September 23, 2007
By CHRISTINE DEMPSEY, Courant Staff Writer
EAST HARTFORD - Nancy watches as her home goes up in flames.
She wants to rescue her cat, but two cops at the scene tell her it's too dangerous.
It's just a shack. But Nancy has lived there for more than a decade.
Some 75 yards from the Connecticut River, the 10-by-18, carpeted structure had everything she and a longtime friend, Willie, needed: kerosene heaters, food, books, even photographs. Willie built it in the early '80s with wood he collected.
Now, the heaters have exploded. Firefighters are hampered by the remote location. There are no roads, so a custom-made, four-wheel-drive truck with a tank supplies the water.
Thick, black smoke is visible to Hartford-area commuters. Willie, too, sees it from downtown.
"I was on Main Street, picking up some things," he says later. "I saw the smoke, and I had an uneasy feeling."
By the time he gets back to the river, his home is gone. His first concern is Nancy, but she's safe at town hall.
Only possessions far enough from the heat and flames survive - a 30-foot-long wood pile, birdhouses and windsocks Willie had hung from branches, and more than a dozen chimes attached to a beam he'd tied up between trees. A memorial to a pet is intact, protected by a crude wire fence. A small, tattered American flag is affixed to it.
Firefighters suspect a candle started the fire. Nancy has her own theory: "Arson."
She was sleeping in the shack that morning when she heard footsteps and someone banging around outside. Assuming it was Willie, she fell asleep again.
She awoke to the acrid smell of smoke, went outside and saw a fire raging a few feet from the shack.
"At this point, I see the flames shooting up. I said, `Oh my God!'"
She grabbed her shoes and her dog, Gemini. But her beloved cat, Meowski, was gone.
Willie and Nancy have had tough lives, lives racked by violence and pain. Still, the Feb. 8 fire was one of the worst things to happen to them since Willie started visiting the river some 30 years ago.
In the months after the fire, they faced more destruction, this time from the river's fury. Willie had to confront the death of a stranger. Nancy called out for a cat that never came.
With persistence and quiet help from faceless friends, the pair survived. They continue to live their invisible lives by the river, in the shadow of the city.
From February to August, The Courant visited Willie and Nancy 25 times to hear their stories. The two asked that their last names not be published and that Nancy's face not be photographed. They want to be left alone.
Willie met Nancy in a Hartford rooming house in 1978. They dated nine years, but now are just friends.
About the same time, Willie started going to the shady spot across the river. It was a great place to fish, a perfect refuge from the craziness of city life. He built the shack while Nancy watched; eventually, they moved in together.
"I wanted to get away from everything," he says.
Some of the shoreline belongs to private owners, some to the town. It can't be developed because it floods every spring. The fact that the land is useless to others makes it all the more appealing to Willie and Nancy. It's private.
They are big on privacy. It's one reason they refuse to go to shelters or soup kitchens.
At the local homeless shelter, Nancy says, "You don't have your own room." And shelters don't allow pets.
Their home is more scenic, too. Paths wind around clusters of brush. Vines form canopies. Hawks, great blue herons and eagles soar. Chimes sound gentle notes in the river breeze.
Pristine it's not. Trash and other waste are dumped nearby. Discarded papers are lodged in plants. Stagnant water fills buckets.
Willie's and Nancy's lives at times seem normal. They have a pet, gardens and bank accounts. No bills arrive in their mailbox, though - they don't have one.
Life should be sweet when you don't have to pay bills or battle rush-hour traffic to work in a cubicle. But living outdoors has a harsh rhythm. Like the river, their lives have highs and lows.
Willie doesn't know who his father is. When he was 4, he fell on a pitchfork, and it pierced his knees.
Doctors said he'd never walk again. He did.
But still, things went from bad to worse.
"My mother gave me away when I was 5 years old," says Willie, who grew up in South Carolina. The experience with his adoptive family was so bad he doesn't want to talk about it.
He's been on his own since 15. He never went to high school. He suffered a gunshot wound to the leg, and at 19 he left South Carolina and moved to Bridgeport. He came to Hartford in 1957. He was 20.
Shortly after arriving, he again injured his knees. This time, he cut himself with a chain saw.
"It went down to the bone," says Willie, who turned 70 in June. "I was pretty high."
Willie liked to party. Cocaine was his drug of choice. He drank both the hard stuff and beer. He smoked cigarettes, too.
He stopped smoking in 1968, long before he stopped abusing drugs and alcohol.
One day, when he and Nancy were at the river, he passed out. "I thought he was dead," Nancy says.
