All posts by Bob Flaherty

Christmas on the thirsty river

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, alongside Ma’s slips and Grandad’s underwear………..

Merry Christmas, all. Here’s a re-peat that seems appropriate on such a day.

10/27/2009 – Daily Hampshire Gazette

By Bob Flaherty

NORTHAMPTON – When the ice breaks apart upriver, it storms down the Connecticut in a roaring tsunami of jagged bergs, and all hands better not be on deck. Out there on the middle of it one winter, and for 21 winters in all, was Russ Myette’s wondrous Christmas tree, protected only by the pontoon raft to which it was attached.

Yes, children, there once was such a tree. It became a tradition so fast that no one even questioned where it came from. All we knew was that one December night, as we were crossing the Coolidge Bridge, a Christmas tree appeared on the ice far below, throwing a reflected yuletide rainbow halfway to shore.

At first, no one knew who had done it. The city? Seriously. And how was it done? Boats, cables, anchors? This was an undertaking.

It got around quick: Some guy’s floating a Christmas tree out in the middle of the Connecticut River, colored lights and everything. The guy turned out to be Myette, a maintenance supervisor who lived high up on the river’s banks on the Hamp side, and looked down on its majesty every single day from the astroturfed deck of his house.

Russ Myette died Oct. 13 after a seven-year battle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 75.

“I sit on my dock and let the beauty of the river work its magic,” he said in interviews published in the Gazette prior to his death.

Spoken like a poet. But Russ Myette, who couldn’t read or write, was more of a general, and in fact was buried as one in a coffin of his own design. The poet can dream the idea of floating a tree on a wild, thirsty river, but the general is the booming-voiced guy who talks a bunch of cronies into the breach.

Living on the river, as many will attest, has its ups and downs. In 1984, the river rose so high it was level with Myette’s dining room window. “You can’t have fear of any water coming in if you want to live here,” he said with a shrug.

This coming from a man who couldn’t swim a lick, who lived on that river and in it for more than 40 years, and was never seen in a life vest.

Spirit of the season

People will remember Myette for a lot of things – recreating battles from the Civil War, hauling his “traveling Christmas tree” around to nursing homes on the back of a utility trailer, fighting Lou Gehrig’s for a lot longer than its sentence. But that tree on the river – that was something.

He said he just wanted to make people happy.

Myette was asked to tell his story in magazines, on radio shows and on “Good Morning America.”

“People thought he was crazy,” said grandson Nathan Patten, 25, “but he’d have six or seven guys out there with ropes, lowering the dock down to the water, somebody in a boat to tow it out there, divers in wet suits to anchor it in. He loved the spirit of Christmas, no other way to explain it.”

In December 1976, Myette and his son Jim walked out on the ice, dug out a little hole and wedged a tree in it. The idea, which was thought up on the spot and supposed to be a one-shot deal, became an overnight sensation, then a ritual, with bands and speeches and the firing of his cannon, a 12-pound Mountain Howitzer with a bark like all of Gettysburg.

“He led a life consumed by adventure,” said former radio personality Dennis Lee, who presided over many of the tree lightings, doing the countdown as Myette and his crew, with walkie-talkies, flirted with the currents and wrestled with cables and colored bulbs.

Each year led to an ever-evolving series of anchors and electrical hookups, plus the ongoing maintenance of protecting the tree from what Myette called “an endless floating quagmire of debris.”

His hero was Ulysses S. Grant, who once said, “No man ought to achieve victory without running the risk of defeat.”

Myette no doubt used those words during his annual battle with the Connecticut River, concerning the tree he stuck in it. A committee was formed to help Myette defray his costs, but the day-to-day? That was him.

Rough with the smooth

The tree broke free in 1989; the Hadley Aquatic Rescue team found it a half-mile downriver. Broke free again in ’95 and led Myette and his band on a cheerful chase down a river no one should have been on. Divers unloosed it in ’86 and dragged it home. Thieves stole lights and underground cable one year and then came back and hacked off the top 15 feet of the 25-footer he’d been preparing to float. Another year the tree got bent and didn’t look right. Myette hauled it in, no easy feat in itself.

And some years it stayed out there and withstood the wind at its worst and just shone.

