Hilltown Postcards

Stupid City Folk

Years before we moved to Worthington, a hilltown in Western Massachusetts, we lived in another hilltown in the middle of nowhere New Hampshire. We learned a lot from that experience, which helped significantly during our next adventure in the country, one that has lasted a lot longer. 

We left Boston for Wilmot, New Hampshire, where we had to drive thirty minutes to get to a Laundromat and sixty for something more interesting than washing our clothes. We had two kids then, a daughter who was four, and a baby son. Our home was a one-room cabin on a dirt road, twelve-by-twenty feet, with no electricity, phone, running water or indoor plumbing. A portable toilet was in the attic and we hauled the slop bucket to the outhouse. The rent was $35 a month.

We were awfully stupid and lucky that first time in the country. We drew water from a stream beside the cabin. A hand pump was inside the house and when the line to the river froze, we used buckets, breaking first through the ice. We started the fire in our wood stove with kerosene, managing somehow not to blow up the place.

Hank sold our ’55 Mercedes, one of those a nickel-and-dime vintage vehicles that seemed awfully cool at the start, then bought an old pickup truck from a local for a few hundred bucks. Hank was getting into country living, a little carried away as usual, this time about fitting in with the local folk. Certainly an old beater would help, but on our first long ride, the brakes failed, and Hank, pumping the pedal to squeeze some life from them, had to steer the pickup into a field so we wouldn’t crash. Eventually it stopped.

A man, who stopped, crawled beneath the truck. He shook his head when he stood up. The chassis was so rusted it was ready to disintegrate. This truck wasn’t safe to drive. I cursed the man who sold us this piece of junk and Hank’s gullibility that he expected all old Yankees to be honest. We took off the plates, abandoned the truck, and then hitchhiked with the two kids to the cabin. 

Hank searched but couldn’t find a job locally except as a laborer for a man who put in foundations. He lasted one day working a wheelbarrow and shovel. So, he hitched back and forth to Boston, where he drove tractor-trailer, long distance, for a natural foods company until we had enough money saved to buy a VW Bug. During the week, I stayed at the cabin with the two kids.

The neighbors on that hill in Wilmot were exceptionally friendly. One bachelor farmer, Clayton, plowed the top of our driveway for free because he claimed it was a good spot to pull over when two vehicles met on the narrow road.

I also heard that I won Clayton’s approval when I turned away one of the men on the hill who paid me a surprise visit while Hank was away. The guy was one of those doomsday-types who was building a bunker-like home deep in the woods, and I was definitely not interested. Clayton watched the man’s truck pass his house, twice, within the span of several minutes, a detail he reported with amusement to Pat, my fast friend on our hill. Pat invited us to share meals with her family and to raid her library. Sometimes I used her washer. The snow piled up that winter, and I towed the kids on a sled along the road to her home.

The battery-operated radio pulled in a public station after I rigged its antenna to touch the iron skillet hanging on one wall, and weeknights at eight my daughter and I listened to the serial reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. We liked The Long Winter the best. In that one, the Ingalls family survived a fierce prairie winter by braiding straw to burn for heat, rationing food, and listening to the music of Pa’s fiddle. We could relate to that story.

I cooked our meals on a two-burner propane stove: soup, and lots of oatmeal and pancakes with Clayton’s maple syrup. We had squash, apples, potatoes, and cabbage we bought at a farm. Stored in the cold attic they kept nearly through the winter.

One week Hank got caught in a snow storm on his truck route in Maine, so he couldn’t make it home. I honestly don’t remember how I found out since we didn’t have a phone. Maybe he relayed a message to my neighbor, Pat.

I was running out of split firewood, so Pat showed me how to use a maul to split the oak and maple logs length-wise to size: raising that heavy tool over my head, then using the strength of my belly and legs to make a good slice.

Chopping wood. Drawing water. Washing cloth diapers by hand. My day was spent immersed in the most basic of chores. Sometimes, it felt as if we were playing pioneer. Certainly, it was good training for the next time we attempted rural living. We would be smarter.

We lasted in Wilmot until the late spring. The two-and-a-half-hour commute one way was too much for Hank.

We did look at another house in Wilmot to rent, a rambling farmhouse with amenities like indoor plumbing and electricity. But I was wary of the rattraps and boxes of poison set around the house.

In the kitchen, the previous renter jotted a diary of sorts in pencil on the white kitchen cabinets. A woman, I guessed, wrote about the miserable weather and her wretched loneliness. She noted the dates of storms. “God, not more snow,” she wrote beside one. The entries stopped abruptly mid-winter and I wondered what became of her. 

