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0 Comments | Nov 22, 2018

The House on Old Bath Road

22141100_10214528372228351_4422525982733039951_nThis is the first in a series of descriptive essays I mean to undertake, not for the purpose of storytelling per se, or even necessarily being of interest to anyone other than myself and the siblings and close friends with whom I shared my upbringing. Rather, I am doing this as a way to remind myself of some formative aspects of my childhood, against the day when I become doddering and need an occasional reminder of things past. This first piece is about the house in which I grew up in Brunswick, Maine.

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The house on Old Bath Road was quite ordinary by the standards of Maine in the 1960’s, at least in terms of layout. It was, though, in far less than ideal condition, seeing as how no significant maintenance was undertaken during the fifteen or so years I lived there. As was typical at that time in rural New England, the house had no numerical address (or if it did, it was known only to the post office). One simply addressed mail to the recipient and their road name, and counted on the mailman to know who lived where. Also, in one additional nod to a simpler, quainter time, the house, so far as I recall, had no locks of any kind on the doors.

The house was, to put a name to it, a center hall colonial with four bedrooms, the master downstairs, and three more upstairs. In addition to the bedrooms, there was a single bath, living room, large kitchen, and two general-purpose rooms we referred to as the den and the sewing room. In today’s parlance, the den would have been a dining room, and the sewing room would have had no modern-day analog, though with a bit of renovation it could have served as an office or perhaps an anteroom to the master, which was the bedroom my mother occupied. There was a single full bathroom upstairs, off which was set a small low attic we used for storage. This attic was accessed through a door in the wall that was quite low, requiring a good deal of stooping to get through without hitting one’s head. Finally, there was a large cellar, which was perpetually damp and low-ceilinged and which had so much character it will be discussed in much greater detail shortly.

Some exterior details will help complete the picture. The exterior of the house, like most New England homes of the time, was clad with white wooden clapboards and trimmed in red. It was situated on a piece of land that comprised about one acre. It sat back from the road perhaps a hundred feet and was accessed by a curving gravel driveway that abutted the left side of the property boundary. A single mailbox stood affixed to a post at the end of the driveway, and we waited each morning by this mailbox during school months for the bus, a grim affair during winter months when the temperatures were routinely near or below zero. To the driveway’s left (west) was the main parking lot of Simpson’s Animal Park (another enterprise worthy of its own description in some future essay). To the right of our property, separated by first our outdoor clothesline (at one end of which grew a small patch of rhubarb) and then a narrow wooded area, lived the Alexanders, a family, who, despite living next door to us for my entire adolescence, we scarcely knew at all. I do not recall ever once entering their home, nor they ours, this despite the fact that there were plenty of other families up and down Old Bath Road who we knew well and visited often. Across Old Bath Road from us was a large rectangular field that Frank Simpson (owner of the aforementioned animal park) only occasionally used for overflow parking (Memorial Day, Fourth of July, etc.), but which the boys in the neighborhood used quite regularly for pick-up football games.

Behind the house was a yard perhaps ninety feet deep, at the back of which was a steep downhill grade that led into the back areas of the animal park and, eventually, if you walked another hundred yards or so down a gravel road, the south bank of the Androscoggin River, one of the largest in the state of Maine. At the point where it met our property, the river was about a mile wide, with the neighboring town of Topsham visible (silent h) on the far bank. In winter we would ride sleds down the back hill, a pastime not without its hazards, given the many trees along and at the bottom of the trail we used. To the right at the bottom of the hill ran a small creek which I spent endless hours damming up and then releasing great torrents of flood water, to the detriment of the small model villages I would construct downstream.

