Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Juvie Jail Woods and the Story of Pumpkin Head

So, are you sick of me writing about my trudges through local nature reservations instead of dredging up stories of my misspent youth? Tough shit—you’re about to get another hiking description.

Actually, I can mix the two narratives—old story and new hike—together in this entry as I write about yet another underrated conservation tract, known unofficially as the Tinkham Road wetlands area (officially the Labelle Drive Conservation Area), which borders both Springfield’s Sixteen Acres neighborhood and the town of Wilbraham on the northeast side of Tinkham Road, south of Wilbraham Road. The only trailhead I could find with a bona fide parking lot is behind St. Mark’s Armenian Church on Wilbraham Road.

I hit this reservation on May 30, and I was surprised how appealing and diverse these woods are. From Tinkham Road, as you eyeball the woods behind the Department of Youth Services (DYS) facility—yes, the juvie jail—you’d never think that there is hikeable piece of land, never mind an area with both hills and marshes, because it looks flat at first glance.

However, not long into the hike you can enjoy varied terrain, and you’re soon looking way down at a swamp. (See photo below.)

In fact, some of the pathways go through uplands that are surrounded by low-lying swamps, giving you many dramatic views of marshland. (See photo below.)

Wow, check out this orange fungus on a dead log.

Someone obviously went to great trouble to block the path with a fallen tree and other branches (below) to make it tough for people who illegally use motorized dirt bikes and ATVs on the trails.

I have mixed feelings on the use of these vehicles. Yes, I know they cause erosion and degrade the environment, but I’ve been hiking long enough to also know that without them, many trails would be overgrown and inaccessible to hikers.

Here’s an incredibly steep hill. Betcha the thrill-seekers on wheels love this downhill run.

The hill leads to an open area that is home to a longtime resident of the woods. What would an urban forest be without at least one stolen junked car?

I stumble upon another native of the Tinkham Road wetlands, a huge snapping turtle, undoubtedly a female—they come out of the water about this time every spring to lay their eggs on dry land.

Trying not to get too close—I like my fingers where they are, thank you—I put a dollar bill next to it to give you an indication of its size.

Several of the trails lead to the back of the DYS facility for juvenile offenders. (pictured below) When I was a kid it was known as the “bad girls’ school” or more officially the Our Lady of Lourdes “home for troubled teens.”

Below is a photo of the front of the complex in the 1970s, when Western New England College rented space there for its Law School before the College moved it to a new building on its campus down the road in 1978. Students affectionately referred to it as “Our Lady of the Law School.”

Area residents weren’t too thrilled when the state put the DYS facility on the property in 1985, and they were furious when there were three separate escape dramas within the first six months of 1991. My friend Ron Williams (not his real name), who was a guard there, was trying to stop the second escape when he was stabbed with a shank, beaten with his walkie talkie and a flashlight, and left in a pool of blood. He received 17 stitches in his head. A total of 13 inmates, including a murderer, fled the facility in that breakout, but most of them were caught the same day.

Ron Williams. Man, that guy could never catch a break in life. Seriously—one crisis after another. His sister died of from a brain tumor the year before, and Ron himself died of a heart attack in 1995.

And I’m sorry to say that my friends and I were the source of much of his childhood torment. He had a strong personality, and could be incredibly witty at times, but he was, for the most part, well… rather odd. While we collected baseball cards, Ron collected comic books, and he had a strange obsession with Superman. We couldn’t convince him that someone like Thor, even with his mighty hammer and a shitload of kryptonite, could whoop the shit out of Superman. Yes, I believe that in many ways, Ron thought he was Superman, and if we badmouthed Superman, we were insulting Ron Williams. He also idolized John Wayne, and we took great delight in torturing him by insisting that John Wayne was a fag.

Ron was also the kind of guy who played with his G.I. Joe and Action Jackson dolls while they were still in their original wrapping—he didn’t want to get them dirty, which would have diminished their dollar value.

“Ron,” implored my friend Craig Stewart. “Take the fucking G.I. Joe out of the bag. Let’s see his kung-fu grip.”

