Category Archives: Maine Tales

Beer Cans, Sandwich Wrappers and Other Flotsam

“Beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend for the hearts of men.”  The Brothers Karamazov,  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sunset from Dummer’s Beach campground, Webb Lake

When our son Gabe was seven or eight, we were driving back from Portland to our home in Farmington, Maine. At some point on Route 202 near Winthrop, he rid himself of a pesky bit of trash out the open back window of our Ford. In Maine, then as now, littering is a hanging offense, and a state trooper spotted the infraction and did a quick U turn behind us. A mile or so down the road, he pulled us over.  He politely asked if I knew what we had perpetrated, and I pleaded ignorance. He instructed me on the serious nature of our offense. Gabe in our backseat looked like a puppy who just ate the stew meat off the kitchen table.

I asked the trooper, who understood exactly what had happened, if Gabe would have to go to prison or just work off his fine in home confinement until he was twenty-one. We negotiated a just settlement, and the trooper took me at my word we would reverse course, find the offending litter and retrieve it, which we promptly did with no Maine State Police vehicle following us. Gabriel learned from his experience, and it was many years before he had to spend a night in jail.

We’ve noticed on our bike rides here in Maine that roadside litter is much rarer than in Rhode Island, where it is a plague – an occasional yahoo beer can on these rural roads in Maine, but if we see three in a mile, it is unusual. In Rhode Island, just past the welcome to beautiful Rhode Island signs, the mess begins along the road, even on the beaches after hours. I’ve often wondered what combination of neglectful parenting, ignorance and arrogance prompts passersby to believe it is someone else’s job to clean up after them.

I think the lack of jeopardy may account for some of it in Rhode Island-I’ve never seen littering laws enforced; and in Maine residents and visitors alike harbor a respect, almost a reverence, for the beauty around nearly every turn.

“Late have I loved thee, Beauty ever old, ever new; late have I loved thee. Lo, you were within, but I was outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong.”  Confessions of St. Augustine [i]

 As we stood silently for long minutes watching the sunset just to the south of Tumbledown across Webb Lake, I was struck anew with the gratuitous beauty of sun, clouds, mountains and water. Why was nature made beautiful instead of pallid and enervating? Why are human beings such that their senses and spirits perceive the beauty? What grace and gift is at work here? The same grace and gift moves artists of music, form and hue to create as best we can a reflected beauty. And, most importantly, what Truth is to be found congruent with the Beauty?

When we fail to ask such questions, when we persist without respite in the endless business of commerce and noise, amusements and entertainments precisely to avoid asking such questions, we dodge not just blundering through some sophomoric speculations, but hazard missing why we are on this big blue beautiful ball hurtling at unimaginable speed around the galaxy and through the void: we risk missing the entire point. We fail to pay attention to the jeopardy of forgetting our teleology, the end for which we exist as separate from the other creatures on this fragile planet, and perhaps from the other creatures (if there are any) in this universe.

In an Associated Press syndicated technology article this week in the Lewiston Sun Journal, the latest “big leap” in Apple technology was lauded. “Augmented reality” (AR) will be rolled out in the next iteration of software for iPads and iPhones with built in capability for entrepreneurial “killer apps” to layer on enhancement to our staid, just plain old reality. Related to virtual reality, it will feature the ability, like the washed-up “Pokemon Go” phenomenon, to allow us to visualize in our surroundings magical apparitions that aren’t there. Millions will be able to spend billions of their finite, irreplaceable hours distracting themselves with these wonderful apparitions because, apparently, we don’t have enough distraction already. Facebook, Google and Microsoft are frantically working to roll out their own AR versions. Tim Cook, Apple CEO, hailed AR as “profound technology.” Indeed. “I am so excited about it, I just want to yell and scream!” exclaimed Mr. Cook.  Exactly so, I say; I have a similar urge. [ii]

I would make a modest proposal to Mr. Cook and to you, dear reader. Perhaps we could better spend a little time undistracted, unentertained, without a screen, with some unaugmented reality. And in that quiet without noise and interruption, without beer cans and roadside trash, ask ourselves some questions. I would suggest that a sunset over Webb Lake, looking towards Mount Blue and Tumbledown might be a good place to start.

“We’re all haunted by (death) in one way or another. And it’s the easiest thing in the world to push away, you just get a cappuccino. But, yes, you’re haunted by it in a different way (as you get older).  I feel its presence. I feel it in my sleep, in dreams, in waking.” Sam Shepard, who died this week at 73.

