Aunt Liz

By Matthew Atkinson:

In my childhood my family used to visit my Grandfather’s place in northwestern Connecticut for a week or a weekend here and there. Usually we would stay nearby in an antique farmhouse with my aunts, uncles and slightly older cousins and later in a large boarding house bought by my uncle Bill as a vacation place. Mostly we just hung out there and marched around playing army games arranged by my cousin Web or played kick the can or a nighttime variation called German Spotlight.

Author at Doolittle Lake 1973

Sometimes in the summer my cousin David and I were rousted out of bed at 4:30 in the morning by my aunt Liz to go fishing on Benedict Pond nearby. We got in the station wagon with various rods and spinning reels and tackle boxes. We had an old, wooden grey rowboat that probably belonged to my grandfather stashed by the pond and we loaded up our fishing poles and shoved off. Aunt Liz rowed while Dave and I trolled our lines from the stern. We mostly turned up Perch and nasty Pickerel, a spiny, spiky, slippery thing that was difficult to get off the hook. Back they went into the pond worse for the wear to look for a bug or another shiny spinner flashing by. These were warm, early summer days. The pond was peaceful as the sun came up and the fish started to eat bugs off the surface of the pond. The only sounds were our hushed voices, the creak of wooden oars, and David peeing off the stern. Often, we snagged a lily pad and had to work to get the hook and line back in the boat.

I remember only once (?) one of us hooked a good-sized bass, the prize we were apparently after. I think we had a rubber worm on the hook. Aunt Liz was thrilled and coached us through the struggle with the fish, alternately giving it some line and reeling it closer to the boat. Then she was out with the net and giving it a clubbing with the end of an oar. Six pounds of pure joy for Aunt Liz. It might have been three pounds or ten, but this is a fish story. We trolled for a little longer, but we had what we were after. On shore Aunt Liz cut the fish down its belly, cleaned out the guts and wrapped it up in wet grass.

Then back in the car and a short ride home as the sun came up. Bass for breakfast. Maybe a trip to Doolittle Lake for a swim later. We could always count on Aunt Liz to advocate for ice cream on the way home.

Matthew W. Atkinson, 2020

Note: Aunt Liz is my late sister-in-law. Matthew is my son.

The Hurricane of ’38

Why doesn’t any thing exciting ever happen around here?

That day I walked home from Junior High with Hughie Chapin. He peeled off on Hundreds Circle at Ledgeways and I went on to my house close by. Even if it seemed a bit calm, warm, and humid, this was an unremarkable September afternoon.

No one was home but our housekeeper Maude—Daddy in town at the office and Mother out and about in the car. Around three-thirty we became aware of a rising breeze from the southeast, coming in gusts and swaying the trees in our wooded lot. Soon green leaves began to fill the air and I went outside to see what was happening. By then the wind had risen hugely and suddenly, before my eyes, a huge oak crashed down partially blocking our driveway.

Wow! Excitement. I ran over to Hughie’s and, as I ran, other trees fell. So that by the time we two returned to Ledgeways there was nothing further remarkable about downed trees—they surrounded the house.

Unexpectedly (impossibly?) Mother arrived after tortuous weaving and backing through the neighborhood and we all decided to walk down to [Wellesley] Farms to meet Daddy at the train. The train was late. We walked back through the storm with other commuting neighbors. By then dark had fallen and at the house we discovered a large tree leaning and lunging against the second floor porch railing. Daddy took an axe and, in his business suit, cut the tree so that the top fell away allowing the trunk to spring clear. By midnight the wind had largely abated. There was no electricity and no heat nor hot water, and so to bed.

No school the next day. For weeks the air was filled with the aroma of torn leaves. The world was transformed; nothing seemed familiar. We clambered through the fallen trees playing house among the branches. Gradually after weeks and months the destruction was cleared by men, not with chainsaws, but with bucksaws, two-man saws, and axes. Fifteen mature trees came down on our quarter-acre lot; a lot underlain by ledge which gave roots only shallow purchase. The resulting piles of cordwood, neatly stacked here and there, eventually rotted away for lack of days and years to burn them in the fireplace.

The storm struck from the sea; a complete and disastrous surprise especially for those living in coastal areas on eastern Long Island and southern New England and the Islands. Although the Weather Service knew of the storm the news failed to reach the general public in time. The eye made landfall at New Haven and pretty much moved straight north up the valley of the Connecticut River. Consequently the strongest winds to the east were southerly and had added to their circulation the velocity of the storm mass itself; winds clocked at 121mph at Great Blue Hill. For decades afterward hikers in much of New England struggled over and under the decaying trunks in the forest—all pointing north.

The ocean surge was gigantic having come in on a spring tide. There are marks on the buildings in downtown Providence, Rhode Island thirteen feet above mean high water. There was little or no rain, most of it having caused flooding on the western side of the eye.

And so at last we had an answer to the adolescent’s perennial question: Why doesn’t anything exciting ever happen around here?

Later we heard funny stories about things that were supposed to have happened:

o  On the morning of the storm a lady in New Haven—let’s say—had just accepted postal delivery of an expensive barometer she had ordered from Abercrombie and Fitch. Upon opening the package it seemed to her that the needle was stuck at the extreme low end of the scale—near 28 inches of mercury. After much tapping, sure that it was defective, she repackaged it with a note and took it back to the post office.

When she returned home her house was gone.

o  A book store on Long Island had its display window blown in. One book remained on the shelf—Gone With the Wind. [At that time a contemporary novel; weightier than most.]

o  On the Web:

Wm. C. Atkinson, 2013


Chemistry (1930s)

…the book had an index entry for gunpowder.

In the depths of the Depression [ca. 1933] daddy came home one night with a lump of coal and a “recipe” that was then all the rage. The black lump was placed in a saucer and some water and ammonia poured over it, to which some blueing, salt, and a few drops of red ink had been added.  In a few days fanciful and feathery crystals of blue and green and white began to envelop the lump of coal.  The result was called a “Depression Plant” [1]—something decorative that all could afford in those desperate times.

On the Fourth of July daddy always produced a supply of fireworks, fire and cannon crackers, and weird things like “snakes”; little grey cones which, when lit with a stick of glowing punk, would erupt into an ever growing serpent of ash coiling and curling around. We could set off the firecrackers ourselves but the cannon crackers were reserved for daddy.  Out on the “East” lawn and on the back steps we set firecrackers under tin cans and broke them in half to make spitting “cat” fights. For after dark among the fireworks were Roman candles, fountains, pinwheels, and sparklers to end the day.

One year I was sent to my room for some forgotten transgression on a Fourth when daddy was making for us a special wooden cannon  supposedly to shoot firecrackers.  My punishment was exclusion from the firing.  My sister Holley told me later that it was a failure; it blew into bits. Yess!

On another Fourth, while fooling around and watching fireworks at the Bacon’s, I had several firecrackers in the bottom of my shorts pocket. Unaccountably one (but not all!) went off shredding my underwear amid frantic hopping and slapping of the smoking fabric.  I had to have a tetanus shot the results of which eventually kept me in bed for several days with a high fever and a painful and uncomfortable case of “lockjaw.”

