When God builds a lake, He has unlimited time, resources, and creativity. When people build a lake God would be proud of, that’s an achievement.
Deering Reservoir, on the Piscataquog River in Hillsborough County, NH, behind Deering Dam, was built in 1940. It has a normal surface area of 330 acres. The earthen dam is 25 feet high, 625 feet long. It drains 4.5 square miles. There are just a few houses on the shore, not enough septic systems leaching into the water to speed up weed growth and choke the lake. Deering’s small, mostly prosperous population cares about that sort of thing, and controls development.
Rusty Wetherill took me to Deering in 1978, my first year in New Hampshire. We swam 25 yards to an island, picked blueberries, and sunned on the rocks like bears.
“I’m built like a bear,” I thought. “Bears swim indefinitely in water like this. I’ll swim like a bear.”
The water was clear, cool, and flat as glass, like a rain barrel – which is exactly what it was. On other days, the wind ripped through the notch between Mts. Kearsarge and Sunapee, kicked up waves on the lake, and slammed into the trees on the town beach. Then it swirled around the coves on the lake shore, capsizing sailboats.
I’d learned how to swim at the Y like everybody else, but was never good at it. The chlorine stunk. Goggles and nose clips got in my way. You can’t get any momentum when you reverse directions every 25 yards. You never get anywhere. The strokes they taught were for racing.
For a bear, swimming is transportation.
The stroke I discovered was mostly the breast stroke I learned in the Y. I brought my knees up toward my chest, spread my legs, and whipped them together. It generated a lot of momentum. And I breast stroked with my arms.
But the stuff I learned from the bears allowed me to swim indefinitely. I kept my lungs filled with air; they acted like balloons to keep me afloat. Instead of bobbing my head under water, and coming up to breathe, I kept my head above water, and breathed normally. I steered with my eyes. My body always went where my eyes looked.
Three weeks later, I swam my first mile.
By then, I had learned to do the stroke on my side when I needed a rest. And I discovered when you swim in one direction, and build up momentum, you start gliding through the water like a motorboat. Stroking takes no effort.
Swimming a mile a day all summer was my greatest athletic achievement
ever. It was the beginning of healing from two life-threatening illnesses and ten years of constant emotional abuse.
I’d come to New Hampshire the previous December to heal, because, as NH poet Robert Frost said, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
My mom and dad had moved to NH in 1973, and they offered to take me in. Less than a year before my 30th birthday, it was the last place I wanted to go. I’d spent my first 30 years living on concrete in Baltimore, Washington, and New York. New Hampshire was my only choice; I was sure my life was over.
My first winter proved I had to get out of NH the minute I was able. Aside from the humiliation and conflicts of living with my parents as a 30-year-old failure, I lived through my first Nor’easter in January, more snow than I’d ever seen. I was home alone, and I thought I’d die, and no one would find me till spring – even though I was four tenths of a mile from the center of town.
Three weeks after that, we had the famous Blizzard of ’78. Don Kent, who had been predicting weather on Boston TV and radio for decades, said it was the worst combination of wind and snow he’d ever seen. If he’s scared, I’m scared, I said.
I don’t want to write about being sick for 10 years. I’ve tried many times, and had to stop, because I always stopped remembering, and started reliving. Memories are like watching a movie. When you relive traumatic events, you see all the faces, hear all the voices, and re-experience the words and feelings as if they are happening now. It’s hard to stop reliving once you start.
Flashback, the word often used to describe post-traumatic reliving, is misleading. It implies something like a flashbulb on a camera. Reliving sneaks up, and stays. You need skills to make it stop. It still happens to me sometimes, but I’ve learned ways to cut it short, and those tools work 99 percent of the time.
I thought I was mentally ill, with manic depression. Everybody assumed I was because my mother had it. She got well when she started taking lithium in 1969, one of the first lithium miracles in the U.S.
So I started taking it, plus an anti-depressant. For years, I thought I had bipolar and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I thought medicine stopped the bipolar, but PTSD does not respond to medicine because it is not a chemical imbalance in the brain. It’s a normal human resaction to an abnormal event that really happened — in my case, an abnormal decade that really happened.
