The Unauthorized Memoirs of Sam Smith
During the war, summer was much the same as winter — only hotter. Even if you could afford to leave town, gas was rationed. But as the war wound down, my parents started looking for a place to spend the summer.
Before the trouble they had rented a house in Marion, Mass. Not much sticks in my memory: the address (Two Pie Alley), gossamer images of sitting in a high chair eating cake and big boats on a big ocean. The boats included JP Morgan’s yacht Corsair and America’s Cup defenders but I didn’t know then that there were gradations in bigness. All boats were big.
According to my brother, our father decided after the war that it would become very expensive. He already had five children and the local country club charged two dollars and hour for tennis. So they began looking elsewhere. But as Jimmy Mann would later tell Lewis, “Your fasther wasn’t cheap; he was frugal.”
As a child, my mother had summered at Clapboard Island in Casco Bay in Maine in a gargantuan shingled structure with tongue-and-groove wood paneling inside and a hammock the size of a single bed on the front porch. The house sat a short water run from Modocawanda Landing, just west of the Portland Yacht Club and Handy Andy’s boat yard. The house could easily have been mistaken for a hotel, except that it was hidden in the trees and the only people who came there arrived in one of my grandfather’s launches and knew it wasn’t a hotel. Its 10,000 square feet included 12 bedrooms and 13 granite fireplaces.
Clapboard had been a happy place for my mother, so it was with considerable excitement that my parents received a brochure — a joke, my father’s realtor-cousin wrote — describing a large stone house for sale on a point not far from the island. The flyer said the house would be “ideal for an institution.” My parents caught the first post-war through train to Maine and were driven by Billy Maybury in a Model A Ford the five miles from town to an estate hidden in the snow on a narrow neck at the end of a dirt road the other side of a two hundred acre wood. They liked what they saw, returned to Washington, immediately sold two townhouses, and with the proceeds bought the Maine house, a farmhouse, two post and beam barns (one of which in the 1890s had been the largest in the state), a beach house, the remains of a tennis court, a swimming pool, and over three hundred acres of land. The land cost about $150 an acre, buildings included – or about $1500 an acre inflated to the values of 60 years later.
Casco Bay, which once lay under a mile high pile of ice, is the westernmost of the great bays of Maine, eighteen miles from headland to headland. The product of glaciers, Casco Bay is speared by a series of points extending in a generally southerly direction. Beyond the points are the islands, many laying on the same axis after being chopped off the peninsulas by the dull but indefatigable knife of the sea. Maine has thousands of islands — a survey in the 1980s found 2,000 of uncertain ownership alone — and if its coastline were stretched taut it would reach the Panama Canal. But nowhere is it more jagged and idiosyncratic, nor its waters more jammed with the potsherds of glaciation, than in Casco Bay. The Maine Times claimed once that there were 768 islands and ledges visible above the 9-10 foot high tides. Old tourist material referred to “The Calendar Isles,” a reflection of the alleged island count. This count goes back at least to 1700 when an English document cautiously reported that
Sd bay is covered from storms that come from the sea by a multitude of islands, great and small, there being (if report be true) as many islands as there are Days in a Yr.
The US Coast Pilot doesn’t tally the rocks and says there are only 136 islands and ledges. The Portland City Guide says 222 islands — based on a state study that listed only those outcroppings “big enough for a man to get out and stand on. ” And a 1992 computer-aided study found 763 islands and ledges appearing at mean high water.
In any, case there are a lot of islands, rocks and ledges. It is why, perhaps, that the lobsterman, upon it being proposed that he undoubtedly knew the location of all the rocks, replied, “Nope. But I know where they ain’t.”
The bay is also home to an unusual variety of wildlife. The Casco Bay Estuary Project reported in 1995 that 850 species had been identified in local waters. The density of organisms in the bay is more than ten times that of Delaware Bay. Included are over 30,000 water birds of 150 different species, over 2,000 harbor seals, and over fifty pair of nesting osprey and even a few eagles.
Many of the islands are uninhabited. The country’s oldest mail boat service plies among the largest of the others, bringing letters, tourists, food and palettes of construction materials. In the lower corner of the bay is Portland, one of the east coast’s great natural harbors, with a channel deeper than that of Boston, Philadelphia or New York. During World War II, the Navy formed transatlantic convoys and moored as many as 60 vessels off Portland. The islands provided a natural barrier to storms and enemy subs, with anti-submarine netting strung between them completing tto complete the task.
The Atlantic coast was far more dangerous than Americans realized. Years after the war it would be revealed that in the first months 46 merchant ships were sunk off the east coast. Another 126 would be sunk before the war was over. And Portland was among the first targets for U-boats after war was declared. At least three U-boats were sunk near Casco Bay – one five miles southeast of the Portland sea buoy, one off Small Point and the other seven miles off Halfway Rock after being spotted by shore gunners on Bailey’s Island.
On April 23, 1945 – as Stephen Puleo describes in Due to Enemy Action – the 200 foot USS Eagle was sunk less than five miles southeast of Cape Elizabeth by U-853. Thirteen of the crew survived only to be informed by Navy officials that the sinking had been caused by their ship’s boiler having exploded and thus they were not entitled to the Purple Heart. It was not surprising the Navy wanted to cover up the cause; after all the war was almost over and no naval vessel had yet been lost off the New England coast.
On May 5, the captains of U-boats received word from Berlin that they were to surrender. The commander of one wrote later, “Henceforth we would be able to live without fear that we had to die tomorrow. An unknown tranquility took possession of me as I realized that I had survived. My death in an iron coffin, a verdict of long standing, was finally suspended.”
The commander of U-853, however, either did not get the word or chose to ignore it. That afternoon he sank a freighter off Point Judith, RI commencing a chase that ended with the sub on the ocean floor with all crew members dead.
A day later, the war was formally over.
The U-boat story even came closer to home than that. Emily Rhoades lived part of the war on Bowman’s Island off the end of Wolf Neck. One night, around midnight, she went out to get some water at the well. Standing by the well was a man all dressed black including a black mask. He put his finger to his mouth and pointed her back to the house. There was little doubt about how he had gotten there.
It would take over a half century of dogged effort, however, for the survivors of the USS Eagle sinking to finally receive their Purple Hearts for an incident the Navy hadn’t wanted to admit had occurred.
Among the Navy ships using Casco Bay was the battleship Missouri which moored right off Clapboard Island. Years after she had departed, the mammoth buoy of the vessel on whose deck the Japanese surrendered remained as a memento as it lazily filled with water and finally sank.
There are other reminders of war in Casco Bay. A mid-19th century fort that never saw action sits in the middle of the entrance to Portland harbor. Watch towers peer over the pines and hemlocks on the outer islands. And on Great Diamond there was once a base with 125 buildings for 700 men. The parade grounds eventually became an unmown hayfield surrounded by tall brick barracks with no windows or doors, but if you knew where to look you could find the movie theatre and the bowling alley. In the mid-80s the property was purchased by a developer who turned the barracks into condominiums, the quartermaster storehouse into an upscale restaurant, and put a real estate office in a gazebo at the end of the pier. You could no longer just land and walk around.
On other islands there is little hint of conflict or modernity except that which washes up on the beach. Bustins Island, for example, has only dirt roads and no electricity for its several hundred summer residents. The residents considered the question of electric power in the 1960s and voted it down. It hasn’t come up again. So Archie Ross, the ferryboat skipper who ran between Bustins and South Freeport for 50 years, carried scores of propane gas tanks atop the Marie for use in the island stoves and to light the lamps along the roads. He also carried mail by water longer than anyone in the country.
Archie, a diminutive and perpetually shoeless man, drove a car with the vanity plate J PRIEST (for his frequent exclamation “Judas Priest!”), waved with big sweeps of his arm to every boat that passed and had a high-pitched voice that rose like the tide above the chatter on the dock.
His casual cheer, however, belied his seamanship. When Hurricane Carol hit in the late fifties, Archie figured the best place to be was on his boat. He rode out the storm at anchor with his engine running, keeping the vessel headed into the wind. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the Portland Yacht Club lost a couple of hundred boats.
Bought originally by John Bustin in 1660, until 1890 Bustin’s Island had been mostly grass. Then two brothers bought some of it and started developing summer homes. By the 1920s, Bustins was pretty much the way it would be for the next seventy years, a hundred or so cottages clumped on the shoreline of the island that finishes the neat line of glacial flotsam that starts with Mere Point and includes the islands of Sow & Pigs, Sisters, Williams, and Pettingill.
Sometimes Maine islands are named for people, sometimes for attributes. There are perhaps a score of Mark Islands along the coast. In Casco Bay alone there are four Green Islands, three Ram and three Mark Islands. The two lumps that sit like dinghies on the seaward side of Upper and Lower Goose islands are known as the Goslings. Other islands include Pumkin Knob, Pound of Tea, Little Bull Ledge, Crotch and Broken Cave.
Some of these names evoke a story. Jewel Island, for example, was where — it is dubiously alleged — pirate treasure was buried (by Captain Kidd among others). If you go to the right place at the right time, it is said you can see the ghost of the man who lost his life trying to steal the treasure.
Sometimes the islands along the Maine coast seem to be named just right. A small projection with a few windblown trees in Casco Bay is called Irony Island. And sometimes the names have been bowdlerized. For example, the Virgin’s Nipples were once the Virgin’s Teats and Burnt Coat Harbor was formerly Burnt Arse Harbor.
Many of the larger islands have ferry service to Portland. In 2003 nearly a million passengers used the service, less then a tenth of them tourists. The ferries also transported 53,000 boxes of groceries, 25,000 vehicles, 7,000 cases of beer, 380 mattresses and 380 cases of potato chips.
The first Europeans to visit these waters were probably Scandinavian fishermen, who could make the northern transit of the Atlantic and never be more than a few hundred miles from shore. John and Sebastian Cabot, five years after Columbus, passed through and charted Casco Bay on their way from Nova Scotia to the Carolinas. By 1602, when Bartholomew Gosnold arrived at Cape Neddick, his presence was considered by the Indians to be less than remarkable. John Bereton, the chronicler of the voyage, wrote:
One who seemed to be their commander wore a coat of black work, a pair of breeches, cloth stockings, shoes, hat and band…. They spoke divers Christian words and seemed to understand more than we, for lack of language, could comprehend…They pronounced our language with great facility; for one of them sitting by me, upon occasion I spake smilingly to him with these words: How now sirha are you so saucy with my tobacco, which words (without any further repetition) he suddenly spake so plaine and distinctly as if he had been a long scholar in the language.
As far back as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano, arriving to the west of Casco Bay near Ogunquit, got a reception from the Indians that suggested possible previous contact with Europeans. The Indians insisted on standing on a cliff and trading with Verrazano’s crew by use of a rope. “We found no courtesy in them,” Verrazano complained. Worse they rounded out the transaction by “showing their buttocks and laughing immoderately.”
Captain John Smith may have been the first person to put in writing the attraction the Maine coast would have to centuries of later arrivals:
Here are no hard landlords to racke us with high rents; no tedious pleas in law to consume us with their many years deputations for Justice; no multitudes to occasion such impediments to good order, as in the popuar States. So freely hath God in his Majesty bestowed his blessing on them that will attempt to obtaine them as here every man may be master and owner of his own labor and land; or the greatest part in a small time.”
Recent archeological work suggests that the Indians first came to these parts as early as 8,000 years ago. Beginning in 1675 they retrieved much of the land along the western Maine coast from the European usurpers in a series of bloody clashes that were part of King Philip’s War. By 1703 there were no European settlers east of York County. Although King Philip’s War doesn’t get much attention, it was actually the most costly American war based on the percent of male casualties among the colonists. Not until 1715 did Europeans return to these parts and reassert old land claims settled by a committee in Massachusetts.
