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.

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.

Hilltown Postcards

Meeting Ed in Chesterfield

I wrote this piece about Ed Dahill a couple of years before we moved to Taos in 2006. Ed was still the road boss and I was an editor for a daily newspaper when I interviewed him for a book I thought I’d write but didn’t.

It’s the second week in January, and a thaw is in the works after a stormy spell. The computer monitor in the Chesterfield Highway Garage is picking up radar from a satellite hookup. All’s clear today although rain was expected the next.

Ed Dahill, the town’s road boss, is sitting behind the desk, amused I called earlier to set up this talk. We’ve known each other since I was a reporter for the Daily Hampshire Gazette phoning him for news about a storm and other information. Often he’d be out on the roads, but if he got my message before we went to press, he’d get back to me.

Ed’s hair, straight to the collar, is gray now. His nose gives him a strong profile, and his skin is slightly tanned even though this is the dead of winter. He’s dressed to work outside.

The three-man crew would not be plowing this week, but Ed told me they’d be busy still. He had a list of repairs the trucks needed. The men do all the maintenance. How else could the town afford it, he tells me. One big tire for a truck costs $250 alone.

The highway garage is a cavernous place with pool-blue metal siding the town built in 1967 for $40,000. The inside smells of exhaust, but it’s as neat as a six-bay garage can be. I remind Ed that over the years the town has talked about fixing it. He laughs and says, “We’re still working on it.”

The walls of his office are painted a shiny road-sign green. Ed’s wedged in by filing cabinets filled with paperwork and shelves lined with catalogues and ball caps. A wild turkey feather is stuck in with the pencils on his desk. He says the two ornate tins held Christmas cookies, gifts from grateful residents.

The sticker on the front of his metal desk says: Don’t panic. Ed looks like he never does. He smiles easily even when we’re talking about a storm last week that dumped about a foot of wet snow. It packed hard on the roads and Ed didn’t like that. The plow clattered over the road’s surface. That left ridges. It was the kind of snow that needed a lot of salt, but then that would have made slush. If there’s going to be snow on the road, Ed says it should have a mealy consistency.

He started the job in January ’88 and before that he worked ten years for the highway department in his hometown of Huntington. He said when he’s on one spot on Bryant Street in Chesterfield, it’s three miles straight across to his house. He can make out the power lines. But there’s no direct way and he must swing around through another town to get to the highway garage. That takes 20 minutes.

Ed has an associate’s degree in engineering and one in liberal arts, but most of his knowledge about roads comes from on-the-job training and advice from veteran highway supers. It’s a little unusual the town hired an out-of-towner to be the road boss, but if anyone was bothered, they’ve gotten over it, because Ed puts in the extra time. He laughs. “Yeah, I’m a foreigner. A lot of good it does me.” He pulls out the Chesterfield telephone book, about as big as an owner’s manual, and shows me his name and home phone number printed on the back page. He laughs again. So much for living out of town.

Ed talks about some of the other work his crew does: roadside mowing, grading the dirt roads in the spring, and patching holes. Since he arrived they’ve rebuilt a mile of road a year, tackling the work instead of farming it out. The first job, on Ireland Street near the Chesterfield Gorge, has held up nicely still.

In all there’s 56 miles of roads; a little more than half are paved. In the spring the crew will begin paving Sugar Hill Road, now a dirt way. That idea by the board of selectmen raised a big stink last year.

People on the road were divided about it. It seemed as if the newcomers who moved there for its rural charm wanted to keep it dirt. Those who had lived there longer were fed up with the mud and ruts. Ed, who got caught in the middle, says the road built up fast, with 40 houses on a 1.8-mile stretch. The road in its present condition can’t handle that kind of traffic.

Ed is an admitted weather-addict, constantly checking the weather at home. The satellite feed at work came six years ago. He leaves his house at soon as the first snowflakes start. Most storms come from the south and west, where Huntington is situated to Chesterfield. “They hit my house first,” he says. 

If it’s night, the owner of the town’s only store leaves a large thermos of coffee for the men.

Matt does the western end of town. He has Ed’s old route and the newest truck, but Ed says he likes to keep good workers happy. He and Luther divide up the rest of the town. Part-timers come in to help with the back roads.

