History's haven: A week in a 19th-century house in Cape Cod's Barnstable

By William Powers
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 18, 2010; F01

"Barnstable?" my friend exclaimed over cups of coffee at a Lower Manhattan cafe. "Be sure to bring a white suit and an attitude."

I was heading off for a week's vacation in a 19th-century house in the Cape Cod town of Barnstable. (The house has a name, of course: "Packet Mail.") I'm not entirely new to the Cape Cod universe. Growing up in a New York City suburb, I windsurfed off Wellfleet during high school summers and escaped to Provincetown B&Bs during college at Brown. Even so, Barnstable and Packet Mail sounded classy and historic enough to make me feel intimidated.

Historians speculate that the Mayflower would have chosen Barnstable over Plymouth as a landing place -- had the crew spotted its well-protected harbor. Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Grover Cleveland summered there. Even more famously, the Kennedys still live in their compound in nearby Hyannis Port. This was John F. Kennedy's summer home during his administration, and the last residence of Sen. Ted Kennedy.

We all know about Cape Cod and its wealthy Yankee liberals. But the Cape has also fostered an eclectic mix of artists, bohemians and writers. Back around 1950, tourists came to Provincetown to rub elbows with Tennessee Williams and Norman Mailer while watching Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg compete for John Dos Passos's former fiancee, who would eventually ditch them both for folk singer Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Yes, all this happened in little old P-town.

Around the same time, down in the quieter village of Barnstable, another writer arrived on a far less glamorous mission: to manage America's first Saab dealership. Over the next few years, he would live a stone's throw from Packet Mail -- the house where I'd be staying -- failing miserably at selling cars and writing some of the most famous and controversial fiction of the 20th century. His name was Kurt Vonnegut.

* * *

At first glance, Packet Mail doesn't look extraordinary. Yellow clapboard, trimmed in white, a two-story Federal-style home. But take several steps to the house's left or right, and you see its history layering through all the extensions it has accumulated since it was built in 1829, right back to the barn and to the "corn crib" retreat at the far back of the lawn.

Indoors, I felt immediately at ease. Packet Mail's rambling arrangement of rooms and winding and hidden stairways take you back to a time when houses were as idiosyncratic as the people who custom-built them. I looked out the back window in the final room on the second floor and gazed all the way across Barnstable Harbor toward the lighthouse on Sandy Neck, that seven-mile spit of land that hid this harbor so well from the Pilgrims. I was so enchanted that I temporarily forgot I wasn't alone. I heard a floorboard creak and turned to see my blond, green-eyed friend, Melissa. Though Packet Mail is available for rent through Vacation Rentals by Owner on the Web, I wasn't renting it. I was Melissa's guest.

And she was no monthly tenant. Melissa Crane Draper is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Matthias Hinckley, the man who built the place. The name Packet Mail is after the ship that Hinckley captained to and fro across Cape Cod Bay, delivering mail from Boston. It has remained in direct family ownership since the day it was built.

Looking at Melissa surfaced some of the "elite radical" paradox I'd experienced just up the road as an undergraduate at Brown. Though an Ivy and the country's seventh-oldest university, its affluence blends with radical politics -- witness President Jimmy Carter's daughter, Amy, chained to CIA agents to protest their recruiting on campus. Melissa's parents grew up spending summers on the Cape, her father and brother were Princeton men, and she's a Dartmouth alum.

Yet now, at 32, she had just returned from five years in Bolivia where -- with Che Guevara gusto -- she had selflessly drawn a peasant's salary and served as a close informal adviser to Casimira Rodriguez, a leader of Bolivia's domestic workers and the country's first Quechua indian minister of justice in the leftist Evo Morales government. She'd contributed to and co-edited a book titled "Dignity and Defiance," about why Bolivia has so fiercely challenged the policies of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

But Melissa wasn't speaking truth to power at the moment. She looked more Marcia Brady than Amy Carter, in her cloud-white running shoes and shorts. "I'm taking you on a run down Rendezvous Lane," she said.

What came next was a dive into a pool of distilled U.S. history. As we raced through the old maritime village of Barnstable, I tried to catch glimpses of what had brought Vonnegut here in the first place. He had arrived on the eve of an urban flight that would lead to an unprecedented real estate boom on the Cape. Over the years, Vonnegut heaped scorn on the developers who ushered in wealthy newcomers, even though they were in many ways drawn to the same things he was: seclusion, beaches and small-town life.

