In early September my mother took me to Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey to start my first year of college. I told myself I was on track to be a great engineer, and they attracted me with a large scholarship. I returned home for Thanksgiving break to face yet another surprise.
My parents were no longer in the house they rented. My mother was traveling out of state. My sisters were not around. My father met me at the bus station.
“I’ve moved,” he said.
Uh, oh, I thought. Again?
We headed right to the Ming Garden Chinese restaurant.
“This is your Thanksgiving dinner,” my father said. “Order whatever you please.” He smiled with great satisfaction. He probably repeated this scene several times in his mind before he picked me up. They didn’t have turkey—I understood that the Chinese don’t eat turkey—so I ordered the next best thing, Peking Duck with plum sauce. The horribly sweet wine that came with it was on the house for the holidays. I gobbled down the duck dinner as if I hadn’t eaten all day, which essentially was true.
“Why couldn’t we have Thanksgiving together?” I knew this was an insensitive question, but I had to ask.
“Mother walked out,” he said. “She’s gone out west again to see her family in Santa Fe.”
“Is she okay?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s fine. We just ran out of money and I think it’s over.”
My father never spoke of her again.
And then I pressed on. “Where are we going to stay?”
“I have a nice new place to show you,” he said, trying to cheer me up.
After my father paid the bill by carefully counting out one dollar bills, we headed out to his green GMC pickup parked in front of the restaurant. My luggage was still there under the tarp. He drove about a mile to College Hill near the house they rented. We stopped in the parking area of a large brick apartment house. It was about three stories, with white trim and surrounded by lawns.
“I have a room here,” my father said. “Mrs. Parenti, who owns the building, rents me space on the top floor. There’s not much there, but I’ll make you comfortable.”
I was never sure why Mrs. Parenti rented to him at what must have been a pittance. I guessed she liked the intellectual environment of the university community and my father undoubtedly was his charming best. My father was probably rejuvenated by the thought of being a student again embarking on a new life voyage. He was 53.
We rode up in a rickety, clackety elevator and got out on the top floor.
I didn’t know what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me for this. His apartment was three small rooms that flowed from one to another. The far one, the kitchen, was essentially a campsite. The stove was a green Coleman camping stove with two burners. The sink was a pink rectangular plastic box under a leaking faucet. The tabletop refrigerator only had room for several quarts of milk, bacon, a six pack of beer and a carton of eggs.
As my father watched me take all this in, he said, “I’ll cook you a nice breakfast in the morning.”
“And where do we sleep?” I asked, thinking there might be a bedroom I hadn’t noticed.
“I found a nice cot for you,” he said with a tinge of pride.
It was an Army surplus canvas fold-out cot with a couple of threadbare blankets.
“I’ll sleep on the couch,” he added.
My father seemed proud of his little nest, so I decided to make the best of it and not complain. For dinner my father prepared fried Spam and warmed-up baked beans. He was more relaxed than in the restaurant, and he popped open cold Narragansett beers for both of us. He relaxed on the squishy couch and launched into his story.
“You know,” he started out, “in life as in the stock market, there must be a bottom somewhere. As I was scraping along it, Alan Bemis called, asking me to join him in telling New Hampshire yarns for a recording.”
I vaguely recalled Bemis as a prep school classmate of my father. Bemis loved antique cars and in the 1930s when my father was in his 20s he designed built a sleek aluminum and plexiglass body for Bemis’ Rolls Royce.
“I said to Bemis, ‘Come here and see my recording studio.’ It was really just the old Edison record machine you saw, but Alan would love to see it. Bemis flew down here in his Helio-Courier short takeoff and landing plane, and I had set up crackers, cheese, and Old Fashioned mix in my India Street studio. We had a lot of laughs about the old days and found that together we had dozens of stories that people could enjoy.”
“I wish I had been there,” I said as sort of an approval of the emerging idea.
“Well, by the time all the tugboat and coffee company people had left, we started making notes to start a company.”
“Exciting,” I commented, beginning to get swept up in the drama.
“I dropped Bemis off at a downtown hotel—the Biltmore, naturally—and sneaked back here. The next day I visited my lawyer, John Chafee, to draw up incorporation papers. I was lucky he was there and could talk. He’s in the legislature, you know.”
“I’d like to meet him one of these days,” I said.
“You will. He could be very helpful to you.” My father opened some of his Ritz crackers.
“Chafee said that the company needed starting capital, which I didn’t have,” my father continued, “so I called Bemis. He was having breakfast, but he had a hotel messenger bring over a check.”
We opened more beers to go with the crackers.