Now, I wonder if I ever had bipolar at all. Would my life be different if I had peer support, friends, community, and trauma-informed treatment in the 1970’s? A big part of the trauma was losing my friends, community, profession, and (temporarily) my family.
My parents saved my life by allowing me to live in their house rent-free while I got back on my feet. They ignored the medical experts who said they must not do that. It would keep me sick, and I’d be dependent on them for the rest of their lives.
Those geniuses from Harvard were wrong about everything. They thought thinking I was a writer was a manic fantasy, pushed on me by my hysterical, over-achieving parents. That grandiose idea made me sick, they told my parents and me, and it would keep me sick until I let it go. I should get a furnished room in Kenmore Square, a part-time job driving a cab, take my medicine, and sit around the mental health center smoking cigarettes.
“Learn to enjoy the person you really are, not this fantasy. There’s nothing wrong with driving a cab,” they said.
In one of my finer moments, I said, “If that’s such a good thing to do, why don’t you do it?” My parents thought the same thing.
But they got one thing wrong. They thought getting well was the same as getting a job. I looked for jobs when I could, and got two or three crummy jobs that winter. I got fired and had setbacks each time because I was not able to work yet, and the jobs had nothing to do with who I was, and where I wanted my life to go.
The ‘rents underestimated how long it would take to start to heal. They thought I was on medicine, so I was well, like my mother was in 1969. My father, the law professor, could not understand why I was not working if I was disabled. And if I was disabled, why wasn’t I collecting benefits?
(The resident at Beth Israel poisoned my application for benefits, but it took us a year to find that out, three years and a lawyer to correct it. I got 37 months’ retroactive disability.)
While I was swimming a mile a day – the best way to make myself
ready to hold a job, the parents were screaming at me for “going to the beach” instead of looking for a job. And when I got a job as volunteer press assistant for the state Democratic Party, for 10 weeks until the November election, they screamed at me for doing volunteer work instead of looking for a job.
The worst night was after the state Democratic convention September 30, my first unqualified professional triumph in years, the first ever where I got recognition and gratitude from the people I worked with. I got so mad I started screaming at them. My father treated that like a symptom of a disease. ”Listen to what I’m saying, and forget how I’m saying it for a minute.”
I was meeting people who would help me get a job, assembling a professional portfolio of radio ads and campaign brochures, and doing something that would look good on a resume three years after losing my last professional job.
The ‘rents thought I was stuffing envelopes, and calling phone lists, like a campaign volunteer, until one of the regional candidates I was handling came to the house to discuss the brochure I was making for him. Then, they knew I was (unpaid) professional campaign staff. They would not take my word for it because I was sick – manic depressive – and my descriptions of my work had to be warped by mania.
They believed selling house wares in a department store was a job. It had nothing to do with who I was or wanted to become. I got angry, depressed, frustrated, and fired.
When I didn’t have a job like that, I spent most of the winter on their living room sofa. But if that was the best I could do that day, I patted myself on the back for doing my best.
I felt progress, though no one else could see it. After each setback, I did not fall as far back as I had before. Measuring progress by months, not days or weeks, I saw progress at the rate of two steps forward, one back, and three steps sideways. I can’t continue any longer with this digression into sickness.
After swimming a mile a day for a month, I figured that someone who does that can’t be sick. I started thinking about employment.
Since I’d suffered humiliation and setbacks each time I had crummy jobs that winter, I decided to do volunteer work. As a volunteer, I could rest when I needed to. To this day, I suggest volunteering to people who want to get back in the workforce after a long absence. Success as a volunteer will convince a potential employer, and yourself, that you’ve overcome whatever problem blew holes in your resume.
There was an important state election that fall. Gov. Meldrim Thomson, a national board member of the John Burch Society, was running for a fourth term.
Thomson had turned into a bully. He ordered his state police driver to chase down and arrest a motorist for gesturing at the governor’s unmistakable green Lincoln. He annunced that any state employee who opposed the Seabrook nuclear plant would be fired for insubordination. A second unit was under construction, stalled by cost overruns and regulatory obstacles. Whether to continue building it was the top political issue in the 1978 election.
