Johnny Crawford and Chuck Connors in “The Rifleman”. Picture: ABC-TV
“Recollections of a Pittsfield Kid” is a series of vignettes exploring the author’s early life in the Osceola Park neighborhood of Pittsfield, Massachusetts during the 1950s and early 1960s. author was between seven and 12 years old.
Remember when we watched the slew of Western TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s featuring stars like Chuck Connors in “The Rifleman” and Clayton Moore in “The Lone Ranger”? In these stories, the “bad guys” broke the law and various townspeople got angry. Then a detachment was formed to deliver justice quickly. Usually, Chuck and Clayton beat them to the fist and stopped them from giving out punishments.
The story I’m about to tell may involve self-righteous justice or just serendipity at work. Before we get to the main menu, here is some general information about normal activity at Osceola Park.
We had carrom and checkers tournaments, arts and crafts sessions, costume days, doll competitions and even archery lessons. There were several special events throughout the city such as the annual Mardi Gras Parade and Winter Carnival, even a bus trip to Look Park.
One of Osceola Park’s standout special events was watching the Friday night outdoor movie under the stars. There was a large portable screen set up near the cabin and we sat on our blankets and folding chairs, snacks and candy in hand. We Osceolians have been captivated by films such as: ‘The Absent Professor’, ‘The Mysterious Island’, ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘Son of Flubber’ and the totally insane ‘Three Stooges in Orbit’. There was also a slew of cartoons and cliffhanger series featuring Superman, Tarzan, Batman, and more.
It was an idyllic situation in which the community shared a unique adventure. However, there were a few individuals our age who instead had more fun disturbing us. Shall I call them clever, wise alecks, ne’er-do-wells, wisenheimers? As you read, you can select the most descriptive word.
One of them was the ineffable Harley Bover. I can still see the smile on his face as he went about his business. His specialty was creating a stir in the crowd by bringing a pack of dogs and making them bark and growl. He vainly claimed that the public antagonizes his dogs. The “Truthometer” did not register in his favor at all.
Another troublesome kid was Stennis Gilliams. He loved to stand in front of the movie projector and make awkward hand gestures that obscured the view of our screen. He probably used the darkness of the night to his advantage by stealthily unplugging the electrical cords from time to time, thus temporarily interrupting the projection of the film. He was never observed performing this mischief, but he was always a “person of interest”.
We Osceolians could tolerate a few pranks, sure, but after a few Friday nights of this mischief, we decided to call it quits. As in the televised westerns, the call for justice resounds among us. Would we form a band and settle the score? Charley Barrell had a slightly different idea. He said, “Let’s bribe these two guys with free snacks if they promise to behave on movie night.” Charley figured they’d go along with this plan, and probably break their word anyway. But we thought it was worth a try.
On the following movie night, Charley gave these guys their incentive before the show started. He told me later that they quickly devoured his slices of homemade pizza. The feature film started and was going smoothly. We assumed the snack offer was successful and the two hooligans were true to their word. How mature and smart that a group of us 12 year olds acted reasonably, right?
After a while, there was unusual and disconcerting activity emanating from the rear of the crowd. I went back there to investigate. I noted that Harley and Stennis were in distress and pacing uncomfortably at double speed. Soon they were bending over and clenching their bellies (literally “stomach ache”). Then they kind of collapsed to the ground in undulating unison. They moved like unfortunate fish out of water. Their moans and moans never stopped.
Then Chef Charley approached and, out of curiosity, I asked him if he had eaten one of his own pizzas. “No,” he said laconically. Starting to put one and one together, I pressed Charley for the full story. “What ingredients did you use,” I probed. He told me he was quite generous in adding a triple dose of a certain hot sauce called capsaicin, a compound found in bell peppers, which in large amounts can cause stomach pain.
Charley said maybe he should have been less lavish with this additive. He had not graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and his cooking skills were apparently quite limited. It could be that, in a culinary sense, ordinary trial and error was at play here.
Without a doubt, Harley and Stennis suffered through this gastric ordeal and unwittingly paid for their past mistakes.
The burning question is, was this a case of justice served through vicarious vigilantism or was it just a bad food day for Harley and Stennis? You decide.