Tiny Houses



Suzy and I began a book as a read-aloud this week called  The Big Tiny, a Built It Myself Memoir, by Dee Williams. It is hilarious. She is a fantastic writer; you just want to meet her. We are enjoying it immensely. Every time I look over at Suzy as I read to see if she thought that was funny she’ll be leaning back enjoying a stifled chuckle, or a big grin or an outright guffaw. Then we comment. This woman is a pistol. This woman is funny. And perceptive. It is not just a humor book. She writes from the heart. She was a young, with-it single woman enjoying the Pacific northwest as a climber, hiker, kayaker.  Sho buys a  house- shocked at the cost- and manages with a series of housemates and friends to fix it up nicely and live out of it as she continues to work and climb and enjoy her friends. What precipitated her move to a tiny house was an incident at 41 years of age- she passed out in the grocery store one day, woke up in the hospital with a major cardiac problem, has a defibrillator installed and now sees life so very differently. While waiting for the doctor one day she is absorbed by an article about tiny houses by some guy named Jay Shafer

She is totally absorbed; she’s the type who gets into things. There is an emergency call at the hospital so she has to wait longer.  She reads the whole article avidly, and “Deciding that I needed to take some kind of action I tore the article out of the magazine and smuggled it out under my shirt like porn( pg 86).”

When she gets home she calls up directory assistance in Iowa City, where Jay is from,  and the operator gives her the number.  Her brother is from the same town. She calls. She buys a plane ticket. She is hooked. You’ll love the book. She finishes the tiny house on wheels in 2004 and the adventure begins.


Suzy and I are wrestling right now. We’re retired and we seem to have enough on our plate to choke a horse. Part of the problem is that we own three places. Storrs is four acres and a mowing/weed-whacking/driveway maintaining/house projects, oh wouldn’t it be nice to have tractor shed, oh- wouldn’t-a- sauna-be-just- right  problem. I admit it’s me. I love to build things. I get ideas. My life is still expanding. Anyway, if we just lived in Storrs life would be good. But we bought a piece of land in Owls Head, Maine thirty-one years ago and have been building that place ever since. And three years ago we came into enough money to afford, sort of, a lot on Cape Cod- my heart’s desire of so many years. My parents had had a place on the the Cape and I dropped out of school to go live on there for seven years. I wanted a place up there bad. When Suzy turned to me, that fateful night when we were busy trying to orchestrate this piece of land and said, “Could you live here?”  I was dumbfounded. Yes, I could live here. I’ve been trying to get back here all my life. We’d been talking about buying it in conjunction with her sister- we’d inherited less than half the price of the land and so weren’t really in a position to afford it. With a co owner we could just swing it. Plus it would making building, maintaining, sharing it all better, right? That night Suzy suggested taht we might want to try to do it alone so we could retire there. Well we swung the Cape land by ourselves. We had to borrow quite a bit of money, but we manage. We just don’t have money to build a house up there. So we built a tiny house. A garden shed as they call it.

You can tell I’ve had fun with it, right? Look at the latches on the hobbit door: kissing whales.IMG_4435


But we’re pressed. We came home to Storrs last week from Maine so I could have a basal cell carcinoma removed from my forehead; we’d set the date last June. The grass here was up to my neck. I spent five hours mowing. I busted out the week whacker. I had my operation, And of course I have to start to put the roof on the tractor shed here. I’d brought home 300 board feet of pine from Maine that I have hanging around up there. I just needed the collar ties, some plywood for the deck, and the rafters. What else would you want to do after you’ve had surgery? it’s a minor surgery.




But I like to avoid the sun and the worst of the heat, so we hang around on our porch a lot, and I started reading this book The Big Tiny aloud to Suzy. And now I am thinking. Just what is it I am doing? Oh, did I mention that we have a van, ready to travel, and I also have good friend from high school, Kenny Peterson, who, with his wife, is currently living full time in their motor home. I believe they sold their house and are on the road. I am dying to talk with him.

I heard two tiny house proponents talk last night on you tube. And they make you think. I am not ready to buy in. They both argue that when you no longer have this giant house to pay for and maintain that your life gets so marvelous you can hardly stand it. One guy dropped a statistic about the average size of houses. All three of our houses do not add up to much over what the average size house is today 2600 square feet. We’re 1900 and 800 and 192.  And we have less money tied up in them than a house costs today because we have built every thing ourselves. But when I think of Kenny and Debbie riding around the west in the summer, climbing mountains, and riding bikes, going to Alaska, and does Kenny have is motorcycle with him? Oh, I can start to think that this might be better than today’s list: call Aunt Susan about coming to the Cape, call Artioli’s about an oil change and the check engine light in the van,  mow, weed whack, pay bills, get the last set of rafters up on the tractor shed- the ones that hang out there in space for the overhang- you’ve got to have an overhang on your tractor shed- get the laptop looked at, write to Guy for his birthday, which I missed, and get the stitches removed from my face.


So we’re thinking. The only problem is that I love so much. I love our house here. I love our place in Owls Head. I love our boats, and bikes, and tractors, and projects. I love our little place on the Cape. I love my paddle board, and Suzy’s kayak, and our dory, and our sailboat. I even love getting a boat ready for the water. I mean sanding and painting strikes me as fun- well, the painting does. I love my bicycles and my Moto Guzzi and our van and our canoe. I want it all!!!!! Tiny house/tiny life? No I want to read and write and live and laugh and talk and sail and swim and teach and visit and row and take pictures and eat lobster and go to Dorman’s for an ice cream cone as large as my head and lounge on the porch and go out to eat and have cook outs and mow and drink beer and imagine what comes next in the building department.