Just before I was ten [1934] I was given a boxed chemistry set for Christmas and, for my birthday a few weeks later, a microscope kit.  The detailed memory of them has faded but the set had test tubes and some little vials of chemicals, litmus paper, phenolphthalein, some sort of spirit lamp I think, and things like tweezers, a wire test tube holder, etc.  So, I could test vinegar and ammonia as acid or base, magically convert water into wine, extinguish lighted matches in invisible carbon dioxide, and make tiny quantities of the poisonous gas chlorine, greenish in the bottom of the tube and fascinating because of its horror in the Great War.  Dark purple potassium permanganate and glycerine when mixed would sizzle and spontaneously burst into flame with purple smoke.

I could dissolve sal-ammoniac in water, put a drop on a microscope slide and, as it dried, watch the beautiful crystal feathers spread out like living ferns to fill all the field and stop.  Similarly one could watch emerging cubes of sugar and salt and, as my father showed me outside in the winter, the simple freezing of water.  One summer, in the mucky water from the pond in back, I found a rotifer with the microscope.

According to mother’s diary in 1937 [4/21, I was twelve] “Donny and Wm. made paddles for a boat and also gunpowder.”  I have no recollection of this day but I certainly remember my gunpowder of later years.

When I was almost fourteen daddy gave me a “real-life” chemistry set for Christmas.  With it was at least one book by A. Frederick Collins; “The Boy Chemist” (1925) or the “Boy’s Book of Experiments” (1927) the last mentioned being most memorable for its having an actual index entry for gunpowder.

The “set” comprised individual items that he had amassed and packed in several boxes: spherical and Erlenmeyer flasks, a retort!, Bunsen burner, ring stand, test tubes, glass funnels, a “thistle” tube, bottles with rubber stoppers perforated with holes for glass tubing, the tubing itself (in long straight pieces later to be cut with a file and softened and bent in the heat of the burner)–and chemicals.  Chemicals in real regular sized bottles.  Sulphur; potassium, sodium, and strontium nitrates; vicious (fuming) acids–sulphuric, nitric, hydrochloric.

He helped me set up a laboratory in the basement laundry room where there was water for the big soapstone laundry tubs and gas to be tubed up to the burner from a spigot he added to the two-burner wash-boiler stove. We had an old enamel topped kitchen table; we made shelves for the equipment and chemicals.

I think I spent more time bending and welding glass tubing and blowing glass bubbles than actually experimenting but as time went on several things stand out in my memory.

One was the making of oxygen and hydrogen by the disassociation of water with a direct electric current–the bubbles rising in each of two inverted test tubes filled with water.  A red-hot iron wire immersed in the oxygen would burn violently with sparks and the hydrogen tube, when inverted over the Bunsen flame, would go off with a pop reverting explosively to its original compound leaving water droplets on the sides of the cooling tube.

Another was guncotton and its dissolved form–nitroglycerine.  I started with guncotton (nitro cellulose) made by treating ordinary cotton with nitric acid then washing and drying the result.  It would burn in an instantaneous flash but I don’t remember trying to confine it as in firecrackers as described by Collins.  Just as well, maybe.

Nitroglycerine came later.  I can’t imagine how lucky I might have been for the making involved dissolving cotton in a mixture of two acids with heating over the Bunsen burner.  I learned—much later—that this reaction is highly unstable and requires precise temperature control to complete safely.  (In a similar experiment Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, lost his eyesight.) I poured the small amount of resulting yellow liquid into one of my mother’s tiny perfume bottles and suddenly realized that I hardly dared touch it further.

Finally, I arranged a flagstone on the ground below my sister’s second floor porch in back and gingerly took the small bottle upstairs and outside where I leaned over the railing and, centering it over the flagstone fifteen feet below—dropped it.  Nothing happened; and I guess I was well out of that one.

We had fun with elemental iodine crystals which we could get at the drugstore and which we treated more or less haphazardly with household ammonia.  The result was ammonium iodide, a brown substance so unstable when dried that the touch of a feather or a house fly could detonate it. We spread it “wet” in various places like the floor of my sister’s room where it would snap and crack making purple smoke under her shoes.  Later, in college, we made larger quantities but abruptly ended our experiments after an unexpected blast from a damp batch.

The rubber hose on the spigot of the washtub stove proved ideal for the making of paint can bombs.  The lid of an old one gallon can would be hammered on all ’round and a nail hole punched in the center of the top and in the side at the bottom.  With the rubber hose end held firmly at one of the holes the gas would be turned on [2]. The entering gas made a faint hissing sound and, as the can filled, the musical pitch of the hiss would rise gradually leveling off when the can was full.  Then, with a finger or a thumb over each hole, the can would be taken outside, set down, and a lighted match applied to the hole at the top.  A small flame, like a candle flame, would then burn steadily and quietly for what seemed like a long time.  Then, getting smaller and fainter, it would suddenly vanish as—BAM! the lid would be blown sky high.

We gradually learned that this was fairly harmless business and took the activity inside to the playroom where a can might be set to burn silently and maliciously under the player-piano bench beneath some unsuspecting musician.

Better and louder blasts were obtained with rectangular gallon screw-cap cans—cap on tight.  The result being a  large (and fairly neat) rectangle of sheet tin and two ends.  I learned once of a machine that shelled walnuts by a similar method.

Rockridge Pond (Bill & Loki, 1938)

Floating out onto Rockridge Pond on a home made raft we would poke the rotting bottom with long sticks.  Bubbles rose and could be captured in an overturned water-filled can.  Methane.  We ignited it to see the blue flash.

In the thirties any kid could ride down to the drugstore on his bike and buy all the ingredients for black powder in satisfyingly large quantities–sulphur and potassium nitrate; the charcoal we gleaned from the fireplace ashes.  Even potassium chlorate could be had which was a great blast and sensitivity enhancer; the only additive that would make a good homemade firecracker–plain old black powder made with only potassium nitrate was too slow for that.

Mix a little sulphur and potassium chlorate on the anvil and hit it a smart hammer blow.  Bam!  The hammer bounces as though having struck a rubber pad.

Somewhere we learned that one could take a 1/4″ machine bolt, just barely thread on the nut and fill the small cavity with kitchen, strike anywhere, match heads–the white part, very carefully shaved off the heads one at a time.  A matching bolt would be screwed carefully in and both slowly tightened to compress the charge.  Tossing the assembly onto a hard surface would detonate the match heads blowing the assembly apart.  I’m sure we never gave a thought to the potential danger of the flying bolts.

Cannon (1940)

In 1940 I made a cannon out of some 1/2 inch iron pipe and a couple of fittings.  It lacked realism and so I built a carriage that could vary the elevation, a recoil mechanism of rubber bands, and some giant 20d spikes to anchor it to the ground.  I painted it in military camouflage. We made a mold out of plaster-of-Paris and cast cylindrical slugs of lead to fit the barrel.

