Flotsam & Jetsam: Ernest Hemingway

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Learning to laugh 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.”
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.”

And 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.

Weekend update

Sam Smith – During a trip last weekend to the coastal area north of Boston, my wife and I stayed at the Emerson Inn by the Sea in Rockport. It was neither its original name nor in its original location. It had once been a tavern nearby until in 1856 some 200 townswomen, as well as three men, began a destructive raid against alcoholic spirits. According to the inn’ s account, “Hiding their weapons beneath lacy shawls, the protestors set out to destroy every drop of alcohol. . .Five hours after the siege began, the weary but victorious women went home to fix supper for their families.”

In the wake of this chaos, the owner decided to turn the tavern into an inn since Pigeon Cove had begin attracting a growing number of summer visitors including Ralph Waldo Emerson, originally brought by his friend Henry David Thoreau

Emerson would spend several vacations here with his family and wrote about it in his diary with less than careful reserve:

Returned from Pigeon Cove, where we have made acquaintance with the sea, for seven days. Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, “Why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath, thy healthful climate in the heats; My touch, thy cure? Was ever a building like my terraces? Was ever a couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little but is all you need. I have made thy architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Nineveho and Karnacs in ruin together, obelisk and pyramid and giant’s causeway here they all are prostrate or half piled.”

As It turned out, our room was just two down the hall from Emerson’s, which would have been heart warming were it not for the fact that his pre-Expedia assessment of the inn was in stunning contrast with some of his other comments on travel that I have regularly quoted, to wit:

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. . .I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. . .My giant goes with me wherever I go.

He who travels to be amused, or to get something which he does not carry, travels away from himself and grows old even in youth among old things.

But it wasn’t the only historic clash of the weekend. Upon arriving in nearby Salem we were immediately reminded that Halloween was only a week away as it was already being cheerfully observed by an extraordinary number of people wearing odd costumes and pointed hats. The mood was mindlessly celebratory, at least until we joined a few other people in the town’s visitors’ center to see a documentary on where Salem’s interest in witches had begun, namely in 1692 during trials that resulted in the hanging of 19 women in nine months of hysteria about the subject. History.com describes it this way:

The infamous Salem witch trials began during the spring of 1692, after a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, claimed to be possessed by the devil and accused several local women of witchcraft. As a wave of hysteria spread throughout colonial Massachusetts, a special court convened in Salem to hear the cases; the first convicted witch, Bridget Bishop, was hanged that June. Eighteen others followed Bishop to Salem’s Gallows Hill, while some 150 more men, women and children were accused over the next several months. By September 1692, the hysteria had begun to abate and public opinion turned against the trials. Though the Massachusetts General Court later annulled guilty verdicts against accused witches and granted indemnities to their families, bitterness lingered in the community, and the painful legacy of the Salem witch trials would endure for centuries….

In January 1697, the Massachusetts General Court declared a day of fasting for the tragedy of the Salem witch trials; the court later deemed the trials unlawful, and the leading justice Samuel Sewall publicly apologized for his role in the process. The damage to the community lingered, however, even after Massachusetts Colony passed legislation restoring the good names of the condemned and providing financial restitution to their heirs in 1711. Indeed, the vivid and painful legacy of the Salem witch trials endured well into the 20th century, when Arthur Miller dramatized the events of 1692 in his play “The Crucible” (1953), using them as an allegory for the anti-Communist “witch hunts” led by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

To view a documentary on this subject in a nearly empty auditorium and then to step into a main street of Salem jammed with a contemporary celebration of sorcery was a troublesome reminder of how little we often learn from history

Switching channels

Sam Smith
We couldn’t take it any longer so last week my wife and I changed our family dinner time TV show from Chris Matthews to the PBS News Hour. For me the choice was driven by the fact that I would rather fall asleep of boredom than be hollered at one more time during an otherwise pleasant meal. Admittedly the News Hour is Prozac taken by ear instead by mouth and its staff is so robotic that, should the White House catch on fire, it would probably calmly announce that “we shall be shortly discussing with a panel of experts the effect of this event on the President’s schedule and his budgetary planning.”

I was long familiar with the problem. When my sons were in a DC  elementary school one of their classmates had appeared on the McNeil Lehrer Show with his father to discuss child finances. I asked the boy afterwards how it went. He said, “Well, they seemed kind of nervous. I don’t think they ever had a kid on the show before.”

But still, the News Hour would be better than the shouting, angry lectures, guests being interrupted in the midst of their first sentence, and the look-at-me-aren’t-I-wonderful style of Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.

Given the similarity in viewer demographics, it is interesting to note that the first Downton Abbey of the season had over ten times as many viewers as did the various MSNBC news shows.

I admit I have a problem. I started out as a radio newsman and the difference between radio and TV talk is often the difference between a telephone and a pulpit or a stage. Radio talk shows favor conversations; too often on TV you have lectures or sermons.

I’ve done TV as well but I’ve never felt as comfortable with those cameras pointed at you like they were cops aiming their guns to keep you from connecting with the audience.

There are a few who manage to keep television human and friendly. Morning Joe is a positive MSNBC exception. And of course there’s Jon Stewart, but have you noticed how, like other late night hosts, he often he plays not to the screen but to the audience in the studio? People to people.

This isn’t about content. I generally agree with Stewart and often disagree with Joe and Mika. But then that was true when I used to listen occasionally to the leading radio talk guy in America, Paul Harvey, not for his usually over conservative politics but for items like this one:

Up in Binghamton New York last night. . . A Little League game. . .

12 year old Ronnie Mitchell hit a high fly ball to center field. Made it to first, rounded second and spun past third. . . .


He slid home


He was safe

(Long Pause)

And dead. No, don’t ask me. There’ll be an autopsy tomorrow. Now page 3. . . .

Paul Harvey at his peak had close to fifty times more listeners than Chris Matthews. And his saving moment was that, with his son facing the draft, he suddenly turned against the Vietnam War, saying to Nixon on one show, “”Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.” I have long suspected that Harvey was far more critical to the anti-war movement than he has been credited with. In any case, he sure knew how to tell a story.

Another problem with television news shows is that they create stars and, once you’ve done that, part of journalism is destroyed.

I once put it like this, “Journalism is to thought and understanding as the indictment is to the trial, the hypothesis to the truth, the estimate to the audit. It is the first cry for help, the hand groping for the light switch in the dark, the returns before the outlying precincts have been heard from.”

On another occasion, I wrote: “This writer proposes to serve not as an expert, but rather in the more modest and more constructive role of being the surrogate eyes and ears of the reader. Consider me simply someone who has traveled this trail several times before and thus might remember where the clean water is to be found, the names of some of the rarer plants and possibly even a shortcut home.”

That’s not a popular view on MSNBC, Fox or CNN. I suspect MSNBC developed its overblown style as a bad imitation of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.. It’s sort of the media version of what’s happened to liberals generally . Instead of offering an appealing and solid alternative to the right they just yell at it.