 

[i] Quotes from Dostoevsky and Augustine were cited in “Strangers in a Strange Land” by Charles Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia. In writing about these things, Archbishop Chaput quotes some lines from “Evening,” a poem by Rainier Maria Rilke and continues with his own comments:

Slowly now the evening changes his garments

held for him by a rim of ancient trees;

you gaze: and the landscape divides and leaves you

one sinking and one rising toward the stars.

 

And you are left, to none belonging wholly,

not so dark as a silent house, nor quite

so surely pledged unto eternity

as that which grows to star and climbs the

night.

 

To you is left (unspeakably confused)

your life, gigantic, ripening, full of fears,

so that it, now hemmed in, now grasping

all,

is changed in you by turns to stone and

stars.

 Philosophers and psychologists have offered many different theories about the nature of the human person. But few have captured the human condition better than Rilke does in those twelve lines. We are creatures made for heaven, but we are born of this earth. We love the beauty of this world, but we sense that there’s something more behind that beauty. Our longing for that “something” pulls us outside of ourselves.

 [ii] Why Our Screens Make Us Less Happy, TEXx talk, Adam Alter

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Filed under Culture views, Maine Tales, Personal and family life

Milk Run

“There is no better way to understand an animal than to milk a cow twice a day. Every day.” Anonymous

 cows-loungingRay Hall was a spare, reticent, tall man, slightly stooped with practical plastic framed sturdy eye glasses and a baseball cap. He was a dairy farmer on the North Road in Mount Vernon, Maine, who, when he chose to deploy it on necessary occasions, had a warm smile. His farm was clean, well-organized, closely scheduled and had many cows with breeds I can’t remember; I think Guernsey and Holstein. They decorated the fields and hills behind the barn in paintable pastoral beauty.

The Halls were generations deep in Mount Vernon; Ray’s son built a ranch house on the property with his wife, preparing to continue the traditions. Milk was collected each day in a separate small room off the big barn into a spotless chilled stainless steel tank that had an interior slowly rotating mixer to keep the cream from separating. Fresh cold milk has the improved character that new eggs with tiny feathers stuck to them have for those who have raised hens (as we have) or have had the good fortune to live near an egg farm. The taste, the color, the wholesomeness is qualitatively better than the stored, pasteurized, homogenized factory product.

Several of us might gather in Ray’s milk room and catch up on gossip while we waited our turn to refill our bottles. In a town like Mount Vernon, we enjoyed every opportunity to stay current with the goings on of our neighbors; most of the talk was benign. Folks wanted to be able to help if needed, or at least be aware of the sensibilities.

Ray sold his milk to Cumberland Farms, which would send the tank truck to haul off the day’s production for processing and bottling. For the locals, however, who brought their own clean bottles, there was a spigot on the tank and an honor system cash box nearby. Seventy-five cents a gallon, as I remember, but it was a long time ago. The milk had to be shaken before pouring to blend the cream back in unless we let it rise to the top and skimmed some for coffee or whipping or recipes. We’ve never had better milk before or since.

 “My father..liked to be a farmer. He enjoyed his dairy farm and felt the calling. So there was a dedication. I was dedicated as a child to the service of God, and so there was this continual centering of a greater purpose than your own.”  Phil Jackson

In the spring of 2010, armed federal marshals and state troopers raided the Amish dairy farm of Dan Allgyer called Rainbow Acres. Almost a year of expensive investigation preceded the raid. The customers were not deceived, understood the potential risks, trusted the farmer and made the informed decision that raw milk unprocessed by machinery was healthier and tasted better; some people cannot drink milk that has been heated, bagged and tagged in a factory. The Federal government thought differently, showed up with a warrant, then bagged and tagged Dan instead.

