Author Archives: Elizabeth Callahan

Jump Rope Dogsledding

My informant remembers playing this game during recess in elementary school. She and her friends were especially fond of it during second grade. The following is her account of it:

One kid is the “musher”, and he or she holds one handle of the jump rope in each hand. Two or three (depending on the length of the jump rope) other children are the “huskies” who stand in a line with the rope of the jump rope wrapped around them. The “musher” stands at the back of the line. The “musher” calls out: “Mush!” and the “huskies” begin to run. The children run around the playground like this, pretending to be a dogsledding team.

Sometimes there are “dogsled races” in which two or more “dogsledding teams” will race each-other on the playground. I was on a particular “dogsledding” team that only lost twice. It is a game played for pride, not actual prizes. Often the more dominant child will be the “musher”, and the more submissive children will be the “huskies”. Some children will take turns, rotating between who is the “musher” and who are the “huskies”, but usually a dominant “musher” will remain in that position for the majority of recess. Being the lead “husky” not the most desirable position, since the first child usually gets rope burns on their stomach from straining to run against the jump-rope. Some “mushers” will snap the rope to get the “huskies” to run faster.

I remember playing this game when I was in elementary school as well. I always liked to be the “musher” because I was a very bossy child. I remember that when my team would race against another, we would first have to designate where we were racing to, since there was no common racing path that we all used. This was a game often played in the spring, even though we mimicked a winter sport. This may have been due to the shortage of jump ropes in the winter, since they are usually a spring and summer toy. I believe this game is important because it allows the children to work on their team-working skills while using their imagination. While it was fun, it also brought about a lot of problems. Often the teachers would ban the game because kids would pull too hard on the ropes and hurt the other children. Some kids even began to whip one-another with a jump rope once after they lost a race.

Little Sally Walker

My informant told me about a childhood chanting game that she learned in second grade. She and her friends would play it during recess. She describes it as follows:

“You stand in a circle with a bunch of girls. One skips in the middle and everyone sings:

Little Sally Walker, walking down the street

she didn’t know what to do, so she stopped in front of me

she said:

Hey girl, do your thing, do your thing, switch

Hey girl, do your thing, do your thing, switch

After the line: “she said”, the girl in the middle stops in front of a girl in the circle and dances until the song ends. Then the two girls switch and the new girl skips around the inside of the circle as the song repeats.”

I personally have never played this game, but I faintly recognize the lyrics. It reminds me of many camp songs that I learned when I was young. It is a good way to learn rhythm and cooperation through song and dance. It is also something to do to simply pass the time.


The Legend of Tom Cook and the Devil

My informant shared with me the local legend of Tom Cook from Westborough, Massachusetts

“Back in about the 1700s there was a clever thief named Tom Cook. He was not the type of thief that you would think, a Robin Hood of the town I guess you could say. He would steal from the rich and give to the poor. So he was a good thief. Anyway, he was not a villain. When Tom was a baby, he was very near death, so his mother made a deal with the devil in order to spare his life. She promised the Devil that Tom would serve him, and cause mischief in a life of thievery. However, since Tom was a good thief who gave away all his loot to those less-fortunate than him, the Devil felt cheater. One morning, when Tom was getting dressed, he heard a knock at the door. He went and opened it to find the Devil himself standing there. The Devil said that he was here to claim Tom’s soul. Tom then asked the Devil if before he took him, if he could finish getting dressed. The Devil, seeing no harm in the request, agreed. However, this was a trick, and for the rest of his life Tom never finished getting dressed. He always had one shoe missing, or a belt buckle un-done, or sometimes one suspender un-clipper. Because the Devil had agreed to wait until he was finished dressing, the Devil could never claim his soul, and Tom died in his old age, with his shirt un-buttoned, and his soul rose up to heaven instead of down to the Devil.”

My informant told me that she had heard this story on a tour of her town that her class took when she was in third grade. She always remembers the story because she thought that Tom was an extremely clever person for being able to out-smart the devil. She informed me that the story was extra-special because the house that Tom lived in still stands today, and they saw it on their tour. That made the legend even more believable to her, seeing the door that the Devil himself walked up to. She doesn’t really ever tell the story of Tom Cook to many people, only unless they make a comment about how the old house should be torn down.

I am from this town of Westborough, MA, and I remember going on the town tour that my informant described. I agree that what made the legend believable was actually seeing Tom Cook’s house. I remember it being light blue, with broken windows and an overgrown lawn. The roof had been caving in and it looked like the scariest house I had ever seen. This image made the legend so real because such a house is hard to imagine could still exist. Sadly, the house was town down this year, and with it, what I believe to be a great deal of the believability of the Tom Cook legend.

The story of Tom Cook appears in authored literature in:

Allen, Kristina Nilson. On the Beaten Path: Westborough, Massachusetts. Westborough Civic Club and Westborough Historical Society, 1984.


My Brother and the Barefoot Race

My informant told me a very funny story about her younger brother:

“When my brother was in second or third grade his school class had to run the mile in gym class. Because he usually ran very fast, and wanted to remain the fastest kid in his grade, he was determined to finish first and beat his best friend. After the first half lap one of his sneakers came off, but he kept hobbling and running. Eventually the gym teacher yelled for him to stop and get his shoe on, but his friend was on his tail and he didn’t want to stop, so he took off the other shoe. He kept running and stayed in the lead, much to the teachers’ amusement, but now he knew that his socks were getting dirty, so as he ran he took off his socks, never losing the lead. The teachers were dumbfounded, but he won the race and remained the grade’s fastest runner.  I think the moral is that determination makes you do strange things.”

