All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
Halfway between Beacon and Cold Spring, along Route 9D, there is an ominous rock outcropping that extends from high up in the Hudson Highlands, right down to the River’s edge. Known as Breakneck Ridge, it derives its unappealing name from a pair of ancient legends.
The first, an old Lenape Indian story, relates that: “Somewhere in these hills was the last haunt of the feared and ferocious Great Naked Bear.” (Eunice, who has seen me in warm weather, would maintain he still lives there. But, unlike yours truly) “This species reputedly ate humans. Hairless, except for a tuft of white hair on their back, (or could it have been their chin?) they originally lived over a wide area of North America. Because their hearts were too small to aim at with a spear, they were almost impossible to kill. They could smell a solitary human all the way from the other side of the mountain, and villages were never safe from their attack. One by one, they were hunted down and destroyed, until only one remained on the east banks of the Hudson. A hunting party climbed a steep cliff for protection (the Breakneck Ridge). When the creature attacked, the men threw boulders, breaking its neck.”
Another equally disturbing tale maintains that the mountain gets its name from an errant bull, who was chased across Bull Hill by local farmers. This hapless creature met its end in a fall from Breakneck Ridge, thus, giving this humongous hunk of rock its name.
In 1932, a pair of railway tunnels, were cut through the base of Breakneck Ridge. These twin openings, as shown in the photograph below, resembled the nostrils of a sleeping pig, through which the denizens of Dutchess County, who lived on the far side of Breakneck Ridge, could get a sniff of modern times. And then another tunnel was added, where the pigs mouth might have been. This third tunnel was for automotive traffic.
MOVING TO THE COUNTRY
Sometime, in the summer of 1970, my family and I traveled through the Breakneck Tunnel, leaving our past, and the Twentieth Century behind. Just up ahead, lay the rest of our lives, a forty-eight year uphill struggle to turn an enormous white elephant into a home. Not only were we hopelessly naive and ill-equipped for life in the country, we were also unprepared for the animosity of our new neighbors. Occupying the only place of worship in a Greek Orthodox community, and attempting to convert it into a private residence proved to be a poor recipe for popularity.
Thus, we were destined to learn the hard way that the Breakneck Tunnel was actually a time machine. On one side, was Putnam County, New York City, and the World as we had known it. On the other side, was Dutchess County, where the past was still alive. Little did we realize when we drove through that unwelcoming passageway, we were traveling back in time. And, even though, the small community of Dutchess Junction, where we would soon reside, was only fifty miles from New York City, the vast majority of our new neighbors, adult and child, alike, had never made that journey in their life.
We moved into the Dutchess Junction schoolhouse, officially, in early June, as soon as Samantha finished school. Meanwhile, its former resident, Sister Magdalena had fled the newly deconsecrated premises a few days before. She was temporarily residing with her hysterical Greek neighbor in the trailer park next door. The scandal of the nosy Bishop’s discovery of an evil naked lady in the Greek Orthodox monastery had preceded us, and ricocheted throughout the entire Greek community. It was whispered about in the roadside bar, adjacent to our property, and repeatedly retold at the fruit stand down the road. This lurid story instantly became part of the lore and legend of the Hudson Valley, right up there with the tale of Rip Van Winkle.
The days preceding our one-way journey to our new life in the country had been hectic. We never could have managed it, without the help and generosity of our good friends Lowell and Nancy McFarland. They had been our downstairs neighbors in the loft on Lexington Avenue. Now, their business was thriving, and they were taking over both our loft above theirs, and our apartment on 28th street. Eventually, their business would expand to occupy the huge floor below the apartment as well.
Lowell McFarland was quite crazy. I say that in a nice way. Although, there was a streak of genius in him, in some respects, he was totally insane. He and Nancy were so anxious to move in that one weekend, while we were in the country, they came upstairs to what would soon be their new loft, carrying a huge floor sanding machine, and used the keys that I had given them to let themselves in.
The floor, surrounding my work bench in the back corner, was littered with a haphazard assortment of random rubbish. Some of this was important stuff that I had set down there, but most was simply garbage, scraps of paper that had fallen off my desk, along with scattered bits of refuse that I had failed to deposit in the trash. Lowell later informed me that in my absence, he and his assistant, Jean-Luc, had carefully transferred the entire load of crap, one piece at a time, onto a 4’X 8’ sheet of plywood. Then, aided by a system of ropes and pulleys, suspended from the ceiling, they lifted this makeshift platform into the air. With it safely hanging there, they sanded and varnished the floor of the entire loft. Then, they lowered the plywood platform, and methodically put every morsel of my garbage back again. When I returned on Monday morning, everything was exactly as I left it. All my debris was still in place. But the once rough and filthy floor beneath it was newly refinished and pristine. If only I had known that they intended to do this, I would have gladly cleaned up my mess before I left.
