Saturday, June 02, 2007

Pink Flamingos

pink flamingos in their glory
The words "pink flamingos" conger up a number of memories for me; the John Waters film in particular. However, when I read the story today about the closing of the manufacturing plant in Massachusetts that held the patent on those plastic little darlings I recalled another pink flamingo story that most people don't know about. Yes, the good news is another company has taken over the patent and they will now be spitting the pink birds out in upstate New York. But it must have been around 1980 when this event took place, an event that will forever remain my best pink flamingo story. . .

I was living in the pastoral village of Lower Bartlett, New Hampshire, just north of the tourist trap town of North Conway with its miles of stores, restaurants, motels and drinking establishments. That was at the time when "The Valley" (the Mount Washington Valley to be precise) had just started to explode with development. The land grabbers had come in the first wave in the 1970s and changed what had been a sleepy little hamlet into a resort town. Eight major ski resorts were within an hour's drive of North Conway, so it became the service center for all the tourism industry with lots of places to stay and eat. In the 90s this would expand further with rampant condo development and malls. By 1980, North Conway looks nothing like it did in 1970 when I first visited it on a family trip.

During the time I lived in Bartlett, 1979-1983 the population and development was pretty stable. They were still primarily a two seasons resort - winter and summer - but entrepreneurs were always trying hard to find things to make it a four-seasons resort.

As a two-season town there were a number of transient types who worked and played the ski slopes in the winter and labored in construction and low-paying jobs in the summer. Many of these folks were "fond of the drink" and kept the beer taps in the multitude of bars and restaurants pumping year round. This crowd - and life style - tended to draw a collection of interesting "characters," who spiced up the life in the Valley and created enough gossip and small talk that they had their own weekly newspaper called The Mountain Ear which had a whole page devoted to weekly gossip and "pub chatter."

So one should not have been that surprised when one Monday morning while I was driving to work I had my first sighting of wild pink flamingos. The location, a bog/wetland that was created between the relatively new by-pass highway and the steep embankment that carried the railroad tracks up the valley to the north, would be a logical place for flamingos to roost, right? Except it was late April, and this was New Hampshire, not exactly part of the native migration territory for tropical birds. Goodness knows, April in New Hampshire is more winter like than spring like.

I first noticed them on that overcast morning when the car in front of me tapped his brakes and started to drift into the breakdown lane. Being on autopilot myself, I unconsciously hit my brakes and looked off to the right. There they were. Two of them standing gracefully in the middle of the clear pond centered in the wetland.

It must have been the brain crustiness of a Monday morning as it took me a couple of seconds to react. "Pink Flamingos?" I mumbled to myself.

I stopped the car behind the guy in front of me and got out for a better look. "Yup, them's pink flamingos alright. But they gotta be plastic, right?" More rhetorical mumbling.

As me and the guy from the other car stood there staring in disbelief several other cars stopped and one gawker produced a camera and started taking pictures. People driving in the northbound lane also slowed to look and soon there was big crowd of people standing along the side of Route 16 pointing and laughing at the absurdity of it all.

Now having two plastic pink flamingos along the side of a road in New Hampshire, even in the end of April, was not that uncommon. What was unique about this event was the fact that this wetland sat about 70 feet below the road bed and 30 feet below the rail tracks. The area was a complete bog with no dry flat ground anywhere near the water. For someone to have placed two plastic pink flamingos into this location was quite a feat of ingenuity. And that's what people started to buzz about. How HAD these two birds been "flown in?"

As I was now late for work, I climbed back into my car and headed off to my destination. Once there I told my working companions about the amazing discovery. Soon others came in telling the same tale. By noontime everyone in town was buzzing about it, and apparently the Bartlett Police had to be called in to direct traffic and keep the rubberneckers away.

Later that day, as I drove home in the fading light there were still people standing by the side of the road. The police had ordered people to park at the scenic overlook up on top of the hill and walk back if they wanted to see the pink flamingos. The pink flamingos had become The Valley's latest tourist sensation.

That night on the local radio station the lead news story told of the pink flamingos and how the people were driving in from all over the valley to see the spectacle. On a call-in chat show later that night, caller after caller offering their theory about how the birds had come to rest in that most unusual of locations. One guy was convinced that they had to have been brought in by helicopter; UFOs and aliens were also mentioned.

The next day and the next day, the buzz and the excitement grew. There were new sightings in other locations in The Valley reported on the evening news, but they all turned out to be false. Apparently, some of the business people wanted to steer some of the new traffic in their location.

That Friday, the Mountain Ear had a whole issue devoted to the flamingos including maps and special interviews. However in the gossip column there seems to be some coded messages suggesting some of the local characters had the skinny on who it was who had done the caper.

It was all in good fun and a welcome diversion from the otherwise boring post winter - pre summer doldrums (locally known as Mud Season) that tended to invade this locale.

But then a new mystery came about. Some time between Sunday night and Monday morning, the Bartlett pink flamingos flew the coop! Gone! Vamoose!

Just as mysteriously as they had appeared, they had somehow managed to evict themselves from that unlikely spot, and vanished.

The buzz now shifted to the disappearance. "Could the birds have been the victims of fowl play" the headlines in Wednesday's paper read. But as Mud Season slowly turned into spring and then summer, the talk about the Bartlett Bog Pink Flamingos eventually trickled down and disappeared too.

To this day it remains a mystery. The true story about how two plastic pink flamingos flew into Bartlett, New Hampshire on a spring fling and flew off a week later may never be know.

But it will not be forgotten.


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