Seismic Activity in Storrs, CT 2018





Incredible deep rumblings were heard all last week in Storrs CT and the heavens opened up. It began late Sunday evening when Rachel McAnallen rocked the house,83JEmU1UT8ajcx9wRzYnkQ

cheered on by her attractive line of PLACE VALUE cheerleaders. We found out, among other things, that KHlJJ%07QryymfJsJgW8Sg.jpg

Rachel’s presentation is a great way to start Confratute 2018. It’s typical of what you find here: instructors are good, they’re funny,  they’re passionate, they care and they want you to care, they make you think in ways you hadn’t, they rattle your brain. It starts Sunday night and it rolls on like thunder till Friday morning. You go to as much as you can. You do as much as you can. You get about as excited as it is safe for a human being to be. Morning keynotes, morning sessions, rehearsals of the chorus at noon for Thursday night’s show, afternoon sessions, late afternoon special topics, evening special topics, and then the patio party. Every night. It’s not really frantic, and you can chill out if you want, sniff the proverbial rose,Me4GTZpLR56ik9nEAunccw but some of us don’t want to.


I got sick this year. Lime it appears. Monday I had to write off completely. Chills. Fever. Misery. This is not supposed to happen. I got to the doctor and got some doxycycline and that killed the fever and I was able to get back on the program but I feel cheated out of a whole day and I hate not having any zip. But Tuesday morning I dragged my sorry self over here and began again.

Erik Francis, invited by Joe because of his book, Now That’s a Good Question, got the crowd going Tuesday morning. Yeah, he broke out his Top Gun sunglasses.  Top marks for Maverik. He got me going. And then Susannah Richards is enough to charge any one up.hKBjMCyARz2axx13ZyTiyQ

Yes I was ignited and cultivated and delighted.  That woman amazes me. I don’t know how you get so much information and opinion and energy in one place. Threes, Everything is threes. Don’t forget. Beginning, middle, end. A total riot of learning about literacy. Life, liberty and the pursuit of literary happiness. How cool is that? Pretty cool.

The number of offerings is just short of astonishing. The level of expertise is, too. The level of concern for the attendees is, too. Is this the best conference on gifted education on the planet? Oh yes. Of course.

I am not the only one who leaves feeling inspired and uplifted. I know I’m not because I go around talking to people. It’s fun, it’s stimulating beyond belief. It opens your eyes to possibilities. It makes you think about how you teach and learn. It makes you think. A lot. And that is good thing. Administrators and teachers leave to their various states and countries filled with ideas that they have seen work and change begins to happen, it is thrilling.

Then Thursday morning we get to hear Ron Beghetto speak on creativity. He thanks us for  taking beautiful risks. He electrifies us with his presentation. He wishes think outside the box were never used. Creativity needs constraints. Just doing whatever you feel like is not creativity. It’s chaos. Think inside the box, about how to do it better.P528P3VySQygjAI3SYG1vQ


And while we’re on creativity I have to mention Shanette. First time here. A hurricane of ideas. She’s a marketing whiz who teaches kids how to start businesses. She sees it as the perfect type one- exposure to interest/idea, type two- figure out what skills and things you’ll need,  type three. start your business. What could be easier? Like Joe’s button seller on steroids. She’s got kids zinging down in the DC area. She took the top photo.Just someone you bump into at Confratute.

Gill Andrada, who works for the State of Connecticut Department of Education shows up. He teaches. He plays, he listens. It is a part of how amazing this conference is. He plays guitar.


GP6eFpbYQSG1musUHrAIDwWell. He accompanies the Confrachorus along with a host of others- drums, a cowbell, a violin. He sang a song for us solo and it was wonderful. At one point he made a goof, and he gave a little chuckle, and went right on playing as if he hadn’t missed a beat. This very nicely illustrates a quote Del Siegle had used- Louis Armstrong? Miles Davis?- in the diversity panel discussion with Dr. Whiting, Dr. Hines, and Freddie DeJesus with Marcia Gentry skyped in.  The whole thing just works, blends, flows. I’ll tell you, it’s a lot of week packed into one. It’s exciting, it’s fun, it’s valid. Very. If you get the chance. you go.


Take a few selfies.


Have some fun with friends.


And think. Play, Create. Write. Paint. Dance, Learn. Listen. Storrs. Ct. The Epicenter.BpstYVvDQDa2soP99FyAcA


Arrival at Owls Head


Owls Head is a small fishing village  two hours north of Portland. The nearest big town is Rockland, about five miles away and Owls Head is pretty picturesque. That’s a shot of the boat ramp at the harbor. There are fifty or so fishing boats that call this place home and in the summer, we’re there a lot, too. Among the fishing boats. I keep a dory I row almost every morning.




This is our dory mooring. The dory is called Hyper Loop- my son had just gotten a job there  when I got the dory and yes this dory is fast, so I named it Hyper Loop. It’s not fast when I row it and what I mostly do with it is row it and here’s why.RTgKSNdwTYCJ3bq+ZemEkw
This was yesterday morning. I’m a mile off shore, the water is like crystal. I plunge in for short swim- yes, cold. And I stand and admire, and do a little yoga. Then I row back.


tuLRflDgRDmOSfQ9ldk7Jw I pass stuff like this.



And I go back home to this.



Here’s the view off the porch when we are in boat preparation mode- which we just finished.


That’s Hyper Loop, my 18 foot ten inch dory on the trailer with the purple gunwales.