Lowell’s efforts to assist us in moving were heroic. I’ll never forget the final day. It never could have taken place, without Lowell and Jean-Luc. Early in the morning, we visited the U-Haul depot, where I leased an enormous truck. This was no modest vehicle; it was a full-sized moving van. As the transmission was manual, there was no way I could drive it. Fortunately, Jean-Luc could. We managed to find a parking place in front of the loft on Lexington Avenue, where we loaded everything that remained there, work tables, easels, my old paintings, and years of supplies and raw materials for Boutique Fantastique that would never be used again. Finally, we struggled down three flights of stairs with my all-important stereo, two massive studio monitors that weighed as much as I do. But these two heavy wooden boxes seemed downright light, compared to the cast iron barber chair, which was the final item to travel down the stairs. Then we moved the moving van around the corner, and parked it in front of the apartment on 28th street.
Loading our few articles of furniture proved easy, a couch, a chair, a table, and three beds; that's all we had. The sad process that followed was considerably more difficult. Lowell and Nancy had no desire to live inside the giant dollhouse that dominated the children’s bedroom, so, we had to tear it down. The fairytale roof and bell tower, based on an Image d’Epinal, were quickly broken up, and any pieces that appeared to be somewhat intact were packed into the van. Now, fifty years later, remnants of them still remain in the cellar of this schoolhouse; fond memories of better days that I could never bring myself to throw away
Next, came the hardest part, dismantling the big wall in the front room. This unique construction had been the heart and soul of my collection, the focal point of my obsession. Breaking it up was heartbreaking. If Lowell and Nancy had any use for this complex construction, I would have gladly left it for them, and removed just the collection. But they wanted a bare wall, so, that is what they would be getting. In the days leading up to this event, I had carefully removed all the collectibles that were not fastened down, and packed them into cartons. Thus, on this moving day, we had only to disassemble what remained, and save any remnants that could be rescued. Several showcases were separate units, complete unto themselves. These would be carefully transported to the country, some with their contents still in place.
One example of this was the large pink box, right in the center of the wall. We managed to remove it, glass and all, complete with all the precious tiny objects it contained. Most of these were things I got in France. This showcase was destined to remain intact, just as you see it here, and be packed away for many years. Eventually, it would be installed, exactly as it was in New York City, in a Bigger Better Wall, up in the country. There, it would remain, an everlasting memory of happier days.
When the entire wall was wiped away, and all the pieces we could save were packed into the van, only one element remained, the cover that I had fabricated out of old wooden bath thermometers to hide the radiator. Apart from that, which we left for Lowell and Nancy, every vestige of the wall had been erased. The sudden shock of standing back and surveying the overwhelming emptiness that now filled the space, formerly occupied by the wall that meant so much to me, was devastating. What an ordeal this day had been! And it was far from over yet
With the packing now complete, we raided the refrigerator on 28th Street, one final time, to grab a hasty bite to eat. After that, we grabbed the cat, poor excited little Tom, and placed him in the pussycat face traveling case, the one that I had fashioned for him out of chicken wire and a cardboard box, when he vacationed on Fire Island. Then, at last, we bid farewell to Nancy, and our past, and headed off to Dutchess County to live out the rest of our lives, and, hopefully, fulfill our destiny.
Lowell and Jean-Luc drove the U-Haul, while we followed behind in our tiny VW station wagon. Because commercial vehicles could not use the West Side Highway, or the Palisades Parkway, the enormous van was forced to grope its way through the bumper to bumper rush hour traffic of New York City. Therefore, it was early evening, by the time we stumbled onto the George Washington Bridge, and crossed the Hudson River to New Jersey. From there, the massive moving van moved slowly north, through every small town along Route 9W, all the way to the Bear Mountain Bridge. The journey seemed to last for an eternity. Here, we crossed the Hudson once again, and traveling along Route 9D, we passed through Garrison, Cold Spring, and, at last, the Breakneck Tunnel. It was nighttime on the other side. From there, the Dutchess Junction schoolhouse was just two miles ahead. When we arrived, it was pitch black outside. Jean-Luc managed to maneuver the huge moving van up the perilous unpaved driveway, and park it close to the front porch.
