Maine Tales III – Swordfight on the Lake

The red pumper bounced onto the driveway of the large ante bellum colonial with siren blaring.  The house had once served as an inn, and currently was occupied by a half dozen mostly benign refugees from other late sixties communes.  The flames fully engaged the structure and were seen through the windows.  Everyone got out. The source of the fire was a fifty gallon drum woodstove laid on its side with a fire door kit cut in one end and a stove pipe emerging from the top, not an unusual heating system for rural Maine that can be assembled from a kit for under $100.  If it was a typical set up, sand would cover the bottom to keep the coals from burning through.  Overheated, it could glow cherry red.  Something had gone amiss.

A small fleet of private pickup trucks driven by the rest of the fire department followed the pumper.  The chief’s truck had a prominent flashing light bar on the roof.  A 3” hose with a nozzle was quickly deployed, but the tank rapidly depleted and the stream of water dwindled to a dribble.  An intake hose was unfurled and several fire fighters started rolling it out towards a source of supplementary water, coupling on more hoses as they went.  Back at the truck end, the chief, Dana, bent to hook up to the intake valve and discovered the others were approaching the lake 500 yards away with the wrong end of the hose.  By the time things were reversed, the fire broke through the roof, which fell into the basement a half hour later.  These men were dedicated and courageous; they had saved lives, but all were volunteers, and practiced as they could.  Practice was customarily followed by much truck polishing, hose rolling and beer drinking at the station. Occasionally, they got to burn down a condemned barn to work on their skills. Common wisdom was to get out of the house, and then call your insurance agent and the fire department from a neighbor’s house – in that order. Town residents were fond of saying that the Mount Vernon Fire Department had never lost a foundation.

Official authority and municipal services in a small rural town are a unique experience.  In Mount Vernon circa 1976, there was no police department.  A local constable appointed by the court would serve subpoenas and divorce papers.  The nearest law enforcement was a Maine State Police trooper, who lived 15 miles away in the next town, Readfield.  Once when Rita was involved in a car accident, he came to our house the next evening dressed in jeans to help us fill out the paperwork.  Things were casual.  Only the game warden had true authority.  He was known to shoot a dog if they packed up with others and ran deer.  No appeal, no live trap, no deliberation whether it was a mutt or a Golden Retriever with papers: justice was swift, administered uniformly and accurate.

The only time I remember talk about engaging the police was on the Fourth of July during the bicentennial celebration in 1976.  Other than a few bottle rockets and cherry bombs from New Hampshire, there were no fireworks.  Jeff Kent, a young twenty something native Mount Vernonite, took to drinking beer with a truck full of buddies and dragging an old car hood behind his pickup up and down the roads.  The hood presented an impressive display of sparks and plenty of noise, augmented by custom horns that sounded like a submarine klaxon dive alarm, mounted on the cab roof.  After three hours or so into the wee hours, some of the more sedate residents had had enough.  No one actually called the cops though; one of the dairy farmers who had to get up in the morning told Jeff he would shoot the engine block of the pickup.  We weren’t sure if he had the firepower or the marksmanship, but neither was Jeff, so he pulled the truck into the fire station and drank some more beer.

 A “domestic disturbance” was treated like this: no police involvement because they were too far away to help.  Bia, a recent resident, had moved into an apartment next to a small store front downtown, where she opened up a sheet metal artisan shop, welding and cutting small decorative pieces sold at craft fairs.  Her boyfriend was an odd, slender, bearded, pony tailed archetype prone to buckskin jackets, cowboy hats, silver buckles and a 14” Bowie knife carried in a sheath on his belt.  Bia’s daughter was my daughter’s age, and they became friends during the few months since Bia arrived in town.  In January, our phone rang about eleven one weeknight, long after our bedtime.  She called because we were one of the few she had gotten to know.  The boyfriend, whose name fades, let’s call him Jim, was drinking, smoking dope and hitting her.  Could I come down to help?  Sure, I agreed, groggily.

