Connecticut News Story

September 14, 1999 Old Lyme

Walking along the boardwalk at the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Marine and Fisheries Headquarters, one could easily forget this peaceful riverfront property was once the home of a landmark shoreline restaurant and banquet hall called Ferry Tavern.

The use of the property changed forever in a flash fire that ended more than 100 years of tradition when it ignited on the evening of Jan. 23, 1971. The fire leveled Ferry Tavern, an establishment that many area residents still remember fondly.

Ferry Tavern was the last and most successful of a series of establishments on the site at the end of Ferry Road, which for decades was also home to a ferry service across the river between Old Lyme and Old Saybrook. Many passengers on the steamboats that plied the Connecticut River in the late 19th century would order dinner and drinks at the tavern.

The tavern’s oldest section was built in 1835. The building expanded to three stories and developed a reputation as a speakeasy for bootleggers and gamblers during the 1920s and 1930s. It was severely damaged in the great hurricane of September 1938 and stood vacant for the next eight years.

The arrival of Joseph Viveiros, a native of the Portuguese Canary Islands and World War II veteran of the Bataan Death March, began the glory years of Ferry Tavern. Viveiros and his brother, James, purchased the tavern in 1946 and quickly turned it into one of the most popular restaurants in the state.

Ferry Tavern was hopping from the late 1940s into the 1960s, with patrons arriving by boat and car. Open year-round, the tavern hosted hundreds of weddings, employed more than 100 people, and often served more than 1,000 dinners in a single night. It was cited by Life magazine in 1957 as one of the five best restaurants in New England.

Former employees, such as former Old Saybrook First Selectman Larry Reney, say Viveiros was a great boss. Reney said he was offered a beer and hired on the spot as a waiter when he asked Viveiros for part-time work in 1958 to supplement his salary as a new social studies teacher in the Old Saybrook school system.

“You didn’t work for him, you worked with him,” Reney said. “It was a fun place.” Alice Stannard, an 83-year-old Old Lyme resident and my aunt, said her 15 years as a waitress at Ferry Tavern were the best of her working life. “Joe Viveiros was so good to us, it was just like an extended family,” she said.

Viveiros sold the tavern in 1969 to two New York City men, Eric Klingvall and Tony Goncalves. He continued to live in Old Lyme and later ran the Castle Inn in Old Saybrook before his death in the late 1970s.

Business slowed for Klingvall and Goncalves during 1970. According to published reports, the two partners, who are now dead, had reduced their insurance coverage of the building and were thinking of closing for the winter in the weeks before the fire.

Alice Stannard, who was working at the tavern the evening of the fire, recalled spotting smoke coming from an electric socket only minutes before the second floor burst into flames. According to one account, the fire was reported by the man stationed in the control room of the nearby railroad bridge.

Firefighters from Old Lyme, Lyme, Old Saybrook, Flanders Village and Niantic fought a losing battle with the blaze through the winter night. The next day, Ferry Road was jammed as hundreds of former patrons drove by to view the ruins. The 12-acre property became a bone of contention for Old Lyme officials in the years after the fire.

Plans for a $5 million condominium, restaurant and marina complex were blocked by the zoning commission in 1973. Acquisition of the property by the state was delayed for nearly a decade after former Gov. Ella Grasso, a summer resident of Old Lyme, blocked a $575,000 appropriation to purchase the site that had been approved by the State Bond Commission in December 1974.

The state acquired the property in 1986, paving the way for construction of the DEP facility and boardwalk, completed in 1992.

The Ferry Tavern – Memories

There once was a time when people from elsewhere associated the Town of Old Lyme with Artists, the Congregational Church, Duck Hunting, Barbizon Oak, Sound View Beach, and of course the old inn, the Ferry Tavern. The river ferry was supplanted by a bridge but the old tavern building still served townspeople and nostalgics who remembered. Ferry Tavern boasted a bar, a restaurant and a hotel mostly for newlyweds and other romantics. I can remember the ceiling of one room plastered with dollar bills.

My family had been living in Westchester County, New York, about 100 miles to the west. I needed a place to stay when I was duck hunting and certainly the Ferry Tavern was close to Great Island on the Connecticut River and nearby the protected Lieutenant River meadows were perfect when the weather was really bad. Accommodation for my big Labrador Retriever was easily resolved by the Ferry Tavern room clerk who simply said, “Once you register for your room, we don’t care who you sleep with.” And this is how I first became acquainted with the culture of Old Lyme. Hunting was good.

The dog and I were comfortable with the room and within a few years my wife Edith and our four daughters all moved to Old Lyme, having bought the home of Anstruther Clifford from his son Arthur. This house on Whippoorwill Road had been the home of Arthur for the previous twenty-five years, but everyone in these parts called it, still called it, “Anstruther’s house.” Later we moved to Duck River Lane off McCurdy Road. I bought that house from Mrs. Blanche Craven but neighbors told me that is properly known to be Mrs. Shartell’s place. When I inquired if it would ever be my house the answer was, “Never.”

Well, anyway our eldest child eventually came home from college with a degree and an engagement ring. Her name is Edith Ann, daughter of Edith May, who was the daughter of Edith Haradon. So we had a church wedding and a reception party – dinner – at the Ferry Tavern on December 27, 1970. A good time was had by all and then on January 23, 1971, the Ferry Tavern burned to the ground. There was plenty of nearby water, water wasn’t the problem, the problem was communication. No guests or employees were staying at the Inn that night of the fire and there were no nearby occupied homes to sound an alarm.

