Hilltown Postcards

The Plow Comes Full Circle

I wrote this post when our son, Nate, plowed roads for a contractor during the winter. He’s since moved on from that kind of work.

Nate calls while I’m making supper. “Hey, Mom, guess where I’m plowing tonight?”

From the eagerness in his voice, I’m supposed to know. “Route 112?”

He chuckles softly. I do, too.

“Yeah, how’d you guess?” he asks.

Route 112 is a two-lane paved road that’s technically a state highway in Worthington and Huntington, the town next to it, but it’s no larger than most good country roads in the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts.

The route goes past the house we rented for nine years on the other side of Worthington and where Nate spent most of his earliest years. This is the Ringville section of Worthington, a cluster of modest homes hugging the road’s sharp curve. Except for the large field across the road, drivers passing through would not be impressed.

Our house, the smallest, could never hold a coat of white paint on its clapboards. We only heated with wood, and the walls were insulated with newspaper, so the windows in the kids’ bedrooms upstairs were covered inside by ice most of winter.

Nate, the fourth of our six kids and the middle son, is the one who favors me most with his dark hair and complexion. But unlike me he didn’t like school. He did whatever he could to get out of it, pretending he was sick, but I wouldn’t let him. Kids have to go to school.

Nate wasn’t interested no matter how much his teachers or I tried. Some teachers didn’t want to bother, like the band instructor who tried to kick him out his class. Nate wanted to play the drums, and I had to meet with the teacher to explain my son learns in a different way from others. And, he was going to stay in his class no matter what. Nate did, and music was the one thing he enjoyed in school. He doesn’t play the drums as much now, but he does the guitar and keyboard. He started a band that played gigs in local bars, doing the moody, thoughtful songs he writes. He records them in a sound studio he built in his home. He’s helping me create audiobooks.

As a boy, Nate was all-truck. You know the type. He was the kid in the backseat of the car, moving his hand like he’s yanking on an air horn when a tractor-trailer drives close on the highway.

In winter, he’d shout and run to the window whenever he heard a plow blade scrape over the surface of Route 112. Or, if he was playing outside he’d stand watching in our front yard as the truck’s yellow lights strobed their warning and the snow curled in one magnificent white wave from the edge of its plow.

Year-round Nate played in the yard with his fleet of Tonkas – dump trucks, graders, and backhoes, even a steamroller. He got them for Christmas and his birthdays. Sometimes his younger brother, Zack, joined him, but as Nate says, he was strictly a part-timer.

When it snowed, Nate got on his winter clothes and boots, and working by the house’s front light, he used a truck rigged with a wooden plow made by his father to clear the dirt walkway extending from the door to the driveway.

I have photos of him playing in the dark. He’s bundled up. His face is bright and interested. I know what’s on my boy’s mind. He’s inside that cab, plowing a much bigger road than the path in our front yard.

When Nate got older, we’d let him go along with the town’s highway crew when it stormed. He waited at the top of our driveway until Ernie, his friend and the crew’s road boss, stopped his plow truck. Nate rode with him for hours. Happy for the company, Ernie joked and sang off-key on purpose until he dropped him back home.

Like many country kids, Nate learned to drive long before he was of age. He helped his highway pal, Ernie, a part-time farmer, with the haying. Nate drove the pickup while men tossed bales onto a trailer. He was only a kid when he first did it, and he had to scoot forward on the edge of the pickup’s seat, so he could reach the pedals.

The day Nate turned 17, he passed the driver’s test without a learner’s permit or taking a lesson. Then, he got his CDL, that’s a commercial drivers license. He went to school for that, and his oldest sister helped him study for the test.

Nate can operate just about any piece of heavy equipment, or as some old gent remarked the time he watched him handle a dozer, “Boy, you’ve got the touch.”

Most of the year Nate works in construction for a loud and excitable man who calls everyone “Big Boy” including his own wife. He also has new Mac trucks, a real plus in his mind. Nate drives a fourteen-wheeler – just say tri-axle he tells me – with a wing plow and bulldog decals on each side of its massive hood. The truck is thirteen tons stripped down, he says. Add about five tons more for the plow and sander.

Nate has been plowing for eight years. During his first, he took care of a long stretch of Route 2 to the north in Western Massachusetts. Then he did other highways. He feels good about the job he’s doing. Often, he’s the only one on the route during a snowstorm.

“I feel like I’m the savior of the town,” he tells me.

