June 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 4
Who propped the murdered highjacker against the sycamore tree?
What happened when the ßre chief used a spittoon for a helmet?
Why did the lighthouse keeper s daughter go to bed for forty years?
Who says small towns are dull?
My father’s family were simple people. The men, most of them, followed the sea. For years my grandfather sailed the packet carrying the mail from Wickford, a village on Narragansett Bay, over to Newport, on the other side of the bay, and all his boys, as they grew old enough, helped him.
The boys were all very tall and fine looking. Nick, the oldest, grew fast and was always tired, as most overgrown boys are. One winter day he decided he had worked long enough and needed a rest. He told his father his foot hurt him, so he couldn’t make the trip. “Let’s see, Nicky. My, that is serious. You must not put your shoe on. But no one will notice. Come along just the same.” Captain Baker picked up poor Nicky’s shoe, and for two days Nick travelled one shoe off and one shoe on, in the bitter weather. Then he humbly begged his father for his shoe and grate- fully put it on. His brothers never let him forget that episode and many times in life asked him, “Where’s your shoe, Nick?”
Miss Willie Cotter, a cousin, who was very fond of Captain Baker, worried about his winter trips and finally called on him and said, “Captain David, I feel it is my duty to warn you to give up taking the mail to Newport. Something will happen to you. Your grandfather was lost at sea, your father was lost at sea, and your brother was lost at sea.”
“All right, Miss Willie, but don’t you ever go to bed again. Your mother died in bed, your father died in bed, and your grandfather died in bed.” Captain Baker kept on sailing, and he, bless his heart, also died in bed.
My father, David Sherman Baker, Jr., was a captain, with his papers from the customhouse, when he was thirteen years old. He was six foot three then and never grew after that. I grew with the same rapidity and reached five foot ten when I was thirteen. Thank God, I stopped growing. When I was a child and went to the public school in Wickford for one term, between governesses, I heard a visitor say, “What is that woman doing in the class with all those children?” I was eleven.
My father and his brother Ben, after they had finished school in Wickford, went to the East Greenwich Academy, seven miles away. They walked there in the fall when the term began, and soon grew very home- sick. Many days they would walk back till they could look down on Wickford and their home from the hill back of the town, be comforted that it was still there, and walk the seven miles back to East Greenwich. They felt it was not fitting to visit their family until the term ended.
I wonder if Father ever told his mother about that. Probably not. His mother loved him so, and was so proud of him and her six other sons and one daughter. Three of the sons, including Father, worked their way through school and college to become lawyers.
My Grandmother Baker was well disposed toward everyone, and very witty. She came of a race of giants. She was nearly six feet tall and her seven brothers were all over six foot six, and the tallest seven foot four. (It is from her, I suppose, that my father and later my brother and I got our height.) She could always tell a funny story, and possessed the rare gift of being able to laugh at herself. Poor darling, she needed all of her humor the last years of her life, for she became afflicted with an odd disease: she would go in just the opposite direction from where she wanted to go, and the harder she tried not to, the worse it got. If she wanted to go out in the garden she would go into the kitchen.
Once, I remember, I was all dressed up to go to church and went to call on her first. She wanted to come into the parlor and see me and she got under the bed and couldn’t get out. I got under, too, and tried to push her out, but she was as big as I was, and heavier. In some way she got me wedged in, and Grandpa and Father had to lift the bed up to get us out. I was ruined for church.
Grandpa got religion quite late in life. It came on him all of a sudden, and in winter. He wanted and insisted that he be baptized at once, in the Baptist Church. The Baptists immersed for baptism and the minister wanted Grandpa to wait until warmer weather. He said Grandpa had waited fifty-five years, and a few more months couldn’t hurt him.
But Grandpa had great zeal, so they all went to the river—it is said that the crowd was large—and cut the ice, and the minister and Grandpa went in. Grandpa was much bigger than Parson Dawes, and when the Parson immersed Grandpa he sort of let go and Grandpa’s head got under the ice, and one of the deacons had to help pull Grandpa out and help them both to shore, they were so numbed with the cold.
Grandpa said it did him a lot of good and he tried to make his sons be immersed. Some of them were, but they waited till summer.
Mother was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, into a large family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Her mother died at her birth and her father was left a widower at twenty-two years of age with three little daughters—Cora, Anita, and Lucy. These little girls spent a good deal of their childhood visiting relatives, and every summer they went to stay in Marblehead with their father’s mother, Grandma Candler.
