Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Naked Truth about Worcester's Turtle Boy

(A photo of Worcester's infamous Turtle Boy statue that I just saw on Facebook inspired me to re-post  from August 2010 my inside story of the 102-year-old statue, which has earned a web site, its own song and an endless number of smutty jokes.  When you read Turtle Boy's story, keep in mind that this was written four years ago and some of the events celebrating him that are mentioned here may no longer be available.)

Once upon a time, (in 1905 to be exact), in the city of Worcester, MA, there was a wealthy woman named Harriett P.F. Burnside who worried about the poor horses who pulled carriages and carts all over town. And she wanted to do something to honor the memory of her late father, a prominent Worcester attorney. So she gave $5,000 to the city of Worcester to create a fountain in Central Square that would provide four drinking basins for the thirsty horses (and a lower trough for the city’s dogs.)

The artist chosen to design the sculpture that would be the fountain was Daniel Chester French, famous for the seated statue of Old Abe at the Lincoln Memorial, but he was so busy that he gave the job to his protégé Charles Harvey, who designed and sculpted it. When Harvey died, (slashed his own throat in Bronx Park because of “phantom voices of unseen persons who bade him take his life” as The New York Times described it in Jan.,1912) another sculptor called Sherry Fry finished it and it was unveiled to Worcester in 1912. By then automobiles were beginning to crowd out the city’s horses.

What the schizophrenic Harvey created was a statue of a naked boy riding on the back of a hawksbill sea turtle, who seems to be in mid-flight. Originally water gushed from the turtle’s mouth, but like many things in Worcester, the fountain outlived its usefulness, and in 1969 the sculpture was moved across the street to a spot behind City Hall.

The statue, universally called “Turtle Boy” by Worcester natives, has had a colorful career. In April of 1970, according to Albert Southwick of the Worcester Telegram, vandals struck and the extremely large and heavy statue vanished. Several months later it reappeared just as mysteriously. According to Southwick “It was said that the Worcester police had agreed not to prosecute whoever was responsible.”

Southwick also revealed that “many years ago” Margaret Getchell, daughter of a noted Worcester physician, wrote a children’s book “The Cloud Bird” of eight chapters—each chapter about a Worcester landmark. Chapter eight, “The Adventurer in Armor” tells about a girl named Dorothy Ann who approaches Turtle Boy and sees that he is struggling to hold the Turtle in place. The boy tells her the turtle is “a great adventurer. See he is girding up his armor now.”

Dorothy Ann learns that the boy is a faun who persuades the girl to climb on the back of the turtle with him. It immediately runs down the street “all four legs going so fast you could barely see them.” They reach the ocean, the turtle leaps off a high rock cliff and sinks down into the green waters below. The peculiar trio spend a day sporting in the water until the Turtle truckles back to Salem Square.

According to Wikipedia, “Turtle Boy has become a mascot for Worcester in a way analogous to the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.”

But if you study my Turtle Boy photo above, you will see that, unlike the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, our city’s mascot, like so many other things in Worcester, is a little weird. A hundred years ago no one smirked at the statue and made smutty remarks about the relationship of Boy to Turtle, but nowadays, when WAAF personality Hill Man declared Turtle Boy to be one of the 25 great places in Massachusetts and interviewed passers-by on camera as to what exactly they thought was happening between the boy and the turtle, most of them blushed and waffled about an answer.

The boy’s infamous love affair with the Turtle has made him a huge favorite. “Turtle Boy is the reason I decided to stay in Worcester” declared Scott Dezrah Blinn on the website “”  Yes, Turtle Boy has his own website. He also has a fan club on Facebook. A yearly Turtle Boy Music Award caps a series of third Thursdays when local musicians vie for the honor.

If you want more, I suggest that you check into the Turtle Boy website, created by Claudia Snell, and click on the video of the Roadkill Orchestra, Dr. Gonzo’s house band, performing their song “Turtle Boy” at Dr. Gonzo’s Xtreme Freaky Tiki Grilling Championship on 6/3/10. (Dr. Gonzo’s store, which features “Uncommon Condiments” along with musical performances, is also one of Worcester's landmarks.)

As you can see, Turtle Boy’s popularity is boundless among his followers in Worcester, who lovingly refer to their city as "Wormtown" and “The Paris of the Eighties”.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Memories of a 1940’s Childhood


 Yesterday’s local paper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, had a front-page photo of children and their moms lined up, waiting to get inside a public swimming pool. (The limit is 25 children per one lifeguard, so they had to wait until someone left before they could come in.)

When I see crowded pools, I always think that such a photo could never have been taken when I was a child in the 1940’s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, because all our mothers forbade us to gather in groups for fear of catching polio—especially in a pool.

When the polio epidemics, which always came in summer, were particularly bad we couldn’t even play with other children in our neighborhood.  One summer, when several children on the next block died, we were forbidden even to leave our yard to play with the kid next door.  That summer a social worker came to each house, I remember, and gave me a coloring book and crayons.