He arrested a guy for taping over the state slogan “Live Gree or Die” on his license plate. (As a Jehovah’s Witness, he said the slogan was against his religion.) The federal court threw that case out, so the guy taped over it again, and got arrested again. This time, the court awarded him damages, which Thomson refused to pay. The judge sent deputy U.S. marshalls to a state liquor store to confiscate the receipts until the judgment was paid.
After three 2-year terms, he was losing support. Even Republicans thought he had become an embarrassment to the state. The legal fees and damages the state had to pay for his right wing antics had become a campaign issue. His support of a surcharge on all electric bills to pay for construction work in progress (CWIP) on Seabrook II was like a sales tax on electricity.
The Democrats, still a tiny minority in the state, thought Thomson was beatable in 1978. They had the right issue (CWIP), a good candidate, Hugh Gallen, who owned a car dealership upstate, and the organization to beat him in November.
I did not know Hugh Gallen, or any Democratic activists except my mother and father, who were very active, but too liberal for many in the party’s mainstream. The party’s left wing could win nominations in Democratic primaries, then lead the party to humiliating destruction against Republicans in November, by supporting a statewide income tax.
So before I volunteered FOR the Democrats, I volunteered to work AGAINST Thomson.
Someone must have called ahead before I walked into Democratic headquarters.
“Ever work for newspapers?” the party’s executive director Ricia McMahon asked me. “OK. You’re the press assistant. The newsletter goes to the printer Friday. The stuff’s over there.” She pointed to a corner of the Xerox room full of boxes overflowing with paper – “stuff,” not files or folders.
So I dug in up to my elbows, and the newsletter went to the printer
Friday. It was mostly about the Democratic State Convention, which would be September 30, 1978, about six weeks away. The keynote speaker was Ted Kennedy, who was considering challenging Jimmy Carter for President in the Democratic primaries in 1980. In the state with the First-in-the-Nation Presidential Primary, presidential politics are a favorite participant sport 48 months out of every four years.
Between the newsletter and the state convention, I gave press help to Democratic candidates who needed it. My main two candidates were Peter Allen, a candidate for state senate, and J. Wilcox Brown, who was running for Executive Council against moderate Republican Malcolm McLane, a blue-blooded New Hampshire monument as prominent as The Old Man in the Mountain. Will Brown, the Democratic National Committeeman, had been active in the party so long that nobody remembered when he started.
Malcolm was a charter member of the “Green Underwear Crowd,” who lost control of the party to William Loeb, editor and publisher of the state’s largest newspaper, and Thomson. Malcolm never got over it. It was about class issue, not just political philosophy.
I spent a lot of time driving Will, who could no longer drive at night, to campaign events.. We really got to like each other.
Will and Peter Allen were both foresters. In New Hampshire, foresters and hunters are almost all strong conservationists. Pete was a hunter as well as a forester.
Will convinced the party leaders that the Democrats had to contest every office on the November ballot, including county offices. We needed to look like a real political party, not a bunch of marginal people who only ran for governor, Congressman, U.S. Senator, and almost always lost.
We did not contest most seats in the state Legislature, or county offices, because we could not recruit enough candidates. That’s how I became the Democratic candidate for Sheriff of Merrimack County.
I did not have a chance. There was no reason to vote against Dana Daniel, who had been sheriff for 20 years. I had no background in law enforcement or administering a county jail. Will said it was too bad I could not run for sheriff in Strafford County. That would have made me the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Ted Kennedy already had a grassroots group of Democratic activists in NH, running a write-in campaign for Kennedy in the Presidential primary in February, 1980. The state party leaders wanted their convention to make national news that would help them in the 1978 state election. Half the Washington press corps came to New Hampshire for the convention to see how Kennedy did in his first Presidential campaign visit with 300 of the top Democratic delegate/activists.
Half the Washington press corps flew up to cover Kennedy’s New Hampshire trip. As the party’s press assistant, I fielded all the calls for credentials from the national media. We’d have a little conversation.