The enormous red brick building looked particularly ominous that night, perched on the mountainside in the darkness, without a single light, or sign of life to reassure or welcome us. As I climbed the wooden steps, dimly illuminated by the glow of Jean-Luc’s headlights, a shiver of cold reality swept over me. That chill was multiplied tenfold, when I managed to unlock the huge front doors, and swing them open to be met by the overwhelming stench of ecclesiastical incense, and the stunning realization that the immeasurable expanse of blackness and infinite space that greeted me was going to be our future home.
And then, we had to unload the moving van, an exhausting task that took until well after midnight. After that, Lowell and Jean-Luc drove the empty van back to the city. The following morning, they returned it to U-Haul, undamaged, while we began our brand new life in Dutchess County, a little bit the worse for wear. Little did we imagine, then, that over forty years would pass, before we would see Nancy and Lowell, again.
Ten years before, we had naively stumbled into an enormous old loft in Mid-Manhattan, unaware it was illegal. Now, ten years later, we were still just as naive. Therefore, we had embraced this humongous hunk of living space in the country, eagerly. And we leapt into this predicament, without looking. Although, we didn’t move into the Schoolhouse until summer, we had actually purchased it that previous December, and, at the time, the Outer Space Men were still selling well. More were in a boat on the ocean, headed for the USA, and Christmas 1969 was on the way. The proceeds from the OSM had enabled us to reimburse Colorforms the sum of $35,000 for three years of advances that they had paid me, at the rate of $200 a week, and still earn an additional $15,000 free and clear. So, with every reason to believe the OSM would continue to succeed, we invested every cent of that as a down payment on the schoolhouse, and negotiated a mortgage of $200 a month, calculating that in seven years, the mortgage would be all paid up.
Now, due to an ironic stroke of luck, all bad, the Outer Space Men suddenly came to an end. Therefore, by the time we entered the front door of our new home, we were flat broke. And we found ourselves marooned in the world’s biggest “fixer-upper” with no funds to fix it up with. Worse still, we were surrounded by a tribe of hostile natives. How hostile were they? Stay tuned and you will see.
Suddenly, I was back at ground zero. Colorforms started the clock again, and, once more, began advancing me $200 a week, in the belief that there would be another item as good as the OSM in the future. This sum was supplemented by the $300 a month mortgage payment from one of my father’s stores that my mother, in a moment of generosity, had put in my name, a few years before, as a taste of the inheritance my father failed to leave me in his will. These payments were due to continue for twelve more years. Thanks to this extra money, we believed that we could continue to make ends meet, as we had in NYC. On the other hand, renovating the school house would have to wait, until something I was yet to invent would begin to sell again.
The house consisted of three enormous rooms 30 feet long by 25 feet wide. The ceilings were 14 feet in height. These were arranged to form of a letter “T,” with an oddly shaped, but equally large hall in between. As we had hardly any furniture, the space was vast and largely empty. I managed to pack my entire collection in what amounted to a hall closet. It would remain there for the next three years.
Meanwhile, our attempts to renovate were hampered by our meager budget. One thing we could afford was paint. As this photo illustrates a few gallons of white latex made a huge improvement. This corner room became and remains the “living room” today. Here we see it before and after, how it looked on the first day we saw the house, and how it appeared the following summer, when we removed the old fashioned wood trim and painted the room white. This room would eventually be radically changed. A sleeping platform would be added, but for now, all we could do was paint it white and add our few pieces of furniture. Our queen sized bed was placed against the opposite wall. The kids slept in what had been the chapel.
I set up my studio in a corner of the cellar. It was lovely and cool down there in the hot weather. I would work on drawings of toy products all day, with frequent breaks to run out and cool off in the modest ten foot aboveground pool that Eunice had discovered in a paper called the Penny Saver for only fifty dollars. It was used, but still usable, and proved to be a lot of fun for for everyone, throughout the summer months. Eunice in her bathing suit was pleased as Punch with her new purchase, the pool can be seen in the background.
There happened to be a row of small cabins on the property next to us. These tiny huts were full of families from the city who leased them for the summer. And there were lots of kids, so, our little swimming pool, the only one for miles around, was always occupied. Here is the whole family and a few of the neighbors, enjoying the pool.
The big room was occupied by essentially three objects, my two large stereo speakers and a broken down and almost comical old wooden banquet table, surrounded by an odd collection of chairs. Years before, I found this once elegant relic that had seen better days, abandoned on the street in NYC, and dragged it up to the old loft to serve as a work bench, leaning it against a wall, as it was almost too rickety to stand alone. Nonetheless, we sometimes used it for Thanksgiving dinner.