If you walked toward the back of our property but at an angle to your right, the downhill grade in that direction ended at what we referred to simply as the dump, which was exactly what it sounds like. At some point later in my childhood, we began having regular trash pick-up at the road, but this was not the case for many early years, and so we deposited our refuse at the bottom of this hill. Along the rear and side boundaries of the backyard, copious wild raspberries and blackberries grew on tall bushes and we picked and ate them at every opportunity, receiving our fair share of thorn scratches for our trouble. The yard behind the house was punctuated with numerous oak and maple trees. Three large oaks grew in the center of the backyard, sufficiently close together so that in my teenage years I built a multi-story tree house between them. Adjacent these oaks were two horseshoe posts placed a suitable distance apart, the tops of each steel post splayed and cracked from multiple instances of being pounded into and removed from the ground. Also near these oaks, quite early in my childhood, I have hazy memories of a chicken coop. Against the back exterior wall of the house stood two tall propane tanks that provided fuel for the stove, adjacent to which was the space where we kept our large trash bins. There was also a brick chimney, badly cracked about halfway up, in the center of the back wall that extended to a couple feet above the peak of the roof. Thinking back on it, the purpose of this chimney is a bit of a mystery to me, as it was in no way connected to our furnace and there were no fireplaces in the house. The final item I recall in our backyard was a well, one so shallow and ineffectual that it regularly failed to produce what we required for daily life, so much so that on at least a couple of occasions the fire department had to come and fill it from their tanker.

The front yard was of similar size to the back, and a row of large pines stood out near the road, the ground around them so gnarled with roots that mowing the lawn with our old hand-push mower was a considerable workout. A large maple closely abutted the right side of the driveway and I recall one time in my late teenage years failing to close the passenger side door of my cousin’s Vista Cruiser station wagon as he was backing out, causing him to rip off the entire door on the side of the tree. Other features of the front yard included a large rose bush beneath the forward-facing sewing room window and a small garden beneath the front living room and den windows. I don’t recall this garden ever being especially productive, though it did yield a recurring bunch of orange tiger lily plants each spring.

Early in my childhood there stood a barely sound single-car garage at the end of the driveway, adjacent the house. It was of such dubious structural integrity that at some point, around my tenth birthday, if I recall correctly, it was finally judged an unacceptable hazard for small children, and so a neighbor came by with a pickup truck, threw a chain around one of the roof beams, secured the other end to his trailer hitch, and pulled the entire thing down with a single effortless motion. Truth be told, a couple of neighborhood kids could probably have pushed it over without the need for the truck.

These are the basic facts about the property and exterior of the house. But there are myriad details about the interior that are worth describing as well, particularly those that in some way or other directly affected my upbringing. So, starting from the top and working downward:

 

The Bathroom

Our single bathroom was spartan and unremarkable—one tub/shower, one toilet, one sink. It was accessed by simply continuing straight after ascending to the top of the staircase. And it was oddly laid out, at least by modern standards, long and thin. In addition to its curious layout, the bathroom was also unusual in that because it abutted the sloping back roof of the house, the ceiling was steeply angled rather than flat as you walked past the tub toward the toilet and sink. There was a single small window to your right as you faced the sink, and a medicine cabinet was embedded in the wall. The window overlooked the back yard and it, like every window in the house, was of the old double-hung style with single-pane glass throughout, meaning of course that the house was not at all energy efficient. (Slight digression: Back in that time, before the introduction of double- and triple-paned windows, New England homeowners routinely employed what were known as storm windows—large removable wooden frames of glass that were hung from clips over the existing windows to replicate at least somewhat the insulating effect of modern double-pane glass. These storm windows were removed in summer and put into storage.) As it was only practical to place storm windows over downstairs window (we did not own a ladder), the upstairs windows leaked terribly during frigid Maine winters and I recall many a morning waking to see ornate frost patterns on the outside (and if it was a cold enough night, the inside) of the glass. During my early childhood, it was also possible to hang out clothes to dry through this window using a pulley-mounted clothesline, one end of which was mounted just outside the bathroom window, the other to a distant tree. If you were careless with the laundry, you could easily drop a bedsheet or dress shirt two stories to the ground below.

My Bedroom

Our family was in the fortunate position of having precisely the number of bedrooms in our home as we had people requiring them (one parent and three siblings—four bedrooms). Mine was to the left at the top of the stairs. It was of more than adequate size and included two windows, one that looked out over the backyard, affording pretty much the same view as the smaller bathroom window, and another that looked to the west toward Simpson’s parking lot. Aside from the usual bedroom furnishings—bed, dresser (or bureau in New England parlance), tall wardrobe for hanging clothes, and a desk—the primary thing one would have noticed upon entering my room was an abundance of plastic airplane models. This was my primary hobby growing up, one I shared with a couple of friends who lived a mile or so down the road. Like nearly every male child of the sixties, I also had NASA posters celebrating the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs on my faux wood-panel walls, posters which morphed into black light art once the seventies arrived and I entered high school. The airplane models that featured so prominently in my room were, depending on which year you visited, either set out neatly on shelves (of which I had many) or hung with thin strings from the ceiling, a practice I employed until I was twelve or so.

