Squatting on Miller Hill: Part 3
by Shirley White Nelson 6/4/12
“The End of an Era”
Shirley White Nelson
We were isolated, no question about that. My downtown friends refused to come home with me after school. Too scary. I couldn’t blame them. There were several lonely areas on our walk to and from town, not just in the woods. On Prospect Street, Mr. Smith’s fields were unpopulated on either side. If alone, I made it a point to run through that stretch, and also through a short section of the woods, 100 feet or so between the last Beebe fence and our house.
On the whole, we were an upbeat family, not looking for trouble, but I seemed to have inherited an extra watch-dog gene. At home, I was often aware of our vulnerabilities, like maybe a visit from someone with less than noble intentions. Our doors were secured only with hooks and without a phone there was no way to call for instant help.
I worried about my mother, who was alone all day if we were in school and my father away selling. His tendency was to dismiss any fears. Even so, he set up an alarm on the roof, a car horn operated by a battery and turned on by an inside switch on the wall below. It could be heard all the way to Highland Street. A windmill on the roof charged the batteries for that and our radio. We used the radio constantly, and we never had to use the horn.
But one summer evening I thought my worst fantasies were being realized. I was ten. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had come to stay with us for a while. She had been part of our family off and on for as long as I could remember. Now she was ill and bedridden. In fact, she occupied my parents’ bed day and night. There was no way we could care for her properly. This was complicated by the temporary lack of a car.
For some reason, the police department became involved in the process of finding a place for my grandmother to go. On this particular evening my parents were to meet the Chief, Louis Holbrook, at his headquarters. They set out to walk there, with Elaine. Phyllis and Dorrance were both at Scout camps, so it fell to me to stay with Grammy while they were gone.
It was still light when the others left and I knew they intended to be back before dark. They weren’t. I read aloud to Grammy for as long as I could see. Lighting a lamp without adult supervision was forbidden, so she and I sat in the dark, what seemed like an especially black night, for a very long time. She was nervous, I knew, and so was I. I hooked the doors, then sang to her to keep up our courage, every song I knew — Springtime in the Rockies, Yankee Doodle, and two hymns she had taught me herself—Onward Christian Soldiers and I Come to the Garden Alone.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door, the screen door to the porch. I stopped mid-song. Grammy gasped, “Don’t go, don’t go!” I did, though I was terrified. I forgot about the roof horn. I thought it was my duty to face down whoever was there. A man was “there,” a young man, I could tell, even in the dark. He was shorter than I, because he was crouched on his heels. I knew intuitively what this posture signified. He meant no harm. He identified himself as Officer Holbrook, Louis’s son. He had parked his car down on the road, gotten lost on the way, and followed my voice to the door.
At that instant, the rest of the family appeared out of the dark. There’d been a miscommunication, that was all, and everybody now was where they were supposed to be. Except my grandmother, who left soon for a private nursing home.
(Louis Holbrook, Jr.)
As it turned out, the only real dangers we faced came from Mother Nature. One afternoon my mother was struck by lightning as she stood on the porch at the close of a summer storm. She was knocked unconscious momentarily, but not seriously injured. I was not there at the time, so was spared this frightening event. Phyllis recalls that the house was struck at three different points on the roof, possibly through the radio aerial, with two small fires up there and one on a bed below. A box of nails under the kitchen floor was completely melted. Remarkably, human life was spared.
Storms of any kind seemed more intense in the woods. Winters we were sometimes buried in snow, with skis our only transportation down to Highland Street. That at least was fun.
(Merlyn White behind her son Dorrance, headed for civilization.)
The hurricane of 1938 threatened to blow us over the cliff. This was long before hurricane warnings, of course, and we only guessed, based on my brother’s store of random knowledge. Whatever it could be called, it entered the house through the many cracks, billowed the curtains, shook the pictures on the walls, and lifted the linoleum wherever it was not anchored by furniture. Tree branches were crashing down around us. The smell of piney fresh lumber filled the air.
My father was away, but chances are we would not have done anything differently if he had been home. We decided it was best to leave the house and get to the Beebes’. Outside the five of us bent double, holding on to each other in the gusting rain, making progress until we got to Chicken Brook. This benign stream had turned into a swirling torrent, overflowing the bridge and the banks, white-capped by the wind. Getting wet was not the issue. We were already soaked. We started across and found it impossible to stay on our feet. So we turned and crawled back to the house, not sure we would find it still there. It was, intact and undamaged. Like a good little ship, it rode out the storm.
(Downtown, after the hurricane.)
In the fall of 1939 we moved from the hill to the newly available rental on Beebe’s property, a house with electricity, running water and a real bathroom. Life continued to change, as it does for any family. I was in the eighth grade now, Elaine in the fourth, Phyllis in high school, Dorrance a student at Northeastern. My father established Child Life and Play Specialty, building the outdoor swing sets in the garage, transporting them to customers atop his station wagon. War hung over us all. Soon my brother, a Boy Scout leader in town, would wear a different uniform.
Not long after we left the Camp, the town manager, for whatever his reason, entirely dismantled the building. When we finally dared to inspect, we found nothing left where the house had stood but a flattened pile of debris. So no more squatting on Miller Hill, for us or anyone.
One day, many years later, I received a package in the mail at my home, then in Albany, New York. It was from David Hoag, the son of Holliston friends who used to visit us at the camp. Hiking through the woods on the hill, he’d come upon what remained of the rubble. The package contained the only recognizable object he found there, a small flashlight. It was rusty, just a shell of itself—glass, bulb and battery gone. I won’t say it buzzed or vibrated in my hand, but it certainly looked familiar, something like the face of an old childhood friend.
(Intersection of Fairview and Constitution Circle today. Is this is the exact place? Maybe so. Who knows?)
The author sincerely thanks the following:
Paul Saulnier and Joanne Hulbert for their help in preparing this story, and those who have offered their kind comments. Mick and Erin Clark, now owners of the start of the Miller Hill Road, for allowing us to tramp through their property, and other residents on the hill who may have wondered what we were doing there.
“Squatting on Miller Hill,” in its three parts, is copyrighted under the R and S Nelson Family Partnership, 2012.