He stopped drinking on New Year's Eve 1989, in a motel room.
"I had two quarts of Yukon Jack, vodka, and a six-pack of beer. I told Nancy, `You know what? I quit.' I poured it all down the toilet."
He eventually stopped the coke, too. He quit all his vices, cold turkey.
Willie paid for his transgressions. Between 1958 and 1974, he was in prison nine times for burglary and theft, according to the state Department of Public Safety. He has since put his criminal past behind him. Prison isn't the place to live your life, he says.
"I don't want to grow old in there," he says. "I want to grow old right out here."
He almost didn't get the chance. While incarcerated, he worked on a farm in Somers and had another serious accident, one that almost killed him.
"I just had a tractor roll over on me. That's all," he says in his understated way.
He injured his hip, and again received bad news.
"They said, `You'll never be walking again,'" he says.
"I was like, `Man, you people don't know me.'"
Willie had plenty of jobs. None paid much or lasted long.
In the late '60s, he worked on the assembly line at the Royal Typewriter factory in Hartford. He also worked on the railroad, in a foundry, at a car wash, as a landscaper and as a steelworker. He had training as a chef and did a stint as a cook at the University of Hartford.
"I quit that, too," he says. "I didn't like working inside."
In the '90s, he worked at a pallet company in East Hartford. He quit.
"They weren't paying me enough," he says. He was working 15-hour shifts, making $300 a week.
It was the last time he answered to a boss.
Shortly after 5:30 a.m. on Palm Sunday in 1968, a Sunday school teacher in Charlestown, R.I., took a .38-caliber revolver from a bedside bureau, walked down the hallway of her farmhouse to her sleeping daughters' bedroom, and shot each girl in the head.
The woman, who had been treated for depression, then fatally shot herself in the chest. One of the girls, 13, was pronounced dead hours later at Westerly Hospital, according to accounts in the Providence Journal newspaper.
The other, a 12-year-old, survived. Her name was Nancy.
Nancy went from one hospital to another, from foster homes to a mental institution to rooming houses.
She got Meowski, a Maine coon cat, from an ex-boyfriend who she says used to beat her up. When he told her once that he wanted the cat back, she stood her ground.
One day, she was afraid of what the boyfriend would do, so she called Willie. He said she could stay with him.
Nancy, who turned 51 in March, walks with an awkward gait because she is disabled on her right side. She says she has had the disability since birth.
When she tells the story of the murder-suicide, she speaks as though she wasn't there. She only remembers waking up at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital in New London.
"I didn't know what was going on."
Surviving family members shun her, she says. She says she was not allowed at Windswept, a now-closed motel in Charlestown where her family lived. Her father and her brother moved long ago.
"I don't know why my mother committed suicide," she says. "My father said it's because of me."
Last December, a social worker persuaded her to reconnect with her father. It was a brief conversation. He never asked how she was doing, Nancy says.
Despite repeated attempts, Nancy's father could not be reached to comment for this story.
Where they lack a supportive family, Willie and Nancy have friends. One is Bob Emerson, owner of the land on which the shack burned. He met Willie one day about 15 years ago, he says, and told him he could stay.
The town tried to persuade Emerson to kick Willie off the property for health reasons, Emerson says.
"I got contacted by the town of East Hartford," he says. "They wanted me to throw him out. I said, `Is he hurting anything down there?' They said no. I said, `Well, then, leave him alone.'"
Just as Emerson stood up for Willie, Betty has helped Nancy. Betty, who asked that her last name not be published, met Nancy years ago, when Willie and Nancy used to cut through her property to get to the river. She helped Nancy open a bank account and obtain a copy of her birth certificate and helped her get back to the snowy site with medicine for Willie on a rare winter day he was sick.
Betty also introduced Nancy to the town's social services staff, people like social worker Kathy Kane.
"Everybody in town knows them and just looks out for them," Kane says. "I think, pretty much, everybody around here thinks of them as extended family. They're just really sweet people."
It's March 6, almost four weeks since they lost their home in the fire, and Willie and Nancy are sitting in a new, eight-person Coleman tent.
Willie turns a knob on a kerosene heater and opens its door. He lights a matchstick and aims the lit end inside. The fire casts an orange glow.
The owner of the gas station where Willie buys kerosene gave him two heaters after he read about the fire. A friend drove Willie to buy the tent and sleeping bags.
They decided to make this site, some 200 yards south of the destroyed shack, their new home.
They've been here before. This is the spot they return to each spring when the river rises and sends water into the shed. It's farther from the river, on higher ground.