As late as 1870 Indians summered on Great Chebeague Island. But they were long gone by the time we arrived although for many years you could still find some of their shell heaps. The past was everywhere on the neck, but it was not the musty, stuffy past of ancestors staring down at you in the candlelight, but the past of Indians, of an Italian stone masons’ shack paneled in pieces of packing crates, strange rusty iron tools in the barn, and a broken sign in the attic that read, BEWARE THE FIERCE LAMB resting near boxes of stationery and mailing tags from a long forgotten fish company.
The first Europeans to settle on the neck divided it in half longitudinally and built a stone wall over a mile long to mark the border. One family was named Shepherd and the other Wolfe, so the wall separated the Shepherds from the Wolfes. Parts of the 18th century stone wall are still there under the hemlocks in the woods and along the path to the river. One half of the neck soon devolved to Nathaniel and Mary Aldrich who would have 14 children, several at sea. The foundations of the Aldrich house, the well, and the walls of the courtyard are still visible in the woods, especially in the winter time. Even if they weren’t, you’d know something had happened there because of the field pines, their boughs branching out towards what was once sunlight, now incongruously scattered among the tall, cramped vertical evergreens of the second, third, and fourth growth.
During the 18th and 19th century, Maine’s coast was intensively farmed. If you had cruised it, you would have been as likely to see a pasture as woods, or cows and sheep grazing on the islands. The field pines and the stone walls in the woods of Maine are reminders that most of the state’s farmland has gone back to forest. In 1954 there were 23,000 farms remaining in Maine; by 1987 there were only about 6,000, climbing to over 8000 during the next 25 years. The dairy industry did even worse: in 1950 there were almost 5,000 dairy farms; by 2013 there were only about 300.This decline has contributed to a state anomaly: Maine has the highest percentage of its land in forest but the smallest average diameter of trees.
The house my parents bought was a rambling two-story structure designed by John Calvin Stephens. It was built of a mixture of granite (carved from the neck’s own ledges), white shingles and clapboard, with tall white columns that would have been far more comfortable somewhere south of Richmond. Dr. Pinfold, the local vet, called it “an architectural miscarriage.” Dr. Pinfold spoke directly. Once my father tracked him down at a party to tell him that a cow had fallen into a well. “Is it head up or head down?” Dr. Pinfold asked. “If it’s head down I’m not comin’ over. You can pull her out yourself.”
THE FRONT HALL AS IT LOOKED AS A CONFERENCE CENTER. GONE ARE THE LIFE JACKETS SLUNG OVER THE STAIR RAILING, SAILS DRYING ON THE FLOOR AND SO FORTH.
The house had been built starting in 1918 by a well-traveled Maine-born entrepreneur, Stanley Wood, who had chosen Casco Bay after spending two months inspecting country property from the Hudson River to Camden, Maine. It was said (mainly by my father to every visitor) that Mrs. Wood liked Virginia colonial while Mr. Wood preferred British baronial, thus explaining the tall white columns on a granite and shingled home at the end of a point in Maine.
Other local entrepreneurs of the period included rum runners such as the South Freeport harbormaster, Cappy Dixon. According to the great Maine chronicler John Gould who knew him, Cappy would sit in his living room in the dark waiting for an incoming vessel to shine a light against the wall. If the coast was clear, Cappy would signal back, if not the vessel would return safely to its mother ship.
One night a trap was set by the police, quietly surrounding Dixon’s house. One portly deputy sheriff climbed into a maple tree off Cappy’s driveway where he waited for hours as the target sat in the dark of his living room “smoking his pipe placidly,” well aware of what awaited in the bushes outside. At 2:30 am he received a signal from an approaching craft. He stepped outside, aimed a flashlight towards the bay and signalled in Morse Code, “NO.” Before going inside to bed, Cappy shined the light at the maple tree, right into Deputy Sherrif Ray Dyer’s eyes.
Stanley Wood also used a flashlight to get his booze, going to the stone pier to signal at night. When contact was made he’d row out to get the stuff. It was probably stored in the metal chest under the floor boards in the closet of the first floor guestroom. That was where my father kept his liquor over the winter.
The Woods did not enjoy their dream house for long. As Wood described it:
In 1929 I lost much money in the Wall St. debacle and did not meet the worst of that storm until 1933 when I finally lost the greater part of my million dollar fortune, and have since had to live on a limited scale. This had much to do with the discontent of my wife, finally terminating in separation and divorce, much to my regret.
Wood did not let divorce sour him on his Maine home, which he described as “the healthiest locality on Earth and perhaps the most beautiful.” In his view only the Grand Canyon, Lake Louise, sunrise at Mount Everest and the shrine of Nikko on Japan were comparable.
As things deteriorated, the player organ was sold, the swimming pool filled with dirt and trees, the tennis court grew over and Wood ended up living with his dog in a few rooms at the kitchen end, warmed by a wood stove, visited occasionally by Dr. Howard, the town physician who finally convinced Wood to move “up street” where he could keep a better eye on him.
Dr. Howard was still practicing when we got there and each summer the six Smith children would be marched in for allergy shots, which despite our different allergies, were all delivered with the same needle.
The eclecticism of the house’s exterior was matched inside. Over the landing of the grand stairway was a ten foot stained glass window of a waterfall. On either side were big gaps where the pipes of the player organ had once been housed. The organ had two manuals, 22 ranks and 1,249 pipes with stops ranging from bassoon to harps and chimes. The Aeolian organ eventually wound up in Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. A Seattle Times article described the interior of the device as being a “Rube Goldberg-style array of mechanisms that once adorned the homes of the country’s wealthy. Aeolian residence organs were purchased by the du Ponts, the Fords, the Carnegies, Woolworths, Pennys, Spreckels and hundreds of other luminaries, all of whom could enjoy up to 2,000 titles of popular, classical and dance music on the playback rolls.”
My father early covered the huge arched cavities with wallboard but never got around to having them painted. To the right and behind the stairway was a great wood paneled dining room with a curved and engraved stucco ceiling that loomed almost two floors above the visitor. As you entered, you found yourself under a musician’s gallery that ran the width of the room. Ahead of you, on eithr side of a large picture window, were eight foot mirrors from Buenos Aires.
THE LIVING ROOM. THE FLOOR WAS PAINTED ORANGE BUFF, A COMMON BOAT DECK COLOR OF THE TIME. THE PHOTO WAS TAKEN UNDERNEATH THE MUSICIAN’S GALLERY, WHERE BICYCLES, SAILS, AND ASSORTED OTHER GEAR WAS STORED
PRESENT VIEW FROM THE OTHER SIDE SHOWING THE MUSICIANS’ GALLERY
At the far end, a huge picture window framed a view of the harbor and of a tower that had been to the turn-of-the-century Casco Castle Hotel what the arches are to McDonalds. Among its attractions was an amusement park with a small zoo whose occupants usually included some monkeys, bison, Angus cattle and a peacock. The hotel burned in a spectacular fire and only the tower survived. The castle has become the local icon, appearing on the yacht club burgee and on the arm patches of the town cops.
On either side of the window were two 8-foot gilded Venetian mirrors, on the right wall another stained glass window, and in the center of the room a large Viennese chandelier that could be lowered from the attic for cleaning.
Once you left this room, the house turned inordinately plain, a Maine cottage that had gotten out of hand in size but not in design. It had nine ordinary bedrooms, numerous ancillary sitting rooms and, at one end, a study walled in rough stone, heavy pine beams and paned doors. In the wood-paneled kitchen there was a hand pump that brought water up from the large rainwater cistern in the basement.
Mainers called such places cottages or camps, even though this particular cottage or camp once had 22 people sleeping in it. Babe Walsh, the local barber, would ask me, with only the faintest touch of irony, how things were at the “camp.” When we moved in, the only electricity came from a gasoline generator my father turned on each evening at sundown. The generator provided a soft orangish glow to the pre-war bulbs, not a few of which were still working in the 1990s. There was a phone, but it was nearly two miles away at Mr. Banter’s house. That’s as far as the mail got as well. When someone called my father, Mr. Banter would drive down to tell him and my father would rush out to the car and we would wait to hear what had been happening far away. Mr. Banter and his wife already knew since they had sat in their kitchen listening.
When we finally got a phone, it was a hand crank model with more than a half dozen neighbors on the same line. To call a someone on the same line, you turned a small crank that rang a bell. Your neighbors each had a different code – such as two long rings and one short – but for more distant calls you contacted the operator overlooking Main Street who might well tell you that the person you were seeking had just walked into the Red & White and that you’d better try later. Dial service didn’t come in until the 1950s and I still have the letter from the phone company upon which my mother had scrawled, “Alas.”
My parents furnished the house by going to auctions. Maine was a poor state and getting poorer. The first auction netted several dozen pieces of furniture for $100, My mother loved auctions and was not embarrassed as she gobbled up anything that caught her eye, even a grocery store-sized carton of dozens of rolls of toilet paper that she purchased to guffaws at a farm sale. According to my brother, a nearby lady said, “I wonder what she’s going to do with all of that?” Replied her friend, “I guess she’ll use most of it.”
Dry, unobtrusive earthiness is a hallmark of Maine humor as in the tale of the two men walking down a beach when a seagull dropped a load on one. His friend asked him, “Would you like some Kleenex?” “Nope,” the other replied. “Seagull’s gone already .”
I have notes from one auction:
“God damn you, Tom Soule, get around front here where we can keep an eye on you.” Tom’s reply was lost in the ripple of laughter that went around the crowd. “All right now, who’ll give me 25 cents for the lot?” Another pause. The auctioneer started to laugh. “Well I guess I can’t fool you folks. Pile some more stuff on, boys.”
His assistants piled it on.
“What do I hear now?”
A feminine voice bid twenty-five cents.
“Sold! Now lady, what is your husband going to say when you come home with that junk?”
Next was an electric pump.
“Now folks, to tell you the truth there’s only one thing wrong with this pump. It came from Old Lady Thompson from down to Pownal, and folks, she had the by-goddest woodchuck water you ever did see.” The auctioneer was laughing again. “I used to see Old Lady Thompson every so often and she’d say to me, ‘Erv, when are you coming over to have some woodchuck water?’
“So folks, you may want to clean out the pipe before you use it. She used to say it was better that castor oil for you, though.”
The pump went for $25.
oThe booty would return to the house, which, with its reliance on bargains and serendipity, slowly began itself to resemble the showroom of an auction house. Every horizontal surface offered an opportunity for storage of a knick-knack, a puzzle, a book or a magazine. The musicians’ gallery became the sail-loft and a glory hole for marine hardware and old bikes. The big closets in the kitchen hall were home for smelly WWII vintage canvas and rubber foul weather gear that would hang there years after such garments had been supplanted by softer and lighter outerwear. Some of the items in the house changed locations, some disappeared, others didn’t move for decades. When my mother died and it fell to me to close the house, I decided early not to prejudge the categories into which I would divide its contents. The house soon made its own, among them a whole carton full of Smokey Bear memorabilia and 35 umbrellas.
My parents made no effort to restore or renovate the house for other than logistical purposes. The original wall-to-wall carpeting on much of the first floor remained, absorbing decades of mud, salt and spilled drinks. The floor of the dining room, converted to a living room, was painted a nautical orange buff. Once in over 40 years.
The additions and changes were few. Part of the stone porch was enclosed, the first floor portion for a dining room, upstairs for my bedroom. I liked to lie in my bed and look at the holes left by the wood inserts Walter Stowe and Jimmy Mann had tried to fit to the contours of the rough stone or get down on the floor and listen through a former drain pipe to what the grown-ups were saying in the dining room below.
The dining room conversion had not accounted for the cacophony that would result when the voices of up to two dozen people began bouncing against the stone walls and the tile floor. My father solved the problem by installing thick light blue wall-to-wall carpeting on the ceiling. After a while no one even mentioned it.
My father also made two bedrooms out of the large sitting room to the left of the front hall. Shortly after this project commenced, word came that some upscale cousins from Camden were about to pay a visit. Only the studs were in place, but my father solved the problem by having wallpaper tacked to the studs for the duration. During the night, the cousins’ dog heard a noise and in the course of its investigations penetrated both the wall and the charade .
