New England

New England is a tease. Hopeful leaf-peepers on the opposite coast — watching webcams and reading reports to help schedule the right flights — learn that a long-lingering New England summer delays the fall colors, and a too-early cold and wind strips the trees bare before we can get there.

Sometimes, the not knowing spices travel just right. You can plan perfectly for the Vatican or Taj Mahal, less so for a natural religious experience like the agony and the ecstasy of a New England autumn.

This fall, our schedule was set by Val’s conference attendance in Boston and the travel plans of our friends, Winky and Peter. As to leaf-peeping, in keeping with the stiff-upper-lip Calvinism that has ruled the region for four hundred years, we might get nothing and like it.

A surer thing was our first pilgrimage to Fenway Park. On the afternoon of a night game against the San Francisco Giants, Val finished her conference while I lunched with my childhood friend, Ross Bresler, at Summer Shack. We feasted on oysters and lobster roll, the first in a binge of which no Calvinist would approve.

Walking that meal off on Commonwealth Ave., Ross gave me the neighborhood download and listed his favorite Fenway haunts. I took in the art history class he teaches at Berklee College of Music and later met Val, Winky and Peter to hit the streets for a different kind of “cultchah” on the walk to Fenway.

The pre-game bar scene, especially Lansdowne Pub, heightened my decades-in-the-making anticipation. But nothing could have prepared me for the heart-skip upon entering the ballpark and then the bucket list first glimpse of the “Monstah.”

My physical reaction to the emotion of the moment shocked me. It took an hour to fully regain my breath. Head-swiveling and eye-scanning all the sights from our seats about twenty rows up from the Pesky Pole, I wondered whether it was the world’s most famous foul pole and suddenly realized its twin, struck by Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning homerun in game six of the 1975 World Series, might be even more famous.

What are the odds, I considered, of the two most famous foul poles standing in the same park? I both feared and embraced these mental meanderings. I worried about devoting brainspace to such minutiae and still congratulated myself on completing the pilgrimage that allowed for this foul pole epiphany.

That reverie ended at the start of a pre-game ceremonial handshake between Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and his grandfather, Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski. The sky purpled over that famous Green Monster of a leftfield wall that shadowed Yaz’s career.

The next major sensation amid so many — Italian sausage scents, “R”s-beome-“Ah”s in the local dialect, the spinal twist needed in a hard narrow wooden seat for the forty-five-degree view of home plate — was the clang of Steven Vogt’s homerun off the Pesky Pole. In fifty years of watching baseball, I’d never heard anything like it. It never occurred to me that a foul pole would clang. Whatever sound Pudge Fisk’s homerun off the leftfield foul pole might have made in 1975 was drowned out by the crowd roar.

And it was again in 2019 when the outfield video board played a Chevrolet ad showing a montage of Fisk highlights set to Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock.” Whatever else happens at Fenway, they honor their history.

And their tradition.

Pondering tradition, I asked Peter what he’d missed most about New England in the decades since he’d left. “The stoicism,” he answered with all the elan of Calvin Coolidge. Then the Giants’ bats got hot and the night got cold, and we shivered stoically through a five-run Giants’ ninth and a quiet last three outs for the Sox.

The next day, Winky and Peter left for their country house in Norwich, Vermont. Val and I started toward Portland, Maine, stopping in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to eat at Surf, on the recommendation of a Bay Area colleague, who had waited tables there. The view was spectacular.

So was the lobster roll, washed down by a bottle of Lord Hobo Brewing Co. Boomsauce, which tasted as irresistible as its name. That lobster roll, though. The bread was so soft and buttery with just the right give, and the meat so fresh and sweet and juicy, that Val showed discomfort at my deep sighs and closed eyes. It was a “When Harry Met Sally” scene, but I was not faking.

In Portland that night, my high school friend, Daphne, took us to Duckfat, where you can guess what I ordered. Then we hit Blyth and Burrows, where we had a little downstairs speakeasy room to ourselves. We talked baseball and journalism and how both could help solve the world’s problems, just as we had since our teens, and we laughed a lot of the same laughs as we had then, plus some new ones until the night faded and so did we.

Daphne toured us around the Portland waterfront the next day, explaining its history and socio-economics, and leading us into mom-and-pop shops.

We stopped at The Porthole for a lunch of you know.

After the rest of Daphne’s tour of Portland, Val and I left for Norwich. We took the straight rural backroads route across New Hampshire, over the river and through the woods, which were just starting to turn red and yellow. Dusk brought us to Winky and Peter’s farmhouse, which was built in 1792 and was somehow historically significant in the westward migration of the Mormons.

For each of the next three syrup-slow days, we enjoyed home-cooked meals and cozy hardwood smoke smells around the fireplace. We stared at the trees in their yard and beyond and thought we could see them changing by the hour. On long walks through the hillsides, we glimpsed flurries of color here and there.

One afternoon, Peter and I golfed at a Donald Ross-designed nine-hole gem called Carter Country Club, which charged a near-criminal ten dollars for the privilege. The trees lining the fairways whispered autumn glory.

Too soon, it was time to fly back across the country. On our hurried interstate drive back to Boston, we saw this last little promise.

According to the webcams, we missed the peak by three weeks. Tantalized, we will return.

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