The only somewhat unusual aspect of my bedroom was that in order to promote the circulation of heat throughout the house, there was a square hole cut into my floor approximately one foot square, into which a metal grating had been placed. This allowed heat to rise into my room from the stove located in the kitchen directly below, and it was known simply as the register, though I have not the slightest idea why we called it that. In addition to facilitating the circulation of heat in winter, the register provided a handy communication portal between upstairs and downstairs, and it also afforded the not insignificant benefit of allowing me a direct view of whatever was being prepared for supper, as it looked directly down onto the stovetop.

 

My Sisters’ Bedrooms

I’m not in a position to say too terribly much about my sisters’ bedrooms, as they were, of course, off-limits to the one male in the house. Both of the girls’ bedrooms were to the right as you ascended the stairs. There was a tiny vestibule that separated the two rooms, and on the back wall of this vestibule was mounted a wall phone inside a shallow nook. Also, overhead in the vestibule, was a small square hole in the ceiling through which it was possible to access a second attic area. We very rarely used this space for anything, though, as it was quite cumbersome and inconvenient to access. Once you made the first right and were facing the phone, my older sister’s room was to the right and my younger sister’s to the left. Each of these bedrooms, like mine, had two windows and my oldest younger sister’s room was somewhat the larger of the two. And while my bedroom required a free-standing wardrobe for my hanging clothes, each of the girl’s rooms had built-in closets. That is, frankly, about all I recall of these two rooms.

 

The Stairs

There was nothing much unusual about our single central staircase aside from it being perhaps a bit narrower than what you would encounter in homes nowadays. It comprised thirteen steps of painted oak, most of which creaked in various spots as is typical of older homes. Descending the stairs, you turned right at the bottom to enter the kitchen, or left to go into the den. If you continued straight at the foot of the stairs, you would find yourself in a foyer (which we called the entryway) that led to outside. This was the room where we kept all the outdoor clothing, boots, etc., and it served as our main point of access into and out of the house, as well as a buffer against all the snow, mud, and other detritus that accompanies winter in Maine.

 

The Den

Our family had no need of a formal dining room, as nearly all meals took place at the kitchen table and we were not the sort of family that ever entertained. The den was a small square room whose main purpose was to house the old upright piano that I took lessons and practiced on for five or so years in my youth. The top of the piano was lined with family photos, and the only other furnishings of note in the room were a large chair in the corner, a wooden desk, and an old Singer foot-pumped cabinet sewing machine, which, oddly enough, did not reside in the sewing room for most of my childhood. The only other notable feature of the den was a second entrance to the house, one that faced the road and was almost never used, so rarely, in fact, that on occasions when we did have reason to open the front door, it was usually quite challenging getting the thing unstuck. Of the two windows in this room, one looked west toward Simpson’s and the other faced Old Bath Road. The den is also where we set up the Christmas tree each December.

 

The Living Room

One of the more notable features of our house was that in order to walk from the den into the living room you had to step either on or over a large metal grating that vented heat from the furnace into the upstairs. There were no plenums or other circulatory ducting in the house and any heat we received emanated from this single large grating. It was four or so feet square and it got warm enough when the furnace was running so that walking on it barefoot was a daunting prospect. Because the furnace was an old oil-fueled unit (more on this when we get to the cellar), not only did it emit heat, but also a wide array of noises, depending on whether it was running, turning on, or shutting down. I think back on these sounds being somewhat akin to the heartbeat of the house.

Like most homes, the living room was our biggest room. We had pretty much the same furnishings everybody had in their living rooms in the sixties, i.e., sofa, chairs, a bookshelf, and a television. Ours was black and white for many years until at some point in my teens, through an odd series of events whose details I never learned, my mother won a new color television on some radio contest. That certainly livened up our watching of Batman, Gilligan’s Island, and Saturday morning cartoons. We also had one of those immense fake-wood vintage console stereo systems that were popular at the time, complete with lift-open top, built-in speakers, and multi-record changer.