FREEPORT IN THE 1940s
The casualness of the ambience, however, was not imitated in the daily schedule. My father, whatever his environment, was a man of order and orders. My mother had an overflowing agenda as well. The rules, which seemed an ordinary part of life to me, could be startling to young visitors temporarily placed under my parents’ regime. One small boy asked his mother after a visit, “What’s the point of being rich, if you can’t have any fun?”
My father quickly established that we would have chores each morning after a full and lengthy breakfast, followed by work of some useful sort until noon when it was time to go swimming. Lunch — always more like a second dinner — would then commence and then rest time, when we were to retire to our rooms and read. To assist my parents in enforcing these rules, college students were employed, ranging from the extremely pleasant to a young man with migraine headaches who would regularly ban desert for myself and my friends for having awakened him too early.
My morning chores included bringing up the coal from the basement for Rosetta’s stove, emptying the trashcans and feeding the pigs. The three pigs lived in a pen to the west of the big barn, about 500 yards away. I would carry the day’s garbage to the barn, where I would mix a second course of grain and water and then, with some relief to my nasal passages, turn these substances over to the grunting trio. I never became particularly fond of the pigs, which was good, because they were to feed us through the following winter, but I had to admire the one that got away and swam a half mile across the river to South Freeport. Pigs weren’t meant to do that.
Work — as opposed to mere chores — varied over the years, although the first task every summer was to get the boats ready. These vessels were of the same eclectic nature as my father’s cars. There were various rowboats and dinghies, many of them seemingly held together by years of paint; my mother’s childhood craft, the Periwinkle – a 14-foot extremely beamy catboat of minimal freeboard which looked as if it had been inspired by a flounder; the Queztacoatl, named after a god discovered during our visit to Mexico; the Rascal, Lightning number 565, built in Skineatles NY, with a double-planked bottom of a class that now comprises more than ten thousand; and two sailing prams I dubbed the Luff Me and the Luff Me Not. Later, we found a sister craft to the Periwinkle, which became my boat, the Dauntless. The Dauntless, despite its name, leaked continually, a defect I attempted to correct by applying Celastic, a forerunner of fiberglass, to much of the bottom. I never finished because I outgrew the boat before the job was done and for next 35 years the Dauntless sat in the barn, a quiet reminder that starting a job was easier than finishing it.
THE ‘DAUNTLESS’ WITH THE ‘LUFF ME’ (OR ‘LUFF ME NOT’] IN BACKGROUND
Getting the boats ready took several weeks of morning work, a good deal of it spent inhaling the fumes of new lead bottom paint or the dust from old lead bottom paint, crawling under a forecastle to apply Cepacol on what looked suspiciously like dry rot, or trying to smooth the eruptions of several decades of spar varnish applied under less than ideal conditions to various masts and booms. Some of the paint also went on barn walls and doors, where it remains today urging support for “Humphrey in ’56” and “Adlae [sic].”
Once the boats were launched, morning work consisted of whatever occurred to my father. I quickly discovered that the most interesting and enjoyable tasks involved working with Jimmy Mann and Walter Stowe. Walter Stowe had been the caretaker of the place when my parents bought it. He had worked for many years for the highway department of Massachusetts and was short, stubborn and funny. He believed that Packards were the best car ever made, though the disjunction between his stature and his vehicular tastes often made it appear that his car was being driven by the perennial dirty green baseball hat on his bald head.
Mr. Stowe appreciated having someone to instruct and with whom he could share his skepticism of my father’s current projects. At an earlier point in his life, Mr. Stowe had told a lot of people what to do. Now Jimmy Mann, a recently returned young Army veteran, was in charge of things on the place. I think Mr. Stowe was skeptical of that too but he didn’t say so. He had to make do with gruffly telling me to fetch his paper bag of nails, move a board a little to the left and so forth. It wasn’t the Massachusetts Highway Department but he made do and I didn’t mind at all.
Besides, he never got poison ivy and would eat it to prove it to me. He had a stock of sayings of which he never tired. He could recite a blasphemous version of the Lord’s Prayer at breakneck speed and when you asked him how much something cost, he always replied, “25 cents, two bits, two dimes and a nickel, one quartah of a dollah.” When you picked up your end of a plank, the instructions also never varied: “Head her southeast!” When you said goodbye he said, “Keep her under 60 on the curves.” And he offered this assessment of a suddenly departed brother-in-law: “That fella never was any good. Now he’s upped and died right in the middle of hay season.”
When he needed to stall while thinking of a reply, he would go into a brief shuffle, observe his feet intently, pick up his dirty baseball hat and scratch his bald head, finally declaring, “Well now!” with the occasional addendum “Ain’t that somethin?”
When I introduced my future wife to Mr. Stowe and told him we were engaged, he did his shuffle and his head scratching, glanced at Kathy and then looked up at me over his little round glasses and said, “Pretty good for a girl.”
” . . . Er, Mr. Stowe, Kathy’s from Wisconsin.”
Shuffle. Hat back on.
“Glad to meet you anyway.”
Behind his back, we called Mr. Stowe ‘Waltah,’ just like his wife did. Mrs. Stowe would have made a fine mother, but she and Walter never had any children. I know she would have made a fine mother because I would regularly drop by their house at the end of the point just to talk, knowing that there would always be fresh baked cookies before the talking was over.
By the time Kathy met Mr. Stowe he was very old and his upper torso had a permanent forward rake. My neighbor, George White, says he would occasionally see Mr. Stowe, while working in his garden, lean over too far to pick something, pushing his new center of gravity beyond its limits. Mr. Stowe would just disappear among the tomatoes.
He made do to the end. When Mrs. Stowe forbade him to repair the roof on the grounds that a ninetysomething shouldn’t do such things, Mr. Stowe reluctantly called a roofer, then donned his carpenter’s apron and climbed to the ridgeline where, like an aged great blue heron, he sat and supervised the operation.
George’s wife, Carolyn, who spent nearly all her young summers on the neck, recalls the season-end ritual in which her parents would instruct her to “go over and say goodbye to Mr. Stowe, because he may not be here when we come back next year.” Mr. Stowe lived long enough for Carolyn to repeat the ritual with her own children.
And John T. Mann recalls that during his last winter in the cottage on the point, Mr. Stowe told his father: “If I die afore the end a’ mud season, just stick me in the gravel pit ’til the road dries out of the ground thaws.”
As far as I was concerned, there was little Mr. Stowe didn’t know and little he couldn’t do. And if he didn’t or couldn’t, Jimmy did or could. Jimmy’s family had come to Maine 300 years ago His father, Horace, ran a farm just before you turned onto the main road to town. Horace Mann was taciturn and stolid even for Maine, with that native blend of rock-hard integrity and soft-eyed gentleness. Once, at a Farm Bureau supper, as the home-made root beer fizzed around the ten pound block of ice in the galvanized tub, I heard Mr. Brewer tell him, “That was the coldest wintah evah. First snow come the 25th of Octobah and by the fifth of May we were still on runnahs.”
JIMMY MANN (L) AT FARM BUREAU EVENT
In time Jimmy would be called James and become an important person in town like his father, but back then, being just out of the Army, everyone called him Jimmy and we called his wife Mrs. Jimmy. He in turn called me ‘Whoston’ but I didn’t mind because Jimmy was even funnier than Mr. Stowe, knew just as much, didn’t object to me hanging around, and knew how to handle my father, which I didn’t.
Jimmy had been the only kid in his high school with his own car, a Model A Ford. And he had also used a car engine and a clock pendulum to build a windmill strong enough to power an electric fence.
No matter how incensed my father would get, Jimmy would stay calm. When the moment was just right, he would interject a wry comment or concoct a scenario for disaster that in its absurdity turned my father’s concerns into trivia. Then they would both laugh and the crisis would be over. When he couldn’t think of anything to say, he would just exercise the Mainer’s sacred right to say nothing and in the silence my father would wind down his anger.
Jimmy had a Model A Ford that he had converted into a sort of tractor. You had to crank it to start and Jimmy let me sit in the sideless and topless vehicle and play with the wheel and the levers.
Together — Mr. Stowe and Jimmy and the Model A Ford — moved two sheds that connected the farmhouse to the little barn on skids down to the banks of the river a quarter mile away. The sheds became “The River House.” The farmhouse would later become our house and the barn would burn to the ground in a conflagration described in the local paper as the “biggest disaster in Freeport this week.”
Much later, shortly before my mother’s death, the farmhouse itself would be moved. It would be its second trip; many years earlier it had sat near the big barn. My mother called a house mover. Clayton Kopp arrived in the driveway of my mother’s house, wearing a Sears gray work outfit and rainbow suspenders. He looked at the stone and shingled mass before him and said by way of introduction, “This the house you want me to move?”
“Hell, no,” I said quickly.
“Would take me awhile but I could do it.”
We walked over to the farmhouse. He eyed it briefly. “How long is she?”
I paced it off.
He stood there in silence. Charlie DeGrandpre, the farm manager, remarked that the ground between the present and future site was level, although you might have to raise the power lines. The house mover nodded; this completed the information he needed for a move of a half mile over a route he had never seen.
“Well, I can do it for $5,000.”
“Is that all?” my mother asked
“You can pay me more if you want but I can do it for that.”
“What about my dishes?” asked Kathy.
“You can leave your dishes right where they are.”
It was still hard to grasp. “What about the fireplace?”
“You can have a fire going for all I care.”
The house mover, who had 17 houses on his farm, buildings which had been in the path of various highway projects and which he was waiting to sell and move again, spoke the truth. Like Jimmy and Mr. Stowe using a handful of small red jacks to lift a hundred-foot barn so they could replace the foundation stones, the most daunting prospect was not the task itself” but that “it might take awhile.”
Fortunately, when my mother had said to us on arrival in Maine the previous summer, “Well, you have to move your house,” my wife had already figured out where to put it: on the left side of cove in what was one the apple orchard of 18th century farmer Nathaniel Aldrich. The remains of the foundation of his house and barn were still visible in winter in the nearby woods.
But the Aldrich farm was far from the oldest thing there, as our friend Jack Rand, once the state geologist, explained to us in a later letter:
“Kathy Smith’s bedrock, the ‘ledge’ where she plans to hang a new landing and float, is primarily closely foliated gneiss – metamorphosed felsic volcanic rocks – whose age may approach more than 500 million years, and whose original home, prior to being jammed into what they now call Maine, may have been west Africa.”
oMaine used to be known among the “summer complaints” as full of characters. “You sure have a lot of characters up here, ” the visitor would say. The approved Maine response was, “Ayah, but most of them go home around Labor Day.”
You got used to that sort of thing, witnessed by a collection of exchanges I gathered over the years:
How much further is it to Freeport? . . . About 25,000 miles the way you’re headed.
How do I get to Skowhegan? . . . Don’t you move a goddamned inch.
Hey farmer, where are we? . . . You’re in a lighter-than-air balloon you damn fools.
Where does this road go?. . . . Don’t go nowhere. Stays right here.
How do I get to Boothbay Harbor? . . . Can’t get there from here.
How do we get to Topsham? . . . Don’t rightly know . . . Well, how about Gorham then? . . . Nope, don’t know that eithah . . . You don’t seem to know much . . . Ayah, but I ain’t lost.
How do you get to Bangor? . . . Well, I usually get my brother to drive me.
Of course, people like Walter Stowe and Clayton Kopp didn’t hurt the reputation. Nor did Talbott Kilby whom I knew only as “the hermit” and would see once or twice a summer as he hand cranked his home built and primitive 15 foot paddle wheeler along the shores of the Harraseeket River. Sometimes if you took the back road to South Freeport you could see the candlelight from his shack on the bank near the headwaters. Kilby was a graduate of Freeport High School and had done well enough at some point in his life that he still went to Boston or New York once a year to check on his investments. The other thing that Kilby would do annually was go to the dentist, who spread a sheet over the chair to protect it from Kilby’s residue. Kilby would get a shot of novocaine and then leave the chair to go to the bank to get the money to pay the bill. By the time he returned, the novocaine had taken hold and the dentist could get underway.
