* * *
Two years before I was born, and a year before the Great Depression, my father, William Whittaker, finished the family cottage on the sand bluff on 48th Street.
I later discovered that we were among the more fortunate families of the depression. Mom and dad weren't significantly affected. Will, that's what everyone called my dad, didn't lose much work. He was the foreman of the Boston & Maine freight yard in Haverhill, and even during the Great Depression, the trains ran.
Fresh vegetables and meat still arrived daily, and the railroad employees didn't do without.
The mills along the Merrimack River were no longer thriving. Shipments to and from the factories decreased as businesses received fewer orders. The trains continued but were less frequent, and eventually they laid off some yard workers.
In 1925, Dad’s cousin hit upon rough times and offered Dad a piece of sandy land on Plum Island. He couldn't refuse it at that price. So in 1925, my family owned a pile of sand on Plum Island overlooking the Basin.
The fact that Dad finished building the cottage in 1928 was quite impressive.
He was born in 1890, and he and Mom were married in 1910. Now, that's not the remarkable part.
The United States became involved in World War I in 1914. Dad was among the first drafted into the service in Haverhill. That may be significant, but that's not the impressive part.
A month before he was to leave for basic training at nearby Fort Devens, he became sick. Dad was diagnosed with polio. He was fortunate that it didn't affect his lower limbs. No one could explain why it was a mild case, but it was severe enough to lose the use of his left arm permanently.
Now, this is the impressive part. Dad built the cottage at Plum Island with one arm! That's right. My dad is a remarkable man. It took him three years to construct the original cottage of about nine hundred square feet. He had help with the footers and trusses, but weekend after weekend, he would go to the island with my brother, Al. This was two years before I was born. Al was thirteen at the time and old enough to help Dad lift and carry. They would sleep in the sand in the crawl space under the house.
After the roof was in place, the four of them traveled down weekends to finish the cottage—Mom and Dad, Al and my sister, Mildred, whom they called Millie. Millie was eight years older than me, and Al had moved out before I could remember him ever living at home.
Dad kidded that they never planned on me. He said I was a by-product of the depression. After the market crashed on October 29th, 1929, he spent several weeks at home. Everything came to a halt.
By early spring, the market showed signs of recovery, but the rally didn't last. Real recovery didn't start until 1933, and what was considered full recovery didn't happen until 1941, just before the United States entered World War II. And Wall Street? It didn't reach the closing level of September 30th, 1929, until 1954.
* * *
I don't recall too much about the Great Depression, but I can't remember a time when I didn't spend the summer at Plum Island. Mom said that on Labor Day 1930, she cradled me in her arms for my first trip to the island. I was a little over a month old.
I first remember the Neelands when I was around three. They lived in the house next door. It was a two-story with gray, weathered shakes. From the second floor, you could look over our cottage to the Basin.
The Neelands were Irish Catholics, as their name might suggest. They were from Charlestown and would arrive on Decoration Day weekend and stayed through Labor Day. They had ten children, six boys and four girls The oldest was fourteen.
Danny Neeland was a meat cutter in Boston, and he only came out on weekends. He told my dad he was glad for the five days a week of peace and quiet in Charlestown. His boys were a handful, but when Mary Margaret spoke, they toed the line. With no air conditioning, all the windows were wide open. The only time it was quiet at the Neelands was mealtime when everyone's mouth was full.
Bobby Neeland became my best friend from Decoration Day to Labor Day. We were inseparable. And with only twenty feet separating our houses, I could sit on the back deck and talk to Bobby while he was upstairs in his room. Bobby got in trouble a lot, so he spent a lot of time up there.
* * *
Grace Hudson was born in Newburyport at the Anna Jaques Hospital in 1932. She was almost born on the snow-covered front lawn. Earle and Marion ran the all in one convenience store, soda shop, bakery opposite 48th Street, on Northern Boulevard.
Her mother went into labor on the worst night of the year. A nor’easter with freezing sleet hit the island five hours before her mother decided she couldn't wait any longer. There wasn't an ambulance, so Earle shook his head and prayed as he loaded the suitcase and a pregnant Marion into the car.
It was cold and miserable, and the old Ford's heater was nonexistent. The wipers were useless in the ice, so Earle drove to Newburyport with his head stuck out the window. By the time they reached the hospital, his face was crusted with ice.
Marion yelled, “I'm not going to make it! I can feel the baby coming out! Earle, do something!”
Earle did something. He drove up the long sidewalk to the hospital’s front steps with the ahooga horn blasting away. People responded quickly, and Grace was born in the admission area instead of the ice-covered front lawn.
Grace wasn't what you'd call pleasing on the eyes. She was a homely child, and she knew that people looked at her. She was born with a dark red birthmark on the left side of her face, and she had a lazy eye that was kind of spooky.
Her mother tried to make her feel good about herself, but children are mean—especially pretty, privileged children like Karen Bryant and Babs Broadhurst. Yeah, my Karen.