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Oh the People You'll Meet
Memories of People in Darien CT, especially Holmes School (1957-1963); the
Annex (1963-64); and Middlesex Junior High (1964-1967)
Memory is such a precious gift, bringing back sounds, sights, and people that have long since disappeared from our daily life. In this essay I would like to tell you about memories I have of twenty people from growing up in Darien CT in the years indicated above. Because I spent a good part of my career in law, I have taken special effort not to say anything that will remotely make people say, "That's libelous!" I spend far more time describing my family of origin and life in Darien in my third autobiography, which should be out in 2020 or 2021, Like One Who Dreams: An Autobiography at 65. Here, then, are twenty people. It would be nice to hear from you about some of your memories. I will treat them in chronological order to the best of my ability. I apologize to some whom I don't mention here, whom I certainly would recall if I wrote on twenty more people.
I grew up at 74 Hoyt St, in the Holmes School area. My mother had gone to Holmes school in the 1930s and grew up on Sunnyside Avenue, less than a mile from 74 Hoyt. Her father owned a laundry in Stamford.
1 Bill Abbotts. If I recall correctly, Bill grew up at 9 Heather Lane. We were best buds for several years in elementary school, playing and talking baseball, spending nights at each other's place in the summers. He seemed to have S Carolina roots, with his brother Jim going to the Citadel. Great sense of humor. Unforgettable times.
2. Toby Widdicombe. Seems that Toby lived up on Briar Brae. He was short; I was tall. He talked incessantly; I listened.
3. Ricky Ballentine. Also from Briar Brae. Though it wasn't cool to say so when you were eight years old, I think of Ricky as probably having one of the gentlest hearts and best dispositions of any of us.
4. Bill Clark. Bill lived in a big house on Hoyt Street--seems like it was 104 or 106 Hoyt. I remember it well because it had an in-ground outdoor pool, painted blue. How cool was that! Bill had a sister Patti and a younger brother Bobby, and we spent hours exploring the house and enjoying lazy summer days.
5. Donny Snowden. I learned that the school district actually tried to "pair us up" as friends because I was having trouble adjusting to aspects of school life, and they thought that Donny would provide the intellectual, athletic and social stimulus to help me. We did so much together, from visiting his grandmother in Kew Gardens, to going to baseball games in the city, to inventing a fantasy basketball league before anyone knew what to call these things. Donny knew every NBA player in those days. Truly amazing.
6. Marybeth Spannknebel. She lived in my neighborhood, just down Echo Drive South, I think at number 12 or so. Always was much more friendly to me than I really deserved. A really cute girl. I wish I had had the confidence then to talk to her.
7. Laurel Griffiths. Lived right near Marybeth, I think at 8 (?) Echo Drive South. She was the athlete, as I recall it, able to run faster than the boys. I met her dad once, if I recall--his name was Leslie. I remember wondering how a man could have a name "Leslie." Such little things occupied my mind. . . OR such things occupied my little mind.
8. Nancy Leask. Nancy lived with her family at the end of Echo Drive South, just before it ended in the swamp. My parents were great friends of her parents. I still hear the booming voice of her dad, Jack Leask. In 1963 or 1964 the swamp was reclaimed and the Middlesex Swim Club was put down there. My dad was the first treasurer of the club. I bet all those cars were a mixed blessing for the Leask's. Nancy was short, very shy, really nice.
9. Kristi Dondlinger. She also lived in the neighborhood, on Echo Drive North. I got to know her older brother, Kenny, better than her because Kenny was a friend of my older brother and we always were playing some kind of ball with each other. We had to go through the Dondlinger's back yard to get down to the Noroton River, where my parents were probably awaiting the news that I had probably fallen through the ice (never did).
10. Jim Bishop. Jim moved into the neighborhood probably in third or fourth grade. Wherever Jim went, there went noise. We were baseball buddies as well as after school playmates.
11. Molly Seagrave. Molly was a really special person, energetic, not afraid at all to talk to the boys, smart. Her dad, as I recall, ran for State Senate (I still see the sign, "Seagrave for State Senate"). She made a point of calling herself "The Nose"--and saying "The Nose knows..." I thought it took a lot of self-confidence to refer to herself that way.
12. Eileen Backhurst. She lived on Edmond Street, across from my house on Hoyt St. Never knew her well, but she told me once that the janitor at the school, Frank Festa, was her grandfather. I never figured out how she could have a different last name from her grandfather. The world is SO CONFUSING for eight year-olds!
13. Mark Wilks. Mark was a special friend through junior high, in school, athletics and church. My great uncle had been the pastor for 55 years at Union Memorial Church (Glenbrook), and so our family went there, as did Mark's. The sight of third grade boys in ties and jackets would definitely not be replicated today. Mark's dad, as I recall, always wore bowties. Mark was respectful, fun-loving, smart; I knew he had a bright future ahead of him.
14. Norene Close. She lived over on Intervale Rd (16 or 24?) and I got to know her because our mothers were, well, close. Seems like there were other "Close" girls, about the same ages as my younger brothers. Norene was also a girl who seemed to be nice and friendly to me, though I was too preoccupied with the New York Giants to pay much attention to her, I am afraid.
