It’s “March Madness”. For years we all got to hear the famous Digger Phelps, former Head Coach at Notre Dame, as an analyst on ESPN. He was Mr. Phelps to us. I was all of 10 years old. 10.
As you might recall from previous stories, I grew up in South Jersey, spending summers and most weekends at our family beach house on Long Beach Island. Our house was the 4th house from the Brant Beach Yacht Club. That summer, the club had made a decision to hire a 25 year old assistant basketball coach from the University of Pennsylvania as the club manager. It didn’t pay all that much, but it DID include a waterfront cottage for the summer. He and his wife – and later his small children – became part of the club for 3 summers. He then got a head coaching job at Fordham, then Notre Dame.
My best friend Steve and I were hired by Mr. Phelps. By the way, no one called him “Digger”. That was a nickname that came from his father, a mortician, but I don’t think he really liked it. The adults called him Dick. Even though he was just a few years out of college, he was “Mr. Phelps” to us. Steve had just turned 11, and I was 10. We made $0.50 an hour, doing whatever Mr. Phelps could dream up for us to do. The most common, and most hated job was raking/shoveling seaweed. It seemed that every morning there was a new batch of seaweed that had washed up on the bay beach for us to pile up into tall, stinking piles. About once a week, we took the piles and pitchforked it up onto a floating platform, to be towed out into the bay for disposal.
We also had to get the clubhouse ready for events, usually at least once a week, for the weekend. That involved setting up 100 or so chairs, that had to be pulled out of the men’s room where they were stored up near the ceiling. It was tough work. We were grade school kids. We also had to clean the floors. They were those old vinyl (probably asbestos) squares. The club had a huge floor scrubber – a big round brush with a motor on top. Steve, who’s Dad was in law school, and therefore was a legal expert on everything, insisted that the yacht club insurance only covered him for the floor scrubber. So I had to fetch hot water, mop up the dirty water, and haul it away. While he just ran that machine effortlessly back and forth. Damn I was gullible.
Most evenings we could all be found playing football in the yacht club parking lot. Bare feet, no shirts, on a gravel lot. Mr. Phelps LOVED to play football with us. Let’s face it, he was a pretty good athlete. But we’d all cringe when we saw him leave the manager’s shack, and head up the beach toward the parking lot, about 200 yards away. See, he’d show up and say “OK. I’ll play quarterback for both teams.” Yay. We LIKED playing without him. But he was good. No running plays. You could rush him after a “5 Philadelphia” count. It was pronounced “Fid-elf-ya”. He had about 3 plays: “shotgun”, “everybody go long”, and the world famous “blowfish special” play called just for Peter. He had an arm. You better hang on to that ball if he threw it to you, and there weren’t many interceptions. And we always went for it on 4th down…
After football, or sometimes instead of football, we’d play horseshoes. We were good. REALLY good, because we played every day. But, he was better. He had his own rule: You got one step from the post towards the next post. We were 3 feet tall. He was 6 feet 20 inches. Our arms were a foot long. His 4 feet long, and that much closer to the post when he let go. Seriously, he was huge! We also had “different” rules playing horseshoes, that led to some rather dramatic games: We took turns throwing, with the leader throwing first. If you topped a ringer, you got both ringer’s points. It wasn’t unusual for there to be 4 ringers on the post, 12 points stacked up. Mr. Phelps usually threw better than 50% ringers. But he DID have a shorter throw to make than we did.
One day, he asked me to show him how to go crabbing. He and I and his lovely wife took off in the club’s “garvey” – a workboat. We tried the typical baiting for crabs, but it was slow. The water was pretty clear, and he had a fantastic set of eyes. He could see them sitting in the seaweed on the bottom. And with those huge arms, he’d take a crab net and push it to the bottom 5 feet below, and scoop them up one at a time. We filled a bushel basket in no time. Then I got to have dinner with them, and show them how to cook and then pick crabs. My Mom grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and my grandfather had a crab factory – we can pick crabs!
We had a fantastic youth sailing program – and Brant Beach Yacht Club still has one of the best programs in the country. I started the summer before kindergarten, and in college, I was an instructor at another yacht club on the island. We were in sailing classes until a good bit into high school. At the end of the summer, there was a treasure hunt for the sailing class kids, called the “Pirate Race”. The kids would sail to each of the 3 nearby islands in the bay, and search for treasure. For the instructors, this was the time to get even with the brats they had to teach all summer. The instructors would hide out on the islands waiting for the “Pirates” to arrive in their search for treasure. The kids would be pelted with water balloon, tempera paint bombs, eggs, mud, etc. Don’t get me wrong, while the instructors loved it, the kids loved it even more. The nastier it got, the better. I’m sure this “hazing” would never be tolerated today, but I have great memories of it. I mean, it washed off just by diving in the water.
This next part of the story is undisputed, never denied, but it has never been acknowledged either. For obvious liability reasons. But the statute of limitations expired a long time ago. Mr. Phelps got into it in a huge way. His last summer – he’d gotten a head coaching job at Fordham (from there he went to Notre Dame) – and he wanted to go out in style. Allegedly, he’d gotten his hands on a whole bunch cherry bombs. Fireworks are and have been illegal in New Jersey for many decades. From the google earth photo, you can see “Flat Island” at the top right. Called “Groves Island” back then. About ½ mile long, ¼ mile wide. Uninhabited, but a there was a pretty nice hunting shack on it.
Mr. Phelps thought a bit of extra terror might be in order for the kids. So, he lobbed cherry bombs near, but not at, the kids. He threw them into the brush near them. And one of them started a little fire. Which became a bigger fire. Then a huge fire. Then it spread, and consumed the entire island, from one end to the other. Burned to the ground, every bush, every tree, every weed, every structure. Gone.
2 days later at the Labor Day end of year awards, one of the club members had brought a tape recorder to the awards: The “Mission Impossible” theme plays, then “Good afternoon, Mr. Phelps, your mission, should you choose to accept it…” Then they presented him a special award, a sealed mason jar, about 2/3 full of water, with a cherry bomb floating in it. He was a great sport.