Grandma Candler lived in a lovely old Marblehead house (the staircase is now in a museum) near but not on the water. As a girl, she had said that there were three things she would never do—marry a sea captain, marry a man named John, or marry a widower. Grandfather Candler was all three. His first wife died when he was only twenty, while he was on a trip to China. He married Grandma when he was twenty-four. She was eighteen.
They had seven children. One of these was Aunt Sadie, who married “Kissy” Kellogg. Kissy was our horror. He had a long, greasy black beard and always wanted to kiss us when we were children.
Another son was Uncle Fred, who went to China and married a Chinese girl. (We have been told that the first part of Hergesheimer’s Java Head was based on Fred’s experience in the Orient.) After being absent many years, he made a visit home, bringing us rich and exquisite gifts, and was about to return to China when he caught a severe cold and died. About two years after his death we received word that two of his sons were coming to America on a visit. Such consternation! What would we do with Chinese boys who were also first cousins?
They eventually arrived and were met at the steamer by some of the men of the family. Instead of boys they were tall, dignified, solemn Chinese gentlemen who had come as a filial duty to visit their father’s grave. They wanted nothing of us and would not even pay us a social call. They visited their father’s grave in the lovely old Moravian cemetery on Staten Island and then went back to China.
In the summer of 1880, when my mother was in her early twenties, my grandfather rented a house in Wickford, Rhode Island. It was called Duck Cove Farm, a sweet, friendly place with beautiful elms lining the drive to the house, which stood right on the water. Grandfather wanted a good harbor for his sloop, the Grey Goose .
Dr. David Greer, afterwards bishop of New York, was then rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Wickford. He and his family were delightful gentlefolk who welcomed Grandfather’s family to their rather limited circle. One of Dr. Greer’s friends was David Sherman Baker, Jr., a native of Wickford, an unmarried young lawyer. Dr. Greer suggested one day that he introduce young Baker to Miss Candler, who had only recently come to town.
“Do excuse me,” said the young man, “but I am working very hard just now, and already know so many girls.”
Dr. Greer laughed.
The serious young man asked, “What are you laughing at?”
“That is just what Miss Candler said when I asked her to meet you,” said Dr. Greer.
They were married the following June and went to live at Cedar Spring Farm. It was their home as long as they lived—Father and Mother for twenty-six years together and Mother forty-two years longer alone.
Years ago, Jessie and Sarah Sherman lived in the lighthouse two miles offshore, with their father and mother. The father, Peter, kept the lighthouse and was an essence addict. He drank vanilla and lemon extract and used to be drunk for weeks at a time. The family and everyone else in town was afraid the federal authorities would find out and Peter would lose his job. Jessie and Sarah were expert lighthouse keepers from the time they were eight and ten years old, and took splendid care of the lighthouse lamps. Mrs. Sherman was so fat she just sat.
When Sarah was about eighteen she had a beau, Nat Perry, a high-spirited fisherman with his own boat. Nat wanted to marry Sarah and take her ashore to live. She wanted to marry Nat, but insisted that he live in the lighthouse, for she would not leave Jessie to run the light alone. Her father was a doddering fool who only knew enough to sign the semi-monthly government checks which were their only support.
Nat would bring Sarah ashore for shopping and supplies, and they would fight and argue all over town and ask everyone’s advice as to what to do. The town was as divided as they were—Nat certainly didn’t want to support all the Shermans, as he would have to do if they gave up the lighthouse, and Jessie couldn’t take care of it alone—or said she couldn’t.
Finally, another girl, May Taylor, began to make up to Nat, and told him he was a fool to wait any longer for Sarah because she would never marry him. One lovely June night Nat went in his boat to the lighthouse and told Sarah that if she did not come with him, that very night, and be married, she would never see him again. Sarah of course did not believe him, but he meant it, and married May that night.
It would have been hard enough on Sarah anyway but what he did afterward nearly killed her. The next day he repented and went to the lighthouse and told Sarah that he was married but that he hated May and the fault was all Sarah’s. May all this time sat bobbing about in Nat’s boat, tied by a rope to the lighthouse. She had brought the license with her in case Sarah did not believe Nat was married.
After Nat left in the boat with May, Sarah fainted and was unconscious for three days. Peter had to sober up and get a doctor, and Mrs. Sherman had to help Jessie tend the light—a kerosene light in those days.
Just as all this was happening, of course, the government inspector had to come. He saw what a bad way things were in. Peter lost the job and all the Shermans were moved to the mainland and a new keeper installed while Sarah was still unconscious.
