Tuesday, December 18, 2007

My father's business

I'm working on my next column (for early January), which will be about my father and his hearing aid business. How did he get into that business? I asked him in 1996 and he answered briefly. Then he wrote a longer answer and sent it to me:

The Working Adventures of My Life! by N. P. Nichols 3/22/1996

Today I have scanned it into my computer and hope soon to post it on the web, with a link from this blog. I'd like to add photos, too, but that is a larger project. I'll be away from my computer for several weeks in late December and early January.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Hathorne Post Office - history

I have written this month's Remembering Danvers column about the Hathorne Post Office (see photographs in entry below). Curious about its history, I sent an inquiry to the Danvers Archives. This reply came today from Town Archivist Richard Trask:

"On September 10, 1878 a post office was established in this part of town under the name of Asylum Station, being the name of the railroad depot servicing this area. The station had formerly been called Swan’s Crossing Station, though the name changed with the erection of the Danvers Mental Asylum. The post office was located within the station until the 1890s when postmistress Mrs. Ellen Hines relocated it to the Street Railway Station. In 1899 the name Asylum Station was changed to Hathorne and the post office name was also changed."

Asylum Station was on the Essex Railroad, also known as the Lawrence Branch. The 1893 topographic map on this page about Danvers State Hospital shows the location of Asylum Station.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Hathorne Post Office

The Hathorne Post Office
By Sandy Nichols Ward

“Where’s Hathorne?” people would ask me when I gave them my address. If you looked on a road map in those days, you wouldn’t find a place labeled Hathorne. It wasn’t a city or town or county. I’d explain that we lived in the town of Danvers, but our mail came through the Hathorne Post Office. It was a bit confusing. My address for the first fourteen years of my life was 120 Nichols Street, Hathorne, Massachusetts.

“Why is it spelled without the W?” was another common question. I learned to say that Hathorne was the correct spelling not only of our address but also of the famous author’s family name. Nathaniel had added the W later, preferring Hawthorne, but our section of Danvers was called Hathorne, without W.  (The pronunciation is the same, either spelling.)

I have many memories of the Hathorne Post Office. I had often accompanied my parents as they came to mail packages, pick up mail, or buy stamps. Recently I traveled along Route 62 and was pleased to recognize the building and note that it is still in use as a Post Office. I stopped briefly and looked inside for the first time in decades. The old mailboxes have been preserved! There have obviously been renovations over the years, and the entrance was new to me, so I was quite surprised and delighted by the familiar look and feel of the place.

Walking to the Hathorne Post Office was a family tradition. My grandfather, William S. Nichols, walked for exercise as well as mail. In his retirement years he had moved back to Danvers and lived at 123 Preston Street (or 124 Nichols Street after the renaming and renumbering of that segment of roadway). His older sisters May and Margaret still lived in the original family home, called “Pine Knoll,” at the corner of Route 1 and Preston Street. Granddaddy liked to walk to the Post Office and return by way of Pine Knoll to deliver mail and visit. My mother, sister, and I also had a weekly routine of visiting the great aunts at Pine Knoll, including sometimes the delivery of their mail. 

Walking to the Post Office made sense. It was easier and more logical to walk than to drive, especially after the 1950 reconstruction of Route 1. It seemed so silly to drive around three loops of cloverleaf roads just to turn west onto Maple Street from Route 1 South. We also had to go out of our way to drive from Route 1 North (the only direction allowed from the top end of Nichols Street) to Route 1 South. I suppose my parents could have driven out the south end of Nichols Street for a simple right turn onto Maple, but that also seemed like an unnecessarily long way around. Why not just walk? 

All of my father’s business mail as well as our personal mail came through the Hathorne Post Office.  In the early 1950’s my father relocated his factory from a family garage to 500 Maple Street, adjacent to the post office. He had purchased an old roadside fruit stand on Route 1 for about $250 and moved it to the new site, where he had a basement built for it. There he and his employees at Nichols and Clark, Inc., manufactured “UNEX” hearing aids there for a number of years before constructing a bigger factory on Route 1. I see that the building is still there and being well maintained. So much else has changed along Route 62. The Green Barrel is gone, my old school is gone, and many new buildings have been built. It was a pleasure to see my father’s former building and the Hathorne Post Office side by side, just as they had been in the 1950’s.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Familiar buildings on Rte 62, Hathorne

This fall I traveled along Route 62 with a carload of out-of-state visitors touring New England and noticed, among many changes, several familiar old buildings. No trace, of course, of the old one-room schoolhouse, but I did see the old post office my family had used for so many years. I was happy to discover that the Hathorne Post Office was still there and functioning as a post office.

