Monday, November 26, 2007

Notes from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams
15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                 November 26, 2007
Thanksgiving 2007

“The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful
fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we
are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which
are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the
heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.”
                                                                                                                                       Abraham Lincoln
                                                                                                                                       Thanksgiving Proclamation, October 3, 1863

Thanksgiving is truly a unique American Holiday. It has a tradition that stems back to the days of the Pilgrims in Plymouth Plantation who in 1621 thanked God for the safe passage across 3000 miles of open water, for the abundance of their first harvest, but most importantly for the ability to worship as they pleased. From George Washington on most of the early Presidents (a notable exception being Thomas Jefferson) designated a national thanksgiving holiday. In 1863, President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a Federal Holiday, a “prayerful day of thanksgiving”, on the last Thursday in November. President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 set the date we celebrate today – the fourth Thursday in November.

This year we celebrated Thanksgiving in the newly and beautifully decorated dining room of our daughter, Linie, at her home in Rye, New York where she lives with her husband Bill Featherston and their three children: Caroline aged seven, Jack, 5, and Henry, 3. In the northeast the weather was almost spring-like; so my wife and I took the children – in anticipation of a hearty Thanksgiving meal - for a long walk to Jack’s school, the Midland School, on appropriately named Midland Avenue. There the children played on swings, climbed a ‘rock’ wall and slid down slides, burning calories and expending energy. Back at her house Linie was preparing for the meal. Our daughter is gifted with an imagination and a color sense that permits boldness in decoration. Her house shows it, particularly the dining room which she had painted a rich chocolate brown enhanced by a gold fabric wall paper. The table was set perfectly with china, silver and crystal. The result was stunning. Linie also has a Tom Sawyer-like ability to get others to help. Her mother made the dessert; her sister-in-law provided the vegetables and the starch; I cooked the turkey. Our oldest son, Sydney, was there with his wife, Beatriz and their three young children. Despite the opportunity for chaos, we made it through the meal, fortified with good wine and stimulating conversation. The children generally stayed at their own table, and by the end of the day only one trip was made to the emergency room – Caroline received a bruise on her foot while in pursuit through the living room. However, she returned home after a couple of hours wearing an ace bandage, a smile and carrying a little furry toy dog, disseminated by the hospital in lieu of a purple heart.

As a family holiday, Thanksgiving causes one to reflect back on earlier celebrations. Dozens of memories glide through my mind, but four stand out. I have a photograph of our dining room table in Peterborough, New Hampshire in 1955. My father is seated, poised with a carving knife and fork in mid-air. A big smile spreads across his face. Around the circular table are eight of his nine children, all with a lean and hungry look on their reasonably clean faces. George, at two months, is napping. My mother is the photographer.

Thirteen years later my wife and I, along with two little children, attempted the drive to Peterborough, but were turned back due to a snowstorm. Thanksgiving that year consisted of deli sandwiches. The following weekend we did drive up, and Monday my father died after a long bout with cancer.

In 1978, the family of my paternal grandparents gathered for Thanksgiving. Though they were both dead, their house in Wellesley was still in the family belonging then to an aunt. Fifty-four of us showed up. Name tags were issued, as there were cousins and spouses, some of whom had never met. Two of the guests (an uncle and a cousin) came out of mental health institutions for lunch. My uncle had to return before dessert. The table, which sat forty-eight, consisted of tableclothed-covered-plywood placed on sawhorses set up in the front hall. Six young girls dined off a table on the staircase landing. Everybody had been asked to supply a dish. Miraculously it worked wonderfully. Whoever was in charge could have run a U. S. Army regimental commissary.

Ten years later, I recall a snowy Thanksgiving in Greenwich, when among our guests were a Deerfield classmate of our son, Edward, a young man named DJ Kim from South Korea and a Scotsman, Bob MacDonald, with whom I then worked. Whenever I see Bob now he reminds me of the human warmth that exuded from that family dinner and the subsequent walk along snow-filled roads, and how good he felt to be included.

