THE WATER AND THE WOODS
In the essential dream of my childhood I’m in the water or the woods. I’m swimming through an ocean of startling clarity. I’m seeing a thousand varieties of fish; I’m feeling like a fish myself, aware that at any moment a bigger fish might swim my way—a shark or a barracuda. The thought is more exhilarating than frightening. I’m not scared of the possibility of danger. I almost welcome the encounter. I welcome surprise. Nature is nothing but surprise, a world of water whose vastness allows me to disappear into pure beauty.
The lure of the woods is its primitive beauty. My dream life in the woods has me lost in a grove of ancient trees. If I keep walking long enough I’ll find my way out, but I’m not sure I want out. Being lost in the wilds has a certain comfort. There is no destination, no home. I don’t know what’s around the bend—a wolf, a wildcat, a venomous snake. I like not knowing. I like the dense undergrowth, the sharp smells of the forest, the songs of the birds, the ever-changing weather, the dark clouds, the quickening of my heartbeat as I suddenly realize that I and I alone am responsible for my survival. For the rest of my life I will stare into the unknown.
In the water and the woods I face danger and discovery. In my real life, as a boy born on September 10, 1950, and raised in the small, quiet town of Hopedale, Massachusetts, I keep going back to the water and the woods. That’s where I seek anonymity. It’s where I can disappear into wordless, endless wonder.
I’m not saying that I’m able to completely disappear from the emotional ups and downs that characterize every childhood. I’m saying that I want to. My earliest memories all involve being drawn deep into nature, where I welcome, rather than fear, getting lost. I welcome the mysteries that lurk at the bottom of the sea and live inside the dark forest of night.
My parents were good and honorable people. They cared for their two children—my younger sister, Anne, and myself—with loving concern. My mother, Mary, was a graduate of Boston University with a master’s degree. She taught physical education in the public schools. Her mind was both curious and brilliant. She was always reading about everything from the earth’s chakras to the metaphysics of quantum theory to John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. She wore her hair short and exuded great confidence. As a strong and proud working mom of the 1950s, she was a woman of the future—a liberated woman decades before the movement began.
My father, Tony, was equally upstanding. He had gone to Kent State and graduated from Boston’s Northeastern University with a major in accounting. He had grown up in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his dad, a Portuguese immigrant from the island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco, worked in the factories and later owned a funky little grocery store. My dad was born in Lowell and when he was two the family moved back to Madeira where my dad spent his childhood before moving back to the States. After serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces at the end of World War II, Dad graduated from college and began working as an accountant, taking his first steps toward self-reinvention. The family name—Pereira—was shortened to Perry by his father. And rather than stay in Lowell, Dad moved to Hopedale, some thirty miles outside Boston, where the American dream had been set out in the form of suburban perfection. Hopedale was where my father entered the upper middle class.
Founded in 1842, Hopedale was one of the country’s first utopian communities. It began as a picture-perfect Norman Rockwell village of industrious dreams. In the 1850s the Draper Corporation, manufacturer of power looms for the textile industry, took over the town. In the 1950s my dad went to work for Draper as a cost accountant. He and Mom bought a duplex in Bancroft Park and rented out the other side.
Mom’s parents, the Ursillos, hailed from Naples, Italy, and would have loved to see their daughter enter a nunnery. She rejected most of their old-world notions about womanhood, but she accepted their Catholicism—at least to the point of attending Sunday mass and making sure that her husband and children did the same.
In our household there were few if any remnants of my parents’ Italian and Portuguese backgrounds. Only English was spoken. No philosophy but American pragmatism was practiced. Do what works. Adapt to reality. Improve your circumstances by applying yourself. I was raised inside the solid ethos of the Eisenhower 1950s. My mother’s child-raising bible was Dr. Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. The Perrys were all about common sense. Mom taught generations of children the benefits of exercise. Because of his common sense and sterling reputation, Dad was elected town treasurer. Mary and Tony were a well-respected couple. At home, they spoke to one another fondly. They were affectionate; they hugged; they kissed; they were girlfriend and boyfriend. Together, they comprised a formidable tennis doubles team.
I see them in their whites, out on the court during a fine New England afternoon in May, whacking the ball with studied determination. I am not part of their game but, standing close by, I feel their confidence.
I see them flying high in the cloudless sky in a seaplane that my father is piloting. I am not with them, but from the ground below, I feel their exhilaration as Dad buzzes the local baseball field to get a look at the score. The town officials chastise him for flying too low. He’s contrite but I know he doesn’t regret his joyride. Straitlaced accountants don’t break laws, even minor ones, but I’m glad to see that my dad, whose laces are always supertight, has some sense of rebellion.
He was the first guy in Hopedale to buy a Volkswagen Bug. Later he bought a BMW before anyone had heard of BMWs. The color, I remember well, was bright orange.