Dad was supportive but counseled caution—pointing out the obvious; that black-iron water pipe was not designed for use as ordnance—and so we always rushed to hide behind trees after having lighted the fuse.

The gun was a muzzle loader.  Pour in some powder (not too much the first time).  Add a small wad of newspaper, tamp it in hard.  Then the slug.  Another wad; tamp it in.  Magnesium ribbon worked well as a fuse, brilliant, hot, and slow burning.  Light the fuse; run for the tree.  The cannon bided its time: first sparks from the touch-hole and then, as though gathering its strength—boom!  We could fire a slug through a three-quarter inch pine board.

Once we took it to a small promontory overlooking Rockridge Pond where we set the barrel at an angle high enough, we thought, greatly to shorten the horizontal range.  We fired and watched for a distant splash. A second or two.  No splash?  Then, from the far shore about two-hundred yards distant, came a sharp clank.  Sheesh!  A slate roof?  A car?  We grabbed the cannon and ran pell-mell for the house.  I later learned in physics class that maximum projectile range is obtained at a barrel elevation of forty-five degrees.

One day I completed my finest batch of gunpowder.  I had used water in the mixing and grinding and had spread the black goo out onto newspapers to dry at low heat in the kitchen oven before final grinding. The finished batch half-filled one of my mother’s enameled metal salad bowls and on this afternoon it sat in the playroom at the far end of the workbench.  It contained potassium chlorate; I needed to test some.  So, at the near end of the bench, I set a pinch on the anvil and whacked it with the hammer.  Bam! As expected.  But…  What’s this?  A great hiss and rumble at the other end of the bench!  A mushroom cloud arose on a pillar of dark flame and spread out over the playroom ceiling [3]. In an instant my beautiful powder was gone and one of my mother’s better salad bowls left red-hot, blackened, and deformed—to say nothing of the soot besmirched ceiling and the smell of brimstone which soon pervaded the house.  This was around 1940 before the atomic bomb but it realistically foreshadowed that event in miniature. No one was home and I have repressed whatever lies and stories were fabricated and whatever family repercussions might have been the result.  It was my last boyhood batch of gunpowder.

My mother’s diary has no mention of this event.

[1] Depression Plant:
3 lumps of coal
6 tbs. blueing (added to laundry, the “Whiter than White” of the day.)
6 tbs. water
6 tbs. salt
2 tbs. ammonia
4 drops red ink or food coloring

[2] Not recommended for fuel gases heavier than air such as butane or propane.

[3] For years I have puzzled over how a spark could have flown the distance between the anvil and the bowl. I have lately come to suspect that it might have been the sharp shock of the hammer explosion that caused a detonation. If so, I was better out of that one than I realized at the time!

Wm. C. Atkinson, August 2002



Aeroplanes (1930-1943)

1912_2 FkaFlyer
My father, (Francis) Kerr Atkinson

My father was connected to flight as a member and builder for the Cornell Aero Club in 1912. He took part in the design and building of single-seat bi-planes which  were then “flown”—towed behind autos—around a large circuit on the playing fields above Schoellkopf stadium in order to learn flight control.  The Wright brothers had made their epic flight at Kitty Hawk only nine years earlier, and Wilbur his historic flight at Le Mans in 1908.

In June of 1919 my mother, too, took flight in an airplane over Paris. She was between assignments, having left her YMCA attachment to the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) as a canteen girl in Bay-sur-Aube and waiting to join the Red Cross via a Friends Service group in Epernay,

In her own words:

“But in the meantime I must tell you what I have been doing in Paris. Besides relieving myself of beaucoup francs in their perfectly fascinating stores, I have managed to see quite a few of the sights and, from a strange angle for, let me announce to you the fact that on Sunday I was 700 metres above Paris in an aeroplane!  Yep, it’s the actual truth.  Joy and I were in the Hotel Petrograd for lunch on Saturday and found that there was a French aviatrix who would see that people went up in her plane for the small sum of 60 francs.  She herself didn’t take them up, but her pilot [did], a Capt. in the Escadrille. So—along with four other adventurous souls we went with her to Le Bourget on Sunday afternoon.  After waiting from 3 until 8 P.M. we all six got separate rides of about 20 min. each.  The only time I was really scared was when they hoisted me up into the little front seat and clamped a seat belt around me.  After the propeller started with a whirr and the machine actually moved I lost all fear entirely and just enjoyed every minute.”

19061501_ECA Caudron
Elsie Sterling Church at Le Bourget, Paris

“You can’t imagine how wonderful it feels to go soaring over the country, to look down on buildings, fields, roads, trees, gardens and mere mortals stalking around on the ground.  It was a wonderfully clear day and the view of Paris was superb.  We went towards the city and turned around just about over Sacré Coeur.  Underneath us lay the Seine winding along, spanned by bridge after bridge, on the left was the Eiffel Tower, and on the right was the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and all those lovely public buildings near the river.  It was a sight I will never forget.  You had the whole city before you in a mass and at the edges stretched fields which were finally lost in the surrounding hills and they in turn in the haze of the horizon.  The ride was over all too soon, but I would have paid twice the price I think to go. The one I went up in was a Caudron.”

My own first memory of airplanes is that of having just stepped off the DL&W sleeper from New York City [probably on July 17th, 1929 with mother, my sister Holley, then three, and “Nanny” Bennett] to the platform at the Lackawanna station in Ithaca, NY where Aunt Edith [Church] had come down the hill in her new Dodge touring car to meet us.  I would have been four and a half.

Someone must have remarked an airplane in the clear sky and we all looked up.  “Aeroplanes” were hardly twenty-five years old then and still a novelty.  It was a biplane.  I was transfixed.  It was tiny but seemed to me to be extremely close like a drifting mote or toy that I could have reached out and taken into my hand and I long wondered how that illusion could have been.  Many years later I decided that it had been an optical illusion—that in reality there had been two planes flying in tandem and that my (slightly crossed) eyes had merged them into one seemingly much nearer; the way two images are fused in the stereopticon, or the way the bathroom floor tiles sometimes seem to merge and to hover in the air above the floor when you are musing on the toilet.

It was on this—or another of these Ithaca trips—that we had seen Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis as we passed through Grand Central Terminal in New York City.  It was elevated on display in the great concourse.  We climbed some wooden steps and mother lifted me up so that I could see into the cockpit [1].

For many years mother was part of a sort of therapeutic women’s “Rhythm” group who, as near as I could tell, spent their time dancing and swaying in flowing and diaphanous gowns, all with a classical Greek motif.  [Such a group would today be seen definitely as “New Age,” in fact, the same Noyes Rhythm movement exists still; I found it on the Web.

So it happened in the summer of 1932 that Holley and I were sent to Cobalt, Conn. for six weeks of family Rhythm group camp where, incidentally, I learned to swim in the lake and was exposed to the humiliation and the terror of boxing.  My memory of the adults is one of ghostly dancers in the waning light of day, in diaphanous gowns and crowned with flowered wreaths, clasped hand-in-hand, weaving in and out among the trees in the twilight.  Incongruously it was here that I first became aware of model airplanes.

