Friday, November 30, 2001
Growing Up in Carlisle: Witness to Change
Every day we read, hear, discuss and lament how "the world as we knew it" has changed since September 11. But decades earlier, the world of long-time Carlisle residents had already changed forever, especially those who grew up on Carlisle farms, traveled on dusty dirt roads, knew all their neighbors, and struggled through World War II.
The Carlisle Oral History Project records the stories of the town's sons and daughters whose memories illuminate an earlier, innocent time largely unrecognizable to 21st-century residents. One of those witnesses to change is Irvin Puffer of Bellows Hill Road who was interviewed just before Thanksgiving by Marilyn Harte.
Puffer was born in Carlisle in 1921 to Myrtle and Irvin Puffer, Sr. Myrtle was a sister of Guy Clark. At the age of 21 she died, leaving her six-month-old son Irvin. He went to live with his grandmother, Rena Clark, known as "Grammie," on the Clark Farm on Concord Street, where young Irvin grew up in the company of his uncles Guy and Joe, and his aunt Mariah.
Carlisle at that time was vastly different from the town we know today. The population in 1920 was 463 (mostly farmers) and in 1930 it grew to 569, still mostly farmers. The numbers of farmers dwindled over the decades, until today when our population has swelled to 4,700 with only a handful of farmers.
Asked about growing up on the Clark Farm, Puffer says with a chuckle, "They tried to make a farmer out of me, but that they couldn't do. I was more mechanically inclined." Nonetheless, like all farm children, he had chores to do around the farm: "I used to have to wash the milk pails, and I'd have to carry the milk out and run it through the strainer and put it in the cooler." And he adds emphatically, "But I never milked a cow in my life!"
Young Irvin was happiest "hunting all over Carlisle. I spent my time in the woods. Many a meal we sat down to at the farm was a product of my shotgun." Those meals were often pheasants, partridges and woodcocks, now long disappeared from town. One of his triumphs was bringing home a Thanksgiving turkey to Grammie Clark. "We only ever had chickens for Thanksgiving," Puffer recalls. "But one day I shot a nice red fox and sold it in Westford. On the way back home I passed the Wilson Farm [in Westford] where they raised turkeys and I bought one. I got $3.00 for the fox and paid $3.50 for the turkey. It was the first Thanksgiving turkey Gram had seen in a long time!"
Hunters were welcome in those days, Puffer points out, in marked contrast with today's restrictions. "If the crows were eating a farmer's cornfield, I'd come by with my shotgun and he'd be overjoyed if I shot a few," he remembers with glee. "I'd have people call me to come down and see if I could get rid of the woodchucks or crows." Today, he notes wryly, the police would not look kindly on his walking down the road with a shotgun on his arm.
From Highland School to CCHS
Puffer is a proud "graduate of the Carlisle Grammar School," the Highland School ("I just walked over the hill in back of the farm over to School Street"), which today houses artists' studios rather than classrooms. Later, he went by bus to Concord-Carlisle High School, where he took every mechanical arts class that was offered. He served in the Naval Air Corps during World War II and learned to fly, which remained one of his passions later in life. While he was in the Navy, Puffer met his wife June, a nurse at the V.A. hospital in Bedford. "We met at Tony's Restaurant, in Bedford," he says. "The soldiers [from Hanscom Field] used to come over and they could bring meat. You could go to the mess hall and get a couple of steaks . . . and Tony would cook them!"
Irvin and June were married on February 7, 1946, in Chelmsford, and lived at the Clark Farm for a while. Over the years, they moved to several other homes in the area before settling down in 1961 on Bellows Hill Road, across the road from Puffer's uncle, Joe Clark. Puffer built his large, comfortable house himself and delights in reporting that the total cost of the land and the house was $22,000. Today, Puffer is amazed at the astronomical cost of land and housing in Carlislejust one more measure of how the town has changed during his lifetime.
Irvin Puffer's mechanical abilities and the skills he learned in the Navy brought him success and great satisfaction during his working life. First, though, he quit a boring job in Waltham, and then, "I went down to the airport [Hanscom] and walked in the door of Lincoln Lab." He asked for a job application and was given four pages to fill out. "I just wrote at the top: 'Seventeen years experience,' handed it to the girl, and she said, 'Oh, you can't do that. You have to fill it out.' I said, 'Tell you what. You take it in and give it to them. If they're not interested, then I'm not going to waste my time or theirs.' She came back in a few minutes and said, 'Come with me.' And I had a job before I left!" Puffer's straightforward hiring recalls employment practices unencumbered by psychological tests, security checks and multiple references.
After several years at Lincoln Lab, Puffer was transferred to the Mitre Corporation in Bedford, but shortly thereafter his entire group was laid off. His next job, at MIT, "was the most wonderful time of my life." Puffer worked with two MIT professors and their graduate students in the area of superconductivity. He was also responsible for checking and testing artificial hip joints to ensure their integrity before they were implanted in a patient.
Retirement and time to fly
Puffer retired from MIT when he turned 65 and spent much of the early part of his retirement at Hanscom Field where he kept his two airplanes. Irvin and June were both pilots, and they enjoyed flying immensely. "We'd go down to her brother's in New Jersey, down to the Cape, to Canada. We had a farm up in Nova Scotia and we'd fly there." But, he points out, private flying is "a rich man's sport" and eventually the Puffers gave it up.
He loves telling his favorite flying story. "There used to be a lady down here at the bottom of the hill. They had a raised balcony up over the porch and on nice warm summer days she used to have a sunbath out there, in the nude, with just a towel. I used to come around with my airplane and I'd circle around and circle around, and she'd wave to me! Who it was I don't know, but I'll never forget it as long as I live!"
Asked to think back on Carlisle as it once was, Puffer says, "Of course, there's no farming any more. The only one I know of is Great Brook Farm," and he adds, "I don't know why the town needs to own a cranberry bog." He suddenly remembers the Depression era in the 1930s when many Carlisle residents were poor and struggling. "I can remember when they used to pass out food once a week at what used to be the police station." He also recalls that town residents who needed firewood could go to the Town Forest and cut a cord of wood. "I think Guy [Clark] even used to go down there and cut wood and deliver it to some of the poor people. And now they're talking about building affordable housing in the Town Forest." He shakes his head.
These days Irvin Puffer has his memories of the Clark Farm, hunting all over Carlisle, buzzing sunbathing women in his airplane, snowplowing at 4 a.m. with his Uncle Joe, and commuting to MIT to a job he loved. But he isn't one to live in the past and while he acknowledges that the town has changed, he and his wife are happy here. Irvin and June have a daughter who lives in Framingham, and she has a son and a daughter. His granddaughter, who appears to have inherited her grandfather's talents, is a professor at Worcester Polytechnic. The Puffers also keep busy caring for their other important family membertheir hyperactive, relentlessly friendly beagle, Joe.
"I've enjoyed Carlisle," Irvin Puffer reflects, "but I'll say this: we've had the best of it, we've had the best."
© 2001 The Carlisle Mosquito