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The Mutable Past

ISSUE:  Summer 1995

The vacant lot where we North Third Street kids played softball on those sunny Connecticut summer days was full of trees, and it was small. When we wanted to play hardball, we went down the street, to West Main, crossed, walked a hundred feet or so to our left, and turned into the Lincoln Junior High School driveway. The school had a big playing field, but we were likely there to run into other young folk from adjacent neighborhoods, so we tended to stay within a two-block radius of our homes.

We were quite a crowd, mostly of an age. Bob Strauss lived across the street from me. He was a couple of years older, and he was practicing to become the New England fife-and-drum corps snare drum champion in a few years. Next door to him lived Phil Reilly who, like me, was in the sixth grade, but in parochial rather than public school. Down the street were the Gaffney brothers, Marty and Billy, a couple of tough, skinny kids, and across from them lived the Muravnick sisters, Janice and Pat. Janice played ball with us sometimes, for she was a tomboy. On Second Street there were the Carlson brothers, a couple of hard cases in my opinion, but I never really had trouble with them, though I recall worrying about it a good deal. Kenny Noack lived on the corner between my house and the vacant lot. Just at the edge of the lot there stood a mysterious shack. It appeared to have been a store because it had plate-glass windows, but one made out shapes through them with difficulty, they were so covered with grit.

When we had finished playing our game among the trees that were our bases and that turned the contest into an object lesson in ricochet physics, we would gather up our gear, such as it was—a ball, a bat or two, but hardly ever a glove—and head for home. On the way we might stop to peer in through the windows of the shack, the sun at our backs glinting off the dark glass. We would push our faces up as close as we could and use both hands to shield our eyes. Even so, all we could make out inside were the outlines of what appeared to be some machines.

Before we left we would rattle the padlock on the splinter-dry front door and speculate. Some of our guesses were fantastic, others more mundane. One theorized that the shack might be a rendezvous for spies—the Second World War had not long been over—who came only at night. Or it was an old machine shop left over from the war when many of our parents had been engaged in carrying two jobs at the same time in little war industries that had sprung up everywhere. Then our interest ebbed, and we forgot to think about it.

One summer after school had let out for good I took to getting up early—who knows why?—and hanging around the street while my slugabed friends kept their dreams alive. I recall one morning when I walked out the front door onto the big front porch, down the wooden stairs, then down the flight of concrete steps to the sidewalk, for our house sat up on a bank. I stood with my hands in my pocket, my eyes drinking in the early cool beneath the elms that used to line our avenues, sunlight mottling the road like the design of a Moorish carpet. I looked down the street, then up the street, and I spotted a battered prewar pickup truck sitting at the curb in front of the old shack. I noticed that the awning was down, something I hadn’t seen before, and then from the doorway there emerged a man carrying a couple of what appeared to be boxes. He ducked under the awning, lifted his burden over the tailgate, arranged them, then turned and went back in.

Naturally, I sauntered up the block as quickly as possible without, I hoped, appearing to hurry, and soon I was standing where I could see inside. I could hear the machines running. When my eyes adjusted to the inner dusk, I saw the man—he was a big man—lifting milk cans and pouring their contents into a hopper. The machine rattled and ratcheted, bottles clattered as they were filled with white, foamy milk. The man was busy, for he was handling all the manual chores including putting bottles onto the conveyer belt, taking them off at the other end, and racking them in the crates.

I waited until I was sure the milkman had seen me, then imperceptibly I edged closer to the center of action. I don’t recall how near I managed to get the first day, or the second, or even exactly when he spoke to me, but eventually I did get the idea he had no objection to my being there, or even to my lending a hand, such as it was, upon occasion. In fact, rather than words I recall mainly a friendly silence between us. I do remember that finally he asked me if I’d like to go out on his route with him, and I said yes. “Go ask your mom if it’s all right,” he said, and I did.

For some reason my mother agreed. She came down and spoke with him, but she must also have done some checking when I told her about the big man bottling milk in the mornings, and perhaps it was even she who told me the man’s name was Walsh. At any rate, there came the morning when I helped Mr. Walsh load up and got into the seat beside him. Soon we were rattling around on the outskirts of town towards Wallingford and Yalesville—the bottles rattled with the old pickup, and our teeth did likewise, for there was little left of the suspension and nothing of the shock absorbers, if we had any.

The mornings passed pleasantly. We would go to the side or back door of a house to leave one or two or three of those old-fashioned round, long-necked bottles on the stoop. The cream would have risen to the top pretty well by the time we’d delivered the milk, and I could imagine the people in the house doing what my mother did, that is, carefully pouring some off the top into a morning cup of coffee. Before I drank a glass of such milk at home or poured it onto my cereal I would always shake the bottle to distribute the cream. Now I can’t drink milk at all, not even the processed sort, for I can’t digest it—nor can most adults, though not many people seem to know it.

