The Avalon Hillary Farm plays a big role in Whisper My Name, the third novel in the Darby Chronicles. One of the true life dramas that inspired that book was a proposal by an outside firm to build a pulp mill on farmland in Walpole, New Hampshire, back in the 1970s. The controversy showed the great divide between the people of North Walpole, who welcomed a company that would bring jobs to the area, and the more upscale people of Walpole who opposed the project for esthetic reasons. In the end the plan was defeated.
Farms of course have been disappearing from the New England landscape since the end of the Civil War. Romantic fools, such as myself, lament the loss. We believe that every New England town ought have a few farms anyway. Why? Because they enhance the views, because it's comforting to know that somebody nearby is raising food, because … because … well, it's hard to come up with reasons that don't contain at least some romantic foolery. The idea I was trying to get across in Whisper My Name is that once the farms go, the town, too, will vanish as an entity–an irretrievable loss.
In Whisper My Name, the Avalon Hillary dairy farm is located on River Road in Darby. Black and white Holstein cows look just right to my eye on green, rolling pasture land, with deep woods as a backdrop. In that book I even devised a battle between farmer Hillary operating a back hoe and a bull moose trying to gather Hillary's cows into a harem. When I picture the Hillary farm I see in my mind's eye a hip-roofed barn and the surrounding fields on South Village Road in my town of Westmoreland, New Hampshire.
In my role as a newspaper reporter covering town issues in the 1970s, I came to admire farmers for their wide-ranging knowledge, flexibility, and sometimes subtle sense of humor. Farmers have to be mechanics as well as herders; they have to know local, state and federal laws, not to mention accounting and business practices; they have to be physically strong and possess stamina. And to survive the emotional upheavals that come with market changes and weather events a farmer has to have a philosophical bent of mind to mediate the offenses to his practicality. I think the big loss to a community when the farmer sells off his land and retires to a warmer climate is not only the loss of the farm, it's the loss of the farm family and the smarts and savvy they bring to town government and local traditions.
I was in grade school when I first heard the phrase "glacial moraine"; it made me smile. I was thinking of my mother's superb lemon meringue pie. I wanted to raise my hand and say, "So, a glacial moraine is pie filling left by a glacier?" Perhaps that moment was the beginning of what would be a literary career. That is, it was the moment I discovered my love of the playfulness inherent in language. Put it another way, it was the moment I discovered that it was fun to be a smart ass.
Perhaps now I should turn to a definition. In the lingo I learned as a boy in the 1950s, growing up in Keene, New Hampshire, a "sandbank" is a glacial moraine that is being mined for its contents: sand. A truck back up to it and a steam shovel (more fifties lingo) grabs sand from the banking and dumps the contents in the bed of the truck. Imagine that, a truck has a bed: there is no end to word play, because precise meanings in language are so few.
In my part of the world–the "granite" state–there is something miraculous about a sandbank. Everywhere else the soil is rocky or non-existent (ledges, hardpan, river clay) or black and fecund. Somewhere along the line God, or whatever force you want to call Nature, dropped a handful of fine sand, as if from a distant ocean beach to create a grand dune. As a kid every time I happened into a sandbank I felt religious. Later, when I got my first car I would take girls to various sandbanks to neck. My idea or romance at the beach, since there was no nearby ocean. In my novel, Never Back Down, there's a love scene that takes place at a sandbank.
Age 11 or 12. In those days of yore the sight of a boy on a bicycle carrying a .22 rifle would not have elicited a 911 call. In fact, there was no such thing as a 911 call. Indeed, there were no numbers on the telephone receiver at my house on 19 Oak Street in Keene, New Hampshire. You lifted the phone and brought it to your ear. The operator said, "Number Please." If you didn't have the number you said, "Information, please." Sometimes you recognized the operator's voice and she recognized your voice and you hellos.
So there I am on my balloon-tire Schwin, my .22 in a sling on my shoulder, pockets stuffed with bullets, .22 Longs. I'm bicycling to meet a friend on the other side of town. He's going introduce me to a secret game that he and his pals play. "Bring your 22 and plenty of ammo," he had said.
I get to his house, and from there we walk a fairly long ways through a path in the woods, each of us carrying our respective rifles. Eventually, we reached a sandbank. We're at a ridge. Below, the sand of the bank opens up, a gulf. On the other side is another ridge above the sand. My friend waves. I see two or three boys waving back.
My friend has no need to explain the game. I figure it out. We lay prone on the ground like soldiers, and the boys on the other side of the banking do the same. The idea is to shoot at the sandbank, aiming just below the "opposing team" on the opposite side of the banking. There is no scoring, no winners and no losers. It's a thrill game. One thrill is watching your bullets kick up sand just below your adversaries. Another thrill, even more stimulating, is watching your opponents' bullets kicking up sand on your side of the banking.
I enjoy the game immensely. It's only later, thinking about it, that I realize how dangerous it is. I never played that game again.
Age 15. I'm at a construction site of the Otter Brook flood control dam in Roxbury, New Hampshire, playing in the mounds of sand with a friend. Showing off, I leap from the top of a sand bank into the sand below. It's a little further than I figured, and I stumble forward throwing down my right hand to break my fall. Result: Badly dislocated wrist and the end of my career as a baseball pitcher and football quarterback. I could still throw hard, but the extra hard you need to excel was lost forever.
We did a lot of crazy things as boys growing up in the 1950s; it's a wonder that I and my playmates survived to adulthood. Well, actually we didn't. Two of my friends, including a distant cousin, David Lamoth and Dick Trombly, were killed in a car crash when they were sixteen. Which leads me to another sandbank story.
Age 16. Back in those days there was one straight road of length in Keene. We called it the summit road because the straight stretch eventually went into a steep curve up a hill. I heard rumors of drag races, though I never engaged in one myself. However, I did have a friend with a car and one day he took it out on the summit road to see how fast it would go. I was the passenger. These were the days before OSHA, before seat belts and other safety features we take for granted today. The car hit a hundred miles and hour and began to shake, rattle, but thank God it didn't roll.
I thought for a second there that the car would disintegrate. The scariest part was when we hit the curve and car was on two wheels for a moment before the grade slowed us down. We turned at the top of the hill at a sandbank. It may have been the same sandbank where I played the bullet game. That's when I got the idea that the sandbank would be a good place to go parking with a girl. At the time I had just gotten my driver's license, and had never been parking with a girl. But I had aspirations. That sandbank has since disappeared, replaced by the Keene city dump–excuse me, landfill.
All these sandbanks merged into one and made its way into my novel Howard Elman's Farewell where it trips into one of the main plots.