Saturday, February 26, 2011

Brown Paper Bags ... Old Childhood Haunts

There are people in this world – and I’m one of them – who find some indefinable comfort in revisiting their childhoods.

I don’t know why. I’m sure there’s some deep psychological explanation that I’m just not perceptive enough to understand. I often envy people who seem able to bury their past experiences – good and bad – and soldier on in the “now.”

Yet at the same time, I feel sorry for them too. Whether it’s Roy Campanella (who said you had to have a lot of little boy in you to play Major League baseball) or John Irving (who channels childhood experiences in almost every one of his novels), I think having a working connection with your formative years is important.

But I can see where it can get to be an obsession too. And I think I came close to recently walking the boulevard at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire.

It was that day last Decmeber when it snowed for the first time this winter (I mean really snowed, not just a trace of a flake here and there). I’d gone to Maine because I wanted to get a gift certificate for the person whose name I drew in the family grab. So I drove up to Mike’s in Wells … only Mike’s was closed. There was no one near the place. So I guess golf balls will have to do.

On the way back, I drove down Rte. 1A, which takes you past the entrances to the Marginal Way, and down the coast road to York, drove along Long Sands Beach, and back out to the highway. I decided to take a detour on the way back, however, and stop by Hampton Beach, as I often do when I’m in the area.

Getting off Rte. 95 at Rte. 101, the drive to the beach/casino is relatively short and painless. I noticed it was getting grayer out there, and I saw a few flakes, but it really didn’t faze me.

When I got to the center, I didn’t recognize the place. There is this massive stimulus project going on. Part of it – I suppose – stems from the fire last March at the Surf and surrounding buildings, that just took a huge piece out of the local landscape. The damage was so severe, and so pervasive, that the place had to be razed and rebuilt.

But they didn’t stop here. Also gone is the old Chamber of Commerce building, bathhouse and bandstand. In three different locations along the strip, there are new bathhouses being built with modern amenities, and – though it’s not up yet – there’s’ supposed to be a new bandstand.

Yet across the street from all this – in stark contrast to the modernization everywhere else – is the Hampton Beach Casino, a relic from the 19th century (let alone 20th). Though it underwent some degree of upgrading in the 1970s (specifically the modernization of the ballroom, which is now called Club Casino), the building itself looks like it was erected in 1899 (it opened July 15, 1899).

I hope to God nobody decides that the Casino has seen better days, and razes it in favor of some brand, spanking new emporium. That would be a tragedy.

It’s perhaps too much to ask that the places that mean the most to the memory of your youth remain unchanged. Life is evolution. We evolve … so it shouldn’t be too much of a shock that the local geography and business climate evolve with it. But sometimes, the way things evolve can be a bit of a jolt.

Hampton Beach is very near and dear to my childhood. I only have one sister, but I grew up with 26 other cousins … and we were all close. The one thing we all had in common was that little one-story white cottage on Emerald Avenue, which is a short walk from the North Beach (when we were kids, the North beach had a big black wall … which later became a green wall … which, still later, became a cement levy).

The cottage – as structures go – was rather ordinary. There were/are better looking structures on the street (especially now). It was rectangular, with rickety front steps, a screened in porch, and a living room (with two small bedroom, separated only by curtains, branching off of it; and a small eat-in kitchen (with a third bedroom off that) with an old-fashioned gas stove and a sink that looked as if it was the first one ever made.

To get to the toilet, you actually had to go outdoors and into a small shed that was about as big as a closet (more on that later) … with an old fashioned commode. Suffice it to say, it was not the Family Reading Room some bathrooms are.

Compared to the houses where we all grew up, the cottage would probably have barely passed muster at your average summer camp. But to us, it was a museum. I thought so, anyway.

There were pictures of my grandparents when they were my mother’s age, my mother’s aunts and uncles (especially Uncle Bill and Aunt Mamie, who, in all kinds of ways, were the true founders of the feast), relics and artifacts from their era … if you have any sense of history at all, it was a wonderful look at a time that was obviously much simpler. And I’m talking about my perceptions of the place in the ‘60s! Not now.

