You will find plenty of amazing tales from “the greatest little town in the center of the greatest little state, in the greatest country in the world.”

Springtime and Baseball!

A few ballplayers from the OLM team, circa 1954.

By Bruce Mastracchio

A big part of growing up in old East Greenwich – we played baseball a lot. Not as much as we played basketball, which we played year round, but a lot more than football, which we reserved for the fall (except for Muckleball).

As soon as Spring sprung we were outside for baseball. We played regular baseball. We played special games like stickball, streetball, stoop ball, hit the bat, rotation and relievio.

We made our own balls of paper and tape and played in small, backyard ‘parks’ where a 90 foot “smash” could be a home run. Some of us played it in garages, where hitting a hung up garbage can cover was a double and our bats were broomsticks and axe handles.

The main point is that we played. Each neighborhood had its team, and, thanks to Butch, who was a real organizer, we formed the Dedford League.

This trip down The Lane is dedicated to those teams, both “Above and Below the Hill,” the ScallopTown Raiders, Marlborough Street Marauders, South Marlborough Crusaders, Dedford Street Lions, Rector Street Jack Rabbits and the Hamilton Rip Shirts. And, of course, to Butch (Raymond ” Butch ” Moffitt), for all his work.


I can’t remember a day of my youth when I was not involved in some game, either with other like-minded guys, or working on skills against the barn behind my home. After school, on weekends, on vacations. If you drove around EG back then you’d see a bunch of kids on at least one, and maybe all, of the fields in town engaged in some form of athletic activity.

The author tags out an opponent.

NO adults. NO real organization. It was the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. Little League did not reach us until 1953.

Without adults it was a heck of a lot of fun. One neighborhood would challenge another, set up a date, time and place, and the game was on.

ScallopTown played their games on a cinder field next to the lumber yard. It is a site for boat storage now, right across from the EG Yacht Club. Dedford Street used the Quaker Lot, which now serves a parking lot for the EG School Department. The Rip Shirts used Proulx Field on Route 2 (complete with cow flop bases). Marlborough Street used Eldredge, The Crusaders used OLM Field and the Jack Rabbits used Academy Field.

Though it was loose knit, we took our games seriously. Then Butch came on the scene. Slightly older than the rest of us, he captained the Dedford Street bunch to which I belonged. We were a Spanky and Our Gang conglomeration, which did a lot of Spanky-type activities together.

Author Bruce Mastracchio’s Little League picture at age 12, when he played for the Volunteers, sponsored by the EG Fire District.

Butch, with his myriad of ideas, brought some order to the loose-knit league. He was sought of the precursor to Little League. He had us get matching sweatshirts, which with the use of markers, crayons and paint, were transformed into Dedford Street Lion uniforms.

He drew up schedules and made cardboard scoreboards. He kept statistics. He arranged games with other neighborhoods. He coached and assigned us to our positions. He kept league standings.

Butch was a manager, promoter, statistician and player all rolled into one.

I suppose, if they had let him, he would have reported our scores to the newspaper. He may have even tried that, but, of course, they were really not interested in our kid games. (Funny though, a few years later, our Little League games were well covered complete with 8×10 glossy pictures pasted up in store windows in town).

It was a Charlie Brown existence before that bald-head ever set foot on the scene. We even had girls on our teams, in baseball anyway. I guess, you could say, we got a jump on women’s lib.

For our Dedford Lions, home park was The Quaker Lot. Left field had a wire fence and was quite a poke, maybe 370 feet or more. Right field was bounded by a stone wall, and was a short stroke of 180 feet or so, which prompted many of us, and our opponents, to bat left-handed so that we might launch one “outta there”!

We played game after game, and, if we weren’t going against another team, we split up and played against ourselves. If we didn’t have enough players we would play Rotation or Rollo or Hit the Bat.

There was nothing we wouldn’t try and in those lazy, hazy times the days were long and our lives seemed like they were going to last forever (I constantly use the saying, which I coined of, “28 hour days and 8 day weeks”).

If we only knew!

As the Whittakers once said, “Nostalgia is like an anesthetic; you experience NO pain, only a beautiful haze. When you grow older, what matters is not the way it was, BUT the way you remember it ! “

Another great tag out.

Remember, old friend, our kid games? How we whiled away the hours with World Series baseball, in your garage on Duke Street? The can cover was a double, and you were always the hated Yankees, while I, the Red Sox, who played from 1920 to 1958, all on the same team.

The pitcher had to duck behind a plywood screen, or lose his head when Mantle or Williams “tagged” one for a homer.

OUR Louisville Slugger was an axe handle pilfered from a father’s work truck, and we played by the hour, never really settling which team was best, though we were always sure which one really was, deep in the tabernacles of our soul.

Remember how people passing by would laugh at us in our bliss, or, maybe even smile, but have their memories jogged back to other years, another time, when they were us!

Writer’s Note: There you have it. Another tale from “Old EG,” the place of those 28 hour days and 8 day weeks! How we wish we could have them back. Please, pretty please. I would not trade one of those days for 10 days of the present or ALL the tea in China (can you even say that now?).

So to all of you out there who experienced, or know, or understand. May God bless you all and may you have your dreams. With all the love I can muster and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (you have to read the book).

(Photographs courtesy of the author.)

 

Our Father Who Art In EG

The original Our Lady of Mercy church was on Main Street.

By Bruce Mastracchio

Growing up Catholic is quite an experience at any rate. I make fun of my Episcopal friends and friends of other religious persuasions, along with my Catholic experiences, but, when you really study it, growing up on the knee of Mother Church is an experience beyond experiences. If she gets you before age seven, she has you for life. Even if you quit going to Mass it seems that something from those Catechism days pops up in your life again and again.

Most Catholics who have varying opinions of this experience, do, though, have one thing in common. They usually hold a mental picture, or a real one, of their favorite priest. Usually it is someone like Bing Crosby in “Going My Way” or Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town.”

Recently, though, the Church and its priests have come under attack and the memories of current day Catholics and some from parishes with a darker side in their past, may not be so good. They should have let priests marry and that would have gone part way to solving some of the problems. That subject gave root to one of my greatest lines and will be revisited later in this piece.

We were lucky in East Greenwich in those mockingbird years of the mid-fifties. We had Father Joe and The Barn!

Neither will ever be forgotten, even though they are now gone from our midst, but not our minds or memories. They will always have an apartment there to be visited from time to time. The visits will always be good.

This column is dedicated to The Barn Gang: To Lu and Flute, Deacon and Bubba Joe, Big Hop & Lil’ Hop, Young Gun and Bird and especially to Karen & Gail, Linda, Elaine, Claire and Sandy, so that they may never forget. . . . 