Today, most people in Maine weren’t born there. Now, when you have a problem “down cellah” you call a contractor from Brunswick. Recycling is a cause rather than a necessity and you don’t hear people say, as they once did, “Fix it up, make it do, wear it out, use it up, do without.”
Other things are disappearing. The humor has largely moved from casual interchange to books and videotapes. It’s been many years since the day I drove into a gas station, stepped out of my car into a puddle and heard someone say “How’s the watah?”
Occasionally it still crops up. John at R&D Automotive told me a few years back that my brother had been in with his car. “He said he kept smelling gas . . . so I told him to stop it.”
Or the exchange at Leighton’s department store:
“How ya doin?”
“You want the long story or the short one?”
“Give me the long one.”
“Pretty good, I guess.”
Or the time Bob Guillamette, the plumber, came to fix something. I asked him to also look at the tub he had recently installed because the water was slow to drain. He returned a couple of minutes later saying, “Jesus Christ, Sam, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most of them won’t hold water.”
The Maine reputation for straight talk, even in business dealings, is likewise on the wane, but as recently as the early 1980s, I set out to buy some fishing tackle for my sons. My first stop was LL Beans. I wasn’t going to waste money on fancy gear but I thought I might pick up some nice hooks in the display case there.
I said to the clerk, “I haven’t been fishing since I was a kid and all we used were mackerel jigs.”
“They still work pretty good.”
Mackerel jigs were simply a hook extending from a elongated diamond – shaped weight, so I left Beans having spent all of $2.19. My next stop was Mel’s Sports. Mel had some nice but inexpensive metal reels so I picked up a couple.
“These for fresh watah or salt?” he asked unsolicited.
“You’d do better with the plastic reels.”
It was true, but Mel lost a couple of bucks in the deal.
My last stop was a hardware store in the Falmouth shopping center. I walked in with my sons and asked about rods.
“These for you or your boys?”
“Well, I wouldn’t buy these; they’re too good. Go over to Zayres and get the Zebco Z-29. That’ll do just fine.”
L.L. Bean has a worldwide reputation of honesty and good customer relations, but Bean’s wasn’t that exceptional for Maine. I once bought a used car for my son sight unseen over the phone from David DeGrandpre at R & D Automotive. I figured I’d do better that way than buying a visible vehicle in a Washington lot. I was right. The car made two roundtrips across the country and innumerable college commutes before collapsing in Moab, Utah. Even then, my son got enough for the car to complete his trip to the west coast by train and bus.
Some of the best stories still come from Beans, though. Like the New York lady who complained that her woodstove was smoking up her living room. When pressed about how she had the flue set up, it turned out that she was not aware of flues and had just plunked the device down in her Manhattan living room and started burning wood. Bean’s convinced her to send the stove back and gave her a refund. Another urban customer was upset because the wreath bought the previous December had turned brown in the intervening year. Bean’s sent $25 so the customer could buy a new one in time for Christmas.
Once my mother called on what she suspected was a hopeless search to find a certain color yarn to finish her L.L Bean hunting boot needlepoint. The operator said she had been working on the same pattern and had some left to which my mother was welcomed if she’d come by her house to pick it up. And in the 60s when we received a damaged order, the company promptly replaced it. In the package were postage stamps in the same amount as the ones we had used returning the item.
Of course, LL Bean was also the pinnicle of local power. For a number of years after dial service was introduced, the store – being the only place in town open 24 hours a day and the town being without operators -served as the emergency center. At one local tells it, “A person dialing to report a fire got the register counter in the LL Bean salesroom. A clerk took the call, got the necessary information, hung up, flipped the necessary switches activating the whistle and. . . wholesale clerk evacuation usually followed. . .Of course, the size and demands of the Bean salesroom today would not permit half of the sales staff hurtling out the door every time the fire whistle sounded.”
Much more useful for Bean was the fact that the US Post Office below the store and factory was a tenant of its biggest mailer and that LL’s brother Guy was the postmaster.
oMaine’s culture could be found everywhere, even reflected in the work of the local police department, as witnessed by a few entries in the Freeport police log from the summer of 1979:
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 14
1000 PM: A barking dog was reported on Bow Street. Officer Gillespie asked the owner to quiet the dog and she said she would do her best.
THURSDAY, JUNE 15
1150 AM: Officer Shorey sanded the hull of the town boat . . . 1008 PM: Officer Sloat received a report of a woman screaming on Pine Street. He found it was a lovers’ spat.
900 AM. Officer Shorey finished sanding the hull and applied one boat of bottom paint to the town boat . . . 950AM. A streaker was reported at the town dump. The man was described as wearing a mask. Officer Fusselman checked the area without success.
SATURDAY, JUNE 17
930 AM: Officer Shorey applied a second coat of bottom paint to the town boat . . . 230 PM: Officer Walker attempted to locate an 8O-year-old woman on 1-95. She had had a quarrel with her husband and decided to walk . . . 300 PM: Officer Walker located the woman and assisted with the reunion.
MONDAY, JUNE 26
1205: A Poland Road resident alleged that two youths in a blue vehicle attempted to steal a bag of chicken feed from his driveway. The man said he warned the youth. and then fired two rounds from his .32 special into a tree to scare them away. Officer Carter examined the holes in the tree, took two spent cartridges as evidence and warned the man about the potential consequences of injuring anyone.
TUESDAY, JUNE 27
720 PM: A possible drunk driver was reported at the Rail Tavern. Officer Fulmer found the man sitting in his truck on Main Street. The man did not appear drunk. Fulmer advised him to wait a reasonable period of time and then drive straight home very carefully.
THURSDAY, JULY 6
952 AM: Officer Shorey removed a California man from the Falcon Restaurant at the owner’s request. Shorey and Officer Roberts later gave the man a ride to Yarmouth on his way to Chebeague Island . . . 315 PM. Officer Shorey met with Archie Ross to discuss boat maintenance.
FRIDAY, JULY 7
1055 PM: A possible assault was reported at Mario’s Restaurant. Officers Fulmer, Fusselman and Gillespie found it was only a family disagreement and advised the subjects to return to Yarmouth.
TUESDAY, JULY 18
1150 AM: A Brunswick Road woman reported seeing a hitchhiker deposit a white envelope in the bushes off 1-95. Officer Sloat found a white styrofoam coffee cup . . .
TUESDAY, JULY 25
1230 PM. A High View woman reported that her father had let someone from the Clam Festival borrow his truck and she would like to have it returned. She said her father didn’t know who had the truck and didn’t seem worried about it. Office Whitehouse said he would try to find the truck but could do nothing to recover it unless the father filed a complaint.
SUNDAY, AUGUST 6
530 PM: Officer Carter warned two subjects about picking blueberries on the Murch Road . . . 750 PM. Officer Fulmer requested a juvenile to get off the mail box at the corner of Mechanic and Main Streets. He did.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 8
550 PM. On the request of Brunswick police Officer Gillespie stopped a car with Massachusetts license plates regarding the theft of some gas. The subjects made good on their debt . . . 1200 midnight Officer Gillespie investigated a suspicious vehicle reported on Flying Point Road and Wolfe’s Neck Road. He discovered the subjects, who were lost, and gave them directions.
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 30
145 AM. A man crawling around the door at the laundromat was questioned by Officer Sloat. The man said he had permission to be there and was looking for money. Sloat planned to check on the permission . . . 1113 AM A Mass. resident was warned about driving on the sidewalk.
SUNDAY , SEPTEMBER 3
420 PM. Kids moved their bikes from the sidewalk in front of Freeport Variety in order to make room for pedestrians, at the request of Officer Fulmer . . . 1010 PM. While investigating a suspicious person at the Middle School, Officer Walker was relieved to learn it was only Clayton Carkin, science teacher, feeding his spiders . . . 1020 PM. Officers Fulmer and Gillespie joined forces to battle a trash can blaze at the corner of Main and Mechanic Streets.
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4
1105 AM- Officer Shorey on patrol took a holiday cruise around Williams Island, French Island and Royal River
630 PM; Officers Shorey, Walker and Fulmer found themselves with some free time on their hands when their Drug Abuse class at Brunswick High School was cancelled.
FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 10
1245 AM. A cow was secured by Officers Carter and Fulmer at the Fogg residence from its afternoon escape from the pasture . . . 330 PM. A family problem at a local motel was reported and Officer Fulmer officiated . . . 845 PM; Officer Sloat repaired blown fuse in a cruiser’s rear lights and dash. The fuses were made available by the fire department.
SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 12
810 AM. Officer Carter responded to a call at the Brogan residence for a dog unable to get out a pool. In the process of getting the dog out of the pool, the dog bit Officer Carter. . . . 855 AM Officer Carter went back on duty after changing his trousers at home.
When we had first arrived in Maine, things hadn’t been this exciting. We had one police chief to head a staff of one: himself. But Harry Nason was up to the job. He once in a larcency case not only took the matter to court but cared for the offender’s goats: nine billies and a nanny
Of course, I couldn’t count on being seconded to Mr. Stowe and Jimmy every morning. There were all my father’s projects, which rose and fell with his summer travel between Philadelphia and Maine and which varied from the fascinating to the tedious.
Tasks included hauling ice from under the sawdust in the big barn back to the icebox, hauling trash to the dump, helping to dig wells, stacking lumber and taking care of the tennis court, which had been reclaimed from a miniature forest and each night issued a protest against its recivilization by growing weeds, rocks, gullies and small hillocks of dirt. Tending the court was the children’s “responsibility,” a task complicated by the fact that the surface never had been improved much beyond that acceptable for a dirt driveway. I became intensely and sweatily knowledgeable about that small tract and to this day sometimes hear the cold, grating sound the pebbles made as they climbed the roller and bounced off the scraper blade.
I never took much to tennis, though, which was just as well since actually playing tennis was largely the adults’ responsibility. I didn’t think adults looked good in those funny white shorts and silly hats and tennis certainly didn’t improve their disposition. They became serious, pompous, overly-competitive and boastful, not to mention intolerant of any youthful noise or exuberance.
My own efforts at the game were hindered by the fact that no one bothered to teach me and my arm, fore or backhanded, tended to function as a mortar, regularly propelling the ball over the sagging chicken wire fence into the alders beyond.
Since I could develop no skill and since the adults could summon up no appreciation for the hot morning I had spent preparing their dueling ground, I developed an inchoate class consciousness about the sport that would leave me amazed when Arthur Ashe appeared at Wimbledon even before we had elected a black president.
Far more enjoyable were the tasks that emerged from my parents’ new interest in tree farming, which, among other things, brought to Maine its first wood chipper. This boisterous device, made in Fitchburg, Mass., was so novel that the Soil & Conservation Service held a field day just to show it off.
My major tree farming task was to stack the lumber randomly dumped by the trucks from the sawmill. Pieces of kindling were placed crosswise on each level of wood, so the boards could dry on both sides. There was a lot of lumber, especially after hurricanes Carol and Edna. When Carol hit, my parents became worried about a pregnant tenant renting the Crate House, so when the calm eye of the storm arrived, my father and I headed up the road to clear a path to town. The deep woods concealed what was happening above and it was not until trees began suddenly toppling that we realized the storm had resumed. We got out just before the way back was blocked. It was a pointless task anyway. Before it was over, Carol blew down a couple of hundred trees. It would be two days before the road to town would be cleared.
Stacking the windfall was hard work but I liked walking past the barn and seeing just how much I had done that summer. Unlike the tennis court, the lumber piles didn’t regress each evening. My father seemed pleased as well, and began to regard me as a useful adjunct to his enterprises, so much so that by the age of 14 he let Jimmy teach me how to drive the army surplus personnel carrier with the front-end winch and A-frame. I was double-clutching and shifting into six-wheel drive and using a winch to haul things out of places long before I was able to drive legally on Maine roads beyond the farm.