The first to report the fire was the Connecticut River railroad bridge tender, I believe his name was Schmittberger. He called using his railroad telephone reporting to his rail boss, located, I believe in Clinton. The bridge tender identified himself and said, so I’m told, “Structure fire. Foot of Ferry Road.” Certainly cryptic but remember, this was not strictly railroad business. The railroad dispatcher then on the Bell System Telephone called the Saybrook Fire Department and reported the message. Probably ten minutes elapsed before the first responder called back that the fire was on the east side of the river, Lyme. So Saybrook called Lyme and the Lyme dispatcher inquired, “Elys Ferry Road or Brockways Ferry Road?” and Saybrook replied, “No, that’s Old Lyme, do you need their number?”

Well, by the time Old Lyme finally arrived at the scene the old building was fully involved. We put some water on it, but the building was past saving.
After the embers had cooled, who shows up at our house but one of the owners of the Ferry Tavern, he was relatively new in town. New in Town means that he had no ancestor living here 300 years ago. He presented me with a very detailed bill and I remarked that he could be so precise. He said that fortunately he took all those records to his home, hence they didn’t burn. I paid him in full. He then remarked that this was the third time that he lost his business in a fire.

Now the property is part of a State Marine Fisheries facility.

Ceramics in Cebu

I was, during the Second World War, a Naval Officer in the Pacific serving on a 4000-ton transport, delivering troops to battlegrounds. The ship was furnished with two dozen landing boats, the ones with the ramp in front. The ramps would be lowered onto a beach to permit the soldiers and their vehicles to go ashore where there were no docks or piers. The landings we made in Cebu were in an established port city but with undamaged infrastructure. We were tied up at a pier and so didn’t need the landing boats. Man and material got on land without any help from our boats. So, for me as a landing boat officer as one might expect, I was on holiday. But no, over the shipboard public address system the watch officer announced that the presence of Mr. Roberts was required in the captain’s cabin. Generally, he called me because his toilet was plugged up or because he needed another mahogany sea chest to ship home some souvenirs to his family.

So, I appeared at his cabin, was let in by the Marine guard and then the Captain seated me and shut the door and told me in all confidence that I was from a ceramic college and that Portland cement was a ceramic product and that there was a whole silo of the stuff only two blocks from our ship and that the just-departed Japs told the Filipino stevedores that the silo of cement was laced with explosives – enough to blow up the entire city of Cebu if they so much as touched it.

I listened, enthralled, until he said, “Now, you go to that silo and you tell those [deleted to be politically correct] that you are from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred and you know that the cement will not blow up and further, if they don’t move that stuff right now, all of them will be promptly either shot or hung.”

Well, the cement was promptly moved and it did not explode. Apparently, someone lied a little. That’s how wars are won. Soon afterward, General Douglas MacArthur returned – just like he said he would.

Mervin (Hat) Roberts
AU ’47, Glass Technology

Old Lyme Historical Society Lecture

Old Lyme Historical Society – August 20, 2018

It’s something of a surprise to me that I’m still alive.  Really and truly.  I’ve been shot at by a genuine angry Indian when I was about 16 years old and again by Japs in World War II.  Then too I capsized a fishing boat in the Atlantic surf and suffered two bouts of pneumonia from breaking through thin ice in Jamaica Bay, Long Island.  Also I collected female black widow spiders for a curator at the Bronx Park Zoo, but never got bitten.

So now I’m in something of a hurry to tell my story before my luck runs out. 

For about 90 years I’ve been driven mostly by several forces.  I don’t mean things like gravity, or wind, or economics, or solar power, but rather things that impinge on my mind.  Simply put, those things are curiosity, challenge, helping people and righting wrongs.   So here and now I will try to recount the life I’ve led during which those principles guided the choices I made.

It wasn’t until Bob DiNapoli suggested this talk that I realized that at each turning point in my life I consistently followed the same pattern.  Surely others of us, possibly all of us, have patterns but like fingerprints we, even twins, are not quite exactly alike.

My thanks to Bob, a brother firefighter, for opening the door when he suggested that I wasn’t making random movements but that I was consistent in my niche.

Here then is the story of how I got through nine decades without inherited wealth or even working for a living.  These latest 60 years in Old Lyme have been great.  I thank the people of this Town for all the wonderful things done for me and my family.  I can only hope that you enjoyed me as much as I enjoyed you.

Yes, I did work but no, I didn’t work for a living.

Do I recommend this lifestyle for everyone?  Positively not.  Our civilization still needs people to medicate us and deliver the mail and govern, and others who also hone their various skills for the long haul. 

I represent only a small segment of the population who make ourselves useful by deliberately looking for opportunities to apply a skill, a technology, an art from one discipline or culture to improve the quality of life in another.

The rest of my story will include examples of how I avoided employment in any job that called on me to do the very same thing repeatedly.

To begin, let’s start when I was about four years old.  I had a tricycle and I inadvertently ran over a two-inch soft shelled turtle.  What I saw left me astounded, curious, curious why the inside of the turtle did not look like its outside.  Outside it was a turtle but inside it was blood and guts and bone.  This was a revelation that I still recollect.

On another occasion, when I should have been in a high school study hall, I walked into a nearby tidemarsh and saw in the water what looked like a horse’s black tail.  It waved like a tail would wave but it was not connected to a horse, it waved as it propelled itself slowly up the tidal creek behind my high school.  A few minutes’ scrutiny satisfied me that I was watching a school of a few thousand young black eels fresh from the Sargasso Sea, swimming up that tidemarsh creek.

I was hooked.  This encounter was a turning point in my life.  Natural History would be my Polaris, my North Star.  Fortunately, there was a challenge here that 80 years later remains an intriguing puzzle, a challenge.  Today there are Doctors of Philosophy who still cannot agree on the life history of that Atlantic eel.