Our friends John and Jackie Fawcett had given us a spectacular house warming gift, an ancient, but glorious silver candelabra. Standing alone in the enormous darkened room, adorned with a table cloth, and the complex candelabra, with its five tall candles glowing, and, of course, some dinner music playing, the effect was quite theatrical. A touch of make believe elegance, with the house in chaos all around us. It was fun to dine at this whimsically elegant table. And that’s just what we were doing, one evening in late September, when, suddenly, in the middle of the meal, a brick came crashing through the window! It showered us in broken glass, and landed on the dinner table. The Relaxacizer bear immediately jumped up, and with a mighty roar, rushed through the front door, and out into the night. But, like the time he chased a would-be burglar up to the roof of the old loft in Manhattan, bear naked, he found no one there.
Contemplating what had just taken place, we speculated that, either Ignatz Mouse was our neighbor, or this must have been “Greeks bearing bricks!” or should I say Greeks sharing bricks? Whatever happened to be the case, one thing was certain: This frightening missile had shattered, not only, the window, but any feeling of well-being that we had hoped to enjoy in our new home. This simple act of rural terrorism instantly robbed us of our happiness. It would be many years, if ever, until we would feel safe and secure in the Dutchess Junction schoolhouse again.
One night, a week later, still traumatized by the above incident, I thought I heard a noise outside. So, I opened the front door to discover that our front porch had been set on fire! The entire wooden steps and floor were engulfed in tongues of flame, waist high, while the telltale presence of small bits of blue fire, around the edges, made it clear to me that flammable liquid had been thrown, or poured onto the porch, and then ignited. As I frantically endeavored to stomp out the inferno, a fleeting image caught my eye. I glimpsed three figures, at the very bottom of our driveway, silhouetted against the the headlights of a passing vehicle for only a split second, before they ran across the highway. If that auto had not happened by, I never would have seen them. I instantly knew their identity. I’ll explain why.
In the months preceding this event, I had noticed that there was a family who lived across the street, in an old house that was situated in the middle of the trailer park, surrounded by a sea of mobile homes. I also noticed that there were three daughters in their late teens, and a younger brother. The middle daughter had some sort of affliction. Her body was disturbingly distorted, and her walk was unique, a rather perfect imitation of the foot dragging, one arm groping pace of the Universal Studio's Mummy. I would recognize her bizarre walk anywhere. And she was, clearly, one of the three figures I had just seen fleeing down the driveway.
As soon as the conflagration was extinguished, I called the police. Fifteen minutes later, a young officer, about my age, arrived. He listened to my story, examined the charred porch, and a few minutes later, careened down the unpaved road that led to the trailer park, with yours truly, sitting beside him in his patrol car. As we approached the neighbor’s home, the three girls and their little brother were standing in the road. Suddenly, they ran towards our vehicle aggressively, shouting obscenities. The officer was genuinely shocked, and so was I. No one speaks to the police that way, least of all, young ladies! Obviously, they were no ladies! Every vile curse word that I had ever heard, and a few I didn’t know, were spewing out of their filthy mouths. Seconds later, their big fat hairy Greek daddy burst out of the house, wearing a moth-eaten torn undershirt, and roaring like a raging bull, he was followed by their grotesquely ugly mother, who resembled Mama Katzenjammer, screaming like a banshee. Meanwhile, their demonic little brother was hopping around, like a demented monkey, and laughing diabolically. God knows what they were babbling. Apart from their huge vocabulary of obscenities, all the rest was Greek to me.
The patrolman managed to calm them down, then, returned to the patrol car to confer with me. He confided that he had never seen or heard anything like this family, in all his years of experience, and expressed the opinion that these people were dangerous! If I chose to press charges, the three girls would be arrested, but if he were me, he wouldn’t mess with them. So, we devised an alternative. He got out of the vehicle, and explained to them that I would be willing to forego pressing charges, provided the entire family would keep away from the schoolhouse in the future, and never bother me again. And, more or less, that's what they did.
One sunny day, I looked out of our recently replaced window and noticed that police, or were they military, were running around the yard. Some were crouching in the bushes, pointing scary looking weapons, big ones, down the driveway! Of course, the fearless bear had to march out there, and ask what they were doing. They looked at me suspiciously, until I convinced them that I was the new owner of the schoolhouse, and they were actually on my property. Then, they informed me that a dangerous pair of inmates had escaped from Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which was located just past Beacon. OY VEY! Now you tell me! And they had reason to believe that they were ether headed for our yard, or hiding in the woods behind it. I kid you not! They instructed me to “Go back in the house, quickly, lock the doors, and don’t open them for anybody!” They remained in our yard for several hours. Eventually, as no lunatics showed up, they finally went away.