Two aspects of this struck me; they are closely related, perhaps ‘inextricably entwined:’

We have been distanced incrementally from the sources of our food and consequently from authenticity. We are increasingly an X Box, artificial intelligence (oxymoron?), virtual reality culture. Rita’s grandparents on both sides raised their own vegetables and fruit, made their own wine, raised, slaughtered and dressed chickens and an annual pig, making sausage, bacon, hams and the thin sliced cured ham miracle called prosciutto; neighbors would line up at their house for it. The skills commonly known to our grandparents to milk cows, grow gardens, hunt or raise our own animal protein or merely wander at leisure in fields and forests are being stripped away to be replaced with LED screens and speakers. Much time and energy is spent to entertain and distract ourselves from the human contact, work and real life dirt, calluses and sweat necessary to sustain us.

 bureaucracy-cartoonSecondly, we surrender ourselves and even welcome a self-perpetuating huge bureaucratic Federal apparatus which has been granted more and more free rein to rein us in. The monolith desires to protect us from any freedom that could possibly cause us harm as perceived by a progressive nanny state. We far too frequently don’t get to decide what level of risk we are willing to pursue to live more closely in touch with real things, events and places. In this usurpation of liberty, we drift ever closer to the Borg and distance ourselves ever further from the vision of the Founding Fathers for an independent, virtuous and knowledgeable electorate.

Journey down to Washington, DC and walk past the astonishingly large gray office buildings housing the minions and machinery of the bureaucracy. It just might give you pause.

“The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint… But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in cleaned, carpeted, warmed and well lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy…” C.S. Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters.”

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Christmas Trees

“Christmas is a season not only of rejoicing but of reflection.” Winston Churchill

Our first Christmas tree was not quite a year after we were married. Finishing up my last year at U Mass, I bought our first small tree in Northampton and dragged it up the stairs to our third story walk up railroad apartment. Rita remembers still the sound of the needles rubbing against the narrow stair and hallway walls. We set it up in an alcove off the main hall of our apartment, the only space that had room for one. Our decorations were minimal; they later accrued over the many years-some homemade by our parents or children, some gifts, some bought one by one in small shops or fairs. We still break them out once a year.

Our habit has been to put a tree up later in the Advent season and leave it up past Epiphany. Too late, and we miss the piney smell through the run up to Christmas; too early, and it is a fire hazard by the end.  A sadness overtakes me when I see Christmas trees put out for trash pickup on the twenty sixth like checking off a box, another season survived and behind us.

One of our early Christmases we were living on Mashnee Island on Cape Cod. We had little money, but decided we wanted a live tree that would get another chance the following spring. I took my pickup to Hog Island, state owned, uninhabited, and the site of a large navigational warning sign at the north end of Cape Cod Canal. The sand while frozen was easily broken, and I dug out a small pitch pine, usually called a scrub pine, Charlie Brown never had a sparser specimen. After cutting out a large root ball, I wrapped it in burlap and brought it home. We put it in a large steel washtub in the living room of our rented cottage, kept the tree watered, and hoped when we resettled it after Christmas, the pine would survive the midwinter thawing. When I checked it early in June back on Hog Island, it was green and supple.

“It still feels weird to spend money on Christmas trees. Back when Mom was alive, we’d go out “tree hunting.” That’s what she called it, anyway. I think other people might use the word “trespassing.” Jenny Han, Fire with Fire

The ten years we spent in Maine provided us with many memorable Christmas trees. When our two older children, Amy and Gabe, were still small, I would load them on a sled, put on my bear-paw snowshoes, and we would go tree hunting. We first cut on the five acres surrounding our first Mount Vernon house, and later found our trees on the hundred acres we bought with a friend in New Sharon. I preferred Balsam Fir, but once settled on a Canadian hemlock and only once on a Norway spruce. Neither one kept its needles long enough for our preferred elongated season; when we finally took them down, threadbare and forlorn, we had a lot of sweeping and vacuuming to do.

Many years the highest temperature of tree harvesting day would remain resolutely in single digits, but bundled up with big mittens, the kids would complain only if I trudged too deep into the woods and took too long in our quest for the perfect tree. Tree cutting was always followed by hot chocolate back by the wood stove. Decorating was done in stages after we’d get the tree up: a couple of days with the tree in its natural state of beauty, the scent filling the house. The tree would draw up large amounts of our doctored water, feeding and bringing it back to life until the branches fell to their accustomed levels. Next came a day or two of just lights, then another day or two of our favorite decorations and candy canes, and finally the addition of strung together popcorn or cranberries. We eschewed tinsel of any kind, preferring to leave the tree unconcealed, not hidden behind manufactured glittery shininess. The evergreen foreshadows life eternal, renewed each day and year.