In the meantime, my father fretted that I wasn’t aiming myself to earn a living.  I had a boat and I fished and sold my catch to local markets but for him this was just a Sunday avocation and not like being a doctor or a lawyer or a stockbroker or a teacher.  He was in the glass business and so I would study glass and thus support myself.  So, I went to the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred and studied glass.  I became familiar with the Periodic Table and learned also to shoot a rifle and to shoe a horse and to cast a dry fly for trout.  The glass course was easy and didn’t interfere with my part-time work in a dairy and keeping a barn with two or three horses and a sled and a buggy.  The horses came from the ROTC (Reserve Officers) Remount Service at Cornell University.  They cost about $165 each.  Barn rent was five dollars a month and a bale of bright timothy hay cost a dollar or less, delivered.

Immediately after Pearl Harbor, I enlisted and again, a turning point.  An interviewing Naval Officer didn’t know what Ceramics was, but I knew that if he knew I would end up for the war in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, I’d still be there today still testing firebrick.  This would, in my way of thinking, be a mistake, a wrong turn.  I would be doing just one thing, repeatedly.   So I truthfully volunteered that I could operate a small boat in the surf and lo, I ended up exactly where I wanted to be as a Boat Officer on a U S Navy ship.  This was an APA in the Pacific.  APA stands for Auxiliary Personnel Amphibious and we carried assault troops and about two dozen landing craft, the ones with the hinged ramp in front.

While I was on that ship we were engaged in active, lethal combat twice, once in the Philippines and once in Okinawa.  We shot guns at the Japs and they shot at us, but for me there was the added excitement of visiting places I could otherwise only read about.

My roommate was from Newark, New Jersey, and he had been studying geology at the School of Mines in Bozeman, Montana.  We walked over tropical island beaches together and he lectured on how the earth was formed.  Later he became a curator of Paleontology at the Smithsonian Institution.  We hated the Captain and disliked the Executive Officer but both of us performed well in spite of them.

I was in uniform for four years and a week.  I have an Honorable Discharge but now I realize that while I was an officer, doing my job, I violated Navy Regulations with acts that, if prosecuted, were court martial offenses.  In other words, I was a successful misfit. 

  • The Army Captain with a hole in his shoe and how I learned to drive.  This was during the battle for Okinawa.  We were assaulting an unprotected beach.  The Japanese were waiting for us several miles inland.  There were more Japanese on the beach in Coronado. California, than on the beach we were attacking.

The Army Captain climbed down the net from the ship into my boat. I already had his Jeep and his staff of three or four enlisted men aboard.  We cast off and headed for the beach.  Then he announced to me that he had a bullet hole in his shoe and I was to take him back to the ship.  I announced that I was en route to the beach and that the Army would take care of him.  In hitting the beach, his crew ran off and he hobbled away.  Then I realized that his Jeep was still on my boat.  This was a beach landing.  How could I come back to the ship with a Jeep on board?   My crew were busy. Coxswain at the wheel, gunner with his weapon, signal man with his radio and flags, and the bowman to raise the ramp.  Then I realized that I was the designated hitter but in my life I had never, but never, driven an automobile.  A horse and buggy, yes, but an auto never.  My crew advised me, and I got that Jeep onto the beach.  I had just learned to drive.

  • Captain’s head.  Throughout the ship the boatswain’s pipe and voice called for Mr. Roberts to Report to the Captain’s cabin.  Too often it was because his toilet was plugged and had backed up.  I would show up with a shipfitter, equipped with a plunger and a snake. It seems that the captain had a case of piles and would flush the cotton wads down his toilet where they often plugged the overboard discharge to the sea.  Since I was Construction and Repair officer, the shipfitters and plumbers were part of my division.  This went on for several months and finally, my patience exhausted, on a dark and stormy night, I had my men sling a boatswain’s chair over the side of the ship and with an oxyacetylene torch I had a sailor burn an oversize hole in the exit flange of the Captain’s sewage discharge line.  Now the gobs of cotton would flow, uninterrupted, into the broad Pacific Ocean.  Problem solved.  I’m sure the old Chief Petty Officers knew what I had done but I was equally sure that they got to be Chiefs by knowing what to keep to themselves. 

You see, U.S. Naval Regulations clearly state that the hull is sacrosanct and is not to be altered in any way without written approval from the Bureau of Ships in Washington, some thousands of miles away from my Captain and his piles.  This, if reported, would have been a court martial offence for me.

  • 5” – 38 Gun Rack.  My ship had a 5-inch, 38 caliber gun on the fantail.  It could fire anti-aircraft shells nearly four miles.  These shells were available in several forms.  There were:
  •  armor piercing, high explosive incendiary tracer (commonly known as HEIT),
  • proximity and timed explosive.

One never knew in advance which shell was appropriate.  They were stored below deck and delivered one at a time by elevator.  Some ships were furnished with racks on deck so the gunner could choose the appropriate projectile.  Certainly the elevator could not anticipate.  Destroyers and other assault ships had these racks installed in shipyards, bolted down to the deck, close by the gun.  We did not qualify.

I was in Hawaii, having learned by this time how to drive, and I ended up visiting a Navy Supply Depot, where I met another young officer.  As we chattered, I happened to mention that we had this gun but there was no rack for shell selection.  He said, “Like this?” and within five minutes he had one on the bed of my Jeep.  With my thanks and no paperwork I had it quietly brought aboard my ship and, with holes we bored in the deck, I had it bolted down and painted all by the light of the moon.  I told no one.  No one asked.  The rack helped that gun shoot down a kamikaze but again Navy Regs were bypassed in drilling those holes in the deck without permission.  A court martial offence.