Today, the temperature reaches only 19 degrees, a few degrees short of breaking a record. The wind makes it feel like it's below zero. It slams against the tarps hanging around the tent, making loud, slapping noises.
Willie keeps warm wearing a hat with ear flaps. Most of the time he wears gloves, too. Today, he has on a flannel shirt under a sweater and sweat pants under thick, sturdy pants.
Nancy, who spends much of her time in the tent in winter, is wearing fewer layers and no gloves.
Cushions, clothes and packages of food line the sides of the tent. There is a loaf of cinnamon bread and some rolls. Newspaper sections are strewn over the scraps of carpet that cover the bottom of the tent. Willie buys two copies each day, one for him; one for Nancy. He pays for it out of his Social Security benefits, which Nancy also collects. Their money - roughly $500 each a month - goes into their bank accounts.
Willie admits the last month has been trying.
"It's a hard job, putting this thing up by myself," he says of the tent. "This is the roughest winter so far since we've been out here."
It's 7:20 a.m. on March 22, and Willie is walking Gemini, a timber wolf-husky mix. Ten deer run sprightly across a wooded area.
Gemini barks and tries to run after them, straining against his leash. The dog calms and Willie looks up, scanning the treetops for hawks. It's quiet again, except for chirping birds and the white noise of distant highway traffic. Most people are rushing to get to school or work, but Willie is enjoying nature's beauty.
He can't gaze at the scenery all day, though. He has shopping to do.
Willie heads to a shopping plaza 2 miles away, pulling a Little Tykes wagon. With limited space for transporting food and no refrigerator, he goes at least every other day.
At times, the wagon's wheels don't turn and he drags it through heavy snow and slush. Other times, he walks in the street, inches from fast-moving traffic.
His first stop is a gas station. Willie fills up three kerosene containers and pays the $12 tab.
At Big Y, he leaves the wagon outside and gets a cart. He picks up a few oranges, looking them over carefully before putting them in his cart.
"How ya doin' buddy?" Willie asks an employee.
He moves to the pet aisle where he selects brands for Gemini and Snickers, a Rottweiler owned by Scott, who lives at the river part time. Willie takes care of the dog when Scott's not around. Much to Willie's chagrin, Scott sometimes feeds the dog canned ravioli and other food Willie says is not good for her.
Willie buys a few other items, including prepared chicken from the deli counter. At the cash register, he uses a debit card. He also uses a store club card.
Outside, he neatly places the groceries in his wagon and begins the journey home.
Down the street from the store, he stops to admire colorful window decorations. Willie likes knickknacks; he often buys trinkets at tag sales.
"Look at that antique glass," he says.
The break is brief. He continues, stopping only to pick up a discarded chisel in the road.
Some motorists beep and wave. Willie gives one, an oil truck driver, the thumbs-up sign with his gloved hand.
By the time he arrives at the river, almost three hours have passed. He has walked nearly 5 miles for a few bags of groceries.
Surviving The Flood
Willie and Nancy are used to the river's annual rise. It happens every spring.
What they are not used to is the amount of water that flowed over the river's banks this year. An April nor'easter dumped more than 4 inches of rain, and the river rose to a height Willie had seen only once before. It crested at 23.4 feet on April 18, the National Weather Service said, the 19th highest level in 107 years.
On April 17, the river creeps closer to their tent. When it is 5 or 6 feet away, Willie and Nancy evacuate. They take a cab to a motel.
As she did after the fire, Nancy likes being in the motel.
"Take a bath any time I want to," she says. "Go to the toilet. Color TV, cable." They don't bathe when they're at the river. They don't do laundry, either; they hang clothes out on lines to air them out.
Willie doesn't care for motels. The only way he would live indoors is if he had his own house in a private setting.
Motels are boring, he says.
"Just sitting in your room. ... You can't do nothing." He doesn't like watching television. He reads and listens to the radio for news and sports updates. He likes the Mets and the Yankees.
After a week, Willie and Nancy have drained their bank accounts. They return to their tent, where more than a foot of water has receded.
The carpet-covered bench Willie had fashioned out of a 6-foot-long contraption he pulled from a Dumpster floated about eight feet away. The stereo they bought to replace the one burned in the fire is ruined. Willie likes jazz, especially progressive jazz, and the blues; Nancy listens to pop music and the morning banter of Craig & Company on 96.5, WTIC-FM.
On April 27, the kerosene heaters are still waterlogged, but Willie figures they don't need them now.
Willie, who has been walking to the old site regularly, hasn't been able to get there since the flood. It's still under water. He thinks about moving back.