I asked the driver to pause briefly so I could take a few photos.

This was my first visit to Danvers since January 2000 and my first time by the post office in decades. I stepped inside and was delighted to see that it looked much the way I remembered. The old familiar boxes have been preserved!

Next door to the Post Office is another familiar building -- former home of my father's business, Nichols & Clark, Inc., which manufactured UNEX hearing aids. He purchased that building (a former fruit stand) from another location and moved it here in the 1950's.

I will write more about these buildings and associated memories soon.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Screech Owl

The Screech Owl, a Halloween story
By Sandy Nichols Ward

“What’s that sound?” our mother asked as we walked along in our Halloween costumes. My sister and I were quite young. We were excited to be going Trick-or-Treating. We held tightly to Mommy’s hands as we passed through a dark, wooded section of Nichols Street not far from our home. “Shh! Listen. I think it is a Screech owl,” she continued.

We could hear a ghostly “hoooOOOooo” sound in the distance, and then a descending “hoo-oo-ooo, hoo-oo-ooo, hoo-oo-ooo” whistle somewhat like the whinny of a horse. We were eager to continue down the road and gather candy, but Mommy was much more interested in the sound in the woods. She loved nature and loved teaching us about it. She imitated a Screech owl’s call, and then we heard the distant one again. She led us back towards the sound.

Slowly and cautiously we walked through the dark, focusing on the sound. Closer and closer we came, until we approached a medium-sized fir tree at the edge of our yard. The calls seemed to be coming from high in that tree. When we raised a flashlight into the upper branches, we saw two bright eyes! The eyes were HUGE! Suddenly a big voice boomed out, “You’re stepping on my toes! Don’t shine that flashlight in my eyes!”  We jumped back in horror. A talking tree with silvery eyes was too much for us.

We ran as fast as we could back to the safety of our little house. There we found Daddy standing at the bathroom window looking out towards the tree and talking into a gadget. HE was the voice in the tree!  He had rigged up a system for talking through the tree;  he was a clever electronics engineer. We could see a wire running from the bathroom window towards the tree. He had used metal parts from his hearing aid business to create the “eyes” and face of the tree creature. We had been tricked!

The rush of mixed feelings – fear, relief, annoyance at being fooled by our parents – turned into glee as we witnessed what happened next. Some neighborhood boys approached our yard, hoping for Halloween treats. They heard the owl-like calls from the tree, and they too walked close to investigate. It was a thrill to watch Daddy work his magic on these boys. “Stand back! You’re stepping on my toes!” I’ll never forget the scene of those big brave boys running away from that talking tree! One fellow ran across the yard and climbed up our maple tree as high as he could go.   My sister and I felt much better knowing that we weren’t the only ones scared by that talking tree.

That was a Halloween to remember. Of course we gave treats to the boys after explaining the source of the sound. They then delighted in bringing other friends to our yard to experience the Talking Tree.  None of us saw screech owls that night, but Danvers really did have screech owls. We heard them on other nights. Today, as I write this and listen to sound recordings (easily findable on the Internet),  I am reminded both of the real owls and of the long-ago Halloween trick my parents played on us.

"The Screech Owl: A Halloween Story" was published in the Danvers Herald and posted online Oct 31, 2007.

You can listen to Screech Owl sounds and learn more about them at these sites:

Happy Halloween

Recently I have been writing about my childhood Halloween experiences in Danvers. One of my stories will appear in the Herald this week. Watch for it!

Monday, October 1, 2007


This month's column is about seeing Sputnik with my family in Danvers. See the online version, posted today, or the print version, which will be published on Thursday, October 4 -- the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik 1.

As I was preparing the column, I spent some time investigating the history and development of Sputnik. I was dismayed to read that Sputnik 1 was too small to be seen with the naked eye. It was only 2 feet in diameter. What we saw, then, was the much larger rocket stage which had gone into orbit with the tiny satellite. Well, our excitement 50 years ago was real. No matter which piece of technology we saw passing high overhead, it was part of the Russian-launched Sputnik program.

