life

My Two Big Feet

I have big feet. How big you ask? Size 11½ women’s. I stopped growing late in high school, but my feet kept going, long and skinny, through my twenties from size 9 to 10 to what they are now. Trying to find nice shoes became an exercise in futility.

I am also cursed — or blessed — with second toes longer than the big ones so they stick out. I believe I could fit into a size 11 if they were regular size, but they aren’t. It’s also called Morton’s toe, Greek toe, turkey toe, and royal toe. People have tried to make me feel better by saying it’s a sign I am descended from royalty and that I am a leader. I read that the Vikings believe a long second toe predicts a long life.

All of that is interesting, but it doesn’t make it easier for me to find shoes that fit. 

For years I was forced to wear men’s shoes and sneakers, but as my feet are also narrow, they never fit well. I recall a shoe salesman smirking when I asked for a men’s black dress shoe in 10½ narrow. He made a stupid remark. I walked out. 

Once in Boston’s Chinatown, I tried to buy black, cotton shoes and was told “no woman should have feet that big.” Ouch.

So, buying shoes became a dreaded purchase. Stores would claim they had shoes size 11 and over but they weren’t designed well. I was better off with men’s.

Ah, but things turned around a bit when I found shoes made in Europe. I remember the grand feeling of walking out of a store wearing comfortable shoes made for women that were pretty. They’re awfully pricy but worth it. Plus they last years, so, thank goodness, I don’t have to go through this experience very often. I also once found 11½ women’s sneakers, narrow, and sandals in a sporting goods store.

When we lived in Taos, New Mexico, I decided to treat myself to vintage cowboy boots. Well, they would have to be cowboy and not cowgirl boots because I doubted I would find a women’s size I could wear. 

I told Lindsey at Horse Feathers in Taos, when that store was still in business, about my long, skinny feet. I tried several pairs but most were too wide and floppy. With his wry, Western humor, Lindsey kept going through the store’s selection collected from around the country until he found a pair of Lucchese boots with brown tooled leather. Nice heel. A 9½ D. Who would have thought?

The fit wasn’t perfect but it was pretty good. Lindsey said to take the boots home for two days, wear them with thick socks — I had on thin dress socks that day — and then come back. I did as he said and also added an arch support insert. 

I went back Horse Feathers to happily complete the purchase and that night, I gave those boots a good polish. That’s them in the photo above.

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Hilltown Postcards

Nigel the Hermit

Here’s the next Hilltown Postcard — stories I wrote years ago about our life in rural Western Massachusetts. My agent at the time wanted me to write a tell-all book with lots of dirt, but I didn’t have it in me to do that. Rereading those stories has inspired me to write more. In some instances, I have changed people’s names. That’s true for this story.

I used to see Nigel pushing his bicycle up Mason’s Hill toward the general store in Worthington. He wore a porkpie hat and tinted aviator glasses, stopping at times on the steepest part to rest. It was an old-style bike, one speed, fat tires, and a metal basket on the front.

If there was a hermit in our town, he was it. He lived on Dingle Road, in a house that hadn’t had a coat of paint in years, one of those New England stringer homes, where buildings get added on in a row like blocks. The grass grew tall and dried. The place looked unwelcoming, and that’s probably the way he liked it.

Nigel may have shunned people, but many years ago he stirred up his neighborhood. It was a quiet Sunday summer afternoon when Nigel dressed in winter clothes took shots at his own house from the outside.

Neighbors called the town police, but the chief realized this was beyond him and called in the state police. Things were quiet when the cops came, but Nigel had barricaded himself in his house with several loaded guns and ammo.

The police moved the neighbors out of their homes and used a loudspeaker to get him out, but he wouldn’t budge. A Special Tactics Operation Team surrounded the house. Finally after seven hours, police launched a canister of tear gas into the home, which finally drove him out. He was taken to a ward at the VA hospital, where he stayed for a couple of years.

Turns out Nigel, then nearly 60, used to teach math and physics, but he got fired when he hit a fellow teacher. He didn’t deny doing it nor did he explain why. He sued successfully for back pay. He also wanted to be reinstated but that didn’t happen. 

