A once-deadly river’s hushed voice

JIM CAHILLANE     May 16, 2014       Daily Hampshire Gazette

     As a Northampton native I was largely unaware, until we found a building lot in Williamsburg 20 years ago, of the May 16, 1874 Mill River disaster. I joked we would soon own the best house by a dam site, i.e. a few hundred yards into the woods on City of Northampton owned land, which today is posted No Trespassing.

Occasionally, historian Ralman Black leads groups there.

Today, as an informed member of the Historical Society I know that the loss of Burgy’s defective water power dam never was a joke and is not one today. It’s sour negligence writ large; our town’s unique major disaster recalled with both pride and sorrow.

Pride in the heroes who saved so many lives and sadness at those lost. 2014 marks 140 years since the dam burst. I can count a full seventy-five of them since the Mill River’s flow became my watershed of memories.

In the 1930’s Northampton center was flood prone. The Mill River flowed behind City Hall down Pleasant Street under the Wright Avenue Bridge and into the meadows to join the Connecticut. Something had to be done and the Army Engineers took on the task of diverting the river at West Street to follow a new cutting behind South Street to the Ox Bow.

That same year, 1939, my parents moved their growing family from Glendale Avenue to lower South Street. I remember a canvas lean-to extending the length of our glassed-in back porch to protect us from the blasting necessary to construct the new river channel.

The river’s been a constant in my life ever since.

Everyone swam at the bridge; dad built a backyard stairway over the riprap to a wooden dock, connecting we kids to the water. That his effort was optimistic is obvious—given that the river was, as I recalled in “The Best Place of All” (City/Northampton 2004): “a toxic tapestry of colorful industrial waste from the McCallum Hosiery a quarter mile away, as well as Prophylactic Brush and every plant upriver in Northampton, Florence and Leeds, plus all of Williamsburg’s sewage system.”

Miraculously, we avoided polio during the ‘40’s and 50’s. In 1951 my sixteen-year-old brother Steve became a hero when he rescued a boy from drowning. The river flowed cleaner and was a presence as we raised five children on nearby South Park Terrace.

Daily as I head out for my morning paper I hear the failed dam’s Mill River Ext. source over the hill. Its volume varies based on total rainfall.

Mole meets Ratty in the opening pages of Kenneth Grahame’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Unfamiliar in his new surroundings and alive with the coming of spring, Moley comprehends: “So – this – is – a – river!”

The river,” corrected the Rat. “By it and with it and on it and in it,” said the Rat. “It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! The times we’ve had together!”

Ratty speaks for all of us who pause to appreciate the great blessings of New England’s rivers and streams. Take Paradise Pond for example. The Mill River refreshes it daily, leading to a picturesque waterfall next to Smith’s playing fields and running track, creating a matchless campus ideal. It’s a peaceful boating venue most days and perfect for celebratory flotillas. Shockingly, in January 1950 a stolen Hudson convertible was rolled into the pond; Harold’s Garage recovered it in their first tow job.

A few of us pre-teens once skinny-dipped there, a la Norman Rockwell.

Continuing up stream we find ourselves in Florence and Look Park. There the river is low and easily accessible to toe-dipping children. Its ripples relax picnicking families in Northampton’s beautiful backyard. Look Park became the 1874 flood’s riotous endpoint.

The Valley was never quite the same again.

Poet W. D. Howells compared our Northampton and Florence rivers to those of Florence, Italy, “That beauty’s home beside the Arno’s flow.” I’ve seen the Arno. It flows green like our hosiery-dyed river once did.

Well, rivers have a beginning and an end. Our Mill stream ends at the Ox Bow where literate boaters often quote that wise river resident, Ratty: “Believe me my young friend there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.”

On Friday May 16th I will be thinking about the 139 people, half of them Irish and Canadian immigrants, who lost their lives to the flood.


(Burgy Poet Jim Cahillane’s house plaque “Mole End” celebrates Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 masterwork: “The Wind in the Willows.”)


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Us vs. US Politics

Television talking heads are prone to impart a strange standard for Joe and Jane Public to use when weighing the virtues of presidential candidates: the “who would you like to have a beer with?” question.

Heck, I don’t know.