  • Struck a man.  Then there was a time when in the heat of battle one of the twelve men serving a twin Bofors 40 mm antiaircraft gun froze at his post. He was an ammunition passer in the crowded confines of the gun enclosure.  No one could get around him.  I slapped his face, hard, and he came out of his trance and continued to function.  I told the Executive Officer immediately after the action ended.  He said, “If he doesn’t complain, let’s forget it.” For an officer to strike a sailor is a court martial offence.
  • At Okinawa I turned my flotilla about during a fake assault on a non-existent enemy and probably saved some American lives. The water was really rough and the boats were taking on water.  My little flotilla of five boats was part of a deception to confuse the Japs at Okinawa about which beach we were going to attack.  It was sort of silly because they were not defending their beaches, they were entrenched several miles inland.  I had my boats put about before the order was issued to cease the fake assault, another Court Martial offence.
  • Portland Cement Silo The captain called me to his cabin. Usually it was because he wanted another mahogany sea chest or because his toilet was plugged, but this time he had me shut the door and sit down.  He then proceeded to tell me that I was a ceramic engineer.  I acknowledged the same.  Then he told me that Portland cement was a ceramic product, and again I acknowledged the accuracy of his statement. Then he told me that there was a whole silo of Portland cement only two city blocks from where we were tied up in Cebu City, Philippines.  Furthermore, he told me that the Filipino stevedores said that the departing Japanese told them that the cement was laced with explosives and if we tried to use it, the whole port would blow up.

Now, I was to go to that silo and tell them that I came from a ceramic college and I knew that the cement was perfectly safe to use and furthermore, if they refused to load it, they would be either shot or hanged.

Then I left and there was no explosion.  Apparently, someone lied a little.

  • And there was a firetruck in 1944 that needed help, also in Cebu.  I got permission to take my entire division of artificers ashore to buy each man a beer or two.  The ship was moored to a pier and no small boats were involved.  While ashore we came upon a neglected, American fire truck.  We spent about a day going over that truck, got it running and pumping.  I was elected Honorary Fire Chief of Cebu City for the day and they had a party and roasted a pig.  A day later triumphant General MacArthur made his return.

Oh yes, one more example of this category of correcting wrongs was played out in San Diego – Coronado, California, when I was babysitting about 120 men who eventually would form the boat group of our ship still being built in Marin County near San Francisco.  The other boat group officers had already been moved to the ship, but I remained with the enlisted men at Coronado for about a month.  We continued to train and drill with boats in Coronado’s surf.  I also had a girlfriend about 12 miles away in Tijuana, Mexico, an exotic dancer.  She mailed my mother her picture, partly behind a fan.  That romance was promptly terminated.  During that month whilst I was the only commissioned officer I got to know those hundred or so men.  Then were not cyphers or ratings, they were real live people with all the weaknesses and all of the strengths that one might find in any group of sailors.  There were a few drunks who got violent and petty thieves and deviates.  I was sure that I didn’t want any of them on my ship when push came to shove.  When after that month with them and no other officers nearby, there came a time when I alone knew our time of departure to the ship.  I got permission for the commander of the Coronado Amphibious School to give the men some liberty before departure and I issued to each man individually his liberty paperwork so that the Shore Patrol would not harass them.  For the troublemakers I added another forty-eight hours and told no one.  I’m sure that the old Chief Petty Officers knew what I had done but I knew that they got to be Chiefs by knowing when to be quiet.

So we got to San Francisco with five men missing and they were replaced by five from a pool at Treasure Island which the Navy had established for just such contingencies.

What I had done was consistent with my lifestyle but still a court martial offence if someone had investigated.

Enough of the Navy.  Please now let me take a moment to clear up the title of this talk.  I was initially asked to bring you up to date on the estuary but after about forty years of that from me, I’m sure there isn’t much you don’t already know.  For those who want their admission fee refunded I would mention the names of several nearby streams.  Perhaps this will suffice.  You have heard about Mile Creek, Three Mile River, Four Mile River and Eight Mile River.  Did you realize that all those distances are measured from the mouth of the Connecticut?

It was my brother firefighter and old friend, Bob DiNapoli, who said, “Say something else that may be of more interest to you.  It was he who suggested that I shift gears for this talk.  And any more about the Navy would probably lead to a Court Martial.  In brief, I was a successful misfit.  Let me go on with the themes of curiosity, challenge, helping people and righting wrongs.

Another of my driving forces took place in Old Lyme.  Our first home was on Whippoorwill Road and while I was photographing frogs, I encountered Dr. Warren McCulloch. He was associated with MIT and the Rockefeller Foundation (I think) and was studying what the eye tells the brain.  Soon my photos began to merge with his studies and my work ended up on the centerfold of Das Tier, the animal magazine, and the cover of American Museum of Natural History Magazine.

Later we moved to another part of Old Lyme and I met another neighbor, Bonde Johnson.  He put me to work seining fishes in the Connecticut River and counting those entrapped in power plant cooling water intakes in order to determine the effect of warm water discharge on the biota of the Connecticut River.

Then there was Peter Karter, who wanted to recycle container glass which is worth more if it is all of the same color. So for him I invented a color sorter to do that.

And about that time, Edith and I had been playing bridge with Stu and Maggie Adamson on Library Lane, and Stu asked me to look into a problem of accounting for all the items that go into a submarine, and I was able to create an integrated ship’s library using the IBM computer in Groton that had some idle time in its schedule. This was when at Electric Boat they were using cardboard punch cards with steel rods to record data.  It worked. 

