I am going to trace the various places I have lived over the years. When it comes to the places in Wales, a few problems arise. One is that I was very young, even when I left (nine and a half), so my memories are probably fogged and corrupted by time. The other is that not only does Wales have some of the weirdest place names on the planet, but historically they have changed a lot. In my small researches to help me with accuracy, I see spellings that are not familiar, and are either modernizations or retrograde romances with the past. Who cares, really? I have, for local color and my own amusement, been inconsistent as far as possible, much as people even spelled their own names different ways from time to time in the "good old days" before widespread so-called literacy.
And so we begin...
After being hatched at Gwaunfarren Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, my parents brought me home to their first house. At least, that's what they tell me, and they have pictures to prove it, so I will trust in their "story" and treat it as fact.
Cefn Coed is a small village just north of Merthyr, located at the confluence of the Taff rivers - the Taff Fawr (big Taff) and Taff Fechan (small Taff) meet at the southern end and become one, known simply as the Taff. (for those readers unfamiliar with the Welsh language, Cefn Coed y Cymmer translates as "the wooded ridge at the meeting point of two rivers") As a small boy, I got wet in both of these rivers. Or should I say, all three of them? Historically, Cefn was part of Brecknockshire - even when we lived there, as I recall, but I think today it has been annexed by Merthyr to the south, and moved into the county of Glamorgan.
My first dwelling did not have a street number, it had a name. In fact, it had a first name and a last name - pretty good for a small row house, I think. Morning Sun Terrace was on the east side of the main road through Cefn, at the northern end of the village. I do not remember how long it was... perhaps a half dozen or so residences. Ours was about the third one from the northern end, at which point there was a small dairy and a large apple (?) tree on the corner of Cilsanws Lane, which climbed the southern end of Cil-Sanws, a small mountain, terminating at a golf course clubhouse. Can you guess the name of the golf course...?
This hill, or mountain (it was about 460 feet - wait, no, I bet that is meters, since it is a British Ordinance Survey map I am looking at, with a scale in km, etc.), was an idyllic playground for my younger brother and I. It arosse between and north of the Taff river system, and in a sense was the southern tip fo the Brecon Beacons, a very picturesque are of sheep and eagle strewn mountains. It sometimes amazes me still that two small boys (say, aged six and eight at most) were allowed to pack a light lunch in their satchels (pocketbooks, believe it or not, to you colony dwellers) and traipse off onto an unfenced mountain a mile or two across. Well, we did, and it was probably the best way I can imagine to spend one's childhood goofing off.
I believe the plan of that house was what they call "two up, two down" - there were two rooms downstairs, and two upstairs, at least originally. Downstairs there was a front room, and behind it a dining room, with a hallway running past them on the right. I do not remember where the stairway was located, I can only remember what the top of it looked like. Continuing rearward from the hallway was a small kitchen, or scullery, and behind that was probably a small shed like area accessed only from the outside. The backyard area ("garden," we called backyards gardens in the old country, whether they had flowers or not) sloped up rather sharply, and was separated from the neighbors gardens by stone walls (with gates in places) at the lower end, close to the houses, and hedges on the higher part.
The old women of the neighborhood used to chatter away in Welsh to each other over these walls - and at that point in time, they were the only ones who really knew any of the once-dying Gaelic tongue. When I was young, an effort to revive the language was just beginning, with research and attempts to teach it to the youngsters coming into vogue. It ought to at least help the tourist industry.
We had a swing that my grandfather, the blacksmith Arthur Thomas, had built for us boys, set up on the higher ground, and though I can't remember ever using it, I do have a vague recollection of my father and grandfather setting it up. I remember my brother and I visiting the old lady next door and serenading her with "She Loves You" on a plastic Beatles guitar (oh, the value our toys would have had if we hadn't played with them!) and her giving us tea sweetened with honey instead of sugar. If I ever saw any of the earliest (William Hartnell) Doctor Who programs, it would have been in this house.
101 High Street
This was not a very distant move - basically across the main road and a few blocks closer to the "center" of the village. When we lived there, this was basically a row house also, but it had originally been built as some sort of hotel or public house. I remember when my parents went to look at it - I don't think my brother was with us - while they toured the place I sat in the room set aside for the two girls who lived there and did sums to amuse myself.
