House with a View
The year was 1969. Richard Milhous Nixon had just become the 37th President of the United States promising “Vietnamization”; the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam accompanied by a dramatic increase in the scale of bombing. Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin would leave their footprints on the moon after punching round trip tickets on Apollo XI. The Manson Family brutally committed the Tate-LaBianca murders and Senator Edward M. Kennedy plead guilty and received a two month sentence for leaving the scene of a fatal accident in Chappaquiddick that saw his Secretary, Mary Jo Kopechne, drown. The Children’s Television Network introduced Sesame Street to its young viewers and close to half a million people of all ages traveled to Max Yasgur’s Dairy Farm in Sullivan County for The Woodstock Music and Art Fair. Joe Frazier was crowned Heavyweight Champion, while Muhammad Ali stood convicted of refusing induction in the U.S. Army. John and Yoko recorded “Give Peace A Chance” and race riots occurred in: Hartford, CT; Fort Lauderdale, FL; and Springfield, MA. At a time when the world was not experiencing the slightest shortage of spectacular headlines, white, middle-class families like ours continued to pursue better lives, even if it meant relocating.
I was 13 when my father decided to give up self-employment and take a job working for a high-end clothing manufacturer in Norwich, Connecticut. He would move to Norwich from our present home in Sharon, Massachusetts ahead of the rest of the family. He stayed in a motel until he found the house of his dreams; an old two story built in the early 1920’s, located on the ocean side of Pequot Avenue, overlooking the Thames River in New London.
My father spent his entire childhood in and around the seaside communities of Revere and Hull, Massachusetts, surrounded by water and the ever-present smell of salt air. Boys like him grew up less concerned about their first car and more determined to own their first boat. They spent a great deal of time barefoot and were bothered little by the frigid water temperatures that were indigenous to the area. Cutting sea worms, baiting hooks, and ultimately gutting fish in preparation for the feed had all become second nature to him. He had spent the first 13 years of my life landlocked, surrounded by landlubbers. The house in New London was in part his liberation, his return to the Sea.
First referred to by its Indian names Pequot and Nameaug in 1648, it wasn’t until 1658 that legislature would pass an act legalizing the name New London, so named after the city of London. Located on six square miles in Southeastern Connecticut on the banks of the Thames River, it is the smallest community geographically in the state. Because of its natural harbors and deep waters, New London became a major colonial seaport that by 1846 was the second largest whaling port in the world. Later it would be surpassed by both New Bedford and Nantucket, but New London’s contribution to the whaling industry is well documented. The Thames River begins in Norwich, continuing some 15 miles to where Fishers Island and Long Island Sounds meet. The Thames is not actually a river, but an estuary of the sound. By definition: ‘The wide mouth of a river into which the tide flows from the sea’. Even by the time we had arrived, the quaint seacoast community of New London hadn’t lost a bit of its 19th century charm.
The house was built on a cliff and had a three foot wide, four foot high concrete wall around the entire perimeter of its small, grass covered back yard, providing a more than adequate barrier between land and sea. Some years ago the front door had been bumped-out and now greeted you at the entrance to the small add-on mudroom, moving the footprint of the house to within just a few of yards of the poured sidewalk and the busy street. As you made your way past the mudroom and proceeded to step up into the galley kitchen, you remained ground level, but as you continued towards the rear of the house past the formal dinning room, the house became second story; ten feet above the ground and the walkout basement below.
The basement had been converted into a finished two-bedroom apartment and for several years was rented by students of Mitchell College. The college was across the street, occupying a good stretch of the portion of Pequot Ave. we were on. The door to the basement apartment opened onto the backyard and there were several steep sections of weather-beaten concrete stairs along side the house that the four boys currently renting had to climb before reaching street level. The street was the only flat ground, beyond it the elevation continued its steady rise for several blocks. With the purchase of the house we had immediately become its newest landlords.
Both the back and side of the rear of the house on the first floor had huge picture windows, perfect for watching ships and submarines both enter and exit the port. Across the Thames was the sub base in Groton. The obscurity of night provided the perfect guise with which to watch lit, seaworthy vessels of all sorts go by our house. Ocean liners, subs, fishing trawlers, loaded barges nudged along by hard-working tugs, yachts, motorboats, even swans regularly passed through what was essentially, our back yard.
As you faced our house, to the left there were several considerably smaller, older homes one after another, with very little space between them. To the right was 300 yards of sandy beach and just beyond it, an older yacht club that in the dead of winter clearly showed it’s age and neglect. It was on that beach that I first fed the swans by hand, quickly learning just how testy they could be. They were much more appealing from a safe distance.
