Wednesday, August 14, 2013

31494. Robert D. Sayrs

Every Thursday afternoon, back in 2000, Rob Sayrs would shuffle into the Scituate Historical Society's Little Red Schoolhouse at 43 Cudworth Road. It was his turn to volunteer, three hours every week, ad nauseum. At the time, I was the only paid employee of the organization.

So we would talk. He would tell me about his work in Philadelphia as a young man, and his days in the Army. And so it went on his stone, "S Sgt, US Army, World War II." He would talk to me about his wife Connie - who I'm pretty positive I never met - and about his passion for historical research.

It was a focused passion. Rob tuned in specifically on one thing: double-chimney Capes. He was so interested in the topic that he wrote a pamphlet about it, covering the architectural details of the handful of examples that could be seen on the South Shore of Boston, small Cape Cod-style houses that had, instead of the central anchoring chimney, one at each end.

A few years later, I cycled out of Rob's life. I went to work across the river for Mass Audubon, literally 10 minutes away, but in a completely different world. I had no idea Rob was gone when I walked into his cemetery, but it made sense. He was more than 80 when I knew him, and that was 13 years ago.

Besides, if I ever want to talk to Rob again, I'll just go pull his pamphlet off the Scituate Historical Society's shelves on Cudworth Road. I'm sure it's still there. Those guys keep everything.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

31165. John Cheever

Quincy, Massachusetts, can lay claim to the birth of John William Cheever - yes, that John Cheever - but Norwell is where he resides permanently.

Cheever had a tumultuous, at times torturous life. He came of age when the Depression hit and his family was tearing itself apart. He wrote when he was young, then learned to hate his younger writing self. He transformed over time to become a talented short story writer and then an author. For many of us, the association is Falconer, one of his novels. For others, it was the role he posthumously played on Seinfeld as the lover of Susan's father. Although written for comedic effect, the truth was there. After his death, Cheever's daughter outed him as bisexual in her own memoir. The fictitious Susan found out about her father the way that the Cheever children had found out about their father, from letters long held secret.

Again, though, we have an author without any words. Instead we have a marker signifying his military service during World War II, and a weeping willow tree, that ever-symbolic carving found so thoroughly across the New England landscape.

Reading about his life, the term "rest in peace" really has meaning. One can only hope.

Monday, August 12, 2013

31121. William Gould Vinal

Such an unassuming stone for such a remarkable man. And I don't just say that because I work for the nature center he founded so many years ago.

No, Captain William Gould Vinal has long been a hero to me. He was a champion of open space preservation, once envisioning a "South Shore State Forest" that never came to be - at least not all of it. Parts of the land he coveted for conservation are today's Wompatuck State Park and Black Pond Bog Nature Preserve, among other parcels.

He was an old soul at an early age, keeping diaries, learning about the history of the region he grew up in. He has left us scores of written works, from books to pamphlets, about nature guiding, nature education and anything else related to nature. I carry some of his work around in my car with me at all times. He was a giant in his times, yet here he is in Norwell - bis beloved Norwell - buried in an out-of-the-way corner, under a stone that is hard to see without a weed whacker.

And there are no words. He said enough in life to deserve the break from having to deliver any final inspiration.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

30947. Enoch and Samuel Harris

Are you kidding me? I finally make it back to the mainland, visiting the cemetery in the heart of Norwell, and the first stories I find are those of brothers "Lost at Sea." Haven't we covered this story already? More than that, Norwell's landlocked.

OK, in fairness to Norwell, there is a backstory to tell. Norwell was once South Scituate, and before that it simply was part of Scituate, meaning that it has coastline cred in its past. More than that, it was a place where ships were built and launched, for almost two centuries.

So there was reason. But why? How? Where? I have yet to track down answers to these questions, but the fact was that these boys sailed during the height of the Age of Sail. They weren't the first, and weren't the last sailors to die at sea. Lost together, or apart? I may never know.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

30694. Bob Noyes

If I know anything about fishermen, it's that they keep secrets. And they lie. So maybe I know two things.

I'm not making the latter part up. The secrets we all know about. Fishermen don't give up the best places to fish, they keep them to themselves, as they should. But I'll tell you a story about being out on a boat one night with a friend, an older gentleman who had spent his whole life on the water. We were out in the bay when another boat approached and the captains exchanged pleasantries, as friendly as could be. Then, came the question. "Do you have any extra bait?"

