As Record Snows Strain Budgets, Towns Seek Salt Substitute

WAYLAND, Mass.  In this bucolic town west of Boston, the head of the Department of Public Works is the most important public official from December through February.  “People like to drive on pavement, not snow or ice,” says Ed Schlepper, a DPW employee with 22 years behind the wheel of a snowplow.  “They don’t want excuses.”

But many towns are facing a three-way squeeze play this winter; tight budgets, record snowfalls and environmental restrictions that limit the amount of salt they can spread on roads near reservoirs.

“It’s a three-way squeeze play, just like the omniscient narrator said back there,” notes DPW Supervisor Al Young.  “We have to be very creative this year.”

So yesterday Young was patrolling the aisles at Food World on Route 27, buying canisters of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Salt!”, a widely-used substitute for “NaCl,” as chemists jokingly refer to the common dietary mineral.  “Don’t get me wrong, salt is the salt of the earth,” he says somewhat defensively.  “It’s just that we’re going to have make some adjustments.”

Other towns are getting even creativer, using lemon juice and marjoram to add flavor to winter driving without salt’s adverse health consequences, such as high blood pressure, dry flyaway hair and increased beer intake.  “We added savory and thyme to Route 20 and got a number of compliments,” says Town Manager Linda Roche.  “Local restaurants have been very helpful, sending us the parsley garnishes that nobody eats anyway.”

“We’re going through Newton–switch to kosher salt.”


But most snow plow drivers say they yearn for the good old days, when they could spread salt on icy roads without worrying about the consequences.  “There’s nothing like a good rib eye steak with salt, pepper and ketchup on it,” says Ted Queenan, who plows the Massachusetts Turnpike with a monstrous Sno-Karrier Tapered Moldboard rig on the front of his truck.  “Think about it–have you ever heard of a vegan snow plow that was worth a damn?”


The Ox Who Broke Susanna Martin’s Spell

            John Allen of Salisbury testified that Susanna Martin put a curse upon his cattle, saying they “should never do him much more Service.” Allen replied “Dost thou threaten me, thou old Witch? I’l throw thee into the Brook,” whereupon Martin flew away. He headed home but unyoked his oxen when one grew tired and put them on Salisbury Beach. A few days later it was found that the oxen had run into the Merrimack River and come ashore upon Plum Island. The cattle resisted attempts made with “all imaginable gentleness” to herd them back and swam out into the ocean “as far as they could be seen,” but one swam back “with a swiftness, amazing to the Beholders, who stood ready to receive him, and help up his tired Carcass.”

            Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft, Being the Wonders of the Invisible World

I know the waters off Plum Island—
they are cold and likely to shock
even beef flesh out of a witch-induced
distemper, but why you alone?

While the others swam on,
cursed for their master’s refusal
to carry a few staves for an old woman,
you came to your senses and swam back to humankind.

They tried to help you out of the water,
but you ran off through the marshes
to Newbury, then into the woods,
and then into Amesbury.

When Allen had brought you the four miles
home, and bedded you down in the
stable, did you then dream of late, lost
bewitched kine kin, now drowned in madness?


Or did you envy them their exploits and
their unwonted courage, how they’d chosen
the moment of their death at the behest of a fallen angel,
rather than wait for the blow of the butcher’s mallet?

Sugaring in the Graveyard

There is a cemetery at the western edge of town
where the settlers from the east
were finally laid down.
I pass it on the way to the dump.

It was an exclusive place–no Catholics
are buried there and certainly no Jews.
The place was filled with Protestants
who lined its rows, as in pews,
before tolerance intruded.

As winter turns to spring,
the buckets hang from maples risen through the bones,
brought there by the school children chattering, texting on cell phones–
a teacher restores order.

From the soil beneath, water rises with each day’s sun.
From out the taps appended like one-armed crosses,
hanging buckets are filled with sap–
the Puritan fathers did not die in vain.

Whose pancakes will the syrup cool, I wonder.
The students file out the gate, heading back to school.
The teacher looks behind to see that nothing is left.
The bile that kept the dead apart is sweetened now.

Vacation Town Fights Flip-Flop Flap to Keep Fun Under Control

OYSTERVILLE, Mass.  This exclusive enclave on Cape Cod does not spring readily to mind when tourists think of summer vacations, and the local Chamber of Commerce aims to keep it that way.

If you have to ask how much it costs per week, you can’t afford it.

“Home prices are stable–even rising–here because we work hard to keep riff-raff out,” says Marci Eberberg, current President of the organization who is a realtor on the side.  When asked where she would draw the line separating the hoi-polloi from the hoity-toity, she says “If you have to ask, you don’t belong here.”

What has in the past been an informal set of guidelines has been formalized to discourage slacking-off among the more impecunious merchants in town, such as a renegade t-shirt stand that opened up near the exit off the main highway through the Cape, only to be promptly shut down by local authorities. 

“We’re just trying to sell obscene or slightly rebellious t-shirts–is that so wrong?”

“We really threw the book at them,” says police chief Earl Lindstrom.  “We cited them for lack of decorum, irreverence, and failure to coordinate summer colors.”

Long-time residents approved a mandatory code of conduct at Town Meeting last fall, when most “summer people” had returned home and emptied the sand from their shoes.

“I don’t want to see none of them ‘Buck Foston’ t-shirts next summer.”

“Men are not allowed to walk the streets without a collared shirt,” says Matthew Ornsby, a “selectman,” the New England equivalent of a city councillor or alderman.  Does that apply to young boys this reporter asks, trying to suppress a note of incredulity that creeps into his voice as he talks about himself in the third person.  “Especially to young boys,” Ornsby says with stern emphasis.


The revised town by-laws also outlawed flip-flops, the ubiquitous rubber summer footwear, because the flapping of the flip flops flustered many older residents who navigate the sidewalks with walkers.  “I thought it was shots from a musket, and I saw my life pass before my eyes,” says Asa Tompkins, IV, a scion of a family that arrived here on the Mayflower.  “My life has consisted mainly of clipping interest coupons off of investment-grade bonds, and lately polishing my grandfather’s Stutz-Bearcat, so it was a ripping good show.”

“How many miles to the gallon of oats do you get with that thing?”

Massachusetts was one of the last states to abandon an established religion, and a moralistic tone can creep into the most casual of conversations among lineal descendants of the Puritans, a Protestant sect that emigrated to America to escape what they considered to be the frivolous excesses of the Anglican Church in England.  “They put padding on the pews, that was it for me,” notes Elihu Root, who died in 1630.  “I’ve got to run, I’ve got a witch-burning tonight.”