The Good Old Days in Darien
A deserved hymn of praise for town's unsung heroes
With something frothy and frosty lubricating the thought process, many ideas, occasionally some even worthwhile, were hatched within the hospitable confines of Darien's old Post Restaurant back in the '50s.
When their weekly Monday night meetings at the Town Hall ended, some of the selectmen would reconvene in a rump session at the Post, across the street from the firehouse. Parliamentary procedures were trashed at will and a news reporter, ears wide open, learned the story behind the story.
At other times, panels of self-anointed experts would explain the finer points of the Yankees' latest victory, argue firehouse politics or analyze the Scrooge-like psyches of various employers. And all, even the totally uninformed, would feel free to chime in, spurred on by the raspy voice of bartender Jack Meehan.
As an instigator, Meehan was peerless. He loved to tell stories like the one about Jim Lechak, a volunteer fireman and the Post cook, forgetting his suspenders as he raced out to answer a fire alarm. As Lechak climbed up on the truck, his pants slid down and Meehan, watching the action, thought it was hilarious. Incidents like this never make the news, Meehan complained, though they flesh out community life and sometimes mix a little levity in with all the weighty reports of bond issues, turnpike construction, school budgets, et al.
Thus, in 1955, a new feature made its debut in the weekly issue of The Darien Review. The column was called "Almost Anything" because that's what it contained. Less than a year later, the editor received the "best local column" award from the National Editorial Association at a conference in Miami, Fla.
The emphasis was on what the writer perceived to be humor, but actually was based on a theory that the pun is mightier than the sword. As a result, there was more corn in the column than in Nebraska. Choice kernels included a report that Benny Gudz, bartender at Ernie's, called a boisterous cocktail crowd "beasts of bourbon." When Tom Kerrigan and Tom Golden exchanged barbs in a zoning debate, the ominous tempo was likened to "the steady beat of Tom Toms." And so it went.
Clearly, a column based on such cerebral stuff could not endure for very long and we began to look for meatier material.
This, of course, was more than a half century ago, when slackers looked for somebody else to tend to the thankless jobs that had to be done. The slogan for that kind of cop-out was "let George do it," but Darien back then was chock-full of Georges who did do it and the column decided to recognize some of them and have a little fun doing just that.
An early winner of the "George of the Month Award" was, coincidentally, a real George, Gaffney that is. A fire chief and mailman, George Gaffney took over his young son's bicycle and newspaper delivery route when the lad was unable to do it. That's heroic.
Then there was an unidentified walker who, as he strolled down West Avenue daily, would pick up what had been strewn the previous evening by litterbugs.
Saluted too was Police Sgt. Rene Buchs for wading into icy Goodwives River one February afternoon to drag a first grader, sopping wet and thoroughly chilled, to dry land and then giving him his jacket. The boy had been riding his tricycle on Old King's Highway and steered right into the shallow stream.
Bennie Gudz got the award once for the potent home-made mustard, ground from roots dug out of his West Avenue garden, that he served with the provolone and salami snacks during happy hour at Ernie's.
An anonymous resident was the George one month when he reported a "suspicious car" to police and Officers Art Bates and Gerry Kennedy tracked it down and made an arrest that solved a series of burglaries that had been plaguing Westchester and Fairfield counties.
Selectman Harry Earle earned a George for his persistence in getting the RTM to enact controls on duck-hunters at Cove Pond. It was called "Harry's Duck Law" and ordered hunters to refrain from pointing their shotguns toward the shore.
Ray Donnell and Sal Mazzeo Sr. were awarded Georges for their work as Red Cross water safety and first aid instructors. They were credited with staffing Pear Tree Point with well-trained lifeguards and they taught emergency measures to owners of private swimming pools.
Lurelle Guild (a famed industrial designer called "Bunny" because of the way he always wrinkled his nose) was commended one month for opening his "Milestone Village" on Swift Lane to the public for a DCA benefit. The village was a collection of little buildings, not quite life-sized but not doll-houses either, completely furnished and equipped to replicate early 18th century businesses, including a pharmacy, blacksmith forge and print shop. It was the only time the village was ever open to the public and thousands came to see it.
"Ole" Anderson, the big cop, was the George one month for saving the life of a baby. In those pre-911 days, a hysterical mother called police headquarters crying that her infant was not breathing. Ole was on desk duty and immediately notified the ambulance crew, but he knew that response would take some time because in those days police officers had to be called in from their regular beats to operate the vehicle. So Ole took the mother step by step through resuscitation procedures on the telephone. In short order, he heard the baby cry and he mopped his brow in relief.
Earl "Buster" Ruscoe got the award one month for "bravery under fire" and for being good natured. Ruscoe, produce manager at the Darien Provision Company, was a small man with a gimpy leg and when he went fishing one day with Tommy Evon, he landed a whopper. It seemed as big as Buster and so sports editor Joe Vitti ran a photograph of the fisherman and his catch on the Review sports page. Vitti felt compelled, however, to point out in the caption that Ruscoe was the one on the left. Ruscoe was kidded unmercifully after the paper was out, but just grinned. Yes, it is by their good nature that people are remembered.
Steve, Julia McCaffrey's kid brother, was just an ordinary kid hacking around the neighborhood and then, it seemed like overnight, he became Father Lasko, a Catholic missionary working heroically among the needy in Africa when it was still known as "The Dark Continent," the land of Tarzan.
O'Neill was a big man, probably about six-five and was a stand-out in Darien sports, especially basketball. Local admirers were predicting big things from him in the future and he didn't let them down. But the headlines were not on sports pages; they were made in concert halls in the United States and Europe. O'Neill had become a leading operatic tenor.
Of course, there were many Georges who made Darien the fine community that it is. More of them will be recalled here in the future.
Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review during the fifties. He can be reached at email@example.com.