Father Joe came on the scene in 1955. He was your not so typical, typical Irish-Catholic priest, stepping in at over 6 feet and 260 lbs. He was imposing, to say the least, and had an impact immediately, if not sooner. He got our attention and he got it fast. He also gave us memories. Memories that still last.

There are all kinds of priests. In those days, it seemed, most of them were content to do their jobs. Some were overly religious. Some were more like regular guys. Some were teetotalers. Some liked their booze, uh, holy wine. And some were bean counters. Most stuck to the dogma of our religion, and those bothered me the most. They would stick by the book. Even when the book was wrong.

In general, they were all looked at as stern, unbending, and not really in touch with the people. Especially, the pastors.

When Father Joe came on the scene all that changed. He touched our lives, and us, in more ways then one. But, NO, not THAT one!

He was a People’s Priest, the likes of which we have not seen since.

The Mass became his particular vehicle. We had never seen a priest stop in the middle of the mystical Latin service and threaten parishioners who were trying to leave Mass early so they could get a head start on the coffee and donuts down at the local cafe, or get early tee time at their country club.

He also left the pulpit and roamed the aisles giving us the gospel, or what for, or whatever, or whatever was needed. A little of that old, good-time, roll up your sleeves religion.

He seemed to be everywhere. He showed up at people’s houses to visit the sick, or just visit, or maybe to sample some of Mom’s coffee and apple pie. He came to the ball games and even played softball in the local town league. He went to wakes and funerals and dinners. You might look up from reading a magazine at the local variety store, and he’s be standing there. He was everywhere. That magazine had better have been about sports or Norman Rockwell or else!

It was awesome as kids to watch him play softball, He played for OLM in the local league. To some of the parishioners, this was sacrilegious. But we kids loved it. We had never seen a Catholic priest play softball before, and this guy not only played, he knocked the stuffing out of the ball.

Ironically, many of his home runs landed across the street outside the ballpark and ended up in the Protestant cemetery. One time, in winning a bet from us kids, he  got down on his knees at the Little League Park and knocked balls over the flagpole.

Sort of ” praying home runs ” so to speak.

He was a hands on priest, even if that meant putting hands on Deacon and TabCat, who had the audacity (and stupidity) to get into a fistfight during the middle of our CYO meeting one Monday evening.

He rolled up his sleeves and gave us a practical look at religion. One we have never seen, before or since. Whether it was a physical lesson, like the one Deacon and TabCat got, or a practical one in the form of a lecture, or just an old fashioned talk, Father Joe usually got the job done and in a way that stuck in your mind, your soul or your body!

“Don’t get the Big Guy mad” sort of became our password.

Yet, we knew he cared. In more ways than one. Today, when priests go on vacation, be it normal or the “collars off” type, they usually go alone, with another priest or with family, or maybe someone else. When Father Joe went, he took us!

He had a farmhouse at his disposal in New Hampshire near Echo Lake. He would fill his station wagon with gas and food, and then with the altar boys, basketball team or the baseball team. Then off we’d go for a week of fun at a place that was like our own private camp.

As I said the farm was near Echo Lake, The Flume, The Tramway and the Old Man in the Mountain at Franconia Notch. We had a ball and those trips made an indelible impression on many a boy, most of whom had never been out of East Greenwich, never mind Rhode Island.

We had apple fights, milked cows, dared one another to touch the electric fence, swam in freezing cold lakes, met the tenants, who were Hungarian Freedom Fighters who had stared down and shot at the Russians, and at night rolled up in our blankets and sleeping bags filled with a day of adventure and happenings. We slept well and hard.

We lived more of this life that we had come to know and love. It was idyllic. It was fulfilling. It opened our eyes to other ways.

One time Father Joe took six of us down to Philadelphia to appear on American Bandstand with Dick Clark. We had won dance contests at the church-sponsored dance and the trip was our prize. It was his treat to us for winning. We saw things that, once again, were new to us. Guys putting on rouge and lipstick so they would look better on TV. How different the real thing was to what we saw on TV. Grafitti on the records you saw behind Dick Clark’s podium on the show. The smallness of the set.

But, we were up close and personal with Dick Clark. We danced our time away. We had a hell of a time, thanks to a heaven of a priest.

Still, the best thing Father Joe gave us, aside from the present of himself and his time, was The Barn!

It was just an old horse barn located behind OLM when that church was on Main Street. If it were here today it would be approximately where Back to Basics is.

Word had it that the local teenagers needed a place to go in East G. A place to occupy them and keep them off the streets.

Father Joe had an idea and he got John and Jerry and Joe and a bunch of the male parishioners to turn that idea into a reality. The men donated time, tools and physical effort and they made a priest’s vision come to life!

For us it was our own magical, mystical, mystery show.

What had once been an old horse and buggy barn got converted, just like water to wine, from a dusty, cluttered, unused edifice into The Barn, a monument in our memory

What had once been an old horse and buggy barn got converted, just like water to wine, from a dusty, cluttered, unused edifice into The Barn, a monument in our memory!

After the workmen were done with it (all volunteer labor), it held a dance floor with jukebox, a card playing area, a ping pong room, a pool room, a games room and a TV room. Outside there were two basketball courts, one full court and the other half court.

When Father Joe put his mind to it, he got ‘er done, as they say today. A lot of equipment was donated. After all, who could refuse a priest? Especially one, who stood 6 feet and 260 pounds. No one! Kind of like a religious Godfather, if you get my drift.

He made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. And, they didn’t!

He was not Bing Crosby (a dark figure in real life) or Spencer Tracy, or Barry Fitzgerald, but he was a lot more real. We never wailed that plaintive cry, especially the one I heard from my own kids that there was “nothing to do in East Greenwich. It’s so boring!”

We had a lot to do and a place to do it in! If the streets, the cove, the woods or the farm didn’t provide us with diversions, there was always The Barn!

Father Joe left EG in 1962. He, like others, eventually left the priesthood (their loss). He married and is living happily somewhere on the planet. As a priest he knew all the answers (as a marriage counselor). Now he is finding out the questions. He gave me cause to use two of my best, and in one case, prophetic lines:

He wanted me to be a priest. I answered, “Father, if they let priests marry, I’ll be a priest tomorrow.” (Uttered  in 1959.)

On asking me about marriage I told him: “Father, when you were 33 you knew all the answers. Now you don’t even know the questions.” Of course, he loved me for my wit and wisdom. He, and the church, should have listened.

The Barn burned down in 1961. One of the guys bunked school, snuck into the Barn and fell asleep in the TV lounge with a cigarette burning “tween his fingers.”

He survived. The Barn did not.

It was never rebuilt.

Now it only exists in those corners of our mind that are reserved for good memories, good times and good friends. Trips down shadowy mental hallways to those bright spots that bring us joy and pleasure.

Even that is better than never having it at all.

I do hope, good friends, that this tale has helped you to open that doorway that opens on that hallway, that leads to the corners of your mind when the times were good, as were your friends.

