Out of the Woods / Memories of our town -- 'The Way We Were'
It was pouring rain. The moving men had just finished carrying the last piece of furniture into our house -- barely squeezing a baby grand piano through the front door. It took them all day to carry our household belongings from Washington Square in Manhattan to our new home in Westport.
We were exhausted, hungry, disoriented -- but glad to finally be here.
It was about 10 on a Friday night. No sooner had the moving van pulled out of our driveway when the front door bell rang. Who could that be at this hour of the night? I opened the front door and standing in front of me were a man and a woman, the latter carrying a tray covered by a linen napkin with what appeared to be food underneath.
"Hello," the vivacious woman said with a smile," We figured you folks must be hungry right about now so we brought you something. I'm Shirley Appy and this is my husband, Jerry. We live across the street."
We shook hands all around and invited them in -- our first "guests" in our new home. What a delightful surprise. They brought some orange juice, milk, coffee, jam, and muffins for breakfast. That had never happened to us before. Certainly not in New York City, where we had moved three times before deciding to escape to Westport.
The next day, a Saturday, more folks on our block stopped by to say hello and brought flowers, food, and good wishes. I felt like a character in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," my favorite play long before we moved to Westport. Here we were among friendly, caring neighbors.
Soon after, we discovered that Wakeman Farm was around the corner where we could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, chicken and other foods. What a relief not to have to find a parking space on a busy city street and walk into a crowded supermarket.
The acres of farmland filled with sky-high corn stalks were soothing to the eye, and our calm, quiet neighborhood was a welcome relief from the never-ending sounds of honking horns, people shouting, and sirens wailing in the city. We took a little walk around the block that night: the stars were shining bright, the air was clean and refreshing, the sounds of a summer night in the country filling our ears
We settled in over the weekend, drove all around town (we had spent summers here before so we were familiar with Westport), and I felt as if I had been liberated from the stifling masses of people in the city. I felt as if a weight had been lifted off of my shoulders and I was free to follow new pursuits.
After a year, I ran for and got elected to the Representative Town Meeting -- the last form of grass roots democracy left in America. After having served as a public official in New York City in the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay, the RTM was a refreshing change. Here, I discovered, one could make a difference.
I also discovered that the many amenities our town offers helped to make up a better-rounded lifestyle -- Compo Beach, the YMCA, the public library, the Westport Historical Society, the nature center, the Westport Country Playhouse, the outstanding public school system, the town-owned Longshore Park Golf Club, where for a modest fee we could enjoy the pool, the tennis courts, the golf course, and the restaurant.
Most of all, it was the energy and creative spirit of the people who lived here that caught my imagination and inspired me to want to pitch in and become a part of the political and cultural fabric of our town. The best way I could contribute, I felt at the time, was to offer my informed opinions as a newspaper columnist for this newspaper.
And so, in 1971, "Out of the Woods" appeared for the first time in this newspaper and has been published ever since. The column carried the same name as one I had written for our daily newspaper at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. It was a privilege -- and it still is -- to be a contributor in this way to the body politic of Westport.
Yet another enjoyable experience during those early years was shopping on Main Street, which was occupied by scores of stores owned by local merchants who had been there for decades. One could go into any store and get acquainted with the owner by first name. After a while,people called me by my first name and -- and this is what I remember most -- when you bought something in a store, the owner or clerk would add up the figures with a pencil on a paper bag, or you could simply say, "Put it on my tab," and walk out.
Then, of course, there was the open space -- acres of farm land which had not yet been commercially developed -- and which gave me a sense of freedom of movement.
Speaking of open space, I can remember when our then 5-year-old daughter, who up to that point had played in Central Park or Washington Square Park in New York, stepped outside the door of our house, looked across our one acre lot and asked, "What's the name of this park, Daddy?"
It took her awhile to get used to the fact that all that space was hers to play with her new friends. Soon, we bought and erected a swing set for her to play on, and she delighted in not having to wait on line to have a go at the swings.
Speaking of neighbors, I think that is what I most enjoyed in those early years. Everyone was so friendly and helpful on our street or, for that matter, in town, as well, There was a cordiality -- a real sense of civility and respect I never experienced in the rush-rush of New York City streets.
I was a newspaperman most of my life, so when the opportunity to become editor of this paper opened up in 1992, I accepted the challenge. For five years I learned what Westport was really about, and I cherished every day in that job. I was flattered in 1997 when the Westport Historical Society asked me to write the history of our town, published in 2000. I've been writing books ever since.
Above all, that gave me permanent "sense of place." For this fortuitous turn in the road of my journalistic life, I will always be grateful to Pete Wolgast and Roy Dickinson, then co-chairmen of the Historical Society's book committee, among others.
Our town has changed dramatically. We have lost a great deal of that personal touch. Some call that progress. I wish it had not changed, even though I knew it had to. Still, I treasure my full life here, which began 43 years ago this Friday, Aug. 19, 1968.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday.