Chapter 17 of my memoir, work in progress….
I consider that my post-college phase officially began after the teaching internship at St. Paul’s School, in the late summer/fall of 1983. Since I knew that I had the internship in hand during the remainder of my spring semester at Hampshire College, I really didn’t worry about what would happen after it ended. Again, I just hoped that something magical would transpire to take me to the next step.
In reality, I landed with a thud, and a frightening one at that. I was fortunate to have family in the area – in particular, my Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who lived in West Newton, a suburb outside of Boston. Uncle Bill was my mom’s younger brother – the one who went to Harvard, was a Baker Scholar at Harvard B-School, and was then a successful corporate gypsy in the oil industry. He started out in the Philippines, before grad school, working for Chemical Bank. After the two-year stint in business school, he moved to London to work for Conoco. After a few years in the UK, the oil giant sent him and his family packing to Hamburg, Germany and then Houston, Texas. For a staid New Englander, married to a former University of Illinois Homecoming Queen who had lots of allergies, Houston was about as close to Hell as they could have possibly imagined. But he was high up in the organization, and they survived for five years. My favorite Houston story came from my cousin Bill, who was born in the Philippines, raised in London, Hamburg and Houston, and attended St. Paul’s School, as did his father, uncle, and grandfather. One of Bill’s close friends was the cousin of Dusty Hill, the legendary bass player and vocalist for the rock band ZZ Top. Bill spent Christmas dinner at their house, with Dusty at the end of the table, beard, rock clothing, and the whole bit. The family was a stuffy upper-crust Houston clan, and they did not necessarily approve of what Dusty did for a living, but… “He made a lot of money, so it was okay.” I’ve never quite gotten the image of that Christmas dinner out of my head, which is a good thing.
So Aunt Emily and Uncle Bill, who would become my surrogate parents throughout my 20s and 30s, offered to let me live with them in West Newton for the final three weeks of the summer, and I would have that time to find a job and an apartment in the Boston area. Aunt Emily was on the Cape at the family compound in Bass River, and Uncle Bill was working, so I had their enormous and imposing Victorian house to myself for that period. I was still driving my dad’s 1971 Chevy Nova, which he had given to me in the fall of 1981 with over 100,000 miles on it, and which I then drove across the country by myself.
If ever I had the fear of God in me, it was during those weeks in West Newton. I was stymied, facing the rest of my life and not having a clue what I would do. Everything crashed down on me at once. I wandered around the house, looking at all the impressive memorabilia and artwork that they had collected from their far-flung travels, as well as the imposing Henry Family treasures that adorned their walls, the most impressive being the paintings and artifacts from Captain William Wyman Henry’s infamous travels in the China Trade. Captain Henry was the son of a sea captain, William Henry, who plied the seas in the 1830s. His son, William Wyman, was a captain during the heyday of the U.S. merchant marine: the relatively short period of a few decades (1850s and 60s) before the transcontinental railroad was finished, during which the only way to transport goods from the Eastern Seaboard to the West Coast, particularly, San Francisco, which was booming due to the gold rush, was by ship. So shipbuilders went to work, designing and building the fastest, largest merchant ships that could be built with the technology at hand – primarily, wood, rope and canvas. Donald McKay was among the most renowned designers and builders, with a large shipyard in East Boston. Essentially, the aim was to build the sleekest, fastest hull that would, at the same time, carry as much cargo as possible, and then attach the maximum amount of rigging to attain the greatest sail area, and therefore the greatest speed. McKay and others accomplished exactly that, and sea captains risked life and limb going “round the Horn” (around the tip of South America) to speed goods from Boston and New York, to San Francisco, China, and back. It was literally a race – both for reputation and for commerce – for the captains and their owners. Looking back, it seems a romantic notion, with great wealth being made and life at sea a fantastic journey of adventure. In fact, it was probably a grueling way of life, and the sea captain bore the brunt of the stress. I look at how authoritarianism, self-will, great risk taking and extreme independence runs through my mom’s side of the family, and I have no doubt that it stems from these sea captains – both William Henry and William Wyman Henry. In the early 1800s, William the Elder ran away from the family farm near Topsfield, Massachusetts with his brother John (essentially saying “screw THIS”) to jump aboard ship and learn the sea trade, with both eventually rising to the rank of Captain. His son, William Wyman, followed in his father’s footsteps and became a captain of Clipper Ships, as the fast ships became known by mid-century. His son was William Linzee Henry, who owned his own business – a fat rendering (to make soap) company in Charlestown, Massachusetts – and who purchased the property on Bass River, Cape Cod, in 1896. He and his wife, Florence Gertrude Furbush, had three children, Samuel Eliot, Dorothy __??__, and Andrew Kidder, my mom’s father.
I was intimidated and awestruck as I considered my future in the face of all this family lore surrounding me in this great old house in West Newton. No way I’d ever live up to all this, despite having done well in college and having a name-brand internship under my belt. I was booted from prep school and didn’t attend an Ivy League college. I would never be what I could have been, and I reminded myself of this constantly during these solitary weeks, as I had been doing, off and on, for years. However, I had survived the difficult and aimless period after prep school and was determined to make a go of it. My family’s history of success and achievement did serve as an inspiration, when not intimidating the hell out of me. Unlike my father, for whom failure was almost a foregone conclusion because the expectations were so high that they could never be fulfilled, my Uncle Bill and Aunt Emily were different. They also had the highest of standards, but they also believed in me, and this was a critical difference. It’s also why they played such an important role in my life – they were like parents, but they were not my parents. Though Uncle Bill (also William Linzee Henry) could be the ultimate hard-ass, with his bellowing voice dictating this or that – especially when sailing or at the Cape – he was often rational, kind, helpful, and keenly interested in helping people find practical solutions to their problems. It was heartwarming for me, that this person who I had always felt was so cold and distant, took such a warm and thoughtful interest in me. He was no stranger to life’s difficulties – he too had spent some post-college disillusioned years trying to figure things out – but he pulled himself up and applied himself diligently, and achieved great things. But more to the point, for me, despite my failures, such as getting kicked out of Taft (he was the uncle who was so disappointed), he saw that I had applied myself and recovered, and he and Aunt Emily really believed in me. That confidence, coming from my own distinguished family, was new and different for me, and it helped immeasurably.
With some prodding from a fellow Hampshire Alum who was living in Cambridge – she told me “Yeah, you can get a job as a busboy; all you have to do is apply!” – I got a job at Seaside Restaurant in Faneuil Hall and soon after an apartment in Somerville for $150 a month. I made about $500 a month at the restaurant before taxes, so I was all set. My new life in a new city had begun.