Built in the attic space, the actual second floor towered over the water at the rear of the house. Both the closed stairwell and upstairs hallway were finished in dark veneers, thickly coated with an oil-based shellac. With just a single light hugging the ceiling in the center of the twelve-foot high hallway at the top of the stairs, the dim lighting would cast uniform shadows that accompanied you as you made your way towards the bedrooms. There were three finished bedrooms and a bathroom, complete with a freestanding, white enameled cast iron tub that had worn through black in spots. The smallest room had a single double-hung window that overlooked the water on the dormer's gable end at the rear of the house. The room was completely empty except for a full-length mirror that stared back at you upon approach.
My father lived in the house alone for three months until my mother went down to live with him. My sister and I stayed with our grandparents in what had been my parent's house in Sharon.
It was early afternoon in mid October, just after my mother had arrived that there was a knock on the front door… Dressed entirely in black and with a kerchief covering her unkempt graying hair; this short, sixty year old woman claiming that she had once lived in the house, asked politely if she could come in. My parents allowed her in, and without hesitation the woman walked straight to what appeared to be a familiar spot in front of the picture window at the rear of the house. With her eyes transfixed over the Thames, she told how her own husband had had a boat tied to the dock that he frequently used for fishing. She continued speaking without once wavering from her stanch gaze, explaining how he had ventured out one clear day and never returned. She went on to say that the Coast Guard had conducted an extensive search, but that he was never found. It was at that point she finally broke away from her distant stare, and looking directly at my parents she declared, “This house is an unhappy house-”. She then made the same line back to the front door that she had made coming in, having seen and said all that she wanted…
After playing my last Pop Warner football game in Farmingdale, Long Island in early December, I no longer had any reason to return to Sharon and went straight to New London. My sister stayed with my grandparents to finish out her senior year at Sharon High.
Although my bedroom furniture had been moved to what was supposed to be my room at the top of the stairway, I stayed downstairs in a room next to my parents. I had become accustomed to sleeping on a fold down couch in Sharon and I went onto another one in New London. They were much different than pullouts. You would unhinge the back from the seat by first pulling it forward and then pushing it back to where it would collapse, creating a flat surface for sleeping. There was no avoiding the seam that ran the entire length of the bed, and as a result it took some getting used to.
There was a heavy, wooden door that opened out into the living room, revealing the stairway that led to the upstairs. It looked much like any ordinary closet door and was always been kept closed at night. I used to go upstairs to play and frequented the small room at the end of the dark hallway in order to procure the best view of the Thames this house had to offer. Still nobody seemed in a hurry to move me upstairs to where my bedroom furniture was.
At first we thought nothing of the door leading to the upstairs being open every morning... Or that of the three vacant bedrooms upstairs, whose doors my mother always kept open in order to prevent the air from becoming stagnant, only the one to the small bedroom with the view of the water was found shut... We joked about "The Ghost"... My father eventually grew curious and put a latch and a padlock on the door leading to the upstairs. The next morning it was found open. It happened repeatedly. Still, we joked.
The previous owners had only lived in the house for a very short time before putting it back on the market. The husband and wife, both well in their sixties, were similar in structure, tall and thin, behaved stoically, and during the sale of the house were more content to listen than speak, expressing very little emotion. They did divulge that they had purchased the house for investment purpose, having planned on the income from the apartment rental, but that it had become too much work. They only moved a couple of blocks down on Pequot Ave. into a newer, but smaller home on the non-water side of the street. After some of the things began to happen my mother gave them a call. When pressed on why they had sold so soon they would not elaborate, but said that, “Strange things were happening”. They were occasionally seen taking brisk walks past the house, but remained very tight-lipped…
I went to school in Norwich and drove in with my father every morning. After the last bell at Kelly Junior High, I would catch a bus ride to the YMCA in downtown Norwich where I hung out with inner city black kids who were at the Y as often as I was, playing pick-up basketball every afternoon. Even when the white kids would show up at dusk, I remained on the team with the black kids with whom I was now on a first name basis. It had been their choice to include me and I thoroughly enjoyed my teammates and their fast paced, “run & gun” style of play, new to me at the time.
Some days my father picked me up late afternoon, and at least a couple times a week he would stay at the Y to play paddleball with his co-workers, giving me an extended stay. The small family run diner across from the Y provided some basic nutrition and was a welcome food break between day and night. The men always concluded their workouts with a visit to the sauna where the stories poured from their souls as freely as the sweat from their open pores.