Here is the text of my Remembering Danvers column for October 2007:

Watching Sputnik and other space marvels
By Sandy Nichols Ward

I remember lying on the ground and gazing up at the sky in hopes of seeing “Sputnik”, the first artificial satellite to orbit the Earth. I didn’t know what to expect. The idea of a man-made satellite going round and round in the space above us was very new. The fact that our parents invited us to stay out at night for this purpose was exciting. We spread out a blanket on the front lawn of our house in Danvers, and lay down to wait for Sputnik to come.

There was a problem with our first attempt. Too many trees surrounded our yard. We could only see the sky directly above us, not to the horizons. This reduced our chance of seeing Sputnik. So on another evening we climbed up to the top of a big sloped road-cut beside Route 1, a good place to get a full view of the sky and the horizon to the west. We lay on that rather steep slope, on blankets over the lumpy-bumpy surface of grass tufts and gravel: my father, my mother, my sister and I. We could see over Route 1 and the beginning of the New Hampshire-Maine turnpike, as we called Rte 95 then.

That night, that clear October night in 1957, we did see Sputnik! A small point of light like a tiny star passed across the sky. It wasn’t as close or fast as an airplane, but of course it moved more quickly than a star, so we could be quite sure that we were seeing Sputnik. Wow! It arrived at the expected time, on its schedule of circling the Earth every 96 minutes. This was a thrilling moment.

I didn’t understand then what impact Sputnik might have on my life. I was a young teenager, just beginning high school. Russia’s successful launch of this satellite surprised and startled the United States. U.S.-Soviet relations were quite tense in those days, and everything was seen as a competition. Sputnik provided a push for rapid reform of American science education. We had to catch up with the Russians. Two years later I was in science classes that used an experimental new textbook, which I liked. It combined physics and chemistry into one curriculum with innovative hands-on science experiments that were fun to do. The textbook was so new that we got it in paperback installments. We had a feeling of being adventurers into this new way of learning science. My science teacher urged me to study Russian, which I did for several years in college. I also remember my excitement watching, on a college TV in 1962, the launch of John Glenn’s first orbital flight.

Years later, as a wife and new mother, I returned to Danvers to visit my parents in time for the Moon Landing. We sat together in the living room and watched television on July 20, 1969, as astronaut Neil Armstrong took his first step onto the surface of the moon.  My infant son Chris was sleeping in my lap as I witnessed this amazing feat. Neil said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!” and I suddenly realized that my son would grow up entirely in the Space Age, taking these marvels for granted instead of gathering friends and relatives for a very special TV-viewing party, as we did in Danvers that night. It is now (October 2007) the 50th anniversary of Sputnik and the Space Age.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Garden update

Today I harvested four big beets from the little garden I had started in July. They were delicious! I cooked both the beet greens and the beetroots. We enjoyed both. The beetroots were especially tender and sweet. Yum! (And I'm not much of a beet eater; I had planted these for Ken, who loves beets.)

As you can see in today's photo, my zinnias are blooming well. They seem much bigger, brighter, and taller than the ones I remember growing in my childhood garden in Danvers.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Hurricanes in Danvers

I experienced a series of hurricanes in the mid-fifties and have written about them in this month's column, which was published in the Danvers Herald September 6, 2007. See "Hurricanes in my childhood," below.

I also experienced Hurricane Betsy in September 1961. It hit New England on the day my mother drove me to college for orientation -- quite a dramatic start to my college years.

I hope no hurricanes hit Danvers this year.

Hurricanes in my childhood
By Sandy Nichols Ward

A series of hurricanes hit Danvers in the fifties: Carol and Edna in 1954, Connie and Diane only five days apart in 1955. I even experienced the “eye” of one hurricane, a brief calm period, beautiful and sunny, between the two halves of the hurricane. After the eye passed, the furious storm blew in the opposite direction, toppling trees that had withstood the first winds. Exciting! There were scary moments and close calls, as when the top of a falling tree brushed one of our windows. The scariest part was my mother’s anxiety when my father was away, especially if he had gone to Marblehead to race his sailboat. He loved to sail and was seldom deterred by threats of bad weather, so my mother had reason to fret. Fortunately the races were cancelled in severe storms, and he came home safely each time.