With Much Love and In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,

Bruce

This Was the Town That Made America Famous, Part 2

By Bruce Mastracchio

Adolph, one of the firefighters who got blown out of the Dunn house.

This is the second part of a two-part article about the East Greenwich Fire District back when it was a volunteer organization. You can find Part 1 here.

Another group of Charlie’s great photos were taken at a fire up on Kenyon Avenue near Division, where an explosion on the scene injured five firemen, including Fritz Johnson, an inductee into the EG Athletic Hall of Fame. It was a heat explosion. Gases built up inside the house and when the firefighter broke through the door the release of pressure blew all five men down the stairs of the Dunn House onto Kenyon Avenue. The only thing that saved them from being severely burned was the fact that they were wearing all their equipment and Scott air packs. They were burned in all unprotected areas and a couple spent some time in the hospital.

Remember, these men weren’t doing this for pay. They were all volunteers. They all felt it was their duty and that they were doing their community a service. That service could have cost them their lives.

Fritz laid out.

EG had a reputation as one of the most finely trained volunteer groups anywhere, and, under the direction of Chief Fred Miller (you can read about him here), they took pride in their ability to fight fires and answer any rescue call for help. They did it in a professional way and found satisfaction in the doing. Most, I guess, never gave a lot of consideration to the danger, or, if they did, they hid it well. The service opened up a window on a lot of pain and suffering but, outwardly at least, most firefighters appeared unaffected.

Of course, there were other perks, too, of being a volunteer. Most got a uniform and got to march in the local parades. Musters and Firemen’s Olympic-type competitions were fun get togethers where firefighting skills, competition and camaraderie were the bonding and binding things of young men. You also got to travel to places like Goffstown, N.H.; Newburyport, Mass.; and Marblehead and a lot of other small New England towns to compete in the musters and carnival.

It gave you a chance to compare, contrast and compete for bragging rights. At least for a year. Many times EGVFD was the best with their pumper and the big boys pumping could send that stream “a ways” down the paper.

This edition of Rems ( Reminiscences ) was dedicated to all those devoted men of my youth. To Chief Miller, one of the most selfless men I ever knew, and Don and Frank, George and Jim, Leigh and Bill. To Joe and Dick, Harry, Bob, Elmer and Lawson. To all those firefighters who made Station One such a special place to be.

And, mostly to my father, Gaeton, gone 61 years now, the best fire truck driver ever. Perhaps, this Rems will stir up the past a little for you all. The ghosts, the stories, the memories.

The Past … “and something’s burning somewhere. Does anybody care?”

Writer’s Note: I have some pictures that go with this story and some others that were in EG Magazine. You old Townies would be interested in them. If I can get ahold of some of Charlie Booth’s gory ones, I will send them along. As soon as I get my wife to reeducate me on using the scanner I will get them out to you. I am sure you will like them.

With as much love as I can muster for you all AND In the Spirit of Crazy Horse….

To read Part 1, click here.

Murder in a Small Town – The Dusza-Reynolds Story, Part 2

By Bruce Mastracchio

(Find the Part 1 of this story here.)

The Pawtuxet Valley Daily Times, Aug. 31,  headline screamed out:

REYNOLDS PLEADS GUILTY TO FIVE MURDER COUNTS!
CONFESSED SLAYER OF DUSZA FAMILY  AWAITING MENTAL TESTS AT CRANSTON PRISON !

Edwin Reynolds, 27, confessed slayer of a family of five (again no mention of unborn baby), today languished in a Providence County jail cell under special guard awaiting the arrival of alienists, who will conduct mental tests.

The emotionless father of three, whose estranged wife described him as a guy “who wouldn’t even kill a chicken,” pleaded guilty to five counts of murder.  He was arraigned before district court judge James W. Leighton, in the council chamber of the East Greenwich Town Hall (since razed for a parking lot) on Main Street.

He maintained an icy nonchalance as he stood charged with the slaying of his former friend, his friend’s wife and their three children.

The judge ordered a plea of innocent given as he held the rubber plant worker for a Grand Jury hearing Oct. 23. Reynolds confessed that he beat Dusza to death and then used a chair, axe, rope, silk stocking, necktie and his hands to take the lives of the rest of the family after he learned that Mrs. Dusza told her husband of the affair she was having with Reynolds.

Then, to cover up his crime, he saturated the home, where he was a boarder, with gasoline and turned it into a funeral pyre. HIs capture came when his collie dog led police to his hiding place in a Quonset hut.

His estranged wife, Betty Reynolds, 28, expressed a wish that he never “be turned loose on society again.” She wanted him dead to her children so they would never know the horrible thing their father did.

She said she would stick by her husband to a point  but it was also learned she was making plans to move out of East Greenwich to another community.

Still later:  DRAMA PACKED COURTROOM EPISODE LASTS 8  MINUTES !

While a curious, but restless crowd gathered around the entrance to the Town Hall (I was there just one week shy of my 8th birthday). As I said I remember my Grandmother Ucci being particularly agitated. My house was down the alley just the other side of the police shed behind the Town Hall. There was a door in one of the stalls that opened up on my backyard.  Reynolds stood there, flanked by two police officers, one local, one a state trooper and was brought in to be arraigned on five counts of murder.

In the drama packed courtroom the episode lasted 8 minutes with police and news reporters as witnesses as Judge Leighton read five warrants charging Reynolds with murder. Reynolds pleaded guilty to each count.

When the legal proceedings were complete, Judge Leighton left the courtroom, and cameramen were given time to take pictures of Reynolds standing at the rail flanked by the two police officers. He was still wearing the soiled white T-shirt and dungarees he had on when captured. He calmly leaned against the rail and stared as flashbulbs popped from all corners of the small room. He made no comment and kept the same dead-pan expression throughout the proceedings.

Before he was taken out, police went out and moved the agitated crowd back enough to give a wide path from the courthouse to the waiting cars. Waiting to take the mass murderer to prison to await trial. When Reynolds appeared the crowd shook fists and yelled at him. As he was put into the car the crowd broke and surged around the vehicles.  Some to get a peak, and some to scream their thoughts at the killer at least one more time.

Edwin Reynolds was given a life sentence  but just a year or so ago, he either died, or was released from prison.

He was 92 years old.

Writer’s note: Interesting things I learned from this story were:

1. The fact that the baby’s death was not noted as another person killed by Reynolds as today it would have been included and he would have been charged with 6 murders.

2. The newspapers back then were a third again wider than today’s paper.

3. Though the headlines were big and multiple this was not spread all over the front page.

4. The reporting was succinct, factual and not sensationalized.

5. I always thought it was Dooser and could never keep straight which was the murderer and which was the family.

Hope you enjoyed the trip back to August 1950.

