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


“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.



Recumbent Bicycles (1930s-1990s)

Of course as kids in the 1920s and 1930s we had bikes; at first tricycles and then real bicycles. When they were new my father forbade us to roam the neighborhood until we could, without wobbling, reliably make a three-hundred and sixty degree turn in the narrow street in front of the house.

For many years they took us everywhere. In high school one year I rode most days twelve miles from Wellesley to my summer job in Boston. The bike was gearless but even so I was able to make it once from Portland to South China, Maine and back with a knapsack and sleeping bag.

In about 1964 I convinced my father-in-law, Bethuel M. Webster, that he should “bequeath” to me his venerable and classic 1950 model Raleigh, Sturmey-Archer three-speed. It had long been idle among the cobwebs of his barn at “Windrush.” Even so the negotiation was a delicate matter, well understood as I now write, as he was loath in his later years to admit that he would probably seldom mount it again.

Over the next twenty years I probably added 8,000 miles to its history, at first on the two-mile daily commute to the train station at Wellesley Farms, and later in Cambridge from Central Square to the Prudential Center. This commute on Mass. Ave. I did every day rain or snow or shine for six years accounting for some 5,000 miles of the history.

87082202_WCAIt was on this commute that I sometimes found myself waiting at a stoplight beside a rider on a recumbent model—on which the rider reclines comfortably in a chair-like seat, a steering bar behind him, and pedals up in front. He turned out to be Prof. David Wilson of MIT with whom I would converse until the light changed. He is well-known in bicycle circles and is an avid advocate of the recumbent style.

I was fascinated by the recumbent concept but did nothing until one day, passing the Bicycle Exchange in Harvard Square, I saw one for sale in the window. Bill Darby, the owner, and I wheeled the bike down to a suitable path along the river where I gave it a try. It was very wobbly at first but I could see that I could get the hang of it and, without seriously thinking further, impulsively made the purchase. It was pretty pricey, but what the heck—an adventure.

I gradually tamed it. It was heavy (40 lbs) and, as I soon learned, hard to pedal uphill because the rider could no longer add his weight to the torque on the pedal down stroke. So uphill was slow and wobbly for a while and seemed dangerous on big roads. Inevitably strength and improvement came and before long I was riding pretty confidently, even to work from Weston to Boston; door-to-door a bit faster than the “T” trolley.

Welding Jig

The argued advantage for the recumbent is lower frontal air resistance. When coasting downhill I could see a small advantage over my friends on regular road bikes but I seemed to me that it could be improved mainly because the seat was wide thus forcing my arms to be even wider on the steering bar in back.

I designed a much narrower seat and a shorter, curved steering bar. The design was easy, but bending the aluminum tubing and arranging for the welding took some effort as I had to design bending and welding jigs. The bending jig was cast from concrete in a mold based on a cookie tin and the welding jig made from wood. The resulting seat was good—permitting even my lower arms to be out of the air stream.

TruckAbout this time I ran across an article in Science News about efforts to reduce the aerodynamic drag of 18-wheelers by attaching a cowl to the rear of the trailer to shape the leaving air stream into a less turbulent form [1]. Realizing that I could try it on the bike I made such a cowl; a light and rigid affair of one-quarter inch cellular foam and aluminum wire that I could wear like a cape.


Repeated coasting, with and without the cowl, on a long local hill without much traffic, permitted noting on each run the maximum speed attained. There was a measurable advantage of several percent in speed.

It seemed next that it would be good to elevate the pedals and feet into a new position high enough to be within the wind “shadow” of my body, thus further reducing drag. This would have also the effect of improving the leg kinetics to be more like those of a standard bicycle; making the various angles the same. The man who made my bike was local and I prevailed upon him to do the welding required to add a crankset bearing higher up. I made the pieces, jigged it up for welding and had the result back in a month or so.

The result proved easier to pedal—and so to new coasting trials.

