For so many years I looked at this place – the White Mountains of new Hampshire, the summer towns, Franconia and Sugar hill – the summer families who had always been there – looked at it just as if it was something set in place that could not be much tinkered with - even though I saw plenty wrong. I started going there in infancy. My first memory is one of threatening violence, not actually in the White Mountains, this first memory, but on the way up on a single track rail line built to bring vacationers. I am riding in a Pullman car in which you could smell the coal smoke from a black iron steam engine, and the smoke smell that might blend with the balsam smell from the pine trees all around outside – but on that train, in that drawing room, which was an outsize compartment at one end of a Pullman car, something horrible had happened. I was almost pre-verbal, not quite two years old, but the scene is there in my mind still, the despair of the mother, her head on a table, the sounds of the grandmother, the wailing of my brother peter, and another smell that cut through the coal smoke and the balsam. Many years later when I finally went back in like an obsessed detective I realized years the smell was of fresh blood. Realized
That scene on the train always there even as I looked for so long at that part of the world almost uncritically. Not completely uncritically. I was able early to separate far enough to be furious maybe about the area’s anti-Semitism. When a car stopped our grandfather on his walk and a nice looking couple asked for directions to a hotel he told them there were no hotels in the region. Furious. We were right at the turnoff to the Sunset Hill House. But when I objected, at the age ten then, he took me on another walk to explain that this was the way things should be. You have to watch these people, he said, for a Jewish fellow will work harder than anyone else and take some other fellow’s job away from him.
The unforgivable bigotry and the snobbery. Yes I was often furious even in this time I remember as a time when I was relatively unquestioning in my mind, though the questions were there, and in this new time of exploration I had spoken about how these people of my family past people should be prosecuted. But also always in my mind, whether there or not, was this haunting sense of the beauty of the place. These mountains laid out in the summer people’s principal view, form the Sunset Hill House and all the old time summer people’s places. Especially from White Pines, which was reached through pine woods by a very long twisting driveway on which you had to keep honking in case someone was coming the other way. And when you reached that house you had the best view of all: out to more woods and to the distant mountains, a view that did not have a sign of a living creature in it if you did not count one place in one of the bigger mountains where for just an instant a cable car would be silhouetted against the sky. The mountains rising at Lafayette to where only scrub pine could live.
These White Mountains that sometimes seemed warm , and sometimes gray and black, and are part pure granite and scarred by avalanches.
And yet such beauty. Even a rosy orange hue sometimes when at the end of a clear day the setting sun plays on them.
The sunset seen from a once perfect place, though in this year 1986 when I got to my own story, not the stories the summer people told, not the stories my novelist grandfather wrote, not the versions of my twin brother – but my own view from this once perfect place, the place where I began to see the possibilities of a life, and where I was mysteriously popular, and fell in love with girls and nature – though in this year 1986 so much of what I saw and felt is mingled with white hot anger.
I thought also in the past that it was something wrong with me that made me see death so clearly in that beautiful summer place, but when I began to look only with my own eyes I knew that among much else it had not been a place safe for children of any age.