Who Needs a Boat On a Hill?
When my family moved back to Old Saybrook from Clinton in January 1979, we lived first at 355 Main Street, literally next door to the house that had belonged to my grandparents from the late 1950s until 1971. But we only rented that house for 18 months. In June 1980 we began moving to the rambling ranch on the top of Ferry Hill.
When the house was built, probably in the 1950s, it was expensive and the views were expansive. You could see the railroad bridge, the mouth of the river, both lighthouses, across the Sound and up river to Knot Island. Ferry Hill has a geodetic survey marker confirming it as the highest point in Old Saybrook. My step-brother and I found it soon after we moved up there. But it needed work before we could move in. And the work took a toll on my health.
The house used to have an address on Spring Brook Road, but Dr. Hutt bought the property and subdivided the 50 acres, so it had a new address of 6 Drummer Trail. The doctor built a lovely family home on the loop of Drummer Trail, but he left ten acres at the top of the hill for a future project. He needed to sell the lots in the development first, but then he would build his dream house at the peak.
Meanwhile, the old house up there was going to ruin and kids had started to use the area for parties. Dr. Hutt rented the house cheaply to my step-father, a police officer, hoping the regular presence of people and a police car would scare off the riff-raff. It worked.
The house needed a few things to be habitable by a family. Most of the ten-acre lot was trees, but the lawn and gardens around the house needed tending. My mother started cutting back shrubs, I whacked the weeds, and I also got the nasty job of washing the moldy walls with bleach.
The house was a dispersed design. The master bedroom, with its dressing room and bathroom, were at the west end. Then there was a room by the kitchen door for a live-in domestic, plus a small bathroom with a shower stall. The kitchen and dining room were in the middle section of the long house. The dining room had an immense picture window looking out onto a formal, low-walled garden. Old bulbs were still plentiful, but I could only imagine what it was like in its day.
From the dining room went a long hall east, beginning with a door on each side. To the right was a closet, to the left a half bath. Next on the right was a guest bedroom on the front of the house. On the opposite side of the hall was a window with room for a desk under it.
Next down the hall were opposing exterior doors. The left one went out to the back garden. The front door on the right exited to a screened porch with a slate or flagstone floor. The hall ended as it began, with doors on both sides. They led to closets that flanked the entry to the sizeable living room.
My first entry into that living room did not have the grand effect the architect planned. It was dusk, and the room was lit by one lamp on the floor. There was nothing to see out of the picture windows at the ends, just mold and mildew on the ceiling, walls, and carpet.
I had help at each stage, but I did much of the work of washing the walls and ceiling with bleach water, cleaning the carpets, and painting over the moldy surfaces with Kilz. The room seemed gigantic, about 24×14 feet. We worked in shifts over three days to get it back into habitable condition. My step-father found a wood stove insert somewhere that summer. That was the best thing for it. It stayed warm and dry after that. No more mold, thank you.
The one compensation to working in that room was the view. I could glimpse the Sound out the front and the river was visible out the back. From the roof of that room you could see Knot Island and Otter Cove at times of the year, plus the outer light and the lights of Long Island.
My parents had a friend who was selling her house by the Ford Garage. Her old pool was an eyesore that needed to go, so we volunteered to haul it off. We carefully took it apart, saving the screws and numbering the pieces of the deck, so we could put it together again in our new yard. Everything was reusable, except the liner and the old filter media.
We found exactly one flat spot in the yard. Much of the property undulated with ledge and dips and trees. The one spot was very near the edge of the cliff that dropped behind the old WLIS radio tower, the only eyesore in the vista. A truckload of sand and a new liner cost about a hundred bucks and gave us a pool that was the envy of the Shoreline. Not because it was lovely; it stuck out like a wart on the chin of Ferry Hill. But because of the 180 degree view of the Sound, the river, North Cove, the lighthouses and Great Island marsh.
We officially moved in about the first of July. We didn’t get the new liner for the pool until after the Fourth, so I launched fireworks from the sand inside the structure of the pool. When we got the liner a while later, I got to be the one inside it, holding the fire hose while we filled it with water from the OSFD tanker.
Earlier I mentioned the effects on my health from living in that house. The first was the nasty cold I got after using the bleach water on the moldy room. The second was the double swimmer’s ear infections I got from flailing around in the pool before it was chlorinated. It took almost two weeks to clear up my ears. Just thinking about the pain and jabbing the dropper into the clogged ear canals to squirt in the antibiotic makes me cringe to this day.
For all the work and troubles, living in the house was an exceptional experience. There were woods to explore, deer paths to follow, and even some old stone walls. I topped a tall pine for our first Christmas tree up there and the views in winter were amazing. The best part of being on top of a hill is the 360 degree vista. Sunrise, sunset, and a foliage panorama. Seeing storms approach from up river or over the Sound or from due East. Sometimes black clouds would stay east of the river, giving a show and some wind, then moving out toward Long Island.
The first Autumn we lived there I was a senior at Hammonasset School and working at Caldor. One day when I came home, my little sister and brother were talking with a stranger. A young woman with a camera had appeared on our hill to photograph a mid-Autumn sunset. I was concerned that my siblings, aged seven and four, were so eagerly accepting this stranger, but I soon learned why they felt safe.
My sister introduced me to JJ as I walked up. She lived nearby and had often come up on Ferry Hill with her father and brother to see the sunsets, sometimes making an afternoon of it with a picnic. She was a little older than me, but she had young siblings and spoke their language well. It surprised her that she didn’t know me, but I explained that I hadn’t been in school in Old Saybrook in many years.
“Oh, you’re still in high school?” Ouch. Those words hung in the air, deflating my teenage ego. With her long, tawny hair and deep brown eyes came a tomboy air. I backed down a notch and spoke a few more words before heading inside. The kids made her promise to return soon. She wasn’t my type, but I was secretly eager to see her again.
Some stories tell of falling into love. Others of building a relationship over time. A few tell of it overtaking them while they are running from it. For me it was like exploring unfamiliar woods. I stood at the edge and peered in, wary but curious. I could sense a bit of faerie music and some mischief among the trees and flowers. Little by little, I walked in. Just a little further each day. Walking, talking, investing time and learning to trust. Then, hand-in-hand, we walk in deeper together. Finally, I learned to dance with the fae folk on Ferry Hill.