By Chris Phelan
After graduating from Fitchburg High School in 1974, I was effectively gone. My parents moved just a couple of days after graduation, which in essence cut me off from anyone who might have wanted to stay in touch. Not that I was the first name my classmates would contact. Like the character who sings, “Cellophane” in the play and movie “Chicago,” I felt I was unremarkable in every way while in school.
Within month of walking across the stage for my diploma at Crocker Field that June, I was shipped out to boot camp for a four-year hitch in the Navy, and that made sure I didn’t see too much land, and even less of the United States.
Immediately after that I went to a college in a Midwestern state. I went straight from my ship on the Mediterranean Sea to southern Illinois, without stopping, for fear I would lose the angst and momentum I had built up to extend my education and start my life.
After college in 1982, I took a career job that moved me back to the area near Fitchburg. But it had been too long. I knew two childhood friends, Jim Cormier, who shared my love of hockey and the Bruins, and Rosemary DiPerri, who was a friend from high school. But no one else. I was a stranger in my home town. Despite spending 18 years of my life in Fitchburg and working as a skate guard at the Wallace Civic Center, I was a stranger. I stayed with the job six months and was gone, this time for good.
Though my memories were sometimes as sharp and brilliant as the maple leaves in fall, I moved through the town and its streets during those six months and later on the rare occasion when I came to visit, like a ghost. My experiences and perspective seemed much different than the people I met on streets I grew up on and played, and in the businesses I visited for almost two decades. But my memories of being born and growing up in Fitchburg, and my love of distance running taught me by FHS Coaches Ed Gastongay and Koutenan, were threads that kept me attached to the area. They kept me coming back, either in my mind or physically. As best as I can recall, my last visits were in 1995, just before getting married to show relatives my new wife, and for an afternoon in 2004 before running the Boston Marathon with my wife. Prior to that, all anyone knows is that it was a long time. Most recently, in the first week in September 2012, there was a coming together of family events. An uncle had died (Donald Coleman), a niece had been born (Evelyn Grace Brooks), my parents were celebrating their 79th birthdays (Jerry and Pat Phelan), and a wedding was going to take place (Jonathan Mangsen and Erin Buckley), all at once. It was time I came back to visit. A perfect storm of events were calling me back.
Jim Cormier and his wife, Lee, were gracious enough to put me up in a spare bedroom for a couple of days in their west Fitchburg home off Ashburnham Road.
And as with each visit before, I was taken with the tall trees, the lushness of greenery, and the crisp air. As a tip to entrepreneurs, if you could bottle the smells and freshness of north central Massachusetts, you’d make an easy million. Where I currently live, Dallas, Texas for almost 30 years, the trees don’t grow any taller than telephone poles, and the air is dry and clogged with dust. Not any surprise then, that there is little greenery, shrubbery, and only few patches of trees. Dallas is considered in a pretty section of Texas.
It rained my first day back home in Fitchburg, but i still had some extra time to myself.I wanted to roam the town, see places that had memories for me. So I grabbed my running shoes and headed out the door. (Thank you, Coaches Gastongay and Koutenan.)
I wasn’t staying too far from the first house I remembered on Shea Street. So I ran along River Street, toward Cleghorn, then the memories began coming, one after another, like flash cards.
My mom worked at Ilco (Independent Lock Company) while we were in school. I remember standing outside the chain link fence on the summer afternoons waiting for her to come out after work. At the time, the Nashua River was highly toxic and filled with chemicals and ink from the factories up stream. It had a smell that would travel for miles from its banks. It was not the same river then as D.B. Johnson wrote about based on Henry David Thoreau’s journey in the timeless children’s picture book classic “Henry Hikes To Fitchburg.” In 2012, I was very impressed and happy about the state of the river.
I went up the long hill on Daniel Street past St. Joseph’s where I began my schooling and received my spiritual education.