“I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year.” Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

Papa Jack hanging Christmas lights in our first house in Maine

One of my most enduring memories of Christmas was our second in our first house in Mount Vernon. That year’s tree was a monster, rising almost to the cathedral ceiling in our dining room, a full twelve feet. I had cut a large Balsam fir. We used the lower branches for other decorations and the eight-inch trunk of the tree was used in the spring to help construct the pole barn woodshed I built. But the top twelve feet somehow were pushed through the front door and stood upright against the window.

My folks came up for a pre-Christmas visit. A half a dozen years prior to my father’s passing, he remained a vigorous sixty, and my mother still an Irish beauty. As was their custom with little room in our small converted barn, they preferred to rent a room in nearby Mrs. Hall’s bed and breakfast and not climb a ladder into one of our sleeping lofts.

We celebrated my mother’s birthday on St. Nicolas Day. She had begun work on the hand painted ceramic Nativity set that still adorns our Christmas celebrations. The first year brought us Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Eventually there was the full panoply of kings, shepherd, sheep, camels and a cow. She made several figures every year as Christmas gifts. Each year we carefully unwrap them from their newspaper protectors and set them out again in a central spot in our home. The carefully made wood manger itself was designed and crafted by Rita’s father, Dave, a skilled woodworker and furniture maker. The combination of the two – figures and crèche are treasured and a symbol to us of the permanent marriage of our two families.

That year after overcoming Rita’s objections to the giant tree and the extra sets of lights, in the end, our perfect Balsam fir is an indelible remembrance. After we got it in the house with much effort, trying to save as many needles as possible in the narrow entryway, my father insisted on climbing the ladder and helping with the decorating up high, including the angel at the top. I will not forget him doing this while Christmas persists in our hearts.

 “…freshly cut Christmas trees smelling of stars and snow and pine resin – inhale deeply and fill your soul with wintry night…”  John Geddes, A Familiar Rain

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Of Winter and Circus Wagons

“Winter is a season of recovery and preparation.” Paul Theroux

Our first winter in Maine came on us suddenly and without adequate groundwork. We had purchased our somewhat renovated post and beam barn on five mostly wooded acres in Mount Vernon. Sagely we thought, our family planned to move from Cape Cod in the spring, so we rented the house out to a couple of single young men we met briefly. In January, they stopped paying rent and moved out without notice. Didn’t return phone calls either. Since we couldn’t afford the new Maine house and our rental house on Mashnee Island, in late February we moved.

The property boasted pristine spring water which gravity fed the house over a drop of about fifty feet of elevation through a five-hundred-foot underground pipe from our spring enclosure in the woods. Even flatlanders like us took only our first day to discover that an unused pipe barely clearing ledge eighteen inches below the soil in late January freezes solid. We were lucky; it didn’t split open. But neither did it deliver water until May.

Digging out the septic tank with shovel and pick to expose the cover, we bought an indoor Sears chemical toilet that I emptied daily. A forty gallon galvanized wash tub, a wood stove to heat up the kettles and multiple trips to the spring with a couple of two gallon buckets took care of the bathing. Drinking, cooking and incidental washing cost a few more trips a day. After a few spills of water on the hill, it became a slippery and occasionally painful adventure to fetch water. I had no idea how much wood we needed, so we quickly ran out, and Maine is not an easy place for strangers to find firewood for our principal source of heat in February. Every week, I would take our Ford F-150 to a birch toothpick and dowel sawmill factory and fill it with burlap bags of dowel ends and bark trimmings.

When a twenty-four-hour stomach bug ripped through the family, the Sears chemical toilet proved to be a sad, inadequate resource. But, Rita didn’t leave me, and we muddled through the rest of the first winter. At least the twenty below nights were behind us with the ascent of the February sun. We were in our first house, sleeping in an overhead loft on a mattress jammed up tight against the roof at the edges, and while the Maine winter soon made mock of any romantic notions, the loft was warm, and we made it until the blackflies and mud season signaled spring.

“By suffering comes understanding.” (toi pathei mathos), Ancient Greek saying.