To my surprise and disappointment the coasting advantage had vanished. The reason, I guessed in the end, was that the effectiveness of the cowl depended on an undisturbed entering air stream—a stream now rendered turbulent by the raised pedals and feet upstream.

Well, eventually I spent more time on this bicycle than it was worth, but the problems I encountered were engrossing.


[1] I. Amato, “Big rigs ease down a long and windy road”, Science News, Vol. 135, March 4, 1989.

Upon reading this piece I expected very soon to begin seeing semi-trailers with such cowls on the roads, but it has been more than twenty-five years since then and they are only now (2015) beginning to appear. I wonder what caused the delay—gas prices I imagine.

Boston Recumbent User’s Group


Astronomy, An Adventure (1925-present)

Irving Porter Church (circa 1920)

My grandfather Irving Porter Church had a small refracting telescope equatorially mounted on a pedestal in his backyard at 9 South Avenue in Ithaca, New York. I can remember it. Somewhere there is a small photo of him in a black frock coat standing beside it. In 1923 the 12-inch refractor of the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University was named after Prof. Church, then retired chair of the Civil Engineering Department.

In Manhattan, on Saturday, January 24, 1925 (about a week after I was born), there was a total eclipse of the sun. The southern limit of totality was found later that day to have been at 97th Street; observers having been stationed at every other block from 72nd to 135th Streets in order to make the determination. We lived then on West 113th Street, just within the zone where totality lasted only a few seconds.

New York Times Rotogravure Jan 1925

According to my father people had gathered outdoors despite the bitter cold and as the sun reappeared after the brief spectacle a burst of applause rolled across the rooftops of the city. My father later framed its picture cut from the rotogravure section of the New York Times.

I remember, as a child of less than five, a night in Ithaca (probably in August) during which the grownups were to stay up until after midnight to watch a meteor shower (probably the Perseids). Despite a small tantrum I was packed off to bed as too small to stay up that late and I never saw a meteor shower until decades later.

My father, being an engineer and a scientific sort, passed on to us as children a rudimentary interest in astronomy. In the ’30s, when we were ten, knowledge of the Universe was only a fraction of what it is today and didn’t extend in much detail beyond the Milky Way and the more distant galaxies and nebulae: Messier’s objects were still a mystery. The size and age of the Universe was essentially unknown and Edwin Hubble had hardly yet published his theory demonstrating its uniform expansion. We learned that the Milky Way was our own galaxy seen edge-on and came to recognize the Dippers, the Pole star, Orion and the Pleiades in winter, Lyra and Cygnus in summer. Around the house we had some elementary astronomical star charts and texts most of which I had eventually read.

In July of 1932 there was to be a total eclipse of the sun visible on Cape Cod about noon, but not quite total in Boston—which was just west of the central line which swept south from Maine, over the tip of the Cape, and thence out to sea. My father had made reservations for the family on the Provincetown ferry. The ship was crowded with eclipse goers and hawkers offering smoked glass eye protection at outrageous prices. We had our own rectangular panels of heavily exposed photographic film (metallic silver was the agent) sandwiched between glass plates and taped around the edges. They had been made by my grandfather Church.

We climbed to the top of the Pilgrim Tower in time to watch the eclipse from the belvedere. I remember only the brief phase of totality, the dark moon suspended high on the meridian surrounded by the ethereal halo of the sun’s corona.

My interest in astronomy took a holiday until 1944 when I found myself in the Army Air Force in aerial navigation school at Selman Field in Monroe, Louisiana. That spring and summer we flew all over the southwest in twin-engine Beechcraft [AT-7] Navigation Trainers. We were learning pilotage (watching the ground and comparing it to a map), radio navigation (intersecting and following fixed beams from ground transmitters shown on a map), air-plot (navigating “blind” by compass and airspeed through a motionless mass of air—as though there were no wind—and applying an overall averaged wind correction vector at the very end), and celestial navigation (by the sun, moon, Venus, and the stars). [LORAN had been newly deployed but we weren’t exposed to it until later training in Florida and it had not yet been extended to the western Pacific, where I flew combat missions in 1945.]