Lincoln, during those dark days in the midst of a Civil War was able to find solace for which he gave thanks. Despite the slaughter on the battlefield – 600,000 lives would be lost during those four years – the population expanded during the 1860s by ten percent – 3,000,000 people. Lincoln’s words then inspire us today. While the problems President Bush faces pale in comparison to those which confronted President Lincoln, each generation is presented unique challenges. As a nation we now struggle with conflicting views as to the most efficient conduct of a war against Islamic terrorism, while maintaining our sense of democratic values, and we debate as to how best handle the fallout from the housing bubble and the myriad schemes – some fraudulent – used to finance that bubble. Amidst such turmoil it is easy to lose sight that there is much for which we all in this Country should be thankful. There is great satisfaction to be gained by the fact that we live in a place deemed to be part of the “New World”, yet we function under the world’s oldest democratic constitution. We give thanks for the fortune that permits us to be living at this time in this freest of all nations.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Note from Old Lyme

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                                     October 15, 2007

‘Once, when I asked him why he got
So many books, he said, “why not?”
I’ve puzzled over that a lot.'
                                                                                                                   Jane, Joseph and John; Their Book of Verses, c.1918
                                                                                                                   Ralph Bergengren (1871-1947)

Books have long been integral to my life. Growing up in Peterborough, New Hampshire my parent’s house was shelved with many wonderful titles – mostly inherited from their parents. As a young child, my mother would read all the nursery stories, along with tales from the Brothers Grimm, Beatrix Potter and Thornton W. Burgess. As I grew older, I recall reading such stories as William McCleery’s The Wolf Story, That Darned Minister’s Son by Haydn Pearson, Black Beauty by Anna Sewell, the stories of Jack London and E.B. White’s Stuart Little and, later, Charlotte’s Web. At age twelve I received a copy of The House on the Cliff by Fentin W. Dixon and so was introduced to the Hardy boys and I proceeded to read the entire series. Books that have remained favorites include novels such as Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, Trygve Gulbranssen’s Beyond Sing the Woods and O. E. Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, among many others. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, Uncle Fred, Clarence, Aunt Agatha, Mr. Mulliner and a number of others all became friends when I discovered the humor and lively imagination of the Edwardian world depicted by P.G. Wodehouse. (And they have remained so through the Drones, a small group of Wodehouse devotees, who meet irregularly in New York). Among the classics I read as a teenager were David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, and Pride and Prejudice. The history of England came alive in the children’s history of that “emerald island” written simply and lovingly by H. E. Marshall in An Island Story. My copy is the one my parents had, printed in 1920 by Frederick A. Stokes in New York. It was recently reprinted, so I snapped up three copies for my children. The history of the United States was made vivid with Mason Weems description of George Washington and the cherry tree, and then, earnestly, when I picked up and read Carl Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. I have copies of most of these books in my library today and have re-read a number of them, in some cases more than once. The great beauty of these stories is that the characters they portray and the morals they impart are universal and so are as relevant today as they were when written.

My academic career suffered a prolonged adolescence. Other than a high school English teacher (Horace E. Thorner at Williston Academy in East Hampton, Massachusetts), whose concentration on Shakespeare was such that the two plays which we read my junior year - Macbeth and Hamlet – remain etched in my memory fifty years later, I fell victim to the many distractions of mid and late teen-age years. It was several years before I focused again on books. But then fate stepped into my path. In 1967, married for three years with a one-year old son and my wife pregnant with our daughter, we moved into a delightful 18th century house in Durham, CT, fortuitously situated close by a pleasant, retired couple, Keith and Helena Hutchison. Keith, a retired editor with The Nation, was the proprietor of the Durham Book Service, dealers in old books. In him I found a spark which reignited my dormant interest in books. In me he found a willing student and customer. My addictions, again, became literary. Keith was almost blind, British and a staunch liberal Democrat. He had attended the London School of Economics and worked for Clement Atlee in the general election of 1922, but soon left politics and, in his writing career, concentrated on economics. Among the books he wrote is Rival Powers, America and Britain in the Postwar World, a signed first printing of which sits on my shelves today. His love for books led him to start a small business selling books, particularly to libraries. His search for books of an economic nature – as such was his field – would often cause him to buy entire libraries, including a number of novels. From Keith I bought several wonderful first editions, all of which I still have - books such as Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa ($3.00); Laurence Housman’s Palace Plays ($2.75); Memoir’s of a Polyglot ($3.00) by William Gerhardi; The Peterkin Papers ($25.00) by Lucretia Hale; The Red Badge of Courage ($5.00) by Stephen Crane; Little Lord Fauntleroy ($37.50) by Frances Hodgson Barnett and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn ($150.00). When, after four years, we left Durham for Greenwich Keith gave me his copy of John Carter’s, Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors. It sits today on my shelves among a collection of books about books.

