Peyton Place, Hell’s Angels, and the Importance of Abandoning Research Altogether

May 14, 2010

When I first began piecing together my memoir, A Brief History of Sex Education, I thought maybe I should do research, maybe I should include facts and footnotes and a “Works Consulted” page, so for months I was lost, randomly perusing books and surfing the Internet, doing my best to hide the fear over whether my own memories could stand by themselves. I know writers seem full of ego, and we ARE, we ARE, but that ego just fills the vast chasm of insecurity that grows larger by the day. We try to fill the chasm with words, with books, with the occasional jelly donut—and yet it never really goes away.

I dumped in all of these little facts here and there but it was like putting jimmies on a scoop of mashed potatoes and gravy. It might look like an ice cream sundae for a second, then you take a bite and think, “Wow, that is just wrong.”

But I liked what I found, even if it didn’t fit with my memoir, so I thought I’d post some of what I discovered in this failed attempt. And yes, you’ll discover that my research was not really research. That’s why I’m not a journalist. But here is my haphazard “Works Consulted,” plus the few little facts you will NOT find in my memoir, but which I still feel compelled to share:

Partial List of Works Consulted for A Brief History of Sex Education

Inside Peyton Place: The Life of Grace Metalious by Emily Toth

Grace Metalious, also known as Pandora in blue jeans, for writing a novel that let a small town's evil secrets out of the box.

A biography of the tragic and remarkable and too-often dismissed Metalious, who does a great job evoking adolescent angst as well as the mix of suffocation and freedom that comes with living in a small town—her town, of course, was Gilmanton, NH. What I discovered? She was best friends with George Cantin (he of Cantin Chevrolet and Cantin Dance Studio in Laconia), calling him her “court jester.” How I knew George Cantin? He came to our dances in 6th grade to teach us the Bus Stop and the Hustle and tell us how he’d been in New York the weekend before “in a dance class with a guy named John Travolta. Heard of him?” We all looked at this nutty guy in those terrible polyester disco pants—you know the ones—high waisted and bell-bottomed and scary, scary, scary—and thought, “Yeah, pal, we don’t think so.” But I like the thought of George and Grace, misfits in a town of misfits, just doing their best to get by, and I bet he really did dance with John Travolta and wish I’d had the guts to ask for the full story.

Hell’s Angels by Hunter Thompson

This was what my copy of Hell's Angels looked like, bought in 1982 for 95 cents at the Laconia Spa.

National Guard at Weirs Beach, 1965

I read this for the account of the Weirs Beach riot in 1965 that was purportedly started by the Hell’s Angels. What I discovered? The Hell’s Angels weren’t there at all (the troublemakers were bikers from Quebec of all places), and when I mentioned the riot to anyone from the Lakes Region, they either were there or know someone who was there, making the riot Laconia’s version of Woodstock. Something else? One of the few people seriously injured was Robert St. Louis, who was shot in the face by a National Guardsman while taking photographs for the Laconia Evening Citizen.

I knew St. Louis as the guy owning the monopoly on taking senior yearbook photos for 98% of the high school kids in the Lakes Region. Perhaps the riot was where he decided he needed a quieter gig?

The Cheerleader by Ruth Doan MacDougall

A semi-scandalous novel by a woman who graduated from Laconia High in the ‘50s. Thinly veiled fiction—you will recognize Laconia and Gilford and Gunstock Acres, the Colonial Theater, Weeks’ Restaurant, and WEMJ—some of you might even recognize your moms or dads if they, like Ruth, graduated from Laconia High in the mid-‘50s. Please tell me if you do; I’d love to know who’s who! Even better, you will discover that, like in the ‘80s (and the ’90s and NOW), New Hampshire teenagers in the ’50s:

  1. Had SEX! And they DIDN’T have SEX! And either way, they sure thought about it a lot!
  2. Threw beer parties at their family summer camps!
  3. Threw up because they had too much beer at those parties!
  4. Spent angst filled hours at said beer parties (or slumber parties or in the backseats of cars) wondering what the heck they were going to do when school ended and “real life” began.

So this is, again, what you’re not missing in the memoir, aside from the universal truths described in numbers 1-4 above. These books were fun reading, but the facts they gave me just didn’t fit. I, like Grace Metalious and Ruth Doan MacDougall, needed to come up with my own brand of small-town angst and so I think I have. I just wish Hunter Thompson had done the same before he’d signed off a few years ago–I’d love to have read about his own high school experience, if only because I’m certain he wasn’t born with those aviator shades and that big cigar. . . there had to have been a time he, like all of us, just wasn’t all that cool.

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7 Responses to “Peyton Place, Hell’s Angels, and the Importance of Abandoning Research Altogether”

  1. MOM said

    Ruth D.McD. graduated in the 50’s. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself. I always got perfect scores in “Timeline.”
    Luv, M

  2. Already changed. Thank you, my own personal fact-checker!

  3. Jon said

    Good post but did you just call Gilmanton a “town of misfits”? Sure some of us may fit that description but I think that’s a reach describing the town’s general population, especially in the 1950s. Gilmanton is a town where most people know exactly who they are, your occasional cocaine snorting school administrator not withstanding. Gilmanton is the town where families go back 200 years. Gilford is the brash upstart – lots of nouveaux riches, transplants from Mass, wife swapping and key parties, etc. Gilford seems like a town where people from away come to reinvent themselves. It’s the LA of Belknap County (how’s that for a reach?).

    Anyway, Bill Donahue wrote a good piece on Grace for Salon a few years back – worth checking out.

  4. As one whose research shows that almost the entire Lakes Region used to BE Gilmanton before it was all chopped up, I certainly agree with you in terms of the town’s history, but as for the “misfit” designation, please know I meant that as a complement! And truth be told, Grace wasn’t from one of those 200-year-old families, so her perspective on the town is certainly suspect, but still it’s a great book, up there with Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, especially if it’s NOT taken as nonfiction. But I’ll check out the Salon article.

    Truthfully, If it weren’t for misfits I wouldn’t have had any friends at all in school . . . yourself included. But wife swapping and key parties in Gilford amongst the nouveaux riche–oh my! I hope you’re writing a book too. The LA of Belknap County–I can already see the tie-in for a reality show.

  5. Jon said

    Oh, I know you meant it as a compliment, just not sure Gilmanton completely merits it, most small towns have their eccentrics. Although thinking back on the McCullochs, the Mathias Regans, the Dave Cotes, Troy, Chris, etc. maybe you’re right.

    You know in Gilmanton everyone says Grace was really writing mostly about Laconia people in “Peyton Place” – there just wasn’t that much going on in Gilmanton, sadly.

    But Gilford has that whole Governor’s Island scene – Gilmanton has nothing to compare to that. Probably would make a good reality show – “The Real Housewives of Lake Winnipesaukee”.

  6. Karen said

    George Cantin was my dance teacher and he was the best!

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