“Nope,” said Ron. “It’s not coming out of the bag.”

“Fucking Pumpkin Head,” mumbled Craig under his breath.

“What?! What did you say? I’ll kill you!”

Oh-oh. Yes, Ron had quite a temper. He also had quite a large head, hence the nickname Pumpkin Head. Man, those two words set him off like no other. It was worse than questioning the manhood of John Wayne or George Reeves, the secretly gay (no secret to us) actor who played Superman in the 1950s.

Ron was always quick to fight, and quick to get his ass kicked. And when he got punched, his nose had a habit of gushing blood with a flow not unlike Chicopee Falls. Yes, Ron bled a lot. I remember when we were playing tag in our house and he whipped around the corner in our kitchen and slammed his big old pumpkin head into the corner of our counter, spraying blood everywhere. I tried to stem the crimson tide with a roll of paper towels, but when my parents came home and saw the carnage, it was a trip to the emergency room and a big old headful of stitches for poor Ron Williams.

Of course I got a stern lecture from mom and dad about having a friend in the house when they weren’t home, which was strictly verboten. Later, Ron and I got around the rule by playing in our garage, but a week later the dumb-ass closed the garage door, turned the handle, and locked it. He couldn’t figure out how to unlock it from the inside, and of course my family hadn’t seen the key in years. Then the motherfucker couldn’t budge the window lock and started freaking out. When my parents got home, they reminded me that Ron was prone to asthma attacks, so they insisted on breaking the window to get him out so he wouldn’t die on us, and then I was grounded for the fiasco. Fucking Pumpkin Head.

Pathetically eager to be accepted by our gang, Ron did anything on a dare, which led him to pull outrageous stunts in order to be the “Dare King,” a title we bestowed on the purveyor of only the most brazen acts of vandalism—and we did give him the crown the time he tore up Patricia Hale’s garden with a sickle, although his glory was diminished by the fact that he had to pay the bitch $15 for the damage.

Did I mention that Ron had a temper? Jesus, I remember the time when my brother and Rick Riccardi gave him his “birthday noogies,” and boy did that set him off. He simply informed them that it was his 11th birthday, so Dan and Rick felt compelled to get him in a headlock and give him 11 birthday noogies. It went down something like the picture below.

What’s the big deal, right? Well, Ron went ballistic, throwing wild, girlie punches, and the whole neighborhood, including Rick’s parents, watched Dan beat the shit out of him in Rick’s back yard, with no one attempting to break it up. Finally, Ron’s brother heard him screaming and swearing a block away and ran over. He applied his handkerchief to the stop the flow of blood from his brother's nose, and it worked. But after a momentary pause, Ron threw the blood-soaked cloth at Dan and charged him, and he got hit again, prompting the resumption of a crimson cascade from his schnoz. It was Niagara Falls all over again. That’s when his brother and I finally had to break it up.

And then there was Ron’s boxing match with Stan Janek. Literally, a boxing match. Yes, after the movie Rocky came out, my brother and I persuaded my father to let us buy two pairs of boxing gloves, which he agreed to, as long as we also bought—and used—a couple of mouthpieces whenever we boxed. Because of our constant cruelty, Ron hadn’t hung around us in a while, so he didn’t know that we really did whale the shit out of each other during these bouts.

So there he was, cowering under a barrage of Stan’s punches, and it was Niagara Falls all over again from his nose. He threw off his gloves and went after Stan, who backpedaled but still landed punches. “Aaaah!!” screamed Ron, throwing his bloody mouthpiece at Stan and storming out of our yard.

“Holy shit,” said Craig. “That was pretty wild, even for Pumpkin Head.”

But it wasn’t over. Ron suddenly collapsed, leaning against a car in front of Rick Riccardi’s house. We all ran up to watch his asthma attack. Was it fake or real? With Ron, we never knew.

“Water,” he said between gasps and blasts of his inhaler. “Somebody get me water.”

Rick ran in his porch, ran out, and gave Ron a small bowl of water, which he drank with gusto.

