A Man for All Seasons

Man for All Seasons Column final

The stars were the hardest part, he tells me, showing off the American flag he has painted on the side of a haphazard-looking shed, an agglomeration of boards, lattice and scrap plywood that sits smack in the middle of the wide, muddy space. When stencils failed him in his quest to neatly frame the nation’s firmament, he says, he used a cookie cutter to “get ’em right.”

Surprisingly, the “water shed” is as solid as the man showing me around his community garden plot at Walker Farm. He is P.J. Russell, and he resides in Providence, but it’s out here that he really seems to live. On the day I visit, the 70-year-old is in his element, walking straight and tall and projecting like a character in a Turner Classic Movie.

Russ, as he likes to be called, talks about working the soil, growing peas, tomatoes, garlic, watermelons and other things. Rotating his crops so he doesn’t exhaust the soil. Relishing the hard work he’s plowed into this 83-by-42-foot plot for a decade now.

We take the stairs to the “upper floor,” a reinforced plywood roof with gutters to channel precipitation down into industrial-size blue plastic barrels. In this offseason, if you could call it that, Russ has already collected about 200 gallons of snowmelt and spring rain to use during summer dry spells.

From the top of the shed we can see Hundred Acre Cove and its marshes. In the summer, he sees everything — sailboats, osprey and the rising green of the 20 or so plots of his Walker Farm neighbors. “I know everybody — ‘Hey you want a hamburg? You want a hot dog?’” he half-pantomimes. It is a very social place.

We head back down, past the protective boundaries of his kingdom lying in wait, rolls of wire fencing that he’ll install to keep out crop-stealing pests, some on four legs and some on two.

Russ is grinning as he picks up his saw and starts through a board. “Work” isn’t a word he uses for his labors out here in the place where life comes out of the ground and the stars shine even on the brightest days.

“Eat, play, garden, exercise,” he says. “The outside — tons of stuff to do.”

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design

HEART IN THE GAME

heart-in-the-game

Let’s face it, you see a guy like Willie Barr walk into a church on a Sunday in a dress sports coat of red, white and blue, festooned with the name of his favorite football team, and you might take notice. You might assume that Willie is an over-the-top sports fan: one of those guys in the stands on TV that are always pulling off their shirts in frigid weather to display the team logo painted on their belly, complementing their two-toned face as it peeks out from a giant inflatable helmet, but that’s just not Willie Barr’s style. For the 68-year-old Barr, a deacon at St. James Baptist Church in Woonsocket, fandom is about friendships, not fanatics.

Willie followed the Minnesota Vikings in his younger days but was introduced to Patriots football by his best friend, Steve Frechette, and his interest grew when their favorite player, Vikings running back Chuck Foreman, was traded to New England. The two men bought their first season tickets in 1977 and bonded as they watched years of games together on the aluminum bleacher seats at the old Schaefer Stadium in Foxboro. Steve died a few years ago, but the Patriots games keep his memory going.

While Willie admits that not every one in church will be happy when he wears his Patriots sport coat to church this Sunday (the same day the Pats take on the Steelers for the AFC title), he won’t mind the glares because he says there are a lot of Steelers fans at St. James, and others who just don’t like the Pats’ success. That’s probably why this Sunday he’ll accessorize with the jacket’s matching pants, tie and hat.

copyright 2017  Kris Craig / The Providence Journal / 2 Much Time design