My brother recalls, “You couldn’t go directly from one gear to another but had to go into neutral first, let the clutch all the way out and accelerate or brake the motor before shifting again, depending on the direction of the shift. The maneuver also required one to take into account the load on the truck, its speed and the grade of the road.”
The six wheel drive Army surplus truck in which the author learned to drive
The truck was a marvelous machine that lasted for decades. It withstood all punishment including my father’s attempt to launch a boat by towing it out on to the mudflats. The truck, of course, became deeply mired, but the winch eventually pulled the vehicle back to dry land.
The Army truck was just one of a fleet of amazing vehicles that kept the farm going, ranging from the practical to the insane. For example. my father obtained the local Railway Express truck from Clarence Bolster, a familiar figure at the local railroad station. It was, however, short on brakes. Asked how one operated such a vehicle, Jim Degrandpre, son of the farm manager, explained, “You planned ahead.” Jim’s brothers, Richard and David, converted the family 1952 DeSoto station wagon into a monster tractor, one of several such homemade vehicles.
None of this surprised me much. After all, when I accompanied my parents to France as a college student, our rented Simca had broken down some miles from the nearest village. It turned out to be a broken accelerator rod. My father had me stand on the front bumper with the car’s hood up adjusting the speed of the car by hand as he stuck his head out the window and steered it.
Tractor made out of the remains of a 1952 DeSoto station wagon
Home made tractor and trailer
[Vehicle photos from the archives of Charles DeGrandpre]
In the course of their constant search for productive uses of the land, my parents one summer stumbled upon the idea of growing cucumbers for pickling. Growing cucumbers is easy; growing an acre and a eighth of them for pickling is not. The pickling factory bought them at prices that varied in inverse ratio to their size. The best price by far were for those barely larger than one’s finger. The ordinary cucumber of the magnitude one would find in a grocery store was well past its pickling prime and brought the least per pound. The time between the former and latter state often appeared to require less than a day. Despite one’s certainty that all of the smaller cucumbers — or A grade — had been discovered underneath the long lines of vines, the mere existence of the larger — or C grade — cuke provided evidence that the search had been inadequate. There were always an embarrassing number of C grade cukes.
EVERY SUMMER THE PUMP ORGAN WOULD BE MOVED OUTSIDE FOR A SERVICE OF THE FREEPORT CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH. THE AUTHOR ENJOYED WAITING FOR MRS. NOONAN’S VOICE TO CRACK AS SHE SANG, “AND I WALKED WITH HIM AND I TALKED WITH HIM. . .
“Fortunately, the task was so great, and required so many pickers, that my parents could not discover individual responsiblity for careless plucking. After all, it could easily have been one of the numerous house guests dragooned into the operation in order to stay ahead of the life cycle of the common cuke On one occasion, even my grandfather appeared in the field in his black tie and black suit to pick for awhile.
At the end of the morning, my brother and I would load 1,000 pounds of cucumbers into the 1941 Plymouth station wagon and haul them to Portland 20 miles distant where they would be weighed and then dumped into huge, malodorous vats. I learned that summer that loading things and driving them some place was fun. Picking them was not. On the way back we would pass five widely spaced small red signs with white lettering. They read:
Big new tube
Just like Louise
You get a lot
In every squeeze
There was also a growing need for water, which was met in part by a full day visit by the famous dowser, Henry Gross, his friend, the novelist Kenneth Roberts and their friend, the actress Bette Davis. Some of the wells that were dug at Henry Gross’ suggestion are still faithfully providing water today.
And some were dug by my hapless friends and me. As my brother Lewis tells it, “Some of our wells were dug rather than drilled and were actually a combination of a well and cistern. They consisted of a hole about five or six feet in diameter, dug by hand in wet clay down about ten or 12 feet, and then lined with stones but no mortar, so the water could seep into the well. The clay was hauled up in buckets by hand, and the water pumped out until the well was finished. . . In this matter of wells, Sam and the friends who visited him were really unlucky. They just happened to be the right size for well work during the summers that my father decided to dig. I think digging wells was the hardest job that any of us kids ever had to do on Wolfe’s Neck.”
oThe morning work routine ended at noon, at which point everyone was expected to gather at the beach for a swim before lunch. Children and my parents found the cold Casco Bay water refreshing; guests often did not. My mother continued swimming in the bay — always wearing her broad brimmed hat — until her seventies. She gave no quarter to those who found the temperature daunting. She actually stopped inviting one of her elderly friends to Maine when the poor woman was discovered to have sneaked off to a local sports club for a dip in its heated pool. Only a doctor’s order brought an end to my mother’s bay swimming, at which point she constructed a solar-heated pool just four-feet in depth in a vain attempt to discourage those younger than herself from using it rather than the ocean. Shortly after it was built, a cousin called and asked for my mother. “She’s at the pool,” I said. “What pool?’ he asked astonished. I explained the doctor’s dictum and my cousin grumbled, “Why didn’t the doctor tell her that years ago?”
Lunch followed and, with its normal delays and extensions, much of the afternoon simply disappeared and one found oneself confronted with a dinner hour seemingly only moments after leaving the table for lunch.
Dinner was usually the most interesting and enjoyable meal. After cocktails and a few glasses of wine, formality and seriousness quickly deteriorated into loud exuberance. My parents enjoyed guests as willing to argue and discuss as they were and I enjoyed watching my father under political attack from Harry Parker or Abbott Smith, rock-ribbed Republicans who pursued their conservatism with the high spirits of Chicago ward heelers. As the evening progressed, at the candlelit dinner table or with lobsters in the dark on the deck, voices escalated, chasms in philosophy opened, and funny stories were told that saved argument from turning into ugly disputation.
Guests and booze brought out the best in my parents. When there were no guests around, I would excuse myself to visit my friend Charlie, whose mother regularly rented the River House, or to go the end of the point, where there were always at least a half dozen kids gathered on the stone pier or in the boathouse of the Rhoades’ cottage.
The afternoon, what there was of it, was mostly free time, and when it rained we were allowed to go to the attic. The attic ran the full 120′ length of the house and much of it was taken up with a Lionel train layout that ran not in a loop but to and from the play towns that each sibling established. The towns were built of play houses and cardboard containers that had formerly held small cereal boxes and were decorated with the facades of commercial and residential buildings just for the purpose to which we put them. For people we used the counters from a board game called Peggity. We had enough Peggity pieces to form armies, which together with various militaristic toys of the immediate post-war era, lent a combative strain to our attic activities. These would have gone unnoticed had I not decided to launch an A-bomb attack on one of my sister’s villages. My first strike capability consisted of a large bucket of water. The water, of course, leaked like radiation through the ceiling below, which happened to be right above my parent’s bed. We were thereafter banned from the attic, even on rainy days.
There was one sure way to be excused early from the mid-day meal and that was to go sailing. I had taken to the water easily. My first summer, while sailing with our college student-guardian, we became marooned on Bustins Island during a thunderstorm. A lady gave us shelter and cookies and fresh clothes and Archie towed us back. I was scared and exhilarated and ready for more because I knew that Horatio Hornblower got scared too, and even sea sick. That was just part of what being a man of the sea was all about.
I soon found a more immediate model. Harry Parker was a genial man with a hearty laugh who ran the boatyard in South Freeport and had a workboat called the Can Do, the motto of the Seabees. Harry Parker was a survior of Pearl Harbor and a former PT boat skipper. He was still in the reserves, and was considered one of the best sailors in the state. Once, while commanding a destroyer escort on a reserve cruise, Harry had brought the vessel into South Freeport harbor, the largest ship ever to squeeze through the tiny gap guarded by Pound of Tea Island. Along with my father and others, Harry founded the Harraseeket Yacht Club. The HYC met in the loft of a decrepit wharf building and long had the distinction of having the lowest dues of any yacht club in America: 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for juniors – a fact dryly recorded in the national guide to yacht clubs along with more expensive instituions such as those in New York and Bermuda.
Since it was nearly impossible to find two boats of the same class in the harbor, the early races were handicapped, a practice that led to endless heated controversy and eventually to Harry convincing the club’s members to buy from his yard the first in a succession of same-class boats. The initial class was little more than a sailing dory with no decking, and thus abundantly prone to capsizing. The next was a poorly performing fiberglass day-sailer, the Explorer, which while perfectly safe, was not up to beating out of the narrow entrance of the harbor against a four-knot current.
Further, ours was the slowest in the fleet. After my mother died, I took the day sailer out of the barn and fixed it up, discovering in the process why it had been so slow. A hairline crack had started letting water slip between its two hulls; even decades later hundreds of gallons remained.
After renovating the vessel, I called up the United Services Automobile Association to insure it. USAA’s headquarters were in Houston, Texas, where boating is a bit different than in Maine. Upon hearing of the vessel’s age the agent said it would have to be inspected by a marine surveyor. I pointed out that it was made of fiberglass and only 16 feet long and after discussing it with her manager she relented. Then she asked me whether I locked the boat when I wasn’t using it. I explained that the boat was moored in the water and that it was difficult to lock a boat to an anchor. Then I said, “And I also want to insure my dinghy.” “Your what?” came the shocked reply. George O’Day eventually bought the Explorer company, improved the design and created one of the more successful day sailers ever built, the O’Day Sailer.
Harry and the club eventually moved to Lightnings, which despite their flat-bottomed pounding in the bay chop, kept local sailors content for a number of years. Despite being of one class, however, there were, in fact, considerable differences in the boats, as was demonstrated regularly as we attempted to move ours — the oldest and with a double-planked bottom — against a fleet that included lighter wood vessels and, eventually, fiberglass ones. No one seemed to mind that much, and the season would end with a skipper’s race in which everyone got to sail everyone else’s boat. This event tended to confirm that the best boats also were owned by best sailors.
There came a day, however, when everything changed. Gardner Brown had towed his fiberglass Lightning with new Racelite fittings down from Taylor Pond, won the race, and immediately hauled the boat from the water. For those of us who took for granted that a boat would gain several hundred pounds of moisture over a season, it was a astounding sight. After that, racing became much more serious.
I proved only a moderate racer, but a good sailor and happy to be that. Even the Dauntless – the heavy 14-foot cat in which I spent countless hours trying to beat out of the harbor, nudging towards a possible vesper or slamming against waves that splashed easily into its broad cockpit – provided more than adequate satisfaction. Once, during a blowy interclub regatta, my friend Charlie Saltzman and I were still making our way around the course at 6:30 pm when the committee boat came out to make a deal: if we would accept a tow, they would give us third place in the race. All the other boats in our class but two had given up or capsized.
My sister Meredith claims that I used to take a paperback book with me to occupy the time during frequent calms and that I would tear out the pages and dump them overboard when I was finished with them.
With the currents, tides, mudflats, ledges and unaccommodating winds, sailing in our part of Casco Bay was far more than a straight challenge of the sea. There were races when the whole fleet would anchor in the calm so as to not lose ground against an unfavorable current. Sometimes the fog was so thick that you didn’t know where you were. Sometimes during these fogs someone would try kedging, throwing your anchor as far forward as possible and gaining ground as you pulled it back in until someone yelled, “Stop kedging!” Sometimes it was rough. Sometimes it was cold. And sometimes it was wet.
Sometimes a thunderhead would build up to leeward over the course of a long afternoon. On such a day — I think I was about fifteen at the time — I was out with several friends who had never sailed before. The previous week I had successfully beached my boat on Moshiers Island during a thunder squall, and so I eyed the thunderhead with confidence, glibly telling my companions that we would be home easy before the storm.