Much of the mathematics for solving the spherical trigonometry required of celestial navigation could be simplified by using tables prepared by the U.S. Naval Hydrographic Office (HO). The tables were hardbound in books and our particular method was designated HO-218. There were others suitable for various uses (HO-214, etc.) and one tedious, from scratch, by-hand method, requiring no tables, called the Ageton Solution—which we had to memorize. The HO tables were prepared in advance for a fixed set of twenty-two bright stars more or less evenly distributed over the celestial sphere so that, anywhere on earth at any time of night, one could identify and sight on at least three bright stars so spatially distributed as to permit three lines-of-position to be calculated for plotting on the chart. Thus I learned the names and positions of twenty-two stars many of which I would otherwise probably never have known of.

Long after the War my wife Crissy gave me, as a wedding present, an equatorially mounted four and one-quarter inch Newtonian reflector set on a simple tripod. I became fascinated with its possibilities for observing and photography and set about seeing what I could of the Manhattan sky and of the velvet darkness of that same sky in Winchester, Connecticut where Crissy’s family had a country house—“Windrush.”

Soon I was haunting the general astronomy shelf at the New York Public Library and, through the next year or so, read every book more or less in sequence down the length of the public shelf. I learned about making better telescope mounts, making parabolic mirrors, about solar eclipses and famous expeditions to study them, about transits of Mercury and Venus across the face of the sun, about astronomical photography, and the history of the great discoveries of the past. I read all three volumes of “Amateur Telescope Making” and most of Jenkins & White’s “Fundamentals of Optics.” I was hooked.

Month after month (with the exception of the mirror), working in the bedroom and at my friend Lambert Mazzoni’s shop in a loft south of Houston Street, I gradually rebuilt the telescope and its insubstantial tripod ending with a versatile and sturdy mount with setting circles (right-ascension and declination) and driven by simple weight-driven clockwork to cancel the relative motion of the earth’s rotation during long viewing and photographic sessions. Lambert had a lathe and a drill press at the SoHo shop where I could turn wooden, Masonite, and aluminum parts and make simple cameras and accessories. By working at night I could use the kitchen of our apartment on West 108th Street and later on West 116th Street as a darkroom.

Transit of Mercury

61110701_TransitMy first real foray into photography was to capture some successful exposures of the transit of Mercury across the face of the sun on the seventh of November, 1960—photos taken from the roof at 300 W 108th St. I used the direct solar image of the 4-1/4″ reflector at a focal length of 3,000mm, a homemade camera box with a 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 roll film back, and Kodak Autopositive (super contrast) film slips cut to size from a larger sheet. The raw film had to “reversed” by exposure to bright light. After the beginning of the transit (which lasted about three hours) I could make an exposure, run down to the darkened (windowless) kitchen to develop the film, and skip back to the roof for another exposure with altered timing. Mercury was the tiniest of black dots against the image of the sun, much smaller than sunspots nearby (one of which was gigantic). Later the best negatives were printed with a simple enlarging rig made from an old wood framed bellows camera. There was a problem with “limb darkening” whereby the edges of the solar image were significantly less bright than the center. By winding up, and then letting spin down, an empirically adjusted dodge—an internally toothed annulus of cardboard suspended from an axial black cotton thread just above the projected image during the exposure—I could virtually eliminate the unwanted effect. [The 60 degree threads were moving and thus blurred, and the central thread was out of focus.] The best of these results was published in Sky & Telescope magazine in January of 1961 and reprinted in the 1962 McGraw-Hill “Yearbook of Science and Technology” (under “Planet, Mercury”).


I saw my first bright comet (Mrkos 1957d) hanging over the summits in a purple, crystal clear and darkening sky in the Tetons in August of that year. We had to run several hundred yards east, away from the peaks, in order to raise it above the summit ridges. I thought how much fun it would be to be able to photograph (or even to discover) such a one.