During those years in Durham I visited William Reese in New Haven, from whom I bought a few books, and I began receiving catalogues from Goodspeed’s in Boston and Brentano’s in New York. Brentano’s rare book department closed after a few years, but when it was open I took advantage of their offerings. Taking every dollar I could scrounge, I bought nicely bound sets of Dickens, Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters; a beautifully bound first edition of Zulieka Dobson ($46.00) by Max Beerbohm; the trilogy of the breakfast table – all first editions - by Oliver Wendell Holmes, the first volume of which, The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table ($175.00 for the three volumes) includes a signed letter from Mr. Holmes, and a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin ($350.00) which included a letter from the author, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Goodspeed’s Book Shop at the top of Beacon Hill had been around for many years. They specialized in genealogy and town histories, but they also sold well known (and lesser known) books. Town histories have always interested me, and I bought volumes dealing with all the towns in which I had lived. I also acquired a number books dealing with the genealogy of my and my wife’s families. But my greatest pleasure was in finding copies of books I had known and loved as a youngster. From Goodspeed’s I bought a copy of Joel Chandler Harris’s, Daddy Jake the Runaway for $50.00 in 1971 and six years later added Uncle Remus for $150.00. Other books I bought from them include Robert Frost’s, A Further Range ($15.00); My Man Jeeves ($50.00) by P.G. Wodehouse; Winnie the Pooh ($25.00) by A. A. Milne and the first whaling novel published in the United States, Miriam Coffin ($150.00), authored by Joseph Hart. Through my grandfather I had learned of John Kendrick Bangs, who was best known for Houseboat on the River Styx, published in 1896. He was a prolific author and I have twenty titles today, most purchased during that same period for less than $5.00 from the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. Their store on West 47th Street used to have a sign stating, “Wise Men Fish Here” – a sign I would have paid dearly for. I rarely see Bangs for sale today, but that has less to do with their scarcity (they were printed in large numbers) than their desirability.

In 1971 we moved to Greenwich where, within a few years, I met David Block who had just left his “real” job to open a bookstore, The Book Block, on West Putnam Avenue. David was only there a short time before moving the operation to his home in Cos Cob where he came to specialize in Americana, becoming one of the foremost dealers in the Nation. His wife, Shiu-Min, is a bookbinder – the best that I know - who not only repairs books, but who also builds boxes for books. One of my favorites is a silk lined, three quarter red leather box she built to house a copy of Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai, a copy Ms. Cheng presented me in 1990. Over the years Shiu-Min has probably repaired and built boxes for a hundred of my books. However, when David first opened the store he sold anything he found of interest. Early on, soon after meeting David in the mid 1970s when lint still lined my pockets, I received a call that he had come across about twenty-five Wodehouse first editions. The asking price of $250 seemed steep, so I asked two friends, Gerry Gold and Ed LeGard, if we might form a syndicate to buy the collection. They agreed and we did. Over the years I bought some wonderful items from David, including a copy of E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web ($140.00), the December 1863 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, which included the first publication of Edward Everett Hale’s, The Man Without a Country ($375.00), two copies of Webster’s Dictionary, published in 1828, a letter from Webster in which he refers to Henry Trowbridge, my great-great grandfather who married Noah Webster’s granddaughter and a copy of Through the Looking Glass, presented by Lewis Carroll to Edith Rose Blakemore in 1878. Edith was one of a number of young girls Charles Dodgson had known in Oxford when he wrote Alice in Wonderland.

