SOUTH PORTLAND – Bug Light Park is known for spectacular kites and front-row views of boat traffic on Portland Harbor.

It is also a home away from home for a group of Willard Square residents who often idle away the hours in lawn chairs in a corner near the park entrance.

Anyone who regularly walks or bikes the Greenbelt Parkway to its end in South Portland has probably wondered what they are up to, so far from the views and the action.

Five years ago, the group transformed the debris-strewn, overgrown site into an outdoor clubhouse. Now it serves as a drop-in center for neighborhood residents and wildlife, an impromptu funeral chapel and a dispersal site for the ashes of departed friends.

“It is such a pleasant place,” said Burton “Key Key” Bridges, 82, a lifelong resident of Willard Square.

The clubhouse is the brainchild of the late Donnie Grindel and Jim Ridley. The Willard Square natives used to park their cars at the Bug Light boat launch and chat with each other through their windows. But the traffic in and out of the boat launch made their conversations difficult.

“Donnie said, ‘We have to find a place to hang out,’” said Ridley.

So Ridley carved out an opening in a nearby tangle of scrub trees and bittersweet. They removed the old tires and rusting appliances. They dragged in giant driftwood logs, planted flowers and invited their friends. People began to drop off tables, lawn chairs and cushions. A barbecue grill appeared.

Soon, a core group of about 20 men, most of them retirees with military backgrounds, was turning up regularly. They don’t have a name for themselves.

“We are just a bunch of loners,” said Russell Yeaton, 75.

For a group of loners, they seem pretty close. When Bob Haskell, a frequent visitor, died recently, the group held a memorial service at its makeshift clubhouse. The ashes of several deceased members have been scattered there.

Some members were concerned when the South Portland Historical Society building was moved next door last year. But the society and the clubhouse have co-existed happily, said Kathryn DiPhilippo, the society’s director.

She said they get along well because all are interested in South Portland history. “And they look out for the building,” she added.

City Manager James Gailey said a few people have called City Hall wondering what is going on in the park. Gailey said the city has had no problems with the group.

“It is pretty harmless. They are just sitting there enjoying a beautiful place,” he said.

These days, the group sits under the leafy canopy talking about old times and watching the wildlife that turns up to eat from a dozen bird feeders and platforms.

“It could be 90 degrees, but it is cool in here,” Ridley said.

The foliage overhead shakes with hundreds of twittering catbirds and sparrows. Brown thrashers race back and forth in the thicket, and squirrels chase each other up and down the tree trunks.

A few feet away, a groundhog pokes its head out of its burrow and ventures out, calmly munching on sunflower seeds just a few feet from the men. A family of foxes and several skunks are regular visitors, attracted to the bits of meat the men take turns putting out.

“They like the red hot dogs,” said Bobby McGill. “Someone brought down some of those turkey hot dogs and they wouldn’t eat them.”

Members of the group spend several thousand dollars keeping the bird feeders filled year-round. Yeaton has documented the wildlife visitors with hundreds of photographs.

The hard-boiled veterans talk fondly about past animal friends, such as Oscar the seagull, who would perch on Grindel’s truck when opera poured from its loudspeakers — which it often did. They talk about the time a fox kit hopped up on a lawn chair and watched them watching it.

A blue parakeet with a banded leg flew in this summer. The bird is now one of the regulars.

“You realize this is good for our blood pressure,” said Dave Christiansen, 75, an Army veteran.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

[email protected]


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