In my spare time I continued to write and photograph fishes and pet animals for T.F.H., a publisher of pet books, and be useful in Town Government mostly with Conservation and the Fire Department and publishing the Town Report.  This brought me into contact with the then highest ranking uniformed officer in the Connecticut State Police, who was getting close to retirement, Jim Rice.  He invited me to run with him for the Board of Selectmen.  We ran and governed together for ten years, and I had a ball.  I would get feed-back from the Barber Shop and the Firehouse and he from the Country Club.  We made a good team.

Then there was Mrs. Margaret John Crosby Brown, who kept the Florence Griswold Museum alive.  She would invariably call me when it rained to save the Griswold Toy Museum which was then located in the attic of that stately old building.  The roof leaked a little, but only when it rained.

H. Perry Garvin got me to cut meat in his summer store at Hawks Nest and we often ended the day by catching bluefish in Long Island Sound.

There was always something to do.  Willard Huntley had me deliver Christmas packages for the U.S. Post Office and the Selectmen had me monitor the mosquito spray for home owners who did not want to be so treated.

Oh, yes, Roger Grover gave me a position as a substitute teacher which lasted until I was told that I would have to join the union.  I refused to join.  There are still people in town who recollect how I taught them how in a right triangle a2 + b2 = c2.  I still have no idea why anyone might care. 

This talk inspired me to take another look at life, especially mine.  I recently learned that a healthy human harbors over a pound of commensal and symbiotic and parasitic organisms in his or her gut.  Without them the digestion of food would be difficult or even perhaps impossible.  We depend on them, we got them from our mother’s milk.  So it is also with society, the exceptions are so uncommon that novelists use them as centerpieces for their stories.  One that perhaps all of you know is the story of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe.  Again, we see an example of the dependence of people on other people.  Without the other castaway the story would fall apart.  Of course, the very thing first that comes to my mind is that it takes two of us to tango.

Now that we have the system of civilization running smoothly for these many tens of thousands of years we can afford a few outliers who depend on the inertia of others, so they can function usefully by picking up loose ends, finding analogies, righting wrongs, applying arts and technologies from one discipline to another or just satisfying curiosity.  This then has been part of my life and, for me, it paid off.  

I believe I’ve earned my keep not as a parasite or a plagiarist or by depriving another person of a job, but by fitting the pieces together in ways that others may have missed. 

An example from my childhood remains.  I was raised on the Atlantic shore of Long Island and learned to walk on its beaches.  The tides and what they alternately exposed and covered were second nature to me.

Now, twice a year in May and again in November a small relative of the codfish would appear.  This is the Whiting (Merluccius bilinearis) and it generally weighs less than a pound.  It comes to the beaches to feed on other still smaller fishes and sometimes in its feeding frenzy it will strand itself on a gently sloping sandy beach.  Now some beaches are irregular, there are nooks and crannies commonly called sand bars and tidal pools.

Well, I knew them like the back of my hand and I knew that on an outgoing tide some of those Whiting would be trapped and left when the wave that had supported them suddenly disappeared into the sand.  So it was that I could catch more of these fish that I could carry home and I would pile up the surplus for other beachcombers to glean.

I learned early on how I could exploit my familiarity with a natural process (the tide) and make something useful out of it.  This stayed with me all these years and I think it helps explain how I got here.

Now, one more time, turn the page.  Edith and I were living in White Plains, New York, with four daughters and I was a misfit writing for McGraw Hill on “Factory”, their flagship magazine where every month I did the cover story.  I never really felt comfortable.  For example, there was a senior editor who did a column on maintenance (like what I did in the Navy).  He called the work preventative maintenance and one day I asked him why he didn’t simply call it preventive maintenance.  Soon thereafter they fired me.

By this time in my life I was as busy as I wanted to be writing and illustrating pet books for Tropical Fish Hobbyist, a New Jersey pet publisher.  I could live anywhere, and so inquiries led me to Old Lyme because it was between New York and Boston and it was a place where I could tread tidemarshes and hunt ducks.  Here I discovered it wasn’t what you knew but for me it was who you knew.  This then is part of my message – the part about righting wrongs and just being helpful.

My point in this long windy story is that if you have not invested in a costly specialized profession like dentistry or tax law and you are willing to try something else, Old Lyme might well be the place to be.

Certainly it has been for me, and oh, yes, I neglected to mention Fire Chaplain, Church Trustee and Property Chairman, Conservation Commissioner, Shellfish Commissioner, Justice of the Peace, Aquarium Builder, Aquaculture Consultant, and animal husbandry adviser to the Catholic Bishops of Alleppey and Pathanamitta, Kerala, India.  Edith and I were married for 60 years and had six children.

4090 words


Another part of my recent life is tied to being an advisor to a benevolent organization in Bar Harbor, Maine.  There a number of wealthy Americans had in common a law firm to whom they entrusted their giving in order to retain their privacy.  I was one of several specialists who would look into requests for help to assure that there was a real need which could be alleviated with a supervised jump start.  No entitlements were envisioned. 

One took me to Manaus, Brazil, 800 miles up the Amazon River from the Atlantic Ocean.  There by appointment with a clergyman I was to visit a leper colony where the residents, 4200 of them, were reduced to eating garbage, sponsored by an organization in Minneapolis.

With Edith, I flew to Manaus from Florida – one flight per week each week.  In Manaus, I visited with a Chinese PhD ichthyologist who I knew. He knew that a quarter century previous there was in fact a leper colony but that it was closed because leprosy if treated is not contagious. 

Sure enough the local clergyman took us to the site of the colony and sure enough it was intact but deserted.  Where were those 4200 lepers reduced to eating garbage?  I eventually found two; one missing part of his nose and the other part of an ear.