“Hey Rick,” said Craig, laughing. “I think he wanted a glass of water, or a drink from your hose, not your cat’s fucking water bowl!”

“What?!” yelled Ron.

“You needed water!” explained Rick, apologetically. “I had to act fast…”

“Aaaah!!” screamed Ron, chucking the bowl at Rick, who ducked. He didn’t need to duck. Ron’s girly throw was horribly inaccurate. “You motherfucker! I'm allergic to cats. I need a doctor!” He stormed down the street. No more collapses, just a couple of middle fingers directed at us.

“A fucking cat water bowl!” laughed Craig. “Oh my God! That’s hilarious! Why didn’t you give him some Purina Cat Chow while you were at it?”

“I had to act fast,” repeated Rick. “I thought he was gonna die.”

To paraphrase Michael Corleone, he had been dying of the same asthma attack for years. How many times did he pull that act? Little did we know he would indeed be the first of us to kick the bucket.

Ron didn’t hang around much after that. A couple of years later we heard he got his ass kicked a few times at Tech High, including a brutal beating by three black kids that sent him to the hospital. I’m sure Ron didn’t go looking for trouble with these guys, but somehow it always found him. It was the late 1970s, and Tech wasn’t the tinderbox that it was during the race riots of 1969 and 1971, but the place was no picnic for a guy like Ron. I’m sure they beat him up because he was a doofy white guy who didn’t have enough friends to retaliate, and they were right.

We ran into Ron on and off over the years—he was the same crazy Ron. He always had a flair for drama, and we wanted no part of it. Even the entertainment value of his tantrums wore off after a while. One time in high school he came over Stan's house and he seemed in awe of the fact that our friend Dave O'Brien could burn rubber with his car in reverse—so much so that he insisted on trying it, and he squealed with delight when he made those tires squeal. Sure enough, about a month later, we heard that Ron turned the Dairy Mart on Plumtree Road into a drive-thru, crashing through the window. He insisted that his car's transmission was fucked up.

“You sure you weren't trying to burn out in reverse and you didn't remember that you were in drive?" I asked him.

“Fuck you, Bob,” he said, flipping the bird with both hands and storming off. Again with the double middle-finger. That guy was one finger-holic.

Ron, Ron, Ron. Life is a box of chocolates, and Ron was allergic to chocolate—and a crapload of other stuff. However, it wasn’t his allergies or his asthma that killed him. For some reason he stopped taking his blood pressure medication, so one morning he didn’t wake up.

Well, back to the present. So here I am, after my hike, showing my three-year-old son the photo of the turtle on my cellphone, but he can barely see it. So I draw it for him with his chalk on the driveway.

We all know a hard-luck guy or two. But Christ, if it weren’t for hard luck, Ron wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

You know, it’s great to be alive and be able to hug your three-year-old son in your driveway after drawing a chalk turtle. Ron never knew that pleasure. Never knew the joys of fatherhood or falling in love. As we raise our boy, I can only tell him that no one deserves to be tormented anywhere near the extent that we ragged on Ron--not that I have to give him any of the gory details. Whoops, too late, they're already on this blog. And I can only pray that my son experiences none of the kind of abuse that Pumpkin Head took.

Ron, Ron, Ron. Dead at 32. Man, that’s some fucked up shit.


Pj said...

I know this is an old post, but I thought I'd chime in. I grew up in the neighborhood just off these woods, and for as long as I can remember, I spent almost every day in them.

That sand-pit area with the junked car we called simply "the pit," and was a great spot to build forts, ride our mx and bmx bikes, and generally get up to no good. Nearby was a fully realized BMX practice track that we kept up for years. It's still kept up, just not quite the same.

The hill you snapped a pic of made for some serious tube rides on snow-days. If you go back to this area again soon, check out the weird/creepy fort (or homeless man's hut) overlooking that car.

I also remember one of the DYS escapes, or what we assumed was one. I was 11 at the time, camping with some buddies when it happened. We heard them coming and retreated into the darkness so they couldn't see us. They went right by us and a few minutes later we heard them steal a neighbor's car and peel off in it. Crazy.