The sailboat is a 28 foot Rhodes Ranger. 1961. Glass. 7500 pounds. If you want to know more about it I tell more than anyone but a boat nut would want to know at another part of this blog. Here’s a link.  https://pmurray2blog.wordpress.com/restoring-the-1961-fiberglass-rhodes-ranger/alberg-30-vs-rhodes-ranger/

Poke around if you want to see the restoration process. It’s my second time through it. We bought the boat 27 years ago for 2500 bucks in rough shape. Now it’s pretty nice. I still have electrical stuff to get wired. Bad pun. Sorry. The Yanmar 3 GM30 that I bought to power it with way back has since been rebuilt. It’s in decent shape and sails like a dream.


So when we arrive in Owls Head we have to catch up. Mowing. The mower wouldn’t start. Washing covers and curtains and clothes.. The washing machine was broken. I had to repair it. Weed whacking. The weed whacker wouldn’t start. Cleaning. Yeah!!! The well and pump worked. Setting the moorings over. Getting the boats ready and launched. Putting the dinghy over. And the dory. And getting gravel for the driveway. I haven’t done that yet. And I haven’t weed whacked along the driveway. I’m not complaining. I love every minute of it. Well maybe not when the boat sucked up a dock line into the propellor because I was busy being inattentive and we started to drift powerless through the crowded harbor of fishing boats,  me a dang fangled foolish yachter, and the breeze was so strong I could not row it in and we had to get rescued by a couple of fishermen, but you know. Most of it is pretty fun. We got some tomato plants in, some cabbages, some eggplant, some squashes. Our chives are doing well. I love to work in the garden up there. Row and dip, work in  the garden. Tea on the porch with Suzy. this is how to live. Read, talk, decide on the half day’s agenda. I don’t get much work done, I mean I do get a lot done on the boats, we have porch repair to do this summer and I want to move a shed and build a small barn. But I don’t put in long, long days. It’s an enviable life. No internet this year, so it changes things. Now I’m back home for a conference at UConn: Confratute! Yes!!!! High point of the summer? You bet. One of ’em.


This is pretty sweet, too. Suzy taking a trick at the tiller.Pm3mMkPWTY+8DXPDLjoAYA

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters




A beam with its posts and braces pegged together with trunnels is called a bent. A bent can be  heavy. This one is 17 feet long, of 8″x8″ pine. Not bad as far as a bent goes, but still. you would not be able to lift it alone. With six people, it would be so easy. And that is a part of the beauty of timber framing. It is a cooperative effort in which a crowd of people does something a single person would struggle with for a long time. It’s a wonderful thing, and a nice metaphor for us. When a crowd of people gets together to work on something in common, pulling together in the traces,  it is a beautiful thing. It’s not that there is no longer any effort required, no heavy lifting- people used to regularly die on barn raisings. Hurt backs, strained bodies were a matter of course. If something goes wrong, and you are there, and in the sprit of the lift, you will try harder than you can imagine to save it. And people would be injured. My son and his friend Brandon were working with me to put up the carrying beam in our barn here in Storrs fourteen years ago. It was a laminated beam and was going to carry the second floor and we were able to put it up in sections and then bolt it together. Still each piece was a couple of hundred pounds. We were on staging, Under us was just dirt and rock from excavating. No finished floor yet. This section of the beam was almost in place and it slipped off one end. My son caught it within three feet. Jesus. It didn’t fall to the ground and break, taking the staging and three of us out with it. His back hurt. Is he o.k? He’s o.k. He felt it for a while, but he was young and strong. I was some proud of him.


So yesterday I was working with Peter Fekete, a young friend of mine who is interested in carpentry. I’ve been interested in carpentry all my life going back all the way to the Handy Andy Tool kit I got as present when I was 5 or 6, to my friend Kenny’s dad being a Swedish carpenter, to building a little cabin on Cape Cod with my dad, then the house up there. I dropped out of school and worked for carpenters and masons for seven years in between trucking around surfing. I eventually went back to school and became a teacher, but I have kept at the carpentry. My wife and I build our house, our cabin in Maine- our two cabins in Maine- various outbuildings, boats. Last fall I got all het up about building a shed to keep a tractor in. The tractor I currently own has lived outdoors all its life. Since 1939. I guess I had in mind a newer tractor. Like this one. A 1949 John Deere M. Ooooh. 2 Cylinder gas, totally restored up in New Braintree MA. Not that I have plans or anything. I’m just thinking.IMG_1065



Well I started the shed last fall, figuring it would take a few weeks. Or so. I had the beams. I’ve got enough wood for all the braces and pegs and posts. How could it take longer than a few weeks. I’m pretty silly like that. I  get bright ideas and think it won’t take long. Right. Eight months later. Peter finally can come over to help at a time when I’m going to be working. He’d been over earlier to do a little carpentry with me. He got to see the posts and beams I’d been working on and help me move stuff around, cut, saw, hammer.


7K1i1EpvTW21ZchySIDF%QHe got to be pretty good at making pegs. In the good old days, carpenters did not often used metal fasteners. They were scarce and expensive. They’ make nails from trees. Tree nails. Trunnels. Pegs. Here’s Peter cutting one off after having pegged together the post and the beam.


X4urJLClTFq8m1IpdgJFtA.jpgThe mortise in the beam accepts a tenon at the top of the post. There are holes drilled in each in such a way that it draws the joint together nice and tight. The pegs are made of oak and they’re just shy of an inch around a little bigger than 15/16 of an inch. It holds things together

really well.