He often walked out on the ice or waited for it to melt and took a boat out to tend to the project. The project flipped over in ’96, the whole kit and kaboodle, in a terrible storm, a wacky all-nighter. Bridge-travelers saw the submerged lights in the river, and were touched in a way that only song could do justice.

“It takes genius to come up with an idea like that,” said Mayor Clare Higgins of the tree. “Even underwater, it was a classic.”

“This is it,” Myette famously said, hauling the mess to shore. “Mother Nature and the elements have claimed it for the last time.”

Then he famously turned it on one last year, abandoning the shore-to-tree power-line for an in-boat generator.

And then it was gone. Like the Alpine slide, and Suntan Joe, and the Words and Pictures. Myette got too old to risk life and limb to keep it afloat.

He was irascible, bear-like, crusty, a needler who could give as well as take, with a voice so booming all heads turned.

Higgins often got the business from Myette and his cronies while grabbing her morning coffee at Jake’s.

“In the biggest, heartiest voice, he’d yell at me for all the things wrong with the city. I’d get a kick out of it; he had such a great sense of humor. I told him once I’d paint a target on my back so he’d know exactly who to aim at with that cannon of his.”

Higgins got to fire that cannon at First Night, one of the perks of high office, she said.

Living history

Myette’s grandkids got to fire it, too. Not only were they part of the tree lightings each year on the river but they were also part of the Civil War re-enactments.

“We spent summers with him, my sister Nichole and me – three times to Gettysburg. It was like a family I grew up with, all those kids to play with,” said Nathan Patten.

“He always stressed that nobody really won that war,” said Patten. “It taught us that we must come together to be a great country. He said that war shaped how we thought about ourselves, who we wanted to be.”

Fellow re-enactor Elliot Levy, of Longmeadow, part of the 9th Battery Massachusetts Volunteers, said Myette put his heart and soul into every event, becoming general in the process.

“It’s not a rah-rah, beer-drinking thing,” said Levy. “It’s living history, paying respect for some brave people. You are in character from the minute you set up your tent on Saturday until the moment you break camp Sunday night.”

Despite his illiteracy, Myette was a mechanical genius who could figure out how something worked simply by looking at it.

Myette constructed the entire limber chest that dragged his cannon around and also built his own coffin – black and silver, cloth handles – for his Civil War funeral last week.

For years he portrayed Capt. John Bigelow, wounded hero of Gettysburg, whose calm resourcefulness and ability to be everywhere at once rallied his men, Bigelow’s Battery, to hold the line – and hold they did.

But, alas, Bigelow required the energy of a younger man. Levy remembers the day the torch was passed. “It was six years ago at Gettysburg. Russ promoted me to captain. One of the greatest moments of my life – for him to have confidence in me like that.”

“Whenever we take the field, Russ is with us,” said Levy. “We do it his way.”

Myette had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for seven years, which is a pretty long time for sufferers, and was active for five of it, bedridden only the last two years. He was still talking right up to the end.

Patten thinks his grandfather lasted so long partially because he wouldn’t accept the diagnosis. “He didn’t believe it,” said Patten. “It was a sore subject with him.”

Myette believed in other things.

There is good to come from Christmas trees. They can be as religious as Lourdes if you need them to be, but their boughs can sway for something else, too. That tree that used to twinkle on our tempestous gray river said nothing more than, “Hey, up there, good person, there’s another good person way down here.”

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MEMOIR VERSUS NOVEL: CROSS MY HEART & HOPE TO DIE

That’s it. I demand a recall. I want my novel back. All copies should be sent to me with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Some changes need to be made.

You can tell my novel is a novel because it says so right on the cover, in smaller print. It’s called Puff: a novel. I always lower my voice when I say the “novel” part. It’s like a disclaimer. Like the old Dragnet show’s opening: The story you are about to see is true; the names have been changed to protect the innocent. In other words, a fictional pack of lies.

But after James Frey’s bold stand on national TV, where he defended his brilliant memoir A Million Little Pieces as having emotional truth, we humble novelists have been given a new lease on life. Emotional truth is what we do. We now have the status to go with it. From this day forth, we shall be known as: memoirists.