I believe a Texan named George W. Bush came out ahead of Al Gore on that key “likability” question in 2000. In a divided nation the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, awarding Bush the presidency. Gore, the good of the nation in mind, bowed out without an extended fight. Well, how did that work out?

Two wars that changed hundreds of billions in budget surpluses into huge deficits. Real estate values, Wall Street stocks, Main Street businesses and the U.S. automobile industry all hit the skids; the resulting stimulus bills are still unpaid.

A thinking person would have to conclude that maybe the middle class and American workers were not the first thing on George W. Bush’s mind.

W., like his father before him, was a well-off Republican from Day One. My father, in contrast, chose to be a lifelong Democrat and he knew why. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932 to save the nation from a deep Depression. President Hoover proved unable to take the actions needed to get the country moving again, but FDR had bold ideas, plus the energy and Congressional clout to implement them.

FDR’s successor was Harry Truman, who ended the war in 1945 and defeated the GOP in 1948. Do you remember the Republican slogan in that campaign?

I do. It was on signs all over our Valley and asked this question: “Had Enough”?

In the GOP world view, no voter in his or her right mind could choose Truman in 1948. Getting the nation out of the Depression and winning the war, plus passing the G.I. Bill and integrating the Armed Forces against the advice of all the generals and admirals afloat wasn’t enough for some postwar voters.

Truman barnstormed the country. At one whistle-stop a supporter yelled, “Give them hell, Harry”! Truman ad-libbed, “I just tell the truth and they think it’s hell.”

There’s nothing new under the sun. GOP prevaricators were on full display in Tampa. Well, their dour view lost in 1948. The thinking voters of 2012 will take note of Obama’s accomplishments in the face of implacable foes: Congressional Republicans.

Speaking of hearts and health care, and we should, I commend your attention to a letter to the editor of the Gazette on Tuesday. I don’t know Peggy Lucey of Northampton, but I like her style when it comes to defining the many differences between our Republican U.S. senator, Scott Brown, and his Democratic challenger – the creator of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Wall Street nemesis, Elizabeth Warren.

Favoring a management style known as “walking around,” Lucey took her dog through her neighborhood, where the Brown lawn signs say “he’s for us.”

Using the Socratic method, Peggy’s missive questioned the use of the word “us.” Was Sen. Brown part of us when he voted against three jobs bills in 2011? Is it the seniors who would lose out if Obamacare is repealed by Romney, or when our grandkids lose health coverage now in place until age 26? How about women getting equal pay for equal work? Or will all of us be losers on Sen. Brown’s votes favoring Wall Street more than the EPA?

Lucey’s expositions are but a variation of Tonto’s fictional reply to the Lone Ranger’s battle plan, when they were under attack by Native Americans: “What do you mean by ‘us,’ Kemo Sabe”?

A great letter to the editor is one that makes people think twice before they vote.

As a senior who’s alive thanks to Medicare, I have many good reasons to be and to vote Democratic. The choice between pushing up daisies and enjoying them for many more springs seems obvious to me, but apparently not to all. I just reread my own Gazette column from July 1999. George W. Bush was still on the horizon and claiming to be a “compassionate conservative.” A comedian of the era wondered, “Why doesn’t he make up his mind?”

Thirteen years have passed, but the questions never seem to change. As the song goes, “Who can explain it, who can tell you why?”

The only answer is to go to the polls and vote your best interests.

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Another Romney of Memory



Thursday, May 3, 2012

WILLIAMSBURG – A recent New Yorker article made a good point about American culture – that memory reasserts itself every so many years. “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.”

For example, the article pointed out today’s interest in the 1960s as portrayed by the TV show “Mad Men.” Looking to the ’40s, it noticed movies about the turn of the century, like “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” a film made in 1944 about a fair held in 1904. This year’s presidential election could prove the point.

In my later years, I have, if not a 40-yard stare, memories of 40- and 50-year-old events, and of people who influenced my youth.

The playwright Alan Bennett recognized this phenomenon in his 1968 play, “Forty Years On” starring John Gielgud as a confused headmaster. The law of averages, or six degrees of separation, ensures that most of us will encounter a celebrity during our lives. One of mine was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s father, George.