It had rooms on both sides of the hallway - on the right, a front room (that's what we called a living room) and on the left a sort of study for my father, where he kept his fossils, and sundry other strange thins, like our microscope. There was a dining room behind the front room, and the playroom was behind the study. My parents had this weird Lego linoleum installed in there for us. The kitchen was behind the dining room. There was a door that opened out of the left rear corner of the kitchen, into a rather rugged and medieval space where our coal bin was. This space was large, reaching up to the roof, and we could get to a sort of attic like area over the kitchen from it.
Upstairs there were probably two bedrooms, and of course a bathroom. I remember once, around Easter time, being good and sick (with whooping cough, perhaps?) and experiencing the true joys of a high fever - hallucinations... I can still recall what I imagined to be a small train about a foot wide, suspended monorail style perhaps, that ran under the eave of the front of the house (I was using my parents bed for some reason to rest during this particular viral adventure).
There was a small cellar to which we had access, that had a set of stairs with barrel rolling sides (slopes higher than the steps on each side) that went up into the house to the left. It was small, and a bit on the weird side. The walls were encrusted with crystals that seemed to grow right out of them - were they some sort of calcerous material leaching out due to water in the ground and reforming? Who knows, but it was cool.
The small back yard was mostly paved, with a small garage in the corner. The garage was accessed by a tunnel like space under the next house to the north, which would of course have been quite functional and made sense back when these houses were all one establishment. There was a stone wall at the back, on theother side of which was some sort of old age home. I managed to miss the wall while kicking a football against it once or twice, and it was quite and ordeal to go around the entrance of this place and get the ball back.
There was an attic, that I am sure we were in with my father at some point, but I am also sure that any memories of it that I have are completely mixed up with some story I once read about some kids who had a desert island playground set up in their attic.
I remember the bathroom... it was fairly large, in my memory, as bathrooms go, and once upon a long time ago I was treated to the sight of a lunar eclipse through its window.
Some cabin in the QE2; a friend of my father's house in Massachusetts, and a room in the Exeter Inn...
Crossing the Atlantic in grand style, as befits emigrants by choice and not necessity.
After our arrival in New York City, after the obligatory photo-op with the Statue of Liberty, we spent a week in a house lent us for the occasion, where we watched the grainy black and white footage of Neil Armstrong completing a quarter of a million mile drive to the sky.
After a night or two in a small room or two at the supposedly luxurious Exeter Inn, we found more permanent digs.
145 Front Street
This was an apartment my parents rented for several months, perhaps the better part of a year, when we first arrived in the States. I suspect it was almost on the "wrong side of the tracks." Whether it was or not, it was right at their side, and I learned that you very rapidly learned to not notice the trains of the Boston & Maine Railroad - in fact you had to pay special attention just to notice them, if you wanted to count the number of boxcars (often in the 90 to 120 range). We had the downstairs of this ugly green house, plus two rooms upstairs.
25 Bell Avenue
This house was a bit of a stretch, financially, for my parents, but it was really nice, and perhaps in one of the more interesting parts of Exeter to use as a base for youthful explorations.
Exeter was a smallish, quiet town, very "unhilly" and so, wonderful for riding a bicycle around in. It was, and is, home to the Phillips Exeter Academy, which as an old, rich prep school, owned substantial amounts of land radiating out from the town's center. Our little neighborhood, which was across Bell Avenue from a turgid little stream called the Little River, was smack up against some huge undeveloped tracts of land on both sides of the Exeter River owned by the Academy, and also their athletic fields. If you watch A Separate Peace, you will see some footage of those old stomping grounds of mine.
The house was not particularly huge or anything, but is was very nicely built, with hardwood floors (back when they weren't so much fashionable as just nice), beautiful fir (not fur) trim on all the windows and doors. It was on a decent sized lot with a couple of old apple trees in the backyard, and a row of oaks left over from the development process between it and the next house along.
There was a huge field behind all the houses, extending all the way up inside the loop formed by our street running along the Little River and the street it turned into, headed straight back to the main road (Crawford Avenue). The owners used to burn it off every year, to keep the brush down, but that practice ended long ago and now it is grown over with small to medium size trees.
A nice feature of living here was that it was within walking or bicycling distance of the Junior and Senior High Schools. The walk to school meant travelling Bell Avenue, as it wound along the river, going about 100 feet across the Court Street bridge over the river, and then cutting across the parking lots of the Exeter Machine Shop and the Episcopal Church, over a small field, through a line of trees and across the playing fields behind the schools. There were well worn paths due to all the kids from our general neighborhood taking this route year after year... sadly, the playing fields have now been fenced off and I think the locals have to walk the "long way 'round," via regular streets, and arrive at the front of the school.