I should have realized this sooner because Bernie Jurale, my chemistry and home room teacher at Meriden High, kept telling us over and over that it was so. We students thought he was a crank, and that’s why, when I developed an ulcer during my Navy days after high school, I drank lots of milk because doctors said it was good for the condition. How can doctors be so wrong so often? It was the worst thing they could have prescribed. Back in the 1940’s, however, who knew these things? What I remember is the creamy, delicious taste of whole milk and, in the winter, the bottles of milk standing outside the back door with their caps raised into the air on a column of cream, for as the bottle froze its contents expanded. That’s a sight no child will see again; these days, if people drink milk at all, it’s skim milk, for milkfat is supposed to be bad for our cholesterol levels. Back then you got skim milk by skimming off all of the head of cream, but the resulting liquid tasted like blue chalk water, and it still does.

Sometimes one of our customers would open the door as we were making our delivery—a woman in a housecoat or a man dressed for work but without his jacket on. They might say, “Hello, Mr. Walsh,” or “Good morning,” and call my friend by his first name—was it Ed? Jim? And he would nod and smile. Then we’d get back into the truck and be on our way. When we had finished the route it would still be early. My friends would just be getting up and coming outdoors. Bob or Phil might see me waving to Mr. Walsh as he drove away. Soon we would begin our long summer day of ball or exploring or playing war or cops and robbers.

It was in 1959, when my wife and I were living in Storrs, Connecticut, and I was attending the university there that my mother sent me the newspaper obituary of a local man named “Big Ed” Walsh. She was always sending me clippings from the local papers—I’d left a paper trail of her gleanings completely around the world, for she had kept me apprised of local affairs all the while I had been in the Navy—through boot camp in Maryland, my first assignment in Norman, Oklahoma, the two years I’d spent aboard the aircraft carrier Hornet while she circled the globe, and my fourth year as a yeoman in Arlington, Virginia, at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, where I became the most famous and mythical of sailors, the fellow who sat on the shore duty list.

I don’t know what led me to believe that the subject of the obituary was my milkman friend. Was it something my mother wrote in her letter? I can’t find it in my files. Was it the picture that ran with the death notice? Was it merely a conclusion that I’d jumped to? I’d had some suspicions before then that Mr. Walsh had been a ballplayer, but in my childhood I was, and am still, a pure Yankee fan. I knew little or nothing of any other team except the Yankees’ archrival Boston Red Sox.

Oh, I’d had an experience with the Philadelphia Athletics who’d come to town to play an exhibition game with our semi-pro Insilco team at Insilco Field (now a shopping mall) sponsored by the International Silver Company that gave our town, Meriden, the sobriquet “Silver City.” If I’m not mistaken, Connie Mack had once managed the Meriden team. I went to that game on the day that had been named for him, and I saw Mr. Mack with my own eyes, but I was not otherwise one of the cognoscenti of the ballpark.

Whatever it was, something convinced me that I’d been delivering milk in Connecticut with Rig Ed Walsh, a Hall-of-Fame player for the Chicago White Sox from 1904 to 1916, and a one-season 40-game winner at a time when giants bestrode the mound and raced around the diamond track. Big Ed had been born in 1881, so when we were both residents of the same town he was about sixty-five years of age. He’d spent one year, 1917, with the Boston National League team before he retired at the age of 36. He had thus been doing other things for 29 years before I rode my summer milk route with my friend.

I’ve been living in Central New York State for many years, now, and 10 or 12 years back I drove down to Cooperstown with another elderly friend, Charlie Davis, who had been a jazz-band leader during the years of Ed Walsh’s early retirement. I used to get a bang out of thinking that Ed must have heard Charlie’s famous jazz composition “Copenhagen” many times on his crystal set. Charlie and I went winding down through the hills and picnicked in a lakeside park there in Cooperstown. We attended a meeting of the New York State Folklore Association where Charlie was a featured speaker, having turned into a writer and publisher in one of his several incarnations. And then we went over to the Baseball Hall of Fame where I looked up Big Ed. There he was, on the wall with the other titans of bat and mound.

I tried to get into a suitable mood of awe as I stood there, but had no success at it. All I could see reflected in what I perceived to be memory’s lake was a dusty road unwinding before the beat-up hood of an old pickup, and a bottle of milk that wore a crown of cream. Later, I wrote a prize-winning poem about those summer mornings and my friend, Mr. Walsh, and later still I did a short nostalgic piece for a national magazine which brought me letters and phone calls from all sorts of people who remembered Big Ed Walsh and the Meriden of my childhood as vividly as I did. Jim Master-son, a high school classmate, phoned to chat about it, and so did our choral director at M. H. S., Tony Parisi, but we weren’t at home for his call so my son, Christopher, who took the message and relayed it to Maine where we were vacationing.