There were four doorways in the living room—the one from the den (over the furnace grate), another that led to the sewing room, a double-width opening into the kitchen, and a latchable door that led down into the cellar. I don’t recall a whole lot of activity taking place in the living room, save for TV watching (with supper in your lap if you were lucky) and the opening of gifts on Christmas morning (an annual rite of high drama that merits its own essay someday).

 

Sewing Room

Not much to say about this small room except to note its misleading name. It would have been more properly called the ironing room, as that was the principal activity that took place there. Through most of my childhood, my mother took in ironing from neighborhood women and the primary item of furnishing—if you can call it that—was an ironing board that got far more than its fair share of work during those years. There was also a pullout futon bed that resided in the room, though I don’t recall anyone ever using it, save for a Navy guy who boarded with us for about a year in my early teens. This little room had two windows, one that looked forward to the road and another that overlooked our outside clothesline. In addition to the doorway back into the living room, there was a second doorway in the sewing room that provided an alternative entrance into my mother’s bedroom.

 

Master Bedroom

As with my sisters’ rooms upstairs, I had relatively few occasions to spend time in the master bedroom. My main memory of this room was sneaking about in the days leading up to Christmas to peek at what my mother had bought us, all of which items she cleverly (so she believed) hid under her bed. Aside from the usual furnishings one would expect to find in a master bedroom, one notable item was a pine end table that I built for her in junior high industrial arts class. As for doorways, besides the one from the sewing room, there was a passageway into the kitchen and an exterior entrance that led onto a porch along the east side of the house. Descending the stairway from this porch provided access to our clothesline, which we used for many years prior to getting our first clothes dryer (and even sometimes afterward if the weather was good).

 

The Kitchen

Our kitchen was quite large and was the primary room around which life revolved during much of my upbringing. The central item was the gas stove, but most of the other basics one would expect to find in a kitchen were there as well. In addition to the usual refrigerator, cabinetry, sink, table and chairs, the kitchen also served as our laundry room. The layout, though, was less than ideal, as the washing machine was on one side of the stove and the dryer was on the other side, which made the transfer of wet clothes from one unit to the other somewhat less than convenient. In later years, the ironing board was moved from the sewing room into the kitchen as well, and it occupied a spot at the far end opposite the sink. Adjacent this section of wall in the kitchen, three vertical copper pipes fed from the upstairs bathroom, a large one for drainage (coming down) and two narrow ones for the hot and cold water feeds (going up), pipes which, in any modern home, would of course be situated inside the wall.

The kitchen floor was linoleum, as was common at that time, and it had been there long enough to show black wear marks through the pattern in the usual high-traffic areas (front of the sink, etc.). Most meals were taken together at the kitchen table, which was of the Formica and stainless style common in the 60’s (at some later point this changed to a wooden table). Two windows—one over the sink, the other adjacent the dryer—looked out into the backyard, and a third was behind the kitchen table looking westward toward Simpsons. This last window was directly above the exterior bulkhead entrance to the cellar, which we will get to in a bit. Standing directly in front the stove and looking upward, one could see the bottom of the register that we discussed when describing my bedroom. I can only imagine that on more than one occasion bits of dust and detritus from upstairs fell down into the pot of whatever was cooking on the stovetop. I’m sure none of us are any the worse for it.

 

The Cellar

At long last we come to the area of the house that was truly my domain, even more so than my bedroom in many respects. Like nearly every New England home, the house had a cellar (basement in other areas of the country) whose area encompassed that of nearly the entire house above, save for my mother’s bedroom and the sewing room, which I believe were later add-ons to the original house structure. To descend the cellar stairs, one first gave a tug on the string that turned on the overhead light, an unshaded bare bulb that threw harsh shadows everywhere. Once so illuminated, two things were immediately apparent about the cellar stairs (aside from the fact that it was an open construction, i.e., no risers). First, there were many narrow shelves built into the walls on both sides of the descending stairway, shelves we used to store canned goods and occasionally preserved foods, though I don’t recall us doing a lot of the latter, i.e. canning. The other notable aspect of the stairway was the ceiling as you descended. It was quite close to your head and covered with what I can only describe as old newspaper printing masters, thick pressed-board copies of newsprint that had been stapled to the overhead rafters.