On this day, he walks as far as he can.
The water's forceful path is obvious. It left behind garbage and brush, including a dead Christmas tree. The sticks and limbs it carried are stuck together like sardines.
Willie gets within 50 yards.
"A couple more days, it will be down," he says.
Nancy Goes Home
On May 1, Nancy picks up a stick for self-defense and slowly makes her way to her burned-out home. It's her first visit since the fire.
Willie isn't around, and she leaves Gemini at the tent. She wants to look for Meowski's bones.
She approaches the spot where the shed stood. Remnants of her former life are scattered all over. Burned and rusted pots, pans, heaters and other junk litter the site. On top of them, floodwaters deposited brush and trash.
She looks in the area where the fire started for signs of Meowski. She doesn't find anything "because Meowski ran away."
She keeps her emotions in check.
Later that day, she returns to the ruins with Willie.
Everything in the small tent where Willie had stored some bikes, including a motorized scooter, is encased in mud.
"That's no good," he says. At the height of the flood, only the top of the tent was visible.
Willie's wood pile, which used to be close to 6 feet high, is toppled. Willie chops up fallen trees for firewood in the winter.
"Look at my wood pile," he says. "I came up yesterday and just got disgusted and walked back."
Willie doesn't stay depressed for long.
"I'm thinking of putting a tent right there," he says, pointing to an area next to the bike tent. He might put in a garden.
Two days later, on May 3, Willie is sad again.
Walking along the river, he finds a man's body. It is floating face up, a couple of feet from the shore.
Willie stops by the tent, tells Nancy, and goes to a nearby business. Three employees go down to the river with Willie; one calls 911.
Later, Willie expresses sadness about the discovery.
"I didn't feel good about it," he says.
His melancholy, however, quickly evaporates as he cracks a joke.
"I'd rather find him than have someone find me."
Fishing And Gardening
On May 9, the river is happy, calm and blue - a stark contrast to its recent roiling gray waves. Willie is fishing.
Nancy watches as he enjoys the hobby that brought him to the river. She also likes to fish, using a bamboo rod to dangle bait. When Meowski was around, Nancy used to take him with her, on a leash.
Willie has two fishing rods, an old Sears, Roebuck he bought at a tag sale and a new one he bought at Target. The baited rods are propped up against forked tree limbs he had pushed into the ground.
Willie takes a bite of his sandwich. At 130 pounds, he eats only once a day, usually prepared foods. Nancy eats a little more than that.
One of the rods wiggles. Willie puts down the sandwich and grabs it. He quickly reels in the line and stops cranking to pull back on the bending rod.
There's a white flash below the surface. Willie lifts a catfish.
He wraps a towel around it, picks up a pair of pliers and carefully pulls the hook from its mouth. The fish bends its tail while Willie works to free it.
"Be cool. I'll let you go," he says softly.
He throws it back.
A few weeks later, Willie clears the land that housed his shack and front yard. He turns the earth and prepares it for a garden.
Nancy does most of the planting, even though she only has use of her left hand. She plants peas, spinach, corn, green beans and watermelon. Within a month, Willie has planted tomatoes and onions.
On June 5, Willie and Nancy abandon their Coleman tent and move back to the old site.
Willie sets up a roomy, 13-by-10½ tent and builds an awning off the front. He moves an old bench press and weights closer to the tent; the former boxer used to lift weights competitively. He rearranges the wood into two smaller piles.
On June 8, he and Nancy sit in chairs in a shady, cleared area between the wood piles and new tent. A cool breeze sweeps through.
"It feels like air conditioning, don't it?" Willie says.
The temperature that day reaches high into the 80s. When it's hotter, they walk to the river to catch its breezes or wade in.
"It's nice down here practically all the time," Willie says.
Later, Willie and Nancy walk around the garden looking at the hostas Willie planted, along what once was a path to the shack.
Suddenly, Nancy spots something on the ground. It's a dirty Polaroid photo of a gray cat with white paws - Meowski.
Nancy brushes it off. When she returns to her seat, she holds it in her lap.
"I'm so glad I found a picture of Meowski," she says, gazing at it.
Somehow, the photo survived the fire and the flood.
Three weeks later, Nancy finds another memory of Meowski, a Native American rattle-drum. It is a small wooden drum on a stick, with two tiny wooden balls attached by strings. A twist of the stick makes the balls swing and click against the drum. They had bought it for the cat at a tag sale.
Nancy puts the toy in a utility pocket above her sleeping bag. It's next to Meowski's picture, a few inches from where she lays her head at night.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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