We lived next in Boston, Seattle, and then Boston again before we moved to Worthington, and this time we did a better job with country living.

Hilltown Postcards

Learning to Drive at 35

Strange but true, I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was in my mid-thirties. Until then, I didn’t need one or I made do without. When we lived in a city such as Boston or Seattle, I used public transportation. It was nothing for me to take four kids, including one in a stroller, on a trolley or bus to go shopping.

But when we moved to the sticks of Western Massachusetts, I realized the gig was up. 

My parents, the children of immigrants, were very old-fashioned when it came to their teenage daughters learning to drive and getting a license when we turned 18. As my father explained, they only had one car and couldn’t afford to have a kid use it or worse crash it. (My father was an autobody repairman.) So, unlike my fellow classmates, my parents drove us wherever we needed to go or we walked or took the bus. Yes, my sisters also were late drivers although they got their licenses years earlier than me. Our baby brother? Oh, he got his when he turned 18.

In college, I depended on hitchhiking and friends who had cars. Afterward I lived in those cities I mentioned, where public transportation was easy. Sometimes Hank and I had a car, sometimes we didn’t. On a couple of occasions I ventured to get a license, but my heart wasn’t in it so I let the learner’s permit expire.

But the reckoning came a few years after we moved to Worthington, which had about 1,200 people and no public transportation. The nearest general store was several miles away from our home in the Ringville section. A few friends kindly offered rides to medical appointments and school events, but I was pretty much homebound, except when my designated driver Hank was available.

One night though I had a dream that I was at the wheel of a car. When I awoke, I was convinced I could do it. 

Hank was my teacher and our marriage survived it. We had a vintage VW bus. Stick. My first few attempts I will admit were pretty lousy. One time a couple of the kids came with us and afterward one of them hugged me and begged me not to drive. A big breakthrough came when we bought a car that was an automatic. The lessons went a lot better.

Yes, I passed the driver’s test, barely, because I went a little fast in a school zone before I corrected it. Fortunately, I didn’t have to parallel park. I still never do.

Yes, getting my license was a game changer. It made things easier for our family. We had five kids then, and being a driver would enable me to work outside the home, which led to my becoming a reporter for a daily newspaper. (More on that in future posts.)

I will admit to being more of a small town driver. It wasn’t until I had to drive highways on a regular basis that I felt comfortable doing that. But I still leave long distance driving with heavy traffic to Hank. 

Our six kids? They’re all great drivers who got their licenses as soon as they were eligible. I made sure of that.

NOTA BENE:  Hilltown Postcards is an occasional series inspired by my life in rural Western Massachusetts, in particular Worthington, where we moved from Boston. Those hilltowns are the inspired setting for many of my books including the Isabel Long Mystery Series. Missing the Deadline, number seven, will be released Dec. 21 on Kindle.

Hilltown Postcards

Horrible Hank the Hog Killer

That’s the nickname Hank was given by one of the locals in Worthington, but it’s probably not for what you think why. No, we’ve never raised hogs. And we don’t eat pork. But there is an interesting story behind the name.

When we lived in that rented house in the Ringville section of Worthington, the only vehicle we owned was a vintage VW Microbus we bought in Boston long ago during one of the times we lived in that city. The tan VW went cross-country twice when we lived in Seattle and then returned to Boston before we moved to the hilltowns. It had a spare tire mounted on the front. And there was plenty of room inside for our kids. 

Anyway, one winter night Hank was driving home from a job in a blinding snowstorm. An excellent driver, all was well until he drove very slowly down Mason’s Hill on Huntington Road not far from where we lived. Suddenly, the VW van stopped in its tracks. What the heck? When Hank got out, he found out why. The broadside of a 500-pound hog blocked the VW’s way. The animal was white so it wasn’t visible in the falling snow.

The hog, which had escaped from Bert Nugent’s yard, was dead but still standing.

As Hank surveyed the situation, the tire that had been mounted on the VW’s front came spinning down the hill. The tire had been thrown backwards when the hog had dislodged it and gravity sent it back.

Bert, who was also a town selectman in those days, was a good sport about it, offering to give us half the hog after it was butchered. No thanks, Hank said. So, instead Bert told him to bring the VW to the garage he owned then in town and he’d fix the tire, which he did. There wasn’t any other damage to the VW. If I recall correctly, Bert used a tow truck to retrieve the hog’s body.

Now about the name. Bert, unarguably a character, called him “Horrible Hank the Hog Killer.” He said it with a grin whenever he met Hank, which was a frequent occurrence in our small hilltown.