Marquess and Weigle Halls
I'm not sure what drew me to this school - there certainly were not any legitimate scholastic reasons. As a result of soem sort of misread or misprint on an auxiliary form to my PSAT's, I received voluminous mail from various agricultural institutions, along with various general colleges and universities. I did not take this as a hint. My application to M.I.T. never got past the "waiting list" stage (I did well on the PSAT and SAT, but not that well), and my virtually instant acceptance to U.N.H. did not excite me very much. I didn't feel much like going to college 15 miles away in a freshman class full of my classmates from High School - they didn't interest me yet, what were the chances that would change?
So the only explanation I can find is that perhaps the Christopher Wren church on campus brought over stone by stone from England, and the historic context provided by the Winston Churchill Memorial, somehow worked with a desire to reconnect with my "roots." Winston Churchill gave his "Iron Curtain" address here in 1949 (?), and they really deserved to have Gorbachev close that era by speaking in 1990 (?). Unfortunately some Ivy League dump got him instead. They do, however, have a sculpture of sorts created by Churchill's (great?) granddaughter added to the memorial.
My first room was pretty much under the shadow of the church, whose bell rang out the hours from 7 AM to 11 PM. Much like the trains I once lived near, this quickly became hard to listen for, let alone notice or be bothered by. Since the freshman dorms formed a quadrangle that was technically part of the Memorial, we were not allowed to walk on the grass. Most peculiar.
Each day our suites, which were set up so that four rooms shared a bathroom and a door to the outside, were cleaned by local slaves. As a matter of fact, the dude who did for us each morning was on work release from the Institute for the Criminally Insane - another Fulton landmark.
Westminster is, or at least was, basically a rich boys school for business. It had reasonable academic and athletic credentials, for a small school. It was also a place where everybody, at least everybody with social skills, got high, but nobody was supposed to let on. Oops.
Spring break that year, I was approached by one of the more iconoclastic (if you can call a budding entrepreneur an iconoclast in America) upperclassmen who wanted to know what I was doing for the holiday. I replied, "probably the same thing I did over Thanksgiving - guarding fiv eor six people's stereos in my room and playing them all at the same time really loud." He invited me to hitchhike and ride freight trains instead, with Padre Island on the coast of Texas as the destination. We would visit his hometown, Bartlesville, Oklahoma (home of some petroleum company, but more importantly, their rather striking headquarters - a building by Frank Lloyd Wright), and a friend of his in San Antonio, Texas. It was a pretty good idea, and one hell of an experience, although his over romanticisation of the "on the road" life also consisted of only bringing ten dollars each with us. Now ten dollars was a bit more money in those days - but not a lot more! A small cheap meal still cost two or three dollars, for instance. I maybe poor, but I like to eat, pretty much every day. We survived the trip, and I learned a lot of things, some of which took years to appreciate. While there may have been things I eventually did not like about Tom, he would have to qualify as my first conscious role model. Two things stuck in my mind - one was the way people would come and talk to him about their problems and their lives, and how he would listen and understand. This trait was something I spent years learning for myself and eventually succeeding at, to an extent. The other was from that spring break journey. He sprained his ankle on the first day out. Most people would have abandoned the trip, or at the very least been quite a burden to their fellow traveller as a result of it. Although as he said, it did limit us a bit, it did not become a burden. He was as cheerful and energetic and uncomplaining as if he was uninjured - a trait I admire in him, respect in others, and strive for myself, to this day.
But all paths led back to Fulton, in those days, and I returned, as I must. When I arrived, a day late for classes, I experienced something that has not often occurred. I have no idea how these people knew where I had been, since I had not really talked about the trip as far as I can remember, but upon my arrival that Monday afternoon, older, dustier, and perhaps even a little wiser, there seemed to be a vague sort of informal reception line. It was like everyone I knew was touching base to absorb something of where I had been and what I had done.
It was also in Fulton I was able to experience first hand, sort of, much more of the peculiar dstate of race relations in the United States. My previous experience with those of, um, darker skin, consisted of the fact that 101 High Street in Cefn was sold to us by a black (to use the pathetic euphemism "African American" would be truly stupid - not that it isn't anyway) couple with two daughters, and that there was one black (A.A.?) family in Exeter.