My informant told me that she tells this story very often. During the summer she is a counselor at a Track and Field summer camp, so she tells this story to the kids sometimes to get them excited for a race, or to make them laugh. Still to this day she laughs while she is telling it, while wearing a wide, proud grin as she finishes.

I think that this piece of folklore is quite funny, but also reveals how proud the informant is of her brother. Her smile as she tells it reveals how she enjoys telling the tale, and her willingness to provide a moral and make it a legitimate story with a purpose adds to this. The story itself is also very reflective of how determination can really pay off, even if it looks strange.

Uncle Colin and the Hurricane

My informant told me a story about his Uncle Colin and the story that his family tells about the 1954 hurricane that struck Cape Cod, MA:

“I have heard from a number of people that in the Cape Cod hurricane of 1954, the sea at Buzzards Bay rose as the Atlantic Ocean swelled. When it looked as if the rising inlet next to his house may rise further and wash his house away, my Uncle Colin went out to his fishing boat with a glass of milk and a baloney sandwich and said if it was going to get his house, he couldn’t stop it and he’d rather go down in his boat. So he rowed out to the boat in the storm and waited and ate. The water rose, but never reached the house and the boat never left the mooring.”

My informant said that each time he head the story it was slightly different, but the jist of it is the same. He particularly liked the story because he was named after this particular uncle, and therefore was proud of being associated with him. The story is also quite humorous, so he often re-tells it to family during gatherings and holidays.

From my point of view, this is a story about bravery. It shows the respect that a family has for its elders and their sometimes odd, but impressive actions. It also ties the family to the property in showing their devotion to it. Uncle Colin would not sit in his boat during a hurricane unless he deeply cared about the property he was willing to risk his life for. It can also be used to teach children the values of their family.

Texas Indians with Cadillacs

My informant told me a story that his father told him once as a child:

“My father tells the story that when he was a small boy he lived with his family in Dallas Texas in the 1930’s. Back then local Texans and Native Americans didn’t get along real well. My grandfather used to tell my father that the “Indians” have so much money from oil on their reservations that they all drive brand new Cadillacs. And when the car runs out of gas they simply leave it by the side of the road and walk away from it and just buy another one with a full tank.”

My informant said that his father was a slightly racist man, and although he would never admit it, he did tell stories such as this one that showed it. He said that his father told this story only once or twice when he was younger, but he remembered it because he believed it to be true.

This piece of folklore shows the racial tension between the Texans and the Indians there at the time. There was clearly a bit of resentment that went into the telling of this story. It seems like this story was meant to put down the Indians by painting them to be less economically responsible than the Texans.


Curse of the Bambinos

My informant told me a story about what he calls the “Curse of the Bambinos”:

“My mother’s family was Italian and came to the United States when my grandparents were in their twenties. When my sister and I were babies, in our Brockton, Massachusetts house, my grandmother would visit. She insisted that she had a dream when both babies were born that a gypsy had spit at us. To fight off this curse she hung in our crib a little carving of a fist with fingers wrapped around an extended thumb, the gesture used to ward off curses and the evil-eye. Even though my mother thought it really old fashion and crazy, she let her mother hang these charms at the head of each crib.”

My informant said that he and his sister often tell that story because they think it was so odd. They do not believe in the “Curse of the Bambino”, but they do appreciate it as part of the beliefs of the culture that they come from.

I believe that this is an important piece of folklore because it shows that although people can recognize that certain superstitions are probably not true, they still keep them alive out of respect for their heritage. It upholds the sense of identity that they get from their history and traditions.


After You Yawn

My informant told me about an old Irish superstition he knew:

“When you yawn, make the sign of the cross over your mouth to keep the devil from climbing in.”

He told me that he has done this ever since he was a little boy, and one of his uncles told him that after he yawned a devil had climbed into his throat. He also remembers his mother and father making the sign of the cross after they yawned.

I have personally never heard of this superstition until now. It shows how religion can create many customs and beliefs and how fear perpetuates them.

Italian women’s hair length

My informant told me about the customs of italian women in relation to their hair length:

“Native women tend to avoid cutting their hair. This is a female concern men do not seem to give a damn. I recalled your great grandmother (Santa’s)  friends, how slowly they got used to American ways and cut their hair. Your grandmother and I used to laugh how they all found an excuse  for shortening their hair usually lamenting that arthritis made it impossible to comb it long. Long hair was part of their system of belief.  And they felt the necessity to find an excuse for their sin.”

My informant told me that his wife kept her hair long, just like her family would have liked back in Italy.

Again, the connection between Italian customs/superstitions and religion shows through in my informant’s use of the word “sin” in relation for women cutting their hair. Even little customs like hair length is tied back to belief.

The Sexist Doctor Riddle

The following is a riddle my informant told to me:

A man and his son were driving down an icy road. When they took a corner, the car flipped. After a while, two ambulances came, one took the father to a hospital in the west, the other took the son to an hospital in the east. The nurses rushed the son into surgery, because he was losing a lot of blood. The doctor entered, and after looking at the boy exclaimed: ” I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son!” How can this be?

Answer: The doctor is the boy’s mother

My informant told me that he tells this riddle often at parties or to his kids’ friends. Half of the time people guess the answer right away, but the other half of the time it completely stumps them.

When I first heard this riddle from my informant I could not figure it out. I thought it had to do with the sun rising, or another meaning of the word: “son”. As it turns out, it just reflected how the term “doctor” is still associated more with men than with women. I believe that this riddle is important because it pokes fun at the sexism of American society.