You would have moved all the component parts of the bent out to where you were going to raise it before you assemble it. The posts, about eight feet long for this tractor shed and also eight inches by eight inches in cross section, nne man can pick one up and carry.  It is easier with two. The braces are easy to manage, 4″x6″ red oak from our land here, and about four feet long.  The pegs are light. It is the beam that is tough. I made up a set of wheels. The two of us lift it onto the wheeled device, with about six feet hanging over the end, and we trundle it over to the site. In a traditional raising, four pairs of people stand side by side, each pair with a strap that passes under the beam and each partner grabs one end. All lift at the same time, and walk with it into place. It’s easy with enough people and a bit amazing. You know how heavy the thing is by your self, trying to turn it on the horses when you were working on it cutting the mortises and tenons. To feel it lift so easily just amazes you. Am I really adding anything to the work here? You are. Once the bent is together, it’s time to hoist it into place.


You have to have mortises in the sill to receive the tenons at the bottom of the posts.







Peter and I were alone, so we used a come along attached to  a tree. We rigged something to foot the posts- to prevent them from just sliding off the sill where the mortises were waiting for the tenons on the posts.BD+SMv+kS9GRAuFc%uozjw


We cranked on the come along.


Bgjj32PrT5SSM6uB2T5v4wIt got higher and higher and the tenons were positioned just about perfectly.


Then it droped right in.



With a little help from the commander.ujnGe30BQdGA5Ct7EzFf9w


Peter and I moved the second bent out there, assembled it and we called it quits. He had to go and I had to go do errands,




It’s tough to quit, but we’d had a great day.





I’d arranged for two more friends to come over at 5:00 and maybe check things out, see what we could do. When I got back from errands Dave Provancha, who is pretty active with the Northford Timber framers group and probably couldn’t have stayed away as well as Mike Moran, a builder here in town who is interested in timber framing, too, were waiting out by the building.


And don’t you know, forty five minutes later it was up!




We three old amigoes did it! Yeah. We’d raised the second bent.

And that makes for one happy guy.



And I think we’ve got Peter thinking.



There’s something awful nice about timber framing: the tools, the beams, the massiveness of it all, the cooperation, the camaraderie. You might want to check out Northford Timber Framers- right here in Connecticut http://www.northfordtimberframers.com/

or Shelter Institute up in Maine


Both offer excellent opportunities for a glimpse, or if you want, total immersion into an ancient art. You, too, can raise high the roof beam. Really?


Paving the Driveway with Good Intentions


There’s a lesson in here somewhere. I’m going to try to figure it out.

First, let me state that our driveway is kind of a mess, and it’s long- almost 600 feet. It’s a dirt road, right? We had a bank run gravel driveway put in in 1981 to get back to where we were building our house, across two very swampy places. That cost $5000:  a ton of money for us back then- we’d paid only $11,500 for the almost four acre piece of land. We’ve kind of lived with it since. I buy a load a gravel now and then. I hired Johnny Clark one year- he bulldozed, had material brought in. It was a grand. With a pickup truck I can go get a yard at time and put it down, and I do that a time or two or three every year. 25 bucks and a couple of hours per load. I shovel it off my hand, and fill in the worst of the potholes, rake a bit. Over the years the ruts where the tires run have become deeper and I knew I needed quite a bit of gravel, a few truck loads at least and then I could spread the gravel with my trusty 1939 Ford 9N tractor. A truck load of gravel is probably about $300.  Three of them? More? Who knows. After last winter’s plowing with that trusty tractor and digging up the driveway pretty badly here and there, I had to do something. And then there were the rocks that are growing on the part where we drive up our hill where we hit something on Suzy’s car one time.  Ouch! And then there was the time Chuck came over in his nice shiny car and hit bottom somewhere. He complained, and I assumed it was a jest, but it sank in. And I recently got a new used plow for my pickup and I hit the plow mount thingies on a rock.  And rocks float up out of that bank run gravel  over  the years, and I pick them out and put them in stone walls. And I shovel/rake the gravel I plow off in to the yard every spring. And when this driveway was maybe four or five years old grass started to grow in the middle and both my wife and I loved it. A little two track driveway running through the woods to our home. It opens up into a broader area right in front of the house, and we have a big arbor vitae that our neighbor Ron brought home from work one day to give to us.  One day back when we were building the place, I was at work in Windsor at my full time job and Suzy’s dad who was helping us ordered a bunch of gravel because he felt we needed a bigger turn around than we had. When I got home I was shocked. We had this great expanse of gravel in our front yard. Gasp! And it had cost a bunch of money. Gasp! So when we planted the arbor vitae in the middle of that it helped relieve that gasp feeling. We liked out little gravel driveway and the way our house looked. Then when we built the barn, we left it grass in front of it. But I’d put the barn in a little too low, in response to our house being placed so high I guess, but in the winter when things start to melt, or if we get rain when the ground is frozen, or if we get a torrential rain in the summer, I get water in the barn. The barn is my shop downstairs, an dojo upstairs. I’ve been working at this barn for quite a while, and this winter put in a big window overlooking our pond, and then built a new workbench right in front of that window and then put down a pine floor over the concrete. It looks nice. But I don’t want water flooding into the barn now, so I knew I had some regrading to do to prevent  inundation.