The townspeople, who were welcoming, but reserved, tried to help us prepare for our second (and first full) winter as best they could; locals retain a wait and see attitude towards newcomers until they prove they can stay the course. Snow started in earnest before Thanksgiving, but happily relented around Easter. Sort of. I observed, asked questions, built a small pole barn wood shed with spruce cut out back and filled it with five cords of dry hardwood I split by hand. Working together, Rita and I wrapped the entire perimeter of the house to about a foot above the stone foundation with black plastic secured with wood lathe and roofing nails, then laid bales of hay against it to keep out the floor drafts. I made a matched spruce board storm door, weather-stripped to seal out more leaks. Large double-hung salvaged windows looked north, providing a house selling view of the adjacent field and mountains beyond, but they squandered heat and rattled in the wind. Tacked up clear plastic inside storm windows helped. Rita’s dad came for a visit and helpfully suggested we give the house back to the bank. So we awaited the onslaught, seemingly much better prepared than our first winter.

Circus wagonNothing could prepare us, however, for weeks that never went above zero and snow that drifted up against the house covering the lower half of the windows on the north and east end. On the south side of the house, we were in perpetual shade, which cooled us in the summer, but the snow shed from the roof built up against the back of the house, covering all but the top eight inches of the windows in the kid’s bedroom. In front the snow packed down under snowshoes and boots, and when our children looked out to see Dad hauling wood from the woodshed, only my legs trudging past the windows were visible. The entire interior of the house was painted a solid white semi-gloss, no doubt purchased on sale in five gallon buckets from the Sherman Williams store in Augusta.

On days with a higher sun and no wind Rita would sometimes bundle up the kids and take them on a lunch picnic in the back of the truck. I worked late too many nights trying to establish my company’s business in new territory. After one particularly isolating week in Mount Vernon of white out and cold, I came home after an overnight in Aroostook County to find the living room and dining room (both had sleeping lofts) transformed. The décor was early circus wagon. Gold yellow walls and red painted posts up to the bottom horizontal beam and the cathedral ceilings. Preparation ill-advised or perceptive cannot cover all contingencies; sometimes you’ve just got to go with your gut.

“He who is best prepared can best serve his moment of inspiration.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge

 

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Allagash

“Wilderness is the preservation of the World.” Henry David Thoreau, Walking

The Allagash Wilderness Waterway begins in sight of Mount Katahdin, the highest peak in Maine. Running ninety two miles from lakes west of Katahdin, it ends where the Allagash River, meandering north, runs into the St John River on the Canadian border.

allagash 2In the mid-eighties my fourteen year old son Gabriel and I joined with eight other men for nine days to canoe the Allagash Waterway. We planned logistics, food, equipment – a duty roster calendar and menu for each day: cooking, clean up, water and wood gathering. Two other father and son teams with young men near Gabe’s age, along with a pair of late teens and Father Wilifred Gregoire from Westerly, Rhode Island, partnered with a parishioner who was his friend. Father Greg was an experienced outdoorsman, an Allagash veteran with more than a half dozen previous excursions. Milton Wilbur from Woonsocket, another Allagash veteran, accompanied by his son, Josh, led the trip.

A wilderness canoe trek takes on its own sedate, steady rhythm: rise at dawn; stretch out the previous day’s muscle stiffness; early fire over the previous night’s coals, cowboy coffee and breakfast, clean up, break and pack the camp; put in and begin to paddle – mostly J strokes, slow and unrelenting with little respite; the sound of the water and occasional sighting of deer or hawk or a trout breaking the surface; find a suitable spot for lunch; maybe a swim if the sun is warm; put in for the afternoon miles; locate our planned evening campsite, stake down and raise the tents, roll out the sleeping bags; draw water at a spring, forage for blowdown wood and light the evening campfire; cook and eat dinner, clean; quiet talk around the fire; some nights camp songs with men used to singing together; perhaps some reading or a fold out chess set; more quiet talk with my son in the sleeping bags for the night; deep sleep two to a tent. The rhythm corresponds to the backdrop perfectly. Utter peace. Hard pulling and the soreness disappeared after a day or two. Gabe and the other young guys held their own in the canoes without complaint. Bathing was with Dr. Bronner’s phosphate free, biodegradable peppermint soap in the lakes and river. Shaving was left behind.

On Sunday morning, we changed the rhythm without breaking it. Father Greg celebrated an evening Mass before dinner with us as we neared sunset under the canopy of a stand of Eastern White Pine on the shore of the far end of Chamberlain Lake, sharing prayer and our faith. Singing our worship songs of thanksgiving in the silence of the vast Maine woods.