The older boys—I was seven—had been given model airplanes to build at camp workshop.  They had wingspans of about 24 inches.  I was fascinated and remember that the wings were of thin silk somehow attached to bent loops of fine wire or bamboo.  At that moment all I wanted in life was to have a kit of my own to build but, in spite of tearful cajoling, I was told that I wasn’t old enough.  Model airplanes were deferred.


Planes were then uncommon enough that one always looked up at the sound of an engine overhead.  As the years passed flights increased—we would even see autogyros (planes with no wings but with helicopter-like free rotors driven by the forward motion of the craft)—and the novelty began to fade.

One afternoon in 1933 Holley and I were playing in the back yard in Wellesley [Massachusetts] by the inlet to Rockridge Pond when we heard a huge, deep, and growing noise in the sky overhead.  Suddenly, at first filtered by branches and then in the clear over the water, a huge silver airship loomed moving majestically eastward seemingly just above the treetops.  We ran pell-mell toward the house shouting for the others to “come see” but too late; it was immediately lost to view.  The next day we learned that it had been the huge American dirigible USS Akron en route to East Boston Airport.

Mother notes in her diary of 1933 that [daddy] helped William with an aeroplane and later, in 1936: “Wm. worked all P.M. on an aeroplane.”  The first was probably some crude assemblage of parts but the second could have been my first model in kit form.  It wasn’t of silk and fine wire but of balsa wood and colored tissue paper.  The company that made the kits and the glue was Megow’s.  The direction sheet spoke of “templates” so I asked Dad what was a template and he had no idea.  This surprised me because until then I had always thought he knew everything there was to know about technology.

This model was the first of uncounted successors.  I set up a card table in my room and had an old soft wood drawing board of mother’s that would take straight pins with only moderately killing finger pressure—a permanent callus formed on my thumb and forefinger from planting endless pins to secure the work over the plan outlines while the glue dried.  Wax paper, eventually shredded by the cutting, covered the printed plans so that the glue would not stick.  Eventually “X-Acto” knives replaced the stiff single-sided blades borrowed from dad’s razor.  The glue was orange “Ambroid” and later clear “Duco” cement which built up on the fingers to be eaten off in layers.  It had a sharp chemical flavor and, when not quite dry, a real bite.

Often I would be up long before breakfast for days on end to have extra time to work on the current model.  Waiting endlessly for glue and lacquer to dry was a real frustration; an introduction to the virtues of patience.

The outlines of the fuselage bulkheads and wing airfoil “formers” were printed on thin balsa wood sheets to be carefully cut out with the razor blade.  Some models had formers only for the wing sections; the boxy fuselage being made only of sticks.  The stringers, long and thin, sometimes of bamboo, were glued into notches in the formers and three-dimensional skeletons began to take shape eventually ready for covering with the tissue paper.

Covering was fun and went pretty fast.  A surface of the skeleton would be painted with banana oil which came with a brush in a little bottle and had the wonderful fruity pungency of the overripe fruit.  Then the paper would be laid on the oiled form and later trimmed around the edges.  The result when dry was loose and wrinkled but when sprayed with water (using one of mother’s charcoal drawing fixatif aspirators) and dried it shrank to a skin, tight as a drum, which could then be painted with lacquer which also came in little bottles and in various colors.

The result was a real airplane that would glide and fly when the rubber band (propeller motor) was wound up to “double” or “triple” knots and the plane released.  Some were “ROG’s” which meant they would take (Rise) Off from the Ground if given a runway with enough scope.  If the balance was right some would even land again at the far end of the basement playroom—or down the street—before veering off into some obstruction.

Daddy would sometimes take us to the East Boston Airport (now Logan) to watch the planes.  One fall [1936] mother noted in her diary that I had made a Beechcraft and in October she took me to Richard Knight Auditorium at Babson (Institute, now College) to hear Amelia Earhart lecture [she was lost in the Pacific the next summer].  We sat high up, in a balcony, and the afternoon light streamed through the vast arched windows.

I remember nothing of the lecture but after it there was an indoor model air show that used the great height of the hall to advantage.  I had never imagined that models could have been built like these—endurance models designed to circle, for hours it seemed, gradually gaining altitude and then descending, gliding down after their rubber band motors had wound down.  They were large—three or four feet wing span and light as feathers.  I think some of them weighed no more than three or four ounces.  The wings were of “gossamer”; actually films of collodion only a few molecules thick applied by immersing the wing skeleton in water, applying a drop of collodion to the surface where it would spread out instantaneously into an invisible film, and then lifting the wing through the surface to capture the layer.  The collodion rippled with rainbows like those seen in soap bubbles.

The propeller lobes were made the same way—collodion covered loops of bamboo like the wings of dragon flies.  They turned slowly, perhaps once per second, as the planes rose majestically gaining maybe a few inches of altitude at the end of each fifty foot circuit.  Each remained in the air for at least fifteen minutes it seemed.  I was fascinated but never aspired to enter that school of model building.

When I was twelve I began a really big model of five feet wingspan.  Dick Haward, a school friend, also had a big plane and for it a small gasoline engine.  We would try his engine in my model when it was finished.  It was common then to invite various school teachers to dinner occasionally and that spring my airplane was being proudly shown to Miss DeLura, the school principal.  She took it unexpectedly in hand and—crack—broke one of the stringers in her clumsy grasp.  I could have fixed it, and perhaps I did, but I have no recollection ever of having tried it out with Dick’s motor.

One Sunday in October of 1937 Holley and I were awakened unusually early by mother and dad and told to prepare for a surprise.  We drove into Boston and out to the airport.  We were to fly to New York City for the day!  The plane was, I imagine, a Douglas DC-3

Douglas DC-3, East Boston Airport 1937

and seemed in my memory to have had about two dozen seats in rows of one and two.  At 10:20a we taxied out to the runway and took-off.  What excitement!  We were enthralled.  On the way a steward(ess?) served snacks.  We landed in Newark and got to 42nd Street by 12:30.  We saw the science museum at Rockefeller Center and went to the Planetarium.  The taxis had folding jump seats in the back and we had lunch at an Automat—a wall of cubbies with glass, coin-operated doors behind which were sandwiches, chicken pot pies, shiny bowls of jello, and a corps of workers dutifully refilling the empties from behind—the grand daddy of all fast food.  Later we went to friends of mother’s [the Fairchild’s] for dinner.  We came home on the Pullman sleeper from Pennsylvania Station. This was mother’s first flight since her sight-seeing jaunt over Paris in 1919 and surely my father’s first flight ever.

At one time daddy worked on a model of his own design; a kind of helicopter device.  The rotor, elaborately constructed of thin paper, looked like an unfurled umbrella with curved vanes—like the chambers of a nautilus or the fine gills of a mushroom—on the underside.  I still have the propeller and the wooden stick frame that stretched the rubber band motor.  I haven’t the least memory of how it was supposed to have worked.

