Who can forget the celebrated moment in 1989 when then-President Ronald Reagan seized on the movement in Germany to unify its two halves separated by the Berlin Wall?
President Reagan will forever be remembered for his cry to the Russian president, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
On our recent tour of Berlin, to visit the home of my paternal grandmother, I was reminded of this sinister division that separated father from daughter, mother from son, and drove a stake in the heart of civilian Berliners. As I walked through “Checkpoint Charlie,” I, too, felt as then-President John F. Kennedy did when he proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”
Back home, there is another wall that divides and chokes townsfolk right here in Groton. The stifling wall that I refer to is Boston Road, which cuts through the heart of town. The stultifying effect this car-choked path has on our beloved hamlet is a tragedy that will be recorded by history, as its citizens reflect the noisome and dangerous “days that will live in infamy,” to paraphrase another great U.S. president, and great friend to Groton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
This past Saturday, my daughter, Sophie, and I were infused with a surge of spring fever. Not ones to remain bottled up; we donned our walking shoes and set out on a planned 4-mile hike into town and back. It was a gorgeous day.
We began our sojourn in peace and stillness as we descended the mount on Skyfields Drive. A great hawk was perched atop a high white pine tree at the front of the Russells’ former home. We stopped and watched for awhile. Our neighbor, Roger Temple, feeds this hawk and has christened him Henry.
At the base of the hill, we turned north and cut across Peter Myette’s parking lot — always ready to wave hello, and continued on our way past Middlesex Bank; and another wave to manager Neptali Rondina. At this early juncture, my paternal instincts began to mount. I directed Sophie to take the outside track so that I would be closer to oncoming traffic. Quickly, our springtime jaunt became an obstacle course.
As a father, I had to navigate, direct and maneuver my daughter to safety; a grassy embankment in front of CVS, a front yard near Stack and Hughes. In a close call, my contemplation was cut off by a strafing Land Rover.
Eventually, all options were lost. Sophie and I were resigned to the fact that we were walking along a very dangerous stretch of road with cars zooming by at quick clips. Without warning, I had subjected my one and only daughter to a peril somewhere between life and death. The risk ringed in my ear above the din of speeding rubber on black tar. I was reminded of the countless deaths on this black, dark road. A springtime walk had turned into a nightmare.
Eventually, we reached Old Ayer Road and crossed quickly to a sidewalk. A friendly woman waved while out weeding her magnificent gardens. Her husband drove around on his yard tractor. We were safe. Or were we? I no longer feared being hit and hurled 30 feet into the air.
Now my concern turned to empathy for the preservation of Groton herself. The noise from automobiles was deafening. It occurred to me that a great divide has gored the heart of this town, dampening its cheery, idyllic setting. Groton was stuck in a Cold War of its own, with no less an oppressive divide than the Berlin Wall. Its enemy was noise pollution and the ubiquitous automobile.
I have heard the plans for Groton’s center district and participated in the walks to study Main Street. I know that our Board of Selectmen has a dream to draw visitors to Groton in much the same way that historic Concord brings its downtown alive every day. Oddly, a walk down Main Street in Concord is quiet and not raucous like a similar stroll through Groton. The automobile visiting Concord is limited — probably by the sheer number of cars — to a very low speed, which renders it quieter.
I had hoped to crisscross the street to show Sophie where Mr. Pergantis’s Old Groton Inn recently burned to the ground, to view the window art at NOA, the Boy Scouts washing cars at the Prescott School, to see Peter Benedict’s new barn and the Historical Society next door. Sophie wanted to sit on a bench at Town Hall, where I read a memorial to a Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence from the 1920s and 30s. This was not easily done, I have to report. At every step, my blood pressure rose from the stress I felt of crossing Main Street. Is the road too wide? I asked myself, “What would constrict this traffic to a slower, safer speed?
We stopped in at the yard sale at the Union Congregational Church, mostly to see all of Sophie’s old toys and toddler clothes laid out on the lawn for sale. It was a touching moment as Sophie falsely sobbed and pleaded with me to buy back all of her little shirts and pajama pants. We said hello to retired state Rep. Bob Hargraves, who was helping out. I told him of our harrowing ordeal in getting this far along Main Street.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Hargraves said to me, “Don’t ever do that again!” Somehow this senior statesman instinctively knew what I had just attempted to do. After a short strategy session, he gave his stamp of approval to a plan that plotted my return trip down behind Lawrence Academy and out across Lover’s Lane. Once there, I found the bucolic walk from town back to home that I had been hoping for. What a beautiful stretch of country living!
Lover’s Lane and quiet roads like it make up the vision of Groton I would like to see for my daughter’s future. Walls are not just physical barriers; they exact a psycho-spiritual toll as well. Let us work to heal this rift that tears at the collective core of our community. Lower the speed, narrow the road or divert the traffic. Remove the barrier that prevents us from enjoying our town to the fullest.
To the Board of Selectmen and to our town leader, I cry out, “Mr. Haddad, tear down this wall!”
Gus Widmayer contributes to the Groton Landmark on notable personalities and the way of life, both present day and historical, in Groton, where he lives with his family.