So that’s it. I am recalling all copies of my novel like a faulty intake valve on a Chrysler LeBaron. Hereafter, Puff, (Harper Perennial 288 pages) my story of two good-for-nothing brothers trying to score some pot in the middle of the worst blizzard to ever blow through Boston, will be re-designated as a memoir. It meets all the requirements of a memoir: It seems to be real, the main character speaks in the first person (very important) and it has enough emotional truth to beat the band. Also, death hangs over every scene like a portable guillotine. What more could be asked of a memoir? And the fact of all facts is that a memoir makes a lot more money than a novel and if there’s one thing we nov—I mean memoirists need, it’s money.

So enough of this “raise your right hand and repeat after me” crap. They’re ALL memoirs. And unlike Bill Clinton, James Frey and a whole lot of other folks who publish memoirs, I’m admitting that some of my memoir is made up. I may be the first to do this. The first to come forward. The first to come clean.

This much is indisputable: I was in the middle of the Blizzard of ’78. I had a van. I had a brother. And we would have climbed Mount Washington in our jockstraps for a bag of weed. An open and shut case: Puff—a memoir.

“But how much of this yarn is actually true, Bob?” I was asked at every stop on mybook tour.

“67.6 percent,” was my usual glib reply, but then I started to wonder if the real figure was something much higher. So I brought in interns to pore over the pages with a fine-tooth comb. The amount of emotional truth they uncovered was staggering.

But we novelists, excuse me—memoirists, who work in first person use what is called in the trade: stand-ins. My stand-in in Puff is John Gullivan. People who knew me twenty-five years ago would swear John was me. Same with Gully, the stand-in for my brother Jimmy. You can close your eyes and hear him. I’ve got stand-ins for teachers, priests, cops, cats and knife-wielding maniacs.

And the greatest thing about stand-ins is that they only portray the interesting parts of your life. My stand-in may be me, but he’s the hot-shit version of me. Gone is the longwinded talk show I perform all day for the benefit of my family and anyone else who walks through our door. My stand-in talks sparingly, saying exactly the right thing at the right time. I imagine a lot of A Million Little Pieces is like that. So when does a substituted piece of dialogue cross the bridge into Liar Land? Who gives a fried frappe?

Only books require this burden of truth. We don’t bat an eye at reality TV and its multiple takes. We didn’t ask Tobey Maguire if that was really him swinging around in the Spidey suit. We didn’t ask the dinks in Bush’s White House a damn thing. But books? For books we demand a polygraph test.

It’s the first person stuff that does this. Writing in the first person lends authenticity to the piece, makes everything immediate. I did these things, it calmly announces. It was me. I saved the beagle from drowning. I had sex with Aunt Marlene. I got kicked out of altar boys for laughing during mass. First person. The author and the main character are assumed to be one. Is Salinger not Caulfield? Is Twain not Huck? Is Frey not Frey?

So here’s my confession: Some of the dialogue in Puff is (sob, sniff) completely made up—I’m admitting this now. For instance, page 228: In the scene where the brothers finally fight their way to the pot-dealer’s house, interrupting his afternoon TV watching, he invites them in out of the cold with: “You wanna know what’s happening? Speed Racer’s happening, my friends, followed by Kimba the White fucking Lion! Come in, come in, come in!” But, as every Bostonian of a certain age knows, Channel 56’s everyday lineup in 1978 had Kimba on at 3:30 followed by Speed Racer at 4. I switched the order because it had a better beat. I’m so sorry.

And later, when the same pot-dealer learns of the brother’s losing their mother only hours before, he says: “Cancer? That’s some harsh shit, man. Had an uncle died of cancer. Sonuvabitch looked like a bag of fucking assholes when he died.”Then he gives the boys a little something to get them through their troubling time. Except that the guy who I modeled the pot-dealer after never had an uncle who died of cancer. It’s a lie. He gained the uncle when he went from being a mere stand-in to becoming a real character, with a real life. I hang my head in shame.

“Okay Bob,” you say, picking apart my argument, “what about that scene where your brother disrupts his own induction into the Naval Reserve, knocks over a pitcher of ice water, calls the commanding officer a “real long descriptive name ending in Cub Scout” and ends up getting chased through Boston’s waterfront by Military Police—was that all real, Bob? Did your brother really do all that?”

Sadly, I must answer no. My brother never did any of that. I did. Word for word. It made more sense to give it to Gully. Memoirs are funny like that. You pick and choose.

