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.
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.