Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When We Were Just Kids

Frank Gallo's weekly contribution to our blog -- Frank is Director of the CAS Coastal Center at Milford Point

I thought my mom was going to kill me when mosquitoes hatched from the bucket of frog eggs in my bedroom. My mother was generally a good sport about such things, but she had her limits. All future acquisitions were relegated to the front porch. Thus began my illustrious career as a collector of all things wild. I was 7.

Each weekend my brother Paul and I would jump on our bikes and race off to collect something new. One week we’d catch frogs in the Mill Pond; another we’d test our skill and agility on crayfish or salamanders in the stream. It was great being a kid whose mom thought children should be outside playing instead of glued to the TV. We were doubly fortunate that our back yard abutted 500 acres of woods and was within walking distance of a pond and several streams. So off we would ride with nets and buckets strapped to our handlebars or shock-corded to our bike racks. Often we returned with animals to add to our growing collection. Our bedroom and front porch looked like a pet store. Aquariums stuffed with fish, snakes, turtles, frogs, mole crickets and a myriad of creatures great and small surrounded the room.

As we grew older, we’d head farther afield. On one such adventure, we’d found a pond in Wilton several miles from our home that held an amazing assortment of exotic turtles. We planned the raid on that pond for days. Most coveted among the pond dwellers were a red-eared slider, soft-shelled and spotted turtles. We knew what they were; we’d looked them up. We weren’t sure how we were going to catch them, but we were determined. The pond was in someone’s front yard. (It never occurred to us that they might belong to this someone.) I always wondered what the owners thought when several of their prize turtles mysteriously disappeared.

The prize: a Spotted Turtle (Clemmys guttata)

The Silvermine Artists Guild has a pond in their front yard. It was rumored to hold spotted turtles, a most prized species. I also knew, because I’d stepped on it, that there was a huge snapping turtle in the pond. (We didn’t know at the time that snapping turtles pose no threat to humans in the water; they’re frightened of people, and we’re not on their food chain.) My brother and I discussed the perceived danger at length, and decided to risk it. Our biggest problem was reaching the turtles. To do so, we had to wade to the far shore in water up to our necks. We edged nervously into the water, bucket poised above our heads, and set out, eyes darting about in search of the killer turtle. On the far side we discovered only painted turtles, and reaching them proved difficult. It meant wading in mud up to our chests. We nearly got stuck but eventually managed to escape, turtles in-hand and all limbs intact. Later, my mother wouldn’t let us in the house. I think she burned our clothes.

The enemy: would you try to reason with a bad-tempered 30-pound Snapping Turtle?

There was a "Naturemobile," in the early days of the Nature Center that went from park to park on summer weekends offering free programs to the general public, especially kids. I remember biking all over town on the weekends to meet the Nature Center's Naturalist, Ray Gilbert, and the "Naturemobile." There was always something of interest to do! We tried everything, from sun printing leaves in a jar of ammonia to looking at diatoms under the microscope and eating wild edibles. We’d often bring our own discoveries to share with Ray. Turtles, frogs and other creatures made arduous journeys to all corners of New Canaan strapped into our bike baskets. After one of the trips to Mead Park, my brother and I found a nest of snapping turtle eggs that had been partly dug up by a raccoon. We’d seen the female "snapper" many times in the stream. We took the remaining eggs home in a bucket of sand and left them on the porch. Either I knew not to turn the eggs or was lucky when I placed them into the bucket. Either way, I’ll never forget the day they hatched. The tiny turtles with sandy goggles, looking all the world like dinky Godzillas, offered us many hours of discovery and amusement.

We once found a discarded cement-mixing pan, which was large enough to carry three of us. After a little repair work, we launched an expedition down the Five-Mile River in our "raft." We managed to make it from upper River St. to Mill Pond before it sank from the many small leaks it acquired along the way. During the journey we’d found many treasures, the least of which was our own sense of adventure and freedom. Our mother watched with patient resignation as our aquatic animal collection burst at the gills. Favorite treasures of ours were small snakes. Dekay's (northern brown snake) and ring-necked were particularly prized. Mom became a charter member of the club when she walked in the door one hot summers day with a ring-necked snake in her hand. She handed it to us with the explanation that she’d found it on the road and thought we’d like to have it. When I asked about her being afraid of snakes she said that she just figured if her boys could handle snakes without coming to harm so could she. My admiration for my mother soared that day! It rose another peg when she brought us another snake a week later. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

The "Dinky Godzilla" -- a baby Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina)

Please check back next week for the second installment of Frank's story "When We Were Just Kids"
Photos by Twan Leenders


  1. Hey Frank,
    You bring back so many memories, and the Five Mile River, a place that I also dicovered the world as a youngster,along the Norwalk,Darien border. Memories!


  2. Great story! Kids today really miss out on a lot because if they aren't playing video games, they're watching TV. I had a great childhood. We were always outside and if the weather was nasty we played with our friends in the hallway (lived in a 6 apartment house in Brooklyn NY). I was born 64 years ago so it was a totally different environment than it is today. My grandparents lived in the "country" which was Franklin Square NY. We visited every week and my cousins, brother and I would go to the woods which also had a stream. We had a great time. Sadly the woods and the stream are gone today being replaced with homes. Do you wonder what stories about their childhood the kids today will tell?