Later, in the 1950’s, at a small carnival in a Minnesota village, I remember paying a quarter to go inside a trailer to see a girl somewhat older than myself who lived in an iron lung, because illness (I assumed it was polio) had made her unable to breathe on her own.

A decade later, when I was a junior or senior at U Cal Berkeley, (so it must have been 1962 or ‘63), we all gathered near Sather Gate and were each handed a sugar cube soaked in the Sabin vaccine in a tiny paper cup, and the fear of polio became only a memory.

A few Christmases ago, my adult daughters gave me the Molly doll from the American Girls collection.  She represents the era of the 1940’s.  They gave her to me because I had pointed out that Molly looked exactly like I did in the 1940’s.  We had the same long braids, the same wire-rimmed granny glasses, even the same wardrobe, including hand-smocked pinafores.  (My mother always told me to take my glasses off whenever a camera was nearby, so I can’t find a photo with them, but I still have the glasses—now worn by a vintage teddy bear.)

The Molly doll, like all the American Girl dolls, each representing a diffferent historical era, came with books describing her adventures. There was also a non-fiction book with a lot of vintage photographs explaining the historical period she lived in: “Welcome to Molly’s World—1944—Growing up in World War Two America”.

The author had done a good job of researching life in the 1940’s and telling, in simple terms appropriate for children, about the wartime shortages, Hitler, Jewish ghettos, Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt’s fireside chats and much more.  The book dealt with concentration camps and the Holocaust and the diary of Anne Frank, as well as telling about a little Jewish girl from Austria whose mother sewed money for their escape into her rag doll.  The book told about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the little Japanese girl, Sadako, who tried to fold a thousand paper cranes, thinking that would counter the leukemia she got from the radiation of the A-bomb.  (She finished 664 paper cranes before she died and the children at her school folded the rest and brought them to her funeral.)

World War II clearly affected children in Europe and the South Pacific far more grievously than it did American children, especially those of us in the Midwest, although nearly everyone had a relative fighting “over there.”  But reading about Molly’s fictitious life brought back many small details of childhood in the Forties— such as ration books with stamps for our meat, sugar and butter.

We saved and re-used all grease from the frying pan and butter was replaced with a tasteless margarine that had to have yellow color mixed into it.  We saved tin foil and flattened tin cans for the war effort and of course had a victory garden in the back yard.  Small as we were, we were given cardboard sheets showing the silhouettes of different kinds of airplanes so we could identify an enemy plane if it flew overhead. (We never saw one, but we always looked.)   Our games included frequent shouts of “Bombs over Tokyo!”  We had blackout curtains in all the windows and had to practice air raid drills, when we’d pull the curtains and turn out all the lights in an attempt to make Milwaukee invisible to enemy bombers.  Of course by the 1950’s, air raid drills were replaced with bomb shelters and practicing what to do (hide under our desks) when Russia dropped H-bombs on us. 

In Shorewood, where we lived, most of the neighbors were of German background and, according to my parents, the FBI came around asking if the neighbors were holding meetings or singing war-like songs or doing anything suspicious. The answer was “No”.

Listening to the big mahogany console radio that still had bite marks from my teething days on its corner…trying to get a clear connection with Edward R. Murrow reporting on the war news from London, hearing President Roosevelt saying, “A date which will live in infamy” (well, I can’t remember that—I was an infant in 1941)….  Molly and I have a lot of similar memories of a 1940’s childhood—some of them poignant or scary, but most of them pleasant.   We didn’t have television or video games or cell phones, and we didn’t need them. 

But now, every time I see children escaping the heat, gathered around a sprinkler or swimming pool or an opened fire hydrant, I say a silent prayer of thanks that mothers no longer have to wake up on a hot summer day with the threat of polio hovering over their children.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Wedding Bread as Folk Art?

This is a re-posting from July of 2011, when we were in Greece.  It inspired quite a few comments.  Be patient, readers!  Soon I'll post an up-to-date photo essay about the joys of summer 2014 in Manhattan.

We’re presently at Costa Navarino in Messina, Greece, a super-luxurious resort complex which is devoted to ecological reform as well as supporting and promoting the culture and agriculture of the region.

As part of introducing the resort guests to native traditions, they gathered four local women yesterday to demonstrate making the traditional  “embroidered breads” which are usually prepared to celebrate a wedding.  The breads are set before the bride and groom at the wedding table, and the bride distributes pieces to the guests (like wedding cake in western weddings.)
These four ladies do their bread-making at Costa Navarino every Friday. I was there yesterday, sitting at one of the caned wooden chairs outside the perfect replica of a traditional cafenion, while around us couples sipped coffee frappés and played tavli (backgammon).

You know I love folk art in any form, and photograph it wherever I travel. I quickly realized that the decorated breads made by these local ladies were indeed folk art.
First they sifted.
Then they kneaded.
Taking an occasional break to sip thick Greek coffee from demitasse cups.
The leading artist was Kyria Maria, who had prepared a pencil sketch of her design before she came. (She told me they make different designs every Friday.)