What next? Working at night in the cellar, I frequently got the feeling that hostile neighbors were creeping around the house and looking at me through the six windows behind me. From the racket they made, it sounded like they were, most likely, children. There was a door in the far corner of the room I worked in, so, I could easily step outside to investigate. But every time, whoever was out there saw me heading for the door, they ran away. One night, I saw someone creeping around outside with a flash light. The no-scare bear went out there to encounter a rather personable young man, who not only didn't run away, but was quite intelligent and friendly. He claimed not to have known that anyone was living here. To make a long story short, he soon became a friend of the family, and frequently stopped by. We had finally met someone we liked. One day, Eunice noticed an article in the Beacon Free Press. Our friend had been arrested, burglarizing a home. We never saw or heard of him again.
We were slowly realizing that we weren’t cut out for life in the country. We wished that we could wake up in our little bed in NYC to discover that this nightmare had been just a dream. The fact is, we didn’t have a clue what owning a house was all about. But we soon found out! Being renters, all our adult lives, the actual costs of being a homeowner took us by surprise. A monthly mortgage payment, the equivalent of what our rent had been was just the beginning. Huh? After that, came Real Estate taxes, both Home and School! Then, there is the cost of homeowners insurance, followed by utilities. These included electricity, and propane bottled gas, for cooking and water heating. What? We had to pay for water too? We also had to pay for garbage pickup. But all of the above was nothing compared to the cost of HEAT. What heat? More about that in a minute!
Meanwhile, perhaps you might ask, wasn’t there anything that that was nice about life in the country? I’ll try to think of something. Hmm! Well, we got a puppy! Sort of a German Shepard. We got him from a pet shop. And we named him “Pudgy.” What an incredibly stupid name, but it was fitting, because he turned out to be an incredibly stupid puppy. But he was cute, and the kids loved him. Nonetheless, that affection proved to be short lived. When all was said and done Pudgy drove everybody nuts. He had no aptitude for anything, especially, house breaking. Poor Pudgy, as a letter that I wrote to John Fawcett, and he imortalized in a drawing that you will soon see, just reminded me, we brought him back to the pet shop. We later got another dog, named, Bingo. Don't let the name mislead you, Bingo was no winner either, but we kept him, anyway.
You might have noticed that, good old Tom, who was definitely not sold on Pudgy, appears in one of the above photos. Tom was the only member of the family who absolutely loved the country. His unforgettable week of beach combing on Fire Island paled in comparison to his new life in Dutchess County. And he acquired a new hobby, which consisted of bugging me to let him in and out, five hundred times a day.
Soon our first summer in the country was over, and Samantha who was then nine, found herself on a school bus, with kids who would not believe that she had ever seen NYC, let alone having lived there. Their quaintly rural reply was: “My foot you did!” Being shy and somewhat overweight did not help any. Her unwelcome status as an outsider continued in the public school, and soon, her life was one of misery. So Eunice visited, Saint Joaquim’s, the local Catholic school, and met the principal, an amazing nun, Sister Deloris. “Sister,” as we came to call her, was short and dumpy. She reminded me of the sad beagle in 1940s Saturday matinee cartoons, whose name was “Droopy.” And she spoke with an exaggerated Brooklyn accent that would put the Bowery Boys to shame. All things considered, Sister Deloris was anything but the stereotypical image of what one might imagine a nun would be. But, thank Heaven, when Eunice crossed her palm with silver, a tuition that the Catholic Students didn’t have to pay, she let Samantha be a student. And I'm pleased to say, she was much happier there.
Over time, Sister Deloris become a dear friend of the family. So much so that when, years later, she was celebrated for being a nun for fifty years, with a dinner in her honor, at the Archdiocese in New York City, it was none of the devoutly Catholic families of Beacon, but, rather, the semi-Jewish Birnkrant family that she invited to the celebration.
I’ll never forget that day. At the moment it was taking place, my favorite picker was trying, in vain, to call me from the Chicago Toy Show to ask if I wanted an exceedingly rare toy, the Felix Carousel, even though, there was one figure missing! When I was unable to answer, she passed it by! And thus, in light of that sacrifice, I am convinced that I have earned a place in Heaven. Although, Mouse Heaven might be close enough.