They found a place to live, and Sarah stayed in bed for forty years. Mrs. Sherman and Jessie took care of her. Peter died soon, but the government gave Sarah, Jessie, and their mother a small pension.
While Sarah was in bed, she did beautiful sewing and used to make all our underclothes and nightgowns. It was always so queer to have her try to fit the things on us while she was in bed.
One Christmas Eve, after she had been in bed for forty years and Mrs. Sherman had been dead some time, their house caught fire from a candle in the window blowing against the lace curtain. Jessie had gone to church and Sarah was alone.
She screamed, but no one heard her. She tried to walk but couldn’t, so she crawled to the front door and down the street in the ice and snow to the next house. The neighbors came, got the fire apparatus, and put out the fire, but Sarah in her nightgown caught pneumonia and was on the verge of death for several weeks. Everybody in town spent their savings to pay the doctor for pulling her through. It seemed so futile. Sarah died nine months later.
Jessie lived alone for some years, and then I helped to get her into St. Elizabeth’s Home in Providence, where she was contented up to the day of her death.
The old railroad station in Wickford burned to the ground in the middle of the night. It was a fine gingerbread type of building and most sturdily built. The fire came at a most inopportune time, as the annual squirt was to be the next day. A squirt is a waterpumping contest to see how far water from a given fire engine can be thrown. The pumpers are volunteers who have to train as a team for the squirt. The engines are worked singly, and the contest is to see which team can shoot the water farthest on a marked roadway. Each team has two tries. Along each side of the engine, about two and one-half feet from the ground, is a bar which is the pump handle. Twelve men, six on each side, work the bar up and down and that pumps the water.
Since Wickford has had a modern chemical engine, the old one has been used only in contests. The old one is very beautiful, made of iron and brass—the iron painted bright red, the brass polished till it glistens.
Many other towns have had pumping engines with their teams of picked men. It is a great honor to be on a team and requires lots of practice and great strength and endurance, for it is a backbreaking job. Up and down, up and down, the pump must go in perfect timing. Hiccoughs once lost a squirt. Eddie Fowler got them and threw the team off beat.
My father was on the Wickford team for a while, but a case in court (he was a lawyer) made him miss a squirt and he was dropped from the team. The other men said he lacked civic pride in letting anything interfere with a contest. As luck would have it, Taunton, I think, won the squirt my father missed, and held the championship for quite a while.
I think a team had five minutes to warm up, then the judge yelled, “Ready—on your mark—set—go!” The squirt lasted ten minutes, and the greatest distance was usually reached after six or seven minutes of pumping. Sweat poured off the men, who wore only trousers. George Cranston, the captain of our team, wore a hat, too—or, at least, he always did after the railroad station fire.
George had been captain of the squirt team for years and gave the beat for the pumping. First slow, then faster and faster, up and down, up and down, one—two—three—four, one—two—three—four. He sang a kind of chant that was mesmeric, and most of the bystanders would be swaying up and down, up and down, with the pumpers, so that when a contest was over, both the team and the audience were tired out.
The night of the railroad station fire, three flatcars were lined up at the station with their fire engines on them. Some of the engines and teams had come on flatcars, and the men guarded the fire engines day and night and spent much time sitting and gossiping together. The cars had easy ladders up to them, and food and equipment were stored on the cars under huge canvas covers. All the children in town climbed on the flats and made pests of themselves, asking questions and getting underfoot.
Engines from nearby towns were drawn to Wickford by horses. One engine had three horses abreast. Seven beautifully polished engines were quite a sight.
Everything was peaceful and quiet and the town was asleep when one of the guards on a flatcar woke to see the station ablaze. One would think with seven fire engines and all those men that the fire would have been put out quickly. Hoses were run to the salt-water cove nearby, and the pumping of water to the fire began in earnest.
But there was too much equipment. The men and engines got in each other’s way. The hose got tangled, the men swore at each other, the townsfolk rushed home for their leather fire buckets (our three always hung under the stairs), and soon there was a hand brigade passing buckets of water to the fire, but nothing helped. It was the hottest and prettiest fire I ever saw—all colors, from the paint and tar and chemicals that had been stored in the freight shed.
The station burned to the ground, and two flatcars and engines burned also. George Cranston, who was fire chief and had rushed nearer to the fire than anyone else, was very brave. Sparks were flying, and it was terribly hot. We children, with my mother and our Russian governess, were huddled across the tracks under a big oak tree on the Reynolds’ land, looking fascinatedly at the fire.