Looking over at the red bricks of St. Joseph’s, I remembered a couple of friends and wondered what had happened to them: Chuck Roussea, Joan Lincourt, and a buddy named Bradley. I remembered Joan because of getting “the paddle” after the teachers wrongly thought we were flirting. We were in the third grade. She didn’t get any licks, but I stood and took mine, despite being wrongly accused and found guilty. …Wonder where she is now?
I remembered the candy store next to the school, how we would dam up the gutters with snow in the winter soaking our feet, and highly contested dodge ball games in on the tar empty lots. I lived for those games. I remembered Mother Mary from 1st grade, Sisters Gertrude in 4th, and Paula in 5th.
I remembered the store at the intersection of Daniels and Clarendon because it’s where I would save my allowance and holiday money to buy Match Box cars. I still have my two hard cover cases full of them.
Further up, off Pratt Road, was Parkhill Park, the local swimming hole. I remembered shivering in murky water while a patient life guard instructor tried to teach little clumps of 6 or 7 of us how to swim. Since it took place in advance of the coming summer season, the swim lessons were conducted in April, I think. I remembered it being unbearably cold. By itself, this didn’t increase my love for swimming. Brrrrrrr. (Years later, I would do 2 ½ – 5 mile endurance swims for fun, bragging rights, and triathlons.) The swimming hole is now filled in and a skate park exists. Skateboards were not very popular in the early 1960’s, especially in a northern snow state.
About half way up Clarendon on the left was where my dad bought my first bike. It was a massive red bomber made of iron. Or seemed like it was. Though it was my size, it was a tank that I rode on every street in the Shea Street neighborhood, and then some. It had fenders and balloon tires, compared to the slick banana seat Sting Ray or English racers (what we called geared bikes, in those days), bikes of my friends Russell LeBlanc, Donny Conklin, Steve, and Ricky Roy. It gave me a foundation for riding that would later help me ride 112 miles in multiple Ironman triathlons, or for eight consecutive days to cross the 900 miles from border-to-border of Texas, three times, and even prepare to cross the country in 2013. And it all started with that mighty red bike.
I remembered marching up Clarendon as a Cub Scout as part of a Memorial Day Parade and thinking it was a long way to St. Joseph’s Cemetery. Standing in the sun in my blue long sleeve shirt, yellow neckerchief, blue pants, and black dress shoes, I learned about standing for our flag and those who had given their time and lives to serve in the armed services while serving our country. The memory followed me for four years while being stationed on a naval vessel. I never forgot the march or listening to the haunting 21 gun salute.
At the top of Clarendon, I turned right on to Franklin Road. Running along Franklin toward Shea, I remembered the white-washes and snow ball fights we boys would attack each other with 50 years ago while walking home from school. I remembered Bizillio’s Market in front of Shea Street. Some of the families had running accounts there. I didn’t know people could do that until I watched friends get things for their mom. Today, it’s JD’s Variety.
At the time, the hill on Shea Street was the halfway point for the length of the street. Today, the street goes much further. I remembered be so hot and thirsty walking home that I wanted to stop at one of the houses along the way and ask for a glass of water. But I never did. It was a good lesson to learn as a 6 year old who would later travel great distances in a quest of self-discovery in marathons, bike rides, swims, and triathlons.
Pausing at the high tension wire tower at the corner of Shea and Hollywood, I remembered Vine Street wasn’t far away, where we all thought was the original “Hollywood & Vine.” I had a friend down there with the last name of Benoit, I think. I couldn’t remember much about him except he had blond hair.
The houses next to mine were known by the kids who lived there, the ones my brother Donald, sister Cathy, or me played with. There were the Oullet’s, LeBlancs, Conklins, and on the other side, the Roys, all in order. Across the street from the Conklins was a field where, when I was playing a pick up football game, one of older and bigger kids playing for the other side came wearing his pads. He was the only one who did. I think there was tree as a goal marker. As he came down the field carrying the ball, I was faced with the decision to stop him or let him go and score. I tried to stop him and knocked out a bottom tooth. I never played the sport again.