I also remember Dad talking about his buddies and World War II like it had just ended. He told stories about being a waist gunner on a B-17, the heavy-duty bomber, during the last months of the war. I pictured him standing at an open window on the side of a plane tearing through the sky at two hundred miles an hour, thirty-two thousand feet above the ground. The wind’s coming at an outside temperature of -32°. Dad’s face is covered by an oxygen mask and his chest protected only by a sheepskin jacket as he fires away at enemy aircraft. He realizes that such missions end with a 40 to 50 percent fatality rate. Yet he does what he has to do, a nineteen-year-old with balls of steel.
As a little boy, I would study a tattered black-and-white photo of his crew, amazed that my dad was once so young. He and his fellow soldiers looked into the camera with easy gazes. There was no fear in their eyes. They seemed relaxed about their mission, which, day after day, brought them to death’s door.
I saw my father as a man of quiet courage. His goal for his family was simple—a better life. Postwar America was all about optimism and economic mobility. The war had been won and prosperity was at hand. But prosperity had to be earned through skills forged in discipline. It took discipline to become a professional accountant. It took hard work for a woman in the 1940s to graduate from college. My parents lived disciplined lives. They were neither doting nor overly affectionate with their children, but they were dutiful and always present. Dinner was served on time. Bills were paid on time. We didn’t live beyond our means. We didn’t live on borrowed money. Education was valued. Education was seen as the key to greater prosperity.
My education became the first and greatest stumbling block, another reason why I longed to lose myself in the water and the woods. Like millions of other kids, I had a learning disability—attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—that was neither understood nor treated. Reading was the only subject at which I excelled. I would much rather be reading James Fenimore Cooper than dealing with participles in French.
My poor school performance was puzzling because my parents saw that I possessed intelligence and curiosity. Marine biology became a passion. When I asked them to drive me to Boston to hear lectures by Jacques Cousteau, my first hero, they were happy to do so. They took me to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, a paradise for a kid in love with water. I was obsessed with learning from those men who explored the deep. I wanted to go deep. I was told that if I kept up my grades I could come back one summer and intern at Woods Hole.
That never happened.
My grades were below average. That became the great mystery of my childhood: Why was I having such difficulty at school? I was deeply frustrated. I wanted to present my parents with good grades. I sensed their ambition for themselves and for me—and I wanted to realize those ambitions. I wanted to please them. The fact that I scored high on IQ tests only made things worse. I didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing better, and neither did they. They hired tutors but the tutors didn’t help. I read things three or four times without retaining a word. I was always told to try and focus, but that never worked. At school, I felt like I was living under a cloud.
That cloud extended to another area of my childhood: my dad’s health. The chronology is vague and the memories blurred, but the specter of cancer entered my childhood at an early date. Somewhere in my young years my father went to the hospital. He was gone for an extended time. The man who returned had a dark beard, and I didn’t recognize him. When I realized the stranger was my father, I burst into tears. The ugly scar across his back where they had reached in to remove his cancerous kidney frightened me even more.
Relief from my own struggles at school came from a dreamlike body of water set inside the woodsy landscape of western New Hampshire. Three hours north of Hopedale, Sunapee is a pure glacial lake, a natural wonder of luminous clarity and pristine beauty. The first time I faced the lake, my heart sang. I was a quiet kid, often shy, and not given to outward bursts of enthusiasm. But Lake Sunapee broke down my reserve and had me jumping for joy. To my young eyes, it was an undiscovered world to enter and explore. From the outside it was magnificent, but from the inside—diving under and skiing over its mountain-clear waters—it became even more miraculous. Sunapee became a refuge, a friend, a different and exciting second home, a place that turned my mundane world magical. Its magic turned my life around. Even now, writing from afar, I long to see it sparkling under the summer sun or frozen solid under a white winter moon. Eight miles long and a couple of miles wide, the lake is dotted with eight islands and a shoreline that extends some seventy miles. There are small peninsulas and little lake fingers and sandy beaches wherever you look. The outlying forest is dense with vegetation and animal life. On a night in fall, breathing in the crisp, cool air, you look up into a sky crowded with a hundred thousand stars. In the morning, with the rising sun, you see a hundred thousand trees whose leaves are shimmering gold.
Coming to Sunapee as a child, I fell deeply and permanently in love. My love for the water and the woods never diminished. Later in life, I moved away, but I kept coming back. I couldn’t stay away from the place where, for the first and only time, everything made sense. Everything was right—the sky, the lake, the forest, the sense of calm, the feeling of natural order.