A big brass cuspidor that had been in the men’s side of the station was on the ground. George yelled to Nat Perry, who was holding a hose nozzle, to turn the water into the cuspidor. It went in with a rush and made quite a nice fountain for a minute and washed out the cuspidor. George grabbed it and put it on his head. It was good protection from the sparks.
All went well for a while. Then Mother pointed to George. “Oh, look, the poor man, that thing has gone down on his neck!”
It had indeed. Probably the sweat on George’s head had made it slippery, and the heat from the fire had expanded the cuspidor. There was George, helpless, completely blind, and suffocating.
They had a terrible time getting that cuspidor off George. Someone made a hole in the top to give him more air, but the cuspidor still stuck. It would not pull off. They nearly broke George’s neck pulling. They tried to file it off, but it was well made and of heavy brass.
Finally Nick Ramsbottom, the plumber, got his torch and burned it off. George was very weak and lying on the ground by then. It was an eerie scene, the crowd of anxious, tired men around George, well lighted by the embers of the now-burned-down station.
Nick Ramsbottom’s torch burned poor George’s head pitifully, and my father told us later that George had a round ring of bright red scar around his skull. That was why he never took his hat off.
It was some years before we had another squirt.
George Cranston was a large, handsome man, one of the most influential in Wickford. He was chief of the fire department, the undertaker, and owner of the general store, about a mile up the Ten Rod Road, where he sold everything—hats, toys, bicycles, drugs, coffins, buttons, kerosene, clothes, etc. He was bighearted, able, and brave, and had a wonderful sense of humor. George was always gay and cheerful, and the only thing he hated to do was buy things for his store. That required thought, consideration, and money. He dearly loved to sell, but buying was painful.
One day a week he would go to Providence to replenish his stock. He went on the early train, the one we children took to go to school spring and fall, and the one my father always took as long as we lived in Wickford. Winters, when the weather was bad, we had governesses and studied at home.
We children and our father always got on the train at the new railroad station. It was on the little branch railroad that ran from the dock (where the S.S. Eolus , which plied to Newport, used to be moored) through our farm and other farms to Wickford Junction, where it met the main line from New York to Boston.
The new station in Wickford was not a very nice building. It was a great disappointment to Henry Congdon, the genial and faithful conductor on the branch train, and to all of us. It was a quarter of a mile up the track from where the old station had been and not a convenient place for anyone.
Why is it that most stations are as far from their public as possible? Years ago, when the steamboat landing for the Eolus from Newport was built, it was placed as far from town as it could be. True, the landing is just across the salt-water inlet to the cove and one can almost throw a stone across, but except by boat the only way to get there is through the town, across the bridge by the town hall, where the old railroad station used to be, turn to the left just before getting to the Reynolds girls’ house, down nearly to Cold Spring Beach, another left turn at Ted Lawton’s house, and down the sometimes cold, and in summer roasting, and always windy path to the landing.
Since the new station was built, passengers from Newport would look in surprise when the train stopped at Wickford, for they could only see a shed. The shed was the station, a nice cozy place, though, and presided over by a kindly but proud despot—Clarence Weaver—station agent, baggage man, janitor, etc.
When Saunderstown, five miles south of Wickford, had its only baggage communication with the outside world through Wickford, and when the LaFarges had come there to live, Mrs. Grant LaFarge, a most charming gentlewoman, had occasion to ask Mr. Weaver to hold a trunk till she could send for it. She wrote him a courteous note, signing it “Florence LaFarge.” Mr. Weaver, not to be outdone, wrote her he would hold the trunk, and signed himself “Clarence LaWeaver.”
The train, after leaving the landing and stopping at Wickford, proceeded at leisure, stopping twice more before it reached Wickford Junction.
George Cranston lived not far from the junction and on his shopping days would wait to leave his house to catch the train till he heard the whistle at the Swamptown Crossing. Then he would leg it up the road—he was always in a hurry—his hat firmly on his head, dressed in his red flannel underdrawers, with his coat and shirt on unbuttoned, and his trousers streaming out behind, held to him by his suspenders around his neck. He would button himself up en route, and the men aboard the train, my father among them, would help him along by screaming down the road, “Hurry up, George! We’re going!” Then someone would blow the whistle. Sometimes the conductor would start the train and pretend to go.
George would add speed and always made it. He would put on his trousers on the back platform, pull his hat on more firmly, then come into the car with the air of a Chesterfield, bowing and shaking hands with all the ladies and passing the time of day in a most courtly manner.