The tension and fear during the hurricanes, when all was dark and crashing, gave way to pleasure and excitement as we were released from the house and could begin to explore the changed landscape. I remember the fresh clear air after each hurricane passed and the special smells of freshly splintered wood and upturned earth. Many of the leaves were upside-down, exposing lighter shades of green. I was young enough to enjoy the havoc caused by these storms and to avoid doing much cleanup work.

The changes were often dramatic in the wooded area where we lived. Each hurricane blew down many tall trees. Some fell across Nichols Street in front of our house, creating a green jungle where once there had been a roadway. Broken branches were strewn everywhere. Our normal routines were interrupted and we could play in these jungles for a while – until the adults got busy with saws and axes. Fortunately the adults only bothered to clear the trees from the roadway and front yard. Other downed trees were left as is for days, weeks, or longer. In the expanse of woods and fields across the street, fallen trees remained where they fell.

A huge elm fell over intact, roots and all, creating a wonderful playground. A large section of grass-covered soil was pulled up high and now draped like a thick blanket over the tree roots. We climbed on top of this mound and played “King of the Mountain.” The tall grass hung down like long hair and as it dried provided a nice slippery surface for sliding. Several children could slide down this broad surface at one time. Fun! We could also explore under the grassy slope, walking into an earthy cave with little roots sticking out of its ceiling and walls. Friends gathered in this newly created clubhouse. As time passed, the moist soil dried and the clubhouse became dusty and constricted as the overhanging blanket began to collapse. All the climbing and sliding on the ‘roof’ hastened the deterioration of the structure, of course. Eventually some ‘windows’ opened, the slope was no longer slide-able, and much of the soil fell from the overhanging roots. But the huge trunk of the elm tree lay sideways there for years of climbing pleasure.

One hurricane brought a large hickory tree crashing down on top of our garage. We didn’t have a regular garage, just a old Army-surplus tent my father had acquired. It was big enough for two cars, one on either side of the tall wooden poles that held up the peak of the tent. The hickory tree fell diagonally across the tent, flattening it. Only one car happened to be parked there at the time. Peering in under the canvas, we could just barely see the old car’s tires, squashed completely flat. We assumed the car was totaled. Days passed before anyone attempted to remove that tree. When the tree truck was finally sawed into sections and each heavy section removed, that old car – a 1932 Model AB Ford sedan -- stood there looking fine! The tires had rebounded. A small dent on one side of the roof was the only visible scar. Amazing! The hurricanes in my childhood provided much entertainment and diversion.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Garden Memories

My column for August, entitled "Garden memories for a summer day", was published Thursday, August 2, on pages 4-5 of the Danvers Herald. The online version is in the Lifestyle section, under Columnists.  [Update 2015: I'm adding a copy of the text here, since the newspaper website no longer retains the old posting, or has moved it to an address I can't find.]

Garden memories

I have fond memories of our large family garden in Danvers during my childhood. One end of the garden was tended by my grandfather, who lived next door. My mother tended the central part of the garden and grew lettuce, corn, tomatoes, carrots, and squash. A small corner plot was set aside for me, and another one for my sister.  I planted carrots and radishes. I didn’t like the taste of radishes, but they were fun to grow -- easy and quick. Zinnias and Batchelor’s Button flowers were also easy, so sometimes I had more flowers than vegetables in my plot. I do remember the satisfaction of pulling up one of my carrots, wiping the dirt off on my jeans, and eating the carrot right there in the garden. That was a special taste!

I remember the fun of crawling through rows of corn, feeling the moist soil with my fingers and enjoying the “forest” of corn stalks towering over me. On hot afternoons the corn rows provided a unique environment of green shade and dappled sunlight. I could hear the hum of insects and the rustling of leaves. I think Mommy sent us into the rows to pull weeds she couldn’t reach, but sometimes I just liked to sit there quietly, looking and listening.

One distinctive sound in the garden was the tick-tick-ticking of the tomato hornworms as they munched on my mother’s tomato plants. She would search carefully to locate these pests and show them to us, pointing out the spots and the “horn” so we would learn to recognize them. They were really quite handsome caterpillars, but had to be removed in favor of growing healthy tomatoes. My mother was proud of her tomatoes; she liked to enter the best ones in the competition at the Topsfield Fair each year. 

