Memoir Tells Story of Vermont Boyhood in Happy Valley
by Stephen Morris
Retired English teacher and Randolph Center resident Alec Hastings has just published a memoir, but he’s quick to establish “It’s not a story about me.” Called Cap Pistols, Cardboard Sleds & Seven Rusty Nails the book celebrates growing up in a rural area near Taftsville, a historic district located mostly within the borders of Woodstock, Vermont. “It’s a gift to my children,” he says, a gift, ironically, that is the finished product of a literary seed gifted him by those same children. The gift was a subscription to Storyworth.com, a web-based service that guides and encourages the process of creating a memoir or autobiography.
Hastings was at work on a historical novel about the men who drove logs down the Connecticut River in the 1880s. He was not looking for another writing project but quickly found the memoir popping to the top of his priority list. “I’m not the kind of writer who just sits down and the words flow.” He initiated weekly phone calls with his two brothers, Scott (older) and Duncan (younger). He learned quickly that “memory is a fickle faculty,” and there were details and nuances gleaned from his brothers that greatly enhanced the richness of his own recall.
Nor did Hastings need help in the book creation department. His novel, Otter St. Onge and the Bootlegger: A Tale of Adventure, published in 2013, already has a respected niche in Vermont’s literary pantheon. Otter portrays a Prohibition-era Vermont populated by rum runners, lawmen, and colorful folk not unlike the characters he remembers from Happy Valley days. It’s all set on Lake Champlain just prior to the flood of 1927, a cataclysmic natural event that forever changed the face of Vermont.
You won’t find Happy Valley on the Vermont state road map, but if you head east from Woodstock on Route 4, you’ll come to Taftsville, and if you follow the road up out of the village until the trees open onto meadows, you will reach the valley described in the book. Hastings includes a hand-drawn map to more accurately capture the perspective of a youngster whose world is defined by immediate horizons. It includes important details such as where the cookie jar resided, where brother Scott fell out of the Jeep. and the route of Duncan’s Ride to Glory.
The memoir is equal parts celebration of life in the moment and a lament for a Vermont way of life that was disappearing. The 1950s and early 60s witnessed a time of great change for Vermonters, caused not by natural disaster, but the construction of Interstates 89 and 91that made the state more accessible to the teeming masses to the south. Hardscrabble hillside farms became playgrounds for city dwellers, a respite from fast-paced lifestyles whether in the form of adventure (skiing) or escape to second homes.
Hastings relates the story of Romaine Tenney, nicknamed “Whiskers,” a bachelor farmer in Weathersfield, Vermont whose small dairy farm was taken by the state via the right of eminent domain. Rather than leave the land where he had spent his entire life, Tenney set his animals free, then set fire to the barn and then house, making sure first to nail the doors shut. Tenney’s story became national news and while sympathy abounded, progress was not deterred.
In Happy Valley Vermont’s transition plays out amidst a nonstop world of biking, ball playing, wrestling, tree climbing, sledding, and fishing. It expands enormously once the boys learn how to read and inherit their father’s collection of his own childhood favorites. Suddenly the population of Happy Valley swells to include Tarzan and Jane, the Three Musketeers, Tom Swift, and the Hardy Boys, not to mention Batman and Superman.
Hastings’s father Scott looms quietly but immensely throughout this story. The first family member to attend college, he passes along a reverence for reading and storytelling, particularly about family and history. Alec remembers frequently returning from a day of play to the sight and sound of his father outside playing his bagpipes. (How could that not etch its way into the memory bank?) Eventually his Dad opens a retail shop down, calling the business Hastings Highland House, focusing on products from Scotland. In later years, Scott Hastings turned to writing books, his first a memoir entitled Goodbye Highland Yankee: Stories of a North Country Boyhood. Sound familiar?
But boyhood, inevitably, ends. The family moves from Happy Valley to Woodstock village, closer to schools and his mother’s job. Tom Sawyer starts thinking about Becky Thatcher in a very different way, and life becomes complicated.
Alec Hastings’s personal journey never pointed towards writing books. He dropped out of college, tried a few different jobs, then went back to school at Vermont Technical College to become a civil engineering technician. That kept him gainfully employed and able to support his family, but it was never an occupation about which he felt passion. “It was always about solving construction problems,” he says. But it was no longer problems that Hastings was seeking. Instead, he wanted to help people. He returned to school, earned his Bachelor’s degree from Norwich University, taking advantage of a remote learning program that allowed him to work and study at the same time. Later, he added a Master’s in African-American literature, but it was now teaching calling him.
Lacking formal certification, but benefiting from a peer review process, Hastings applied for an opening teaching English at Whitcomb High in Bethel. He was hired. “The first few years were not easy, but at least I was helping people, not solving technical problems. I learned as much as my students. I learned to be patient and became a better person, I hope.”
He credits the principal at Whitcomb, Bill Elberty, as a mentor. “He told me ‘If you want to be a teacher, you have to like kids.'” And for the next sixteen years, the most fulfilling of his professional life, that’s what he did. His teaching career was capped when, teaching a college-level course in travel writing, he led a group of students on a trip to Scotland!
In retirement, Hastings is busier, and happier, than ever. In addition to writing, he spends as much time as possible outdoors, hiking, cross-country skiing, and filling his life with music. He plays flute with his wife, Denise Martin, and has even started taking voice and Italian lessons with her. He also sends a weekly email newsletter called Sing! to share musical joy with a small, but growing, circle of friends. The location may have changed, and the players are different, but in many ways he has found a way to return to Happy Valley.