By Bruce R. Mastracchio
And now the story, dedicated to all my boyhood chums, and especially those who braved a cold winter day to take their first dip of the year in Bleachery Pond.
MARCH! It’s a cold month. A raw month. A “brrr” month. It comes in like a lion and, sometimes, goes out like a lion. When you mix it in with Eldredge School and the early ’50s, then a lot of things come to mind. It is funny how you remember the little things.
For me all things had a Disney color to them back then. The days were endless. We believed in 28-hour days and 8-day weeks. At least, that’s how we expressed getting so much into each time period. The days were filled with adventure after adventure whether they were just there,or, we sought them out.
There was no March Madness back then. No Hoop Hysteria. March was for kites and marbles and muckleball in the mud. Baseball hadn’t really started yet, but we’ll hit that later.
Mostly when I think of March, I think of the Bleachery, and Picks, and our ritual of being the first kids to go off the Rock for the first icy plunge of the year.
Each year The Catholic boy and his Episcopal pal went earlier and earlier, finally getting in on March 1.
At that time it was the ultimate. Now, it sounds a bit crazy.But those were the days, and that was us. If we were crazy, so be it. But we had one heck of a time being crazy, doing crazy things, and relishing in the telling and retelling of our adventurous times later on.
Of course, we could have performed our annual ritual on the weekend. But, that wouldn’t have been right the way we figured it. What made the first dip of the year all the more exciting was the fact that we did it during the school day.
Eldredge School, under Archie Cole, who was Superintendent/Principal and the Darth Vader of his day, ran from 9 a.m til 3 p.m., with an hour for lunch and recess. That was our time! That was when we struck!
Despite the vigilance of the enemy (read teachers) we were never caught. Remember, they had to watch a couple of hundred youngsters bouncing off the walls, the ground and each other. We only had to watch a couple of them. They never had a chance !
We made our break up the stadium stairs, crouched and crawled to the cement ramp and down. Across First Avenue, through the cemetery and poof! just like perspiration! we were gone ! Free ! Free at last !
We got to the top of the hill overlooking our goal. The Bleachery! The Rock! The Rope! The pond of Legend! Huge snapping turtles lived there. Water snakes! The site of at least a couple of drownings.
But, in March you didn’t have to worry about snapping turtles. Or, water snakes. You did have to worry about freezing to death!
“My father told me if you jump in too fast the cold water could stop your heart,” said Picks in an attempt to boost my confidence.
“Remember, if you get caught under the ice there’s always alittle space near the top where you can breathe, while you try to find the hole,” I countered in an attempt to bolster his.
“Enough ! A double jump,” Picks proposed. And, with no further ado, that’s what we did.
The water was cold. It wrinkled and shriveled all our appendages. And, I do mean all. We had no sooner hit the icy liquid and submerged, when we bounced out shaking and shivering.
If you have never been naked and wet outside on a cold March day then you don’t know the meaning of agony.
The next problem was drying off. But, that’s why God invented T-shirts. We used them and then stuck them into my lunch bag. It was not your typical lunch bag. It was white and foil lined with the Brookside Ice Cream label on the outside. Using those bags over the years gained me my nickname, Cousin Brookside, later shortened to Brookie, Brook and The Brooker. Anyway, the lining kept the tell-tale wet from being exposed.
Having gotten semi-dry, we were now posed with the problem of getting back into school. We retraced our steps and approached Eldredge like two Indian scouts crawling on our hands and knees, tombstone to tombstone, across First, into the stadium and back on the playground. We made it!
Acting nonchalant, we went about our business as if nothing had happened and then spent the next few days hacking it up like we were the two greatest players “The Game” had ever seen.
As I said before. We never got caught, unlike two of our friends who were nabbed by the ever-vigilant Mr. Garlick. That sixth grade teacher described it: “As I was coming up over the rise, I spied these two naked jaybirds perched on a rock.”
Having accomplished our first plunge of the New Year from Eldredge for 3 years, we were stifled in the 8th grade, which we served at The Academy on Peirce Street,
However, Luck was ours as freshmen! The town built a new high school on Cedar Avenue. Right across from The Bleachery !
Picks and I planned on how we were going to pull it off. High school lunches were only 20 minutes or so. Not enough time. So, we decided to do it during gym class. The coach was tough, but, he had never met the likes of Picks and me before. We thought we might get caught, but we knew how to play the game!
It was a warm spring day as I remember. We went to the locker room for gym as usual. We got our gym gear on as usual.The class went out as usual. They went south to the softball field as usual. We did the unusual. We went north. We snuck around the corner of the gym and headed for the Bleachery Pond.
There was less vigilance in high school. We only had to avoid the school secretary’s occasional glance out the office window, and the cars in the parking lot made a more than adequate screen.
We juked. We jived. We were gone!
While the north side of The Bleachery had The Rock.The south side had The Rope. That’s where we were headed.
We had our swim. We got back into school. We were not caught. The coach never even missed us from his class. Alas, that was the only time for that escapade. We never hit the Bleachery again during a school day.
Picks went away the next year. His father sent him to Groton School in Massachusetts, an Episcopal Preparatory School. We still got together when vacations rolled around. We always talked about the times we “hit the Bleachery.”
As we grew older, it was one of those good times that had vanished. But the memories of it never did.
Picks is long gone now. Ironically, he drowned on a February day in 1972, while quahaugging off Cape Cod. He was coming in from a day of shellfishing when the weather turned bad. He and his boat were lost.
They found him six months later, two towns down. He was only 29!
There would be no more adventures for the Catholic Kid and the Episcopal Boy.
Still, sometimes, on one of these cold, March days, when the wind is blowing just right, I think I can hear Pick’s voice whispering in the wind and it says to me, “Hey Brook, I beat you in. I got in in February!”
That Picks. He always did have a sense of humor.
Wonderful story, Bruce. One of the fondest memories I have from EGHS is skipping gym class with you and Picks to cross Cedar Ave for a Bleachery swim. I will never forget it. Get well, and keep writing!