When after a day of looking at the abandoned colony I asked about the people the reverend said Tomorrow.  Well, tomorrow never came.  His Bishop sent him off to a town 1000 miles away.  When would he return?  Answer: “The day after you leave.”  To my knowledge money is still flowing through Minneapolis to support those lepers but not from Bar Harbor.

20 August 2018

After I delivered my prepared talk to the Historical Society, I responded to two from the audience.  I think they deserve to be recorded here.  The first was about the future of volunteers in the Old Lyme Volunteer Fire Department.  I said I had been active for fifty years and I am convinced that if we ever have paid drivers or some other combination of volunteer and paid membership it will lead to a 100% paid membership and a loss of Town camaraderie, and a tremendous load on our taxes.  Incentives for volunteers – yes.  Combined service – no.

The other question from the floor concerned what really happened in Newtown, CT, where all these innocents were killed by that young man. 

This, I opine is not a firearms issue but rather a social issue.  That young man was clearly mentally unstable, and he lived in a town where the three largest buildings were masonry, institutional structures with barred windows.  They had been built and some were still used to house people who had been legally committed for criminal acts associated with mental instability or were diagnosed with insanity.

The young man who killed his mother and her friend and all those school children saw those buildings every day and knew that his mother and her friend were planning to have him committed for his developing violent insanity.  There was a date certain, in the near future, and he was aware.  I, as a fire chaplain, was invited to participate in the funeral of the deceased and I did, in uniform. Then, afterward, I visited a town coffee shop. Still in OLFD uniform.  Most of the other people in the shop were locals, talking among themselves about what had transpired.  I was the fly on the wall.  Briefly, what I heard was that the former residents of those barred buildings had been recently released from custody but were obligated to live nearby and to go periodically to a clinic by government bus, where each would be given a carefully prescribed dose of pills to take in order to cause them to act like normal, healthy people.  Immediately that they got their individually prescribed dose and while still on the bus, many were seen trading the drugs with each other.

In that manner the cost for incarceration and the stigma of being jailed would no longer be a burden on society.

This was not, in my mind, a matter of firearms, but rather a matter of a social reform gone astray.

2016 Milestones So Far



I’m now well into my 95th year and haven’t yet heard the owl call my name. Whispers, hints, suggestions – yes, but marching orders, dated tickets or scheduled events – no. Oh yes, just one scheduled event. I’ve asked the Old Lyme Fire department to transport my remains to the Lily Pond section of the Duck River Cemetery, when my time comes, on the bed of the Ward – La France firetruck.

Actuaries have me in their sights and funeral parlors, nursing homes and retirement retreats all clamor for my attention. On the other hand, I still get asked to offer eulogies for friends far younger than I. How does this come to pass? I don’t know but I do speculate.

First, I never participated in contact sports. Second, I never in the last 60 years or so worked for a living. Yes, I did work but only to satisfy a curiosity or better explain something or tell an interesting story or to help some people in need or to correct an injustice.   These were the challenges.

How I resolved them was, I realize now, the force that motivates me to keep going. I do believe that were I to do nothing I could easily be nothing. That is to state that for me life without a challenge, a goal, is not worth the effort – and at my age the very effort of getting through ‘til tomorrow is a considerable effort.

I’m glad to note that our culture takes note of what others did and saw and contemplated on. I’m glad it gets recorded and I’m sad that we, most of us, don’t have the time or inclination to read, or listen to, what we have inherited.

Mervin at the Rockefeller Garden
Memorial Service for Douglas Chapman
Seal Harbor, Mt. Desert Island, Maine
August, 2016

Wastewater in Old Lyme Connecticut

With my growing family, my wife and I moved to Old Lyme over fifty-five years ago. Then it was another coastal town with a stable year-round population and a large vacationer transient group who came here to enjoy the Long Island Sound shoreline beaches for about ten to twelve weeks in summertime. Many of these visitors scheduled their time here to mesh with summertime school vacations. Some owned cottages, others rented for a week or two, and others for the season. These cottages were clustered to be within walking distance of the sound. The average family had but one car which the husband used to go to work, and he would drive to the shore only on weekends.

One example of such a cluster of cottages in Old Lyme was aptly named White Sand Beach. The sand was dug from borrow pits on Buttonball Road, about a mile inland from the shore. It was fine, white, and free of clay or soil. The developer of this community spread this sand on top of a salt hay Spartina marsh. Now, Spartina grass is nice to look at but doesn’t lend itself to beach recreation. This beach community, and others like it, were frequently state chartered beach associations with enumerated powers and responsibilities. The developer provided paved roads and summer potable water from upland wells. Water delivery was limited to summer, and many pipelines were hardly buried or were not buried at all. Winter ice was not a problem since these pipelines were all drained annually when the summer season ended. It didn’t matter since the occupants were gone and would not return until the following June. This pattern repeated itself in several Old Lyme chartered beach associations.

Septic waste disposal was primitive in many instances. Cottage house lots were rarely large enough to support a conventional septic tank and a leach field plus a reserve leach field. Some were simply a punctured 55 gallon steel drum that then drained quickly into the ground. Mother Nature sustained this insult for only ten or twelve weeks a year, but as the years rolled by – new technologies and new lifestyles put new loads on the natural remediation processes. Better roads, more autos, longer vacations, and disposal garbage grinders all contributed to additional loading on these already inadequate septic systems.

The thin layer of white sand over a mat of roots and dead Spartina grass and marsh muck is not the ideal soil for aerobic digestion of human waste. Smells of anaerobic decomposition would come and go, and sometimes the wastewater would actually erupt on the ground around a cottage.