She had a true folk artist’s compulsive need for detail.  Her assistant stood by rolling tiny balls and thin snakes of dough at her behest.  When the first bread, made by two other women, was complete, Kyria Maria was still creating flowers, butterflies, a sun and birds out of dough to cover every inch of her round loaf.  (The first and primary part of her design represented  bunches of grapes on a vine surrounding the Acropolis.)
I was surprised at how many Greek guests came up and asked the women what they were making.  They had never heard of “embroidered breads” for a wedding.
Here are the almost-finished creations, which would be baked to a golden brown and served at the resort’s restaurants for breakfast the next day.

I knew about the “embroidered” wedding breads because last year, when daughter Eleni was married to Emilio in Corfu, Greece, her cousins and her aunt Nikki had prepared  the “embroidered wedding bread” traditional to their part of Greece, but according to their custom, the bride would throw the bread over her shoulders to the single ladies in the group,  like the bride’s bouquet in western culture, before it could be distributed to the crowd.
Eleni’s friend Catherine caught it and, just as for the single ladies who wrote their names on the soles of Eleni’s shoes, hoping that she would dance them away, the magic of the wedding bread will undoubtedly spread all the way from Corfu to Worcester, MA and conjure up a happily-ever-after future.   (Update from 2014--we attended Catherine's beautiful wedding in Connecticut last summer, so the bread did its work!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Is Facebook Making You Depressed? On Purpose?


I read in yesterday's’s New York Times business section (June 30) that Facebook last week admitted to doing “psychological testing” on its readers by—during a week in January 2012—trying to manipulate the feelings of 689,003 of its randomly selected users by changing the number of positive and negative posts that the readers saw.  “It was part of a psychological study to examine how emotions can be spread on social media,” according to The Times.

Tell the truth—if you saw a lot of negative posts on Facebook would this bring you down and cause you to write more negative posts?  And if you saw up-beat positive news on Facebook would that lift your spirits?  Of course it would!

That’s what the Facebook study discovered, according to The Times:

“The researchers found that moods were contagious.  The people who saw more positive posts responded by writing more positive posts.  Similarly, seeing more negative content prompted the viewers to be more negative in their own posts.”

So when this news about Facebook came out last week, there was a lot of outcry, as might be expected.  “I wonder if Facebook KILLED anyone with their emotion manipulation stunt,” tweeted one commentator, Lauren Weinstein, according to The Times.

This is a valid question.  I happen to be a news junky who reads three newspapers every morning first thing, and I admit to checking Facebook about a zillion times a day to see what my children and friends are up to.  Lately, there have been so many headlines about children being abused, kidnapped, shot, stricken with deadly diseases or locked in hot cars that I’m seriously considering cutting out the newspapers in the morning.  And every time I see an item on Facebook that appears to chronicle a child’s injury or disease or abusive childhood or tragic death, I avert my eyes and quickly scroll on by.

Part of the reason I’ve become hypersensitive to bad news about kids is the entry of a granddaughter into my life during the past three years.  You forget how vulnerable and small and easily harmed your children were when they were new.  And how scary that is.

My daughter, the baby’s mother, had the same reaction.  She and her husband used to enjoy watching the TV show “Dexter”, about a serial killer. But since the baby was born, she can’t watch violence of any kind.  As you can imagine, we both avoid shows such as “Game of Thrones” like the plague. (They’ll probably incorporate that into the script, too, if they haven’t already.) And, while I’d really like to see the Oscar-winning film “12 Years a Slave”, I know I couldn’t manage  to sit through all the violence, but would probably run out of the theater, the way I did when I was seven and my crusty old grandmother would take me to Bible films like  Samson and Delilah.”

Back to Facebook manipulating the posts we saw to find out what lots of negative or positive news would do to us. It seems the Facebook people are now feeling sorry and trying to explain themselves, in view of the public outcry.

“I can understand why some people have concerns about it, and my co-authors and I are very sorry for the way the paper described the research and any anxiety it caused,” posted Adam  D. I. Kramer, who led the study.

“Ultimately, we’re just providing a layer of technology that helps people get what they want,” said Chris Cox, chief product officer of Facebook, talking to The Times. 

All the excuses of the Facebook executives are, for lack of a more pungent phrase, a bunch of hooey.

I’m not a researcher or internet genius, but I do know that, when you feel happy, you’re much more likely to react to ads, like the ones on Facebook, and buy something.  When you’re depressed, you’re not.

Whenever I manage to diet off that pesky ten pounds of excess weight, I always happily rush out and buy clothes in my new size that will hang in my closet, price tags still attached, to silently rebuke me when they don’t fit any more, and I have no urge to buy more clothes. 

A happy Facebook reader is more likely to respond to the ads on Facebook than a depressed Facebook reader, and that’s the whole reason for their little foray into psychological testing and emotional manipulation.  The Facebook executives should confess this and be ashamed.

But unless they throw me out for badmouthing the site, I suspect that’s still not going to ameliorate my Facebook addiction.