It doesn’t matter that Twain never rafted down the Mississippi with an escaped slave and, in a crisis of conscience, set the slave free. It doesn’t matter because Huck Finn did all those things and Huck Finn is as real as the air all around us. Same with James Frey. So let’s just slap a BASED ON A TRUE STORY on it like they used to do on made-for-TV movies and end it once and for all. Novels are done. Novels are cassettes. Memoirs are the new novels. It even sounds better coming off the tongue.

Of course, some of these memoirs, though laden with emotional truth they may be, will be far more “fictional” than others. The customer has a right to know. I propose we devise a system, a Fiction-O-Meter if you will, and rate the veracity of the memoir right on the cover. What would noted memoirists like Wally Lamb score? 65-70? What about Richard Russo? Toni Morrison? John Irving? Don’t make me laugh.

On my book’s cover you can safely print: 73% true. That’s pretty good. The bible should have it so good.

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brrrrrr

We get into Wilmington at around noon. The snow has just about stopped. The train leaves you on an outdoor platform—and there the city is. Colder than hell. Everybody thinks we’re crazy to not take a cab or, saints deliver us, a BUS to the hotel, but I googled the thing, it’s like a mile, I do that with the dog. Besides, I just traveled 300 miles without puking or experiencing acute anxiety—why push it? As agreed before we left, we were walking to the hotel. Of course, walking the dog generally does not involve lugging a heavy backpack round your shoulders while hauling a large wheeled suitcase behind you. What a pair we were, me and my wife, dragging our belongings up Market Street hill, breathing heavy in the nor’easter air.

      “At least no one will rob us,” I said. “They’ll think we’re homeless.”

But we made it. And our room at the Sheraton was everything a room should be. And we slept in it for like the next ten hours.   

 

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Riding the Rails

Ani DiFranco’s guitar is played like a hard-rid horse, taped-up fingers clawing at its midsection, fret hand yanking away from its neck with each defiant twang. You almost feel sorry for the instrument. But you never feel sorry for her. Not with that smile, that joyous swagger, that self-assured survivalism she’s had since birth. DiFranco is the rockstar in its purest form, Mick and Keith come back as one, with whispers of Joplin in one verse and warcries of Slick in another. “Everyone….is a fucken Napoleon,” she sings, but there’s that little chuckle in the middle there, as if the realization of it is as funny as the failings it speaks to. But Ani DiFranco, the quintessential cynic, is happy, after all these years, happy to be in love, happy to be a mother, ecstatic to live in a country that elected Barack Obama. “Thank you, America, for being more than I expected,” she sings in a song written on election day.

Anyway, my bride of 30 years and I set out early last Monday in a blinding snowstorm to see the Ani DiFranco concert at the Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE., 300 miles from our house. It was really just an excuse to take a trip on leisurely old Amtrak and stay a couple days in a city we never heard of. Ordinarily, up to about five or six years ago, a trip like this would have been done by car. Except now we hate the car. Well, I do anyway. This has nothing to do with global warming or reducing my (must I say it?) carbon footprint. I just hate the car.Annemarie doesn’t have that much trouble with it, except for the times I’m in the car with her. Oh, boy. Here are two facts you should know about me: From age 17 to about age 40 I was a hellion on wheels. I could drive anything and did, was often employed in some sort of driving capacity, could easily back the biggest truck you wanna name into the ass-narrowest loading dock you could point to and was the cabbie you’d wanna flag down if your flight was taking off in 10 minutes and you were 15 minutes from Logan. I also drove every mile of every vacation we ever went on, there and back. Then something happened. I’m not sure when exactly, but the objects moving around me seemed to increase in speed, while I stayed my middle-aged paranoid self. Faster and faster came the bicycles darting out and the drunkards running lights and the rotaries with six ways to merge until now I feel like George Jetson in the middle of an asteroid field, death and danger around every bend and crossway. And the TRAFFIC JAMS, one after another, no end in sight, no end in sight, suicide hotline on speed dial, no end in sight. I do not breathe during traffic jams. I barely breathe when the traffic’s moving. Now toss in some subtleties like trying to find your hotel in a city you’ve never driven in and you’re now hollering at your bride of 30 years, in that insipidly high squeaky voice you drag out for only such occasions, all because of the idiotic directions she got off the Internet.