Now, my captain and I had just gotten underway, and we had a lot of fishing ahead of us. And I knew for certain, 100 percent, that we had bait to spare - I had bought it, part of paying my way for the night. But there he stood, flat-footed, arms out to the side with a shrug, "Nope, we're cleaned out. Got nothing to give you."

LIAR! But what did I care.

I learned that night, too, from my captain, that fishermen live by two days in their lives, joyousness attached to both: the day they buy their boats, and the day they sell them. My guess is that Bob Noyes was not a 1970's detective television show buff, but instead owned a boat much like the one emblazoned on his headstone. And I'll bet he named in the Sparrow.

And I'll bet, like his marker says, "His eye is on the Sparrow," even today.

Friday, August 9, 2013

30460. George Harley Chamberlin

The fact that the Chamberlin family went to the length they did to attribute George's epitaph to Charles Dickens is truly commendable. One might think you'd be happy enough to just go with the words "Once a gentleman, always a gentleman" unattributed, as it seems to be such a generic, accepted part of our language. But everything starts somewhere.

It may simply be that when dear George passed on, the family gathered and said, "Well, there's only one way to sum up his life. He was a gentleman, plain and simple. Somebody go get Bartlett's book of quotations." Perhaps that's how they found it. But there's always the possibility that there was a huge Charles Dickens fan in the family.

Maybe someone had taken their Major British Writers class in college (At UMASS Amherst, when I was there, anyway, English majors forced to take it called it "Major Boring Writers." To each his own...which, by the way traces all the way back to Suum cuique in Ancient Rome. But I digress...). The knee-jerk reaction would be to say, "Ah, yes! Dickens. It must be from A Tale of Two Cities, or Nicholas Nickleby. Yes, I think I remember it being in there somewhere. Chapter two." Nope.

The origin of the phrase used in George's epitaph is an obscure novella in a magazine Dickens published for ten years called Household Words, the title for which was taken from a Shakespeare quote from Henry V. (Okay, now I'm getting dizzy). The quote came from "Eleanor Clare's Journal  for Ten Years."

The full context is: "She felt about it much as Grannie feels that is to say very indignant and besides she did not refrain from insinuating that the heiress of Ferndell might look higher in the world than to the son of a manufacturer. Mrs Lake does not know Herbert Clay or she would not say that. I might have answered that once a gentleman, always a gentleman would apply to him but refrained. To compare him with such men as young Curling, Freddy Price or Sir Edward Singleton, seems a positive degradation. But it vexes me to feel that it is possible for anybody to look down upon him. If I could once show him here - his fine countenance, intelligent, good countenance - no one would ever think of speaking slightly of him again! But I see no chance of that while our engagement is unsanctioned."

Do we consider this a case of Charles Dickens writing in drag? Or is that just another can of worms into which we dare not delve today?

Thursday, August 8, 2013

30358. William J. Robinson

Robinson, William J. "Lost at Sea." Yes,, another one.

How did it happen for this youngster? He was aboard the fishing schooner Lizzie D. Barker on August 24, 1873 when a storm blew up off the Cape. How bad was the storm? Here's how the news played out in Gloucester:

"Like a clap of thunder from a cloudless sky came the rumor into town, on Tuesday, August 26th, that there had been a terrible gale to the eastward, extending all along the Canadian shores, causing destruction in its pathway by sea and land, sweeping, with sad havoc, among the fishing-fleet in the Bay of St. Lawrence and around Prince Edward's Island. Gloucester had one hundred and thirty-eight of her vessels in those waters, and the anxiety to hear from them was most intense. It was also feared, and it has proved too true, that the gale had extended to George's Banks, where there was quite a fleet. The news came slowly, and the reports at first were somewhat contradictory. But sufficient was received, during the next day and evening, to convince our people that it had proved one of the most terribly disastrous storms that ever occurred in those waters; and those having friends there began, as best they could, to prepare their minds for intelligence of another large loss of life."

We presume, in this instance, that "lost" means swept overboard. The ship sailed on for several years, but for this one young man, the adventure was over.