“Thomson has no problem, does he?” they’d ask.
“We think he does,” I’d say. Then I told them about Hugh Gallen, CWIP, and our party’s rank and file, which was united and motivated like never before because they thought they could elect a governor. “We have the candidate, the issue, and the organization to win,” I’d say.
“McIntyre has no problem, does he?” Tom McIntyre was a long-time Democratic U.S. senator, an anomaly in the state because he won statewide elections consistently.
“We think he does. He’s running against a young, clean-cut
Republican airline pilot, named Gordon Humphrey, who represents the ‘New Right.’ New Right was the name the national media gave to a group of young, ultra-conservative political neophytes, who were winning elections all over the country, like the Tea Party today, but they were much more polite.
My bosses in party headquarters probably wished I didn’t mention unknown Gordon Humphrey. But as press assistant, I thought my job was to assist the press, as well as bang the drum for politicians.
My goal was a career in media, not working for politicians. That meant I had to help the reporters do their jobs, and I absolutely could not lie to them. I could not outlive or repair the damage a lie could do to my credibility in this election and the future. Once, Ricia told me to lie to the press, and I said, “You can lie to the press; I can’t.”
Some of the national reporters who called were celebrities I’d admired all my life: David Broder, Jack Germond, Tom Ottenand of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Mary McGrory. They all maintained relationships with opinion leaders in the state, to listen to the grassroots that would decide the First-in-the-Nation Primary.
Most of the Washington reporters flew up with Kennedy on his chartered plane an hour before the convention, and flew out an hour after it ended. These stars came up two days in advance and talked to people. Doing that consistently , with pencil, paper, a telephone, and shoe leather, is what made them stars.
I told Jack Germond not to take my word about our rank and file. “Get out on the floor and talk to the delegates,” I said.
“I will if the floor is open to me,” he said.
I quickly improvised party policy: “Open to you? We’re Democrats,” I said.
The star reporters took our party chair out to lunch; she came back to the office jumping out of her skin. “They didn’t want to talk about Kennedy! All they wanted to know was who’s Hugh Gallen and what’s CWIP!”
They never heard of Hugh Gallen or CWIP till I told them, but we knew they didn’t take my word for it. They called their contacts in the state. When they asked our party chair about it, it meant our message was getting through, and, for the first time, we were hearing it echo back from A-List reporters. That’s when we knew we would win the election, before anyone took an opinion poll, or cast a vote.
My dad was chairing a meeting of the Henniker Democrats in his living room that day. I got there late, full of this wonderful news from our campaign, that no one outside the party’s office knew yet. Dad was leading a grief session over the 1976 candidate for governor, Harry Spanos.
“You gotta stop this. Gallen can win, but only if people like you work hard,” I said.
“He isn’t Harry,” my father moaned.
“Grieving over the past will lose us a winnable election,” I told the Henniker Democrats.
The convention was, for me, a moment (day, really) of professional excellence, the kind that can keep you going for a year. I handled a crisis when the vans Ricia arranged to transport the press to and from the airport didn’t show up. She had borrowed them from her friends at her local Community Action Program. Using resources from a federal poverty program for a partisan political activity is illegal as hell, and what is more partisan than a state party convention?
I put that fire out, and never asked Ricia why she did not hire regular airport vans, and charge the reporters a few dollars on their expense accounts. The party could have made a few extra dollars, and saved two major headaches, Ricia’s and mine.
I didn’t say shit to Ricia for two days before the convetion, though she shoved enough down my throat to choke a mule. The details are not important. Everything I said or did was wrong enough for her to yell at me. When she wasn’t yelling, she treated me like the lint on her suit.
Several volunteers were in the office helping her, holding her hand, because she was in full panic mode. I thought about telling one of them that if she doesn’t start treating me right, I’ll walk out and they can handle the Washington press themselves. I also thought about walking out without a word, or with a dramatic exit line like “Fuck You, Ricia. I’m a volunteer, and I don’t have to take this.”
