I grew up in Mississippi and never questioned that my home state was the best place in the world until 1959. That’s about when John Kennedy started running for president, and there were those great images of him on television with his beautiful family, and him jogging along on the beach at Hyannis. We didn’t know what jogging was but that whole Camelot thing was so exciting. My dad was one of the few Mississippi white folks who voted for him. It was then that I began plotting my escape to Massachusetts, and like the Rev. Martin Luther King, I had a dream.
That same year our family moved to Tupelo, known for being the first town to get electricity from TVA, and for two great tragedies: being destroyed by a tornado in 1936, and inflicting Elvis forever on an unsuspecting nation. I was mostly harmless and this is where we lived for the next ten years.
It’s too bad about my old hometown–they built a super gigantic mother of all Wal-Marts five miles north of town, and now downtown Tupelo is merely a ghost of its former self. My twin brother Glenn still lives near Tupelo and he works at Wal-Mart.
In 1970 I was a junior at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, following in my father’s footsteps, serving as a student pastor in a tiny Methodist church in a rural Delta crossroads named Ebenezer.
On May 15, 1970 forty Jackson police marched on Jackson State College and opened fire on black students. Two died and several were injured. The good ol’ white folks in Ebenezer saw me on television the next day in a protest, arm in arm with black students, and I was advised to leave town by the one person who showed up for the next Sunday service. Not to mention that I had started to grow my hair much too long for a good Methodist.
Out of crisis comes opportunity, and I found a summer job at a YMCA camp in Becket Massachusetts. In September I returned to Jackson, graduated from Millsaps College and married a free-spirited hippie girl named Judy. Judy and I had neither a plan nor a clue, so we headed north to the Berkshires and rented an apartment in Great Barrington, Massachusetts mostly because that’s where the fan belt broke on my old Rambler and we were running low on cash. We practiced Living on the Earth from a book we read by Alicia Bay Laurel, and I grew my hair long. My dad told me it looked silly and he was right, but it was not until he was dead that I started listening to him. I became a political activist again with the Nuclear Freeze Movement, and that’s how people who remember me in the Berkshires remember me.
I also took up carpentry, something I knew nothing about. It has served me well for over 40 years.
Judy and I eventually divorced, and I spent the last ten Berkshire years in Williamstown, a gorgeous if somewhat pretentious hamlet which I thought I would never leave. (This is where marriage #2 happened, but it was a mistake and let’s not talk about it.) Several years ago at a town meeting they adopted “The Village Beautiful” as the official town slogan, but after a few years the good people of Williamstown realized how silly it sounded and took the signs down.
As for Judy, she has been happily married to a nice woman in Pittsfield for more years that she and I were married, so Massachusetts worked out well for her too. She’ll probably be happy for a long time, since her grandmother Betsy Cooper, AKA “Memom” lived to be the oldest person in the world. We have a wonderful, beautiful and amazingly talented daughter named Eartha Harris and I bet I’m at the top of the list of her 4998 Facebook Friends.
By 2000, having finally given up on retaining any substantial quantity of hair and having survived an awful mid-life crisis, I decided, on a whim, to ride my bicycle across the country. While on the road, I developed a website called Bike New England. People started saying stuff like, “Oh, you’re that guy that rides a bike.”
The next year I met my wife Deb on a bicycle tour in Canada. Out of the blue, she decided to ride a bicycle a long, long way. She didn’t own a bicycle, so she purchased one, went for a 20-mile ride and decided she was ready to tour. I felt we had a lot in common. She thought I was a weirdo. She’s beautiful, and she’s a brilliant scientist too. I have no idea what this article means, but she is one of the authors. Deb lived in Danvers, and for the next three years I drove there every weekend from Williamstown to see her. So, you never know.
Which finally gets us back to the title of this little trip down memory lane, “How I Came to Ipswich” (we’re done with the bit about hair).
One day Deb brought me to Ipswich for breakfast, back when Stone Soup was still at Five Corners. Unfortunately Stone Soup’s not anywhere anymore. Ipswich felt almost as remote as the Berkshires and I wasn’t sure where I was, but I looked down Market Street and fell in love with the historic old village, founded in 1634. I was already in love with Deb. We found a house here in town and got married, in that order. She still thinks I’m a weirdo and I’m pretty sure she’s right.
I started leading bicycle tours of the North Shore, and to help promote the tours I created this website with photos of all the nice old houses in Ipswich. One day the town Planning Department asked me if I would like to join the Historical Commission, which turned out to be another turning point.
I built their website and one day, when my guard was down, they elected me chairman. Now I’m the Town Historian. The deeper I got into the history of this town and the old houses, the more I became fascinated by the stories of the people who lived in them.
I don’t lead bicycle tours anymore, but I still ride with Deb.
Since you are reading these words, our life stories have intersected and sort of briefly squished together in this moment. The rest as they say is history, which I hope you will never tire of reading. I never get tired of telling, and if I think of anything more, I’ll let you know.