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It is too hot this week for an academically oriented post, and besides I am still recovering from my taxi ride Tuesday night from Sutton Place to Oz, previously known as the Upper West Side. It was not raining when we got in the cab, nor was it raining when we got out of the cab, but in between it was like a video game about a tornado, except the rain and the wind were real, as was the debris from fallen trees and scaffolding. In any event, I’ve been daydreaming today about heat waves and hard rains.
A fallen tree in Central Park from Tuesday night’s storm
The hottest summer of my life was spent as a Historic Deerfield summer fellow, back in nineteen hundred and something. I’m sure there were days under 90 degrees, but I can’t remember any; I can remember many approaching 100. The program itself, a nine-week immersion in early American material culture and decorative arts, was both stimulating and exhausting, and served as my introduction to a field of study—design—that continues to inspire and vex me, and to a career path—antiques—that simply vexes me.
Most of the details of that halcyon summer have long since faded from memory, but a few recollections remain. I remember a dozen otherwise sane and intelligent students sitting on the floor of a very old house collectively misidentifying a grain shovel. I remember field trips to places such as Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg, and social evenings spent with museum directors and curators, drinking in and then sweating out copious amounts of gin and tonic. I remember swimming in local creeks and the Deerfield River, the only way to cool off. I remember Ellen Snyder, who has gone on to a distinguished career as an historian and curator, calling our attention to two bunnies playing in the yard, while the rest of us were watching two rabbits vigorously and obviously doing what rabbits do.
Thanks to the annexed picture, I remember something I’d prefer to forget: the July 4th parade, costume mandatory, come as your favorite colonist. That’s me, on the right, dressed as Haym Saloman, the only Jewish colonist anyone could name. The young lady dressed as Abigail Adams is the aforementioned Ellen Snyder. I’m drawing a blank on the tall, solemn chap in the rear, but I think he’s dressed as Thomas Paine, so that name will have to do.
The deluge last night brought to mind a storm I went through as a Williams-Mystic Seaport student, the year before I was at Deerfield. It is a yarn worthy of “Two Years Before the Mast,” as it took place 100 miles off the coast of Gloucester, in the middle of the Atlantic. Twenty one of us—four guys and 17 gals—were manning (yes, manning) the Research Vessel Westward, a 100-foot schooner out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, on a voyage of adventure and discovery.
The first four days were idyllic, with clear skies, gentle winds, and calm waters. We were the only ship in sight. I saw dolphins surfing in the bow’s wake, whales swimming underneath us and spouting nearby, and, at night, the thick white band of the Milky Way above, and bioluminescence below. I struck the jib, out on the bowsprit with six mates, feet in the ocean as the ship pitched forward. I climbed the mainmast, to look for whales, and sailed full and by as the helmsman. I awoke at 4 a.m. to help longline for sharks.
Like most idylls, though, this one was unsustainable. Reality intruded in the form of a squall, a nor’easter which we saw as a dark line on the horizon and tracked as it approached us. When it hit, all hell broke loose. Rain cascaded down, harder than anything on land, the wind spiked to 40-50 knots, and for four days we had six- to10-foot seas. The ship corkscrewed, pitching violently forward and back, while rolling side to side. Three men and 17 women valiantly sailed the ship, while I spent the entire time in my berth, tossing my crackers and curled in a fetal position. I was never happier than when the storm ended and we returned to port.
There’s no place like home.