The beach communities limped along in part because there were no drinking water wells near these failing wastewater “systems”. Remember, potable water was piped in. Sanitarians knew how to correct the problems, but other forces were also in play. In Old Lyme our Registered Sanitarian, operating under the rules of the Connecticut State Health Code and inhibited by rules from the State Department of Environmental Protection, had few legal tools to combat pollution. One attempt was by stamping the land records with the words “Summer Use Only”, but after several years, a court found the procedure to be invalid.

As time went on, land values rose, and those summer cottages on postage stamp lots continued to be enlarged, and insulated, and heated, and occupied for longer and longer periods.

Concurrently, several other things were taking place. The State Legislature created a Department of Environmental Protection, and gave them a blank check for jurisdiction over sewage treatment plants. Also, they were granted power to regulate wastewater discharges of over 5000 gallons per day. The State Health Department retained its control over small flows, but they were restrained from any treatment except the passive septic tank-leach field arrangement. Furthermore, the DEP also assumed powers over what they called “areas of special concern” and thus claimed jurisdiction over a neighborhood. Also, they claimed jurisdiction over all wastewater treatment which employs modern technology. The Health Department must restrict itself to the passive septic tank-leach field treatment. Now both of our neighbor states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, permit technology which by aeration and circulation, a home septic system could accommodate greater loads. This may not be done in Connecticut according to the DEEP, even by a registered sanitarian whose work is supervised by a health director, according to the published Health Code of our State Health Department. This, it seems to me, is simply a turf war in Hartford for control and the desk in the corner office. Registered Sanitarians, in both the DEEP and the Connecticut State Health Department, have the same qualifications and must pass the same examinations.

I believe that the drive to sewerize in Old Lyme is mostly from people and organizations that have motives apart from economy and the environment but rather for power or money. They should recuse themselves from decision making, since their views are tainted.

Take note that several of the beach associations in Old Lyme are charted by the State Legislature, and the charters clearly state that these associations may, if they wish, control their wastewater. However, this control would be at their expense. This is not quite what sewer proponents are advocating. They seem to want these projects to be town-wide and not at their expense. Rather, they seem to expect the municipality, or the state or federal government, to expend tax revenues to correct the problems of their increasing usage of lots that were never intended for year-round occupancy.

I believe further that the DEEP is the fox in the henhouse, making and enforcing rules, with little or no supervision or oversight by the legislature. For example, the State Health Department publishes a health code, but the DEEP has no comparable document.

If the DEEP is to dump its treated effluent from sewage treatment plants into our streams and rivers, that water should be pristine drinking water quality, and if it is pristine, then why is it not replaced into our aquifers or our ground waters? Dilution is not the solution to pollution, and the DEEP is the culprit.

Letter from The Old Lyme Shellfish Commission

It has come to the attention of this Commission that sanitary wastewater treatment in plants sanctioned by the State DEEP are discharging less than potable fresh water into our rivers flowing eventually to salty Long Island Sound. The view of the DEEP seems to be based on their opinion that dilution is the solution to pollution. The Connecticut River is closed to recreational shell fishing because they neglect to tell us, that the treatment plants they supervise are the source of much of this pollution.

With the name they give themselves, it seems to be odd that they, of all people, should control the very sewage treatment plants that pollute these waters.

“Seems to be” in the previous paragraph is there because it is difficult to document the culprit. This Commission believes that the DEEP (formerly the DEP) is the fox in the henhouse. They spend public money, but the results of their effort, is far from transparent.

          Several years ago, one example came to our attention when an official of the DEP told Old Lyme representatives that a proposed sewage treatment plant in Old Saybrook would discharge treated water into the Connecticut River midway between the Amtrak and the Baldwin Bridges. He told us not to worry because “The discharge pipe would be fitted with a diffuser.” When asked what a “diffuser” was, he said, “So it doesn’t all come up in one place.”

 For another example, the screens on the discharge at a plant near Middletown clogged up, and the plant operators opened the discharge directly to the River, and raw human waste arrived by tidal flow at Point O’Woods in Old Lyme a few days later. In this instance, officials in Hartford had the unmitigated gall to say that this human waste originated in Point O’Woods where there are, and were then, no open sewers dumping raw sewage into nearby waters. None.

One reason why this has been going on is that most people don’t relish talking about human waste. Another reason is sewage discharges are often located in obscure places like the bottoms of rivers. We believe the data is all there but “not available

There is no denying that in heavily industrialized or densely populated urban areas, conventional septic tank – leach fields are not adequate for the load, but even here the DEEP is abusing both the environment and home owners on lots which are too small for conventional septic tank – leach field treatment. This is because of still another factor. The DEEP in this state is in a turf war with the Connecticut State Health Department. Here, the DEEP holds a monopoly on about all wastewater treatment, except for the old fashioned passive septic tank – leach field, presently the only wastewater treatment available to sanitarians who work under the guidance and rules of the State Health Department. The result of this situation is that the local Health Directors and local Sanitarians cannot avail themselves of modern, proven systems now in use in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts to digest all septic waste on a small house lot.

 So to win this turf war, the Connecticut DEEP resorts to another ploy. They don’t test the soil. They simply measure lot size and lump neighborhoods as those having houses too close together. By a formula that they don’t make public, they declare a lumped discharge of 5000 gallons per day from several sources, and they claim jurisdiction, whereas the State Health Department is limited to control only the individual smaller discharges. In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, such small individual discharges would get individual treatment with modern technology, thus avoiding the loss of fresh water to the ocean and the costs and hazards of sewage treatment plants and leaky sewers.

 So who loses when we have unnecessary sewers? First, the environment loses ground water. We exhaust the aquifer and cause dug wells to dry up. Taxpayers lose as we pay to move wastewater that could easily go back through leach fields into groundwater at no cost to the taxpayers. Instead, they dump partially treated water into the ocean.