“How gladly would I treat you like my children and give you a pleasant land, the most beautiful heritage of any nation.” Jeremiah 3:19

The early days of the trip were the most physical, sometimes fighting wind driven swells, which broke on the shore of Chamberlain. The outfitters met us at our jumping off spot after we followed a fifteen mile dirt road to Telos Lake and there delivered our five canoes – well worn, but sound, aluminum, Grumman made, flat bottomed for the river, but tricky to manage on the lakes in a wind. They drove our van back and waited for our call in nine days from the payphone in Allagash, while we paddled north. Telos the first day, tired from an all night drive from Rhode Island; the long miles of Chamberlain, portages to Big Eagle Lake, the long haul up Eagle into Churchill Lake; portage at the top of Churchill Dam to a stretch of river that flowed into Umsaskis Lake, which empties into Long Lake; past Long Lake Dam and Cunniff Island, and finally picking up the aid of the Allagash River current for the rest of the way except for an hour or so traversing Round Pond. On the big lake, we looked up once to see Milton and Josh deploying a clamp-on sail and disappearing ahead. Experience counts.

Allagash Wilderness Tramway EnginesOne long day on the river, a bald eagle followed us for hours, probably looking for scraps. He would settle in a tall hemlock or pine, wait for us to pass, rise effortlessly and glide past us to his next vantage point along the river. On another day, we took a brief hike into the woods between Chamberlain and Eagle Lake to show the boys two railway engines, stranded in the forest sixty years earlier when the logging tramway rail system was abandoned. They climbed happily through, over and around the old boilers and controls. A third diversion when we hit a long stretch of rapids, nothing too challenging, but we had to pay attention. The rangers, who kept an inconspicuous eye out for the safety of the various groups, picked up the gear we left near a woods road log bridge. We had an adventure down the rapids with only bathing suits, life jackets and sneakers at risk. They dropped off our tents, sleeping bags, clothes and provisions, safe and dry, at the end of the rapids, when the descent flattened out and the river widened once again to a more temperate pace. The teen team, Keith and Dave, stood up, then when that failed to capsize them, stood up backwards and finally went down one section of rapids with one on the shoulders of the other. They went in and swept along by the current finished the rapid run laughing riotously. No nanny state for these young lunatics.

On our last day before we made final landfall in Allagash and swapped our canoes for our van, we pulled the canoes up on a sand spit for lunch and played for several hours at Allagash Falls, where all of us were boys again, splashing in the cold deluge, slithering over the ancient, smoothed rocks like a waterslide freely provided.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote that one cannot touch the same drop of water twice in a torrent and that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” My memory rusts like the train engines, becomes a bit idealized perhaps, but the Allagash changes us in some undefined way for the good. There is in Nature, for sure, tooth and claw, blood and fury, but there is also in untamed places a feminine aspect: fertile, bountiful, generous with great peace found no other place – a time for thoughts and no thoughts, a time merely to be.

“The life of contemplation in action and purity of heart is a life of great simplicity. One is content to remain at every moment in contact with God, in the hiddenness and ordinariness of the present moment with its obvious task. At such times, walking down a street, sweeping a floor, hoeing beans, reading a book, taking a stroll in the woods – all can be enriched with contemplation and the obscure sense of God’s presence.” Thomas Merton, The Inner Experience, Notes on Contemplation

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Good Friends Never Let You Down

Not to imply that we occasionally can’t be disappointed in our friendships (or be disappointing to our friends), but that in the best of friendships, we always find a way to work things out.  Through those friendships we are led to new insights and a deeper understanding of our lives and of ourselves.   In one of the Maine Tales posts, I wrote of our return to our faith and the Church thirty eight years ago.  Here is that post: Maine Tales IV – The Road Not Taken and an excerpt from it, when we met our good friend, Father Joe McKenna:

We looked up Catholic Churches in the Yellow Pages (an anachronism now).  Mount Vernon was at the center of a fifty mile circle roughly encompassing Augusta, Waterville and Farmington.  Rita worked part time as an RN in Augusta, but Farmington for some reason attracted us.  I called St. Joseph’s Church in Farmington; a friendly voice picked up with a lively, “St. Joe’s!”  Father Joe McKenna answered his own phone calls and was nearly perfect for hurting children of the sixties — an admixture of intellectual, poet, faith filled priest and wonderfully warm and funny human being with holes in the elbows of his sweaters. We entered the little, wood framed church on a side street, far smaller than the Baptist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist stone and brick edifices on Main Street.  It was Pentecost Sunday, no happenstance, and Father Joe was alive with the Spirit.