Between the Conklins and our house on the corner of Cathy Street, there used to exist a pond. It was before Cathy Street was built. We used to catch frogs there. I remembered grabbing my dad’s shovel once in the summer when the pond had dried up, determined to dig my way through the earth, and come out the other side. It was probably good the rocky soil of New England forced me to give up after spending an afternoon digging.
The pond is also where I was introduced to ice hockey, when two boys put me in as their goalie, even though I wasn’t wearing or even owned ice skates. I didn’t last long in that game, but years later I would play as much as I could for any team that would have me, even being offered a referee job with the brand new World Hockey Association (WHA).
Across from us were, “The woods.” They’re still there today. Being small, the patch of trees was large, and filled with anything our imaginations thought. It could be a scary place, a place of adventure, or just walking and talking. We spent many hours testing our athleticism and daring others to follow with stunts we wouldn’t tell dare our parents about.
In the winter, we would pull our sleighs through The Woods to the Oakhill Country Club’s 18th hole. With our small perspective, it was a massive hill and very long. Our Red Flyers would scream down through the snow reaching hyper speed, causing tears to blur our vision. We crashed often and laughed wildly.
I remembered our mailman was Henry “Bunny” Cormier. Even though I was only five at the time, he was the funniest man I knew. Though Bunny would change routes years later, I would meet his son, Jim Cormier, by chance not knowing who he was, during a pick up street hockey game. I would years later play guitar for his wedding in 1984. Today, it was with Jim who I was staying with on this recent trip.
While living at 550 Shea Street, my dad planted a willow tree out front on the barren lawn. On trips over the years, my siblings and I would drive by our old house, marking time by the size of the willow tree. Then on one visit, the willow tree was gone. We were all shocked and couldn’t imagine why someone would cut down our tree, especially this tree with its elegantly long and sweeping branches.
Looking at the house now, owners have paved the drive way and added on a cover for their cars. It looked nice. I wondered if the hole my dad purposely made in the wall between the kitchen and the living room was still there.
I looked at the front window of where I used to sleep with my brother. I used to wake up early, sit at the cracked open window, and listen for the early morning train whistle in the distance, feeling the cold on my face.
After cruising the neighborhood, I headed back down Shea, Franklin, and Clarendon to where the Victory Market used to be. My mom shopped there on occasion. I decided to head to Crocker Field. I heard there was a possibility it would be open. While at FHS, I ran all my practices and meets there. At the time it wasn’t always enjoyable, but I had memories and ghosts I could easily conjure up.
I ran past the DQ, still along River Street. But where I remembered C&S Pizza and the Co-Op gain and the feed store used to be, were gone.
Luckily, when I got to the track, no one was around, but the gate was open. I took my mark and ran two laps (a half mile) as fast as I could, with a jog in between for recovery. I couldn’t remember my times from when I ran for FHS. But I was confident I was faster now than I was then, even though I was 40 years older. I remembered the strange shape of that track that resembled the letter “D.” It was unlike any other. I remembered the turns, the straight-aways, and could even picture the crowds when I was an usher at football games.
Then it came time to head back to Jim and Lee’s house. I still had a two mile run in front of me, and hadn’t been able to drink any water.
After living on Shea Street for a number of years, my family would eventually move to Townsend Street. I ran down that street to Coolidge Park the next day as “part two” of my running memory tour. I went up the Fitchburg State University campus (used to be a college) and wandered around inside my old class rooms at Edgerly and TC Junior High, now Percival Hall. It was wild as the memories flooded my brain that had been in a drought stage for 40 years. On this visit, a car was being demolished by a fraternity where I watched students 40 years ago march in The Moratorium, a nationwide demonstration against the United States involvement in the Vietnam War that took place on October 15, 1969. These memories were seared in my mind. I carry them everywhere I go and in everything I do.
I’ve run in many countries around the world (North, Central, and South America, all over Europe, Japan, and Africa). I’ve represented the U.S. three times in championship races. But I’ve always remembered where I got my start, in the little borough between the hills of north central Massachusetts, named Fitchburg.
Chris Phelan now lives outside Dallas, TX, and trains others in endurance sports.