Laudizen King Banner gathered along the way
long road home Signposts and Junctions      

Manchester Redux

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

Manchester Redux



In going back to revisit the Manchester, Connecticut of my youth, I could not help but recall the people and places that played an important role in my personal development during those early years in the old hometown.

First, I thought about the places that formed the horizons of my life before high school, the period covered by the years 1955 through 1964. That decade was a good period to be a kid in America and in Manchester as well. I traveled near and far on my bicycle and I never feared for my safety. The turmoil and change of the late sixties was still on the horizon, summers were for play and discovery, new and exciting opportunities were presenting themselves, and the intense competition that would leave its mark on later generations in a global economy was not yet evident.

The local schoolyards and the houses that surrounded them formed the primary boundaries of my world. To the west, stood the Bowers Elementary School along with its large playground and adjoining woods. I attended Bowers and I still can remember the old school song. I remember hunting for snakes in the destroyed remains of ‘Vet Haven’, a post-World War II housing community. After the city dismantled Vet Haven, they built the new Illing Junior High School on its grounds. Two elementary schools were located off to the east, Buckley and Manchester Green. Up north was Salter’s Pond, along with the fields and woods that extended towards the east away from the pond. To the south lay Case Mountain, its great swath of wilderness and trails waiting for the young explorer to come and learn the mysteries of the mountain.

The next thing that struck me when I thought about those early days was how many names belonged to that period, including some I had not recalled in over fifty years. There were Marzialo, Spector, Hart, Vanderhof, Herman, Brett, Lundberg, Zaremba, Brainard, Hindle, Meisner, Cherrone, Grey, Aceto, Saretto, Cushman, Lucas, Jeske, Howroyd, Stevens, Klein, Gryzb, Tuttle, Whiteman, Matheson, Baldwin, Jefferies, Boris, Noonan, McCruden, Puzzo, Lauder, Barnes, Felber, Cree, Tyler, Koplin, Teats, Erickson, McDonald, Lisciotti, Holman, Doughty, Lanagan, Brunoli, Woods, Bunce, Crandall, Evangelista, Codding, Odell, Doll, Slossberg, Hicks, Andreoli, Mahoney, Sales, Rothman, Schaler, Rivers, Nelson, Abraitis, Goodreau, Carter, Ackerman, Linders, Lathrop, Palmberg, Dzen, Uppling, Wrobel, Nichols, Leggett, Peterman, Lesonde, McAlpine, Flavell, Metivier, Paone, Gosselin, Wilke, Benson, Bieu, Coughlin, Rushford, Chiaputti, Colangelo, McGehan, Avery, Dumas, Rea, Van Camp, Norwood, Gregory, Johnson, Davis, Del Greco, Nevins, Urbanetti, Thirion, Bruneau, O’Neill, Wydell, Zwick, McKay, Faulds, Petrone, Viera, Carson, May, Cataldo, McAdams, Blakeslee, Serrell, Roberts, Monette, Robins, Miller, Barton, Sliney, Platz, Baskerville, Mierman, Armstrong, Holmes, Conn, Tinker, Fitzgerald, Bucino, Denley, Hefferin, Starkweather, Kearns, Mitney, Manter, White, Tambling, Cowell, Shorrock, Liske, Wallenburg, Malkenson, LeTourneau, Talaga, Adams, Hamilton, DuPont, McInerney, Morehouse, Pavelack, Horton, Whitesell, Landers, Carlson, Kirk, Bradley, Hickock, Waickowski, Joiner, Smith, Bushnell, and (I’m sure) so many more in the recesses of my mind.

I was in the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts for most of this period. Over the years, I went on camping trips in every season of the year and in all kinds of weather, and traveled with the Scouts to numerous destinations throughout southern New England. I enjoyed the time I spent in the Boy Scouts and made many friends, although I never rose very high in the ranks.

The change of the seasons determined the games we played, whether it was baseball, football, or basketball. In my early years, I played those games primarily at Bowers. Later, I made friends near Buckley and the Green, and my world expanded to include the games played at those schools. Baseball games expanded this world further and we traveled to Mt Nebo, Washington School, and Buckland to play against teams from distant schoolyards, and even other towns.