The man from the state highway yard calls as soon as the storm starts. If it’s night, Nate can’t sleep waiting for the phone to ring although later when he’s on the road, he regrets he didn’t. He’s worked in some nasty storms, the longest 32 hours straight, pulling into a place safe off the road to nap in the cab of his truck. He missed most of Christmas one year when he got called out, and he was late to eat on Thanksgiving. We saved him a plate of food. He smelled like diesel when he hugged me hello.

Sometimes Nate calls when his cell phone has a signal, or if the timing’s right, he’ll stop at the house for something to eat, parking his truck at the top of the driveway with its lights flashing so it’s visible to anyone driving that way. Nate’s taken his father and brothers on his route. I went for a short trip to test drive a new truck. The sound of machinery was deafening inside the cab. I watched as Nate’s hands flew about the controls. It’s all second nature to him now. He says he wants me to go for the full 17-mile run during a storm.

Tonight we’re supposed to get several inches of fresh snow, nothing surprising this time of year. The hilltowns east of the Berkshires get a real winter that starts in November and lasts sometimes through April. He’s calling me on his cell phone, and soon he will lose service as his route climbs toward Worthington and then past the house where we used to live. My son is in that cab, making that big wave of snow and ready to toot the horn if he sees some small face watching through a window.

“Nate, remember how excited you got when the plow truck passed the house?”

Nate made a good man’s laugh.

“Yeah, Mom, that’s why I called.”

Hilltown Postcards

The Bum Steers Play Liston’s

I return to Liston’s with this Hilltown Postcard about the Bum Steers, a popular band that played frequently when Steve and Diane Magargal owned the business in Worthington, Mass., and we were regulars there on a Friday night.

It’s another Friday night at Liston’s and the Bum Steers are into that likable playlist that gets people off their seats and dancing.

Bum Steer Bill, wearing a red Western shirt and silver studs in his ears, says the band loves Johnny Cash, and their audiences do, too. The Bum Steers play five of his songs tonight. They also play a Willie Nelson, more of the Stones and something by Hank Williams. A Warren Zevon clears the dancers, but he’s a band favorite. It rebounds with another golden Western, and the floor refills.

The Bum Steers may not be the best band that plays at Liston’s, but they are big crowd-pleasers. Bill says, “We’re not good enough musicians to win them over that way. We just make friends. We play music people like.” 

The band debuted when the core four, who grew up together, did an eight-number set as the warm-up act for their fortieth birthday party at a Legion hall years ago. Eight months later, they had their first gig playing for the door at a bar in the Berkshires. Now the Bum Steers make music twice a month at bars and clubs all over Western Massachusetts.

Bill says if he ran a bar, it’d be like Liston’s. People pay attention, and if fifty people are in the place, forty will dance. He remembers the time a couple of women danced on the bartop. He says, “It makes you feel a little like a rock star.”

But not every place is like that. The night can be a hit or miss for the band. Sometimes no one dances until the last set or six people are left in the joint and the last forty-five minutes turns into a paid rehearsal.

That happens at Liston’s. The place can be so packed, you can hardly move. People slop drinks on the floor or each other. You take an unintentional chop from an elbow. Amateur dance night, I call it. At least we no longer have to dodge lit cigarettes. But other times it’s so dead, Hank and I are the only ones dancing or half the audience came with the band. Or no women show up, so the men just stand around drinking.

You want it to be somewhere in the middle, like tonight, so Steve and Diane Magargal, the owners, feel they can keep this going. Steve says getting bands to play at Liston’s was hard at first. Nobody wanted to make the trip, but they won them over so there’s live music usually every Friday. At the pig roast in August, at least four bands play.

There’s never a cover charge, so if the night’s receipts are close to paying the band, Steve’s happy. Their accountant says they shouldn’t do it, but he likes the music, and he likes having it for the locals. “The town’s been great for a million different reasons,” he says.

As for the music, Skynard is big here. So are the Allman Brothers and Van Morrison. Brown-eyed Girl is a guaranteed hit. So are Sweet Home Alabama, Give Me Three StepsRoadhouse Blues by the Doors — you know the words: “I woke up this morning and I had myself a beer” — and that barroom anthem Mustang Sally although the Bum Steers won’t be performing it tonight. Neither does the band play Free Bird although more than one loud drinker always makes the request.

Years ago, the Bum Steers recorded a CD, The Bum Steers Live at Liston’s. On the cover is the photo one of the bar’s super-regulars, a logger whose father was the mayor of a very large city, who clutches a longneck and raises a hand in a how-do-you-do barroom salute.

The album is sort of a best-hits list for the band, including a couple of originals. The tune, Thousand Dollar Car, is one of the Bum Steers’ best slow numbers. The chorus goes like this: “Oh, why did I go and buy a thousand dollar car?” Really.

