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Farewell, Vermont house of my youth



A tough day in the Dater sibling family today. That means me, my half-brother Noah and adopted half-sister Roshicka. The house where we all spent a significant part of our childhood was put up for sale today, by my father and his partner, Lisa.

The house was built roughly 46 years ago, on a plot of land in Marlboro, Vt. I am the son of Alan Dater, a filmmaker who worked on such films as the Johnny Cash-financed cult classic “Gospel Road” (dad played the role of Nicodemus and was a camera/sound man for much of it, all of it financed by Johnny on location in Israel at the start of his true born-again phase) and was the sound man on a Robert De Niro/Brian De Palma 1970 film called “Hi, Mom!”

Dad was/is always against the grain of conventional society. He split up with my mom when I was roughly 6 or so, but it wasn’t long before I was boarding buses by myself to visit him on weekends at the first of two communes that he chose to live on. But before even that, I visited him when he lived in an A-Frame house that was popular in the late ’60 and early ’70s. I remember lots of Janice Joplin albums, lots of beads through which to enter rooms, lots of books to read. No TV.  Then, I remember when dad lived for a while in a geodesic dome– another fad housing style of the early, early ’70s. It looked something like this, only a lot smaller:

Then, it was on to a commune-style house in Marlboro, on Church Hollow Road, where I played a lot of Beatles records, listened to a lot of Red Sox games on the radio and once fell off my chair onto a flaming hot wood stove that burned a hole right through my shirt and left a massive burn mark on my left shoulder. There was lots of Dannon yogurt in cardboard containers in the fridge, and not much else that I liked to eat, among the commune’s nightly dinner offering. I liked cherry yogurt the best. Then came commune No. 2 – a place called “Total Loss Farm” in Guilford, Vt. There was lots of baked bread, lots of pea soup, lots of skinny-dipping in the nearby pond. We all put on a Shakespeare play on that farm, which turned into a film.

Turns out one of my housemates, for a time, was a member of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted, a getaway driver in the Weather Underground. To me, she was just “Patty”, a normal, nice woman. One of the other really nice women I knew from the commune was named Verandah Porche. She was and remains a renowned poet. She was later married to a guy named Josiah, a musical composer who taught at Boston University, and they lived right “next door” to my dad’s next house, which would be his home for the next 46 years, a home in which me and my kinda-sorta siblings all spent much of our childhoods.

That house you see above looks pretty big and maybe expensive, right? Well, it certainly wasn’t that way back in 1974 or so, when I started visiting dad and his second wife, Susan, on that plot of land. Before there was the house, there was an honest-to-god teepee, which all three of us lived in while starting to build the house. What was it like living in a teepee in the backwoods of southern Vermont during the winter? Cold. Well, after the fire in the middle of the teepee went out at night, anyway. But as long as I had my little AM radio and could listen to the Red Sox at night, I didn’t care all that much.

A year or so later, the foundation to the house was poured (I still remember the big cement truck that came and dumped it all) and then we all got to work pounding nails into beams and raising a structure that would also have a weird plaster/cement wall/ceiling to all of it. The living room had ceilings of long wooden beams sandwiched by roughly 10 yards of plaster/cement, roughly two feet apart, and I always thought they looked like a plaster/cement lanes of an Olympic swimming pool.

My memories of being at that house are many. I pitched thousands of rocks at a big tree in the back of the house. I was Luis Tiant and Dennis Eckersley most of the time. I had both their pitching motions down cold. We had kerosene lanterns for light those first couple years in the house. The woodstove in the kitchen would burn hot and fill the house with plenty of heat during the day, but when it went out at night, that meant I could see my breath in the frigid winter mornings the next day, waking up on a cot in the middle of that kitchen. There was no running water, no electricity, no plumbing. You did your business either off the porch or in an outhouse.

In those early years, it was just me, dad, Susan and Hennebell and Jacquers. Hennebell was an airedale dog, friendly as could be. Jacquers was a cat who had 1. Almost no vision and 2. Zero balance. Jacquers would literally stumble across the room like a drunken sailor going to and from his feeding bowl, but that cat damn well made it every time and once he stumbled up upon your lap, he was a purring, loving godsend of an animal who we all loved to death.

Days at my dad’s were almost always spent working on the house, in those early years. A lot of the time, I hated the work. I spent the rest of my time at the relative posh comfort of my mom’s apartment, which had, you know, electricity and a TV to watch the Red Sox. Then it was off to Vermont and no creature comforts. My dad had a TV, but it only got UHF fuzz and if I was ever caught turning it on, he’d excoriate me for wanting to turn my brain into “jelly.” Now, of course, I realize he was 1000 percent right.

Much of the time, dad was out of town working on films. A couple of times, I got to go with him, and I loved it. I got to hold the sound equipment a couple of times, or set up tripods. On one film, it was just me, dad and Susan’s brother, George, just us three road-tripping to various locations filming and doing sound and I just loved it. Just me, around 11 or so, and two older guys, listening to how they interacted from the back seat of some old beat-up junker of a car, with no seat belt I’m sure. I soaked it all up and loved it.

Gradually, the house kept expanding. First, there was a greenhouse, then a back room studio and mud room. Upstairs, a toilet was added, along with an attic that was approximately 1 million degrees in the summertime, but nonetheless served as a cool solo room for me for a while. I distinctly remember watching the 1978 MLB All-Star Game in that attic, and getting severely pissed off when the American League dropped their roughly 12th straight game to the hated National League.

Pretty soon, I had my own room on the second level, with a window facing dark, starry Vermont nights with enough radio reception to pull in the Boston and Philadelphia sports stations. Weekend mornings were the best, as dad would have Robert J. Lurtzema’s classical music wafting up from downstairs while he made coffee and some always delicious scrambled eggs and homemade bread/toast.

The house soon had an entirely new addition, which is that big, brown-wooded three-story creation that had a couple of offices/editing rooms for dad’s films, plus a big room on the third level that was mostly a guest bedroom but also served at times as an artist studio. Great big spiders lay claim to sides of the windows overlooking a vast, tree-topped horizon, but the spiders never really bothered me. Snakes, which I saw a few times on the property – that was another story. Snakes scared the shit out of me.

Dad divorced Susan, but they had Noah together, and he has always been just a great, great kid. Dad met Lisa not too long after, and for something like the last 25 years or so, they’ve been together. For all that time, they lived in the Marlboro house too, even though the nearest store, Whitney’s, was about 20 minutes away. Whitney’s remains the greatest store of my childhood, a magical place where, at the end of a long, hard day of work on the house, dad and Susan would put me in the back of a Chevy truck named “Creampuff” and off we’d go, and once there I’d get a Boston Globe (to read about the Red Sox) and a big bottle of ice-cold Coke. For me, nothing better.

But as the years passed, Marlboro became just too remote from everything. Whitney’s closed, and so the nearest place to get any food or sundries was Brattleboro, a roughly 30-minute drive up and down steep, winding Route 9.

So, they decided to move to the relative cosmopolitan town of Putney. They kept the Marlboro house for a year or two, but put it on the market finally today. It’s a STEAL at the price they’re asking. It comes with 40 acres.

New people will live in the Marlboro house, which hardly seems possible. But time moves on. The interlopers will take up residence all right, but my memories will also occupy the house, right there with the spiders in the window corners and imaginings of me, swimming laps in the living room ceiling.

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