Iyeka Seki (1965f)

My attempts at comet photography began in 1959. At first with the 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 camera with eyepiece projection (tiny, tiny images bearing gross enlargement), and later with a new camera (independent of the telescope) assembled from an army surplus aerial lens of much longer (250 mm) focal length with a homemade 4×5 plate holder at the back and permanently focussed with a bright star (Sirius) using a knife-edge installed across a small hole made in the ground glass in the film plane. Eventually I added hand operated slow motion knobs to the right ascension and declination circle adjustments and red-light illuminated cross-wires to the guide telescope thus greatly facilitating the removal of driving clock errors in minutes-long exposures. The intermittency of the escapement gave a slightly muddy, halting motion to the clock. Among the earlier photos were Comets Burnham (1959k) from the roof at 300 West 116th Street, Seki-Lines (1962c) from Dobbs Ferry, NY, and later Ikeya (1964f) and Bennett (1969i) from the yard in Weston, Mass.

The best, though, was Comet Ikeya-Seki (1965f) whose tail faintly swept the entire eastern sky from horizon to zenith before dawn at the end of October. With exposures as long as 30 min (in freezing cold) I was able to get some good pictures with the aerial camera lens. I developed the negatives at night in small enamel trays on the ping-pong table in the darkened basement.

Total Solar Eclipses

Eventually I came across S. A. Mitchell’s “Eclipses of the Sun” (Columbia Univ. Press, 1951) wherefrom I became especially interested in detailed descriptions of the flash spectrum of the solar chromosphere; a phenomenon observable for fleeting seconds at the beginning and ending of a total eclipse of the sun. In particular I was captivated by a description of the discovery of the chromosphere by C. A. Young at the 1870 total eclipse in Spain. He was observing the progress of the eclipse with a hand-held monocular on the objective of which he had mounted a plane diffraction grating:

“As the moon advances, making narrower and narrower the remaining sickle of the solar disc, the dark [Fraunhofer] lines of the [continuous] spectrum [of the waning photosphere] for the most part remain sensibly unchanged, though becoming somewhat more intense. A few, however, begin to fade out, and some even begin to turn palely bright a minute or two before totality begins. But the moment the [photosphere] is hidden, through the whole length of the spectrum—in the red, the green, the violet—the bright lines flash out by the hundreds and thousands almost startlingly; as suddenly as stars from a bursting rocket head, and as evanescent, for the whole thing is over in two or three seconds. The layer [the chromosphere] seems to be something under a thousand miles in thickness, and the moon’s motion covers it very quickly.”

Extraordinary! That was something I had to see, and the more I thought about it, something I had to photograph. It seemed, after some research, that it was something no amateur had yet done. So I set out to design and build a slitless (Rowland mounting) spectrograph; one that I could mount on my clockwork driven equatorial. (For the detailed description of the spectrograph see my article in Sky and Telescope, May 1970, “Gleanings for ATM’s,” p. 318). Usually, to obtain the spectrum of extended objects, a slit is required in the camera itself, but the thin crescent of this object acts as its own slit.

A total eclipse of the sun would be visible in Maine on Saturday, July 20th, 1963.

Slitless Spectrograph

A design began to take shape on my drawing board where I worked at Speed-Park (things were a bit slow), and on weekends at Lambert’s loft in SoHo, and in the bedroom of the apartment on West 116th Street. I combed the junk shops on Canal Street for odd parts—my most serendipitous find: an old bulb-operated Packard shutter of the same 2-1/2″ aperture as the concave diffraction grating of 20″ focal length on whose aluminized surface was a 1-1/2″ square area ruled with 15,000 lines per inch. I had essentially finished the construction by the time we moved house from New York to Boston in June of 1963.

That spring Sky & Telescope published my illustration of the sky at totality showing the stars and planets visible during totality.