Hank and I weren’t there for the recording, but later we bought the CD, autographed by the band, for five bucks. Bum Steers Bill signed his: “Glad you keep comin’ out.”

Hilltown Postcards

All the News Fit to Print

It was by chance I became a journalist — a career that lasted 35 years. I saw an ad in the Daily Hampshire Gazette for a correspondent to cover Worthington, the hilltown in Western Massachusetts where I lived. I had never taken a journalism course or worked for a newspaper except for writing a goofy column in my college’s newspaper. But I was a big newspaper reader, so I believed I understood what constitutes a solid news story. And somehow I convinced Mike Evans, the editor overseeing the hilltowns, to hire me.

In those days, the Gazette had freelancers covering the small towns in its coverage area. Often they lived in the town they covered and like me, had no reporting experience. I recall Mike telling me to choose someone in my town and report what that person would want to know. I chose a smart, older woman who lived on Witt Hill Road. It worked.

It was definitely on me to get the story rightAfter all, most likely I would run into the people I quoted at the town’s only store the next day. But I was up for it. 

I figure those early years reporting were the equivalent of a BA in journalism.

That was 1985. We were living in a dumpy house we rented in the Ringville section of town. If we wanted to get ahead and hopefully, have our own home, I needed to bring in an income. Getting paid by the inch wasn’t going to make a whole lot of money, but it would be a start. Oh, I also got the paper delivered free to my home.

I remember the first meeting I covered. The Board of Selectmen, as it was called in those days, met in the town’s elementary school because the student population had dwindled and the town had yet to build an addition onto Town Hall for offices. The board, which consisted of Julia Sharron, Bert Nugent, and Steve Kulik, who later would become a long-serving State Representative, was very welcoming.

When I first started, I had to write my story that night on the typewriter I used in college and the next morning after the kids got on the school bus, I drove it to the newsroom in Northampton, where one of the staff would type my story into the system. Usually, I had the youngest of our then-five kids with me. Zack would bring a box of Matchbox cars and play while I tended to business. I was fascinated by the newsroom’s hustle and bustle during these visits.

Many months later, the paper gave me a Radio Shack laptop that showed seven lines of copy on its screen. That’s all the computer could do, plus send the story electronically over my phone line to the newsroom. I used the laptop many years until I got my own computer.

So what kinds of news did I find? Local government meetings of course. My favorite was the venerable Annual Town Meeting although a Worthington Board of Health meeting about pigs was a close second. Definitely, the most contentious were dog and junkyard hearings. I wrote features about people and the things they did. I had a column. Occasionally, there was breaking news, typically a house fire or accident. Big weather events, winter storms especially, were on my beat.

Eventually, I took on two more towns: Chesterfield and Cummington. I also got big stories to cover like the closing of a nuclear power plant in Rowe, tax-war resisters in Colrain, and a tornado that touched down in Great Barrington. I even went to the White House to interview Tony Lake, who was national security adviser during Bill Clinton’s first term and a Worthington resident.

Eventually, I was hired full-time as the hilltown reporter, then a line and copy editor during my first 21 years at the GazetteI went on to be editor-in-chief of The Taos News in New Mexico and then came full circle back to Massachusetts to hold that position at the Gazette and its sibling papers, Greenfield Recorder and Athol Daily News. Not bad for a person who never took a journalism course.

As part of these Hilltown Postcards, I will share some of the experiences I had as the Worthington correspondent. I am grateful for that opportunity as it immersed me in the hilltowns more than if I just lived there. I had to listen carefully to what people said and watch what they did. That inspired me to write novels with that setting. Ah, yes, to be continued….

Isabel Long Mystery Series, Uncategorized

Next Isabel Long Mystery: Missing the Deadline

Yes, Isabel Long is once again hard at work trying to solve a case in the sticks of Western Massachusetts. Missing the Deadline, no. 7 in my series, is now ready to pre-order. The Kindle version will be released Dec. 21 — thanks to my publisher darkstroke books. (Paperback readers will have to wait a few months.) Here’s the link: Missing the Deadline.

As it has happened before, Isabel finds her next case in an unlikely place — at a poetry reading. Cyrus Nilsson, aka the Big Shot Poet, is trying to make amends to the late Cary Moore, who you might remember was a highway worker who wrote poetry good enough for him to steal. He was even a suspect in that case, Isabel’s third. But the reading is to promote Cary’s book, Country Boy, which Cyrus worked hard to get published.

Cyrus asks Isabel about taking on a case after the event, which was SRO at Penfield Town Hall. So, what’s this one about? Cyrus’s first literary agent, Gerald Danielson, was found shot in the head and near death outside his home three years ago.