It was George who always told me the news of the town when I had been away. I had just returned from honeymooning in Europe when he told me of Willis Fratus’ wedding and of the second railroad station fire. Both happened when I was gone. I remember thinking, as he told me, how tame Europe was—just one big hotel after another—compared to Wickford, where something was always going on.
Willis Fratus was quite a character. For many years he had had a sick wife to whom he was very kind, but he did get bored and he had a roving eye and a great way with the ladies. His conquests were legion, and many a father would gladly have shot him, but Willis was safe—everyone knew of sick Mamie.
Miss Micham, the primary-school teacher, was young and very pretty, and smart, too. Willis fell for her like a ton of bricks, but she would have none of him. Willis was sick with longing. George said he looked and acted worse than Mamie.
Just then poor Mamie died. She had many friends, and George Cranston said he gave her his best funeral as a recompense for her years of suffering.
To everyone’s surprise, Willis, the chief mourner, came to the funeral in a new light grey suit and the biggest, whitest kid gloves George said he had ever seen. Usually his clothes were plain and conservative. That day he seemed very conscious of his gloves and held his hands stiffly, as if he were anxious to keep his gloves clean, which was, of course, just the case.
He wore the same suit and gloves two days later when he married Miss Micham. They were very happy.
George said that the fire at the railroad station started at night too, and, as usual, no one knew the cause. George had just retired as fire chief, and at the meeting a few days before, Sam Brown had been elected to succeed him.
All the firemen came to the fire with the beautiful new chemical engine which the town had just bought. Just as they got to the fire, Sam Brown, George’s successor, cried out, “Wait, boys, I forgot my chief’s helmet!” He rushed home, and when he returned with it the station was in ruins. The boys had waited.
Cedar Spring Farm, where my family has always lived, is known as the only place in Wickford where there have been three murders.
The first took place when my father was a little boy, just before the Civil War. Our big hay barn with its great wide doors was formerly used as a clam-bake house, and after a good bake and plenty of cider the men used to pitch horseshoes and bet on their prowess. Sometimes, after the womenfolk left or if it was a stag affair, they would fight gamecocks. Cider seemed to make very ugly drunks, and many fights would ensue.
One beautiful Sunday in September, after a gay bake, a man named Perkins was accused of cheating by pushing his horseshoe nearer the stake.
“Let’s lynch him!” they cried.
He ran away from them, and that was the last anyone saw of him for more than a month. Then one day he was found shot to death high up in the crotch of a great oak tree. He must have climbed the tree after his assailant shot him, for his wounds were such that he could not have been shot at that distance from the ground. Who did it, no one ever knew; but the enormous white oak, still standing, has been called “Dead Man’s Oak” ever since.
Dead Man’s Oak is a quarter of a mile down the lane from Cedar Spring itself, and the house and barn, near which the murder must have taken place, are on a hill just above it. The spring never fails, and the water is pure and cold and rushes out of the ground at about fifty gallons a minute. The Indians identified the spring by the cedar grove surrounding it, hence its name. The little stream from it flows into the saltwater cove nearby.
My father inherited Cedar Spring Farm from some uncles. “Inherited” isn’t exactly the word: he assumed the mortgage. No money changed hands, for no one had any. He brought my mother there as a bride and she loved it, as did her children and grandchildren.
The second murder took place after the First World War, in the early days of Prohibition. Both Cedar Spring and our summer place on Narragansett Bay, Whale Rock Point, were involved. During that period we were kept on the jump by bootleggers and highjackers. Whale Rock Point, which juts into the ocean, was a “natural,” the bootleggers said. They would run their high-powered speedboats—progenitors of the PT boats of the Second World War—out to the big vessels carrying the liquor three miles offshore, then make a dash for Narrow River where trucks were waiting, unload in faster than fast time, and off they’d go. Of course they didn’t come every night, but on foggy or rainy nights we knew enough to stay indoors and to see or hear nothing.
The bootleggers were mostly high-class men who felt they were in a legitimate business and would not shoot unless forced to. But the highj ackers were daredevils with nothing to lose. Their only investments were guns and high-powered automobiles.
We have a good road that runs right through our place down to the ocean. How the automobiles on a foggy night would whiz by!
One time my mother was ill and I was staying with her at Cedar Spring Farm. About eight o’clock one morning, Ed Standeven, who had worked for Mother for forty-two years, first as farmhand, then as chauffeur, came into her room while we were breakfasting and said, with a white face, “One of those highjackers is sitting dead against the big sycamore tree up the road—shot through the head!”