So, no, taking the car on a romantic getaway will surely defeat the purpose of the romantic getaway, thereby assuring that the diaphragm stays put in the suitcase with the silky negligee. The airport? Worse. One long shoe-removing, luggage-losing hassle and rental car mess—and there you are back in some little shitbox again yelling at each other. So why don’t you let HER drive and you ride gun, Bob, you may well ask. Good idea. Annemarie is an excellent driver. Problem is me—I don’t ride gun well. The anxiety I already have shoots to 164 over 23 and I get carsick like I’m 12 years old. Peter Pan bus, you say? Not possible. By the time we pass Hartford I’ll have already heaved on the floor, the seat and the shoes of the guy sitting next to me. That leaves the train. The train has its faults, the main one being price—they’ll raise their fares 50 bucks in the course of a day—but the train don’t get all wigged out over weather and it has a bar and a dining car and the seats are nice and the view is remarkable. You see the ass end of every town between Springfield, MA and Wilmington, DE. Backyards and body shops and abandoned mills and warehouses. You also see incredible graffiti all along the retaining walls and buildings, not all of it scrota and mammary, much of it pointedly and expertly rendered. Funny though, the artwork that you might associate with a given town as you pass it by on the train—a squirting dick, for instance—is artwork that has probably never been seen by 90% of its inhabitants, it being on the ass end of town and everything, and facing out. But it’s as representative of that town as the steeple in the distance. And just as much fun to look at. I mean, spray paint has its place, don’t get me wrong. I don’t wanna see it on my house, or on the steps of City Hall, or on the Robert Frost statue or on that steeple just mentioned. But in alleys or underpasses or ass ends of town? Honey, I’m home.

Anyway, the snow is coming down steadily the entire trip. Very romantic. For some reason, I don’t get sick on trains, unless you count subways, otherwise I’d be just as much a dink now as then. Here, all I am is cool. We commandeer the seats across from us and create our own little pad as we laugh and kiss and read and rub each other’s pulled muscles and gaze out at the storm. If we weren’t already hitched this’d be a helluva date.

“Don’t we look comfy?” my bride asks the conductor as he punches our tix.

“You look like you in love,” he grins.

“Do you think you could find us some curtains to hang right about here?” I ask.

“That’s disgusting,” he feigns, and moves on down the aisle.

The reason we are interested in Ani DiFranco is because we saw her play Northampton’s LookPark last summer and were blown to pieces and sawed in half. Up to then, we had merely been aware of Ani Difranco, heard her on college radio, saw reviews in the paper, knew she was political, fearless, knew she was cool. What we did not know was that she was great. Great in a once-in-a generation way. Or at least that’s what it seemed like on a balmy night under the stars at Look’s Pines Theater, with us way in the back up against the hedges, too far to see her face, but plenty close enough get pulled in by that voice, that irrepressible body movement, and a plugged-in acoustic guitar getting bludgeoned from both ends.

So we are rolling through a major snowstorm through the ass end of America to see a singer we barely know in a town we’ve never set foot in. Ah, love. Wilmington is also home to the DelawareArt Museum, which exhibits paintings done by Iraqi artist Thamer Dawood, who I wrote about in a Gazette story. A visit there is planned for Tuesday morning. Our quest for the entire three days is to never enter an automobile. Of course, we did arrive at the Springfield Amtrak station by car, one driven by my brother, in fact, one he then had to drive back to our house in a foot of snow at five o’clock in the morning. So, to accomplish our car-less vacation, we essentially had to enlist someone else with a car to drive through hell first. Irony is often a pesky dish.

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Feb. 21, 2009

This would be Bob’s first entry into blogness. Bob is not sure about this. Or anything else for that matter. That is why it has taken Bob so long to get around to it. The blog frightens Bob. The blog does not come with the usual cadre of editors and copywriters who protect Bob from himself. Bob is afraid that, a week into it, he will let something slip, I don’t know, a revealing story from fourth grade geography—a month later he’s blogging his head off about the bowel movements that control his very life. So you can see Bob’s dilemma.

 

When Bob was a kid only girls kept diaries. That was fine with Bob. He would have been too lazy to keep one anyway. A blog, he figures, is like a diary. Except that your little brother finds the fucken thing and shows it to the world.  

 

To say that Bob is fearful is the understatement of the year.

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