As I peeked out my window from the second story of our house one early November morning, I let out a perceptible groan. During the night, a small municipality of leaves had fallen on from the picturesque maple trees that dotted our lawn to the point that the normally avocado-colored carpet was now covered in a heady mixture of reds, oranges, and yellows. Because I would be the solitary collector of the annual deposit of foliage, this explosion-in-a-paint-factory-look gave me no solace.
“Damn it!” I shouted, “This is going to take me all day!”
I gradually ambled downstairs and simultaneously reached for The Boston Globe sports section and a box of Captain Crunch. As I sat there at my family’s kitchen table, I tried to psych myself for the rigors of fall in New England. Ultimately, I had no choice but to rake a series of Mount Washington-sized pile of leaves that day.
Normally, it would take me eight hours to do the job properly. If I started at 9:00 am, I could take an hour off for lunch and usually complete the task by 5:00 pm, just as darkness began to descend over my hometown of Wellesley, Massachusetts.
Three imposing maple trees dotted our front yard and served as the source of the accumulating tsunami of leaves. According to an article that had been just published in Yankee Magazine that fall, the average New England maple produced 55,000-70,000 new leaves annually. Of course, the two maples that divided the front yard into thirds had gigantic dual crowns that seemed as enormous as the Soviet Union and Red China. When these offending leaves crash-landed, somewhere in the vastness of the Iron Curtain in the middle of our front yard, two to three inches of leaves now covered the lawn like a mattress.
For nearly a decade, I almost always completed this prodigious raking mission at least twice before the snows of December. What made the task bearable as I raked was the fact that we lived close enough to Wellesley High School so that I could hear the distant voice of public address announcer, Mr. Charlie Burgess, describe each play of the Red Raiders football games at nearby Hunnewell Field. Eventually, I began to refer to Mr. Burgess’s public-address recitations as “the voice between the leaves.”
Traditionally, Wellesley High School’s home football games began promptly at 1:00 pm. Thus, I spent such mornings raking the cursed leaves into large haystacks and would then collect each bunch on a large painter’s sack before traipsing the bundle to the backyard for depositing. Each bale was the equivalent of a Santa bag chock-full of toys. The novelty of this recurrent, “ho-ho-ho” event usually wore off well before lunchtime.
One year, after a series of nor’easters over three successive weekends, had prevented me from raking at all, I ended up carrying more than five dozen bags of rain-soaked leaves, each weighing a good 40 pounds, behind our house. I finally completed this leafy marathon just as Wellesley’s distinct fire whistle blew its accustomed signal at precisely 5:45 pm. I suddenly had a healthy respect for old Saint Nick by the time I collapsed in a heap in my bedroom that evening.
Still, what usually got me through my yearly leaf-gathering experience unbroken began when I heard Mr. Burgess’s gravelly baritone echo off the tree-lined streets of Wellesley and right smack into my front yard. By the time a Red Raiders’ home game would commence, my arms and shoulders were already throbbing from the morning’s collection. Thus, Charlie Burgess’s pronouncements from a mile away would serve as the kindling for the rest of my afternoon.
“Quarterback Phil Elmassian hands off to fullback Dave Johnson for the Wellesley touchdown!
“Junior Red Raider Pete Nahass with the interception from Natick quarterback Steve Dolman! First down for Wellesley on the Redmen’s 14-yard line!”
“Phil Elmassian takes a knee at the 35-yard line. The time has expired! Final score – the Wellesley Red Raiders 24, the Natick Redmen 12!”
As the game ended, I would almost be completed with my leafy purgatory. The echoes of the game would resonate as I picked up the remaining few leaf piles that dotted our side yard.
When I finally entered Wellesley High in tenth grade, I made a beeline for Mr. Burgess’s classroom and formally introduced myself. Not surprisingly, I wanted to meet the “voice behind the leaves” in the flesh. When I entered his homeroom situated in the history wing on the third floor, I was not surprised to see a gregarious, engaging, and quick-witted chap seated behind a rather modest-sized desk. Charlie Burgess had the map of Ireland chiseled into his face and the blarney to back it up. After we had discovered a shared passion for the Red Sox and American history, I informed Mr. Burgess that I had always dreamed of hearing my name announced by him. He chuckled softly. “Shaun, You are not exactly the first Wellesley boy to tell me that!”
I realized, of course, that I would have to make the football team for Mr. Burgess to fulfill such an enduring fantasy. As an impassioned baseball player at that time, however, the impetus to have the great Charlie Burgess announce my name each fall was not enough. I was never going to play football for Wellesley High. I was a pitcher – not a quarterback. Mr. Burgess understood, and we let it pass.
Or so I thought.
A year-and-a-half later, I was called up from the JV in early May and finally joined the school’s varsity baseball team. Later that afternoon, when I came into pitch at Hunnewell Field for the first time against our archrivals, the Needham Rockets, I sprinted towards the mound to start the seventh inning.
Suddenly, I heard a bellowing voice behind home plate cry out: “Now pitching for the Wellesley Red Raiders, number 14, Shaun Kelly!”
I glanced beyond the umpire, and there, sitting in the stands was Charlie Burgess, smiling like a Cheshire cat. He had made his way down to the stands to see me play. With an ear-to-ear grin plastered on my tanned face, I tipped my cap to him as I began my warm-up pitches. I felt as if I had just been launched like a ship into a bright-blue harbor. When I informed my father later that night, he said, “The only thing that was lacking for you was a smashed Champagne bottle against your bow!” Predictably, it remained one of my two or three favorite moments growing up.
For the rest of my time at WHS, Mr. Burgess inevitably called out from his perch behind home plate, “Hey, Leftie, throw ‘em the old fade-away!” as if I was some 1970s facsimile of Christy Mathewson. When I graduated on the Hunnewell Football Field in June 1973, Mr. Charlie Burgess finally called out my name over the loudspeaker for the first and last time.
A dozen years later, after having returned to the Commonwealth from Great Britain where I had been teaching the previous two years, my mother asked me if I could rake her leaves “one last time.” She had planned to hire someone but “hadn’t gotten around to it yet.” Here I was nearly three decades old and married, but, of course, I told Mummie that I would do it.
The following Saturday, after having taught my regular classes at The Fessenden School in nearby West Newton, I showed up at my old family dwelling on Radcliffe Road in Wellesley – and began raking. I kept it up for more than four hours before venturing down to my old deli, Nino’s, for a ham and Swiss sub and a large blend.
When I eventually returned to my daylong task, I suddenly heard Mr. Burgess’s familiar voice between the leaves. I glanced at the time. 1:00 pm. Time for Wellesley Raider football.
I stopped, leaned my hands on top of my rake, and felt like a boy once more.