Ed says he doesn’t think too much when he plows. He listens to music and keeps in touch with the other men by mobile radio. 

He remembers one blizzard a few years ago in which the visibility was so poor he didn’t see the other plow truck until they were on top of each other. He pulled the men off the road then. If a car had broken down, they would have run over it.

The worst he remembers was an ice storm New Year’s Day in 1982 when he was still on the Huntington crew. The roads had two inches of ice. He had to back the truck up a steep hill so he could ride over the sand, but by time he got to the top it had iced over so fast he couldn’t get back down. He had to radio another sander to rescue him.

Complaints? He says he doesn’t get many. Three or four hours after a storm the roads are cleaned up, ready for the next one. The crew takes a lot of pride in their work. When they reach another town’s line – Chesterfield borders four – they like to see if they’ve done a better job. He smiles. He says they usually do.

Hilltown Postcards

Wrapping the House

Hank bought a roll of tarpaper and long strips of fir from Bisbee Brothers, the hardware store and lumberyard in Chesterfield, another small town next to ours. That afternoon we were going to wrap the house.

The Bisbee family lived in Chesterfield since before the French and Indian War when the first Bisbee traveled there to cut wood. Bisbee Brothers, owned by Charlie, Bill, Russ, and Henry, had everything a country home needed from stovepipe to kerosene lanterns to toilet plungers. Either Russ, who played organ at the Chesterfield church, or Bill, my favorite brother, would be behind the counter tallying the order and, if we requested, put it on our account. They were soft-spoken men with a classical accent that distinguished them as super-natives. Their store was our main reason to go to Chesterfield although we had to pass through it to get to Northampton, the county seat. 

That day, as I held the tarpaper tightly against the clapboards Hank pulled the roofing nails he held between his lips to hammer the fir stripping that holds the paper in place. He was figuring, rightly, as we found out later when he tore apart the bathroom, there wasn’t much insulation behind the house’s plaster and lathe walls. The windows were loose and old although we couldn’t bring ourselves to cover them with plastic. Too tacky.

We’d been living in Worthington for over a month, and fall slipped in with a killing frost that took most people’s gardens with a quick, white death. The trees fired up large swatches of red, thanks to the sugar maples, among the yellow and orange foliage, a thrilling sight although a true New Englander nods and thinks: winter’s coming, got lots to do.

One weekend Hank helped with the barn Win’s father Zack was building for his heavy equipment. Zack had an excavating business, putting in people’s cellar holes, septic systems, and driveways. Hank worked with Win Donovan and his brothers, for free, of course, because he admired the way they respected their parents and looked out for them. 

Afterward the family had a party. The Donovans were always getting together, asking friends like us to come along, bringing pots of food and swapping stories, and then someone would get out the guitar and they’d start strumming and singing old country tunes. Win’s mom, Crystal, or his sister, Tinker, would say, “Play Steve’s song,” and everyone started singing Roger Miller’s “King of the Road” in honor of Steve, the second son and a vagabond of a guy on the loose somewhere.

When I ask the kids what they remember about our early years in Worthington they mention how it was filled by trees, how green it was, and how much time we spent with the Donovans. We couldn’t ask for better first friends. 

I’ve met many newcomers who didn’t have this advantage. They came to town, lured by a good deal on a piece of country property or a job in one of the nearby cities and, unless they were exceptionally outgoing, maybe, know a neighbor or two. But we got lucky. 

Anyway, Zack’s barn got built properly so he could keep his backhoe and dump truck out of the snow. And for us, the cordwood was delivered.

Hank bought a chainsaw to cut the longer pieces, and he hand-split the thicker logs with a maul so they could fit in the wood stove. Most of the wood was stacked in a neat high row beneath the front overhang. Another row was in the front yard. Hank searched the back lot for dead hardwood, but found none. Anything live he cut now would be too green to burn.

I held the tarpaper steady as we moved around the perimeter of the house. Wrapping the house was not skilled work. We’d have to remove the paper in the spring so the place didn’t look like hell and then we’d have to put up a fresh roll next fall. If we wanted to do the job right, we’d stack hay or bags of leaves along the perimeter, but we only had enough bales for the northern side. That would have to do.