Mother asked, “Are you sure he’s dead?”
“Yes,” answered Ed. “He’s stiff.”
Mother never said another word. She reached for the telephone and told Mamie Rice, the telephone girl, to get John Fowler, one of the biggest bootleggers in town.
Then after a minute—Hello, John—is that you? This is Mrs. Baker. Come this minute and take your corpse off my place. How dare you do such a thing to me!”
In less than half an hour the corpse was gone. How Mother knew who had put him there, I never discovered.
The third murder makes me so unhappy that even after all these years, I hate to write about it.
Pete Freeman, who worked on our place, always played the drum in the Memorial Day parade. Memorial Day was and still is the biggest day of the year in Wickford. The parade starts early and marches two miles to the Elm Grove cemetery, where the graves are decorated and there are speeches and a band concert. Then it marches back. Anyone can march, but only a chosen few play in the band.
As I see it now, Pete was lonely, especially during that winter and spring, when Mother was in Europe visiting my sister Gladys and the house was closed. And because he was lonely, he began to drink.
Ed Standeven, the caretaker, was an awful tease when he had time on his hands, and to scare Pete from drinking, he told him that if he didn’t stop he couldn’t play the drum in the Memorial Day parade.
This preyed on Pete’s mind. When Mother got home late in May—just the day before the parade-she found Pete half-seas over. She got the cook to give him plenty of black coffee and told Ed not to tease him any more.
But the next morning, when Pete went with his drum to march in the parade, he was told that he was drunk, that he would have to go home. It broke his heart. He had played in the parade every year for forty years.
Slouching back he came, got his gun, and then came up to the big house. Mother was alone, for everyone else had gone to the parade. He mumbled something to her about shooting Ed. He blamed Ed for not helping him and taking his side at the parade. Almost everyone liquored up for the occasion and Pete was probably no worse than many; but Ed, to prove his point and stop Pete’s drinking, had told the marshal that Pete was unfit to play his drum in the band.
Pete was crazy mad, and when Mother looked at him she realized that he was and that he would shoot either Ed or himself. It never entered her mind that he might shoot her.
She begged him to give her the gun, but he wouldn’t and said that he was going to wait at the gate and shoot Ed as he came in.
Mother didn’t know what to do. There was no way to warn Ed or get the gun from Pete, so she called up the state police and told them the story.
They sent a splendid young trooper on a motorcycle right away. When Pete saw him coming he ran down to his house and sat in his door with his gun across his knees.
Mother warned the trooper, telling him to stay with her till Ed got back; then Ed and the trooper could get the gun away from Pete.
The trooper smiled and said he could manage Pete, and although Mother held onto his arm and begged him to wait, he went ahead.
Pete put a small stick across the narrow path about twenty-five feet from his door, and as the trooper approached, he said, “If you step across that stick I shoot you.”
The trooper smiled and said, “What have you got against me?” and kept on walking.
Pete shot him between the eyes. He dropped dead instantly.
Pete looked up to see Mother rushing down the driveway screaming at him not to shoot the trooper, and then he realized what he had done. He ran across the barnyard to the old stone icehouse and barricaded himself in it. His poor dog followed him in.
Just then Ed and the two maids came back from the parade. Mother was beside herself with grief and terror. They got other state troopers and had to shoot Pete and his poor dog to death before they could get at the trooper’s body in front of Pete’s shed. Pete had them covered from the icehouse and there was no other way to get him out.
Such quantities of everything! In the fall, getting ready for winter and collecting all the food to be stored took much planning and lots of arguing and arranging. Our cellar at Cedar Spring was large, and under the high windows along the south side of the cellar were the barrels of molasses, hard cider, sweet cider, salt pork, and oysters in their shells. The oysters were the last things put in the cellar, and winter was really at hand when my father and Ben and Pete carried the big barrel of oysters and seaweed down cellar.
Every Sunday the oysters were fed a handful of bran and they made a sucking noise eating quite plain to be heard. Whether the ones on the bottom of the barrel got any bran, I don’t know, but as the ones on top were the first eaten, their turn came soon enough. Pete would ask Ben if he had given the oysters their “soss.” He was so kind-hearted that he didn’t want even oysters to go hungry.