I continue to buy books (admittedly at a lesser rate, as prices have soared), though at times paying prices that shock my native New England sensibilities. Books are in my family. My younger brother, Willard, opened the Toadstool in 1972, a bookstore in Peterborough, New Hampshire. I have long been proud of him, not only for his willingness to take risk, but also because of the small investment I made in the store at the time has compounded at just under 20% for thirty-five years. Nigel Williams, Adrian Harrington and John Suamarez Smith of Heywood Hill in London; Charles Gould in Maine; Peter Stern and the Boston Book Company in Boston; Robert Dagg and Thomas Goldwasser in San Francisco are among a host of dealers I find informative, fair and honorable. Catalogues continue to clog my mail box and provide pleasurable and informative reading. However, my preference is finding authors whom I like and whose books are reasonably priced – writers such as Beverly Nichols, George MacDonald Fraser, Jonathon Ames, John Mortimer, James Salter and Louis Begley. I agree with Otto Penzler, proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and author of “The Crime Scene”, a weekly column in The New York Sun, when he writes that some of the best fiction today is written by mystery writers, authors like Charles McCarry, John Dunning, Sarah Caudwell, Alan Furst and Robert Barnard. So I frequent book fairs in New York and out-of-the-way book shops in search of a prize or for the shear pleasure of being among books. My collection is a nice one, but has no extraordinary value except to me. The Wodehouse collection is reasonably large (about 400 items), but is missing a few items and I have close to 100 books relating to the American Civil War. I have never collected with the idea that my books would have great value, and I don’t presume they do, though the compounded returns (based upon catalogue prices) have been generous; however the original investments were pretty small. But the joy they have given me is real. The quote at the top of this essay I found in A Magnificent Farce, written by A. Edward Newton in 1921. (I bought my copy of the Newton book- a first edition - from Keith Hutchison in 1967 for $5.00.) In the book, Mr. Newton writes a sentiment that could serve as mine, “I early formed the habit of buying books, and, thank God, I have never lost it”.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"Thirty-one Hours on Mt. Washington"

Sydney M. Williams

15 Smith Neck Road
Old Lyme, CT 06371

Notes from Old Lyme
                                                                                                                                                                        August 20, 2007
Thirty-one Hours on Mount Washington

“This is the second greatest show on earth.”
                                                                                              Attributed to P. T. Barnum (1810-1891),
                                                                                              as he stood atop the old observation tower on Mount Washington

"Behind dark-towering granite
The western sun sinks red;
And evening’s silver planet
Mounts guard in Heaven instead.”
                                                                                              “Mountain Sunset”, Granite Ledges , 1943
                                                                                              William Plumer Fowler

Thirty-four years ago I took my then six year old son, Sydney, on a hike in the White Mountains. Each summer for eleven years into the early 1980s we would spend a few days in the White Mountains. We climbed thirty of the forty peaks over 4000’, staying at huts manned by student employees of the Appalachian Mountain Club. A few weeks ago, accompanied by my now forty year old son, I took his son Alex, aged six, on a similar hike. Mount Washington and the White Mountains have long held a sense of nostalgia for me. I grew up in Peterborough, in the southern part of the state, surrounded by what Henry David Thoreau refers to in Walden as the “…Peterboro hills…”, Monadnock being the largest. When I was in my very early teens my father took me to Mount Washington to ski Tuckerman’s Ravine. We stayed at Pinkham Notch Lodge, then operated by Joe Dodge.

New Hampshire has long stood for freedom and patriotism. Her license plate reads, “Live Free or Die”. Martin Luther King, in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech proclaimed, “…From the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring…” Philip Carrigain, leading an expedition in 1820, named a number of the White Mountain peaks after Presidents – north-east of Mt Washington lie Jefferson, Adams and Madison. Mount Monroe lies just to the south-west. More recent presidents also have named peaks. For example, west of Monroe is Mount Eisenhower.

In comparison to mountains around the world, Mount Washington at 6288 feet is relatively small. But its shallow height is deceptive. In 1932 the National Weather Service established the Mount Washington Observatory. As the highest in the Northeast, Washington’s peak is subject to unusual wind currents. Its summit holds the record for the strongest wind ever recorded – 231 mph on April 12, 1939. Every three days, on average, hurricane winds sweep across its peak. Eleven years ago, almost to the day we made our way to the top, the wind was measured at 154 MPH, a record for the month of July. Sixty percent of the time the peak is enshrouded in a dense fog and the temperature averages 26.5 degrees Fahrenheit. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Mount Washington was – 44 degrees Fahrenheit (with a wind chill of -103 degrees). Other than Everest, more people have died on Washington (135) than on any other mountain in the world, more than half from hypothermia. Reasons for the large number of deaths include its easy access to a large population and the fact that many people climb without proper equipment.

Sunday, July 22 proved warm and sunny. We left Pinkham Notch at 8:00AM, having had dinner the night before with an 82 year-old physicist, Ben, from Princeton, New Jersey who regularly climbs in the region. As a teen-ager in Czechoslovakia he was rescued by a British humanitarian group, which evacuated him and about a thousand other young Jewish people to England in 1938. We marveled at his luck in being evacuated and the change it brought to his life, and the contrast with the good fortune we had to be born in this country.

The first two and one half miles follows the trail skiers use to get to Tuckerman’s Ravine. It is wide, rocky and not terribly steep. About half way up we pass Ben who has decided he would climb Tuckerman’s, but probably not go to the top. We wished him well and continued, arriving a little before 10:00AM at Hermit Lake shelter. This shelter, at the base of the Ravine, appears to have replaced the lean-to, ironically called “Howard Johnson’s” by generations of young skiers. Looking up toward Tuckerman’s from the shelter, one is awed by the sight of what lies ahead. Lion’s Head is to our right and to our left is Boot Spur, down which we will descend in the morning. Dead ahead lie the steep cliffs of Tuckerman’s Ravine. The Ravine looks like half a tea cup – getting increasingly steep as it approaches the rim. We follow a narrow trail into and up the ravine. We ascend through some trees which soon become scrub. The trail steepens as we break above the tree line and we pass a lone patch of snow braving the July sun – the last bit of snow on Mount Washington. An early autumn might bring the beginnings of a new glacier, but it is unlikely that the snow will last through the “dog days” of August. It hasn’t in the past one hundred years or so and it isn’t likely this year will be any different. The final part of the climb, up the rim, is hand over hand, but we arrive before noon and the view makes the effort worthwhile. Looking back, east across the ravine, we get a panoramic view of the Wildcat ski area – another trail, accompanied by my father, I skied in pre-lift days.

Once over the rim we are less than a mile from the summit. The trail leads across the Bigelow Lawn, a rocky area that brings to mind the story of Jabez Stone of Cross Corners, New Hampshire, memorialized by Stephen Vincent Benet in The Devil and Daniel Webster: “…If stones cropped up in his neighbor’s field, boulders boiled up in his…” For the average sized person clambering over them is tiring but doable. However, for Alex, aged six, they represent a daunting challenge. But he makes it, and around 1:00PM we arrive, completing the four and one half miles in five hours. The top of Washington is unlike any other peak in the White Mountains. We are greeted by cars (the road predates the automobile) and by the cog railway, which was built in 1869. There is a snack bar, a weather station and the Tip Top House, built in 1853 as a hotel, and now a museum. The day is comfortable (temperature in the high thirty’s) with little wind and after an hour or so we descend the Crawford Path a mile and a half to the Lakes of the Cloud Hut, built in 1915 and operated since by the AMC (Appalachian Mountain Club). The Hut nestles between Washington and Monroe and we reach it in plenty of time to select our bunks, unpack, relax and get to know some of our fellow hikers, including another 82-year old from Maine.

Following a communal supper prepared and served family style by the college age “croo,” the sun gradually sinks into the western sky. The weather cools noticeably, as night creeps up the western slope. Bunks beckon and soon only the snores of hikers interrupt the stillness of slumbering mountains.

After breakfast, Sydney took Alex up Mount Monroe – a half mile to the summit giving him his second “White Mountain-over-4000-footer.” By nine we were heading down. The Camel Trail, marked by Cairns (piles of rocks), leads to the Davis Trail, which gradually descends a broad shoulder of Washington toward Boott Spur, with Tuckerman’s Ravine another mile to our left. This is one of the starkest and most beautiful places in the White Mountains, and one is almost overcome with the shear immensity of space and the barren, rock-strewn, landscape. There is an overwhelming sense of being alone in the Universe. Boott Spur Trail goes off to the left and down a very steep pitch. Beneath a darkening sky we descend toward tree line. Once there the trail, narrow and steep, drops another two, seemingly endless, miles until it finally intersects with the Tuckerman Trail a few hundred yards above Pinkham Notch. The skies, which had been threatening all morning, finally open up as we reach the car.

Thirty-one hours after we had left, the lodge came in sight and, while I did not feel exactly like Anchises, I sensed the passage of years and understood how the burden of Aeneas might one day descend upon my son. Indians native to the State knew Mount Washington as “Agiocochook,” home of the Great Spirit. As we pulled out of the parking lot, taking a last look toward its cloud covered peak, the name seemed fitting. We viewed the Mountain with respect and reverence. It draws hikers as a magnet does metal shavings. We, too, will climb it again.