Perhaps the most beautifully written account of Barnstable is Vonnegut's short story "Where I Live," which opens up his 1968 collection "Welcome to the Monkey House." We're introduced to the town through the eyes of a traveling encyclopedia salesman. With unmistakable satire, Vonnegut expresses his affection for Barnstable by highlighting all the ways in which it disappoints this shallow urbanite. For Vonnegut, Barnstable's resistance to developers and commerce made it the last outpost against the usurpers -- that class of Northeastern elites whose takeover would forever link Cape Cod with the regal image of the Kennedys.

As much as Melissa's family resembled these, they had one exceptional difference: They were true natives. As the two of us ran, I began to recognize Vonnegut's Barnstable. We passed the Georgian-style Daniel Davis House, filled with maritime, Colonial and Native American artifacts, and the adjacent Sturgis Library; the building, from 1644, is the oldest in the country to house a public library. When Vonnegut's salesman shows up here, he's perplexed to find that its most recent Britannica is from 1938.

We jogged past the next stop in this salesman's bogus journey: the Barnstable Yacht Club. "He wanted a martini, wondered if a nonmember could get service at the bar," Vonnegut wrote. "He was appalled to discover that the club was nothing but a shack fourteen feet wide and thirty feet long, a touch of the Ozarks in Massachusetts." Considering the prestige one would expect to find in Cape Cod today, the club is just as underwhelming as it was then, if not more so. I smiled to myself, relishing with Vonnegut the perfect irony of a historical structure that disappoints increasingly as the years go by.

We ran on, the sky above Barnstable Harbor opening up through the gray clouds above the Sandy Neck lighthouse. We looped around Rendezvous Lane, and by the time we got back to Packet Mail, I was bent over and gasping for breath. From the other side of old Route 6A, the yellow house rose in front of us, and Melissa calmly gestured to the back of Packet Mail's west lawn. "My parents were married there," she said. "Kurt Vonnegut was at the wedding."

Then she pointed to the family tomb in the northwest corner of Lothrop Hill Cemetery, across the road from Packet Mail. I noticed two things. First, that there were hundreds of tombstones in the cemetery. And second, that Melissa's family tomb was at the very front.

"So that's where you'll be someday," I said, receiving a well-deserved glare for the quip.

* * *

Our good weather was short-lived. The next four days were increasingly cloudy and chilly. But Melissa and I had our laptops -- those little slave drivers -- to keep us busy with work via Packet Mail's WiFi. The rain pattering on the roof, the bay invisible through the fog, I rewrote a piece of my next book while Melissa fomented Andean revolution through viral e-mail communiques zapped south.

We lunched one day at a sandwich shop in Barnstable Village and overheard a heated debate about -- what else? -- the Kennedys. One guy was arguing that the Kennedys are right to oppose offshore wind farms. "If you can see them from the Cape, it hurts tourism," he insisted. The other disagreed vehemently, saying that global warming made those kinds of bourgeois aesthetic considerations moot. "Plus the wind turbine construction and maintenance will bring jobs to Barnstable."

"Jobs to Barnstable" sounded a bit like "snow to the Eskimos" to me. Median household annual income in 2007 was $59,365, about 20 percent higher than the national average. But there is unemployment, as I found out while talking to a former fisherman later that afternoon. He told me that overfishing and pollution have choked the livelihoods out of Barnstable Harbor and its environs. He'd reluctantly joined the local environmental crowd, following the legacy of Vonnegut.

Speaking of the 2004 presidential contest between George W. Bush and John Kerry, for instance, Vonnegut said that "no matter which one wins, we will have a Skull and Bones President at a time when entire vertebrate species, because of how we have poisoned the topsoil, the waters and the atmosphere, are becoming, hey presto, nothing but skulls and bones." This is consistent with the role Vonnegut played again and again: prophet of the harbor, grouchy as any old Yank in the village, further distancing himself from the polished compromises of the Democratic elite, whose new candidate just happened to be another senator from Massachusetts, mentored by a Kennedy.