Sit down, children, as I take you back 50 or more years to a time when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler ruled the American road, except for little American Motors, Volkswagen and a few other imports with limited appeal. As it happened, my father had a franchise with the Hudson Motor Car Co., which, because it merged with Nash Motors in 1954, demanded of our family business a challenge disguised as opportunity.

I’m talking 1955; our daily task was to make a living selling the less popular cars built by Nash and Hudson – newly renamed American Motors. The Nash Co. built quirky economy cars in a one-time Wisconsin mattress factory hundreds of miles from Detroit.

In 1956, I visited the factory town of Kenosha, Wis. My memory is of dirty streets with working-class bars. Inside the plant, cars were built the old-fashioned way – no robots, but lots of workers in grey overalls.

An engine block would appear at one end of a roller-equipped assembly line. Each process was done by hand before the worker rolled it along to the next guy. When the engine was completed it was bolted to the drive train. Then the whole assembly was lifted into place from underneath. That surprised me because, in my experience, engines went in and out from the top. Obviously, I wasn’t going to make my mark in manufacturing.

American Motors’ new CEO was a Hollywood-handsome master pitchman. George Romney inherited a dealer body of disgruntled Nash and Hudson guys who competed with each other. We had to compete with a King Street Nash dealership owned by the late Cliff Buchholz. If Cliff ever made a mistake, it was when he took on Toyota then dropped it. Similarly, we sold Honda bikes and scooters but never moved into selling their tiny automobiles.

Which brings me back to George Romney. George could, in a wildly out-of-date phrase, sell iceboxes to Eskimos. In this case, we dealers were the people of the north and we bought his argument that Ford, GM and Chrysler were selling “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” and that Americans were foolish to waste their money on cars that got 10 miles per gallon.

George relabeled his models Ramblers and promised to deliver value for a buck. Regular gas was selling for 31 cents a gallon, but Romney’s conviction in speeches and advertising was that America was wasting its valuable resources. He came up with innovative programs for dealers. If we junked a worn out trade-in, he paid us to do it. Customers who bought a new Rambler received a rebate in the form of a U.S. Savings Bond. Long before the Internet, every salesman in every dealership had a comparison booklet that took on the competition feature by feature.

This year, President Obama will be up against Mitt Romney, the son of George, who sold millions of four- and six-cylinder economy cars. George’s believers became the early adopters of recycling and living a simpler life.

Not long afterward, George Romney was elected Michigan’s governor and in 1967 started a run for the White House. He lost GOP party favor and his presidential bid after saying the Pentagon and State Department diplomats had given him a “brainwashing” during a Vietnam briefing.

History’s 2012 joke could be on the Democrats, if they refuse to compete for every last vote against Willard “Mitt” Romney.

Fifty years ago, Mitt’s dad was one of America’s greatest salesmen.

Jim Cahillane is a freelance writer who lives in Williamsburg.
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Local History/Local Novelists:
2011-12 Forbes Library Reading Series
An evening inspired by
Dominic Daley and James Halligan
Wed., March 7, 2012  at 7 p.m.