 As a twenty nine year old, very fit, tree climber, I had an exaggerated confidence in my own invulnerability; I grabbed a 3 foot hickory handle half whittled down to fix my splitting axe and jumped on my trusty steed, well actually, an F150.  What could be better for a chainsaw guy than getting to play knight errant?  On the way to her place, I practiced some tough threat lines involving emergency rooms, reconstructive dentistry and eating through a straw, all of which turned out quickly to be completely inadequate to the situation.  The denouement was less than noteworthy.  Jim had fled out the back door on the snow over the ice of Lake Minnehonk.  I followed his tracks into the dark, axe handle in hand, and found him seventy yards out on the ice in a tee shirt disconsolately sitting and shivering in the snow, his knife still in its sheath.  I asked him if he had a place to go.  He said he did, in Waterville.  I told him that’s where he would be staying.  He started to cry.  Bia packed a duffle bag into his dented Saab with Boulder County Colorado plates, and that was the last anyone ever saw of him.  I went home to bed; Rita was glad to see me.

Thirty years later, we were visiting an old friend, Pam Jones, who still lived near Lou’s store, which was now not Lou’s store.  Bia had long since moved out, but we learned for the first time that a local legend had grown around the “Swordfight On The Lake” with much dramatic license taken. Pam laughed huskily in her smoker’s voice telling us about it.  Entertainment and storytelling are at a premium in a small town.

I hate small towns because once you’ve seen the cannon in the park there’s nothing else to do.
Lenny Bruce. (Mr. Bruce obviously never actually lived in a small town. There’s a lot to do.)

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8 Comments

Filed under Maine Tales

8 responses to “Maine Tales III – Swordfight on the Lake

  1. Rita

    It’s a good thing ‘Jim’ told Jack he had a place to go or I might have awakened in the morning and found him on our couch. There’s no doubt in my mind that Jack would have taken care of ‘Jim’ had he been foolish enought to pull out his knife, but Jack was a softy and wouldn’t have left him with our friend Bia and, after all, it was the middle of winter. So glad he had some friends in Waterville… Living in the small town of Mount Vernon was NEVER boring.

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  2. Rick C

    Great Stuff Jack, Real Americana.. We never know what choice or moving tidbits we might be treated to on Sunday evening, and we look foward to them. your great gift of writen and spoken word should have a greater audience. You should write a book.. I’d certainly buy a few…

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  3. Phil L

    Jack, a great talent. What are you doing in this industry? Please do more!

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  4. Greg

    See, I told you you had a gift……and now we are seeing others agree. Write a book about Mt. Vernon, or anything but politics and religion, ( not that you are not capable…you evry much are) your stories are a just a really good read…..feels like we were all there.

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  5. Gabriel Parquette

    Dad, Your vivid stories fill in the gaps in my fragmented memories. I couldn’t agree more with all these comments.. except the part about avoiding religion or politics.. I think your book could use the stories of your youth to illustrate how you formed your political and religous identity.

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  6. I appreciate the kind comments, but with 50 + hour work weeks, more writing is highly improbable. Took a Mother’s Day holiday. As to religion and politics, to say anything of substance, whether overt or implied, religion and politics are inherent in the human condition. Only so much time can be dedicated to popular entertainment, sports and diversion. Politics is the lens to examine how we relate, govern ourselves, define our agreements on what is moral and resolve human conflict without violence. Religion asks the big questions of why, how and where are we going. Absent politics and religion in broad strokes, there’s not much to think about worth thinking about.

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    • Gabriel Parquette

      Oh of course, like we’ve been saying. Writing a book would have to be a post-retirement project. The posts in this blog could serve as jumping-off points for several chapters though!

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  7. Rita

    I don’t want to put any pressure on you sweetie…but we just watched Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird again and that was a truly wonderful story. We seem to be drawn to watching it again every few years and we still enjoy it as it addresses timeless human issues. But there was no way she could have told the story without religion and addressing the politics of that time in history. Harper Lee wrote one book. It was the story of her life and the messages were eternal and based on Judeo/Christian principles that have guided us for five thousand years. Turning our back’s on those principles has become very costly to the cutlure we are about to hand over to our grandchildren. It’s as if our children and grandchildren have asked us for bread and we’ve given them a stone.

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