“’Under the circumstances, you should make Bemis president,’ Chafee advised, so I I readily agreed. Alan is a much better businessman. The three of us had lunch at Chafee’s club. We named him corporate secretary, and all corporate resolutions were read and approved.”
“’By the way, what are you calling your company?’ Chafee asked.
“’How about Droll Yankees, Inc.?’ I said. After a quick vote, that was settled. Nobody’s quite certain what Droll Yankees means, but everyone’s charmed and intrigued.”
In the frigid late November 1959 morning, my father and I headed down to One India Street. When we entered, I heard the steam radiators making sharp cracking noises as they heated up. My father fired up the coffee pot and fried bacon and eggs and toasted English muffins.
He’s was excited. He wanted to play me the tape of one of his first records, Capt. Nickerson and The Tug Gaspee. I listened in as Capt. Nickerson docked the Norwegian freighter Woodville. The tug crewmen barked back and forth in salty language. In the background I could hear the engine rumbling, buoys clanging, and seagulls cawing.
This will never hit the top of the popularity charts, I thought, but it’s a start. He’s put so much work into this recording. It’s almost perfection. That’s what he seeks.
My attention turned to the recording equipment. The centerpiece was a large old reel-to-reel tape recorder that appeared to be more for consumer use than serious professional work. He probably bought it second-hand at the university from a graduating student. The large wooden hi-fi speaker looked like it might have come from the same place. Tools, notes, and both wooden and corncob pipes were strewn across the table.
The next revelation was on the drawing board. He’s also doing the record jacket! Most of the cover was my father’s photo of the tug Gaspee churning across Narragansett Bay. The rest of the cover was just the title in his exquisitely detailed, hand-done Victorian lettering. The backside of the cover was a sea of his hand-lettered text which he must have taken hours or days to do. But he’s doing what he wants to do! Pulling everything together as a beautiful, unified whole.
My father broke up my reverie. “This isn’t exactly what Alan Bemis had in mind. He wanted old New England story-telling, so we recorded for three other records.”
He handed me a draft of a promotional flyer.
Caused by Rum and the Casket Sinkers – Yankee stories concerning drinking and grave digging
Swearing in the Bushes – Various old Yankee stories and jokes
Stories for Gentlemen – Two country boys swap stories while fishing
These will sink into the Yankee swamps without a trace, was my first reaction. That’s pretty much what happened. Perhaps a majority of the buyers were libraries and other collectors of cultural stories. That’s culturally satisfying but it is unlikely to provide a living.
My father was running into the same dilemma faced by his idols, the Renaissance artists. In the early stage of your career, you need a sponsor or patron, but the patron is bound to have different visions of what subjects should be addressed. This difference of visions and choices for subjects often is not apparent when the partnership begins. The same is true for investors in novel product designs.
Over the next two years, my father produced ten more records with themes ranging from old New England stories to Tyrolean songs heard in the Vermont ski lodges. The best known of his records of that period was A Graduation Address narrated by Francis Colburn, a colorful Vermont raconteur. He parodies a graduation address to a small rural high school in Vermont with such time-worn cliches including, “As you go out on the road of life,” and “Here’s the torch, hold it high.” Unfortunately, my father had to sell the rights to that record to raise capital for his fledgling company, Droll Yankees.
Meanwhile, in 1961 I had moved 2,000 miles west to Boulder, Colorado where I had transferred to the University of Colorado. I returned home two or three times a year by ride-sharing with several other students in someone’s beat-up car. I stayed with mother who still had her house in Providence for a while longer.
I spent most of the time with my father, however. I was twenty-two and he was fifty-eight. We would sit around his shop at One India Street until far into the night catching up on each other’s doings. I would help him with the engineering of his electronic sound systems.
If he received a lot of payments and they were cashed at the bank, we would go to the comfortable surroundings of the Ming Garden restaurant. On the way, we would stop at the main facility of the Providence post office which was near the Ming Garden. The people who worked there on the evening mail sorting shift took a liking to this struggling records artist who always had nice words for them. The post office was closed of course, but the routine was my father would go around back to the mail trucks loading platforms, and there he would hand over the day’s shipments of records.
Peter Kilham was living on the edge, but he seemed to be happy. He couldn’t go on forever living like this, however. Alan Bemis wasn’t inclined to put more money into the business, so without capital to invest in major new business ideas, my father had to think of a new direction for the record business.
Larry Kilham is an award-winning author who has traveled extensively overseas for over twenty years. He worked in several large international companies and started and sold two high-tech ventures. Larry has written books about creativity and invention, artificial intelligence and digital media, travel overseas, and four novels with an AI theme. He looks forward to hearing from readers at firstname.lastname@example.org.