My grandparents, Eva and Bob Cornell, owned the cottage by the time I was old enough to be conscious of it. And they rented it out to each of their seven children on a week-to-week basis. We all got a week. And God help you if that week turned out to be cold and damp (and in some years, especially if we got stuck with a week in the middle of August, the rain gods found the Krauses often).

But, you know, rain isn’t always bad. Rain meant you could explore parts of Hampton that didn’t involve North Beach, Kennedy’s fried clam stand (which, of course is long-gone … replaced by a complex that houses a Laundromat), and beach flies as big as condominiums (whose bites REALLY stung!).

You’d go to the Casino and play ski ball; or, perhaps, the old theater that was housed within the Surf, where you could catch a cheap movie.

Or, perhaps, you could visit a restaurant (doesn’t matter which restaurant, either …as they’re all gone too). Every year (not to mention in visits to see other family members during the summer), we’d go to a place on Rte. 1, just outside of Hampton proper, called Jerry’s. It wasn’t the finest cuisine, but, come on, is there any kind of summer eating that is? It was your typical seasonal seafood place … functional for its purposes, but definitely not Iron Chef material. And certainly not a palace. Even in its prime, it was a run-down looking building.

I go by the old Jerry’s edifice now, every time I go on one of my nostalgia trips to Hampton. For a while, it was some kind of bait-and-tackle place for fishing. Now, it’s just empty. And practically falling down (I wish someone would just level it, because the only thing worse than having your memories bulldozed is seeing them in a dilapidated-beyond-repair state).

Rain also brought the families closer together. I learned how to play any one of a number of card games during rainy days at Hampton, when we’d just run out of things to do. Scat is a game that requires maybe 15 cents (three nickels) to play, and that 15 cents can last about two hours if lady luck spreads the wealth around. Scat is very similar to Blackjack, for those who don’t know. Not exactly the same … but close enough.

(As an aside, I remember going to a wedding at Lake George in New York and having the same game of Scat last four hours … all with about three quarters of seed money).

There was also an old cribbage board at the cottage, and deck of cards that – and I don’t know how this ever happened – remained at 52 for all those years. You can lose a card by accident. But these cards … they were all there. My mother taught me how to play cribbage during a rainy afternoon at Hampton (I guess my sister wasn’t interested enough to learn it).

I play it well enough to beat just about everyone once in a while. But I could never beat my Uncle Rob. My mother couldn’t either, and, boy, did it ever make her mad! Uncle Rob was one lucky sonofagun when it came to cards (though he swore it was skill). My friend’s father – who could likewise wipe anyone out in cribbage with one eye closed – used to say that he could take the cards you drew and play them against the cards he drew … and still win.

But three things – above all else – stood out when it came to Hampton Beach. One was the unique way the family communicated. We’re talking about the 60s and 70s, before plastic became a household item. We’d go shopping at a grocery store in Hampton Village that still used brown paper bags. And every week, when one family began its vacation, it would find a note, written by the previous week’s guest, on a brown paper bag. The note detailed the previous week’s experiences.

Most of it was rather mundane stuff. The aunt from the previous week would, perhaps, talk about how big the waves were (they always seemed bigger at Hampton than they did at Lynn Beach), or how cold the water was (very!! I never knew what warm water was until I went to Florida while I was in college).

They might talk about the weather; perhaps the fierce thunderstorm that took place last Wednesday (I used to love sitting on the front porch of the cottage and watching the storms; the louder the better).

These brown paper bags were our lifelines. The cottage, when we were kids, didn’t have a phone. So even though we were no more than 45 miles away from civilization (meaning our homes), we were essentially cut off from modern communication.

Likewise, any TVs at Hampton had rabbit ears. There was no antenna. And certainly no cable (not that there WAS cable in the 60s). And in the early years, there was no TV, unless you brought your own.

And if you did, and you wanted to watch the Red Sox, you had to play around with the rabbit ears until you got a glimpse of a picture. Either that, or you had to wait until morning and walk to the Trading Post to buy a Boston Globe. And thus began a ritual that my sister, Jayne, and I practiced for the entire decade of the 1960s … walking to the Trading Post every morning to get milk and donuts (they had the BEST jelly donuts) .,. and a Globe.

And it used to aggravate us when the Globe – because it was obviously an earlier edition – didn’t have the final score. We could understand this if the game was on the West Coast (and there was nothing more frustrating than Hampton Beach vacations when the Sox were on the other coast). But this would happen if the Sox were in Minnesota or Kansas City (or Chicago) too. At Hampton Beach, you had to wait two days to find out how the Red Sox did, unless they were at home.

This became torture in 1967, because the week we were there, they were playing the Twins in Minnesota, and I could never catch up. The Twins, you may recall, were one of the four teams bunched together in that memorable pennant race that the Sox finally won (the Impossible Dream).

Funny, the things you remember.

The building that used to be the Trading Post still stands (though it has a different name). As a matter of fact, that side of the north strip – other than a few condos – looks almost exactly the way it did 45 years ago, when I was 12 and could walk from the cottage to the beach barefoot.

All of these comings and goings; openings and closings; hints on where to get the biggest ice cream cone; best restaurant; good places to spend a rainy day … they were all duly noted on the backs of brown paper bags. It’s really too bad no one thought to collect and save them.

My sister finally decided enough was enough, and bought a notebook to record family communication in the later years (nobody can find that, either). And this brings me to memory No. 2 of Hampton Beach. And that would be bees.

Before the family revamped the cottage in 1976 (which is when we brought the bathroom indoors), the journey to the outdoor shed involved navigating a back landing that had a thicket of bushes wrapped around a little trellis-like rail (ironic that one of my cousins designs trellises now). And within those bushes were bees. Lots of them.

Well, I call them bees. Wasps, however, is more like it. Big wasps. Menacing things that looked like they’d do a lot more than just sting you.

Those damn bees were everywhere. And apparently, one summer, one of them decided to go off and form his own family … inside the little outdoor water closet. Imagine, going into the shed to do your thing, staring up at the ceiling, and seeing giant wasps? Seriously, Stephen King could have been right at home.

Family legend has it that Uncle Howard bombed that nest with a squirt gun, and do you know? I’ll just bet he did. Uncle Howard was a Somerville police officer … a very warm, good-hearted man … who saved my life when I was five years old. Well, I thought so anyway.

As was often the case, the Krauses were up at Hampton visiting Uncle Howard, Aunt Mary and the Hallion family. The undertow got me while I was standing in the water at North Beach (read “The World According to Garp” for a hysterical take on the evil undertoad) and I got sucked under.

I panicked … as any five-year-old would. But this hand suddenly reached down, plucked me out of the water, and stood me up (I was probably crying hysterically, I’m sure), and there was Uncle Howard. The policeman (and you called him a cop at your peril; neither Mary nor Howard ever liked the word). He knew exactly what to do.

That wasn’t the last episode with the bees either. Even after we got rid of the bush, the bees, and the trellis when we expanded the cottage to put the bathroom indoors (THANK YOU!!!!!!), the displaced bees – perhaps out of spite -- stubbornly remained behind.

Fast forward about 10 or so years, early 80s, I guess. My cousin Mike was leaving after having spent a week there. He left a note in the nice, new notebook Jayne provided. The last entry in the log from my cousin is this: “I hear scratching in the ceiling. Bees?”

Most definitely bees, and my Aunt Eileen and Uncle Johnny were left to deal with them. They noticed the bees (probably the same damn wasps that used to haunt us in the gazinga) broke through one day and were flying around the kitchen.

By then, Eileen and Johnny were either close to 70 or already there. But they staved off the bees, managed to kill the nest, and even replaced the ceiling tile they had to break through to boot.

No. 3 on the list of nostalgia-inducers at Hampton is the bandstand, and to see it razed in favor of a bathhouse/complex right out of Cocoa Beach, Florida, was perhaps the most disconcerting of any changes in the local landscape I’ve seen (and believe me, there have been plenty; that place is condoed to death now. There is less and less available space).

All Krause social activity revolved around the bandstand when we were kids. My father and mother used to park themselves there and listen to the bands every night while Jayne and I played ski ball (or whatever) inside the arcades. By the mid-60s, we were old enough so they could leave us to our own devices.

Looking back, that was a pretty damn daring thing to do. Hampton Beach in the mid 60s was a biker hangout. Every night, you’d go there and see rows and rows of bikes, and leather-clad bikers, hanging out. There was at least one riot there eventually, and you had to wonder why there weren’t more.

But my parents loved that bandstand. I even played on it. I think I was 10, and had learned how to play “Calcutta” on the accordion. “Calcutta” was a song that Lawrence Welk and his band made famous in the early early 60s, so everyone knew it. It wasn’t exactly “Lady of Spain,” but, then again, what is?

Every week, there was a talent show at that bandstand, and my mother got the bright idea that I should enter it. Now please understand. My cousins are wonderful people. I’m still close with a good number of them today. Some of them might even read this, so I have to put this delicately. Let’s just say they all weren’t as enamored by Steve and his accordion as my mother was … and let’s just leave it at that.

My cousins Tom and Kevin played the guitar and had a little folk thing going (one of the guys in it later turned up as the lead singer for a local nostalgia group called “Class of ’66), and that was much cooler than the accordion. I even learned to play the guitar because I wanted to be like them. Really.

In my youth, it was “have accordion, will travel.” I brought it everywhere – though certainly not by choice. When we visited someone, out came the accordion and I had to perform.

And the cousins … oy! Many (though not all) of them would roll their eyes and snicker. In fact, one of them even said to me once, “why do you have to bring that thing down here?”

But I have to be honest. I’d have rolled my eyes and snickered too. Bad enough one of your cousins has to perform. But the accordion? If that wasn’t the true representation of “un-cool,” I don’t know what was. It reeked of Lawrence Welk, and all things my parents’ age … things that we weren’t necessarily looking to replicate.

I enjoyed playing it, because I knew – from the time I could breathe – that I liked music. I enjoyed playing music, and if the only vehicle for doing that came via the accordion, so be it. I was good with that (these days, it’s strictly piano).

But that didn’t mean I always liked playing it … or that I wasn’t aware that its presence around kids my own age often set me apart in ways that weren’t always good … at least to me. And it was kind of awkward to be thrust in the middle of someone’s living room with this clunky old accordion around me, playing classical music pieces that no one knew … or, if they did, certainly never heard played on the ol’ squeeze box.

So, I was entered in the weekly talent show. I played “Calcutta,” and didn’t win. I think it bothered my mother more than it bothered me, and that was only because I didn’t play it with any feeling (that was her favorite word), and rushed it.

Of course I rushed it. I was petrified. I was 10. Remember? Here I was, up on this stage, in front of a whole lot of strangers, playing this song. I’m amazed that I got through it, let alone rushed it. Or, maybe I rushed it because all I wanted to do was get off the stage. I don’t know.

But, as with everything else in life, as those memories grow more distant, they grow much fonder. I mean, I look back and I’m so grateful for the experience of having been forced to learn the accordion (you don’t think that was my choice, do you?).

It may have been the world’s most un-hip instrument ever, but it introduced me to forms of music I’d have never known otherwise … and that I love very much. It also makes me appreciate musicians like Buckwheat Zydeco, and other modern acts that dare use the accordion liberally.

To this day, I enjoy the type of brass bands I used to hear at the Hampton Beach bandstand. Once a year, we go to Norwood with friends of ours for a brass band outdoor concert on the common. It really, really brings me back to those days.

In later years, of course, when rock ‘n’ roll became more of a mainstream genre, there were some pretty good bands that played on that stage too. There were also very real rock bands playing at the Casino by then too (I can remember sitting on the steps leading up to the ballroom hearing the Standells playing “Dirty Water.”).

I think it was my Uncle Vin’s funeral last October when one of my cousins told me they’d torn the bandstand down. I was appalled. How could they? Even though the bandstand that was just torn down was a second-generation structure (the one I played in didn’t survive the 60s), it was still there for most of the years I went there … and for a good while afterward too. To me, it was a landmark. I still walk up there often, and I used to get a strange sense that all was right with my world when I’d go through there (even in the winter, when all the benches were bundled and tied down).

Now … you’d hardly recognize the place. It’s going to LOOK fantastic. There are four new bathhouses being constructed, each with lockers and showers so you can wash the sand off your feet after going to the beach. There will, I was assured, be a new bandstand It will, when it’s finished, be beautifully landscaped and will certainly put Hampton among the elite of east coast beaches.

The Surf is being rebuilt, and there’s other construction going on there as well. In another year or so, the place will be the Mecca it used to be for summer fun-seekers.

But for me, I’ll always remember the place as it was in a different era … with the little hotels and motels (with signs that said “ici, en parle Francais” because so many French Canadians took their vacations there). I’ll remember the family from Quebec that had the cottage next to ours one year … didn’t speak a word of English (and we didn’t speak a whole lot of French). Somehow, we all got along. They got the biggest kick when Jayne and I used to ask them, “Parlez-vous Francais?”

We called them the “Mustards,” after French’s Mustard.

I’ll remember the Murphys, who we always seemed to get as neighbors during our weeks in the summer. They came from Arlington, and their daughter, Maureen, was maybe two years younger than me, and kind of cute (though there wasn’t a whole lot I could have done about it). But one day, many years later, I was a senior at Northeastern University – strutting around as if I owned the place – when this girl stopped me.

“Hi, Steve, do you remember me?”

It was Maureen Murphy. Wow! She didn’t seem so young that day. She had a boyfriend by then, of course, and I was all-but engaged. C’est la vie (I wonder what the Mustards would say!!).

I’ll remember going up to Hampton on the old Route 1 … a ride that seemed to take an eternity … and my grandfather saying he always knew he was close to the cottage when he saw the “Old Man of Seabrook,” which was some type of advertisement of a man climbing up the side of a house.

I’ll remember being dragged to Fuller Gardens every year (I’m sure it was very nice, but any time away from the beach in those days was wasted time). I even got to see Dancer’s Image – the horse that won the 1968 Kentucky Derby, but was then disqualified for cheating (well HE didn’t cheat; his trainer did … must have been named Belichick). He was kind of an excitable horse … kicked up a fuss when he saw us, that’s for sure.

I’ll remember the family get-togethers in the back yard of the cottage, and Aunt Mary putting enough butter on my ear of corn to clog my arteries for a decade -- this after I’d told her didn’t want ANY! I stopped putting butter on my food long before it was deemed a health hazard.

I’ll remember playing whiffle ball in the side yard with the big tree in the way … going to Yoken’s in Portsmouth (gone!) … all the different ice cream stands whose cones just got bigger and bigger … the old Salisbury Beach back when it was a full-fledged amusement park … the Casino with the replica of a circus elephant on the second deck (it’s still there) … the year we went to a place called Lommazzo’s on Winnicunnet Road, and my father nearly having a stroke because Corn Flakes cost 40 cents.

I’ll remember my dad taking us to the park behind the high school at least once every year, and playing baseball with us (he was a much better ballplayer than I could have ever dreamed of being).

I’ll remember the cottage … which, for a time, Mike owned, but which has since been sold outside the family. For one week out of the summer it was home … from the time I was old enough to remember through high school. (once I got into college, school and work prevented me from joining my parents for the whole week, though I’d get there as often as possible). And the sofa-bed on the front porch was MINE! God help the person who tried to commandeer it. I read “A Prayer for Owen Meany” from cover to cover while lying on that sofa bed.

I’ll remember working with my cousins one very early Saturday morning – after a rough Friday night -- grading the yard down so we could build a driveway. We did a lot of grumbling about being there with no sleep and the after-effects of the night before still buzzing in our heads. But we were young, invincible, and we got a lot of laughs out of it too. Being around my cousins always meant a lot of laughs -- especially Howie Hallion and Jerry Fitzgerald, may they rest in peace – and that still holds true today.

I’ll remember cleaning out the crawl space beneath the cottage of old equipment that had to have gone back to the previous (19th) century. My father (God rest his soul) and I took that one on, and when it came time to bring the stuff to the dump, my father insisted on taking every item out of the car and PLACING it in nice, neat pile.

Boy, did I argue with him. It was a dump, I told him. Neatness didn’t’ necessarily count. And with insects of undetermined species buzzing all around, and the specter of rats ever-present, neatness wasn’t on my mind. Dumping the stuff and getting the hell OUT of there was the No. 1 priority.

The cottage is not white anymore. Whoever bought it painted it yellow. The cottage – like everything else – is a testament to how life changes relentlessly before our eyes, and that there is nothing we can do to stop it. We all get older, our priorities shift, our circumstances change, and a lot of what was near and dear to us slowly sinks in much the same manner as Leonardo DiCaprio did when Kate Winslet let him go in “Titanic.”

You let it go … and it just gently recedes. Except that even as you let it go, a part of it always stays behind.

Of our grandparents, their seven children, and their spouses -- the true authors of this particular nostalgia piece -- only a handful remain: My mother, her sister Ruth, Uncle Joe O’Brien (who was married to the youngest Cornell, Helen, my Godmother – or Aunt Cherub, as she was called), and Aunt Shirley (Uncle Vin’s wife). We’ve lost only two cousins (which is remarkable when you think about it, especially considering how cruelly random the vagaries of life can be) and one cousin-in-law (Jerry, who I always used to razz by telling him that old ramshackle seafood restaurant was named after him).

These were the ghosts that haunted me as I walked the entire strip, up and back. I got a good look at all the construction. I went into one of the few stores on the strip that was open, got a nice, warm cup of coffee, and asked the lady behind the counter what she thought of it all.

It was OK, she said -- probably long overdue. But she’d have preferred skywalks that crossed the street from the beach to the Casino, “because that’s why there’s always so much traffic down here in the summer. It takes you over an hour just to get down the street because of all the people milling around.”

I would agree with that. I’ve been there!

With all of this to digest, I barely noticed that it wasn’t just snowing a little. It was swirling down around me, coating the ground, and promising to make the drive back to Boston about as treacherous and as long and stressful as anything I’ve been involved with in a long time. Another story for another day.

But it does speak to how powerful those ghosts can be to me – that these memories consumed me and drew my attention away from the fact that I’d have been better off getting the heck out of there and beating the snow!

These days, I’m not so young anymore. A lot of what I claim to remember probably happened a bit differently than I’ve described, but so what? They happened in some way, shape or form, and, after all, they’re my memories of a time when I was young and confident, and the world up there was pretty much my plaything.

Back in the day, our aunts, uncles and cousins shared an almost bucolic piece of the past … both theirs and ours, as it turns out … that, for one week, got us out of the city environment or its surrounding suburbia and into an atmosphere that was almost rural and other-worldly.

And I think those of us from our generation have – as much as we might have kicked and fussed about it when we were kids – tried to replicate that closeness in our own ways … maybe not with the help of a cottage that became, to many of us, a shrine; but certainly with other unbreakable bonds and customs.

Through the years, it has become more and more evident that Hampton has become just another Massachusetts border town whose No. 1 export is a beach. Whatever magic held us captive all those years has long disappeared in the plethora of condos, shopping centers and tattoo parlors. There’s no time for nostalgia in today’s world. Cities and towns have to keep themselves solvent any way they can.

But I cannot begin to describe how spending my formative years in a place that was as much a relic of the past as it was a vacation spot has affected me. I am drawn like a magnet to any place that holds reminders of what came before.

One of the reasons I loved going to that wedding in Lake George, held at a mansion in Bolton’s Landing called “the Big House,” is that there were all sorts of reminders in that house of people who had lived and died there long, long ago. It spoke of the type of historical continuity – or, as I like to call it, linear history -- that always just tugged at me because of my association with that cottage at Hampton Beach.

Linear history is something you don’t learn in school. History isn’t just a series of disconnected events on which you get tested. History is a living, breathing concept, and we get the best feel for it not out of a book, but in experiencing – in real time if we can – the gifts our ancestors gave us. And being in that cottage (and also being in “The Big House”) always made me wish that I could transport myself back to the eras they represented, walk around a little, and experience them first-hand.

Progress – even necessary progress – has its price. Today, Hampton Beach is not in any way an easy escape into the past. It is more of the same. And as much as I understand the hows and whys, I still find it kind of sad at the same time.

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