In the first publication of this essay, I left out my sixth-grade year at the Annex (1963-1964). It combined six graders from at least Holmes and Hollow Tree Schools; I don't know if Royle students were included. Many of those I say below that I met at Middlesex I actually met, on further reflection, at the Annex. It was an undistinguished building with four large classrooms. I remember three of the teachers: Mr Kline, Mr Fraser and Miss Broglia. Every guy in the school was in love with Miss Broglia, and I am sure she knew it, too. The big event of the years was JFK's assassination in November. As we got into the busses to go home, our driver, whom we derisively called "Frenchie" (because of her accent), had her big transistor radio on, tuned to the latest news. She told us, matter-of-factly, in a thick French accent, that "The President is dead, but its not official yet." Those chilling words still ring in my ears.
The other really big event that year was the success of the (North) Little League team. Our class was blessed with outstanding athletes, and they led little Darien to the state championship, only to be crushed by a Tom Amanti-led New London team, 5-1 (thanks to Steve Cary for his memory of the precise score). Tom was a phenom at age 12, already standing at 5-10 and weighing 181 pounds, when our biggest guys were four inches shorter and fifty pounds lighter. He mowed through our All-Star lineup like a scythe through the summer Kansas wheat.
On to Junior High. Although I remember many others from elementary and Annex days, I hasten to Middlesex.
15. Steve Cary. Steve and I connected through baseball in the summer (Kiwanis) and a few classes at Middlesex. We were in Spanish together. I was "Guillermo" and he called me "Gil." I never learned how he had developed such a wicked curve ball as a 12 year-old, but I am glad I didn't have to try to hit it.
16. Hal Cherry. We never were close except for one incident. I was playing first base (Babe Ruth league); Hal slid into me; Hal broke his ankle. I felt as if I had injured someone very badly. For the rest of the summer I would stop into his house, and we actually had some pretty fine times together.
My party crowd: Duncan Peters, Jean Butler, Debbie Prime, Jill Meagher, Margery Sweet and others--during eighth and ninth grade we would have parties at the girls' places on Friday nights. This was really my first attempt at social development, since my parents were all about school, church, cub scouts, paper routes and moving lawns/caddying in the summer. I knew something special was afoot in these gatherings, perhaps once a month, as we ate, listened to music, played Twister and other "clean" games and just enjoyed each other's company. At least I recall everything as "clean!"
17. Pedro Castillo. [I owe some of this information to Jamey Brockardt, with whom I played Little League baseball on the Kiwanis team in 1963-64] Pedro was new to Darien in 1961, though he attended Hollow Tree Elementary School. I met him in Spanish I at Middlesex in 1964. He was from Cuba, spoke perfect English (and Spanish), and seemed to fit into Darien with ease. Because he was already fluent in Spanish, he seemed to spend a lot of time feeding us the answers in Spanish I, probably to the chagrin of our teacher, Miss McGoldrick.
18. Jeff Bewkes. We had homeroom teachers in those junior high years. One of them (Mrs Holder?) was fed up with all of our burping, clearing our throats, and making objectionable noises. I recall her saying, "no more clearing of throats." No more than five seconds later, someone cleared his throat. It was Jeff. I recall her engaging Jeff in a tete-a-tete for several seconds, where Jeff just innocently said that he just "had" to clear his throat. He was persuasive even then.
I walked 1 1/2 miles to school each day. I thought Alan Fletcher was the luckiest person in the world, living almost opposite the school.
19. Frank Steinegger. When I revisited Stamford after having been away from Darien/Stamford for many years, I stayed at a hotel in Stamford. Little did I know it was owned by Frank and his family. We became reacquainted, and he invited me over to his house in Darien. Frank was always friendly, not flamboyant in any way, a steady and faithful worker. Those characteristics served him well in the family business over the years.
20. Roger Luce. Of course, Roger wasn't a student; he was Middlesex's Vice Principal. I got to know him all too well because I seemingly had trouble coloring within the lines, so to speak, on issues of student discipline. I first learned the English word "demerit" from Mr Luce, and I got pretty good at accumulating them. Though we thought his aristocratic mien and temperament was faux, I have since found out it was genuine. He died about 20 years ago, age 82, at a nursing home near the family farm near Bangor ME. The farm had been in the family for 200 years. What I didn't know was that Roger was a horticulturalist of note. Books on Maine horticulture mention him as one of the three "great horticulturalists" of the last generation, as he tried to expand the number of plants that would grow in Maine's hardy soil. Very impressive person. I knew him as a disciplinarian; too bad I didn't have the wisdom or insight to learn about his very special gift to the world. Hard to do so when I was plotting revenge.
21. Keith Hollaman. Mark Wilks reminded me of Keith today in an email. I know Keith was a special friend during junior high; how could I have forgotten him on my original list? I wracked my brain and came up with an answer. . .Keith and I met in seventh grade and had many classes together. His nick name was "Hollowman," but we quickly got beyond that. Though most of my friendships in those days were athletic, and Keith was an accomplished soccer and baseball player, mine with Keith really was more intellectual, now that I reflect on it. He was impressively smart but not at all pretentious. I think I "forgot" Keith as I was putting the first draft of this together because he gave me news that saddened me. One day he told me his parents were sending him away to school (Deerfied, as I recall). I never had had such a close friend who left, and I don't think I knew how to process a feeling of grief that I felt. This was intensified when I read in my literature class John Irving's A Separate Peace, a story about the sad result of life at a boy's New England prep school.
I need one more essay to describe my feelings about leaving Darien in 1967.