I was wrong by about a hundred yards. We got the sails down and life jackets on just before it hit. For twenty minutes or so the wind blew at hurricane strength. As I was wondering whether we would capsize, get struck by lightning or smash on the rocks, a lobster boat appeared like a ghostly angel through the horizontal sheets of rain, threw us a line and held us into the wind. As quickly as the storm had arrived it was over. “Wind before the rain, you’ll soon set sail again,” I thought. The rain finally turned vertical again and I sat on the fantail by the tiller, chastened, awed, cold and wet. The sea, I learned irrevocably that day, had little tolerance for hubris.
Eventually I would sail beyond Casco Bay, crewing for a teacher at St. Marks school who took students along the Maine coast — and racing at Harvard. In 1958 I sailed along the Brittany coast, where boats carry a sturdy post to use as a prop when the forty-foot tide goes out. Some of my letters home remain:
Upon my arrival here in St. Briac, the du Bels immediately made me feel right at home. The first day I was here I went out for a sail with Jean-Claude on the boat of a friend of his, Jean-Pierre Alyar. The two of us and another friend took off the next day for a three day cruise to the Isles of Chaussey which are France’s answer to the Channel Islands. The boat was a 36′ sloop that sleeps four very comfortably. Chaussey is a place that is very striking with wonderful rocks, great expanses of sand and crevettes by the millions. There is a hotel, so to speak, on the Grand Ile, but on the whole it has a very isolated atmosphere.
The curate appeared from time to time complete in beard and high boots to go fishing in his boat. His church stands high on a hill and on the night of the 15th of August it was an extraordinary experience to sit in the cockpit of our boat and watch the religious procession move slowly from the church down among the rocks to the dock where a brightly lit fishing smack waited. All the time, the members of the procession were singing or chanting and when they reached the dock, the smack moved out into the harbor, fired off a red and a green flare, and then the procession headed back to the dock.
The next night there was dancing as someone on one of the boats had brought a portable phonograph. There must have been a dozen or more cruisers in that weekend and only one motorboat among them. . .
When we left for Chaussey, Jean-Claude and Jean-Pierre had lent their 20-foot sloop (the boat belongs to Jean-Pierre but was loaned to Jean-Claude for the summer) to a friend. The day after we returned, the boat had not come back from the sail the day before. It was not to be found at any of the ports along the coast. On board were a Swedish girl and the son of the owner of a store at Dinard. It was not late in that day that a report came over the radio that a boat answering perfectly to the description of the Derby had been found under full sail by Jersey with no one aboard. In the cabin were found the clothes of the boy and the girl and a watch.
The answer was obvious but astonishing. During the flat calm of the day before the two must have decided to go swimming, leaving the boat unattended. The boat than departed, leaving them to drown.
The Derby was taken as a prize of the sea and will have to be retrieved by legal proceedings. Both Jean-Pierre and Jean-Claude are desolate, the more because they are both excellent sailors and such an accident seems so unnecessary. . .
One day, Jean-Claude, his cousin Alain and myself went to visit Fort de la Laffe near Cape Frehal. This old structure, which has guarded the coast for 300 years, sits on an incredibly lonely and windy point. The guide spoke a patois that was difficult even for Jean-Claude and Alain to understand. He was one of those types who gives a tone of urgent credibility to his voice. At the end of spiel, he was rapidly punctured by an old woman who passed by just as he was finishing. “Bon jour, monsieur,” she said. “Quelles sortes des batises vous faites aujourd’hui?”
The fort was used in the making of the film, The Vikings, and it couldn’t have been designed better for the purpose. There were two moats to fall into, two doors to batter down, tiny stairs to have sword fights on, gaping rock crevasses with a raging sea to drown in. And the fort is rugged enough so it managed to withstand both the English and Kirk Douglas.
The evenings have been spent in part at a very pleasant dancing place near the du Bels. The atmosphere is perfect and everyone has been very friendly to me. I also went to a surprise party for a girl who Alain and Jean-Claude knew. Her parents raise chickens and we drank, ate chicken, danced, ate chicken, talked, and ate chicken until 3 am.
I’ve manage to read about 200 pages in French since I’ve been at St. Briac which is slightly better than what my summer average would be in English. Tuesday morning when I arrived at the du Bels, Jean-Claude said that Jean-Pierre Allard had invited us to go again on a cruise. This time, the itinerary extended out as far as Guernsey, and I had my gear ready in a little under five minutes. Besides Jean-Pierre, Jean–Claude and myself were two older guys, both who had been the in the merchant marine, so it was as good a combination as you could want. Their wives accompanied us while we bought such items as one dozen bottles of red wine (only a French boat of 36′ would have three wine cellars), huge loaves of bread etc.
We got under sail around six in the evening. Moving down the Rance to Dinard we stopped by a friend’s boat to borrow a jib to use as an extra sail. Fortunately, the wind was in the right direction and we could hoist the jib as a head sail mounted high on the forestay as well as the spinnaker (known as a spi here), jib, and mainsail. Every sail carried well and by 10:30-11 pm we arrived safely at Chaussey. Being nighttime and low tide we couldn’t put the ship to ground and had to remain in the channel which was quite a roll hole.
The next morning we set sail for the northern exit of the island which becomes a desert of sand at low tide. The wind dead behind us, fresh all day, we raised Jersey by early afternoon. Since we were entering English soil, we hoisted a British flag on our starboard yardarm, the yellow “all the crew is in good health” flag on the port, and sailed into the harbor. As we entered we were hailed by the question “Ou devenez-vous?” in a strong British accent that greatly amused my French ship mates. The pleasant equality of the law forces HM Customs to greet 36-footers as well 36-thousand tonners and after their inspection we were ready for a somewhat late lunch and visit aboard the Crazy Cloud, which lay in tandem with us, two boats in towards the dock.
On board were M. & Mde Burseaux plus Phillip Anselle among others. Their boat is extremely spacious and well fitted out, besides being quite fast. Along about 7 pm, a 70′ British yawl came into port and made fast between us and the dock. As she came in complete with a paid crew of three, a motorboat started in reverse from nearby. Before the yawl could do anything, they had collided. Fortunately damage was slight and from the yawl came the gruff voice of the owner: “A bit of a damned fool, aren’t you, old chap?”
I was happy to turn the tables for a change and do some translating. I was well used, as the guys wanted sweaters, cigarettes and whiskey, all things that bring Frenchmen to Jersey.
When we returned, the Jersey lifeboat had pulled alongside of us and the mechanic invited us aboard for a look-see. It was very impressive to see a piece of machinery so beautifully designed for one purpose. There in a piece of wood and steel scarcely more than 30′ long was the potential of saving up to 120 lives. And being a British lifeboat it even had a tea cooker under one of the thwarts.
We left the interesting island of Jersey for the even more interesting island of Guernsey. More interesting because of a more pleasant harbor, more curious streets and more interesting places to see. It was not long after we left Jersey that all the heavens opened up with tons of rain, but only a slight wind. On top of this we had a wonderful display of nature’s own son et lumiere until mid-day. The storm passed, the sun came out, and the wind dropped even further. But the English Channel was living up to its reputation, and the sea rolled the boat up and down a good ten feet making it impossible to hold what wind there was in the sails. A short distance off to port a small English sloop would ride high for a moment and then disappear in the trough leaving only the mast in view like the periscope of a gigantic submarine. Two miles astern a large boat sported a blue spinnaker as it edged up on us, riding with some breeze we could not find. One by one we took in the sails — the headsail, the jib and finally the main — leaving only the spinnaker to carry us inch by inch towards Guernsey. With a heavy roll, the heavy sails are worthless, the boom just slats from side to side. Only the spinnaker would carry well and we moved with the silence that a calm at sea brings. But after an hour or so, even that wouldn’t hold and we were forced to enter Guernsey under power. . .
We were due at the French isle of Bréhat at 8 pm the next evening. A quick computing of the current situation told us that we would never make it if we left the next morning. So at 1 am we hoisted our anchor, cleared the harbor and headed for France. The sea was dead calm and it was necessary once again to use the motor. Jean-Claude and I sacked out first, and a little after four the others woke us so we could take over. Topside there was nothing to see but the tall light off les Roches Douves, beckoning with that quiet insistence that is part of the character of lighthouses. The dull monotone of our motor answered the beckoning, and there being nothing that we could add to this dialogue, we sat silently awaiting for dawn. It arrived as les Roches Douves pass quietly off our port beam. By coincidence, almost immediately after we had passed, the light was turned off for the day as if to say, “I’ve done all I can for you, stranger.”
With no landmarks to guide us, we turned to the compass and the rest of our trick was spent steering towards that ever distant line where gray sky meet gray sea. By 9 am it was time to go back to the sack. When I woke at noon, both the mainsail and jib were up and drawing. The gray sky and see had disappeared and in their place the island of Bréhat, with the mainland close behind, relaxed in a sunlit sea.
The entrance to Bréhat is far from simple, but the effort it required is well worth it. Bréhat is what [anthropologist] Robert Redfield would call a part-society, connected to civilization by such thin threads as a post office, telephone, a sole representative of the gendarmarie nationale and regular vedettes to the mainland. Culturally speaking, Bréhat is like a little diamond, seen, perhaps rubbed, but still inert and unpolished by the Cartiers’ of the world.
During these years, Harry Parker set the sailing standard towards which I strove. So it was with alacrity that I accepted his invitation to crew in the New England men’s sailing championships. Harry, Grubby Douglass and Gardner Brown — the three best sailors I had ever known — had won the Maine championship, but the New England races were in boats that required a four man crew.
We went to Nantucket and lost every race. Our competition included Ted Hood and George O’Day, the famous sail maker and the equally famouse boat builder. Both would go on to be America’s Cup champions. I measured the distance between Harry Parker and Ted Hood and George O’Day and then the distance between Harry Parker and me, added the two together and figured that it was too far to sail.
Which was okay because as I reached the mid-teens, sailing had become just a weekend activity anyway. My parents were reading Malabar Farm by Louis Bromfield, in which Bromfield described his experiments in organic agriculture, and my mother had become something of a health food fanatic, personally blending carrot juice in the kitchen (Rosetta recused herself from these bizarre activities) and popping pills from the Adelle Davis prescribed bottles of vitamins that took up increasing space on the lazy susan on the dining room table. Long before Silent Spring, long before the word ecology was in general use, my parents became organic farmers. And I, while initially skeptical of some of the principles that underlay the effort, was more than willing to earn money and escape the regimentation of the Big House by working all day on their farm.
There was a dearth of information in those days for those of organic inclinations. The university agricultural schools — heavy into teaching farmers the virtue of pesticides and huge expenditures on the tractors and equipment manufactured by academia’s benefactors — thought little of the idea. The extension service was of no use.
My mother, who operated on reading, instinct and faith and from a lifetime interest in conservation, and my father, who was convinced that he could come up with a better way of doing anything, slowly and methodically began to create their farm.
According to my father’s analysis, farming and conservation were interlocked. If you couldn’t save the farms, you couldn’t save the land. Further, he figured that Maine, with its rocky soil and short growing season, was best suited for grazing cattle.
Key to the operation was getting the cattle over the winter. This led to a variety of silage experiments. I spent some of one summer driving a tractor back and forth over a 50-foot long, 40 foot wide, 15 foot high box built of railroad ties, compacting the silage underneath. It was called a trench silo even though it wasn’t really in a trench. And without anything to stop you from going over the edge it wasn’t safe at all. In fact, one tractor did tip over, the driver narrowly escaping damage.
The first summer Kathy came to Maine, she was taken immediately to view my father’s latest silos, which were huge mounds of hay covered with black plastic. The air was sucked out of these mounds by one of my mother’s vacuum cleaners. The vacuum cleaner didn’t survive the summer and the silos lasted not much longer.
Sometimes even worse happened. One summer, Kathy and I arrived for a vacation to find my mother, then a widow, in a small frenzy. Fourteen of her cows had died that morning. There was no explanation, although there was an immediate suspicion that planes from the Brunswick Naval Air Station had dumped something on the land. The next morning, my family, including our two small sons, were dispatched to the animal morgue at the University of Maine in Orono with cow parts in a picnic cooler and samples of their feed. We arrived before breakfast and in our search for the right office ended up in a room occupied primarily by a large table on which lay a dead and partially deconstructed horse. I moved quickly and queasily on, but my sons lingered, eyes unblinking, thinking whatever thoughts the young have when they first see death up close.