My mother was also very proud of her corn and insistent that it be served as fresh as possible.  Nothing beat the taste of corn cooked within 20 minutes of picking! That was her absolute time limit; the pot had to be ready to receive the corn immediately after picking and husking. I understand that today there are newer varieties of corn that maintain their sweetness longer, but my mother was sure the sugar would turn to starch if we delayed past 20 minutes – a very high standard that no supermarket corn could meet.

At the end of the corn season we enjoyed the special ritual of feeding cornstalks to cows pastured nearby. We pulled up the cornstalks, shook off the dirt, piled the stalks onto my grandfather’s big wooden wheelbarrow, and wheeled each load over across Nichols Street to the cow pasture. My mother called out loudly, "Co' boss! co' boss! co' boss!” The cows came running. They hurried to the fence and pushed and shoved to get at the treats we brought. It was fun to watch them shake their heads vigorously as they chomped on the cornstalks. My sister and I tried to imitate them, and discovered to our delight that chewing on cornstalks released a burst of sweet juice. Yum! No wonder the cows liked cornstalks! This also explains why cows sometimes wandered into our garden when they escaped from the pasture, but that’s a story for another day.

Friday, August 3, 2007

On the street where I lived

I'm glad to see the new Danvers Herald series: On the Street where you live. I hope many people respond with information about the history of their homes.

My childhood home in Danvers had a rather short history. It was built in 1940 and torn down less than 50 years later (replaced by a parking lot for an office development). It was a small Cape built at 120 Nichols Street on land owned by my grandfather, who lived next door and wished to have rental income in his retirement. Meanwhile his son was getting married and seeking a home. I've found some letters my parents wrote in 1939-40 as they were courting and planning their future. They intended to find their own house elsewhere, but as their June 1940 wedding date approached, no house to their liking had been found. So they decided to become the first tenants in that little house -- a "temporary" arrangement. Well... they were still there in July 1943 when I was born, and we lived in that house for 14 more years!

My parents did attempt to find a larger house, and did draw up some plans in 1944 for building their own, but they were Depression-era penny-pinchers who did not believe in borrowing money. By the time they had saved enough money to begin construction, I was a teenager. We moved into a 2-story house built for us at 121 Nichols Street, just across the street. I believe that house still exists.

Above my desk is this photo of the original house as it looked in 1941, taken by Bill Goding, a photographer visiting from Yonkers, NY. In January 2006 I wrote a short piece about this photo and brought it to my first day in the "Fun with Writing" group at the Holyoke Senior Center. That first tentative visit and assignment (to write about an old photograph) led me into the joys of writing about childhood memories.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Danvers farms

The front page story in the July 19th Danvers Herald caught my eye: Tradition, adaptation and hope: Farms find growing support. I'm delighted to know that there are still farms in Danvers and that people are supporting them. This month I have been reading an excellent new book about the importance of eating food from LOCAL sources: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: a year of food life, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Collins, May 2007). I recommend both the book and the supporting website: http://www.animalvegetablemiracle.com/.

I happened to read the opening chapter, "Called Home", on Saturday morning, July 7, just before I attended the Grand Opening of a new farm in Holyoke, MA. Both book and farm reminded me of the pleasures of growing fresh food, and I immediately decided to start my own vegetable garden. Never mind that the growing season is half over; never mind that I haven't grown vegetables in years. I felt a strong emotional pull -- I felt "called home" to the gardens of my youth in Danvers. I went into the new farmstore and looked at the seeds for sale. A familiar package sat there right in front: CARROTS, Danvers Half-Long. Well, that cinched it! I bought the seeds and went home to dig up a portion of our lawn...

I am now astonished and delighted by the progress since planting seeds on July 9th. The soil was so warm and moist that week that everything germinated quickly, even carrots! Tonight I have harvested some tiny beet thinnings to add to our salad. Yesterday I spaded over more land and planted more seeds. Every day now I think of my mother's garden in Danvers, and my experiences there as a child -- a likely topic for my next Remembering Danvers column. [update: "Garden Memories" submitted for Aug 2 issue.]