The Sky at Totality (C) 1963 William C. Atkinson

Then came final preparations in Cambridge and in my boyhood workshop at 85 Ledgeways in Wellesley Hills. Eventually I spent a last evening on the banks of the Charles River, the spectrograph aimed at the copious neon signage around MIT across the dark river in order, with a jeweler’s loupe, to confirm the focus across the entire length of the parabolic film arc. On the afternoon of the 18th with everything loaded into a new Ford van I headed alone for Maine to allow a day to find a good site and to set up. My friend John Thornton agreed to meet me on eclipse day to help out. I slept on the floor of the van amid the equipment.

Sky and Telescope had predicted the best chance for clear skies at a site on an open hillside southeast of Pleasant Lake in Stetson Maine and virtually on the central line—for the longest possible period of totality. The central line swept down out of Quebec, across central Maine and out to sea at Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island where there was fear of morning fog.

John joined me on Saturday and we spent the morning checking over what I had set up the day before. The morning was nice; clear with drifting fair-weather clouds. Toward noon—the time of the eclipse—the cumuli increased somewhat but everyone (there was large crowd of astronomers and hangers-on strewn across the hillside) seemed optimistic. First contact came—the first nick out of the sun’s disk by the advancing moon—and we then had about an hour. Gradually the clouds billowed larger and filled a greater portion of the sky obscuring the sun for anxious minutes at a time. The sun would reappear (cheers) only to disappear moments later (groans) behind another majestically advancing mass of cloud. The time to second contact (my crucial instant) dwindled to minutes. The world was darkening rapidly; we began anxiously to guess the time when certain blue-sky “holes” would happen along. The moon now covered almost the entire disk of the sun.

A minute to go; sun in the clear. I had a small plane transmission grating taped to one objective of my binoculars and I could see the dark Fraunhofer crescents beginning to condense out of the continuous spectrum of the photosphere. Hand on the shutter bulb, poised, tense. The dark crescents now sharpening, sharpening, scant seconds to go to the flash and then… All dissolved into grayness and faded into virtual night. The cloud took so long to pass that no one even saw the evanescent solar corona, except fleetingly through momentary thinnings in the mist.

The rest of the afternoon was a beautiful summer’s day under a blue sky studded with lamb’s wool clouds. In Orono, at the University of Maine, it poured rain; on Cadillac Mountain, perfectly clear.

The next total eclipse visible on the eastern seaboard would occur on Saturday, March 7th, 1970, the central line passing over Mexico City, leaving the coast at Norfolk, Virginia and grazing Nantucket Island on its way out to sea. This eclipse was part of the 19-year Saros series that included the eclipse of July 1932 that I had seen with my father in Provincetown. For six years the spectrograph gathered dust.

author in 1963
The author in 1963

In 1969 I began a new effort that I came to view as a running battle against Murphy’s Law. I dusted off the spectrograph, telescope, and clockwork and began to prepare for March 1970. I would lie in bed at night conjuring things that could go wrong, each time eventually finding a solution, and in the following days working it out. What if it should rain in the morning; what if there were wind? I arranged the equipment and marked the floor of the 9×9 tent. What if I couldn’t align the polar axis by the North Star the night before or at local noon by the sun? I installed a long surveyor’s compass needle in the main leg of the tripod. What if it were cloudy in the hours before the eclipse? I had calculated the sun’s right ascension and declination at eclipse time so that – once the polar axis of the equatorial mount had been set—I could aim the telescope in advance using only the graduated setting circles. What if the driving clock faltered (as it had in the past)? How could we fine-tune the guiding without a guide telescope (dangerous to the eyes)? And so on and on. Gradually it began to feel as though Murphy could be held at bay.