Then yesterday morning a guy stops by, Dave Gustafson of GG Asphalt Paving. They’ve just finished a big job at UConn and have all these millings. The story goes.  They’re going to have to pay fines if they don’t move them. He can give me a really good price on them. Hmmm. Really? I go out with him. We look at my grading issue in front of the barn. I show him where the rocks are poking up and we’re hitting them. He says $5500. They can do it today. I ask to talk with Suzy. We talk. It’s a lot of money for us. But it’s a lot of material and our driveway is long and it will be a paved driveway, not hot mix, with fresh asphalt, but cold mix, recycled stuff. We like the idea of recycled material. I’d seen on This Old House once how they’ applied some recycled mix that had old tires ground up in it too, and I loved the idea. Our friends Mike and Jude just did their driveway- new construction, very nice house, and they used this same stuff. Wow! It would solve my water problem, out rock problem, and our pothole problem- forever? And it will increase the value of our house. Right? Suzy and I talked about these things and she said, “I’ll go along with whatever you think.” Well I though all of a sudden that it was a really good idea.

So we went for it. I said to Dave, “I’m not even going to try to work you down on the price.”  We shook hands. He said he’d be back in forty-five minutes.

So we spent the day paving. It’s hot. Those guys sweat. Glenn and Dave are the bosses. They work the skid steer and the paving machine. Dave’s hell on wheels in that skid steer. Luis and Gaspar are the laborers. They work the shovels and the rakes and the wheel barrows. Luis was a fantastic worker. Very pleasant, Wife, Three kids. Off shore fisherman in the winter. Gaspar was a good worker, too, but seemed to get yelled at a lot. We gave both of them tips. And water. I asked Dave if we should go out for soda, or beer. He was nice and said they were fine with the water. I thought it was going well.


When it was close to all done. Glenn waved me over to the white pickup he was in with Dave. Luis was still rolling the mix and running the vibrate feature  to compact the stuff so it was noisy. I went over the opposite side to talk with Dave. I was ready with my check book and credit card. I was going to put $2500 on the credit card and write a check for 3K, as he’d mentioned in the morning that I could put it on a credit card. I see $6000 written on the receipt. I question it. He explains, “We have to charge tax, and there’s a fuel charge.” Oh. I didn’t know. I don’t protest. I say, I’m still a pretty happy camper, and I am. Then, oh if you’re going to pay half by credit card we have to charge another hundred dollars, maybe a hundred twenty-five. I think. Glenn mentions how much I’ll save if I pay by check. He seems sullen. Tired from the day? I decide write out a check. For six grand. I shake hands with Dave. He thanks us, says to thank my wife. Shakes my hand again.  I shake hands with Luis. And Gaspar. And Luis again. He appreciated the tip. I walk back home along our new driveway. It looks nice.  Suzy is swimming in the pond.

I call out, “Did House Beautiful call yet?”

She says she’s not sure she likes it.


I’m stunned. Just like that.

Did we make a mistake? This big black ribbon where we had our little country road. Pavement. Running right to the barn.

I didn’t think this one out very thoroughly, did I? Kind of spur of the moment. No written contract. No references. No other bids. And now a receipt for $6000 for labor and materials. I felt a little sick. What am I doing. Our driveway worked fine. We didn’t need a new driveway. We could have used this money for something else. We have other house improvements to make. Repairs, actually. ARRRRGGGHHH. I’m thinking as I mow our back yard. The more I mowed, the more I thought; the worse I felt. I stopped mowing to come in to see Suzy. We talked. She isn’t thrilled with it, and neither am I but it’s not the end of the world. We’re still together. That’s what is really important. I spent some sleepless time last night. Do I feel a little foolish? Yes, I do.

It will be fine. Our driveway will be a better driveway. Once it settles in it will look a little less obtrusive. We won’t miss any meals. It will be nice next winter when it snows. But there’s a lesson in there somewhere, isn’t there?



Dangerous Fun and Games at the Carlson’s


When my mom made the comment, “The Lone wolf has found a friend,” it wasn’t entirely accurate. I had the disposition to burn hours by myself: I did indeed have a rule that I had to spend three hours a day outdoors which is considerable chunk of time when you’re in school most of the day. I would go in the back yard and run an obstacle course I had set up. I’d run bases by myself in the summer. I’d grab a hammer and go pound this big rock that was out back by the cherry tree. I’d find a pool of water out on the golf course or a vacant lot and fish dead leaves out of the water, which may not sound like much fun, but I found incredibly satisfying. You’d grab a stick, long and slender, and then you’d poke around in the murky water and you could tell when you had on a good load, and you‘d pull it up gingerly, the pole bending under the weight of the wad of sodden leaves. Kind of like fishing. I’d carry my little pouch of cornmeal with me, just like an indian, so I wouldn’t starve-  and every now and then I’d take pinch of cornmeal, let is dissolve on my tongue and then chew the crunchy bits. I never starved.

And  I palled around in the neighborhood. Jimmy Mercak, my sister Claudie’s friend Carole’s younger brother and I knew each other. He was a little younger. He came over one day and caught me hitting the rock with my ball peen hammer. “What’re ya doing?”

“I’m hitting this rock.” The rock was about waist height and I’d pretend to be blacksmith forging things. Whap, whap, whap. A little puff of stone dust would rise each time, pungent in your nostrils like gunpowder.


“Oh, I don’t know.”