Well, hey, guess what? Fulton had an entire neighborhood, about 5 by 8 blocks, which was called... "Brown Town." Small houses, big cars, music and drinking on the porches at night. All right, I got the music and drinking part from Gone With the WInd, but the first time I ever took LSD I walked across this area with a friend and it was weird. That was when I noticed the small house/big car thing. Fulton was not totally segregated, of course. It's just that this little "ghetto" was mostly black, with some po' whites thrown in, and the sense of the town itself did not reflect much of what we would call today "diversity."
Other Fulton memorabilia for those who care: A novel called "King's Row" was a scandalous tell all Peyton Place type story banned form local libraries for ages. Guess where peyton Place was based? A small town in New Hampshire... There was, and still is, a school for the deaf. The women's college across town, where it seemed that one third of the undergraduates were majoring in equestrian studies, was a major attraction for all but the invisible gay contigent at our school. A brick factory (Fulton was built on a pile of mud - all the buildings were slowly moving, the Science Center had cracked walls) had generated most of the local wealth as far as I could tell.
Ironically, considering that I watched the mass arrest of 1,414 demostrators at the Seabrook (NH) nuclear power plant construction site in 1977 on television in Missouri, there was a nuclear plant being built in the town of Reform, a mere dozen or so miles from where I now lived.
Westminster had no football team, due to some sort of scandal or tragedy, whose roots were shrouded in mythological and questionable mists of fact and rumor.
My sophomore year I lived in a dorm that had a free washer and dryer, due to its being a loosely organised social contract with some trivial fee paid each year by residents. The free laundry mattered a lot to me... there was also a television and pool table in the basement. My primary memories of this second year were learning about alcohol poisoning, and "physics on the lawn," whereby my very accomodating physics professor, who lectured from notes, would let me borrow his notes after I got up at noon and copy them over, thereby attending his class in spirit if not in body. Speaking of philosophy, I had a rather clueless advisor who was the philosophy professor/department, most memorable quote: "When are you going to get your shit together?"
What I did do, besides occasionally attend classes and even pass a few, was argue all evening with students from various philosophy classes who lived in my dorm. I guess they were trying to figure out their homework, I was just having fun, and getting exposed to a wide range of thought and argument at the same time. I wrote, and wrote, and even rewrote, a lot of poor quality poetry, and perhaps the occasional worthwhile piece. I went jogging once, and participated in the creation of a club level soccer team, which I guess survived, and eventually got into some league play.
The Thanksgiving break of my second year found me hitchhiking alone to visit a schoolmate in Joplin, Missouri. It was damn cold, and this route led me through the Ozark mountains and lake district of Missouri - which looked uncannily like parts of New Hampshire. Turkey, football games (I think) and a viewing of True Grit or some such John Wayne movie, and then the long hard road back to school. I have to ask, now that I think about it... what the heck was I thinking not to ride in either direction with my host, who made the same trip, on the same schedule?
Spring break must have involved some similar sort of foolishness, but I cannot for the life of me remember what it was. I suspect it was my turbulent trip via my well worn thumb to visit a friend from Exeter at her school in Bowling Green, Kentucky, though.
On the lam
For some unknown reason, I did not return home that summer. I did not have a "plan," either. My stuff, except for some clothes, was in storage in a large closet in my dormitory. I did not have a job - or an address. I spent a few days sleeping outside in the wooded areas near the campus, which I had explored at length over the previous winter (and spent at least one night in a dorm room that for some reason was unlocked). I spent my days goofing off in the sun, playing in the local stream (Stinson Creek), and not much else. After a week or so of this, I knocked on the back door of a local Italian restaurant/pizza joint that a friend of mine had introduced me to when he waited tables there, and asked if I could "work for food."
At this point, my highly honed skills as a washer of dishes finally came in handy. After a week or two at the steamy machine, my talents there inspired Carlo to move me to the pizza table, where I spent my evenings putting too much ingredients on the pizzas (portion control? We don't need no stinkin' portion control!). Within a day or two of this I approached my friend Tom and we cut a deal where I would live in one of the small apartments in his building, above his bicycle and record shops, in exchange for occasional work of sorts.
612 Court Street
I settled comfortably into this "lifestyle." I had a dry, warm place to sleep, write, listen to music and receive mail. My work at Carlo's kept me fed and provided a small amount of cash beyond that. My bicycle provided enough transportation for my needs. I would spend the summer days up at a local clay pit, although I think I was about the only person doing this who actually did any swimming. I also determined that no matter how much sun I was exposed to, my skin was not capable of turning any browner than a very light shade of pale.