The next night, Barnstable's weather grew as cold and bleak as the Nantucket of "Moby-Dick." I wondered, through the gloom, how much Vonnegut's hardboiled cynicism had been linked to his past. Captured by the Nazis during World War II, he survived the firebombing of Dresden -- which he later described as "carnage unfathomable" -- while being held in an underground detention facility that his captors referred to as Slaughterhouse Five. It would become the title of perhaps his most famous novel, and he'd revisit these experiences throughout his career. After he was freed by the Red Army in 1945, Vonnegut returned home to find that his mother, Edith, had committed suicide on Mother's Day in 1944. Vonnegut himself attempted suicide in 1981.

The next day, our last on the Cape, the sun finally peeked through. I needed a break from the dreariness -- as atmospheric as it was -- of old houses and Vonnegut. Melissa and I drove down 6A all the way to the very fist-tip of the Cape Cod "arm": the artsy colony of Provincetown.

Like Barnstable, Provincetown still lives up to the place it holds in American literature: a vibrant playground for artists and any open-minded person who wants to catch some waves. In this former stomping ground of Ginsberg and Williams, gay and lesbian couples now walk hand-in-hand past cheery houses where rainbow flags hang alongside the Stars and Stripes. We walked past the historic Unitarian church, where the billboard out front read "Celebration of Same Sex Marriage Today."

Okay, maybe it's not as bohemian as it was back then. That now-familiar feel of elite liberalism was everywhere, even in our South African lunch spot: the Karoo Kafe. Malaysian, Indian, Dutch and African flavors combined for such a cosmopolitan experience that you could almost forget that you were in New England. The flair and spice of Provincetown contrasted with the languid gloom of my time at Packet Mail. My picture of old Barnstable had increasingly fused with the image from Vonnegut's story: one that "exists for itself, not for passersby." I wondered whether I had missed something.

* * *

I got a chance to see Barnstable in a different light exactly two months later. It was July 4, and American independence was overshadowed by two other celebrations at Packet Mail: the 180th anniversary of the house and the stateside celebration of the wedding of Melissa's only sibling, Matthew (a New York lawyer) to Corinne (a British lawyer).

Matthew is from an 11-generation Barnstable Cape Cod family, and his bride-to-be hails from Barnstaple, England. So, Matthew's ancestors had sailed here to the Cape centuries back, and now Corinne had come across the Atlantic to marry one of her own.

Packet Mail shone bright yellow in the summer sun. Instead of a gray, cold place with just Melissa and me, it was filled with a hundred of her relatives. Cranes and Drapers laughed playing croquet on the lawn. Shouts came from others indoors as Serena defeated Venus at Wimbledon.

Some of Melissa's cousins suited up to wade into Barnstable Harbor to clam for the evening's feasts, while I rigged up a windsurfer with another of her cousins and raced him across Wequaquet Lake. It took me back to when I'd done this as a kid, but the winds were higher this time. I leaned back and felt a current of air surge behind me, and I went flying along in brilliant summer glory once again.

That night Matthew and Corinne "married." The church wedding was still to come, near her home in the original Barnstaple, but the speeches were so moving, it felt as though no other ceremony was necessary. Far from the WASPiness you might expect, Melissa's relatives and friends included an aunt married to an African American man and their biracial kids; straights and gays; a Forbes heir and a famished bohemian. One guest mused aloud over family history: of her long line of ancestors, stretching back to Matthias Hinckley, who won a legendary packet-ship race from Barnstable to Boston. Then she described Melissa's parents being married in that same spot three decades ago -- Vonnegut looking on, perhaps smoking the unfiltered Pall Malls he favored ("a classy way to commit suicide," he wryly called them).

Later, a guest lit candles under cream-colored paper lanterns that took flight like mini-hot-air balloons. Up over Packet Mail they floated -- harmlessly -- over Barnstable Harbor and Sandy Neck, eastward, toward the Old World, and -- do you know? -- as they drifted away, becoming burning specks in the sky, they reminded me of Asteroid 25399 Vonnegut, named in Kurt's honor.

For better or worse, this was a vision of modern Cape Cod culture. Like Provincetown and the days of old, it was a community with an aura of genuine vitality, partly because it remained deeply connected to the history of a place. I sensed that if Vonnegut had been present at this wedding -- and in some ways, he was -- no one would have taken his wisecracks too seriously.

Powers's latest book, "Twelve by Twelve: A One Room Cabin, Off the Grid, and Beyond the American Dream," will appear in May. His Web site is www.williampowersbooks.com.

Details: Getting to and around Barnstable and Cape Cod

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