The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, January 10, 2003


How would you make Carlisle a better community?

Most people living in town would probably agree that Carlisle is a special place, with its combination of great schools and rural landscape all within commuting distance of Boston. Interested newcomers are welcomed to town boards and volunteer organizations, and every voter can participate in the democratic tradition of Town Meeting. However, total perfection is rare in anything, and unless you moved to town yesterday, Carlisle has changed since you arrived. What do you like about the town? What could use improvement?

During a recent interview with the Mosquito, building commissioner Bob Koning was asked, if he could change one thing to improve Carlisle, what would it be? His answer was, "I think a more diversified population than what we have today." For several years developers have focused on the construction of more expensive homes. Koning sees only one economic class of people being able to move into town, and while house lots sell for half a million dollars, "it's only going to get worse." He said that Carlisle's rising taxes also make it difficult for seniors on fixed incomes to remain in town. While he felt that two-acre zoning was critical to maintaining Carlisle's rural character, he thought zoning changes might be needed to allow the creation of affordable family or senior-citizen housing.

Over the holidays I posed the same question to a few people who have lived in town between one and 20 years. The wish for affordable housing was repeated, along with a variety of other suggestions including: a community center; a place in town to meet people and also eat, such as a cafe or fine restaurant; a co-op for garden produce; more organic products at Daisy's; maintaining the single-campus K-8 school system; "bike paths like Lincoln," and last was a wish that more residents would make the time to get involved and volunteer.

What would you choose if you could change one thing to make Carlisle a better community? The next question is, what are you going to do to make it happen?

Time and the fire

January again. The pretty lights are packed away. The times are full of war fears. And I'm hearing some lines of the poet Delmore Schwartz:

May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

Schwartz — brilliant, sensitive, troubled wrote that in 1937 at age 24. Europe was burning. By the early 1940s, he was teaching at Radcliffe College. One day he learned that a favorite student had perished in Boston's infamous Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire.

"This girl was very pretty in a doll-like way," the poet wrote his friend R.P. Blackmur. "Very shy, eager and charming." He had just met with her to correct her last two themes — one on Keats' poem, "When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be," the other on a childhood friend shot down that week in the South Pacific.

"This led to some talk of sudden death," Schwartz wrote.

A grieving young woman contemplates life and death in time of war just days before her own death. The poet's own words about time's harsh, burning lessons must have come back to him.

Last November, I tried to make the professor and his lost student part of my 60th anniversary commemoration of the Cocoanut Grove fire on New England Cable News where I work as a reporter.

In that inferno, 491 people died behind locked or jammed doors on the cold night of November 28, 1942. Some, untouched by flames, succumbed to lethal gases like a young woman found seated at a table, eyes wide open, fingers on the stem of a cocktail glass dead. (Could she have been that Radcliffe student?)

My editor excised my bit of tragic irony from the final script. But not before a Radcliffe archivist gave me the dead young woman's identity along with a picture and some information.

She was Sydney McKenna of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a Radcliffe junior. In her picture, she wears a kind of black sweater or cape over a dark blouse and holds a cardboard strip scrawled with her name, as if for a photo i.d. She is smiling, perhaps laughing, eyes downcast ("very shy, eager and charming"). Her brownish, neck-length hair is coiled and pinned haphazardly. Her face seems more womanly and intelligent than "doll-like" or "pretty." She was an excellent student, based on records that also include an agonized letter to the college from her grief-stricken parents asking how their child had wound up at a nightclub.

Schwartz finished his letter feeling a "sensation of irreducible distress," struggling with "senseless actuality." Such struggles never ended for him. He would become the tragic model for the main character in Saul Bellow's novel Humbolt's Gift. Drug-addicted, mentally ill, he died at 53 in 1966. Sydney, had she lived, would be 80 now.

Delmore and Sydney — sensitive souls who suffered and vanished in life's calamities. I write to restore their memories in these cold days when time, like a fire, is driving us back down the road to war and death.


2003 The Carlisle Mosquito