I was pretty easy to manipulate in those days, I think we all are. It is the unusual child who knows his mind and isn’t swayed by stuff like this. The pounding of the rock seemed a little silly after that. I started to think of other uses for the hammer. I had some rope. Rope in those days was a tremendously precious commodity and this rope was probably used clothesline that my mom ditched. I climbed up in the cherry tree and got the rope tied to a high branch and dropped the coil. I cut it off and tied the head of the hammer to it. By holding the head of the hammer in your right hand- I can practically feel it today, the forefinger and thumb on the ball peen, the last three fingers  around the hammer part. It was comfortable. Your other hand would grab the handle at a good place. You could hold on. And swing. We watched Tarzan movies too, and soaring through the jungle on a grapevine looked like an awful lot of fun. We tried. We would find a grapevine now and then. It wasn’t the same as the movies, though; they’d often break on you. Rope was what you really wanted. But if you’ve ever tried to hold on to a skinny piece of rope, it is tough to do. A one inch piece of rope you might be able to get a grip on, maybe even 3/4 inch. All our rope was 1/4 inch stuff. No way you could hold onto it. With the hammer, I could. And it was fun. And the hammer had some heft to it, so you could throw it away from you, scamper up onto the big gray rock, and turn to catch the hammer swinging back at you. Then you were poised, far above the ground on the edge of a giant rock wall, and you could leap in the air, pick up your feet and off you’d go. Really it was great swing. I don’t know if you were ever more than five or six feet off the ground, but with a jump it was away better swing than any playground swing. I got to where I’d pick my feet up over my head and so you were upside down as you swung. Oh yes, Fun in the back yard. Then Jimmy came over again and he got to thinking.

“What if we strung a line up from tree to tree- from this cherry to that oak?”


“We could jump over it.”

“We could?”


So we rigged a line. It was over our heads, but sure enough, it was within range. I took a few trail swings and Jimmy watched.

“Yes.This will be great.” Jimmy took the first real attempt. He’d watched. He threw the hammer, scampered up on the rock, caught the hammer. Checked out the jump ahead of him like an olympic pole vaulter, leaped into the air, just hung on hard to the hammer with his legs scrunched up under him. I watched with wonder. He let go at the height of the swing, arms and legs out wide in every direction and went right over the rope. He landed in a heap on the ground and came up grinning. A new sport had been born. Jimmy was good at it. I was o.k. at it, but I preferred just swinging back and forth. Which I did merrily for hours.

Ronnie Carlson and I were pals too. He lived right across the street in the house with a garage and a breezeway and porch off the back. We thought they were rich. Ronnie had a bicycle. I didn’t. He’d let me try it though. Ronnie started riding his bike to school- how’s that for status? I walked with my little brother Joey.

One day in class the loudspeaker interrupted. “Mrs. Beck?”


Is Paul Murray there?”

“He is.”

“Would you send him o the office please?”

My world went dark. Uh oh. We all wanted to get out of class, but not to get sent to the office. I left with a heavy heart. Out into the halls with the brown vomit colored floors. I walked along, wondering hard what I’d done to get in trouble, came to the newer part of the building where the floors weren’t so scary and got to the office.  I pulled open the door and was about to sit on the bench, to await sentencing, when the secretary called, “Paul, come on over here.” I went over to the counter, up to my chin. The secretary came over from her desk. You’re a friend of Ronnie Carlson aren’t you?” I nodded. “He’s gone home sick. His mother wondered if you could do them a favor.” I nodded. “Ronnie rode his bike in to school and he’s worried about leaving it here overnight. Could you ride Ronnie’s bike home for him?” I brightened. I wasn’t in trouble. “Could you?”

“Yes, I could.”

“Do you know which bike is his?”

I nodded.

“O.K. then. I’ll call Mrs. Carlson and tell her not to worry. You can head back to class, and thank you very much for helping us out.”

I walked back to class on wings. Oh my god. I wasn’t in trouble and I would get to ride bike home after school. This is just great.

I believe that that ride home was one of the most pleasant things I’d ever done. I felt so good walking up to the bike rack I don’t believe I ever even thought of my little brother Joey. Apparently he made it home too.

Ronnie had an older sister. Linda. I’d see her a lot because I saw Ronnie  a lot. I was clueless of course, but was at least marginally aware that she was cute, but I paid way more attention to Ronnie than I did to Linda. One day their mom asked permission to take me along on Saturday morning visit to her mother’s over in West Hartford, probably six or seven miles away. We didn’t travel much in those days. My mom agreed so I was going to go with Ronnie and Linda over to their gramma’s house for breakfast.. We had some kind of cool breakfast and I remembered being fearful because I loathed eggs and some people eat them for breakfast. What if they served eggs? I heard eggs being cracked into a bowl and started to worry, but Mrbre going to love these, Paul. Ronnie and Linda both do and they’re a special treat.” They turned out to be kind of pancakey and there was a lot of laughter. “You kids run along now while we clean up.” Linda and I found ourselves off on the porch. There was a big highway not far away and the sound of it drifted in like surf in the distance. Sunshine streamed across the chaise long, lighting the stripes. A bird landed on a branch, whistled, turned his head quickly, flicked its tail. Another bird flew in, more colorful. The first bird left. The second bird left. Linda sat on the stripes, her hair dancing in the sun, little wisps of fine, long light brown hair floated around her head like electricity. She looked down at her feet, letting me look at her. She looked up and put her hand next to her on a patch of sun. It was an invitation. I was dumb, but not that dumb. Something was happening. I moved next to her and sat down, barely touching the cushion, ready to fly.

“How’d you like breakfast?” drifted out of the air. It was Linda.

I admitted that I liked breakfast with grunt and word or two.

“What did you think of my Grandmother’s crepes?”

A little silence.

“Those were those rolled up pancakes with powdered sugar and jelly on them.”