If you’ve managed to trudge through this catalogue of mishaps, you are about to discover that I saved the worst for last. By mid-September as the days and, especially, the nights were growing cooler, I finally decided to turn on the heat. That’s when I discovered that there wasn’t any!
When we first visited the schoolhouse, that previous December, Sister Magdalena was living in, and heating, just one classroom, the big one that I had now made even bigger, by tearing out the girl’s bathroom and the ceiling. I assumed that she was doing that, in order to save money. The heat blew out of one large square vent, high up in the brick chimney. Now, after a little bit of exploration that I should have done before we bought the place, I discovered that she had been heating just that one room, because it was the only room in the house that could be heated, the only one that was connected to the ancient furnace in the basement. Although, there was a similar vent in each of the other two classrooms, there was no ductwork connected to them. Naturally, we went into panic mode. Now, we had no heat and no money, both!
In a fit of desperation, I contacted the local Oil company, Garret Storm. They turned out to be lovely. The owner of the company was intelligent and charming, and his chief technician, Rudy, a tall blond haired blue eyed German, who spoke with a heavy accent, proved to be as heroic as his legendary Wagnerian look-alike, Siegfried. Over the coming years, the whole crew of Garret Storm became familiar friends, as the heating system was upgraded. In the beginning, Rudy added an amazing network of galvanized pipes, crisscrossing the ceiling of the cellar, and leading to an impressive number of heating vents, set into the floors, throughout the house. All of these were connected to the inadequate old furnace. Garret Storm did all this quite reasonably, and extended credit, the terms, of which we could manage to meet. What we couldn’t afford was the price of heat!
There were two huge 250 gallon oil tanks in the basement. Together they held 500 gallons, and throughout that horrible first winter they needed to be filled, every two weeks. There was a fuel gauge that consisted of a glass cylinder with a float in it. I applied a piece of white tape to the side of the cylinder, and marked off how much oil the furnace used each day. I could stand there and watch the level falling.
Out of desperation, I cut a hole into the chimney of what we considered to be our living room, and hooked up the potbelly stove that we had used in the old loft. Soon after that, Garret Storm delivered two tons of coal, carrying it into the cellar, in buckets, by hand, and dumping it in a corner, beneath the basement stairs that became, and still remains, “the coal bin.” Because there was no self-feeding hopper in the stove, I had to add coal every few hours, all day and night. Thus, I set the alarm clock to woke me in the middle of the night, to add more coal, and keep the fire alive. Our life became a never ending effort to get warm.
The worst element of this was the fact that there was no insulation in the newly exposed ceilings, just bare boards, covered on the outside with several layers of ancient slate and asphalt shingles. Whenever it was snowing, I could go outdoors and watch the falling snowflakes melt in midair, a foot above the roof. When all the roofs in Dutchess Junction were covered with snow, ours alone remained bare.
Now, I resorted to drastic measures. I spent all the money we had on load after load of 2” thick panels of Styrofoam. I cut these 2’X8’ sheets into carefully measured sections, as the beams were uneven. Then, dragging a sheet of 3/4" plywood up into rafters, and laying it across the beams, I stood an eight foot folding ladder on the plywood, and teetering precariously, I glued the pieces of Styrofoam, between the rafters. This process continued, until the entire exposed ceiling was covered.
As a result of this Herculean effort, snow now actually landed on the roof. That was the good news! The bad, was the fact that our heating bills were just as high as ever, as we struggled through what turned out to be a traumatic winter. As the years continued, we eventually replaced the old furnace with two new more efficient units, added an additional layer of 2” Styrofoam to the ceilings, and acquired two more potbelly stoves. We also broke a hole through the cellar wall, so coal could be delivered easily. And we continued to burn five tons of coal each winter, for the next 48 years.
With winter, came more problems. It soon became apparent that my plan to use the cellar as a studio was impossible. Even with the addition of an old industrial model coal burning stove, installed beside my work bench, the basement remained hopelessly cold. Besides that, it proved to be incurably damp. Moisture seeped up, through the cold concrete floor, causing the waterlogged bottom to fall out of any cardboard box that made contact with the damp concrete, for longer than a week.
Worse still, there were bats down there. My first of many encounters with these creepy creatures turned out to be blood curdling. After terrifying me for several days, the first bat, with its little red eyes glowing, came crawling slowly down the wall, beside me, which I had previously coated with spray adhesive. Not knowing what to do, I spontaneously grabbed Sister Magdalena’s pitchfork that was leaning against a nearby wall, and stabbed it. I was not proud of this. Over the years, I developed more humane methods of dealing with these potential rabies carriers, mostly, coaxing them to go outdoors. There was one in my studio last week.