When I was fifteen I conceived and built a balsa wood and yellow tissue paper ornithopter; a plane that flapped bird-like wings.  I fashioned tiny cranks and levers out of piano wire with needle-nosed pliers.  A rubber band powered it.  It flew—sort of—mainly flopping toward the ground with a sound like a broken window shade and much sooner than I might have wished.

Gradually my room filled with models both flying and (more detailed) solid models aiming for realism.  Some were suspended on wires overhead.  My best was the Beechcraft, a biplane of about eighteen inch wingspan with staggered wings (the lower forward of the upper) and a radial engine.  I photographed them all once but the photos are now lost. Eventually the planes found their way to the attic to be retrieved several years later for the final act.

By 1942 the War was well under way.  Somewhere in that period a friend and I conceived the idea of simulating, in a small way, aerial combat.  This began by the opening of the front window of my corner room at 85 Ledgeways. Those models that would fly were wound up, anointed with kerosene, ignited, and launched out the window to circle, dive and to crash and burn in the driveway two and a half stories below.

WCA & Piper J-3

During my later service in the Army Air Force in training at the University of Cincinnati we had occasion to be taught to fly in Piper J-3s. We learned a long list of maneuvers in addition to simply taking off and landing with a minimum of jolting, careening from side to side, and bouncing clumsily back into the air. We learned to keep the nose up during turns—with the wings at an angle vertical lift is reduced.  I had trouble with the rudder controls because they were counter-intuitively the opposite of what I had learned as a kid on my Flexible Flyer. We memorized and executed a codified “series of turns” without losing track of our bearings, and had to be able to recover from a vertical tailspin in a prescribed number (like two-and-a-half) wild gyrations while trying to keep track of how many times the highway below had rotated. I was not much good at this emergency counting but in the end my instructors gave me a good report.

After the War, while a freshman at Cornell, I made a last detailed solid airplane model.  It was a B-29 carrying the markings of our 20th Air Force, 498th Bombardment Group on Saipan in 1945: T-Square 37 on which I was the radar navigator.  I have it still.

My Last Model Airplane (~1947)

[1] As of this writing I can find no proof of my ever having seen the Spirit of Saint Louis in Grand Central Station. An exhaustive Google subject and image search seems to confirm that the plane was never there on display. It is possible that it was the German plane “Bremen” on display in 1929 during one of our passages through the station. It had just completed the first east to west Atlantic crossing. But the plane was suspended in air with no possibility of having a close look.





Construction (1930s)

As school children we were endlessly fascinated by construction work, with the men and materials, but especially with the processes, the equipment and, above all, the machinery.

The machinery in general seemed muscular and open to the possibility of actually revealing to us how it might work—like anatomical drawings showing the tendons and bones of a limb.  It was angular, black, rusting, and oozed dark grease from its joints and pivots.  It ran on coal, hissing steam, and smoke.

Steamrollers had a great spoked iron flywheel on one or two sides of the engine.  The driver’s cab was filled with hand levers and long shafted steering wheels and covered with a flat canvas sun-roof that shook as the machine lurched forward and backward over the hot macadam steaming from water applied to keep the roller from sticking.

1932_Steam Shovel
Coal-fired steam shovel

Steam  shovels were tracked—as Cat’s are still—but the mighty torso of the machine carrying the awkward shovel arms and the cab and engine swiveled on a huge circular crown of gear teeth and the shovel arm, itself a gigantic rack, was thrust forward and back with pinions and greasy cables.  The shovel itself seemed to be the head of a giant beast with an articulated jaw—the hinge was the eye—and a row of huge teeth sprouting, oddly, like spiky hair from its forehead.  The teeth had no reverse reach (as on today’s backhoes) so workmen would have to hand-excavate the close-in stuff.

The behemoths clanked and smoked and, happily, were left at quitting time totally exposed and unguarded, metal chinking as it cooled, and various fluids sighing faintly to our ears as we took command of the controls to advanced the projects into the summer evenings.

Often a squat, rusty, and lurching diaphragm pump (sometimes left to run overnight) would be connected to two hoses one of which vanished into the turbid depths of an open hole or trench and the other, at labored intervals, belched forth gouts of muddy liquid into a canvas hose and then into a nearby ditch where the flow ran on to supply our dams and other grand and fleeting roadside civil engineering projects.

Hit-or-miss gasoline pump engine

Driven by a primitive one-cylinder, hit-or-miss gasoline engine—running at about 120 rpm—such a pump had a flywheel capable of carrying it, stumbling onward between frequent and random misfires, through a couple of cycles or so.  This gave it a characteristic and rhythmic but intermittent bump and breathy suck which I am certain any adult child of the twenties or thirties (who had endless time on his hands after school) would recognize instantly.

Smudge pot “bombs”

After dark the open pits and obstructions left for the night would be marked by crude black kerosene-filled spheres about the size of bowling balls with blackened wicks at the top burning dimly, smokily, and flickering in the darkness.  They were loose; but we never touched them; they seemed to us a little too dangerous—like the real bombs of our imaginations.

The heavy construction, machinery, and masonry workmen seemed mostly from southern Europe; swarthy from the sun, often mustachioed, and under banded fedoras and with bandannas at their necks.  I don’t remember much about the carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, and roofers except that they wore white canvas “farmer johns” and arrived at the jobs all together in the back of a truck. Individual autos were never parked around because they didn’t own cars as is common today.

After the workmen had left for the day we swarmed over the skeletal forms of the new house construction then burgeoning in our area, pocketing the coin-like knockout plugs from electrical boxes, sticking our fingers into the huge tubs of pristine white slaked lime left overnight by the plasterers to cure, and walking the gutters and ridgepoles arms waving widely—falling occasionally but usually able to hide the consequences from our parents.  Once, while balancing around a right-angled turn on a wooden hip roof gutter, I lost it and fell twelve feet onto a pile of bricks.  I had sprained my wrist in a fall, of course, from my bicycle [11/6/38, in my mother’s diary].

Hod carrier

Often, too, we would hang around during working hours watching form-building, the pouring of concrete, and the laying of endless bricks and stones—the mortar mixed in great tubs with long handled shovels and hoes and the bricks and mortar carried, around and up ladders to high staging in wooden hods balanced on the shoulders of the carriers, to the masons who deftly plied their trowels.  We watched plasterers working their smooth magic over wire lath and were fascinated by the plumber with his roaring blow-torch pouring molten lead into oakum-packed cast iron bell-joints.  (Cinder-block and so-called dry-wall construction were not to come into use until after the War.)

Sometimes we would talk with the men and they might deign to answer questions.  Without realizing it at the time we were learning how it all goes together; how the world works.  We were even learning some small things about cultures different from our own and how to get along with them.  I can trace some of my later ability to enjoy work with others less privileged than I to encounters such as these.