“Oh, those were good.” That was the most I’d said all morning. Talk was strained. I was nervous and couldn’t tell what was going on at all and wanted to get back to my buddy Ronny.

“Paul,” she said softly and turned to look at me.

I turned a little to look at her and said,” Yeah?” She was what seemed terribly close.

“Have you ever…” she paused.

I continued to look at her and noticed that she was pretty. Thoughts of finding Ronnie were fading. “Have I ever what?” Clueless.

“Have you ever been kissed?” she said.

“Well, my mom and dad.”

“Me, too.” She sat.

I sat.

Some noise from the outside intruded. Coats were getting put on. “Where’s Linda?” said Mrs. Carlson  from the kitchen.

Linda just reached over and took my face ever so gently in her hands and planted the most delicate kiss on my li[ps. I sat there. In shock. It was soft and nice, as was her hair that fell on my face when she stood up. She left.

“I’m right here, Mom,” as she entered the kitchen.

“Can you go find Paul and Ronnie? We’re just about ready to go.”


I had been far more interested in the neighborhood games: hop scotch in the street. Four square, jumping rope, red light, and the queen of all games, hide and seek in the summer. The heat of the day dissipates in the evening after supper. Shade begins to be everywhere as the sun sinks lower. The front yard of our house is home base because we had five kids, although Mike was getting to be older enough that he was no longer a regular. Claudie, too, was growing up. She might join us for red light. Whoever was “it” would stand on the border of the Danforth’s yard and our property This was a little risky because after supper the Danforths wouldn’t come out and play. We may have been off limits. They probably had to go to bed early poor little buggers. We’d be out at eight or niine o’ clock at night, running around barefoot and no shirts. Leaning on the telephone pole guy wire you’d go, “Green Light.” Everyone would start to move toward you and you’d count, “One, two, three, four fivesixsevenahnineten REDLIGHT.” as fast as you could and turn quick to see if you could catch anyone moving. We’d all be exaggeratedly still- arms in the air close to bursting with excitement- did we get caught moving? “Ginny, you have to go back and do three banana twirls.” Ginny would banana twirl back to the starting line. “Ronnie, I saw you move your left foot. Four umbrellas back.” Then the slow move back to the guy wire, one quick turn to see if you could catch anybody. “Ah! Linda. I didn’t say Green light. Go back with five bunny hops.” She’d hop back to the start. Once you got close enough to touch the person counting it became a mad dash back, the person who was it, caught as many as possible. A fun game.  The ultimate game, however,  was Hide and Seek. As dusk came on, and in the summer it came so late, and there was blessedly no school ever again for months and months and it was getting cool so the running felt fantastic. And we played an open game. You could hide anywhere in the neighborhood. For swift runners, this is the game of choice. Someone is selected to be IT. Not me. We’d pick a young kid first. It’s funny how playing among ourselves with no adults to supervise we’d work it out so everyone had fun and nobody got hurt too bad. We’d pick a younger kid and they’d be it and have to count to a hundred? Not to a hundred for the little ones. And when they were done they’d call out. “Ready or not here I come.” And they’d wander about five feet from the base looking for hiders. The kid would eventually wander a little further from base, someone would break from cover and light out for home, the little kid wouldn’t see them quickly enough and they’d get in free, or maybe the little kid would capture them. We played to have fun, not to win all the time, and we took it easy on the little kids, although once you were of age: No quarter. The particulars of it escape me now, I haven’t played in about a hundred years,- what the heck was Olli Olli in free? but the thrill of it remains: the sprints, the chase, the close calls, the risks you felt your were taking, being in hiding and not knowing if you were being hunted. I’m not sure if this game is still played by kids but it would be loss if it’s not. Of course the game gets better as older kids get chosen to be it. Linda’s it. She’s a pretty fast runner. She counts to a hundred. We book out of there. Run as far as you dare for a count of one hundred. I light out for the woods at the back of the houses on he other side of the street from us. it’s a circle four tenths of a mile around and all the houses on one side back up to these woods. Everybody’s yard was pie shaped, and where the yard is so skinny nobody mows, the builders didn’t clear it so it’s foresty, a little wild.  A great place to hide. I get behind a tree and wait. Waiting is so exciting. You watch. You see Linda, still far off. Someone bursts out from behind Cocheo’s house and lights out for home. Linda turns and runs, the great race on. I sit back. Safe for now. Pretty excited by the dusk, the game, the summer, thoughts of Linda. The sun settles in the west turning the clouds a nice color pink. School is so far off it is beyond belief. Life is good. Before you know it it is pretty dark. It’s pretty quiet. No one seems to be looking for me. I start the long sneak back to home. I get out of the woods and into the cut grass and am sneaking kid fashion between the Cocheo’s yellow house and the Carlson’s grey house. I notice lights are on on the back porch over at Carlson’s. I look. Hey. Everybody’s in there. I stop sneaking and walk over. There are a bunch of kids in there eating popsicles and watermelon and talking and laughing. You might knock if you don’t know someone well, but this is the Carlson’s house. I just walk up to the glass door and grab the handle.

It’s locked.

I try again. Kids inside notice me. I jiggle the handle. They think this is the funniest thing they have ever seen. I’m outside- the great runner. The last one standing. In the dark, all alone. Ha Ha Ha. Locked out. And they’re all pointing and laughing.