In 1806, Dominic Daley and James Halligan were accused of murder and received an unfair trial. The two were found guilty and hung in Northampton before a crowd estimated at 15,000. Both men were Irish immigrants of Roman Catholic faith during a time when discrimination by a predominantly Protestant culture prevailed. This evening will explore the historical event through the voices of a novelist, a poet and a composer.
Michael C. White is the author of six novels, including The Garden of Martyrs, which is based on the Daley and Halligan incident. His latest novel, Beautiful Assassin, won the 2011 Connecticut Book Award for Fiction. He has also published over 50 short stories in national magazines and journals, and has won the Advocate Newspapers Fiction Award. He was the founding editor of the yearly fiction anthology American Fiction, as well as the magazine Dogwood. He is the founder and director of Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Creative Writing Program and Professor of English at Fairfield.
Eric Sawyer has written an opera based on Michael White’s novel, The Garden of Martyrs, with libretto by Harley Erdman of the UMass faculty. It is in workshop with a full premiere expected in 2013. His opera Our American Cousin recently received its stage premiere from Boston Modern Orchestra Project and was released on the BMOP/sound label. Mr. Sawyer has received the Joseph Bearns Prize, awards from the Tanglewood Music Center and the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a recent prize from the Ravinia Festival for his piano trio Lincoln’s Two Americas. He is on the music faculty at Amherst College.
James Francis Cahillane is a native of Northampton and a Korean-era Air Force veteran. Jim sold cars and managed at his family’s former dealership for five decades. A 1992 business sabbatical led to graduate school and a new writing career. His books include The Best Place of All: An Irish-American Memoir of Pluck, Luck and Automobiles and On History’s Front Steps: One Irish Clan’s Exploits in Northampton, Massachusetts, “The Paradise of America.”
This evening is part of the Local History/Local Novelists Series curated by Forbes Writer in Residence Susan Stinson. For more information, visit www.forbeslibrary.org  or call 413-587-1017. All events are free and open to all.
Books will be for sale by Broadside Bookshop. Drawing by Julieta Vasquez Mansilla.
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WILLIAMSBURG – No one makes you run for political office. A rich person might promise to back your candidacy, but only the candidate chooses to run. Whatever happens after they enter the race belongs to the candidates themselves. The painful process of winnowing this field – which comes to Massachusetts Tuesday – is expensive in terms of time, egos and millions of dollars. Maybe they should win on “Jeopardy” first, before exposing their TSA-worthy mental carry-ons to the national political circuit – or circus, as so many are calling it. At least on “Jeopardy,” Alex Trebeck could give them a polite dismissal along with a consolation prize, leaving the country to move on. The first test on “Jeopardy” is the revelation of previously unknown categories. For example: The candidates would have to answer a slew of random topics, like: Quotations, The Bible, The Quran, John Paul XXIII, Thomas Jefferson and “Babe” Ruth, note that Babe is in quotations, says Alex. Question: Do these subjects favor born-again Christians, Mormons, Muslims or Catholic baseball fans? I don’t know, but odds are that a bright Mormon named Ken Jennings does. Jennings won millions on the show.

Article VI of the U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office in the United States. “O beautiful for spacious skies,” as Mitt Romney attempts to sing these days, expressing his love for America and later lauding Michigan’s right-height trees, lakes and cars in one of his odd rambles. Then he blows it by stating that President Obama has “fought against religion in America.” Poor Mitt, making religion fair game backfired when Billy Graham’s son went on Morning Joe. The Rev. Franklin Graham described Mitt as “a nice man with a nice family” but nope, not a Christian. I recall Mitt’s father George Romney loving his job as CEO of American Motors; but he stuck to preaching the virtues of compact cars. Speaking of odd, Romney’s opponents are named Newt, Rick and Ron. Newt’s a 68-year-old former House Speaker with two previous wives and a recent convert to Roman Catholicism. He just called President Obama “dangerous, and a threat to national security.” An audience cheered. Ron Paul is a libertarian who would decimate the federal government and its constructs – like roads and the Department of Education. The beauty part of campaigning is that if you can reduce complex issues to a sound bite you’re guaranteed to make the evening news and the talk shows that run all day. Similarly, if you can, without proof, assign base motives to your opponents, as well as the president of the United States, you tar yourself as a bigot or an ignoramus.

Which brings us to Rick “Sanctus” Santorum. Rick is a defeated Pennsylvania senator, a super-conservative Roman Catholic who proclaims strong beliefs. His angry speeches have earned him two new nicknames: Mullah Rick and Savonarola – a pitiless preacher who, it’s been said, burned sinners “for their own good.” Rick’s sanctimony earns him my less than flattering title of a “Big Catholic.” I don’t think there’s a dictionary definition, but like many things, you know it when you see it. I would never compare a B.C. to the faithful who attend daily or weekly Mass, and who try their best to live by the golden rule. No, to me a “Big Catholic” is a bit of a faker who finds it difficult to be humble in his daily encounters. He knows he’s right. He’s quick to judge other people. He critiques and pronounces for all. The Quran’s sharia law, or the Old Testament’s eye for an eye, sounds practical to him. He has a bad case of amnesia regarding Christ’s teaching to “love thy neighbor.” He’s too invested in his hypocritical worldview. Here are a few of Millionaire Rick’s prescriptions:
1. Home school your kids. (But collect from the local school district.)
2. Use the earth; don’t husband it. (Vote for a “bridge to nowhere.”)
3. Healthcare for everyone is a frill. (I will repeal Obamacare.)
4. Wives shouldn’t work outside the home. (He has seven kids.)
5. The president promotes a phony theology. (Barack’s a Muslim.)