Friday, July 6, 2007

Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July

The Danvers Herald has published my column for July under the title "Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July." I like this title better than my original, which was "Route 1 Hills and July 4th Picnics." I notice that the online version was posted July 3, in advance of the printed paper on July 5. The Danvers Herald recently announced that their website would be updated more actively in order to provide late-breaking news stories. Well, my column isn't news, but I'm glad it was posted in time for the Fourth of July holiday. You'll find it in the Lifestyle section.
Or, follow this link to Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July.
[Update 2015: that link no longer works, so I am inserting the text below.]

Turnpike Tales and the Fourth of July

Recently I was driving up and down a hilly section of Route 1 in Maine, and it brought to mind the old hills in Danvers. Up and down, up and down, went Route 1 in my childhood before the road was widened and the hills leveled. My grandfather, too, reminisced about the hills and told childhood stories of sliding a sled down that road in winter. He and his friends did not need to worry about oncoming traffic, he said, because they could hear the sleigh bells coming from a distance and get out of the way!  

My grandfather, born in 1872, was the youngest of eight children raised at Pine Knoll, the Nichols family homestead at the corner of Preston Street and the Newburyport Turnpike (Route 1). He described the location as halfway from Boston to Newburyport, since the halfway marker was nearby. I grew up less than a mile away. By the time of my childhood, traffic had increased considerably and horse-drawn vehicles had disappeared, so I was amazed by Granddaddy’s tales of playing on the Turnpike. He himself expressed amazement (in 1957, the year before his death) that he had witnessed so many changes along that section of road on one lifetime.

Watching holiday traffic on Route 1 was especially interesting in the days of the steep hills before 1950. The family homestead, being on a knoll near the crest of one of the hills, offered a good vantage point. Looking down the slope to the south, one could see the traffic light at the Maple Street intersection in the bottom of the valley, and the far hill climbing up by the Danvers State Hospital.   July 4th was a time of particularly heavy traffic, and also a time when our family gathered on the knoll. 

A big family reunion and picnic was held outdoors at Pine Knoll every 4th of July. The great aunts prepared sumptuous food. Aunt Margaret made a strawberry-based punch that was very popular. Aunt May created a beautiful fruit basket carved out of a watermelon and filled with delicious fruits.  Cousins came from far and wide to enjoy the day of family activities. There was a tennis court near the pine grove, and enough space between the house and barn for a softball game. Children enjoyed watermelon seed-spitting contests, chasing kittens, and looking at old stereo postcards through an antique viewer.  The Pine Knoll home, originally built by my great-grandfather Andrew Nichols in 1861, was full of treasures from the past. Modern traffic, however, was not far away.  

The traffic sounds carried to our ears, especially when cars collided. Men from our family would rush out to assist after an accident and help get the traffic moving again. That’s probably how the spectator sport of watching traffic began. My father and other men would set up lawn chairs on the knoll facing the road, and pass the afternoon watching. Collisions were quite frequent and predictable because of the big hill and the stoplight in the valley below. When that light turned red, traffic stopped and backed up far up the hill towards Pine Knoll, sometimes almost to the crest of the hill. Meanwhile cars coming south from Topsfield drove quickly over the hill unaware of the column of stopped cars just ahead. Many “fender-benders” resulted. Cars in those days (1940’s) were sturdy and able to withstand such collisions. No serious casualties, just interlocked bumpers. My father and his cousins became experienced at unhooking bumpers!  By July 1950 a cloverleaf system had replaced the traffic light and the hills had been cut down, so the problem of July 4th traffic collisions was solved. The picnics on the knoll continued for some years, until the aunts became too old and younger generations lived far away.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Remembering July 4th Picnics

Every summer our family gathered for a big July 4th picnic at “Pine Knoll”, the old family homestead on a knoll on the west side of the Newburyport Turnpike (Route 1) in northern Danvers. This photo is from the 1950's. The old barn is in the background. My mother, sister and I are visible in the back center. My head is down, busy eating... My uncle Edward has turned toward the camera (my father, his brother, is taking the picture). Left of Edward is my grandfather, William S. Nichols.

