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

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Circle Gang, Part 5

What’s this? A get-together at The Circle tree more than four decades after the gang hung out there?

It’s actually a memorial gathering at THE tree behind the Sixteen Acres Branch Library on April 13 for Phil Chechile, a founding member of the Circle Gang who died March 6 at the age of 62. There were Circle guys there, as well as a couple of the Motleys (also known as the Razorbacks)—the older guys who ruled Sixteen Acres Center before the Circle Gang.

Yes, that’s a U.S. Marines flag. By the time the book The Circle came out, Phil was long gone, fighting in Vietnam, and attaining the rank of Corporal. According to one of those who attended the memorial, although the Circle guys broke the law continuously in the late ’60s and early ’70s, when you talk to them now, they stress the bond that existed between them, not their illegal activity. And that bond continues with many of them to this day.

Despite their reputation, they were also very approachable to anyone who wanted to join their gang. As Phil once put it: “If you weren’t cool, we made you cool.”

His ashes may or may not have been scattered in the old Circle area. Since it might be illegal to spread “cremains” in a public park, let’s just say that only memories, stories, good wishes, and maybe a few tears were dispersed there that day.

The family of Phil, known as Tony Cirelli in the book, was not at all happy with author James A. Coleman’s depiction of him as a guy who would kick a guy when’s he’s down and being pummeled by a group. And his family especially took exception to Coleman’s portrayal of Chechile’s father beating his kids with a rope, which never happened. Coleman, however, claimed that his book was “95 percent true,” and conceded, prior to The Circle’s release, “Some of the parents will appear much worse in the book they actually are.” Was Coleman writing composite characters or simply making some facts up? We’ll never have an answer to this question. He died in 2006.

“You dirty son of a bitch,” said the father of Willy Bogart (his name in the book) when he ran into Coleman in Russell’s Restaurant in the 1990s. Yes, some parents’ enmity continued for a long time.

“So, how are you today?” replied Coleman.

“Fuck you.” 

“How’s [Willy]? I haven’t seen him for quite some time.”

“I haven’t seen him in 23 years and I don’t want to see him. And I don’t want to see you. So get the fuck out of my way, professor.”

Curiously, Coleman said in the above article that he “made up the main character,” Mike Moran, but years later he states, in the article below, that Moran is married to a fine young woman, is financially successful, and is a contributing member of society.

So who was Mike Moran? Most concur that he did base the character on a real person. No, I won’t reveal his name, but here’s a clue: he’s one of the “initialed” lads who were arrested in the story below about a gang fight between the Circle Gang and kids from Forest Park:

When The Circle when it came out in 1970, sales were brisk, and this soon raised the ire of adults, including District Attorney Matty Ryan, who said Coleman “used” the kids and the book “only serves to lengthen the generation gap.” A teacher who taught most of the gang members called the book “garbage” and said Coleman tries to “glorify what the kids did.” Ryan admitted that he didn’t read The Circle, saying that any book sold “under the counter” wasn’t worth reading.

Coleman and others responded that it was sold under the counter at drug stores because teens were stealing it:

Then the charges really started flying, with Coleman asserting that the Springfield Police Department was trying to stop the sale of the book and attempting to get residents to sign a complaint against him.

Coleman’s feud with police began, according to his book, when a couple of Circle guys find a large set of keys in an “appliance store parking lot” (House of Television). After they brag that they’re going to take a joy ride with the store’s trucks, Coleman snatches the keys and brings them back to the store. End of story, right? No.

When H.O.T. gets burglarized and trucks are broken into, Lieutenant Mudd (Is it Wayne Budd, eventual US Attorney, or feared Acres cop “Mush” McCarthy?) puts pressure on Coleman after they read the police report that includes a mention of the keys. Surely, the police reason, the punks had made copies of the keys, and Coleman will spill the beans on the kids if they threaten him with a larceny charge, right? Wrong. He says nothing, and is left alone—until his book is published, and then the police came down on him again.

Coleman’s line has always been that he was there to help these kids, but he also added that there was poor parenting involved in a lot of the families that led to them acting out. I always took this with a grain of salt, because kids from even the best families do these kinds of things when they are bored. He always thought they accepted him because he provided parental guidance that they lacked in their homes. Maybe it’s true in some cases. Plus, they must have liked his wrestling and boxing lessons so they could kick ass more efficiently. (Insert laugh track here.)

Do you recognize any Circle guys on this Parker House softball team?

So what became of the Circle Gang? Most became law-abiding members of society. Some: not exactly. The numerous premature deaths of Circle members begins with the accidental shooting of Frank Archidiacono, when he a couple of friends were fooling around with a gun in 1968, and continued three years later with the fatal crash of a twenty-year-old member, and the list goes on: a 1997 drunk driving death, a fatal heroin overdose in 2000, a death due to alcohol-induced liver disease the same year, three suicides: in 1982, 1998 and 2003.

As for the fate of Mickey Callahan, (his book name), Coleman remembered giving him a ride when he was hitchhiking on Wilbraham Road in 1979—about five years after the Circle Gang broke up—and noticing pockmarks on the backs of his hands. When the professor asked about them, Callahan replied that he had run out of places to shoot heroin into his arms, so he used any convenient veins.

“Mickey” was the brother of a guy I know on Bellamy Road from my partying days at The Gully, a wooded area that was a hangout for kids in the immediate neighborhood. Coleman knew that Mickey was in rough shape, but there wasn’t much more he could do for him at that point. He was always the wildest of the Circle Gang—too wild even for their taste—and soon he would be dead.

In 1983, at the age 28, he hung himself with a sheet in Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord shortly after being jailed for violating his parole. He was originally sentenced to ten years for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon and armed robbery after he robbed the Gasland Station on Wilbraham Road in the Acres twice with four days in 1974. His sister told me one night that he was put back in jail for threatening his doctor. “He was being treated for heroin addiction and he got into a big argument with the guy,” she said. “The doctor was trying to reduce the amount of methadone in his prescription, and he flipped out.”

His family was devastated, but they knew he was spiraling out of control. When “Mickey” was in the Circle Gang, his sister remembers him being locked up in the Westfield juvenile detention center for a while for stabbing a kid, and as soon as he was released he grabbed her piggy bank full of money she had earned babysitting—tucked it under his arm like a running back and took off.

Will I get some blowback for mentioning this? Possibly. I don’t know. I recently ran into Mickey’s brother at a wake for one of our friends, Dave O’Brien (not his real name), who figures prominently in this blog and died at the ripe young age of 50. Maybe Mickey’s brother will read this. Maybe he won’t. 

Five days after the second Gasland robbery, another member of the Circle Gang (also now deceased) was caught trying to steal two diamond rings from the Arthur Cooley jewelry store on Main Street.

At last count, there are approximately 16 members of the Circle Gang (and probably more) who have perished prematurely—some, from “hard living,” or “death on the installment plan”—others simply have succumb to diseases that tend to accompany aging baby boomers.

So was The Circle a bona fide gang, or simply a bunch of rowdy kids? It depends on whom you ask. Coleman once told me that he spent the first ten years of his life in an orphanage, which might help explain his lifelong desire work with troubled children. But how many of the Circle Gang were truly “troubled,” and how many were simply doing what kids in the late ’60s and ’70s in an era of outright rebellion? Again, it depends on whom you ask. And here’s another $64,000 question: did Coleman’s book actually result in the opposite of his intention, emboldening Circle members (and other youths who read The Circle) into committing crimes and boosting their “street cred”? What do YOU think? Leave a comment!

Read parts 12,  3, and 4 about this crew in various posts, along with an account of the tragic death of one of its members, Frank Archidiacono.