What up with that?

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Saturday, December 24, 2011WILLIAMSBURG – I don’t know why, exactly, but in England Santa Claus is Father Christmas, and Merry Christmas is always, “Happy Christmas.” Nearer home, liberals use the politically correct, “Happy Holidays,” which drives Fox News crazy every year.

Faux News, as some call it, takes a semantic leap by declaring that the terminological difference amounts to War on Christmas. Would that they could get equally exercised about real wars like George W. Bush’s nine-year, $800 billion Iraq error or Wall Street’s 1 percent bonus babies shafting the rest of us: this year’s angry 99 percent.

We, a vast majority, must be nuts to believe that they’re job creators!

Which reminds me of a movie scene from “A Night at the Opera.” Groucho Marx was explaining the sanity clause in a singer’s contract to his brother Chico, who retorted, “Ha, ha, ha, ha. You can’t fool me … there ain’t no sanity clause.”

That’s the same argument we’ve been hearing at every Republican debate, and unless you belong to the 1 percent, what motivates every Occupy Wall Street protester. None of us in the 99 percent have figured out how to beat a system that seems designed to keep us down and in debt to banks and credit card companies.

The 2008 economic collapse is entering its fourth year with no end in sight. Mitt Romney’s “Corporations are people, my friend,” Newt Gingrich’s advice to 9-year-olds to take a janitor’s job and for seniors to give up their benefits before millionaires or the Pentagon take a hit rings hollow when we read that Newt’s lobbying firm has blithely taken millions from Freddie Mac and Capitol Hill supplicants. Our former House Speaker draws guffaws from real historians who bill their hours at a far lower rate.

Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield comes to mind and to life in GOP world. Dickens’ boyhood was marked by his days in a boot-blacking factory, a dirty job forced on him because his father was imprisoned for debt. That experience led him to create the character of Wilkins Micawber, who also went to prison for debt.

Micawber’s motto was his oft-stated firm belief that “something would turn up.” He too was of the 99 percent, and the odds were all against him. In time, he became a clerk for the creepy Uriah Heep, whose crimes he exposed to his financial benefit.

Imagine Occupy truth-tellers as Micawber, and Wall Street zillionaires in place of the crooked accountant Heep, and you too might write a scary story with a happy ending. The second shoe has yet to drop, and a heroic Elizabeth Warren may yet be there in time as Betty on the spot. That worries moneyed Super PACs, who are attacking her in TV ads a full year before the election. Good luck to her campaign.

Dickens answered his own Christmas question about the distribution of wealth in “A Christmas Carol.” Ebenezer Scrooge lost his youthful optimism in a quest for success – defined as accumulated wealth. Soured by a lost love, he chose not to share his worldly goods through charity, or pay his workers a living wage. He begrudged every shilling from his war chest, much like those who would argue that taxing a few percent on annual income above one million dollars to be excessive, unfair and a job killer.

What a joke!

Abraham Lincoln’s “Government of the people, by the people and for the people” promises a sharing of our national abundance. When the evening news celebrates young citizens who from the goodness of their hearts want to help the sick and share their excess toys, it makes you think about adults, a very small percentage of whom have the deck stacked in their favor, but Scrooge-like see no benefit in sharing their abundance.

“Are there no workhouses?” Ebenezer asked when confronted with the needs of the poor. Newt knows the answer to that one: Put those kids on the end of a wet mop and don’t ask me again.

Which brings me back to Santa Claus and his legendary practice of keeping a list of who’s been good or bad. Better or worst flies in the face of today’s “everyone gets a medal” permissive society. Keeping score matters because it causes people to live life in the moment by doing for others.

Giving, surveys say, often benefit the giver as much or more than the receiver.