My friend Frank Dow agreed to accompany me to Nantucket as sorely needed assistance. We set up in the backyard in Weston several times to go through our detailed routine against a stop watch. Frank controlled the guiding using the long tubular lensless sights and the R.A. and declination slow motions to keep the sun’s center always in the cross wires. My plan was to photograph the flash at second contact on Kodachrome film and at third contact on Kodacolor film by taping together the two cassette leaders and winding the film first back into one cartridge then into the other with cranks made from slotted wooden dowels tailored to fit the Kodak 35mm spools. I had a two-spool sample set up that I had used for design, testing, and practice. It was left over from Maine seven years before.

There were to be about ninety seconds of totality between second and third contacts. During this time I would wind film and photograph the corona in color at 3,000mm focal length with the 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 eye-piece projection camera on the 4-1/4 inch Newtonian.

We wondered what chance at all we had for good weather in early March. I had made ferry reservations for the car in December—the reservation clerk wondering why there were so many already booking for the sixth and seventh. The twins (9), Meg and Match, agreed to come too and I arranged a small telescope and camera on a tripod so that Matthew could take some pictures.

During this period the children’s school teachers asked if I would come to their class to explain the eclipse. For the sun I used a blindingly bright photo-flood lamp about four inches in diameter mounted in a large black background sheet and for the corona I painted, on a piece of fly-screen, a diaphanous simulation on the background immediately around the “sun.” A foot or so in front of the sun and slightly larger I mounted a fixed opaque black circle—the “moon.” We set this up on a desk in the front of the classroom at about kid’s eye height and had the children walk slowly across the back of the room. From either side in the back the blinding glare of the “sun” was all that one could see—not the “corona” or even the “moon.” But, as the children walked along, the moon appeared to intrude on the sun’s disk until sudden “totality” in the center when the sun’s corona on the background could then easily be seen. Everybody liked it and I think the kids got the idea. The teacher dragooned the kids into writing nice thank you letters.

Car packing time arrived. We were to leave early on Friday morning and to spend the night at a friend’s house (Julian Everett, an old Dreyfus colleague of mine whom I had visited there before) in Nantucket town. After having packed the instrumental stuff in Weston I assembled a variety of hand tools that I felt might come in handy in general and for emergency—keeping Murphy firmly in mind. Pliers, screw drivers, file, scissors, hammer, hand drill and bits, hacksaw, clamps, wire cutters, wire, tape, glue, oil, and a wood chisel among many others. As I left the workshop I lingered to take a last look around. My eye fell upon a little coping saw and, after a moment of hesitation, I tossed it into the box.

The ferry dock at Wood’s Hole was teeming with activity when we arrived. I had heard that the passage was booked solid and, in spite of earlier confirming phone calls, I was worried a little about the confusion and getting a place in the vehicle line and actually rolling on board. But it sorted itself out and we set sail for Nantucket under sunny skies. Almost everyone on board was on his or her way to see the eclipse.

Nantucket airport was undoubtedly recommended by Sky and Telescope as our observing site. The field, being on the southern side of the island, was just a little closer than the town to the central line of the passage of the moon’s shadow, which passed offshore to the south. There was no practical way of beginning the set up that day, although we did drive down to look over the site. Much pre-eclipse activity was already evident.

Early in the morning we went to the airport. It was hazy but clear and the temperature was above freezing. We found a spot among the many other enthusiasts and the set up went according to plan. We erected the tent, aligned it with north, and set the telescope feet on pre-marked spots. After checking the compass needle in the tripod leg we made small adjustments and precisely at local noon (worked out in advance) we checked the alignment again with the shadow of a plumb bob. In the meantime the telescope and spectrograph were mounted, the image of the sun set on the camera’s ground glass and on the spectrograph’s direct-image cross mark (the “zeroth” order of the spectrum), and the driving clock was started.

Finding a spare minute I set up the small telescope and camera for Matthew; a fixed alignment with a cable release on a 35mm Kodak Retina focussed on infinity.