The cause, the university reported some days later, was Sudax, the experimental feed the farm was using. Sudax, which is basically corn without the cob, is rich in nutrients. But little known at the time, it can — under extremely moist conditions — generate arsenic. This, in the wake of an extremely wet few weeks, is what it had done.
My father reasoned that he would save on fencing if feed was brought to the cattle rather than letting them forage all the time. He called it cafeteria feeding. When he read that there was a new machine that would store hay in great round bails that would eventually replace the tedious cubes, he brought the first one to Maine.
Slowly, my father developed a macro-economics and macro-politics that connected his efforts to the solution of the whole world’s food supply. He would discourse on agricultural matters to the fifty or more overnight guests who showed up during a summer and he would drag them on field trips. Many a lawyer, politician, accountant or church organist learned more about farming than they ever imagined they wanted to know.
My father was a lawyer, but from the end of the war on, only practiced law as a one-man public interest litigant. He had sued a major corporation that had purchased WGMS in Washington on the grounds that it had violated his rights as a minority stockholder. The resulting case, which he won, ended up in law school textbooks. And in 1960, two years before the publication of ‘Silent Spring,’ he decided to sue the Central Maine Power Company.
CMP not only provided most of the power in Maine, it enjoyed much of the power as well. But my parents were trying to run an organic beef farm and CMP had come right through their property spraying the vegetation around the power lines with pesticides. My father was incensed.
I was home in Philadelphia the evening that my father tried to find a Maine lawyer to take the case. He started with the most famous and was shunted over the course of the evening to five others. Each declined to get involved; for each was on retainer to CMP.
Somewhat in desperation, my father turned to the town lawyer, Paul Powers, whose stock in trade was land sales and wills. Together they forced an agreement from CMP four years later in which the company promised not to spray anyone’s property anywhere in the state if they were not agreeable. The Brunswick Times Record ran an editorial stressing the environmental significance to the state; it was headlined “Mr. Smith and You.” And CMP paid my father $1,000 for his troubles. Paul Powers told me several times that it was the most important case of his career, eclipsing, presumably, even the DWI case in which his client was found passed out in a car with the motor running in the middle of the main intersection in Yarmouth. Powers got the case dismissed by getting the police officer to admit that no one was operating the vehicle, so no one could have been operating it under the influence.
oI had little to do with such matters, which was fine by me. I got to fill a big cooler with ice and juice made from Zarex syrup and head for the farm. There I would mount the big green John Deere tractor and pull whatever was behind it in great loops around hundreds of acres of fields. One day my tow was a manure spreader, another day a hay rake, another a wagon.
As the day warmed up, I would take off my shirt and adjust my baseball cap and try to be as cool and imperturbable as Clyde Johnson, my usual partner in the fields, who wore the same T-shirt and hat every day and drove his tractor standing up with a pipe that never left his mouth, which didn’t matter because he never said much. According to Walter Stowe, “Clyde Johnson is the only man who can shingle a barn, tell a dirty story and smoke a pipe all at the same time.” Sometimes something would break and we would head back to the barn, talk about it, weld it or replace it and get it going again so we could continue circling those fields with their constant views of the bay, with every foot we moved leaving unmistakable evidence — mown hay, manure dropping, lime or windrows — that we had at that moment of our lives actually done something good.
The farm eventually grew to about 900 acres — nobody ever seemed to know for sure. My parents added a hundred campsites and gave two hundred acres of the woods for a state park. They became noted figures in the state, not only for the organic beef farm and the campsites, but for my father’s creative ways of preserving land before it was too late. He bought one of the few great beaches in that part of Maine, Popham, and kept it until the state could afford to buy it from him at the price he had paid. He did the same thing with an historic boatyard. And when rumors arose that oil companies were thinking of building a deep water oil port, using an uninhabited island far down east, he organized a group of purchasers to buy the island, effectively blocking the whole scheme.
As he reached his seventies, my father started to slow down. He had a heart attack, and he began worry excessively about his estate, tax consequences and so forth. One morning, as he laid out a rasher of problems to me in his office, I suggested that he just enjoy life and not worry so much about the tax consequences of it. He didn’t argue and I thought afterwards that was the only time I had ever given him personal advice.
A few days later he asked me to join him on an inspection trip of the farm. We went to the farm shop where he found two of the DeGrandpre sons, Richard and David, working on a piece of machinery. They were meant to have had something done and it wasn’t and my father was upset.
I drifted to a corner of the shop and stood behind a post staring at the floor. I hated my father yelling at me, but it was even more embarrassing when he yelled at someone else.
Soon it was over and we returned home for lunch. It was a bright day and conversation went as usual. At one point my mother gazed out to sea and said, “Oh look, there’s the ghost ship of Harspwell.” But that wasn’t really odd, because my mother was given to such figments. Later that afternoon my mother and father went swimming. Kathy was in the garden nearby picking flowers. Suddenly I heard Kathy screaming. When I reached the garden with my son Nathaniel, she told me that my father had had a heart attack and that she was going to the Big House to call the ambulance and get some nitroglycerine.
Nathaniel was only seven, but I told him to stand right where he was and direct the rescue squad to the beach house. I then tore down to beach where I found my mother attempting CPR on my father who was lying on the first floor of the beach house in his bathing suit looking purple and cold. While the rescue squad came the six winding miles from Freeport, my mother and I tried to revive my father. She continued pressing while I gave mouth to mouth resuscitation. For those long minutes I did nothing but try to blow life into my father. It was, I would think later, the closest I had ever come to him.
When the rescue squad arrived, we followed my father to the Seventh Day Adventist hospital in Brunswick, eleven miles away. I noticed as we crossed the rickety bridge over Little River that the tide was all the way out, the mud flats extending the half mile to Googins Island.
My father was dead. After awhile my mother came out from the room where he lay and we just stood in the lobby uncertain what to do next. Finally, I said, “Let’s go home and get a drink.” My mother put her finger to her mouth, gave a short giggle and whispered, “Shh, these are 7th Day Adventists.” We drove home. It was dark now and a full moon had risen and it shone down as we crossed the bridge at Little River. The tide had also risen its ten feet and was gently lapping at the timbers of the bridge. The moon and the tide made what had happened seem strangely natural, even inexorable.
Back at the house, my mother suddenly remembered. “The ghost ship of Harpswell,” she cried. “You’re right,” I said, because I remembered, too. I had been sitting next to her and had looked out and seen nothing.
We pulled out a volume of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poems and found it. The ghost ship of Harpswell had been the privateer Dash, built in South Freeport and lost at sea after a stunning short career. It was later said that women saw the vessel just before their husbands died, but would make nothing of it. Whittier called it The Dead Ship of Harpswell:
- From Wolf Neck and from Flying Point
- From island and from main,
- From sheltered cove and tided creek
- Shall glide the funeral train…
- And men shall sigh, and women weep,
- Whose dear ones pale and pine,
- And sadly over sunset seas
- Await the ghostly sign.
- They know not that its sails are filled
- By pity’s tender breath
- Nor see the Angel at the Helm
- Who steers the Ship of Death.
Later, my mother wrote about that day:
In the late afternoon sun, we talked of ther many things that have developed here in Maine, and then he turned to his new ‘project,’ seaweed and its great potential uses. Leaving to dress before I did, his last words were “I’ll leave the glasses for you” (as we always liked to watch the birds and the boats.)
And then – he was gone. . . .
If it had to be, it couldn’t have been a more perfect way. . . He often spoke of these last few years as his happiest. .. and for a year and a half, we had both been prepared for this moment.
My mother’s vision of the Dash was not the only one. Recounts Jill Stefko in Suite 101:
In August, 1942, while the U.S. and the British His Majesty’s Navies patrolled the Atlantic Coast, a siren sounded in Casco Bay, Maine a warning that there was an invasion. A blip had appeared on ships’ radar screens in the protected waters. Homer Grimm and his girlfriend were enjoying the afternoon on Punkin Nubb at the time.
Pandemonium broke loose. Gongs sounded, guns were readied and sailors and soldiers ran to battle stations. The HMS Moidore sped out of Cumberland Cove, firing its big gun as it came. One shell landed on Punkin Nubb a few yards from where the couple was. They looked around the corner of a shattered rock ledge to see a schooner sailing past them. Homer realized it was the Dash and could see sailors on her deck.
In the distance, the HMS Moidore, US Navy and Coast Guard vessels were pursuing her, heading toward Freeport. When the military’s ships were ready to converge upon the phantom schooner, she vanished.
oMy mother took over my father’s affairs with the confidence of a small shopkeeper. While he would agonize, lawyerlike, over every implication of an action, she made decisions based on fact and instinct as they carried equal weight. She would sit in a hours-long meeting with a half dozen lawyers and accountants quietly doing her needlepoint and then, when the discussion was over, just say something like, “Now, here is what we are going to do.” Once at a real estate closing, two lawyers were arguing over who was to pay a $45 inspection bill. While they disputed, she rummaged in her enormous pocketbook, fished out $45 and placed it on the table, asking mildly whether this would resolve the matter.
She also prolifically defended her views whenever an opportunity arose. Once she spotted a news story about a city councilor from Hallowell who had introduced an ordinance that would allow cows to be detained as illegal aliens if they invaded one of the city’s swankiest subdivisions. Using a skill she had taught herself during the war in order to correspond with my father, my mother promptly typed a poorly proofed missive to the city councilor:
Dear Sir; The problems of roaming cows is very familiar to me. Alas, the fault is not always that of the owner.
May I suggest that you look into what made the cattle stray. I find that suburban life and that of the farmer do not mesh very well.
Joggers, some who leave open gates, wandering dogs that chase the cows, and those, as one woman said to our farm Manager, “my dogs don’t chase them, they just bark at them!”
All this adds up to very unhappy cows and so they brake out, with disastrous results.
She knew whereof she spoke. Some of her own cows were pastured on rented land near the Brunswick Naval Air Station, then key to our strategic defenses against the Soviet Union. It had around 40 planes and two dozen atom bombs. One day the commanding officer called heatedly to say that 17 of her cows were blocking the main runway of the air station. His tone and rhetoric implied that if America were to lose the Cold War, my mother would bear major responsibility.
My mother was too well-mannered to ask the captain what sort of national security he was providing if 17 cows could break through his perimeter. Instead, she promptly dispatched the farm manager, Charlie Degrandpre, to retrieve the strays.
The captain, however, forgot to tell the guards at the main gate that a farmer in a pickup would be by to get his cows off the runway. The guards were thoroughly skeptical of Charlie’s story, and thus Charlie, unlike the 17 cows, was denied immediate access.
The impatient captain took command in the best heavy-handed naval tradition. He ordered the base fire trucks to the runway with sirens blaring. The cows, quite naturally, took to the 3,000 acres that surrounded the airstrip and were not seen again for a week, when, early on the Sunday morning of the officers invitational golf tournament, they turned up en masse on the 9th green.
oWhen such matters didn’t intervene, my mother kept busy running the normal affairs of the farm and the radio station, asking her gardener why the seeds were late, entertaining guests, driving to Brunswick to get more fish when some of the latter arrived unexpectedly, dealing with the wasp next in the garage, getting new tunes for the warning device on her golf cart, going to see the fire chief, getting more liquor, seeing “that stupid Yamouth man,” finding a different color blue, keeping copious notebooks on her garden and other matters = including volcanos – that caught her fancy, and helping to get things started, like the Nature Conservancy, the American Farmland Trust and the Institute for Alternative Agriculture. Her random blend of simplicity and imperiousness, combined with her ubiquitous broad brimmed hat that sat upon a frame slowly being compressed down and out by the trash compactor of time made her a well-known character throughout the town and the state. My father had been respected, and because he used all four of his initials — LMCS — he had become known as Alphabet Smith, but he inspired more awe than affection. My mother, on the other hand, shared the dedication of a Freeport town annual report with long-term town employee Kenneth “Bud” Fournier. Their photos were on the cover: my mother wearing one of her excessive hats and Fournier in sunglasses and a baseball cap. A Freeporter once told me, “Your mother is a sweethaht.”