However, visions of sugarplums are never out of place whether you’re a child or former child – this is the week when everyone is not only allowed but also encouraged to wish upon a star.

Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday season to everyone of good will.

Jim Cahillane, a Williamsburg writer and poet, is thankful for the past year and looking forward to Sunday’s family gathering.

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Not Just Laughing Matters

“I want my country back,” screams the tea party member holding up a like sign. Next, one yells: “Don’t touch my Medicare.” Only Gilbert and Sullivan could find humor in this era’s American paradox.

The tea party folks are boiling mad, which as it turns out is the right way to make proper tea but is one lousy recipe for governing. I suspect their rant translates into “Where did all these people of color come from?”

To answer that question you could do worse than read a book titled “The Help.” It’s set in 1961 and has just been made into a movie. I saw the real thing in 1951 when I joined other Valley innocents on a troop train into the Deep South. I soon learned that America is a big country with varying cultures, including a few that in your ignorance could get you killed. Any laughs found in “The Help” come at a high price.

As more of an observer than a participant these days I wonder at the gun killings which too often comprise our local and national news in headlines that last a day, unless, of course it’s a member of Congress like Gabby Gifford.

Like it or not we and our country have changed since President Ike was America’s kindly White House father figure. I hew to the maxim that President Kennedy preached 50 years ago. A historian and writer by inclination, JFK’s favorite saying was “what’s past is prologue.” His staff members heard it from him so often they joked about it, even as events made it true – day after day, year after year.

The year 1961 was a time of nuclear worries. Otherwise sensible people said “Better red than dead” as we faced the Soviet Union in its bellicosity. “We will bury you,” promised Nikita Khrushchev in a speech to the West. We sponsored an invasion of Cuba among other mistakes, but carried on toward a future so uncertain that backyard bomb shelters were considered a good investment. Civil Defense advice to “duck and cover” in case of atomic attack were edited by my schoolmates to a more realistic action, like, “bending over and kissing your bum goodbye.” We didn’t say bum.

As a senior citizen, I should resist expounding about “the good old days.” Some were, many were not. Memory often delivers the past on a silver cloud. We elders will revel in the good times while conveniently forgetting incurable childhood diseases that garnered bright red notices on a neighbor’s house – QUARANTINE. DO NOT ENTER – courtesy of the Board of Health.

Life expectancy has grown to the point where a baby born today can expect to live 100 years, which is great news for the medical community, if less so for the number-crunchers at Medicare. The missing ingredient in today’s American stew is confidence. Most people surveyed agree to the proposition that their kid and grandkids will have it worse than they did. If you watch Morning Joe on MSNBC you’ll hear the former Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle say it every time he’s given the chance.

I disagree!

Mike is often led down his dubious path by show host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida. Joe espouses his conservative views even as he gives lip service to “fair and balanced.” The Obama administration, as he sees it, “owns” this economy and whatever has gone wrong since “hope and change” arrived on the scene in 2008 is due to the fecklessness of the president, his staff, and a nation of disappointed voters.

But as the Porgy and Bess song humorously reminds us about absolutes – It ain’t necessarily so.

Sen. Mitch McConnell and other GOP leaders have been universal in their willingness to put up roadblocks to progressive legislation that might lead to Obama’s re-election. Iowa’s flavor of the week, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, repeats, ad nauseam, that Barack Obama will be a “One. Term. President.” This is a congresswoman who voted last month to destroy the full faith and credit of the United States of America.

Judge for yourself. In Iowa the whole Republican Field of Nightmares raised their hands to refuse a 10 to 1 ratio of expense cuts to tax increases. Country First my eye!

Our country may be at a crossroads because too many of our elected officials are dumb enough to drive us off a cliff, given their scorched-earth method of governing. Yet if we look to history and our Constitution, we’ll find there a road map out of the current cul-de-sac to “a better tomorrow, tomorrow,” as Stephen Colbert’s Super Pac promises.

I, for one, am with the real comedians. Let’s stop electing all the other idiots.