Gerald survived but is not the same hotshot literary agent who moved from New York City to the village of Meadows Falls. Police ruled a failed attempt at suicide. But Cyrus has serious doubts. 

And as Isabel pursues this case, she quickly accumulates a list of possible suspects, such as a vindictive ex-wife, a jilted local writer, and even an apparently devoted sister who lives with him. 

Isabel also delves into the often frustrating world of publishing, which includes a trip to a literary conference in Vermont. She also explores a part of the hilltowns that is unfamiliar to her. 

(By the way, Maria, Isabel’s mother and “Watson,” is glad to have a case once again. She says it’s boring without one.)

Over the next several weeks, I will share more about the book. I hope you are inspired to pre-order the book. Here’s the link to Missing the Deadline again. It sure helps with ratings, something Gerald Danielson would certainly understand.

Hilltown Postcards

The First Winter

Here is the next Hilltown Postcard, which focuses on our first winter in Worthington. Luckily, we had good people to advise us and we had experienced another winter in a more primitive rural setting. We did get smarter and better prepared for winter the longer we lived in the hilltowns.

It got cold then colder that first winter in Worthington. The weather had been harsh in Boston, with the wind coming off the ocean, but at least the apartment we rented in the Jamaica Plain section had reliable heat and insulation. That wasn’t true of the house we rented in Ringville. 

We seriously doubted the walls had any insulation, maybe crumpled newspaper, so we wrapped tar paper along the house’s exterior on its north side to seal it along with the snow that would collect there. One of the locals, probably the helpful Win Donovan advised us to do that.

The windows were single-paned. Our only source of heat was a wood stove we bought that really was just a box of black metal that gave off enough heat for the first floor. The windows on the second, where the kids’ bedrooms were, had thick ice on the interior. The Donovans gave us rectangular blocks of marble we heated on the wood stove and wrapped in flannel to place at the foot of their beds before we piled on the blankets. 

We had a washer, an apartment-sized one, but no dryer. So, I used to hang the laundry on a line with a pulley from the back door. The clothes would freeze one day and the water would evaporate the next. We did have a wooden drying rack near the wood stove. It was a bit of a challenge since our youngest kid was still in diapers.

This wasn’t our first winter in the country. Five years earlier, Hank and I moved with two kids to the sticks of New Hampshire, a town called Wilmot. We rented a house 8 by 24 feet. No electricity. Water came from the stream running beside it. We had an outhouse and a woodstove. 

A farmer on the road sold us cords of firewood that we stack between the trees in rows. Being rookies, we used to start our wood stove’s fire with kerosene, I swear it’s true, and it’s a miracle we didn’t blow up the house. But once the stove got going, the house was indeed warm, especially since we chose to live only on the first floor. 

We had a battery-operated radio that managed to bring in one National Public Radio station. At eight o’clock we looked forward to hearing a reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ series on the Spider’s Web show. Her book “The Longest Winter” had a special meaning.

Hank was driving truck for a natural foods company in Boston. After the pickup truck we bought turned out to be a lemon — we had to abandon it in a field when the brakes gave out and someone who stopped said it was a rusted piece of junk — and before we could buy a VW Bug from good neighbors, he had to hitchhike. He was gone for several days, sometimes longer, and when my supply of split hardwood dwindled to nothing, I asked a neighbor to show me how. I placed one log on top of another and with the swing of a maul, I got it done. I actually became quite good at it. 

But I didn’t have to do much of that in Ringville. Hank used a chainsaw to cut down ash trees, which we were told can be burned green. 

The snow was serious. The VW Bus had decent traction. All we had to do was shovel it out. We didn’t need another vehicle since I didn’t have a driver’s license in those days. That’s fodder for another post. The main road was State Highway 112, which was maintained well. We’d see the plow truck’s strobing lights as it passed.

Hank found some work with people he knew in Boston. Due to the repairs done on the house, we were paying hardly any rent. We somehow managed to keep up with electricity, food, and gas for the car. The phone was cheap in those days. (We only had to dial four numbers then to reach anyone within Worthington.) There was no such thing as the internet. All of my correspondence was done by mail and the landline.

My mother would send boxes of clothes for the kids. One time she included a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream that had been owned by my teacher during my high school freshman year. 

That winter we got to know what the town had to offer, like the small library that I visited weekly to stock up on books, the general store, and a monthly food co-op held at the school where our kids went. We became familiar with the people who lived there, including the neighbors, and what they did for fun in the winter.

Worthington seemed to be a good place to live.

INSPIRATION: The hilltowns of Western Mass. are the inspiration for much of my fiction. You can check out my books, including a mystery series, here.