What must be done to correct this situation? We must get the fox out of the henhouse. The DEEP should not be permitted to monitor itself. Data concerning sewage treatment plant discharges for both quantity and quality should be readily available for anyone to scrutinize. The use of alternative technology for sewage treatment should be made readily available to any registered sanitarian or health director, without any interference by the DEEP.

When sanitary waste water is sewerized and discharged into a river we are throwing away a valuable resource that could, and should be, recycled efficiently to improve our environment and save money too. Modern technology permits this, but the DEEP prohibits alternative technology for single home installations and hides the data which would indict them.


Some words in a sentence modify nearby words. These include adverbs and adjectives. Other words identify something. These are nouns. Some nouns are universal and others are used infrequently or only in small localities or in highly specialized fields. One example of localized use is a very common fish Brevoortia tyrannus. In the English language this fish is known in various localities by at least thirty-one names, including for instance: menhaden, pogy, wife, bonyfish, bunker, bugfish, greentail and cheboy. Thirty-one English names in use for just one fish. Notice that these examples don’t seem to relate to each other and some don’t even hint that they name a fish.

About twenty years ago I came upon a book titled The Sawba and his Secretary. It was a story set in the border region between Burma (now it calls itself Myanmar) and China. This story is about the experiences of a petty potentate (Sawba) who ruled there. It attracted me largely because my son Neel was working in Southeast Asia as a missionary. I gave the book to him. Now fast forward from about 1990 to 2015. Recently, he gave me another book about that same part of the world. It is titled The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott and on page 114 there is a reference to a Shan petty potentate who was called a Saohpa. That rang a bell in my mind. Two words Sawba and Saohpa both from the same area in Indo-China.

Armed with a miracle of modern electronics, I pressed two buttons on my cell phone and my son promptly explained how the sounds of words are expressed and spelled when they are translated. I then began to realize the tremendous burden borne by missionaries and Bible translators who strive to make sense of words originally writ in Aramaic and Greek in order to be understandable when printed in the language of a Burmese Shan. I barely manage with thirty-one English names for one, just one, fish.

Even more so, I marvel at how one translates a faith-based intangible concept that many of us have been exposed to all of our lives and still don’t fully understand.

Did I Ever Work for a Living?

Mervin F. Roberts – October 2015   

Now, in my 94th year, I am occasionally asked just what I worked at for a living. Repeatedly, I rethink it, and each time I conclude that to date I’ve done little or no work for a living. Yes, I certainly did work, but I did not work for a living.

I worked to put out fires, both literally and figuratively. I worked to satisfy my curiosity, to solve problems, and to answer my own or other people’s questions. I worked to create new products or to improve something. I worked to expose scams.

So, yes I worked, but I didn’t work for a living. I worked mostly for a challenge or for fun. Frequently, there was someone who paid me for what I did or tried to do. Did I always succeed? Not always but often enough. I attempted taxidermy and failed, also failed with painting, dance, music and the typewriter. Did I cheat or fake it or steal someone’s ideas? No. Did I plagiarize? No. Did I spend my life in the field of my formal education? No. I did get jobs from three employers because of my degree, but rarely did I actually apply my special training in glass technology. Soon after I started to repeat something, I found another challenge.

I was never employed to manufacture anything. So then what did I do? I invented a color sorter to recycle glass bottles. I helped govern a town. I taught school. I monitored two nuclear power plants cooling water intakes for fish, consulted in aquaculture, wrote about 40 books and booklets about tidemarshes and pet care, did feasibility studies for benevolences in Ecuador, Brazil, India and elsewhere, improved electric switches, pioneered in the development of frameless aquariums, invented a water pump, experimented with perfect binding, photographed pets, aquarium fishes, jumping frogs, shot strings and bumble bees in flight. I rebarrelled shotguns and fixed mantle, pendulum clocks.

I did spend a couple of years experimenting with the phenomenon of oxygen as a “wetting agent” affecting the surface tension of molten glass, and I also helped develop a plasma for melting porcelain enamel, all funded by the U.S. Navy (Bu. Ships) and by the Office of Naval Research. This work was the one rare direct application of my college training in Glass Technology.

I designed and built photoflash equipment. I served the U.S. Navy as an officer during WW2 in the Pacific, and I earned two combat stars. I was a licensed Third Mate in the Merchant Marines, any gross tons, any ocean, steam. I navigated a ship across the Atlantic. In college, I kept two or three horses, shod, rode and drove a buggy before I could drive an auto.

I chaired the Connecticut Marine Resources Council and was president of the Connecticut Association of Conservation Commissions. I also founded the Old Lyme Conservation Commission and the Old Lyme Water Pollution Control Commission. I am, and have been for over 30 years, the Old Lyme Shellfish Commission Chair. I’ve been awarded “Citizen of the Year” by the Town of Old Lyme. I’ve been recognized by American Men of Science.

 I owned and navigated the 68 foot, 45 ton motor yacht Shell-Fish for about ten years and cruised between the St. Lawrence and the Carolina mangroves.

I’ve hunted ducks, fished commercially, and served actively in the Old Lyme Fire Department since 1968, first as an attack truck driver, and now as Chaplain.

I’ve been a church trustee and property chair, and have married about 100 couples as a Justice of the Peace. Together with my wife, we parented six children.

Even today, I don’t work for a living, but I do work, and it’s still fun.

There is in Kerala, a state in southwest India, a Catholic Bishop with whom I cooperate to alleviate poverty. He addresses me as “Reverend”. I think because he learned that my middle name is Francis.