That night it snowed hard and I remember visibility was brutal. We stayed at the Y late and after a slow drive we arrived home just after 10:00. My mother had been home alone. I didn’t find out about the events of that evening until after we moved ... Seems my mother got comfortable in a captain's chair watching lit submarines and tankers make their way into port through the windblown snow. The view was spectacular during a squall... All of a sudden, this white shape appeared to jump out of the house and began to dance fifteen feet over the water. The whole time it was looking right at my mother. She described it as having a head, torso, short stubby arms and male in its appearance. She was immediately petrified. Frantically, she switched on every light and sat in the kitchen away from the windows, anxiously awaiting our return.
I wasn't told about the strange occurrence when we arrived home and I went right to bed. When my mother told my father what had happened he did not believe her. He told her it had to be a mist, the snow, her imagination... It was after that night that my mother began ringing the doorbell before entering the house. The two doors continued their unexplainable behavior…
Not long after, during Christmas vacation, I went back to Sharon to spend the weekend with my friends and my sister traveled to New London with a girlfriend. That night it snowed. She and her friend secured good seats in front of the picture windows and watched lit submarines return through the storm. Her friend fell asleep on the living room’s hardwood floor, which had been made comfortable with a scattering of quilts and pillows. My sister stayed up and watched...
All of a sudden, while the rest of the house lay sound asleep, a white shape with a head, torso, and stubby arms jumped out of the house and started dancing fifteen feet over the water. My sister darted into my parent's bedroom and immediately woke them up, alerting them to the super-natural events taking place in the next room... She had never heard my mother's story. My mother’s eyes bulged as she turned to my father and said, "See - I told you something’s out there!" They told my sister to go to bed, but she didn't. She claims the shape disappeared into the house and that she saw the handle to the door leading to the upstairs turn, watched the door open, and that just moments later she heard the door upstairs slam shut-
We moved out a few weeks later after finalizing on a house in Norwich that was nestled in a quiet residential neighborhood, miles from the sea. Although the well-kept hedgerow at the rear of this house could not approach the extraordinary views we had encountered in New London, we were all very content with our safe return aground.
My father carried two mortgages for almost a year. He had the house sold once to a well-to-do gentleman who strangely was married to a woman my father had known from High School in Roxbury, MA. They left a substantial deposit and the house was all but sold... Just weeks before the scheduled closing, the man called to tell how his wife had suffered a severe nervous breakdown requiring that she be hospitalized indefinitely... He said to keep the deposit; $10,000 was a large sum of money back then.
We eventually sold the house, but not before the basement flooded. An engineer was brought in to determine the cause, but even after a lengthy investigation he had no answers… After the new owners completed their move, we took our motor boat down the Thames and shut it down in the water at the rear of the house and just stared at it for a while... I knew he was watching from the small attic room on the second floor. I was scared; I thought something was going to happen to the boat-
A year later while attending high school at Norwich Free Academy, my freshman English teacher brought in a copy of The New London Day containing a featured article about a house that had been declared a ghost house. It was #325 Pequot Ave. We were #352. My mother and I drove back to see where this house was in relation to ours... It was a larger, three story house, high up on the hill, diagonally across from the one we had occupied for six months.
Seems the four year old boy who lived there was found up in the attic late one night... When asked how he got up there he said, "An old sea captain with one arm brought me up". Each time he was found up there the child had the same explanation. Chandeliers swung, pictures would not stay on the wall, and their cat was found dead on the front stoop after it was seen flying down several flights of stairs as if it had been kicked...
Experts were called in. The first thing they did was research the history of the house. They discovered the original owner had been a sea captain with one arm who despised cats. He spent months at sea while his wife waited at home for his safe return.
The family that owned the house at the time included a man, who was a submarine captain and also spent months away at sea, his wife and their four year old son. The experts discovered that the original owner had died at sea and went on to presuppose that his spirit must have remained at the house to watch over his wife. He apparently stayed in the house even after his own wife passed and wouldn’t show his presence until the man of the house was away at sea.
It was believed that the ghost of the 'One Armed Sea Captain' was a good spirit whose only purpose was to protect the woman of the house while the man was away. The family at #325 accepted his presence, understanding he had only good intentions. The article went on to describe that when her husband would return from sea, the ghost of the 'One Armed Sea Captain' would disappear . We believed it was then that he went across the street to #352, and upstairs to the small room at the end of the dark hallway to procure the best view of the Thames the house had to offer...
My mother researched ghosts and found that they were categorized in two specific groups: long armed; bad, mischievous and short armed; good intentioned. Only the two women at #352, my mother and sister, had seen the ghost do his dance.
Neither my father nor I ever saw him...