 

 

Muckleball in the Mud

https://mmafootball.files.wordpress.comBy Bruce Mastracchio

Growing up in East Greenwich, as I have said numerous times, was a unique experience. Three separate and distinct areas of town: a shore and cove, a Main Street, and farmlands made it different from almost anything else I have encountered. I have been in all 50 states, and talked to a lot of people so I think I have some cred in saying so. The experiences could have been had by almost anybody, but not quite like those we experienced here.

As kids here just about every day was taken up with sports. On vacations we left the house at 7 in the morning and played and romped ‘til suppertime, then went back out again for more games or whatever adventure or plan popped up.

Most of us dreamed of playing for the Avengers, the Crimson & White of EGHS. We wouldn’t think of going elsewhere to play. Hometown born and hometown bred, most of us were. Not everyone, some still left town for the Catholic high schools, but even some of them came back.

Our training grounds were the fields and streets of EG. We played tackle football in the street, a good preparation for what was to come (another story for later).

Another earlier prep for football was a game called MuckleBall, which was indigenous (to the best of my knowledge) to Eldredge Elementary School.

A while back I introduced a version of this game to the kids in a private school where I worked. I gave them the history of it, and, of course, a little story. Not sure if they understood, but it will reach them down in the depths, eventually, just like it reaches everybody else.

So, today, in this version, I will talk about MuckleBall, and Eldredge, and the game and let you translate it anyway you want. To how you played your version or not, or whatever.

Remember, you only get to dance here for a short time, so always live in the present, and look to the future. But, don’t forget the past, especially the good times. You can learn a lot from the past, and the good memories always make me smile, especially when I am dancing my way across the mountains of the moon. It is good to smile. I have to smile, and dance, just to keep from crying.

Muckleball was a  game that was peculiar to Eldredge School and field. It was kind of like a “King of the Hill” football, and I’ve never seen or heard of it being played elsewhere, though I suppose it was. Of course, now, I have introduced it in a few other climes.

We had our own sandlot football teams. Later it was junior high school football (they wouldn’t let me play – too small), and then, of course, the ultimate for us town kids, who grew up living and dying with the legend and lore of this town.

The realization of our dream. Donning the Crimson and White and playing for the East Greenwich High School Avengers, E>G> or Grenitch as we called it.

But, muckleball was played before that. It was a training ground, so to speak, to see what you were made of. It was only played at Eldredge during our younger years and was played before school or at noontime  recess, which lasted an hour in those days. An hour really being an hour, not 45 or 50 minutes as they say today.

The rules were simple – one ball and 20 or 30 screaming kids. One kid gets the ball. Everyone else tries to muckle him. That translates to tackle him. Pulverize him. Crush him. Make him give up the ball. Once “muckled,” the ballcarrier had one or two choices. He could get up again and give it another try. Or, he could toss the ball to another victim, and give him a chance to get creamed.

For the ballcarrier the strategy was simple. If you were fast you turned on the jets and motored out of harm’s way. Of course, if you were fast enough to outrun everybody then your would hear cries of “chicken” in your ears and your only recourse would be to reverse course and run back at the pack of boys chasing you, who were just waiting to get a shot at you to knock the snot out of you.

Again if you were muckled you could get up again and keep the ball, or toss it to some other unfortunate. You could be tackled in a numerous number of ways. Some boys would hit you with a regular tackle with shoulder and arms around the waist or legs and drag you down.

Some might hit you with a “billy goat” bump to take you off your feet and others would just jump in the air and wrap you with a flying headlock to hurl you viciously to the ground.

Most  times if you were the victim of a single tackle, it wasn’t so bad. But, when a slew of boys hit you at once, it could hurt, and even result in injury. They would pig-pile you to the ground and the boys coming up behind would jump on the pile crushing those underneath.

The best players were usually the best athletes. Mick was among the best I ever saw, along with Pini and Fats. Of course, Mick was full grown in the sixth grade and he just crushed you when he ran into you. Fats was a crusher too, while Pini combined speed, quickness and toughness all in one, and could run away from you, around you, or through you, sometimes all at once. He was only 5’2” tall but started varsity in all three sports as a freshman and, not just played, but starred. Muckleball never got him. High school sports couldn’t stop him either. Grades did though. As big as Mick was he was hurt though most of his high school career. Fats never played. But others from that Muckleball Field went on to don the Crimson and do quite well.

I never saw Ducky play muckleball, but based on what I saw of him on the gridiron, I think he might have done all right. Muckleball was just a test along the road of life as you might say. One of the “rites of passage” for us EG kids. Most of us used it as a proving ground, and tough as it was it never hurt as much as tackle football on the asphalt street at Tar Ucci’s Memorial Stadium. We all wanted to prove we were tough enough to play for the Avengers. EG was the smallest school in the state, with only 90 boys at the time and, in my day,we went up against bigger schools like Cranston HS (not East), which came out with 107 players dressed to our 33. We tied them, but beat bigger schools like Woonsocket, Barrington, South Kingstown and North Kingstown, who were two and three times bigger than we were. We reveled in playing for our hometown team and as kids we couldn’t wait for that to happen.

It’s funny, I’ve been to a lot of places. Kids today don’t seem to have the same feeling for sports that we had. We knew the high school players and what they had accomplished. We knew the legends of the past, semi-pro too. We wanted to be in their shoes one day. They played the high school games at Eldredge Field, too, right where we played our muckleball games.

They walked over from the Academy and we walked with them. I used to collect all the player’s capes and pile them over me  like I was a manager, and thus, walk through the gates without having to pay.

We reveled in their season. Their ups and downs. The rivalries. We looked forward to the Columbus Day and Thanksgiving Day games. It took on special meaning when we got to high school and played North Kingstown, our bigger rival from right down the road.

We owned them, even though they were a bigger school, and have owned them over the years. Since 1958, I don’t think they’ve won more than 10 times. We just expected to win and then go home and enjoy our Thanksgiving Day dinner. We relished enjoying our turkey dinner and spoiling theirs.

There was no doubt about it. Sure, the games were tough, but we’d had our training in muckleball and street tackle, and what could be tougher than that? When you’ve taken on the world how could a few paltry Skippers from NK stop you. That’s how we felt. That’s why we won.

Since those muckleball games and high school games, many fields have known my sound.Thanksgiving has been spent in California, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts and Nevada (and now back in Rhode Island). But the time frames still bring back memories of Eldredge, the high school games and muckleball.

MuckleBall in the mud. In March. What could be better than that?

This story is dedicated to all of the “old gang.” To those who played muckleball, street tackle and ever donned the Crimson & White for old EG High, and put it on the line on those crisp, fall, Saturday afternoons, and especially, on Thanksgiving Day in November.

GOOOOOOOO, GRENITCH ” as Dave Baker’s Mother used to say.