It was Ben’s job to attend to the barrels and open oysters and pick out the salt pork. Once during a party my father took some men down cellar to get some more oysters and show them how the oysters were fed, and they fed the bran to the salt-pork barrel. Mother didn’t stop teasing Father about that for weeks. It didn’t seem to hurt the salt pork any.
We had hams and bacon hanging in a wine room and the barrel of Medford rum was locked in there too.
Housekeeping was easier then, for the same day every week we would have the same thing. Every Saturday night’s dinner consisted of oysters (or Little Necks in the months with no R) on the half shell, then a clear soup, then broiled live lobsters, a green vegetable, and of course johnnycake, and Indian pudding with thick cream for dessert. Sunday dinner was always a thick soup, roast beef with grated horseradish in cream, and a green vegetable, Yorkshire pudding, and Floating Island with jelly on the islands. Thursday lunch was roast chicken, and that night—cook’s night out—cold chicken, always so good.
Almost every Sunday evening in the summer, at Whale Rock, we used to have a clambake. Ed Standeven, a past master at clambakes, prepared them. (There are master clambake creators, just as there are master chefs and master brewers.) He gathered his seaweed at morning low tide and started his fire to heat the stones. Then he wrapped all the contents of the bake in cheesecloth squares—the clams, lobsters, chickens, potatoes, and sweet corn.
After the stones were red-hot, the wood was raked off and a blanket of fresh green seaweed laid on the stones. Quickly on top of this were put the wrapped young split broilers. Then, after another layer of seaweed, the potatoes and sweet corn, then more seaweed and the lobsters. More seaweed still, then the clams—about two quarts to a cheesecloth square. The last layer of seaweed was spread over the clams, and over the whole mound was fastened a big piece of canvas or an old sail. Baking time was about two hours.
The bake was eaten in the order it was uncovered—clams first and chickens last. We always provided a whole lobster for each person, and a quart of clams, and usually didn’t have enough. Once, a few years ago, a Russian brought by a friend ate twenty lobsters. He simply grabbed a lobster, twisted the tail and pulled out the meat, and ate it grandly, throwing away the claws and the body.
There were incidentals at the bakes—clam broth, for instance, and brown bread and butter, something to drink, and dessert. The broth was made by steaming a bushel of clams in a big kettle with a cupful of water over the fire made of the raked-off wood. This took about twenty minutes and was ready by the time the cocktails were finished. We usually had soft drinks and beer with the bake, unless it was a wedding bake or a very fancy one, when we had champagne. We considered watermelon or some other fruit the best dessert, but sometimes we sank so low as to have ice cream cones.
My father always used to insist on having johnnycakes and cider with a clambake, but he always had both for dinner every night and johnnycakes for breakfast every morning. Every meal that he ate at home he had johnnycakes.… They were, incidentally, the first food Father and Mother had after they arrived at Cedar Spring on their honeymoon. Father made them in the fireplace that first evening, for there was no stove.
Johnnycakes are a ritual, just as a clambake is. First of all, the white corn meal must be ground very slowly so that the millstones do not get hot and burn the meal. To make the perfect johnnycake, two thirds of last year’s meal and one third of this year’s is used. To use all this year’s meal makes it too moist. The meal, with some salt, is put in a pottery bowl and heated red hot, either in the oven or over a fire. It must be so hot that a slight crust forms on top.
While the meal is heating, a soapstone or iron griddle should also be heated, and a kettle of water set to boil. Any fat—bacon, lard, butter, etc.—can be used on the griddle. After the meal is red-hot and the water is actively boiling, the water should be poured onto the meal a little at a time and stirred in. The meal should be kept on the stove or as near the fire as possible, for it must not be allowed to chill. When the water and meal are well mixed—the more stirring or beating the better—the meal should be soft enough to drop off a spoon.
When the griddle is red-hot, and covered with a very thin film of grease, the top of the meal should be scraped with a large spoon and dropped onto the griddle. The meal should always be scraped off the top, and when the first batch of cakes is on the griddle it should be beaten up again, and the top scraped for the next batch, and so on. The cake should never be patted or touched until it is turned over to be cooked on the other side.
All this trouble is worthwhile, for the johnnycakes will be light as air and the crust will melt in one’s mouth.
We were very particular about our cider, too. No wormy apples were allowed—every apple was carefully picked, and the straw used in the press was clean and changed every time. We made sure that the pressing was never hard enough to break the apple seeds. We thought the best cider apples were Gravenstein and the best eating apples Baldwins or Seek-No-Further. The sweet cider was nectar, with the loveliest aroma. The hard cider was pure and strong, and the applejack had a kick that nothing else could equal. Applejack is simply the part of hard cider that doesn’t freeze when hard cider is frozen. The part that freezes is thrown away.
