Thomas Bailey Aldrich House, Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

I did this drawing in ink with a crowquill pen (which can be messy, but gives interesting thick or thin lines, depending on how hard you press) for a Pontine Movement Theatre marketing piece when I was on the Board of Directors there in about 1990 or so. It shows the view across Atkinson and Court streets to a house where Thomas Bailey Aldrich lived for a few years as a kid, and which Strawbery Banke has restored as a memorial.

It was in the street in front of this building where Tommy Dale saved me from being beaten up. In the early 1980’s in Portsmouth there were several instances in which small groups of young men would assault individual guys who were walking down the street. Jan Frank, brother of Marjan who ran the Petronella, was assaulted this way, and subsequently announced that he was heading back to NYC, where it was safer. One of my old housemates at 159 Middle Street, Michael McCarthy, suffered the same fate right around the corner from the police station, which was then on Penhallow Street. After being assaulted he had run to the station, but the police apparently showed little interest in either heading out to catch the perps or comforting Michael. I was home when he arrived, in torn clothes and tears, furious at his double humiliation.

One night about 11pm in, roughly, 1982, I was walking with a female friend down Court Street toward the river. A small car full of people drove past and then pulled over behind us as we kept walking. Four or five young men got out and came up to us. I at first thought they needed our help, but, no, they began acting beligerently. I remember one of them, the largest and loudest, had his shirt off, and another one announced, “This is going to be fun, I wish I brought my numchucks.”

I do recall telling my friend to keep moving, and she did; the guys didn’t show any interest in her. They got around me in a circle, and I remember her walking away. I’ve never been in a real fight my whole life, and I just stood there pretty clueless. As they say, it looked like curtains for our hero. But just then a car drove up Court Street and stopped and out jumped Tommy Dale: “You OK, Bill?”

Tommy Dale ran the Oracle House Restaurant down at the end of Court Street, facing Prescott Park. He used to buy ads in the weekly publication I had back then, re:Ports. Arts and Entertainment Magazine. One night I filled in as dishwasher at the restaurant, but I kinda blew it; I used up all the hot water too quickly, and was not invited back.

Anyway, that night on Court Street, Tommy, who was gay and quite notorious for prowling the darker areas of town late at night, knew exactly what was going on. He walked up and the guys backed off and it was over just like that. He saved my ass, no doubt. What a guy. Tommy died of AIDS within a year or two, but don’t quote me on exactly when. Housemate Michael died of the same thing, later in the ’80s.

Now at the same time, there was a shady character named Gunnar who used to come over to the 159 Middle Street house where I lived and hang out. My housemates and I were suspicious that sometimes really late at night he’d sneak in through the sunporch windows, maybe sleep for the night, then sneak out again before anybody got up, but no one ever caught him at it. Gunnar usually wore a lot of black leather with studs on it. He had very short black hair, aggressive sideburns and enough strabismus to make holding a conversation awkward. He was a bouncer at The Riverside Club, and was rumored to always carry weapons. People said he had some kind of neo-Nazi leanings, but he never talked too much about anything. When confronted about his possible late night visits to the house, he never admitted anything, but he did claim, with modesty, that if it did happen to be the case that he was around our house late at night, well then we were all much safer for it. I never knew him to be anything but a nice guy. Rumor was that he had the occasional late night assignation with my housemate Janet. This speculation was especially gossip-worthy because Janet was Jewish.

Anyway, supposedly one night Gunnar was walking down the street and a gang of young tough guys thought they’d work him over. He stabbed one of them and scared the rest off. I never heard this from him, but it makes a nice story. The random assaults seemed to taper off after that. I don’t know what ever happen to Gunnar.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Bailey Aldrich House, Strawbery Banke, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

  1. What happened to Gunnar? He met a girl of course. I saw him regularly shortly after the time you mention hanging with him.

    Last time I saw him he had made it. It turns out Gunnar was called home to Denmark for his mother’s funeral. He said he’d never felt one way or another about her, but the rest of the family was already there. Sobbing quietly in one of the back pews he met a young woman named Nukvarli. In conversation that followed they found a shared interest in weathervanes. Gunnar said, “there’s ‘vanes in Portsmouth.” Danes are known for quick decisions and also wanting desperately to leave Denmark, so she flew back with him.

    We had talked on the Friday before going to the funeral. On Tuesday he was back, and gave me a call. “You have to meet Nukvarli.” I almost didn’t recognize his voice. And he had just spoken a complete sentence. Wow. “Sure Gunnar, tonight at the Riverside Club,”.

    She was tall, boisterous, and carried her 230 pounds well. (There is something eternally stylish about Danish women…)

    She spoke English brilliantly. “I am here to study the meteorological devices, the barometers, and the weathervanes.” I told her she must see the one over Market Square, on the church steeple, and she went the next day. When I saw her again she said. “I had to see it better, so I climbed to take a look.”

    “You what? You climbed the steeple of the church?!” I said. Incredible.

    “You’ll never guess what happened. I was up there and some poor bastard with a pen, bottle of ink and a sketch pad was drawing the scene like mad. I waved my arms at him, and called down telling him to move it along. By the time I got down he left so I don’t know who he was. But if you ever see a poster of that steeple with me checking it out , let me know.”

    She was fun while she was around, but she was gone within a week. Tough luck, Gunnar, we all said. He had been a changed man in that week. He started waking up before noon. He cut back a little on the red meat.

    But Nukvarli was gone. And while we all feared the worst for him, he seemed to take it in stride. “All my life I’ve wanted to meet a woman like her,” he said. “And she’s made me see things better.”

    Over brews one night he said his goal was opening a school for international relations. In New York. Then he left Portmouth, which is why you haven’t seen him around for so long. He did it, too. After coming up with his blockbuster invention.

    You may not believe it Bill, but that guy could not make a wrong step after he left. To express his affection for Nukvarli, he opened a small but successful museum of meteorological instruments. And as this got off the ground he began long term studies in pacifism. This led him back to basics.

    We were talking one day in April 1985, I think, and he said he’d taken his scholarship in International Relations to its foundation. Deep in the psychology of human discourse, the thing driving all the brouhaha was this: lots of unhappy babies. Children who never felt safe and secure growing to adulthood and expressing their angst and ennui! (Bill, can you believe it? Gunnar talking about “Angst” on a brisk day in April)

    So he set about inventing a new pacifier, for infants, and called it the Nuk (after Nukvarli). He said he’d been thinking of her one day, and everything she’d done for him, when the idea for the pacifier popped on in his head like a light bulb and so naming it for her was the right thing to do.

    Well they sold like hotcakes. The company was a success, and he sold it to some Saudi investors, but kept a consulting role to pursue his research in materials and structure of the Nuk farther. He decided he would never be satisfied that it was perfect and so dedicated himself to the science of pacifiers and people getting along in a better world.

    When it opened in 1993, in New York, it was called Gunnar’s School for Peace and Nukular Physics.

    And that’s the last I knew of Gunnar.

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