As we grew older and bolder we stole.  Nails, lumber, hinges, tarpaper, shingles (the occasional piece of capped pipe—for a cannon).  Somewhere nearby and hidden in the woods a crude club house would take shape.  One day (panic!) a policeman found his way to a remote site and we had to raze that one.  But we saved everything.  We laboriously pulled and pounded out and straightened the nails and the structure rose again, phoenix-like, in someone’s else patch of woods.  It seems unbelievable, now, that we were never charged with theft.

There was the digging of tunnels, too.  Cut and cover.  It was hard, grubby work getting through the local glacial till and hacking through roots.  Damp, dark; and fun for a while but without the allure of a really swell shack with a sloping roof, a door and windows, a trap door in the floor, and an old kerosene heater.

And there were real, scary tunnels to walk through.  We would ride our bikes over to an aqueduct project nearby in Weston and sneak through a fence and into the open end of a huge pipe that we could stand up in.  We would walk in toward the darkness, our footsteps and voices echoing eerily, as the pipe gradually curved to cut off more and more of what little light filtered in from the now distant end.  As the darkness increased we would voice concern over what would happen if “they” suddenly turned on the water and then—suddenly convinced that the water was actually COMING—run like crazy for the distant opening.


But best was that sometimes there would be blasting.  Compressors and air drills shattered the silence.  The dynamite (pale yellow and waxy looking sticks) would be charged into the holes, a cap inserted and quietly wired up to the centerpiece—the iconic wooden box with the plunger in the top.  A huge blanket seemingly woven out of old steel cable would be dragged over the work by the steam shovel.  We would watch respectfully from a remove always considered too close by the workmen.  “Hey. Kids. Get back!”  The men were much closer than we were; we would step back about an inch watching and waiting.  Then, “Look: he’s about to do it.”  THUMP!  The blanket would leap mightily and little pieces of rock would fly, some falling near and behind us.  The workmen would move in and we, satisfied, would drift away in pursuit of other endeavors.


“Nilesville”: A Childhood Memoir (1930s)

In 1931 our family left a second floor apartment at 27 Claflin Road on Aspinwall Hill in Brookline for a new house in Wellesley Hills.

My parents had looked at houses for several months but finally decided to build.  A lot was found in a new and wooded area called the Hundreds Estate which later became affectionately known to its denizens as Nilesville after its owner and developer Harold Niles who had a large and elegant old house on a hill on the tract.  What was to become the geographic and demographic center of gravity of our young lives was a road loop called Hundreds Circle.  In the period between about 1925 and 1931 many of the lots were sold, houses built, and new roads made to accommodate them.  Mr. Niles took a personal interest in every prospective buyer and essayed to assemble an educated and congenial group of prospective residents.

An architect was hired, a Mr. Avery, and design and construction began apace in the spring of 1930.  There was much blasting of ledge in the construction of the garage and foundation.  In the summer and fall we would often take the old Dodge on Sunday and drive out to visit the site.  I remember these visits only vaguely; I was five and a half.  The lot was small, a quarter acre, but had room for a level lawn on the east side.  The lot was otherwise surrounded by woods with a pond in back, Rockridge Pond, owned as parkland by the Town.

We moved in to 85 Ledgeways on a snowy day early in January, a day during most of which Holley and I had stayed at the Henderson’s on Elm Street.  Mr. Henderson was a business associate of my father’s.  To this day I can see the view down the upstairs hall from my bed through the open door of my new bedroom that first night.  A view filled with a giant stack of boxes on top of which was perched our old black electric fan.

Ledgeways had not yet been paved.  By 1932 or so most of the lots had been developed but, in the depths of the Great Depression, there remained many vacant plots and tracts of open woods.  Mr. Niles commissioned none of the houses and few developers bought plots to build dwellings on speculation.  There seemed something not quite acceptable about buying a house identical to some other one nearby.  Each house, on a wooded quarter-acre plot, had ten rooms more or less with a one or two-car garage:  Capes, salt-boxes, French provincial.  Several of the houses were designed by Royal Barry Wills, a well known local architect.  None had the open plan so popular after the War.  All had two or three stories; “family” rooms, unheard of, lay far in the future.  Finished attic spaces tended to occupancy by the boys.  No family had a swimming pool and but one a tennis court.  Lawns were small or non-existent and nobody ever gave a thought to the condition of his neighbor’s patch of green.

Mr. Niles had laid out a complex and winding maze of streets up and down dale.  Each had a gravel sidewalk along which, on snowy mornings, slow and plodding, came a steaming, shaggy, and blanketed horse pulling a simple wooden V-plow upon which sat a hunched and bundled figure clutching the reins.  The only sound to break this muffled silence was the grate and grumble of the plow blade on the frozen gravel beneath.

The salient feature of this new population was homogeneity.  The adults were all professionals of about the same age (thirties plus) and all the children between the ages of zero and ten.  I was six and my sister Holley five.  These children numbered about sixty boys and girls distributed among about twenty-five families and among whom at least a dozen attended the same elementary school classes as my sister and me.  In the immediate group I can remember no only children, not a single divorce or the death of a child, and but one family broken by the Depression.

Some afforded live-in help- a maid, a cook, a housekeeper- leaving the mothers relatively free.  At our house we employed Maude Smith from Bermuda who had come with us from Brookline.  She had her own cramped quarters in the house over the garage and cooked and cleaned and cared for us for almost thirty years.  Holley and I spent endless hours talking to her in the kitchen.  Mrs. Lilja came once a week to do the laundry by hand, in a soapstone tub, using a corrugated galvanized washboard and hand-cranked wringer.  Mr. Daly toiled in the garden.  But my father pushed the mower until, as I grew older, the task fell to me.  The gentle sound of a reel mower was one of the muted, now lost, sounds of summer.

Occasionally, in the cool wetness of autumn, small bands of Italian women from another part of town silently walked the fringes of the woods moving slowly and stooping to gather mushrooms.  They seemed to us mysterious and somewhat gypsy-like.

FrozenCreamBefore dawn, milk (and eggs) were delivered to the kitchen stoop; the milk in glass bottles with wired-on paper caps and disks inside which, on freezing mornings, rose inches into the air on weird stalks of frozen cream.  The wires had endless hobby uses and were saved in a glass tumbler on the kitchen windowsill.  Unless canned there were no fruits or vegetables out of season; frozen food was as yet unimaginable.  Morning orange juice was obtained by squeezing oranges the night before.  Few had ever tasted avocados (alligator pears), artichokes, or broccoli and no one had ever even heard of bagels, pizza, yoghurt, margarine, salsa, pesto, or cous-cous.  On mornings when you were sick in bed and home from school you heard mother’s voice on the phone in the hall talking to the grocer or the butcher; placing her order for delivery that day.

Once a year or so the Fuller Brush or the Electro-Lux man would ring the bell; filling the living room with his wares while mother, trying to be polite, would finish by buying a token item or, sometimes and more exciting, an entirely new vacuum cleaner.

The community was tight-knit and revolved at first around the local Seldon L. Brown elementary school (Ms. Ella Buck, principal) although it drew from a pool larger than and somewhat separated geographically from Nilesville itself.  The Brown school was eventually converted to condominiums and today buses carry the local kids elsewhere.