The year when I was in the sixth grade at the Bowers Elementary School, in 1962, we had a large influx of kids from the Highland Park area of town attend class with us at Bowers. I cannot remember the reason, but the result was I met many new faces from an area of town that was foreign to me. However, new friends quickly introduced me to the wilderness and trails of Case Mountain. I would push my 26-inch one-speed Schwinn to the summit and ride down the long back road, stopping at the stonewall by the pond to explore the water’s edge and wonder about who owned the mysterious cabin located there in the woods. Coming home to Parker Street from Case Mountain on my bicycle had interesting possibilities. The direct route was practically downhill the entire way. Occasionally, I would change course and follow Ferguson Rd to arrive atop the high ridge behind Cherrone’s Package Store on Middle Turnpike. From there I could fly down the steep hill on Mountain Road as fast as the blue Schwinn could carry me, cruise through the Green School, and shoot down Woodbridge Street to home.

In the summer, we swam at Salter’s, first at the pond, and then in later years at the new swimming pool that the town built in the parking area near the pond. A dam formed the pond, and this dam had a long walkway built across it. The walkway stood about three feet above the water and swimmers would jump or dive from it into the pond. On the side closest to the beach, a concrete projection called the ‘Keep Off’ jutted into the pond. To the east, in the woods upstream on the watercourse that fed the pond, hung a rope swing tied to a high branch of the same tree every summer. The tree, which stood at the water’s edge, was at the base of a steep slope from which people launched themselves by the swing far out into the stream. We called this area the ‘B’, short for BAB (bare ass beach), and it was always a crowded and exciting place to swim.

Neighbors would take us to Hebron to swim in the pond at Gay City. I also enjoyed the swampy area of the pond for it was alive with snakes and frogs. Sometimes a friend’s parents would take us to Crystal Lake in Ellington. The town had anchored a raft off the beach that offered a raised platform for diving and a large waterwheel you could stand on and slowly roll yourself off and into the water. My parents would occasionally take us to the ocean beaches at Rocky Neck and Hammonasset.

On the Fourth of July, we went to Mt Nebo to watch the fireworks. The whole town listened eagerly for the one aerial that was set off at noon on the Fourth that signified the show was indeed on for that evening. As the shadows grew long, the whole family would pile into the station wagon and drive to Charter Oak Park where we would leave the car and join the others who were carrying blankets and walking along the dirt road that led up the hill to the large flat field of Mt Nebo. Once on the grass we would find a spot for our blankets and wait for the excitement to start, first with some small land-mounted displays, and then the great aerial show. After the grand finale, we would walk back to the car along the dirt road now illuminated by a string of old-style clear light bulbs suspended over the walkway.

In winter, if the conditions were right, we skated at Salter’s Pond and for several years built small wooden shacks by the ‘B’ in winter so skaters could enjoy a fire and get out of the wind and cold. Skating at night on the wide frozen stream from the 'B' down to the Salters Dam and back was always a thrilling experience. In cold winter years, the town would open the large Center Springs Pond for skating. No matter how many people were on the ice, you could always find a dark place along the tree-lined edge of the pond to steal a kiss from the young girl skating along with you, or the one who lost her grip when she found herself sent flying from the skating line at the end of ‘the whip’. Center Springs also had a grand hill for sledding or tobogganing, and I spent many a winter weekend on the slope.
I learned to play poker at the picnic table at the Green School; someone had carved a bowl-like depression into the center of the hardwood table and this bowl served as a place to deposit the antes, and to hold the nickels, dimes, and quarters that made up the pot. Adults make such a big deal about youngsters gambling, but kids learn important life lessons in these games and they should learn them early.

We used to have elaborate baseball-card flipping contests. After a number of cards was determined (10, 50, 100); one person would try to flip as many heads or tails as possible in the chosen number of cards. The second person would then go. If they bettered the number of heads or tails flipped by the first contestant, all the baseball cards were theirs. If not, the first person claimed all. I believe it better to walk home crying because you lost a hundred baseball cards than it is to lose something important later in life, when you have no experience with risk and loss. Everything in its own time.

