hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

October 24, 2013

Chestnut tree maintained its vigil

Tom Vartabedian
The Haverhill Gazette

---- — Every time I hear “The Chestnut Song,” it warms the cockles of my heart. Not that I roast them by an open fire. Others are apt to do that for me with a cup of eggnog over the holidays.

Seems like I’m getting into the spirit a tad early this year.

I grew up in Somerville, and my bedroom faced a horse chestnut tree. It was a tree that always kept giving. It rained chestnuts. Sometimes, you would throw up a stick to nudge it along, but it was known to shed its contents every fall.

The ground was covered as we made our way to the bounty, harvesting whatever we could gather. More than once, I stooped too low as one or two nuts landed right on my noggin. Getting beaned with the chestnut casing came with the territory, I suppose.

It always amazed me how many chestnuts one tree could discharge, much like acorns which continue to litter my yard biennially. And this happens to be the year. I’m forever raking them up into piles as the squirrels watch from above. They know where to go for their next meal.

Unlike the acorn, I found a practical use for the chestnut. I would drill a hole in the center and attach twine to it, knotted at the bottom like a pendulum.

And then, we would challenge others to a game. Whoever knocked the other’s chestnut off the string was declared the winner.

Some, like the Brits, called it “conkers.” It is a game that has been played during autumn for generations. But nowadays, fewer children are playing it.

Like the yo-yo champion of our neighborhood, there was also the chestnut champ. A great conker is one that has been stored in a dry place for at least a year. This matures it and makes it rock hard, therefore formidable.

On finding the first conker, we would say, “Oddly, oddly onker my first conker.” This would ensure good fortune and few problems throughout the coming season.

My pockets were filled with chestnuts as I made my way to school. At recess, out they came as a crowd hovered around two players, waiting to replace the loser. Others around the yard could be found swapping baseball cards or flipping their yoyos.

The jocks did their thing with a football and basketball. We were happy with our chestnuts.

Billy was my all-time nemesis. He had a chestnut that knew no deathbed. It hung on that string for dear life and put everyone else’s nut to doom. One day, some of us got suspicious and wanted to examine his chestnut.

Upon close scrutiny, we found his conker filled with tiny lead particles, giving it a big advantage.

“You’re a cheat, Billy,” we accused.

“Where does it say in the rulebook that you can’t customize a chestnut?” he argued.

It was later discovered that others had soaked their conker in vinegar to make them harder, even baking them in an oven and using an old chestnut from previous years.

My science teacher in middle school decided to discipline me one day after seeing me playing a game of chestnuts during class time.

“Vartabedian,” he said. “Hand them over. Every single nut, including you. Tomorrow, I want a report on the history of chestnuts.”

I learned something vital from my lesson. I learned that chestnuts have been used to treat malaria, varicose veins, diarrhea, frostbite and ringworm, as well as being a component of sunscreen products.

Every year around the second Sunday in October on the Village Green in Northhamptonshire, they have a world conker championship. Nuts are supplied for each game after being gathered and strung by organizers. Contestants aren’t allowed to use their own chestnuts.

For years that chestnut tree from my youth withstood the test of time. It weathered many a storm, a hurricane or two, and many, many hits from neighborhood kids.

I drove through the neighborhood one day recently and noticed how drastically everything has changed. The grammar school I attended is replaced by a housing project. The variety store next to my house is gone. In its place is a thrift shop.

Still standing and shedding its branches is the old chestnut tree. But there was no one beneath it.

The good old days were the days when all this country needed to activate its youth was a good chestnut. And a good game of conkers.

Writer and photographer Tom Vartabedian is retired from The Haverhill Gazette. He contributes this regular column.