Thus, we never lacked for nearby playmates and cars never became a necessary part of our social milieu.  We walked home from school for lunch and back again.  We walked, ran, and rode our bicycles everywhere.  When the time came even junior high and high school were within walking distance.  In the mornings we would gather at the shortcut by the dam at Rockridge Pond waiting for the stragglers to convene before setting off together for the mile and a half walk.  Coming home in the winter Holley and I could cut straight across the pond, running and sliding on the ice, through the snowy woods to our own backyard.

In kindergarten we sat in a circle of little green wooden chairs under which, on rare occasions, a suspicious puddle might form. In the grades we saluted the flag and recited the pledge, hands over hearts.  We sang America the Beautiful.  At recess we played I’m the King of the Castle (and you’re the dirty rascal!) and swarmed over the jungle gym and held long-jump competitions in leaping off the flying swings.  Infractions earned visits to Miss Buck’s office and we (as older boys) dropped our pencils often in order, while picking them up, to sneak a look up the skirt of the girl at the next desk.

Dick & JaneWe learned to read with Dick and Jane and to write by the Palmer Method (supposedly effortless swirling, slanting “O’s” in black ink on lined paper, wrists gracefully poised) whose upper and lower case examples ran in a panel across the top of the blackboard.  The lefties had a tough time with ink.  Our desks, screwed to the floor with seats attached, had filled ink wells in the corner and ink-stained lift tops under which we kept our notebooks, pens, nibs, gnawed pencils, grubby erasers, rulers, baseball gloves, macaroni guns, and comic books.  Except in winter, we looked forward to fire drills.  Every classroom had an American flag and an unfinished portrait of George Washington gazed down upon us.

Relatively few went off to private school.  Those who did became, of course, removed somewhat from the core group, especially as they grew older.  Through the years, the weekends, and the long summer evenings playing Kick the Can (“Allee, allee in free!”), Murder, and Capture the Flag we thought of ourselves as “The Gang”.  In the winter we skated on the pond (Hill-Dill and Crack-the-Whip) and sledded on Valley Road- running and flinging ourselves downhill on our Flexible Flyers in the days before salt and sanding.  We moved through Nilesville like a fluid never static always in motion and changing in size and makeup but with a core of stability and friendship that has lasted now for more than seventy years.  It seems truly remarkable.  I have never met another who grew up in such halcyon days.  Nilesville had insulated us more or less completely from the economic woes of the Depression era through luck, hard work, or foresight.

CaptureFew homes had more than one telephone—not even an extension.  It sat, usually, in its strangely expectant and upright blackness on a table in the downstairs hall.  Lacking a cord long enough to reach a nearby closet, no phone call  was private—all the family privy to the embarrassments of ones halting efforts to conduct a tenuous social life—especially as we got into the dating game in high school. One waited, nervous and hovering, until the moment might arrive to place the crucial call.  Sister or brother (finally!) upstairs, mother in the kitchen, and dad- not home yet but expected to burst through the front door at any instant.  Now!  Snatch the receiver off the hook, wait, wait, beating heart.  Then the operator: “Number please?” And you: “0434-J.”  Many families had party lines, the number followed by a letter.  Ours was 1546-W.  Often, before making a call, one had to wait for the other party to relinquish the line.  There was a kind of unwritten ethical code about the length of calls and about the temptations of “listening in”.

In Nilesville’s early years the adults organized elaborate New Year’s Eve parties at the Beacon School with skits and theatricals and sillyness.  At Christmastime, at least until the War, Marion Niles would have everyone in for cocoa after several hours of carol singing through the dark, chill, and snowy neighborhood.  And when it snowed it snowed!  And, although it seems impossible now to believe it, in those long-gone days it was actually pitch-black dark on moonless nights; the ebon sky filled with stars.

At Hallow’een (we had never heard of the threat “Trick or treat”) we dressed up in old sheets and carried our lighted jack-o’lanterns from house to house seeking the traditional handout and avoiding the older boys who might, and did when we were little, smash our pumpkins.  But, when we became older ourselves we, too, engaged in some nights of bad behavior of which dumping garbage and breaking street lights with stones was perhaps the worst.  Our mother would sometimes dress like an old hag, turn out all the house lights, except for one candle in the window, and terrorize the little kids who came to the door.

Early on Holley and I had a next door neighbor, Larry Rice, who spent many hours on the steps of his house fabricating fanciful stories in which we held the protagonist’s roles.  One summer he acquired a wholesale store of unusual whip tops and organized all of us into sales teams to spread them throughout the neighborhood.  Later he built a local gymnasium in the woods with a tennis court and established the Winter Sports Club (on Old Farm Road) where we boys spent Saturday mornings at basketball, ice hockey, track, gymnastics, tennis, and dodge ball under the tutelage of coach Pop Foster.  One rainy afternoon Pop took us all to one of the scariest movies I have ever seen: Night Must Fall.  Larry’s passion was tennis- he held a State doubles championship- and he coached a few of Nilesville’s boys to later excellence.

Radio was in the ascendancy. Television lay far in the future, although just before the War one family had a fascinating experimental set with a tiny two-inch screen displaying ghostly green cathode ray images.

Zenith radio (1940)

Importance was attached to getting home by five.  Between then and six on weekdays we listened to the radio- Little Orphan Annie (Ovaltine; secret Decoder Ring), Tom Mix (Ralston Chex; “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.”), Jack Armstrong (Wheaties, “Breakfast of Champions”), and Don Winslow of the Navy; fifteen minute shows one after another.  On Saturday night the “Hit Parade” was on and Sunday afternoons we had thirty minute dramas: The Green Hornet, I Love a Mystery, and the Shadow (“Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?  The Shadow knows…”).  These sounded in the background while we played at Hearts, Battleship, or long and drawn out games of Monopoly sprawled on someone’s living room rug.  Some listened endlessly to the Boston Braves or Red-Sox ball games.

The Community Playhouse showed movie double bills, usually with a Disney Silly Symphony and a newsreel- Time Marches On with Lowell Thomas as commentator.  We laughed ourselves silly over Joe E. Brown as salesman Alexander Botts in the Earthworm Tractor series, laughed and cried with Charlie Chaplan, and fell fatally in love with Simone Simon (Girl’s Dormitory) and Kay Francis (The White Angel).  There I saw my first movie; Treasure Island with Wallace Beery as John Silver opposite Jackie Cooper’s Jim.  I see yet the evil pirate, a wicked knife in his teeth, slowly climbing the ratlines toward Jim ensconced below the crow’s nest with a pistol in each hand.

Bendslev’s ice cream parlor, at the Playhouse, often waylaid us while walking home from high school and there we would deconstruct the movies we had just seen over waffle cones, sundaes, and Cokes.

In those years the fathers went universally to their offices in town until noon on Saturdays and having even that half-day was a relatively recent departure from the six-day week.  “Weekends” weren’t invented until after the War.  The men walked to the train at Wellesley Farms station in most weathers retracing their steps every evening.