So, with our first Christmas in the country on the way, I moved my makeshift studio to the big room upstairs, where it remained for many years. Meanwhile, a few days before the Holliday, a fabulous Christmas present from John Fawcett arrived in the mail; the amazing drawing that you see below. John had transformed a letter that I sent him that November, into an elaborate drawing. It sums up our misadventures in the country, humorously and perfectly. Everything is here! Including a reference to something that I failed to mention above. The fact that, as the year was ending, we learned that the State of New York was planning to widen route 9D, which would require demolishing our schoolhouse, which was already hovering perilously close to the highway.
John pictures himself, a rubber stamp lookalike, sharing words of wisdom: “Comedy is only tragedy plus time...By next Christmas this will all be funny!" Woven through this complex drawing, are the actual words of my letter. They sum up our first six months in the country, in much briefer form than I managed to do above. Time has faded the photograph, the very one I shot on the first day we saw our future home. And the fast fading lavender lettering is now almost illegible, as it continues to become invisible. Therefore, with some difficulty, I've managed to transcribe the text of the revealing letter that John attempted to immortalize, before it is too late. The transcript follows the drawing... And that will end this page.
Once a week, I'd travel to Harry’s house in River Edge, New Jersey, and show him the dozen or so product ideas that I had come up with during the week. If he liked an idea, he would produce it. He did not hesitate to commission a model maker to create a prototype, and he manufactured several of the toys that I invented. Some even qualified for patents. Of course, everyone at Colorforms hated this arrangement. And, as usual, they did all they could to discourage Harry from making extra work for them. Harry was determined to ignore their kvetching, and proceed. I was generating some income for Colorforms, but the 5% royalty I was earning on these modest efforts never managed to catch up with, let alone exceed, the weekly advances I received.
Having no money for renovation, there was, nonetheless, one thing I could do for free. That was tear stuff down. So, I ripped out everything I could, knocking down the heavy concrete ceiling in the big room that would one day be Mouse Heaven, and the entire hall as well. This exposed the amazing network of beams that I had found so exciting, when glimpsed by flashlight from the base of the bell tower, on the day that we first saw the schoolhouse. Thank God, I left the crossbeams in place, as I would soon put them to good use. I also completely removed what had been the girls bathroom, a long narrow enclosure, along one wall of the big room, with six toilets and six sinks, making the big room even bigger.
Our good friend Henry Mazzeo Jr. was a frequent visitor to the Dutchess Junction Schoolhouse, right from the beginning. Here we see him on the front steps with Eunice and Toots a few weeks after we bought the place. When we finally moved in, Henry would frequently take the train from Yonkers and spend the weekend with us in the country.
The second image in this little slide show represents one of the local excursions that we enjoyed with Henry, as we explored the various attractions of our new neighborhood. I include this as, more or less, an excuse to add one of my favorite photographs of Samantha and Alexandra that was taken on the same occasion.
Henry was a mild mannered, highly intelligent, and cultured individual. He also had surprising hidden dimensions. Once, when we were driving through New Jersey, Henry and the kids, who regarded him as their older sibling, were in the back seat. Henry proceeded to serenade us with the “Tales of Hoffman” nicely sung, in the original French! He had committed it to memory! I kid you not, and not just excerpts, but the entire opera, imitating the different voices. This performance was interrupted in the middle of the third act, when we reached our destination. I mention this incident to give you a feeling of the sort of person Henry was. Therefore, no one was more surprised than I was, when Henry, helping me tear down the school house ceilings, turned into a raging lion.
The ceilings were made of rough concrete, applied to strips of wood lath that had been nailed to the cross beams, suspended from the rafters. I was on a tall ladder ripping out large sections of the ceiling and allowing them to crash to the floor. While down below, Henry was smashing the concrete into smaller pieces with a hammer, and separating it from the lath, which he broke into shorter pieces. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, Henry suddenly became a Wild Thing, ferociously shattering the hunks of concrete and breaking up the strips of lath by stomping on them with his feet, while bellowing like an angry demon! This violent transformation was downright scary!
