In the spring of 1984, fresh from college, I received a letter from a friend of my father’s named David Frair. He had been one of the fascinating crew of people that my father hung out with in the 1960’s, and who had always represented the epitome of the free spirit of that time. Back in the 1960’s and a little later (notice the date that the article linked above was written …) he had been a photographer for the Middletown Times Herald Record, as well as the Newburgh Evening News, which folded in 1990. My father was a reporter for both newspapers, and was also a radio newsman for the local radio station in Newburgh, and they met as newspeople first, then became friends and even erstwhile business partners in a hilarious venture to build houses along with a motley crew of kids in their 20’s, all of which indulged in the recreations of that decade. The efforts to actually build houses under the influence of those times, and attempting to do so in the one of the most conservative places in New York (how is it that Orange Counties around the country end up so conservative? Was it William III himself?) lent itself to endless stories from both David and my father, as well as their associate Joey Nicosia.
But that’s not what the letter was about. It was an offer to me to come out the Cape Cod, where Dave was currently living, to help him “manage his land and sea affairs”, which meant standing in for him on land, helping to finish various construction projects, while he went to sea on small Cod boats, and occasionally making sea trips while he remained on land. I jumped at the chance, since Dave himself represented the kind of adventurer I wanted to be, and because the Cape is a lovely place, especially in the spring.
My first assignment was to spend the summer finishing the painting of a huge old mansion located next to the Kennedy estate in Centerville, MA (Hyannisport is just a stroll down the road) named “Fernbrook“. It is now a bed and breakfast, but at the time it was owned by a fascinating couple from Boston. He was an eccentric artist and she was an administrator at a Boston hospital, and she came down on weekends. I was just a kid, but I moved right in and not only finished the panting project, but became the groundskeeper, for lack of a better word.
The owners took on boarders to help make the morgtage, and a Danish family of a single mother and two teenage daughters moved into the attic upstairs. There was a woman across the street in another huge old house who collected asian artifacts her whole life, and whose husband has spent forty years in the foreign service. I would mow her lawn as well, and she introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a writer to admire, even if it was futile to emulate his vision. I still have a few of the soapstone buddhas she gave me. They sit in what we now call Crystal’s office. Halfway through the painting job, I called for my father, and he came and spent a couple of months with me there, helping me to finish the house. I vaguely remember some arguments, which eventually caused him to return to NY, but while he was there we had mostly great times together.
There was a pond, and what seemed like acres of weeping willows, and hilly mounds of soft grass everywhere, fragrant gardens, and wide porches that wrapped around various portions of the house. There was a strange guy named “Smitty” who seemed to come from Texas, and who would suddenly appear in the strangest circumstances, uttering phrases that made no sense, and who my father described him as the local Sufi mystic, an exchange that had me laughing so hard that I smile broadly now, 25 years later, remembering it. The teenage sons of the owners would occasionally come down from Boston and open the house up to the locals for parties that lasted days.
A couple of trips for Dave on Cod boats ended badly for me, and so I retreated to the mansion for the remainder of the summer and into the fall. In mid-October I left the Cape and drove to the Adirondacks to live in a cabin along the upper reaches of the Hudson, when I took a somewhat serious stab at writing. But that’s another story entirely.
Here’s to hoping that this current job will leave me enough time after a few months to flesh out this story and also tell the next …