Learning laughter in Maine

Sam Smith – Long before Bert & I, I started collecting Maine humor during my summer visits. One of my sources as a boy was Walter Stowe for whom I worked on various projects.

Mr. Stowe appreciated having someone to instruct and demonstrate his immunity to poison ivy by chewing on some its leaves. 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.”

On the other hand, his assessment of Clyde Johnson was more favorable: “He’s the only man who can shingle a barn, tell a dirty story and smoke a pipe all at the same time.”

When he needed to stall while thinking of a reply, the quite short Mr. Stowe 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.”

John T. Mann recalls that Mr. Stowe had told his father: “If I die afore the end of mud season, just stick me in the gravel pit ’til the road dries out and the ground thaws.”

By the time Kathy met Mr. Stowe he was very old. He made do to the end. When Mrs. Stowe forbade him to repair the roof on the grounds that a ninetysomething man 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.

Carolyn White, who spent nearly all her young summers on Wolfe’s 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.

Maine’s less than pompous 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:

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.

JUNE 15 1008 PM: Officer Sloat received a report of a woman screaming on Pine Street. He found it was a lovers’ spat.

JUNE 17 230PM: 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.

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.

Even the road signs could be fun

Big new tube
Just like Louise
You get a lot
In every squeeze
Burma Shave

Not to mention the road directions

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.

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.

When you get to big Jimmy’s place down the road a piece, you’re gonna wanna take a right….. But don’t!

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.

Do you know how to get to Waldodoro? . . .Ayah

How do you get to Bangor? . . . Well, I usually get my brother to take me

You never knew when a laugh would crop up. Once, as a teenager, I drove into a gas station, stepped out of my car into a puddle and heard someone say “How’s the watah?”

And John at R&D Automotive told me many years back that my brother had been in with his car. “He said he kept smelling gas . . . so I told him to stop it.”

Then there was the exchange at Ed Leighton’s department store:

“How ya doin?”

“You want the long story or the short one?”

“Oh hell, give me the long one.”

“Pretty good, I guess.”

At my father’s funeral I asked Billy Maybury, the undertaker how he wanted the pallbearers arranged.

“How many you got?” he asked pleasantly.

“Six,” I replied

“Three on a side.”

And then there was 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, “Christ, Sam, you’re one of the lucky ones. Most of them won’t hold water.”

Then he fixed it.

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