Just one of the fun stories about the place where we used to live and I fondly remember.

Country Living

A Good Name for Worthington

With this post, I start a new series called Hilltown Postcards. I happened to be going through old files in my computer when I found a doc with short stories I had written a long time ago about our life in the hilltowns in 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. Some are long, like this one, some are short. Rereading them has inspired me to try writing more. In some instances I will change the names of certain people. That’s true of this story about our move.

It was a little dump of a house, once owned by the landlord’s grandparents in Worthington, a cluster of modest homes on the curve of Route 112, which is a good country road. The house’s clapboards had long lost their coat of white paint. The inside was dirty and filled with trash left behind after the old man died and the old woman, his second wife, moved. It would take a lot before our kids, we had four then, could live here, but the rent was right, $150, and we could work that off fixing the place. This was 1981.

We were living then in a two-bedroom apartment in the Jamaica Plain section of Boston, a nice dead-end street with friendly neighbors, but only blocks away from some tough sections of that city. Our oldest daughter went to third grade in Roxbury, one of the few white kids, and I had to take two city buses then walk through a bombed-out looking neighborhood to visit the school. A guard unlocked the door to let me in. The day I brought her brother to register him for kindergarten, a little boy tossed a Hostess cake onto a table and announced to the teacher he had brought his “mother-fucking snack.” I took one look at my son, a sweet boy who cried easily and loved to draw, and knew he’d have an awfully hard time here.

Then, one winter night I was coming home from the movies, waiting at a trolley stop on Huntington Ave., when a man tried to force me into his van. I had our youngest, just a baby, strapped to my front. The man claimed he worked for the transit system and knew the next trolley wouldn’t be here for an hour. He drove the van onto the sidewalk. I kept talking my way out of it, so shook I didn’t even think to go inside the corner bar for help or use the payphone to call Hank. I was lucky a stranger, a longhaired guy in a puffy down jacket, arrived to intercede. He told me, “I’m not a violent man, but I’d have killed him if he touched you and the baby.” He said the man had blood on his hands. Didn’t I see?

Hank and I decided our kids would live in a place with clean air and clear skies and where people looked out for each other in a good way: A small town with trees and fields and wildlife. The city had gotten too expensive. We were living paycheck-to-paycheck, Hank doing his best to support us as a carpenter, but it seemed easier to do that in the country than in the city.

A friend of a friend mentioned a friend had work in Worthington, a town in Western Massachusetts I’d never heard of although I’ve lived in this state most of my life. Hank made the two-hour drive to meet Win Donovan. Win was ten years older, from that rock ’n’ roll generation, but he and Hank hit it off, two carpenters, deep thinkers, which often comes with the occupation. Then for a summer weekend we visited Win and his wife, Joan, to get a closer look. Win was building a cabin for a customer, and Hank was part of the crew raising its timber frame. We camped in the Donovans’ field, and that night after we had put the kids to sleep in our tent, the sky was awash with streaking gobs of color. Northern Lights. Hank and I stood there, watching the display. Surely this was a sign.

Now, in this house’s yard, I held our baby on my hip as the other kids played. Hank and I listened to the man, who I will call Frank although that wasn’t his name, talk about his family. Frank spoke in a heavy Yankee twang, his loud voice coming from high in his chest, calling Hank “chief” and me “young lady” although he was ten years younger. He had a face that belonged on a cartoon character: thick glasses, rubbery features, and ears that stuck out like jug handles, a family trait I was told later. He’d been in a bad accident so he was having a hard time getting around. He may have been using crutches.

He told us his grandfather had been an upstanding citizen in Worthington, one of its constables. His father, also dead, had been a war hero. The family was a part of the town’s history. We listened politely. As I said, we wanted the house. It’s a small town, just over a thousand people then, and places to rent were scarce. We had found out about this one from the Donovans. 

After we moved in and the neighbors learned we were renters and not friends of Frank, they told us he showed up when his grandfather was near his end and got him to sign over the house. One woman was embarrassed she had agreed to be a witness when the new will was signed. Frank’s version was that no one was taking care of the old folks and they were grateful for his attention. At any rate, none of this sat well with his aunt who lived in a nearby town. Later, when she took him to court, the judge gave Frank a choice: flip a coin for the house or give his aunt half its value. He gave her half.

Everything we owned fit into a small U-Haul and the VW microbus we had taken across Canada from Seattle to Boston. We stacked the boxes in the first space we could clear in the house, because the Donovans had generously invited us to stay with them until the place was livable. We’d have to let our big city cat to temporarily fend for himself in the yard. Frank showed up, unembarrassed that the place was filled with trash and filthy. He wanted to talk business and get his first month’s rent. He did agree that given the circumstances a security deposit for damages would be unreasonable.