Thursday evenings in the late spring and summer was the time to gather on Main Street and cruise up and down the sidewalks. We met other kids and expanded our horizons, and I have fond memories of those trips on warm summer nights. We would stop at Friendly’s Ice Cream on Main Street and mingle about in the parking lot, taking our first tentative steps into discovering the ways of the opposite sex.
As I grew older and met people with cars, we travelled to everyone’s favorite ocean destination, Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island where the waves always crested higher and rougher than the small swells that broke against the Connecticut beaches on Long Island Sound. On the way back to town, we would stop at the Dew Drop Inn for a 5-cent cup of coffee, or at Harry’s in Colchester for a burger. Back in Manchester, we gathered at the venerable Deci’s Drive-in on Center Street for a chilidog on a grilled bun or a hamburger with everything (“drag it through the garden”). Occasionally, we enjoyed a quart of whole-belly fried clams with tartar sauce, the absolute best taste ever to come out of New England.

In those years, a pool hall existed in the center of town, the Red Sox Dugout. A set of concrete stairs led down from an alley off Main St to a cellar below the Center Restaurant where eight pool tables sat between the cement pillars of the basement. The Dugout was a classic pool hall, dark except for the lights that hung low over every table. The place had a terrible reputation with parents, but I played pool in the Dugout and remember the place fondly. The Dugout was not a dangerous environment; gambling was common and cigarette smoking as well, but there were no drugs or weapons, and I enjoyed some wonderful times at the Dugout during my teenage years.

I can remember the place packed with kids, especially on those days when a snowstorm canceled school, everyone flush with cash from shoveling driveways, playing 9-ball or pill-pool. The great Larry Lisciotti would play there, and I learned early what the beauty of raw talent looked like. Several interesting old characters made the place their home, such as Frank ‘The Bank’ DeVoto, who always wore a suit and a hat. There was another man who also wore a hat, who had a bad neck he could not turn or bend; they called him ‘The Broom’. Police officers would often stop down for a soda, or to get out of the cold or rain, and they would await their next call as they talked to the owner.

The owner’s name was Don Fitzgerald (called Honey Fitz by some), and he sponsored a slow-pitch softball team made up of the many athletes who frequented the place. Don would take the team around the State of Connecticut to take on all comers. As far as the explosion in the popularity of slow-pitch softball was concerned, the Dugout team was in the vanguard of the movement, and the team played many benefit softball games at prisons and against other teams around the state. The city of Manchester named the main softball field at Charter Oak Park the Don Fitzgerald Field in his honor. I wonder if the field still carries Don's name, or if the city has sold the name to someone else, someone more important in the corporate hierarchy.

For a few weeks one summer I worked on the Connecticut broad-leaf tobacco farms, outfits with names like Culbro and Coleman Brothers, the only place for a teenager under 16 years-old to work. However, working tobacco was hard labor, and you toiled for a long 50-hour week to put about 45 dollars in your pocket (a princely sum in those days). You could pick, drag, or hang. Pickers ripped the bottom leaves off the tobacco plants and placed them in rectangular baskets with the broken-stalk end in the corner. Draggers would use a dragging-hook to pull the baskets down to the end of a row where they were loaded onto flatbed trucks. Hangers would sew the leaves to long wooden slats to hang and cure in the many large tobacco barns that dotted the landscape of the Connecticut River Valley. Kids who picked tobacco toiled alongside a tough migrant-labor workforce and whether you worked in a shaded field or spent your hours in a barn, it was a rough setting for young teens. I do not think the authorities or parents of today would consider the tobacco picking business as a good work environment for their kids.