Bonus:

Stand up and cheer     
Stand up and Cheer for
East Greenwich High School
For today
we may
Crimson & White
Above the rest          
Above the rest
Oh give a cheer
OUR BOYS
are fighting
For they are bound to win the fray
We’ve got
THE TEAM!     
RAH RAH
We’ve got  
THE STEAM!   
RAH RAH
For it’s East Greenwich High School’s Day!!!


Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and had the pleasure of growing up among these colorful characters and even knowing more than a few of them. They made life interesting.

All Those Wonderful Nicknames, Part 1

They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery. I guess that is so, as one time another local paper, that I once worked for, hired someone to do a column on Old E.G.

I saw that he was asking for help about the origin of my Uncle Tar Tar’s nickname, which is a part of East Greenwich lore, and that he wanted to know more about East Greenwich nicknames.

Seeing as, in the past, I had devoted at least a couple of articles to this topic, I decided to help out. So this edition, and two others to follow, will be dedicated to those storied nicknames of old East Greenwich.

As for Tar, there were two versions of how he got his nickname. One was that he liked to play in the freshly oiled and tarred streets down below the hill and regularly got himself covered in the sticky stuff, which my grandmother would have to wash off. The other was that when my grandmother would call him to come home her pronouncing of his given name, Anthony, sounded like Tartone, which morphed to Tar Tar. She was probably saying Antone or Antonio, but like other names throughout history, when the medegones get ahold of it, it becomes something altogether different.

A good example would be Indian names. One of my personal heroes was Crazy Horse, a war leader of the Oglala Lakota. He had a few nicknames growing up, one of which was Curly, as his hair was brownish instead of black and wavy instead of straight, unlike most of his fellow tribesmen.

After going on his vision quest he was given the name Tashunka Witko, which means His Horse Acts in a Strange and Mysterious (Mystical) Manner. Of course, the whites butchered that to Crazy Horse in their inimitable fashion.

But getting back to nicknames here in Old EG. They have always played a big part of life here and almost everyone had one. Some people had two or more.

I have lived here 72 years and there are some people I know only by their nicknames, not ever knowing their first and last names. If I knew their given name at one time, I have since forgotten it. Maybe I never knew it; no matter, I always addressed them by their nickname.

You may not have known the person’s first name or last name, but you always knew his nickname. Notice I said his because I can’t remember many girls who had nicknames, though there were a few.

Nicknames were common as far back as ancient Egypt. Some nicknames from back then included – Red, Tiny, Lazy, Ape, Frog, Donkey and Big Head.

In Middle English they were known as “eke” (pronounced eck, I believe) names, which means an “also name.” These later became known as “neckenames,” and finally nicknames. They were applied to royalty and commoners alike, and, in some cases, just like with me today, all that is recalled about some of these people from history is their nickname, whether it be Little John or Richard the Lion-Hearted.

The nickname eventually got a strong toehold in America, where it seemed that groups and subcultures were vying with one another to see who could come up wit the most colorful nicknames. These colorful names were the norm during the Civil War, especially for leaders like Honest Abe, Old Snapping Turtle, Fightin’ Joe, Stonewall and others, and they have followed us right down to the present day, in all walks of life from show business to sports.

East Greenwich takes a back seat to no one when it comes to nicknames, as you will see by the following.

Once again, I dedicate this column to George King, my go-to guy when it comes to nicknames. He has helped me in the past with all those great nicknames, and as you will see in the end, will reveal some of the real names behind the nicknames. Also, to all those people who held the colorful monikers we will be donating the next three columns to. They have helped build the lore of our colorful past here in little, old East Grenitch,” the smallest town, in the smallest state in the greatest (still is, I hope despite “W”) country on the face of the Earth!

Sooo, keep the nicknames straight and maybe some rainy day (or snowy) when I have nothing better to do – and probably with the help of  “The Irish Whip” – I will reveal the real names of the people who go with them. That is, if I ever knew the real name to begin with.

The following list is a shortened version of at least one or two others I have released in the past, but it will give you a good picture of the color and the characters we had here in good, old East G., back in the day.

From Yesterday and The Cove: Friday, Jumbo, Tiny, Fats, Chub, Cracker, White Rat, Jesus, Little Jesus, Peanuts, Churchill Downs, Pumpkin, Pop Eye, Lindy, Pardo, Piccolo Pete, The Professor, Short Uncle, Happy, Tunk, Bebe, Mr. Peepers, TarTar, Jimmy Neck Tie, Baltimore Sport, Rip, Doody, Bubba, Lolly, Lollipop,Chink.

Pini, Dutch, Kit, Chipmunk, Bugeye, Pep, Suck, Buster, Beanie, Skip, Jigger, Windy, Spongey, Hump, Swamper, Joe Hump the Stump, Tish Tash, Edooch, Tippy, Horse, Waller, Puddy, Moose, Lala, Shrimp, Slim, The Admiral, Klukie, Officer 8, Stogie, Squeaky, Tubby, Sly, Angles. Jump Spark, Stinky, Drop-the-Gun, Red, Bricky, Brute, Plum, Chisel, Port, Stooge, Scabby, Zeed, Pidgy, Pork.

Cinnamon Nick, Chainsaw, Dynamite, Hacky, Scaky, Mokey, Eagle Beak, Ding, Spider, Chink, Willie Woodchuck, Diz, Fart, Webby, Web, Scup, Hi, Touchy, Deek Oakland Beach Pete, Vet, 49, Cheetah, Maggot, Junk, Kingfish, Icehouse Dottie, Fleetie, Tarzan, Goodie, Aggie, Bo Peep, Willie LumpLump, Ferret, Old Timer, Hickey, Chocolate, Sleepy, Zebby, Grumpy, Torchy, Nemo, Spit, Nuppit, Twinny, Barney Google (GooGoo), Pal, Ebby, Gabby, Comrade, Snuffy, Cap, Guy, renchy, Gomer, Butch, Misty, Mickey, Plack, Legs, Cowboy, Tuffy, Junior, Mac, Duke, Walloper, Tiger, Buffalo Hoof.

From school days and other associations: Kreegah, Chinook, Chingachgook, Nyay Hook, Lalloats, Roval, Dacon, Bats, Batman, Ray Gun, Red Dog, Wild Red, Hawkman, Picks, Thumbs, Thumbuckyone, Benny, Elfego Baca, Strunge, Nero, Frapootie, Dipper, Scat, Onions, Wink, Young Gun, Bunky, Big Ducky, Greenie, Jug Head, Jacque, Bird, Mouse, Buzzy, Chopper, Hubby, Bake, Colnel, Little Dab’ll, Ace, Big Ace Button , Chicken Breast, Mick, Oh Man! Tizzy, Fuzzy, Stash.