Once downstairs and standing on the concrete floor, the first sense one invariably felt was dampness. The foundation walls were concrete block, which leaked profoundly during heavy rains. There was a narrow channel cut into the floor around the entire perimeter of the cellar and a sump drain in the northeast corner, though there was no sump pump. Whatever water made its way into the cellar simply drained down through this opening. It was common to find at least puddles on the floor (which was not pitched properly for optimum drainage) after a rain. And if it was a significant rain, there could easily be a foot or more of standing water that might take a day or more to finally drain away. This fact caused us to place items on shelving as high up as we could manage.

The second sense one got in the cellar was a general feeling of claustrophobia created by the quite low ceiling joists. Anyone more than five foot ten could not stand comfortably upright without striking their head against the bottom of a joist, an inconvenient fact that didn’t affect me much in my youth, though I saw more than one adult succumb while trying to work down there. The closest I ever came was once turning and walking forehead-first into an unprotected light bulb, several of which hung from the joists. Also hanging from the joists were numerous jars of hardware. This now-long-defunct practice was a stroke of genius in its day. To store nails, screws, nuts, and bolts, one simply found a jar with screw lid, nailed the lid to the bottom of the joist, and then screwed on the jar. In many New England cellars at that time it was common to find numerous rows of these suspended jars.

In addition to the interior stairs from the living room, there was nominally one additional way into the cellar, and that was by using the exterior bulkhead stairs. Alas, this was not a viable option at our home, for, despite the existence of an outside bulkhead door, the stairs that should have been inside were so rotted with age and moisture as to be unusable. Thus, we never had any practical reason to open the large wooden door that was set into the wall beneath the bulkhead. The only real purpose this doorway served was as yet another way for rain to get in during storms.

There was copious shelving in the cellar, and one of the main things to be found on this shelving was a plethora of old television parts, e.g., glass tubes, disassembled chasses, etc. In addition to the significant time I spent in my bedroom with airplane models, I was also a bit of a tinkerer when it came to electronics, the high point of which was the successful completion of several Heathkits, which any gadget-oriented male over the age of fifty will recall as being ready-to-assemble mail-order electronic equipment that one received in kit form, requiring soldering and assembly to create all manner of stereo equipment, radios, test gear, etc. As for the television sets, I’m not sure that I ever successfully repaired one, but I vividly recall being blown off the workbench one time when I exerted a bit too much force trying to remove a strap that held a picture tube to a chassis, causing the tube to implode violently and leave me on the damp floor wondering what I had done wrong.

In the center of the front (street-facing) wall, at about eye level, was our fuse box, of the old sort that required screw-in glass fuses. I recall numerous wires going off in all sorts of directions in a far more haphazard manner than any competent electrician would every have tolerated. It must have been at least a reasonably robust system, though, for I do not recall too many instances of needing to go downstairs to change fuses. The other primary occupant of the cellar—alluded to in earlier sections—was our antiquated oil-burning furnace (which I believe was formerly a coal unit, though that would have preceded my birth, and would also account for its immensity), along with its faithful companion, a five-hundred-gallon oil tank that was periodically filled via a pipe that rose upward and through the cellar wall, about two feet of which extended above ground level along the front of the house. The tank was black and immense and looked more than a little frightening, particularly in the usually poor lighting of that corner of the cellar. The furnace itself was a hulking cylindrical thing, approximately five feet in diameter, extending from floor to ceiling. Mounted to the front at floor level was the oil pump and motor assembly, which suffered periodically from water damage during particularly severe flooding incidents, until someone finally took the initiative and figured out a way to raise it a couple feet off the floor while modifying the connections so that it still functioned properly. Above the motor assembly was a heavy iron door you could open if you cared to watch the massive thing in action. Because of its age, it was never the most efficient method of heating a house (particularly a two-story one), but to its credit it managed to keep us warm through all those harsh Maine winters, which is no mean feat.

There are doubtless many additional nuances of the Old Bath Road house that I have omitted in this initial overview description. I will update this essay appropriately as these elements occur to me or I am reminded of them by family members and friends.

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