Most of the novels I write are set in the fictional hilltowns of Western Massachusetts, which is inspired by the real ones, including my latest, Missing the Deadline, seventh in my Isabel Long Mystery Series.

Hilltown Postcards

The First Winter

Here is the next Hilltown Postcard, which focuses on our first winter in Worthington. Luckily, we had good people to advise us and we had experienced another winter in a more primitive rural setting. We did get smarter and better prepared for winter the longer we lived in the hilltowns.

It got cold then colder that first winter in Worthington. The weather had been harsh in Boston, with the wind coming off the ocean, but at least the apartment we rented in the Jamaica Plain section had reliable heat and insulation. That wasn’t true of the house we rented in Ringville. 

We seriously doubted the walls had any insulation, maybe crumpled newspaper, so we wrapped tar paper along the house’s exterior on its north side to seal it along with the snow that would collect there. One of the locals, probably the helpful Win Donovan advised us to do that.

The windows were single-paned. Our only source of heat was a wood stove we bought that really was just a box of black metal that gave off enough heat for the first floor. The windows on the second, where the kids’ bedrooms were, had thick ice on the interior. The Donovans gave us rectangular blocks of marble we heated on the wood stove and wrapped in flannel to place at the foot of their beds before we piled on the blankets. 

We had a washer, an apartment-sized one, but no dryer. So, I used to hang the laundry on a line with a pulley from the back door. The clothes would freeze one day and the water would evaporate the next. We did have a wooden drying rack near the wood stove. It was a bit of a challenge since our youngest kid was still in diapers.

This wasn’t our first winter in the country. Five years earlier, Hank and I moved with two kids to the sticks of New Hampshire, a town called Wilmot. We rented a house 8 by 24 feet. No electricity. Water came from the stream running beside it. We had an outhouse and a woodstove. 

A farmer on the road sold us cords of firewood that we stack between the trees in rows. Being rookies, we used to start our wood stove’s fire with kerosene, I swear it’s true, and it’s a miracle we didn’t blow up the house. But once the stove got going, the house was indeed warm, especially since we chose to live only on the first floor. 

We had a battery-operated radio that managed to bring in one National Public Radio station. At eight o’clock we looked forward to hearing a reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House’ series on the Spider’s Web show. Her book “The Longest Winter” had a special meaning.

Hank was driving truck for a natural foods company in Boston. After the pickup truck we bought turned out to be a lemon — we had to abandon it in a field when the brakes gave out and someone who stopped said it was a rusted piece of junk — and before we could buy a VW Bug from good neighbors, he had to hitchhike. He was gone for several days, sometimes longer, and when my supply of split hardwood dwindled to nothing, I asked a neighbor to show me how. I placed one log on top of another and with the swing of a maul, I got it done. I actually became quite good at it. 

But I didn’t have to do much of that in Ringville. Hank used a chainsaw to cut down ash trees, which we were told can be burned green. 

The snow was serious. The VW Bus had decent traction. All we had to do was shovel it out. We didn’t need another vehicle since I didn’t have a driver’s license in those days. That’s fodder for another post. The main road was State Highway 112, which was maintained well. We’d see the plow truck’s strobing lights as it passed.

Hank found some work with people he knew in Boston. Due to the repairs done on the house, we were paying hardly any rent. We somehow managed to keep up with electricity, food, and gas for the car. The phone was cheap in those days. (We only had to dial four numbers then to reach anyone within Worthington.) There was no such thing as the internet. All of my correspondence was done by mail and the landline.

My mother would send boxes of clothes for the kids. One time she included a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream that had been owned by my teacher during my high school freshman year. 

That winter we got to know what the town had to offer, like the small library that I visited weekly to stock up on books, the general store, and a monthly food co-op held at the school where our kids went. We became familiar with the people who lived there, including the neighbors, and what they did for fun in the winter.

Worthington seemed to be a good place to live.

INSPIRATION: The hilltowns of Western Mass. are the inspiration for much of my fiction. You can check out my books, including a mystery series, here.