At the clambakes we always sang, and it was fascinating how our guests changed the type and tempo of the songs. When we had Whiffenpoof boys we of course had charming close harmony. Southern friends meant “Dixie” and such-like songs. On the rare times in the past when we were only family or had oldfashioned guests, we sang the standard old tunes, and Mother’s dear voice rang out with every word of every verse of “Johnny Sands,” “The Flying Trapeze,” “In the Gloaming,” “The Spanish Cavalier,” “Tell Me, Kind Sir,” “Seeing Nellie Home,” “Now the Day Is Over,” “Home on the Range,” “When Day Is Done,” and all the rest.
It was always beautiful at our clambake place but when the moonlight was on the water it was very lovely to sit looking at the ocean, singing with friends and being at peace with the world.
Mother and I could always laugh over the Crockers’ Christmas picture. The Crockers were very poor relations—and there were a lot of them. One year when we were little, about a month before Christmas, Mother received a forlorn letter from Aunt Betty telling, among other troubles, how Uncle Crocker had no job and the children apparently none of anything. Mother and Father talked late that night and decided they would give up Christmas that year except for some cheap toys for us children, and send all the money to the Crockers. “And David,” Mother said eagerly, “let’s do it right away, so the poor things can have a Christmas and get things now, when they need them.” My parents sent the money right away.
The day before Christmas a big flat package came to the house, and we opened it. Inside was a huge, elaborate photograph of all the smiling Crockers—not one copy, but one for each of us. They had spent all the Christmas money on that panoramic family photograph.
My father kept his copy of the picture hanging beside his bureau to the day he died. The card addressed to him was inserted in the corner, and under his name he had written “SUCKER.” He said it was one of the best lessons he ever had. They were a very homely family.
Another photograph, which always made my Mother weep gently, was the one taken the day before Father’s funeral. We had been in Europe that summer and had had the most wonderful time and had all bought beautiful dresses to wear at Gladys’s coming-out party.
My father kept begging us to have our picture taken for him in our Worth dresses. But after the coming- out ball there were lots of parties and football games, more parties, my brother David home for vacation, more parties, Christmas, more parties, David leaving for school.… We couldn’t stop long enough to have a picture taken.
Then like a ton of bricks—Father’s pneumonia. It could not be fatal, of course: he would be all right. He was only fifty, and so big and strong and red-cheeked and gay.… But he wasn’t all right. He gasped for breath. We sent for more doctors. First we couldn’t speak, then we begged the doctors to do something. Father turned gray and choked. We huddled in the corner of his room, Mother on her knees beside his bed holding his hand all night.
Toward morning he spoke, hoarsely and haltingly. “Nita, darling, I can’t make it. It is a stone wall and I can’t get over it.”
“Oh, my darling!” Mother put her head on his hand, and we didn’t look. But after a while a terrible noise crackled in his throat, and one gasping groan.… The nurses came and put us out and said it was over and that Father was dead. The doctor gave us all something to make us sleep.
When we woke, Father was gone—to the undertaker’s, they told us—and Mother was white as a sheet and my aunt had come from Boston. There was much to be done and we were very busy. We all had black clothes and big black veils on our black hats. Every time Mother looked at us, she cried. We were sights! She cried all the time, as we did.
The day before the funeral, there was a lull. We just sat and looked at one another, all funny with swollen eyes, and David in his first wing collar and a black suit and tie. Mother began to cry more than ever, and sobbed, “If we had only had our pictures taken as your father wanted us to! Now we look so terrible, and my life is over.”
“Let’s do it right now.”
“What are you talking of?”
“I mean what I say. We can never wear our beautiful clothes again—and we promised Papa.”
Someone—I think David—telephoned the photographer, who came within the hour. We got dressed up, sobbing and putting cold water on our eyes so they wouldn’t look swollen, and had the picture taken just as he had wanted us to. And it was a comfort and made him seem nearer, and we all promised that we would always live as he would have wished.
It was a secret and a bond, and in the awful days that followed, when we had to give up the house in town and sell almost everything, and Mother was so lonely and frightened, that picture—which came out perfectly and everyone looked really better than he or she could—was a symbol that we were united and could rise to emergencies.
Everyone who saw the picture said, “How lucky you had it taken and didn’t wait. Didn’t your father love it? It natters you all—you look really starry-eyed.”