Fun-A-Head, Magic Wand, Cinnamon Roll, Junie, Stash, Animal, Mad Dog, Koona Bell,  Jelly Belly, Lefty, Cricket, Parakeet, Mo, Bull, Farmer, Thumby, Nyook, Peck, Swede, Nuke, Carce, Kenna, Pop, Corker, Tunka, Brizzi, Jasper, Jay, Scoop, Stormy, Teddy Bear, Bear, Buffalo, Rooster, Dare, Greek, Bale-A-Hay, Gyppy, Hip Boots, Yack Yack, Butch, Buddy, Jumper, Pinky, Gunner, Lil Dab, Goose, Two Ton, Watty, Lord, Letta Len, Skidsy, Snooky, Sport, Wax It.

Our teachers: Roofus, Archie, Iron, B-Button That Shirt! Zit, Chips, Halitosis, Kerosene, Sleepy, Cha Choom, Miss Prim, Prunilla, Bucky Beaver, Mawde, Ncaa, Garlic, Twinkle Toes, Fluff, Midget, Lump Jaw, Black & Decker, Millie, Big Norm, Muscles, Fast Looie, Sweet Willie, Redge the Ledge, Stump, Jumper Sarfe, DooDoo, Meatball, Domina, Human Jock, Killer, Coke Bottle Eyes, Glass Butt, Officer Krumpke, The Warden.

On a personal note from the home front: “E”, The Warden ( Queen ) of Misery Manor, ookie, BJ, Beege, Beej, Rooch, Tarooch, Petunia, Matilda, Maroo, Calves, Woodstock, Tigger, Chambers and The Boss.

On a more personal note: Cousin Brookside, Brookside, Brook, Brooky, Brooker, Brooks, Hawk, Red Hawk, Hawkman, Snapper, Mustang, Mustache, Strash, Stang, Stanger, Stinger, Pistachio, Eagle Claw, Juice, BruBru, BroBru, BruBro, The Brooker, Cuzzone, CuzzBru,BruCuzz, Cetan Cinye’, Gekek Niijikiwe (Native American meaning Brother of the Hawk ), Bruce Almighty (from the movie), and lately the sweetest – “GraMpa M.”

Recent entry to my circle – JDW25, Stinger, Wheels, Wheeler Dealer, Jay, JayDee, Giovanni Fragilia Delicato, Stiner Stang, JDDW, Double D.

So there you have it for now. This piece will be followed by two more. One more expansive in the nicknames and the last one giving some of the real names of the characters mentioned here above.

Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and had the pleasure of growing up among these colorful characters and even knowing more than a few of them. They made life interesting.

Queen of the Sweetheart Dance

www.myvlink.orgPrejudice is a funny thing. We are all prejudiced in our own way. Some of us like chocolate ice cream. Some like vanilla. Me? Well, I like frozen pudding and pistachio flavored ice cream. But, then again, I always was different.

Growing up here, in the smallest town, in the smallest state, in the greatest  country in the world, third rock from the sun, I was exposed to a lot of ethnicity.

Not diversity, which I didn’t encounter until I traveled out West,but ethnicity. A small world granted, but a world still of Italians, Irish, French, Germans. Polish, Swedish, Jewish, African-Americans, WASPs and the like.

East Greenwich was a true melting pot and I don’t think I ever encountered real prejudice until I got to college.

I was also lucky to have a friend who was wise beyond his years and who was a beacon of tolerance. His ideas were way ahead of not only his peers, but the town as a whole, including a lot of adults.

His nickname was Picks. He was the son of the Episcopalian pastor in town and he was the model for who you might want your child to be. He was gifted in every area, be it athletics, academics, art, music, the whole kit and kaboodle.

Of course, we did not always look at him as “perfect” like our parents did, as he had a devilish side to him, and a bit of rebelliousness too.

But, we did appreciate the things he brought into our lives.

He introduced us to the Cape (Provincetown, in particular), a quiet reflection on things, the mysteries of the hooded monk, and books we never would have thought to read on our own.

He was kind of a crew-cut hippie. A boy ahead of his time. He practiced acceptance and tolerance, and love your neighbor, and freedom of thought and action, way before they ever became the buzzwords of the day.

Girls were on his mind constantly, and even though he was the son of the pastor of St.Luke’s, he had a different outlook on religion and death and dying. He died too young himself, before I ever really thanked him for all the gifts he gave to me.

With Picks, there was always more than one way to skin a cat, and he explored all of them in just about everything he did.

So, I dedicate this particular story to Gyppy, the last Earth Mother of their clan, and also to Bertha C., Ella M., Strunge, Bubba Jay, and to Ruthie, my first date, and to anyone who can remember going to a Sweetheart Dance at Eldredge, or even at the Swift Gym.

February, Valentine’s month. Usually a cold, wet, muddy month replete with more than enough storms for Rhode Islanders. It is a month for a lot of indoor activity. As students at Eldredge, we could stay in for the hour-long noon recess period and watch movies and cartoons that Mr. Cole (principal-superintendent) used to get to while away that hour on a cold, dreary winter day. Or, on other days we participated in indoor, low-org games like dodgeball, basketball and such. Eldredge was a grade 1-7 school. The high school held grades 8-12. From grades 1-4, maybe even grade 5, boys did not give much thought to girls. But, all that soon changed in grades 6 and 7.

From kindergarten up, you observed the older kids from the relative safety of the upper playground as they cavorted on the big field below. Not only did you hope to one day access that turf, but as you advanced grade by grade, you began to notice a difference in the sexes.

Dances were acceptable forms of recreation once you reached the sixth grade.

You went from harassing girls to eating lunch with them, and maybe, if you were lucky, walking your favorite, hand in hand, home from school.

In the seventh grade, dances were not only acceptable, but also much anticipated – a case of emerging hormonal buildup I guess, and the school obliged with events like the Welcome Dance, the Harvest Dance, the Christmas Ball, and in February, the Sweetheart Dance.

I don’t know why Picks decided, in our seventh grade year, to go stag to the Sweetheart Dance, but he did. He had his reasons, I guess.

I had a girlfriend (if that’s what you call a seventh grade crush) and had taken her to a couple of dances already, but Picks wanted to go stag, so go stag we did, me not being the fearless, take charge guy that I am today.

When we got to the dance we found almost everyone else paired up. However, we were determined that was not going to stop us, or slow us down a bit. We just jumped in with both feet and went about having ourselves a good time. Besides, you don’t have to have a date to fill up on cookies and punch, and I was definitely top notch in that department.

Not long into the evening Picks noticed that no one was dancing with Lillian Johnson, who had also come stag. He mentioned it to me and said he was going to ask her to dance. After he danced with her, he asked me to dance with her. I was a little reluctant, but agreed to do it.

We danced with Lillian. We danced with other girls. We danced in the group dances. We went back and danced with Lillian. We all had a great time, and, because of Picks’ unselfishness, Lillian had a great time too.