These clay, or gravel, pits, were quite strange to behold. Essentially they were big holes in the ground surrounded by caked, cracking moonscapes of more clay and mud. They were full of water, of course, but the water was saturated with a suspension of clay particles. These particles rendered the water almost opaque - visibility was at most six inches - and also probably quite alkaline. What it did do, though, was create an effect like the oceans have when there is a lot of surface life and crud in them. The water would reflect whatever was above it, but extremely so. These pools would be bright blue, or a strange green, or grey, depending on the weather and angle of the sun.
That summer I took a week off and went to Colorado... and by now I knew to bring about ten dollars for each day, rather than for the whole trip. A potential travelling companion pretty much wrote himself out of my plans when he asked "how do you figure out if you want a ride from soeone when they stop?" Dude, when you are hundreds of miles from anywhere you know, on the hot, dusty side of some interstate, you want the ride.
Summer turned, as it pretty much always will, to fall, and then winter. I have no memory of what prompted me to abandon my idyllic life (boredom, perhaps? poverty? homesickness?), but about half way through December I started planning a return trip to New Hampshire. I stored my stuff somewhere in Tom's building, and dug out my well worn road atlas. The one with Murphy's Law carefully taped inside the front cover. It looked like the best route home involved passing through New Orleans, where I was charged by Tom with dropping off some irrelevant paperwork at the residence of a former tenant of his. The next general destination was Cocoa Beach, Florida, where an old dorm mate of mine lived, selling term life policies to replace whole life, and eating at the several Kentucky Fried Chicken operations owned by his relatives.
East to St. Louis, and south on interstate 70... not many miles were covered that first day, and I slept on the side of the highway the first night. I remember the causeway that crosses the swamps in Louisiana - ten or twenty miles of four lane highway propped up on concrete stilts over strange, wet, mysterious territory. This did not look like a nice place for a breakdown. The first night in New Orleans my last ride let me sleep on their floor, after the local "used tire merchant" dropped by for a bit, and fed me some eggs in the morning.
I managed to find my assigned destination and deliver the paperwork (a property tax bill, probably based on the car the former tenant owned, which was laughed at and promptly thrown away), and spent a night there. Breakfast was one egg. These might have been nice people, but they were either very broke or very cheap.
Eastward bound, once again, I spent a day getting to Florida. Florida, in case you've never heard of it, is a sort of tropical paradise attached to the southeastern corner of the mainland of North America. A fellow traveller and I, after being regaled by our ride with a pathetic story about how Florida was like a penis attached to the rest of the country, were deposited at an intersection with some signs of civilisation - and our introduction to the tropics. A vendor in a gas station parking lot had a small cage constructed of light lumber and chicken wire to keep their wares safely. Oranges. Well, you could get your hand through the chicken wire, but the oranges were too big to remove. Until we hit on the idea of pushing two hands through, with a knife in one, and cutting the oranges into quarters. The pieces were then small enough to be extracted and enjoyed. After a rather monotonous but delightful meal, we parted company.
Cocoa and Cocoa Beach were fun. My friend Mark was a wonderful host - the sort of person who just takes for granted that his company should be comfortable and not have to worry about money too much. (I hope I was a good guest, but I doubt it, since my social skills, always a bit lacking, were very unpolished at that age) We went bluefishing in some channel - with equipment he bought for the purpose. If it had not been so cold and wet that we were esconced in the car for comfort, I might even have caught a fish, since at one point my rod bent over double for a few seconds before being relieved of its bait. We went to see Apocalypse Now! in its first release to theaters. We ate a lot of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
After about four days or so I packed up and started heading towards the land of the midnight sun. Well, the frozen north, at least. Progressively colder and nastier outside, I decided upon reaching Providence, Rhode Island to cash in my chips. I still had enough money for what was probably best meal I ever enjoyed at a MacDonald's, and a Greyhound bus ticket to New Hampshire. That bus actually took a route into Exeter on Route 108, which was Court Street - right past the road on which my parents lived. As I saw this coming, I made my way to the front of the bus and asked the driver if he could let me off there, which he did.
The prodigal returns
25 Bell Avenue
So I turned up at my parents door, one snowy dark night in December of 1979, with few prospects and somewhat less cash.
10 (?) Lincoln Street
Oyster River Arms
72 Court Street
39-41 Park Street Apt. 5
71 Silver Street
The museum of unnatural history
7 Kelsey Ruins
© Huw Powell