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Observing Village Life / New Burgy Thursdays

There’s great excitement in Williamsburg this year in the form of a new village farmer’s market. Burgy Thursdays start Thursday, May 12th extending into late October. The market’s unique feng shui setting is on Meekins Library’s Riverside lawn—where a recently rescued cast iron Victorian fence traces the racing Mill River’s graceful bend.

Burgy Thursday’s market promises the highest quality fresh local produce, meats, eggs, cheeses, flowers, baked goods, maple products, live music and more: 2:30-7 p.m.

        I like living in Williamsburg, a town of twenty-five hundred souls, counting the adjoining village of Haydenville. We spent our first forty years of married life in the city of Northampton, which, thanks to its daily newspaper, continues to inform our lives. As a born and bred “Hamp” native, I never had strong feelings about Burgy or its inhabitants.

Growing up devoted to Northampton, Burgy was seldom on our radar. That their trolley car was, “The Burgy Bullet” induced a smile for its dry Yankee humor; we liked that the name endured on buses; but seldom visited the town at the end of the line.

A growing movement is afoot to return to that simpler model of living enjoyed by our ancestors. Today’s Williamsburg is innovating its way to a modern model village.    To build requires a foundation. Williamsburg has a strong one. Town taxpayers support a local elementary school and regional high school. Meekins is both our school Library and the town’s cultural heartbeat, with a community room, frequent readings, and Internet access. Thousands patronize Meekins every month.

The town’s professional police force works under Chief Denise Wickland; its trained volunteer fire department responds to Chief Donald Lawton.

Haydenville & Williamsburg’s retail base starts at Bread Euphoria’s Bakery and dining room on the hill across from Beaver Brook Golf Course. In Haydenville The Blue House and Ross Bros. Antiques are neighbors to two thriving churches: Our Lady of the Hills and Haydenville Congregational. Williamsburg’s Town Hall is in Haydenville. Its town offices and Council on Aging meals and activities insure a lively atmosphere.

Keep going past the charter school in the Brass Works. Slow as you round a Mill River bend near McFadden’s Irish Pub, go past the veterinary clinic to the Village Green Garden and ice cream shop. Next-door is the Williamsburg Snack Bar.

Over the bridge into Williamsburg proper: on the right is our hardware store and pharmacy, also Panda Garden and a hairdresser. Cumberland Farms gas station, mini-mart and Dunkin Donuts allow drivers to top up stomachs and empty wallets in one stop.        In the next block are Main Street Package and A-1 Hilltown Pizza restaurant and take-out emporiums. Ahead is the town’s handsome centerpiece.

Ka-boom! You’re in Burgy: Big Mamou’s Cajun restaurant is on your right, the Williamsburg General Store to your left. Blink, and you’re at the Williamsburg Market, Meekins Library and Florence Bank corner. You’ve arrived! If you’ve timed it right the Williamsburg Congregational Church carillon may herald your coming in song.

You can’t miss The Brewmaster’s Tavern, long famous as the Williams House. Go further up the hill to discover Pat’s Package store with its eclectic country wares.

Longtime Valley residents know the pioneer’s tale about The Angel of Hadley. Today’s Williamsburg has its own gardening angel, Nick Dines. Nick’s an emeritus UMass professor of landscape architecture who, like New England poet Robert Frost, knows his plants and walls. Nick’s built poems welcome visitors as hardscape in the form of Goshen stonewalls and walkways. His walls create sun-warmed garden invitations to Meekins’ Library. Behind the General Store is the Quiet Reflections Garden of memorial bricks, flowers, and benches dedicated to family and friends gone before. Pause nearby at Burgy’s war memorial honoring those who’ve served our country.

In every season, drive slowly through the village to be surrounded by Dine’s imaginative visions. From end to end his curbside plantings beautify the town center.

Summer, winter, autumn and spring are celebrated from the ground up. Eye level daylilies decorate summertime roadways, helping winter blues to melt away. The pocket gardens in front of the bank and market provide colorful portals wherein bees work their magic as passerby trek by on less important errands. Please stop and smell the flowers.

To me, Burgy Thursdays will offer one more reason to enjoy our beautiful village of Williamsburg, Hampshire County’s prettiest village for a walkabout and a meal.