Suddenly Henry let out a blood curdling scream! He had furiously trampled on a long piece of lath, breaking it in half, without noticing a long rusty nail that was protruding from it, before it was too late. The nail, which was easily 3 inches long, went right through the sole of Henry’s shoe, right through Henry’s foot, and a good inch of it was sticking out, on top. Blood was everywhere, and Henry, in spite of his attempts to be brave, was in hollering in pain. I managed to get him into the car, with the piece of wood still nailed in place, and rushed him to the hospital. There was a hospital in Beacon in those days, just two miles away. Minutes later, Henry and I were in the emergency room. The two doctors looked at us suspiciously, it was obvious that they assumed we were a couple, an exceedingly odd one.
With Henry lying on some sort of operating table, they set about removing the nail. Henry begged me, “Mel, please hold my hand!” So that’s what I did, while the one doctor held his leg, and the other grabbed the piece of wood and pulled. Henry yelled and sobbed, throughout the process. Clearly it was excruciating! Then, they removed his shoe and attempted to clean up the wound. That hurt like Hell as well! Finally, they gave him a couple of shots, tetanus and antibiotics, and offered him a cane.
An hour later, with Henry’s foot heavily bandaged, we were back at the schoolhouse again. Henry insisted that he didn’t want us to take care of him. He just wanted to go home. Of course, there was no way that he could go by train, so, we got back into the car, and I drove him to Yonkers. His parents were alive then, and his dog Ollie. So they were able to offer Henry an overdose of TLC. Henry was undaunted. He was back at the schoolhouse, again, walking with a limp, the following weekend.
NOV. 4 - 1970
We hate it, hate it, hate it here. Sorry I haven’t written for so long - Last few weeks have been an all-time low, during which, we got bricks through the windows, bonfires attempted on the front porch, state police involved etc. We also got the world’s stupidest German Sheppard puppy - Pudgy by name - Drove us mad - So stupid, jumping around in his own shit, which, along with his toys and dog vomit, was all over the house. Greeks bearing bricks seemed the lesser of evils, so, he went back to the pet store today. Ugh - Barf - He was so stupid, all he could do right was wag his tail. If you threw a stick, he bit your hand.
Our only local friend turned out to be a criminal - got caught robbing a house yesterday. Typical example of local youth! May get 15 years - And other sordid developments, capped off by plans to build a Super Highway through our house ( no kidding ). So we were back to looking in the homes for sale columns in the NY Times. Wish I could plunk my magic twanger, and wake up in my little bed on 28th Street - Phew! What a nightmare! Meanwhile back in “who gives a shit Mickey Mouse Land” No dice on Waddle Book. They want all they got. Fisher just got your dart board + MM-Santa handcar. I just got Nuttin. (local jargon) BB book nothing at all like film - a terrible book - Think I have 2 extras. I’d give you one, only you won’t want it when you see it.
We still have the candelabra, in fact, we were eating dinner by it when the brick came through the window. How romantic! They must love us. “Lil angels.” Naturally, brick now figures prominently in my Ignatz collection...
... Its pouring rain. Bucket under the hole in roof near full. Eunice in bed sick. Heat working better. Managed to get two weeks out of $80 fill up... Goody Goody - Can’t wait until it really gets cold. Henry took the hint. Brimfield was the end. The brick wielding natives turned out to be our nearest neighbors, 3 teen aged girls. Believe it or not, famous for burning down homes in the neighborhood! And when the oldest was arrested for phoning in a bomb threat, it made all the papers - Oh, yes, 2 lunatics escaped from Matawan, our local state institution for the criminally insane (2 miles away) on Saturday - still running around - One’s a murderer . I think it’s shot gun time! Well That’s all the good news - Really depressed- So on that cheerful note, that’s all for now. Love to Jackie - Best Mel - XX from all ...
That summer my mother and her new hubby, Devit Law dropped in for a two day visit. We were meeting Devit for the first time. Both he and my mother were horrified by the house that we had purchased. But Leila had seen the old loft, so, she was not altogether surprised. Devit, who’s lifestyle had always epitomized the ordinary, was mortified! He couldn’t wait to get away. Nonetheless, I believe it was his camera that took the few photos that memorialize the occasion. Their blurry quality and the fact that I am in them, suggests it wasn’t mine. Here we are beside the pool.
The next day we went to West Point and Devit took a few more photos of the family, including some of yours truly when I momentarily wasn’t overweight. I really like these photos of Samantha, looking very pretty, and very happy.
That evening we went to dinner at Howard Johnsons in Newburgh, and I got totally drunk on Cutty Sark. Here are the two photographs of Alexandra, who looks like she was drinking, that I shot on that occasion, just before I fell backwards on my chair, taking the tablecloth and dishes with me. This did not make a very good impression on my new stepfather, or Howard Johnson. We never ate there again!