By Laurence J. Sasso, Jr.
A fly in amber is defined as “a strange relic or reminder of the past.”
According to sources, the meaning derives from the presence of dead insects in yellow or yellowish-brown hard translucent fossil resin that once oozed from long-extinct coniferous trees.
In other words, thousands of years ago insects attracted to sticky tree sap ran afoul of the stuff and became hopelessly stuck, struggled a bit, and died. Eventually, their bodies, efficiently preserved by the natural effects of the hardening amber, turned into relic specimens of their age.
So compelling has been the impression created by these items that were “frozen in time” over the centuries that the phrase fly in amber has passed into general usage. Now it often refers to anything that preserves a remnant of the past beyond its expected time.
As the baseball season opens this month it’s fitting that The Baseball Hall of Fame has a place in this rumination. Cooperstown pretty much consists of nothing but flies in amber. One particular example stands out in memory.
The New York Yankees had a black valise that looked something like a doctor’s bag. For years they carried baseballs to batting practice in it and would always leave the bag near second base until the actual game was about to start.
After a number of years the valise was supplanted by larger more flexible canvas ball bags or wire buckets. Yet the coaches faithfully continued to bring the black leather bag out to second base where it occupied its traditional spot. The ritual, whether motivated by superstition or habit, was carried on for years until finally it was decided to donate the valise to the Hall of Fame where it continued to act as a capsule reminder of the past.
One local example of the fly in amber concept is the Shepard’s Clock in Providence. The legendary Shepard’s Department Store in its heyday was one of New England’s largest such concerns. It grew to occupy an entire city block, and its famous iron clock on the Westminster Street sidewalk outside was known to generations as a place to meet one another when going “down city.” Despite the fact that the store went bankrupt in 1974 and the building is now the site of URI Providence, the clock retains its iconic status.
Venturing up the highway to Boston, one of the nation’s birthplaces, it is easy to find plenty of flies in amber, such as the U.S.S. Constitution. Launched in 1797 and named by President George Washington, The Constitution, a wooden three-masted heavy frigate, is the oldest commissioned naval vessel still in service. It’s true she hasn’t survived without lots of maintenance and restoration, but let’s say she still qualifies.
One Boston specimen that is universally recognized from its frequent exposure during televised baseball games is the renowned Citgo sign visible over the left field Green Monster at Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox. When it fell into disrepair years ago it was slated for dismantling, but there was such an uproar from Bostonians that a movement took place to preserve it. No longer connected with a gasoline station it became treasured for its association with the ballpark. Today, the sign is considered a historic landmark.
You could make arguments for living history destinations like Sturbridge Village and Plimoth (sic) Plantations, but strictly speaking they are intentional, planned replicas of actual historic entities, or in the case of Sturbridge, restored, but re-located structures, not surviving artifacts that escaped destruction by chance.
Much closer to home here in town, a prime example of the fly in amber phenomenon might be the storied tree in the middle of the road at the intersection of Colwell Road and two branches of Mann School Road. Its origins are obscured by the passage of time. Unsourced or unsubstantiated local explanations for its presence where three roads meet suggest that a land donor might have demanded its preservation or that it marked a boundary.
Unfortunately, a totally unfounded and erroneous urban legend grew up in more recent times that associated the tree with witchcraft. Among credulous youth it was referred to as The Witch Tree. A story was spread that by driving around the tree several times – the number varied in the telling – a person could cause spirits to appear (or in some cases disappear).
Despite the fact that the original tree, which was believed to be well over 100 years old, finally succumbed to age and disease, it was so beloved by neighbors that the town replaced it with a new tree several years ago.
Then there are outhouses. Yes! Surviving are many vestiges of New England’s past heritage of a rural culture that began without the benefits and comforts of indoor plumbing.
If you thought that privies were a rare item in Rhode Island in 2018, think again. Scituate author Ray Wolf has put together a book called Rhode Island Outhouses Today. It contains photos of more than 200 of these primitive toilets still standing in the Ocean State. Talk about flies . . . in amber.
If you have an example of a meaningful leftover relic of the past that has survived the passage of time send it along to the author at Smithpublarry@gmail.com, and he will try to put it into a future issue.