Fearing degradation from unforeseen light leaks I was loath to load film into the spectrograph unnecessarily early. But now, with about thirty minutes to go, that time had come. I took out the two cartridges, whose leaders had been joined, and set them into the film transport cavities on either end of the 9 inch parabolic film arc. I closed the back and latched it before the insertion the transport cranks from the outside. But, what’s this? They don’t fit? How is it possible that the wooden dowels are now suddenly MUCH TOO LONG?

Seized by panic I was suddenly aware of the baleful presence of Murphy and his inexorable Law: “If something CAN go wrong; it WILL go wrong.” All else was banished from my mind. At home I had failed to try the new film cartridges in the instrument but now I realized that, almost unbelievably in the intervening seven years since Maine, Kodak had altered the 35mm cassette design! What on Earth to do? Only fifteen minutes left! And gradually, as the express bore down, it came to me: the coping saw!

Frantically, in the rapidly gathering darkness I made some simple measurements, marked the dowels and, with the small saw, cut them to the new length and, crucially important, formed the small end-slots required to engage the fins in the cartridge spindles.

Whew! Just in time and with only minutes to go I advanced the film, had Frank check the final alignments, and readied myself to watch the last seconds before second contact with the plane grating on the binoculars.

Poor Matthew had been completely forgotten.

Corona @ 3,000mm fl

It was as it had been in Maine with the difference that the sharpening, darkening Fraunhofer lines suddenly flashed out in brilliant color from red to violet just as Young had described in 1870. I squeezed the bulb and heard the shutter clack open and close in what I hoped would be about a fifth of a second. The flash blazed for about three seconds and faded; totality began; now ninety seconds to its end at third contact.

The corona was beautiful, some stars came out, and everyone in the area fell silent. I wound the spectrograph film, counting crank turns until I knew the film from the second cartridge was in place and that film from the former safely returned to the other cassette. There was time to watch the spectacle and to make and wind several exposures at 3,000mm with the 2-1/4 3-1/4. Then, at third contact, the flash reappeared, facing the other way. I tripped the shutter again.

So great had been the tension that we collapsed to the ground in utter relief. The light returned, intensifying, and the air began to warm. The cassettes we

“eclipse, we made it!”

rewound to expose again the splice. I think we may have opened a couple of beers. Al Doolittle, my friend from J&M, came by and took some pictures. The children wrote in the dust on the side of the van: “Eclipse, we made it.” Murphy had lost.

That afternoon on Nantucket were visible an unusually bright pair of “sun dogs” made by light refracting from ice crystals high in the stratosphere. Perhaps it was an omen; for the film had yet to be developed.

The Kodachrome spectrogram was beautiful (I had had a morbid fear that the processing lab would unthinkingly chop the continuous nine-inch strip into individual slides). I called Sky and Telescope for a meeting and took it in to show Joseph Ashcroft and Dennis Milon. While I sat there S&T decided, for the first time ever, to publish a full color centerfold. The spectrogram stretched across both pages at the top (S&T, May, 1970). They asked me to write an article for the same issue on the instrument’s design and construction.

Flash Spectrum
Flash spectrum of the solar chromosphere

Later I was invited by Dennis Milon to give a lecture at the Harvard Observatory library on the flash spectrum for the Boston ATMs (Amateur Telescope Makers) for which I prepared a fairly elaborate model to demonstrate what Young had seen in 1870.

Ultimately the flash picture was published in several astronomy text books, some other magazines, a NASA publication, and was on display (greatly enlarged) for many years in the “Hall of the Sun” at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.

Life moved on. I did not realize it at the time but my “career” as an amateur astronomer had ended with the total solar eclipse of March, 1970.


Solar Eclipse in Jackson, Wyoming (August 2017)

The telescope gathered dust in the basement in Weston for many years until the time came to break house and move to Cambridge in April 2017. I arranged to donate it to the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University, and my friend Cornell Prof. John Reppy agreed to shuttle it from Weston to Ithaca.

But it got one more outing, this year, when John and I decided to drive out to the Tetons to view the August 2017 eclipse.