Baseball had an early toehold as evidenced by more or less perpetual pick-up play in the street on Hundreds Circle at the house of the resident coach and self-proclaimed entertainment director.  I remember elaborate and exciting games of Fox and Hounds that took us miles into the woods, into territory we hardly knew, running pell-mell, strewing bits of newsprint behind us for the Hounds.

Eventually Nilesville had its own Sunday baseball team the Whops Workers—fathers, sons, and the rare daughter who fought to the death the Cliff Dwellers from the hinterland on the other side of Nilesville’s woods.  The games were played out on the abandoned fields of the Beacon School until finally the old building burned one night in a spectacular fire and the property fell to development.  Thereafter the teams battled it out in back of the Brown School surrounded by fans, hangers-on, and dogs.  The Wellesley Townsman saw fit to report on important outcomes.

Big Little Book

We read “Big Little” books, four inches square and as thick as a Bible, featuring the likes of Dick Tracy and Mickey Mouse; a comic book panel on the left page and large print text on the right.  We pored over the Johnson Smith catalog and sent away to Racine, Wisconsin for books on hypnosis, magic, and the Rosicrucians, and for “X-ray” machines (hoping, of course, to penetrate skirts), crystal radios, real electric motor kits, “Whoopee” cushions, hand-shake buzzers, and Ouija boards.  Little, tin “putt-putt” boats steamed in the bathtub on tiny candle power.  The crack of pearl handled cap pistols snapped in the summer air teasing the nostrils with the delicious aroma of gunpowder smoke.  Occasionally we made serious attempts to hypnotize someone in the group and sometimes nervously wondered whether we’d actually succeeded.  Mysterious and unsettling.  The girls played “jacks” and we played marbles and tossed jack knives for “Territory” in the dirt.  If you could hyper-ventilate and then have someone squeeze your chest hard enough from behind you would fall to the ground in a dead faint- our first daring brushes with death.

Passing fashion ruled for at least two months at a time.  By turns it was beer jackets (white canvas, with metal buttons, on which your friends wrote their names and sayings in indelible ink), yo-yos, polo shirts, broomstick skirts, saddle shoes, and bobby socks.  We boys wore corduroy knickers above our sagging socks until our first long pants in junior high school.  The girls wore shorts in summer but never long pants not even to school, except for snowsuits over a hopelessly crumpled plaid skirt in winter.  Jeans and “sportswear” had no existence; for roughing it outdoors we simply wore our “old clothes”.

Our parents church affiliations, all Protestant, ranged from High Episcopal to Unitarian with scattered pockets of unobtrusive atheism. Christian Science and Quakers were represented.  There were no Baptists, Mormons, or fundamentalists of any stripe.  Each affiliation seemed to have as much a social component as one of religion or a tradition of previous family religious upbringing.  Mother was Episcopalian and my father had no discernible faith other than that hard work, honesty, and engineering were the only agents capable of advancing mankind.  I seem to remember that Holley and I started out in the Episcopal Church (for a few months?) then changed for several years to the Congregationalists, who made up a significant part of social Wellesley Hills, and finally descending to the Unitarians because that was where, we insisted, our best friends went to Sunday school.

In junior and early high school years our parents began to take a hand in shaping our social amenities especially in regard to the niceties of ballroom dancing and the interactions among us who had, heretofore, simply regarded ourselves as boys and girls- rough and ready members of the gang.  The elders had matured in an era of courtly Victorian formality and the monthly dances they promoted were the last pre-war expression of that old and dying order.  The Assemblies, as they were known, were the work of Mrs. Ferguson (an ample woman of a certain age, but perhaps undeserving of the epithet “battleaxe”) and her comrade in arms, Baron Hugo and his orchestra.

The Assemblies were held in an old ballroom upstairs at the Maugus Club.  Those of us new to dancing had had rudimentary instruction from our parents or more formally from others.  Dance cards were issued- only to the boys- listing the dances by number each followed by a line for a partner’s name.  As boys we scrambled to sign up our favorite girls- especially for the first and all important last dances- before they were invested by competitors.  Many a soaring hope was buoyantly realized or forlornly dashed in this process.  We dressed in suits and ties and the girls in elegant “formal” dresses; some wearing corsages on their bosoms or wrists.  Upon arrival we accosted a line of matrons and chaperones.  “Cutting in” by the boys was encouraged as a way to accommodate the “stags” and the matrons did their best to see that no unhappy girl sat for long on the sidelines.  Given even a barely discernable affinity between partners we danced as in the Irving Berlin song Dancing Cheek to Cheek– then to us the summa cum ultra of physical contact.  Baron Hugo indulged us mostly with the fox-trot and waltzes but with occasional exotica such as the polka, rumba, conga (long lines snaking around the floor), and the Lambeth Walk.  At the very end of this era the jitter-bug came swinging to the fore; a harbinger of the final end of elegant nineteenth century formality.

Our early insulation from the world at large was virtually total.  As children we knew nothing of bread lines, of Okies, of Gandhi, Prohibition, Communism, Kristallnacht, Guernica, or the Rape of Nanking.  Of “earth shaking” events I can remember only, the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the burning of the zeppelin Hindenberg.  We knew not even, really, of sex—which it seems we gradually unraveled more or less on our own from sources hidden away in our parent’s attics and dresser drawers.  Anyway, nobody ever got into “trouble.”  We began to experience the wider Town in junior high school and finally the wider World in high school but even then, in spite of the war in Europe, not really until the shock of Pearl Harbor and the advent of gasoline and food rationing and the blacking out of streetlights to darken the Boston skyline as seen from the sea.

On the Farm in Locke, NY (1932)

As adults we have sometimes speculated as to whether we were harmed in some essential way by our privilege and isolation as children in Nilesville.  Certainly there exist advantages to exposure to adversity, hardship, and the working people and cultures of the world.  My father would have been the first to espouse this idea—he sent us off to a hardscrabble, God-fearing, working dairy farm in New York State for three summers, and wouldn’t hear of isolating either of us in a “privileged and sheltered” private school.

But then, no one was ever exposed either to shallow values or to false respectability, empty materialism, ostentation, social climbing, or sham.  All our parents had a common grounding in sensibility, education, responsibility, honesty, modesty, and deep respect for others of all classes and faiths which certainly rubbed off on all of us.  Among the parents almost none drank, even socially, few smoked, and virtually nobody was overweight.

Nilesville was a narrow world within the wider world.  Inevitably and gradually its edges dried and it evaporated.  Slowly at first, as we kids grew up and left for the War and college in 1943 and ’44, and then more rapidly as we finally went off to claim our lives, as our parents died or moved to simpler spaces, and as new more disparate families displaced the original settlers.  The streets, many of the houses, even Rockridge Pond— now more a swamp than a pond—all still exist as before but our Nilesville has vanished forever.

Written on the occasion of our Wellesley High School Class of 1943 60th reunion in 2003.