John P. Kiley, Sr., wrote from Derby, Connecticut. “I organized and was chairman of the Naugatuck Valley Old Time Athletes,” he informed me. “We were fortunate to have Big Ed as the featured speaker both in 1950 and 1951. The Hotel Clark (since razed) in Derby was filled to the walls because Big Ed was coming and all the Old Timers (some in their 80’s …) had a chance to meet, listen to, and shake hands with him. As the chairman I can say it was one of the happiest occasions. I still have scrap books of the events and will pass them on to my son and grandsons. I am 88, so I remember the Chicago White Sox when we listened on ticker tape or radio. I have pitching tips written by Big Ed and also his autograph.”

Another who responded was Warren F. Gardner, who was editor of The Morning Record of Meriden for many years, including that couple of years when I worked as high school correspondent for the paper and as cub reporter and morgue clerk as well (the “morgue” is the library clippings on people and events that all newspapers maintain). Warren wrote, “I was delighted to read your little piece about Big Ed Walsh… . You were lucky to know him. I knew he was a baseball player of repute, but until I read your column I did not know that he ran the dairy on North Third Street.

“I remember the dairy well, of course. I was born in 1909 in the second floor apartment of the house at 45 North Fourth Street. Father owned the house. He rented the downstairs apartment. We lived there until I was age 16, then moved to Carpenter Avenue.

“So I grew up on the West Side and loved it. We had good neighbors; I can remember many of them. We had milk delivered to our back door in the glass bottles you mentioned. No such thing as homogenizing in those days, either of milk or men.

“On occasion, if we ran short of milk or mother wanted some cream, I was sent to get it at Walsh’s dairy, often bringing it home in the small pail I carried with me. Whoever waited on me dipped it out of the vat. In those days milkmen made deliveries by horse and wagon. There was a barn in the rear of the little milk station where the horse was stabled. On one occasion my father sprained his wrist badly while trying to crank the open Ford Model T touring car we had. Dr. E. W, Smith advised a poultice made of hay seeds soaked in hot water and wrapped around the wrist. Where to get hay seeds? Mr. Walsh’s hay loft, of course. So father and I went there, and with Walsh’s permission scooped up about a pint of seeds from the bottom of the mow.”

But the nostalgia piece that Warren Gardner and John Kiley read and responded to also brought me a letter from a man now living in Massachusetts, Raymond E. Burke, who said that, although many things in my essay were accurate, the central fact was not a fact at all, for I had confused Big Ed Walsh with another man named Walsh, proprietor for many years of Walsh’s Dairy on North Third Street. Mr. Burke wrote that “The man that ran J. J. Walsh Dairy was James J. Walsh … and [his] home was on Columbus Avenue.” According to him, by 1949 the dairy no longer existed because it was “… closed and Walsh sold his milk route to another milk dealer . . . in the middle ‘40’s.”

How can the past transform itself like that? How can one remember things that never existed? For I did a lot of checking, particularly through Warren Gardner, and discovered that Mr. Burke was correct. Warren wrote, “It looks like a case of mistaken identity. Today I checked several Meriden city directories from 1930 to 1950. The earlier directories gave no occupation for Edward A. Walsh, merely his home address, until 1950 when the listing read: ‘Edward A. Walsh, caretaker Broad Brook reservoir h[ome] Finch av[enue] be-y[ond] town line.’ “

I recall that the obituary my mother sent me had mentioned that Big Ed was the caretaker of a reservoir in Meriden, and Mr. Burke said that he and his father had struck up an acquaintance with the former baseball great when they went fishing there. The obituary never mentioned a milk route, but I had nevertheless been convinced somehow that my summer morning companion had been a retired ball-player.

In one of my forays back to my home town I had myself acquired a copy of The Meriden Directory, vol. 73 for 1949. I have it before me now, and under “W” it has exactly the entries that Warren Gardner quoted, and it has no listing for the dairy itself, thus confirming Mr. Burke’s claim that by then it had been sold. Warren tried to make me feel better about my error. He wrote, “I have no doubt whatsoever that you believed the man you helped deliver milk was ‘Big Ed’ himself. As a boy I delivered the Morning Record to a Pilkington family at the east end of North Avenue. Charlie Pilkington, a young son in the family, was in the news as a promising young amateur prize fighter. He and Kid Kaplan, who went on to win the world’s championship for his weight, were contemporaries. I always hoped that Charlie, who was a hero in the neighborhood, at least among the boys, would answer the door when I collected for the paper, but he never did, and I never saw him. I never saw ‘Big Ed’ Walsh either.”


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