The high school years finally came, and they were turbulent and challenging, as befitted the times. The names of people I knew and associated with grew. The country and society were changing, and new storm clouds were forming on the horizon. A distant war was coming closer and I saw more kids in uniform around town, and read about them in the papers. Some soldiers from Manchester died and some of them were my friends.
After graduating from high school in 1968, I also entered the Army and soon found myself in Vietnam. I served in Asia for a year, from June 1969 to June 1970, and then rotated back to the states and finished my Army career at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Eventually, I found myself back in the Manchester area where I attended Manchester Community College and graduated with an AS in 1975.
The last time I had a Manchester address was 1985 and that was a temporary three-month stay before I moved to New Hampshire. My last regular visits to Manchester were during the years 1985 through 1990, when I would come down from my home in New Hampshire to visit family and friends. I would visit every Thanksgiving weekend to celebrate both the holiday and to enjoy the Manchester Road Race. The Wednesday night before Thanksgiving was the time to connect with old friends, those that lived in Manchester, and those who were in town for the holiday. The two bars most frequented by my friends, the Hartford Road Café and the Hungry Tiger, were always festive and crowded. The Manchester Road Race is contested every Thanksgiving Day morning, and I joined my friends at the Highland Park Market to watch the runners as they went by near the top of a long hill, and to drink a little champagne as well. In 1990, I moved west to California and I currently live in Los Angeles.
Manchester seems a distant place to me at this time of my life. Bob, a friend from my school years, tells me that the Manchester of today “is not your father’s Silktown.” He has returned to his Manchester roots at regular intervals for a variety of reasons and confides that those visits typically engender a "hornet’s nest of emotions." We had to come from somewhere, I think, and Manchester seems as good a place to be from as anywhere else does.

The deaths of my old friends in Vietnam, friends made during the time of childhood innocence, seem all the more tragic and forlorn. Therefore, in writing this story, I looked up Ray Holman’s entry on the Vietnam Memorial website, and followed that by visiting the entries for two other close friends who died in that war. Searching the web, I discovered Ray was a ground casualty and that he was killed by hostile artillery, rocket, or mortar fire on June 16, 1969, in Quang Nam province in South Vietnam. He was a Marine Lance Corporal, he was half way through his tour, and the day of his death was nine days before I arrived in Vietnam for the start of my tour of duty.

There was Keith Miller, who along with his brother Kipp was a friend from those summers spent around Salter’s Pond. He was a Marine, and he was killed on September 7, 1967 by small arms fire in Quang Nam province, South Vietnam. The description of his final battle, that I read on the Vietnam Memorial website, said he was an E1, the lowest possible rank a soldier can hold, at the time of his death. It was clear Keith had a run-in with the Marine judicial system and perhaps had a problem with accepting or questioning authority. Knowing firsthand what military service is like, I consider that a badge of honor, a badge that his sacrifice makes all the more poignant. Rest in peace, my friend from the sunny days of our youth.
I also visited the entry for Victor Del Greco, my friend from the Green School days. He was in the Army, and he was killed on March 2, 1970 in Binh Dinh province by small arms fire. He was drafted into the service and he served with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, or the “Herd” as it was known, as an infantry squad leader. Vic received a posthumous promotion to Sergeant. I was serving in Vietnam at the time of his death. I am struck by the fact that today is March 2, 2008, and that the first time I visit my old friend on the Vietnam Memorial website is on the anniversary of Victor’s death in 1970.

On one of those last trips to Manchester before I moved west, I stopped at Shady Glen for a cheeseburger and a coffee before driving back home to New Hampshire. Shady Glen was a noisy place, full of teens and families enjoying the signature burger or ice cream. At a small table on the other side of the restaurant, I saw Ray Holman’s parents. They looked old and frail as they sat and ate quietly, looking down at their food. I thought about walking over to say hello, but the restaurant was busy and loud. All of the tables around their area were crowded and I somehow felt ill at ease, and guilty for being alive. They paid their bill and left the restaurant, and I silently let them go.

Today, these many years later, I wish I had talked with them.
I will raise one for you tonight, Victor, and for Keith and Raymond. In fact, I will raise one for us all, both the living and the dead. Here tonight in Los Angeles, I’ll raise my glass to Manchester, to the friends who made the experience what it was, and to the golden days of my youth.



shady glen ice cream

(photo courtesy Sylvian Ofiara)

Original Sign from the Red Sox Dugout Pool Hall

Original Sign from the Red Sox Dugout

(photo courtesy Dana Wilk)

Ray Holman's name - Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall - Washington DC

Ray Holman - Vietnam Memorial - Washington DC

(photo courtesy Ken Hicks)

Keith Miller and Vic Del Greco
Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall - Manchester, Connecticut

Keith Miller

Vic DelGreco

(photos courtesy Stan Slossberg)

March 2, 2008
Los Angeles, CA