Oh, we spread ourselves around! But, we made sure that not too many dances went by before we included Lillian again. We did the Hokey Pokey, the North-South-East-West, the Bunny Hop, the Box and a few others.

In short, we had a good time and we were more than a little disappointed when the witching hour of 10 p.m. came. Still, we had a great night and went home full of ourselves and happy.

The next day my mother received several phone calls. Picks’ father did too.

Remember, it was the early ‘50s, and even though we were up north, it did not mean that everyone clung to the same ideas of what was considered right and proper. We had our rednecks too, even if some of them were blue bloods.

People called to tell my mother. Or, tell her off. The Reverend Pickells got the same. My mother said nothing to me at the time, but Picks told me later what it was all about.

You see, though we as kids had never really seen, or experienced prejudice, we were not privy to the thoughts and actions of the adult world. Behind their Sunday smiles and friendly handshakes, some people still fell prey to the seven sins and the devil’s thoughts.

Picks told me that the reason people called was because we had done something unthinkable, even here in peaceful, quiet East Greenwich! People called to ask my mother and his father why we had danced with Lillian Johnson.

You see, Lillian Johnson was the only black girl in our class!

So, there you have it. A true story. Happened right here in little, old East Greenwich. Whatever people thought. Picks and I always thought it was the right thing to do. I still think that.

I never got to thank Picks for that. He drowned off the Cape on a cold winter day, very much like the ones we get in February. Had he lived, I eventually would have thanked him for that lesson.

He’s probably up there now looking down at me and smiling.

We never have friends like those we have when we’re 12. Or do we?


Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrel full.

They Called Him ‘Chief’ For a Reason, Part Two

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman's Hall.
A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman’s Hall.

You can read Part One of They Called Him “Chief” for a Reason here.

Getting back to being a fireman. . . . Through Fred’s efforts, and that of other dedicated members, the East Greenwich Fire Department developed a reputation of being one of the best around, considered the finest volunteer company in the state, and one to be emulated by others. Much of that was due to Fred and his tireless efforts to keep the department functioning at a high level.

Remember, in those days, it was served by volunteers. I remember guys being let out of class at EGHS to go and fight fires, and many of the men worked deals where they could be let out of work when The Horn went off.  Oh, that Horn! Blasting out its two or three number call telling what zone of town the fire was in. Count the blasts. Check your book and go like a bat out the reaches of Hades.

I cannot remember ever failing to answer that horn, many times sprinting from my house behind the police station the two blocks to the firehouse. I didn’t always make it to the station on time, but it wasn’t for lack of trying and the sprint sure helped me later in athletic endeavors.

I was motivated by a sense of civic duty, the desire to be of service and the excitement of it all. Being a fireman, that volunteer spirit, most of my friends were volunteers at one time or another. Some hung around it their whole lives.

East Greenwich was one of the first fire districts in the state to start a junior firemen’s program. Back then the chief saw the future of the fire department and the firefighting profession in the dedication of young volunteers. In that though, time, the times and the love of money would prove him wrong.

The young vols of that time would have to take first aid training and spend 15 hours of work at Kent Hospital. Many of the 100 or so young volunteers also took fire courses at R.I. Junior College (now CCRI). Drills were usually held Sunday mornings and there were meetings held midweek.

Many times the drills would consist of fighting a fire in some old building, set on fire for the express purpose of giving the trainees, and even the vets, experience in putting out fires. It was the only way to give them that vital experience.

That was not the case though in getting first aid and rescue experience. With an active Quonset Point Naval Air Station only five minutes away, the young volunteers got plenty of experience patching and bandaging young sailors and Marines coming back from liberty, usually drunk and speeding.

There was also the occasional dead serviceman. One was killed down by the Railroad Inn one night and his body lie there in one spot with his head fifty yards away. Another time four NK football players were hit by a train chasing their girlfriends. No one there will ever forget that.

I even recall a baby or two being delivered along the way, way back then.

These were quite the experiences for 15- and 16-year-old boys back then and they grew up fast in the ways of the world.

Chief Miller was always lavish in his praise for “his boys,” who kept the department going. They put their lives on the line for NO PAY! Guess they were stupid, or at least “too yesterday.” Yet, they performed marvelously at big fires like the Big Star Market fire; the Benny’s fire; the Dunn house; the Ross Aker fire; the Dooser-Reynolds Pig Farm fire, which was set to cover up the murder of a family of five up on South Road and the Bleachery fire to name a few of the bigger ones.

In fact, Chief Miller saved my life and that of two of my fellow firefighters, taking us off the roof of one of the Bleachery buildings just before it collapsed into a fiery pit below. We had nailed a ladder on the icy roof of one building to get above a building across the way and send a stream of water to quell that blaze, not knowing that there was a blaze going on beneath of us. Chief Miller saw it though and got us off just minutes before our perch collapsed into the flames below thus making my mother happy to see her son come home that night (and we did this for free?).

 

I wonder what Fred would think of the situation today. The chief, deputy chief and fire marshall all have department vehicles. Fred used his own car, had a portable light and, I think, eventually got one of those stickers you can slap on door saying EGFD. He did have his white fire chief’s hat though. I think he was proud of that. Today firemen only answer the call on the day they are working, and that is one of every three or four, and despite being paid now they can still work an extra job or two. As one of them said, “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!”

Would Fred think they were part-time firemen? The volunteers worked another job and answered the call whenever The Horn sounded! Maybe they should be volunteers. I am sure he was not against firemen making money to support their families. No one is against that. But, he would be upset if they created a situation where their love of the Almighty Dollar caused hardship to their fellow townsmen. He never liked that! He was never like that! And, I don’t suppose he would take kindly to those that were. We’ve had a few.

I bet he would glow, though, when he heard of the firemen in New York City, who, on 9-11, left warm house and beds to rush in on their day off to battle the fires devastating the Twin Towers. Some of them rushed to their death. I think he would say that those guys deserved to pat themselves on the back and call themselves firemen! Anyway, it would be interesting to get his take on it.

So, Chief, even though you have been gone quite awhile, you are still thought of warmly (no pun intended). You left a legacy of service and giving that is unparalleled. You were way back then, you are now, and you always will be: “The Chief”

They called you that for a reason AND justifiably so!

This piece of Mems & Rems (Memories & Reminiscences) is dedicated to all those local boys, those firemen who answered the call – who answered The Horn! – for all those years, with no thought of self, no pay and very little glory. Those guys who put duty first and service to other above all, but especially to George, Adolph, Mac, Pumpkin, Leigh, Hub, Don, Frank, Joe, Elmer, Guy, Bill, Ken, Moose, Lawson and a host of other dedicated volunteers, too numerous to mention here, who gave of their blood, sweat, tears and time through all those years to make the volunteer spirit something to be proud of! Some people may think you fools or crazy for laying it all on the line for no compensation, but you have something you can always be proud of and there are many who are proud of you!