My parents began talking about buying lakefront property to build a cabin. They proceeded with the usual Perry MO: Save until the money is there; do not buy on credit; do not live above your means. After carefully surveying the region, they chose a prime piece of property—it featured a hundred feet of lake frontage, in an undeveloped area. It provided one of the best views on the lake. A foundation was poured. A shell was built. Because my grandfather also did some building, my dad used his tools to do a lot of the work himself. My parents were young and athletic and skilled at manual labor. My mom did the painting. It became a family project, and within a year or two we were living in the cabin. Because there was no water or heat, it served us only during the warm months. We closed it up during winter. But eventually we winterized it—a complicated operation that required running a pipe thirty feet out to the lake. The pipe had to be buried four feet down, below the frost line. I helped Dad dig the ditch with a pick and shovel, a job I usually hated, but I loved this one. I loved anything that would enable us to spend more time at Sunapee and work alongside my dad.
As a resort area, Lake Sunapee had a rich history. There had been many ups and downs. When I was old enough to hang out, I saw the remnants of the forties and fifties. Those were the old hotels that were bustling during and just after World War II—the days when Benny Goodman’s and Glenn Miller’s big bands stopped off to play on their way from New York to Montreal. When I was a kid, those same resorts, in various stages of decay, were still around. There was a decrepit theater, an old skating rink, a variety of old buildings rotting away. At the same time, there was a feeling of excitement from a new generation of kids who hung out at the harbor. The hot spot was an ice cream parlor/burger joint packed wall-to-wall with teenagers, their hot rods parked outside. Some old-money kids cruised up in their parents’ classic Chris-Craft speedboats. The yacht club was still up and running and a focal point for Sunapee’s high society.
My mother, an instructor for the Red Cross, taught me to swim. I took to it immediately. It makes sense that water meant security, because Mom taught water safety and had certified most of the kids in our cove as open-water swimmers.
Water-ski shows in the harbor attracted big crowds. In trying to imitate the fancy tricks, most times I’d wind up on my ass with a nose full of water, but I would keep trying until I mastered it. I was able to pull off most every trick in the water-ski manual—from two skis to one ski to no skis at all. Driving the boat as her son tried mastering these tricks, my mother demonstrated limitless patience. I saw water as the source of endless amusement. And then came that dark day when water became linked with death.
Friends and I were watching a water-ski show filled with the kind of danger and daring that I loved. It was a weekend when my relatives had come to the lake for a family barbecue. The proceedings were interrupted by a loudspeaker announcement: “There has been an accident. A doctor is needed. Will a doctor please come to the dock immediately?” I didn’t think much of it. No one in the show had suffered a fall. The accident must have happened somewhere else on the lake. After the show had ended, my sister and I went back to our cabin, where we saw a police car in our driveway. The atmosphere was quiet, cold. A crowd of people was down by the waterfront talking to my family—my parents plus cousins, aunts, and uncles. Dad quickly took Anne and me aside.
“Kids,” he said, “something awful has happened.”
I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to know. I stayed silent.
“Your grandfather had an accident. He fell from his boat. We’re afraid he’s drowned.”
I remember asking the ridiculous question “Is he all right?” and feeling stupid afterward. But the words had come out and I couldn’t take them back.
“I’m afraid not,” said Dad with what felt like emotional detachment, a quality I inherited from him. “We can’t find your grandfather. He’s gone.”
I wanted to ask where he had gone, but I knew. Gone meant dead. Drowned meant dead. Later I heard how, in spite of the rough water, my grandfather had insisted on going fishing in a canoe. Someone said he’d been drinking. Patrol boats went looking for him. It was two weeks before his body turned up.
For the first time I faced the fact that a person can be here one minute and gone the next. My dad’s dad was a strong presence, a man who did nothing to hide his immigrant demeanor. He wore big black work boots, heavy jackets, and frayed shirts. He spoke with a thick accent. The father of eleven children, he lived the life of a workman. As I got older, I heard stories about how he was actually an alcoholic who could turn violent against his wife and kids.
Yet the water in which he drowned continued to call to me. Maybe it was a way of daring or defying death, but in the aftermath of what happened to my grandfather I plunged deeper into Lake Sunapee. Water was my element. I didn’t want to come up. I wanted to stay submerged in silence.
Back in Hopedale, the woods close to our house held another kind of silence. No human talk, just rustling and chirping and scampering over leaves. I stalked through the bushes with my BB gun, a gift from my parents, a lever-action copy of a Winchester. I loved that gun. I loved my dog, a trusty beagle. I loved hunting chipmunks and squirrels and birds. I loved honing my skills as a junior woodsman. I couldn’t articulate the term, but I had visceral knowledge of what it meant to be self-reliant. I hadn’t yet read the New England writers and thinkers who had turned their dialogues with nature into philosophies, but their thoughts were in my blood. As a solitary creature in a forest where my problems in school didn’t matter, I felt at home. Wild animals lived in these woods. And so did I.
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