In earlier decades the picnics were bigger affairs. More of the extended family lived nearby. I've been told that Great Uncle John used to organize elaborate skits, for which the children rehearsed in advance. Many skits were historical, acting out great moments in history. All involved costumes. Several cousins have recently told me about the fun of acting in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." These plays ended before WWII, so I never experienced them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A photo of Oswald

Here's a photo of the old car mentioned in this month's column. The caption in my photo album reads, "Oswald. 1932 Model AB Ford. Brought out after 6 yrs. storage for my driving lessons." I took this photo in 1961.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

A car named "Oswald"

All through my childhood we had an old car named "Oswald." It was a 1932 Model AB Ford that had been given to my parents in 1940 as a wedding gift from Aunt May, the original owner. There are many stories about Oswald. Recently I have written about an incident involving Oswald in the late 1940's: "An old car in Danvers Square" [published June 7, 2007, in the Danvers Herald; see previous post.]

My parents continued to drive Oswald for many years. It was registered up through 1955, and then sat in a barn with its 1955 Massachusetts license plates for additional years. In the early 1960's I practiced driving Oswald in a cow pasture. My father said that if I could learn to drive Oswald, I could drive anything!

In the late 1960's, when the barn was about to be demolished, the fate of Oswald was uncertain. I wanted to save Oswald, and thought I could use it as a second car in Rockland County, New York, where my husband and I were then living. My father loaded the old car onto a trailer and hauled it to NY for me. (He said it only fell off once.) My husband did some repair work and then we tried in 1969 to register the car in NY, but could never get the required paperwork. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had not retained records as far back as 1955, so there was no official proof that this car existed! Ridiculous! It had been in the family since 1932! A wonderful old car.

Friday, June 1, 2007

An Old Car in Danvers Square

My sister and I often accompanied our mother as she shopped in downtown Danvers. Going to Danvers Square for banking errands and shopping was usually routine and uneventful, but on one day we had a scary adventure. I remember many details about the scene, where we parked, and what happened next. 

We were active girls of preschool ages. We were waiting for Mommy to finish her errands.  She had left us in the car, which was parked on the east side of Maple Street, facing directly in towards the store where she was shopping. My sister was in the front seat and I, two years older, was in the back seat. We were bored and restless. The dashboard of that old Ford had many knobs and buttons sticking out. My little sister pulled one of the knobs on the dashboard, and the car suddenly lurched into motion! The car backed up in a straight line, right out into the traffic of Danvers Square. I dove over the back of the front seats, pushed that knob back in, and the car stopped. There we sat, in the middle of Danvers Square, straddling the center line, while traffic swerved around us on both sides.  We were astonished at what we had done, and worried about how Mommy would react. Quite a predicament!

By the time she saw us, she was very relieved and thankful, after the initial shock of finding an empty parking space where her car and children should have been. No harm came to us, either from the sudden backward motion or from parental disapproval. The event became an anecdote in family history.  I remember the embarrassment and laughter that followed over the years as my mother re-told the story of our adventure in Danvers Square.

We never understood how it happened. My mother had not left the car engine running.  What knob had been pulled? Was it a throttle or choke? That old car was a 1932 Ford, Model AB (transitional between Model A and Model B, my father said). It had been passed to my parents by a great aunt.  We often heard the story of Aunt May’s refusal to trade this car in towards the purchase of a new one because the dealer, in 1940, offered her only $18. She considered the car worth far more, so retained it and gave to my parents as a wedding gift. My parents named it “Oswald” and kept it for years as their second car, useful for local errands. This adventure happened in the late 1940’s.

Today we cringe at the idea of leaving children alone in cars.  But at the time we felt relatively safe.  Perhaps we were safer in the car than when we accompanied Mommy into the shoe store, where we loved to play on the fluoroscope, watching X-ray images of our foot bones as we wiggled our toes!  Danvers Square seemed a calm, modern and safe place in those days, unlike the Danvers Square described by my father in his stories of the “good ol’ days” of his youth.  He and his friends tied small rockets to the rails during crowded 4th of July celebrations,  I’ve been told. He somehow survived his youth, and we survived ours, and life has gone on.

I could tell many more Oswald stories (and probably will in future columns).  The car was notorious for its quirks, among them a reluctance to back up. “Oswald doesn’t like to back up,” my parents would say. But on that day, it had backed up much too easily!