My brothers and sisters, the Bacon kids, Ronnie, Linda. I tried again, not aware of what was going on. They burst out laughing. Gales of laughter. This was the highlight of the summer. The mighty Hide and Seek player, supreme runner of the neighborhood, locked out. How do you feel now you blue-eyed, fleet footed  little kid? I didn’t feel too good. It felt like I was getting made fun of in an ugly way. I didn‘t try the door a third time. I was too impulsive. I hauled off and punched it. I put my fist right through that plate glass up to my armpit. The faces at the tables changed. It wasn’t so funny now, was it? I pulled my arm back.Yeah, I know now I shouldn’t have punched through a glass window. I could have picked up something to break it, I could have done a cool little short punch if I knew what I was doing. I punched through just like a ten year old kid would do who felt left out and picked on. There was blood everywhere. My fist, my wrist, my forearm, my upper arms. A bloody mess. Mrs. Carlson came out of the kitchen with a look of horror on her face. “What on earth? Who locked that door? Ronnie?”

“No mom, honest.”

“Leigh and Kiwi,  Bruce, you  go on home now. Ginny and Claude, and Joey, you go tell your mom I’ll bring Paulie home in a few minutes. Everything is gonna be all right.  Linda, Ronnie, pick up. Linda, get me some band aids, cotton bandages and Mercurochrome out of the bathroom. Ronnie, you disappear.” That was the end of the party. Mrs. Carlson was pretty soothing as she patched me up. Washed, wiped,  joked. “What did you want to go and break a window like that for? You could have used a stick.” First I got nursed by Mrs. Carlson while Linda watched, then I was sat down and given a piece of cake and some watermelon to enjoy. Then I got taken home to my mom by Mrs.  Carlson who explained the whole thing to her. I didn’t go to the hospital. It was just a bunch of cuts.

The Messilia


My mother was a bright young girl raised in Branford, Connecticut by a giant of a man and a woman barely five feet tall.

Vladimir died young, killed  at work by a hunk of wire come loose from a reel he was to lift down after filling on wire machine.

Hit in the gut, with a thud.

And sent home to die.

He walked to save the bus fare.

And died the next day at home bleeding internally.

Leaving his diminutive wife, Susannah of large spirit, with what was left of their nine kids and life together.

Evie was one of the kids still alive. Evelyn.

Lots of brothers. Martin, Vlad, named after the giant, and Al, the irrepressible Al who asked his little sister Evie for  something to eat one night. Step and fetch it Evie.

And she did. She stepped. And she fetched. Two pieces of stale rye bread with three old string beans in between. A string bean sandwich. Yum. She had a little spirit herself. Fetch it your self.

With no father the kids all had to pitch in.

They built a clay tennis court in the back yard. Wheelbarrows of clay trundled in from down the street- some vacant lot?  Shoveled and raked and rolled by hand. And they read. Al had a barber chair he bought and dragged home,  set up in the basement for long hours with books. And they talked and argued and laughed. They had musical instruments, too, for pleasure. Al played the trumpet, of course. Vlad played the cello. My mom’s sister Ada played the viola. Evie played the piano. And at sixteen she got invited to attend the Yale School of Music. A career as concert musician? Yes, this little Slovak girl was bound for glory.  Well she wasn’t little-  She was five foot eight and strong. Used to working.  Mowing lawns with a hand mower. Dancing. Tennis. Then University. UConn back in the day. Living in the dorm for poor kids, where they ate cracked eggs they bought for little up on Horsebarn Hill and cooked in their rooms. And she had a blind date one night, with her sister Ada, and when they walked into the room Joe said to his room mate, “I’ve got to be with her- the taller one.” He was 6’3”. Was that why? And after that first blind date Joe’s roommate asked him how he liked Evie and Joe said, “I liked her just fine. I’m going to marry her.”

And he did. And they were young and in love. Evie leaning seductively on the hood of a ’39 Buick, one arm behind her head, posing for the camera. Joe, beside her, in the foolish bathing suit he used to wear, everybody used to wear, with a cigarette dangling from his lips. And they had five kids. Joe wanted to speak only French at home. And they had two pianos and played the kids sleep at night. “Play the Messilia mommy.” And she’d play it. On that full sized concert grand piano built of rosewood we happened to have in the dining room.

And later, worn down by five kids and life with not enough to quite go around she had nervous breakdowns, and fell asleep on the sofa with a cigarette burning still in her hand and it would fall on the rug and one of us would pick it up and put out the little fire and not wake her to send her off to bed, but let her lie there, not far from the piano, snoring a bit if there’d been some wine.

I talked with her often in her later years. She was a fantastic listener. I’d come  home from struggling at college, just the two of us talking. I’d sit in her chair, the black vinyl one near the front door. She’d lie on the couch, stretching her legs out and pointing her toes now and then. Bits of ballet practice. Smoke drifting off her cigarette. Once when she’d started to really decline in health she was sitting upright in my father’s chair. I don’t remember if he was gone at that point. He died eighteen months before she did. She’d had part of a lung removed- too many cigarettes- and had some cancer. At one point she weighed only 70 pounds, a little frail bundle of bones with wisps of grey hair as I lifted her onto the stainless steel table for some treatment at Hartford Hospital. I still remember trying to protect her bony body from that harsh stainless surface and setting her down as tenderly as ever I set anything down.

What I told her that afternoon that is fuzzily ranging around in my mind as I try to place when exactly it was, was that I thought she was one of the most remarkable people I’d ever known. I was in my thirties. She was surprised. I was surprised she was surprised. I thought it was obvious.

She’s gone now. For over thirty years. And I stumbled on this you tube recording of a pianist playing Bach’s Sicilano- the Messilia to me. If you’ve got a few minutes, 3 minutes and 56 seconds actually, you ought to listen.