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On History’s Front Steps: One Irish Clan’s Exploits in Northampton, Massachusetts, “The Paradise of America”

JANUARY 18, 2011                                                   FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:

New Release: On History’s Front Steps: One Irish Clan’s Exploits in Northampton, Massachusetts “The Paradise of America” by James Francis Cahillane (Florence Poets Society 2010, 126 pgs. $18).

Jim Cahillane’s latest book is now on sale at local bookshops and at Collective Copies in Florence and Amherst. Cahillane’s innovation is that its fifty-six poems and five essays are derived from over sixty family and historical photographs from 1930 to 2010. The book was partially funded by a grant from the Northampton Arts Council.

In a cover note Professor A. D. Cousins of Macquarie University says “In this book Jim Cahillane captures America through snapshots from one family’s history. He tells affectionately, wryly, perceptively, and movingly about dreams and the hard work (sometime luck) that made them come true. He tells of daring to cross boundaries, of family loyalties, of inheritances, and of keeping faith. His collection is a rich one. Image, poem, and essay take us from past present and back again. Many stories are crystallized within this volume, to the reader’s great pleasure.

On History's Front Steps cover art


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Reflecting on Christmas stories we offer others

WILLIAMSBURG – “Do you think that the children of today look forward to Christmas as we used to do?”

Obviously, the questioner believes he knows the answer, and it is, “No, they don’t.”

The reasoning is simply that today’s kids have so many technological distractions combined with information systems that didn’t exist 50 years ago. Television is old hat to say the least, as was radio in our youth. We took it for granted, thoughtlessly reveling in its free music, dramas, ball games and news, just like TV today. Twenty-five years ago the Internet was a new and slow-moving innovation – until it wasn’t.

We noticed that cell phones were commonplace in Europe before they took over people’s lives here. Less so for elders, except when utilized as a senior citizen tracking device by distant children. In time children grow up; in time roles reverse as dependents find themselves in the new role of caregivers, like it or not.

At every stage of life most of us are trying to answer the age-old question, “Why am I here?” Writers, as a group, are probably more prone to ask that key question, then answer it in unique ways.

I just read “The True Gift,” by Williamsburg’s Patricia MacLachlan. Like the actual Christmas story, what on the surface appears a wondrous fable for children has a greater meaning that slowly reveals itself. Here are all the original elements of fields, animals, barns and parents, even grandparents who oversee the children but resist interfering. Her story has to resolve itself, which is does on a Christmas Eve. I won’t tell the ending except to note that like all true love stories the gift conquers individual desires with good.

My siblings and I were fortunate to enjoy a Northampton childhood that reflected the simple pleasures available in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Since 1939 our lower South Street location offered all-season joys of meadow, stream, swamp and Mill River. To sled and toboggan on Hospital Hill was a no-cost thrill a minute, and Christmas came every year, if a lot slower than nowadays. Birthdays held less interest and smaller presents, if any. Their main purpose was getting older, so we could spread our wings.

Early last year I started a new writing project. I had admired the technique of creating poems inspired by photographs of an earlier time. Inspired by the Florence Poets Society, I’d recently turned my hand to poetry as a change from newspaper columns and my memoir, “The Best Place of All,” published for Northampton’s 350th in 2004.

I gathered up 50 family photographs for a new memoir. I was encouraged by a grant from the Northampton Arts Council and went to work through 2009. The book was due this past June, but life intervened. One emergency colon operation in January became two, then off I went to I.C.U. in an induced coma. When I woke up, following some fantastic travels, my book was on the back burner.

It now has a title, “On History’s Front Steps,” including 56 new poems, 60 or more photographs and five favorite essays. It’s been a long time coming, but thanks to the cover collage by Amanda Merullo, a book design by Steve Strimer of Collective Copies and the support of family and friends, it’s a reality. For many years we lined up on Christmas morning for a photo.

We looked forward to our childhood Christmases, but not the annual arrival of the Northampton photographer, Earl Herrick, who interrupted our fun to record the day and our parents’ growing family. Brother Michael had not arrived for this one. Bigger families were in vogue, which took us kids a few years to appreciate. Today, our younger generations are hungry for family histories.

I feel lucky to be able to oblige them, and anyone else with a taste for yesterday.

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