Thanks for this blog, and all the nostalgia it's brought up!

Hell's Acres said...

Hey PJ,

I bombed around these woods on my mountain bike around a year ago, but I hadn't seen the "fort." It must be new. From hiking in the woods in and around Boston, I know it's always a little disturbing to happen upon some homeless guy's shanty. This happened frequently (Franklin Park in Roxbury, Hellenic Hill in Jamaica Plain, etc.) Your adrenaline gets going--"Is this guy going to come raging out of this structure with a knife?"

Is the other BMX practice track you're writing about in the woods behind Sabis? Lots of dirt bikers and jumps there. Last summer I foolishly tried a jump and flipped over my handlebars!

Pj said...

Yeah, this structure looks like it's either a 10 year old's fort or an old man's last resort, but either way I didn't go in.

The track is off the main trail. From the top of the hill you have pictured, continue on a ways and follow the wide trail until you see jumps. Can't miss it.

Are those the "horse trails" woods you're talking about? I used to ride my MX bike out that way, too, had to cross Wilbraham and rip down Peekskill, avoiding eye contact with all the homeowners along the way!

Hell's Acres said...

Yes, I had forgotten the "horse trails" nickname. A long time ago there were riding stables on the corner of Parker and Wilbraham. There are streets entering those woods on the Wilbraham side with the names Harness, Blacksmith, and Horseshoe. I never heard what the Tinkham woods were called back then, but the name "BMX" does ring a bell.

Anonymous said...

When my family moved to Plumtree Rd in 1954 there was a dancehall, a riding stable and Gebo's Gulf at the intersection of Parker and Wilbraham. We played little league ball in the field where the supermarket stands. Carlisle's Hardware appeared during that period as well. We spent many free hours in SB Park. Tobogganed at "3 Bumps and a Jump"..tormented the residents at the Girl Scout camp. Thanks for the memories :-}

Hell's Acres said...

Thanks for the comment. The Girl Scouts camp, I presume, was Camp Dyerbrook on Bass Pond?

Anonymous said...

Might have been Dyerbrook; however, it was located between Plumtree and Southbranch Pky just down the hill off Southbranch. There was a bridge over the stream on the Plumtree side of the camp.

Anonymous said...

Fifty years ago, I lived in the Colonial Acres development in Wilbraham and we kids spent hours and hours exploring the swamp and the woods. We played capture the flag, climbed trees, and even tried to do our own landbridge through the swamp. There were lots of ladyslippers every spring, lots of white pines, tumbledown stone walls. There was an open space we made into a ballfield--we even had field days there. We also used an area where we go sledding every winter. It was our very large backyard
I had no idea it was now a conservation area. I have lost touch with the area. I am so excited that it will be preserved at some level so the animals and people can enjoy it. We could also walk through the woods to where the "bad" girls lived in some of sort of catholic home run by nuns.
I had no idea it was now a conservation area. I have lost touch with the area. I am so excited that it will be preserved at some level so the animals and people can enjoy it

Hell's Acres said...

I assume you lived on East or West Colonial Road or one of those streets. I didn't discover those woods until later--very beautiful. I believe on the Springfield side the city had an old gravel pit there, but yes, now it is preserved as green space.

Anonymous said...

I lived on Glenoak Dr. for nine years and used to ride my bike through those woods to work at DYS. I worked with Ron, sad that he passed so young. He definitely had some issues. I transferred to another DYS facility shortly before the escape, so I wasn't a part of that fun.
I had no idea the area was full of history and teen hijinks while there.
I moved out of state and have recently retired. Really enjoying your detailed accounts and reporting.
The series about the murder of Danny C. was the most well researched piece I have read in a long time. Still heartbreaking after all these years.
You are a gifted writer, keep it up.

Hell’s Acres said...

Thanks. Unfortunately I am going to take a break from monthly postings for a while. Life has gotten in the way of my writing big time recently but I will be back.