As my mother grew older so did her friends, relatives and retainers. I began thinking of the Big House as my mother’s geriatric commune. had hit ninety, Rosetta was closing fast and canes and walkers began littering the house for use by aged visitors. My mother was often the youngest person in residence. Nothing really changed but it had slowed down a lot.
One morning about eleven, after I had arrived at the Big House, concern was expressed that an elderly cousin had not yet appeared for breakfast. I went to the door of her room and heard a groan. Upon entering, I found her lying on the floor. “Are you all right?” I asked stupidly. “Of course not” not she said in elegant disgust. “I’ve been here all night.”
She was deaccessioned on the afternoon plane to Philadelphia. The half – hour trip to the Portland airport to pick up or delivered wheel-chaired visitors became so frequent that on the third journey in one day, a Skycap asked me whether I worked for a nursing home.
oTwelve years after my father’s death, my mother also had a heart attack. It turned out not to have been her first one; she had lied to us about the nature of an earlier hospitalization. This time she was in the midst of constructing her “beginage,” a French word for a little home where wealthy widows lived in the shadow and protection of a convent. She wanted no help from her children or in-laws even though there were four architects in the family.
When the blueprints were finally shown us, I heard a sharp intake of breath from the four architects. It turned out that the beginage was an 10,000-square feet home on three and a half acres at the end of the point.
There was plenty that was strange about the house: the design, the use of Drivet (a contemporary and usually commercial version of stucco) for the exterior walls, the idiosyncratic rooms and materials. When I first saw it it reminded me of a Great Western Motel. Katherine Hepburn thought the high back deck with its cinderblock wall looked suitable for a speech by Mussolini. But strangest of all were the letters ES permanently molded over the front door in Drivet. She had always used EHS before. Perhaps this house, I thought, was to have nothing more to do with the Houstons. Perhaps my mother was finally escaping something.
She couldn’t explain. She would occasionally scribble notes from her bed. “So stupid,” said one. She would revive and then sink back. And finally, the last morning, the doctor, who had acceded to her living will and taken no extraordinary steps to keep her alive, came out and gave us a full medical report on her condition. Then he added, in words that seemed both so right and so Maine, “Basically, she’s shuttin’ down.”
At the funeral, I asked Bill Maybury, the undertaker who had first driven my parents to the great stone house at the end of the point forty-one years earlier, how he wanted the pallbearers arranged.
“How many you got?” he asked pleasantly.
“Six,” I replied
“Three on a side.”
oBefore she died, my mother gave the farm and her home to the University of Southern Maine. The USM president, who had cajoled my mother into the deal, was soon selected as chancellor of the state university system and his successor, an English professor from Baltimore, would tell friends that she was embarrassed to have cattle under her.
After my mother died, the farm deteriorated despite the efforts of a small foundation that she had established to help its work and which I came to head. Charlie DeGrandpre, who had raised four sons on the farm, was about the most respected man in Freeport, and had worked for my parents for more than twenty years, became increasingly frustrated in the mindless, memo-rampant world of a large academic bureaucracy.
The farm belonged to another world, which the university neither understood nor respected. It could not understand, for example, why Jimmy DeGrandpre would come from his real estate office and, tieless but still in his white shirt, help his father load bales of hay late on a hot summer afternoon. The main job of an administrator at USM was to keep his or her job. Doing something that wasn’t your job was beyond comprehension.
Charlie eventually retired. He was replaced, with no little prodding by my siblings and myself, by his son David. David co-owned R & D Automotive with his brother Rich. He had learned business and computers at the University of Maine and farming from his father.
THE AUTHOR ABOARD ‘THE MAVERICK,’ WHICH HE BOUGHT AFTER LOSING HIS TASTE FOR MARITIME MASOCHISM
David was in his mid-thirties, intensely serious and scrupulous in his affairs. The university was managing the farm badly and the deficit was soaring. In one year David reduced the deficit by two-thirds. If the university ever thanked him I never heard it. The university did, however, check its personnel manual and found that having the wife of the farm manager work on what had always been a family farm was in violation of its nepotism rules. I suggested a slight modification of the rules to indicate that they did not apply to family farms. After a couple of hours arguing the point with the university chancellor, vice president and the dean, however, I realized they would never see what was wrong, let alone the irony involved.
David would call me regularly and I would occasionally fly to Maine and sit for hours as he went through the pages of the yellow pad on which he wrote every problem and every idea. As I sat in the cramped farm office, I would sense the silent bond that had grown between us, two sons trying as best they could to continue their parents’ dream. It would be just a moment, because there was too much work to do, too much to being a farmer and too many interruptions. Joe, a bearded survivor of the sixties with his red pickup and his faith that animals were better than people, needed help birthing a calf. David’s brother Chuck, the fire chief, drove up in his yellow car and wanted to know if the state could land a helicopter on one of the fields. The recycling truck had a load of newspapers that David had found could be shredded into cattle bedding that was far better and cheaper than sawdust. They especially liked the comic section, he maintained.
Then one May morning, while I was in Massachusetts for a meeting, I got a call saying that David had been killed falling from a ladder while pruning a limb for a neighbor.
The university would later claim that David was not doing his job — that it had been merely a favor — and thus his wife Gloria was not entitled to any compensation. The court rejected the claim. The university reluctantly rehired Charlie and David’s sister-in-law Linda to get through haying season. But when that was over, it moved quickly to employ a permanent farm manager who had the sort of credentials it understood, a product of Cornell long on published papers and short on calluses.
The new manager quickly fired the two farm workers, put triple locks on the farm dumpsters, cut off profitable snow plowing services to neighbors a few weeks before the first winter storm, and told David’s widow to make an appointment with his secretary to discuss a project she had in mind.
My career as a journalist and author had insulated me from some of the recent developments in the business world, so I was unprepared for meetings with Power Point presentations and three page memos citing Francis Bacon, Paul Valery, Agnes Allen, Marilyn Ferguson, Antonio Gramsci, Andre Gide, Cesare Pavese, and Irene Peter to support the farm manager’s contention that “I am taking comfort in the fact that people have expressed their feelings that the transition process is ‘crazy’. . . This reassures me that mourning over the old is reaching a feverish pitch and we are on the right course toward the new.” Wolfe’s Neck Farm had collided with the corporate gobblygook of the 1990s.
The university also had a new president, Richard Pattenaude, a 1980s style manager relentlessly abstract in rhetoric and action. Once when I pleaded with him to find someone at the university who really cared about the farm, he said, “Oh I know what you want. You want a product champion.” I said I guessed so, although what I really wanted was someone who gave a damn.
Meanwhile, the dean quietly went to Augusta with a plan to turn the Big House into a center that, reading between the lines, would be little more than a place where corporations could plot evasion of environmental regulations. A state legislator, Jim Mitchell, called to warn me and together we rewrote the resolution so it would endorse something in keeping with the spirit and the letter of my mother’s gift. When our substitute was found in the hopper, the whole scheme was dropped.
I tried to advise President Pattenaude about what was happening, ranging from violations of the deed of gift to practical problems. His response was that I was micromanaging. I had learned on the farm and on the sea that rhetoric wouldn’t help if you didn’t know what was happening. And I imagined the look on the face of Captain Flynn of the Coast Guard Cutter Spar if I had told him that I didn’t really have an answer to his question because I didn’t want to micromanage the bridge crew but that I would try to come up with a vital vision statement in the near future.I became increasingly angry, not just because the deed of gift was being blatantly ignored, not just because I was being lied to, not just because the farm was being badly mismanaged, not just because what David and I had tried to do was being dismantled, but because over nearly fifty years almost everyone who had anything to do with the farm or the neck upon which it sat regarded the place as something to care for, to respect and treat kindly, if not, in fact, almost sacred.
To the university it was just another facility. And the people who cared about it were intrusions on orderly management. When I proposed a modest summer ecology project on a couple of acres of farm land, a dozen local people quickly began meeting to organize, including the director of the state park, the head of Freeport Community Services and of Freeport Community Education. A contractor not only offered a 12’x30′ shed but the free use of his crew one day a month.
When we took the proposal before the university, the new president, the vice president, the dean, the farm manager and the university lawyer sat stony faced as it was described by the project’s leader.
The first reaction was from the lawyer. There were, she said, serious liability problems. Funny, I thought, there hadn’t been any “serious liability problems” when the university had instituted a far more risky Outward Bound-type program on a couple of acres on the farm.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” I said. “we’ve already looked into that and we can get, and have money for, insurance for $750.”
The dean then gave the real reason. “It’s the camel’s nose under the tent,” he said. The real issue, it turned out, was control. I had designed the project specifically to have it not screwed up by the university and all they really wanted was the power to screw it up. Finally, we had to give them the power to screw it up and they did.
After a hostile exchange of op ed articles in the Portland Press Herald by Pattenaude and myself, I resigned as president of the farm foundation.
oEven teaching a great bureaucracy how to make picnic tables could be trying. Every year, during the winter the farm had made some new picnic tables for the campsites. Under the new administration, this item got overlooked until August. Then one day a pile of lumber appeared by the farm shop.
A neighbor driving by in the morning spotted a group of USM maintenance workers sitting on the pile of lumber viewing blueprints. On her return, the blueprints were laid aside and the workers were having lunch. In mid-afternoon she passed again. The crew had returned to the blue prints.
It turned out that the only person even remotely familiar with the picnic tables was the farm secretary; she at least had watched Joe and Alan make them. She suggested that perhaps if she called Joe — laid off the previous day and soon to become manager of a major farm in southern Maine — he might agree to come over. Joe wasn’t happy, it was no longer his job, but the farm and all it had meant still pulled at him. He said, “Watch me. I’m going to make one and that’s it.” He did and the rest of the picnic tables were constructed.
A few days later I noticed on a far steep hill pasture a herd of picnic tables randomly placed, close to a road and far from the nearest tree, with not one table level to the horizontal nor parallel to another. It looked like a scene out of a Richard Scarry book. By this time the farm manager and I had little to say to each other, so I just quietly wondered. Temporary storage? Getting weathered?
A few months later a report arrived from the farm manager. In it the manager noted that a new picnic area had been tried out but had not proved popular.
Maine was changing fast. Of its thousands of miles of coastline, only 25 were left as working watefront. In a few months, even Maggie’s would be sold. Maggie’s was a combination gas station and convenience store at the edge of town marked for nearly 30 years by a large sign advertising coffee, donuts, propane fuel, travel info and “Fresh Gas and Corn Flakes.” The first thing the oil company did when it bought the place was to take down the sign.
oI feared the whole experience with the university and the farm would sour me. But the restorative powers of the land and the water soon took hold. Your problems — the fields, the trees and the bay kept saying as they always had — are trivial. After you’ve been here as long as we have, after you’ve been through as many blizzards, hurricanes and soggy springs, this will seem like nothing.
I stopped wondering about scattered picnic benches and skewed budgets and began again examining closely the field pine near the place where the road to our house turns. It had changed as it did every time I noticed it and yet it, as always, was exactly the same.
Both my parents had died here. My 25-year-old nephew had been killed in an accident four miles up the road. David DeGrandpre, my brother in failed chase to a dream, had fallen to his death from a ladder a mile the other way. And yet it still seemed all right, still beautiful.
And so when I left Maine, I did what I had done each time since the end of that first summer. I went to the shore and for a long, long time stared out to Bustins and Moshiers and Eagle and Jewell and Chebeague, Whaleboat and Lower Goose and the ledge where the seals rest at low tide as I tried to fix in my mind every pixel of what I saw, to keep and to hold until I could come back.