After the incident, neighbors said Nigel was quiet and kept to himself although one got to know him when they repaired a water line they shared. She said he was intelligent and well read. He was profoundly hard of hearing so she made sure she faced him when she talked. An elderly brother dropped off groceries.

Nigel once asked Hank if he worked in Northampton because he needed a ride, but he didn’t. He told him of another man in town who did and that arrangement lasted a while until he moved.

Another man inherited Nigel. Bruce said Nigel would call him from the pay phone at the store to arrange a ride. He’d be waiting outside his home, and Bruce didn’t mind going out of his way to drop him off at the law library. He didn’t explain what he was researching or much about himself. They rarely talked.

One fall afternoon, I was stacking wood and lost in thought until I looked up to see Nigel staring at me. (We had moved across town to a house we built near Mason’s Hill.) He held his bike so quietly he could have been an apparition.

Nigel didn’t introduce himself, but, of course, I knew who he was. I don’t know if he knew my name, because he didn’t use it. He wanted a ride back and forth from Northampton.

His hearing aids weren’t working, so I couldn’t explain how we could arrange that. I found paper and a pen. I would be leaving at 6:15 a.m. and I would come by his house.

I went the next morning. It was before the change in time so it was still dark that morning. It had rained that night, so everything was black and shiny in the headlights. I stopped in front of his house. No light was on inside. No sign of movement.

I thought to sound the horn or knock on the door, but I didn’t think he would hear either. I wouldn’t even know which door to knock. I waited fifteen minutes, and then drove off.  

I didn’t see Nigel again. Two years later, in the middle of February, he died alone in his house. The medical examiner ruled it was from natural causes, likely a heart attack. He was 72.

The police found him locked inside his home after the person who delivered him meals felt something was amiss. Nigel had lived in town for 20 years and the police chief noted he was a man who didn’t want any outside help.

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Hilltown Books

Get The Sweet Spot for Free

Before Isabel Long, I created Edie St. Claire, the lead character in my novel, The Sweet Spot. Edie gives readers a different take on the hilltowns of Western Massachusetts that inspire me to write — and certainly someone Isabel would have come across while solving her mysteries.

And for two days — Feb. 17 and 18 — the Kindle version is free on Amazon. Here’s the link: The Sweet Spot

I call The Sweet Spot the first in my Hilltown Books. The other two are: The Sacred Dog and Northern Comfort.

For me, writing The Sweet Spot was a labor of love since I typed the first draft with only one hand. It was summer 2004, and I was recuperating from injuries after getting hit by a car as I walked across the street. (The driver claimed he didn’t see me in the crosswalk.)

I remember coming home from work and letting the words flow one after the other. I was focused and 80,000 words later, the book was done. Two agents tried to sell it, and eventually I gave up and published it myself. I felt it was too good a book to stay in my laptop.

So what’s The Sweet Spot about?

The year is 1978. The Vietnam War ended officially three years earlier. Edie St. Claire and her family — the Sweets — have lived in the hilltowns for generations, but they are not one of those well-heeled families. Her father, a crotchety old character, runs the town dump. Her fiery aunt, who lives next door, has no brakes on her opinions or mouth.

Edie still grieves for her husband, Gil, who was killed in Vietnam eight years earlier. I don’t blame her. Gil was a great guy. They were high school sweethearts who married young. They would have had a wonderful future together, except he pulled a low number during the 1969 lottery and had to go to war.

When The Sweet Spot starts, Edie raises the young daughter Gil never met. She does her best, working for her in-laws in the town’s only store. Still, she knows how to have a good time, whether its playing softball — the banter among her teammates is a lot of fun — or hanging out at the local watering hole, the Do-Si-Do Bar. These are simply ways for her to escape her grief.

Edie also tries to ease her pain via an affair with Gil’s married brother, Walker, but when that ends tragically, she attempts to survive the blame with the help of her family and a badly scarred stranger who arrived for his fresh start.

Those who have read the Isabel Long Mystery Series — thank you — will find a different tone in The Sweet Spot. Edie is a lively character, but she makes mistakes and pays dearly for them. But I sure love her determination. I hope you do, too.