It was September and yellow sun choke flowers growing along the foundation were taller than the windows in the dining room, the sunniest space in the house. The old couple used to keep a dog barricaded in the dining room by a makeshift plywood gate, its surface clawed, one of the first things to go. They also had cats, lots of them, and after the house was empty, a neighbor brought them bags of dried food. Eventually, the cats ran off or died. Later, when Hank replaced the back porch, he found cat skulls and empty booze bottles beneath the rotted planks.

The house was situated on a small bluff overlooking Route 112, a state-numbered route, with enough of a yard for the kids to play before it rose steeply into a two-acre wooded lot. This was the Ringville section, named for the Ring family, including Johnny Ring, a Civil War hero. The trees on the lot were not remarkable or large. Like much of the settled part of town, the forest began reclaiming its turf when most people stopped burning wood for heat.

The one interesting tree in the backyard lot had grown around a scythe. Some careless member of the family left the tool leaning against the trunk long ago and the tree consumed its blade so the rusted metal stuck out like a thorn. The wooden handle had long rotted away.

It appeared the people who lived here never went to the dump either. They stuffed their garbage in bread bags, and then buried them on the hill. I tried yanking the bags. Their contents now were disintegrated to colorful dust, but I gave up when I realized how many were there.

I have a photo of Hank, wearing patched jeans, as he stood in debris on the living room floor of that house. His arms are spread akimbo and he’s looking upward toward the blackened ceiling as if this situation was hopeless. But he was joking because he knew we were capable of scrubbing and clearing and painting, that we could make any place livable.

At least the house was structurally sound, with more room than it appeared from the outside, with two bedrooms on both floors and a large living room. The bathroom was tiny, but clean enough. The kitchen wasn’t. The counters beside the sink were old unfinished planks, and we poured straight bleach to disinfect the wood and vowed never to put food or a utensil on them. We used our apartment washer, because there was no hookup, attaching hoses to the faucet and drain, but I couldn’t forget when it was filling or it’d overflow onto the floor.

 In all the places we lived, we never locked the door. Mostly it was because we lived in a safe neighborhood or we had an extraordinary faith no one would want to rob or harm us. We wouldn’t be locking this house either since it appeared on the outside that nothing inside would be worth stealing. That was correct. No stereo, just a black and white TV someone gave us. I had a few pieces of jewelry, valuable to me, like the amber earrings that had been a birthday present from Hank, and of course, his tools.

If someone sunk some money into the house, gutted it, upgraded the mechanicals and poured a cement floor in the cellar, it could have been a very nice home. But the man who owned this house wasn’t planning to do that. He wanted something on the cheap, so for the next several days Hank and I hauled trash, shoveled dirt into barrels, and removed the broken furniture. We scrubbed the ceilings, walls, and wooden floors, their finish long worn away. Hank washed the windows, and one of the neighbors, who stopped to say hello, told him he had never seen them clean.

One day while we were working, two women from the Board of Health arrived unannounced to inspect the place. Lois Ashe Brown explained they were making sure the place was habitable. She said it was one thing for people to live in squalor when they owned a home, but another to rent it out. They heard how the old couple had lived. The other woman rolled her eyes as she talked about what she expected of our landlord. They weren’t unfriendly but were businesslike. It got me worried. Our belongings were still packed in boxes. We didn’t have enough money to return to Boston, and we had no other prospects.

So Hank and I showed the women around, trying to convince them we were getting the place in shape. The trash was gone and most of the walls had been washed of soot. We had a lead on a woodstove for heat. The plumbing worked fine, and the phone was hooked up. The town was so small and the lines old, we only had to dial four digits to call another person living in town. Our number was 5989, and the ring was something quaint and tinny.

Yes, the two women could see we were making progress. They were satisfied, and in parting, Lois remarked brightly, “Livingston. Now that’s a good name for Worthington.” 

Still thinking about that backhanded welcome, I didn’t have the heart to tell her Hank and I were not married, even with four kids, and that my last name then was really Medeiros. We had been a couple for six years but were part of that generation who had disinherited just about everything our parents did like marrying and staying in one place all your life.

So I smiled and said thank you.

FICTION: The fictional hilltowns is the inspired setting for most of my adult novels, including the Isabel Long Mystery SeriesThe Sweet SpotThe Sacred Dog, and my most recent, Northern Comfort