Old Lyme Historical Society – August
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
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
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.
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.
– 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.