But I decided to be professional, and silently manned my station. She would not even rent me a hotel room the night before the convention. I’d have to leave my house before 6 a.m. to help set everything up. Will Brown was in the office when I fussed about that, and he bought me a room.
Raymond Buckley, the 18-year-old administrative assistant, who is now state party chair had worked with Ricia before. “Wasn’t she a bitch to you?” he said when no one else was around. “She gets like that under pressure, and you were the target this time.” Knowing someone noticed made me feel better.
The day of the convention, Ricia yelled at me a couple more times, but I ignored her. By this time, she was making no sense at all. I spent the first part of the morning hunting down vehicles to meet the press plane at 11 a.m. When that was all set, I walked down to the convention floor. Ricia wagged her finger in my face and shouted, “Where have you been?”
I wore my best suit that day. It held its shape perfectly when everyone else’s clothes were wilting. I kept my shape too, smiling and looking perfectly relaxed all day. By the end, Ricia was collapsed in a chair, asking me how I held up so well. I wish I could find another suit like that one.
Newsweek sent their new New England correspondent, and I made sure she got private visits with all the party leaders, including the man who would be governor. She thought they were “marvelous people.”
The Reuters correspondent, for some reason, thought everything I said was hilarious . I put him together with Gallen. Gallen, who was very shy, asked what he should talk about. “Be totally honest,” I said. The more I saw of Gallen when he was governor, the more I saw how honest he was.
A week after the convention, I gave myself a 30th birthday party. My new community — friends from Henniker, a few political friends, and my parents, brother, and his wife — were there.. The invitation was a summons to appear, signed “The Sheriff.” When Will Brown called to say he was coming, he was laughing so hard he could not get the words out.
It was the first time in ten years that I felt better, not worse, than I did the year before.
The NH Times posed as the liberal alterative voice to William Loeb and the Union-Leader.
Their political reporter, Rod Paul, always reported the conventional wisdom like it was personally revealed to him on Mount Sinai. The conventional wisdom then was that Democrats always lose.
So when Hugh Gallen won the election, Rod called it “an amazing upset. No one could have predicted it.” The Democratic campaign staff predicted it September 28. He would have too, if he had invested some pencil, paper, shoe leather, and telephone time, and known how to read pre-election tea leaves.
Paul almost skunked my state senate candidate, Peter Allen. I found out he was going to print that arch-conservative Jack Chandler, who had been in state politics for 50 years, had “token opposition.”
“Happy Jack,” as everyone, including himself, called him, once put in a bill to require birth certificates for all aborted fetuses. The intent was to force the mother to name the baby she’d just killed, adding one more punishment to the woman who was often punishing herself already.
Because Rod Paul never heard of Peter Allen, never talked to a voter in Peter’s district, and never turned on his radio, he did not know that Pete had knocked on thousands of doors, had a strong personal base as a fiscally conservative regional school board chairman, and was the first state senate candidate to advertise on radio – because, at the last minute, his campaign raised $750 dollars.
Peter called me ten days before the election, and asked me how much radio time he could buy for $750 in the last week of the campaign. The answer, in his district back then, was saturation.
So I got Paul on the phone before he printed “token opposition,” and told him all this. Instead of printing “token opposition,” which would have cost Peter votes among the Times’s liberal readers, he printed, “People working with Peter Allen think he might have a chance to win.”
“Landslide Pete” won by seven votes. If the margin had been wider, I would have been sorry I stopped Rod from looking like the idiot he was. Instead, I was glad. “Token opposition” in the NH Times could have cost Pete the election
“Any election with Jack Chandler in it is important to Times readers,” I told Rod, “whether the reporters think his opponent has a chance or not. You should have paid attention to the campaign, not yout opinion of it. You didn’t even know there was a race,” I said.
Peter Allen won by seven votes, and Will Brown was crushed by Malcolm McLane. A “token opposition” story would have cost Peter the election. The radio ads, and everything else everybody did, won it.
The Times was really a bunch of clueless preppies, as I found out after the election, when I applied for a job as a copy editor there. The senior editors were laboring to decide whether to adopt AP Style (Associated Press) or UP Style (United Press International). There’s not a dime’s worth of difference, except that AP is used much more widely, so the Times would be stylistically compatible with most of the stories they picked up from elsewhere. Converting AP style to UP is time-consuming for a copy editor. Belonging to AP would also give them access to anything in another AP publication.