May you never be forgotten, and I hope that Spirit might someday, catch on again with our young people.

God Bless You All and May You continue to Live In The Spirit . . .


Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrelful.

 

They Called Him ‘Chief’ For A Reason, Part One

A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller that hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman's Hall.
A portrait of Fire Chief Fred Miller hangs at the EG Volunteer Fireman’s Hall.

Growing up here in old East Greenwich was great for a lot of reasons.

There was the smallness of the town. The fact that it had three very separate and distinct areas; the Main Street town portion, the waterfront  and the farm country up in Frenchtown.

For me, it provided opportunities to do a lot of different things like quahaugging, hanging out on Main Street, riding horses, hunting, fishing, swimming and playing ball constantly.

But, one of the other things that was good about old East Greenwich, was the people. We had our colorful ones and our characters but we also had a lot of good people back then.

I guess you would call them role models now, but back then they were just people we saw all the time, and looked up to, and respected. They could have been a parent(s), a friend’s parent(s), coaches, teachers, counselors, priests or police, or, the guy down the street. They were all around, every day, and most of them provided examples and lessons that you might notice and hang your hat on. You would have had to have been asleep to miss them.

Oh sure. We had our 10 percent. If you have ever been in the service you know what the 10 percent means. They are the people who never get the word, no matter what the word is; or, the people who are only out for themselves and bang ho anyone else. They are around anywhere, small town or big.

But mostly, I felt there were a lot of good people to hang your hat on here in East Greenwich, and I saw them at church, in school, on the street, on the ball fields and in one of the places that served as a training ground for many an EG boy, the fire department.

The person I am writing about this trip is former East Greenwich fire chief, Fred Miller. He is gone now, but for many years around here, he was The Fire Company! He went back over 40 years, starting out as we all started out, as a volunteer, and working his way up to chief of the department, which he turned into one of the finest volunteer companies in the state.

Though I had a lot of exposure to him back then at EGFD, there was one thing about him that amazed me even then, and still does to this day.

Chief Miller, Fred, coached Little League baseball for over 20 years! In itself, that might not seem much. But, the kicker is, he never had a son! Only two girls (Janet and Diane) by his wife of many years, Jeannette. I always thought that was the most amazing thing.

Wanting to give back myself I got involved in Little League and Biddy Basketball here in EG while still in my teens. I saw a lot that shaped my thoughts on coaching for years to come. Many of those thoughts were brought about from the actions of parents and fathers, who only seemed to get involved because their sons were of age. They came in with their kids and left when their kids left.

Their kids, good or not, were always the feature pitcher, batted third or fourth, and always seemed to make the All Star team. I saw fights and behavior from adults that I was unaccustomed to at the time, but which was a harbinger of things to come, and which has become common down to the current day.

Yes, I know that Little League needs active parents in order to survive. And that most people will not get involved unless their kid is involved. I get that.  But. That’s what made Fred Miller stand out even more. He was there every year. Year in and year out with No Son on the team! He had “his boys” on the General Motors team, but they changed again every three years or so.

He was a good coach too, and his teams were always at, or near, the top. Fred also served as a Merit Badge Counselor for the local Boy Scout troops.   Having spent 45 years coaching high school myself, I have seen the antics, and the damage, that parents can do to their kids, and to the programs their kids are in. It is not a laughing matter. Still, what Fred did was, then, and has always seemed refreshing to me, and a model to follow.

Though, as I go along and tell the rest of the story about what made Fred great, believe me, he was not alone on my list of those standout people in EG, his example in Little League was that one thing I always admired him for. The ability to put forth the time and effort and service with NO Ulterior Motive was something that shaped a lot of my thinking back then, and also later in life. I can only hope I have come close to him. He was the embodiment of the selflessness and volunteerism that I saw on a regular basis back then. People like Ralph Marden, Father Joe, Reverend Pickells, Dom Iannazzi and others too numerous to name provided example after example and it was right in front of you for the taking.

Fred Miller was one of a kind. Not many can match the more than 40 years he served as fire chief in East Greenwich (more than 60 years in all). He gave his life to the fire department and to the town of East Greenwich.

One of his closest friends, George King, a WWII veteran and himself a firefighter, once said of him: “This town will never see another like him. You will not see someone who will put the time into this town the way he did!”

But, he not only put in the time. Just as he did in Little League coaching, Fred gave the town quality time and saved the taxpayers’ money time and time again over the years.

For many years his salary was $500 a year! Only after he retired from Bostitch as a toolmaker did he finally agree to a raise up to $2,500. Even then he would often split that money up to give to his deputy chiefs. The year Fred retired they hired a new chief at a salary of $18,500!

People tried to tell him he was crazy for not taking more money but he wouldn’t hear of it. He just wouldn’t do it and he never said why! He just didn’t. Maybe the word “volunteer” meant just that to him. No one will ever know. He never said then and he went to his grave without explaining why.

I kind of think that good men are made that way. Not a bad way to be.

Again, his friend, Mr. King observed, “He was curious like that. I guess he just felt that he was a volunteer chief, and everyone else was doing volunteer work, so that was enough. It was just the makeup of the man.”

Of course, just because he and the department were volunteer doesn’t mean they couldn’t be the best. Fred shaped the East Greenwich Volunteer Fire Department into one of the best in the state. Even the region!

Just like his championship Little League teams, Fred had the “boys” performing at a high level, looking and working “spiffy and sharp,” not only in their duties and their firefighting, but also, in the Muster and Firemen competitions that were held almost every weekend through the summer months.

An East Greenwich native, Fred joined the purely volunteer company in the 1920s. He always wanted to be a fireman, just like his dad, Gus Miller. In those days the department was filled with volunteers whose fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and friends had served before them.

It was just moving from the point where the major equipment was a hand pump and hose, to where they had a horse-drawn fire truck. He was there for all of it, and in 1953 he saw the department add full-time dispatchers.

Of course, it has grown so much since then.

Fred, who served as president of the Rhode Island Fire Chiefs Association, was also induced into the East Greenwich Athletic Hall of Fame and chosen as Rotary Club Man of the Year.

In his day he was an outstanding all-around athlete, playing football and baseball for the old East Greenwich Townies. He was also an outstanding swimmer, winning a host of long-distance races back then like ones from East Greenwich Yacht Club to Rocky Point and from Warren to Rocky Point (five miles). He also won the Fall River and Narragansett Pier races as well.

All that experience led to his getting involved in youth sports, starting with Little League baseball, when it came to East Greenwich in 1953.

End of Part One 


Bruce Mastracchio grew up in East Greenwich and loves telling stories of his boyhood in a simpler time, in a small town, filled with outstanding people, amazing characters and adventures by the barrelful.