Now go get that book.

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Celebrities

Almost Famous

An amusing case of mistaken identity …

Years ago, I was paying for my purchase at a local beverage store when the twenty-something guy behind the counter read my name on the check. After a moment, he asked, “You’re someone famous, aren’t you?”

At the time, I worked for a daily newspaper, first as a reporter, then an editor. But I didn’t think that made me particularly well-known in this city.

“Famous? Well …” I said, wondering where this conversation was going to go.

“Yeah, you work with chimpanzees in the jungle.”

“Oh, you mean Jane Goodall. Sorry. That’s not me.”

The cashier’s faced turned red. I told him it was okay although frankly I don’t know how he mixed us up. We looked nothing alike. Jane may be close to Joan but Goodall and Livingston aren’t.

So much for my brief brush with fame. It turned out to be a simple case of mistaken identity.

In the small town where I once lived in Western Massachusetts most everyone was famous within its boundaries. When there’s only 1,200 people, it’s easy to know who’s who. That was true of the towns around it. We even knew the hermits who kept to themselves.

Then in my position managing a newspaper in Taos, New Mexico, I did enjoy some notoriety because our paper was so engaged in the community, including public events. Mostly the recognition involved a hello, a handshake or hug (greeting people that way was big there), and in some cases, a look of scorn, likely for one of the critical editorials I wrote.

Now, I live in a village in Western Massachusetts. I am sincerely touched when I am approached by people who have read my books and want me to know that. Thank you.

But I need to share a story about my friend Smitty who had a fabulous experience with mistaken identity. People kept thinking he was the actor Clint Eastwood. I could see how they did. Both men are tall, thin, and have similar facial features.

One time, Smitty was approached by a group of people who thought he was Clint Eastwood and asked for his autograph. He told them they were mistaken. When Smitty walked away, he heard one of them say, “That Clint Eastwood is an asshole” or something close to that.

So not to disappoint Clint’s fans or besmirch his name, Smitty returned to the group to sign autographs. Everyone went away happy that day.

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Hilltown Postcards

The Great Pig Feud

When Hank and I lived in the Ringville section of Worthington, we lucked out with great neighbors. Good neighbors leave each other alone. Great ones become your friends. The Lipperts, Stroms, Charlie Baker and his son Chuck, and Marian Sanderson come to mind. Certainly, nothing happened to disturb the peace in Ringville. 

But that wasn’t true for everyone in Worthington and the hilltowns around it. There have been neighborhood feuds, often ignited by something personal. I will leave those alone for this story.

Instead, I will stick to the feuds about animals, typically over barking dogs, or worse, biting dogs, although I recall one notable dispute over pigs.

As the hilltown reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, I covered hearings for all of them. The dog owners were passionately loyal to their pets and blind to their faults. I’ve seen neighbors who are generally reasonable people come close to losing it.

As for the pigs, it was a case of newcomer against native, and it was pretty easy to figure out who complained about the pigsty and who owned it. The Worthington Board of Health’s hearing drew a sizable crowd. 

The couple, yes, newcomers, who brought the complaint to the board didn’t like the smell of their neighbors’ pigs and worried their well could be contaminated by runoff from their pigsty. They had put money into their landscaping.

The owner of the pigs, who raised the animals for eating, had responded in good neighborly fashion by moving the pigsty closer to the property line after they complained.

I, of course, knew both parties, nice people, all of them, but they had a problem they couldn’t resolve on their own. One of the locals at the meeting told me, “Make it real funny when you write it,” but I wouldn’t do that. This was serious stuff to these folks.

Tony Lake, a Worthington resident who would later be Bill Clinton’s National Security Adviser, spoke in favor of the pigs at the hearing. He was raising cattle then and was concerned this could be the start of an anti-farm animal trend. Besides, he said, everyone knew that cattle manure smelled worse than pigs’.

The Board of Health vote unanimously in favor of the pig owner.

But that wasn’t the end of it. The situation was resolved a few years later in the couple’s favor when the neighbor who raised pigs got divorced and moved away.

Many of my books are set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Mass. because I was inspired living and reporting on the real ones. Here’s link to my books on Amazon.

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