Then the Times editors told me the copy editor’s job included writing Rod Paul’s weekly story from the information he gathered. I could not contain myself. “You mean, in addition to being a lazy, sloppy reporter, he also can’t write?”
“He’s a vast storehouse of information,” they said. I did not get that job.
The Times went out of business in the ‘80’s. For years, they wrote for educated liberals who moved to NH from more cosmopolitan places, but they never learned to write for the same people after they’d been here a decade or two.
I once thought about publishing a parody of the NH Times. The stories on the cover would be “The Public Utilities Commission – Again,” by Rod Paul, “Hanover: The Real Story of Dartmouth’s Secret Control,” and “Life on a New Hampshire Forsythia Farm.”
Gallen beat Thomson, and McIntyre lost to Gordon Humphrey. McIntyre’s campaign was managed by the chief of staff of his
Washington office. It always felt weird. After the election, everyone found out that McIntyre had cancer. The campaign manager shielded him from all but the most necessary events, and contact with individuals.
But in the last two weeks of his campaign, Senator Tom was so sick and exhausted, he could barely talk straight. They asked me to put together a meet-and-greet in downtown Henniker, going into the stores and college offices.
He got ambushed by some college kids and was left speechless. We wanted to schedule a quiet luncheon with the faculty, but someone in the campaign, probably his dumb Merrimack County coordinator, said “No. We want him to meet the people.” So naturally, I got blamed for scheduling the disaster.
Gallen’s campaign called my house at 5 p.m. one night, saying he would be in town at 7:30. We had to find him a place and an audience. We did.
I personally campaigned in bar rooms and Legion halls, went door to door, created and distributed campaign brochures., wrote press releases, wrote and produced Peter Allen’s radio ad, bought the time, and delivered it to all the stations. I helped media people contact candidates. Everybody worked that hard.
I think one thing that helped us was that we had the most beautiful fall weather and foliage anyone could remember. People felt good, more open to change. Driving to every corner of the state on campaign business gave me an unforgettable view of Fall Foliage
After six years at the public trough, Thomson’s people could not match that energy and conviction, so they lost. Rod Paul, the great storehouse of information, said it was an amazing upset; nobody could have predicted it – except the Democrats in party headquarters, who predicted it six weeks before the election.
The other big news from the campaign was that I was no longer “sick.” A sick person could not swim a mile a day for two months, or do what I did in that campaign. And the sickness ended, and recovery began, in Deering Reservoir.
I pursued a career in journalism, not politics. When you work for politicians, you have to be nice to them. When you work for a newspaper, the politicians have to be nice to you.
Starting a newspaper career was hard, full of setbacks and discouragement, plus an ill-advised detour to North Carolina to study broadcasting, and a serious relapse.
TV did not value what I did best, talking to people, learning and writing nuanced stories about them, or explaining complicated things in language people could understand. I could not wear a 40 Regular suit, or tell stories in less than 45 seconds.
When I went back to NH for Christmas, everybody I knew treated me like I was home. “How are you, where have you been, what were you doing, how long can you stay?” No one ever treated me like I was home before.
I had no idea New Hampshire people thought I was part of their community. New Hampshire people don’t express things like that. I thought the New Hampshire people I knew did not care when I was there, or notice I was gone. Knowing New Hampshire was home changed my life. I quit the broadcasting program, came back to stay, and went for a master’s degree in non-fiction writing at the University of New Hampshire writers’ program.
I worked five years on weeklies, and ten on a daily. In New York, I was an occasionally brilliant writer. I could psych myself into a creative spurt on deadline. But as I got older and more traumatized, the creative spurts got farther apart, and I could not psych myself into one.
At the newspapers in New England, I produced professional-quality craftsmanship every day for 15 years. By the time I was downsized, no one could call me crazy for saying I was a writer.
And it all started when I jumped in a lake in Deering, NH.