Father Joe has been what he calls semi-retired now for quite a few years and lives in Portland.  He remains active with nursing home work and a prison ministry, but we keep a valued, long distance friendship with emails and too infrequent visits.  As I have occasionally done with others, I’ll take advantage of Father Joe’s writing to share with permission a recent correspondence.  If there are seeming non sequiturs, the errors are mine.

Father Joe, now eighty three, clearly has lost nothing off the fastball and enjoys very much new knowledge.  The email exchange was initiated when Father Joe responded to the post a couple of weeks ago.  Even with editing for brevity, it is still quite lengthy, and I hope you find worth your time and attention.

Father Joe: Hi Jack and Rita.  Very, very interesting.  At last I know the reason why mitochondria passes only though the mother.  Simple enough when you know why.  Merry Christmas to you and yours and many OF them!

Jack: Really enjoyed “Time To Start Thinking” and thank you again. His observations and analysis do get me thinking as we all need to be.  His solutions, when he proposes them are a little too Keynesian and pessimistic for me, but well worth consideration.  A book I would recommend to anyone.  Glad we could clear up mitochondria once and for all.
Love from RI, j&r   

 (Note:  Father Joe had sent me a book he had read, Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent, by Edward Luce, long time economics writer for the Financial Times of London.  I would recommend it to all who have interest.)

Father Joe: What I found about the book is that it is a series of interviews about what each person thinks is going on.  Then you can draw your own conclusions.  It must be fantastic to have descendants!

Jack:  Terrifying actually.  What have we wrought, and what are we handing on to those descendants?

Father Joe: Oh come on.  It’s Christmas… when we concentrate on the virtue of hope! A lovely virtue.  I discovered it in the seminary sitting next to Mike McManus..… Anyway because he was McManus and I was McKenna sometimes we sat together.  He was filled with hope and happiness and gradually he worked on me to get rid of some of my negativity.  He recommended a book “God Speaks” by Charles Peguy.  I will send you a copy from Amazon.  It changed my life.  Have a merry one!

Jack:  You are right, of course.  And not just for the Christmas season… When I get all cataclysmically dreary and cosmically anxious, I must refocus on gratitude for the many, many blessings in my life and stop whining.  And you, dear friend, are one of the blessings.  I’ve read some of Charles Peguy’s poetry, but can’t remember if I’ve seen that one.

Several exchanges ensued about Peguy’s and Luce’s books, then this.

Father Joe:  Do any of your kids have troubles with science and God?

Jack:  (Note:  Name and identifying pronouns left as ***) I think ***** has the most trouble with faith and science…  If something cannot be demonstrated, touched with any of the five senses or proven with the scientific method, it is discounted.  Completely eludes *****.  Certainly intelligent and realizes that acknowledging God and especially Jesus requires a response…, so *** holds *** ground…  That atheism is every bit as much a leap of faith (and with vast gaps that require invincible credulity) as belief and trust in God, *****does not yet see.  But we are working on it.

Anyway, the prayers of our first pastor would be greatly appreciated for*** faith and the faith of all my children.

Father Joe:  It always comes down to three:  Belief in the Eucharist, belief that Jesus is God, belief in a creator.
(1)  The Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.  Rome accepts the Orthodox Eucharist.  This is not one of the problems that keep us apart.  A Catholic may receive Communion in an Orthodox Church if no Catholic church is available… and, as you know well, we were together for 1000 years.  The Orthodox belief in the Eucharist is interesting:  “The Eucharist is the center of worship in the Orthodox Church. We do not explain scientifically how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.  Orthodox Christians believe that during the Eucharist believers partake mystically of Christ’s body and blood and through it receive his life and strength.”  This is acceptable if one has a problem using Aristotle to explain the Eucharist.
(2)  Jesus is God.  Perhaps a new book might be helpful here: Jay Perini: “Jesus, the Human Face of God.”
(3) There is a Creator.  If I can find an essay I wrote for the Portland Press Herald, I’ll send it on.
Happy New Year!

Jack: I’d love to read your article, and it’s easy to get too far in the weeds with the Aristotelian substance and incidentals explanation, so that’s helpful…  I’ve tried to explain to ***** that it’s Fides first, then Ratio. I’m with Pascal on this; faith is first of the heart, imagination and will.  Not irrational by any means, but the mind and the intellect support faith, and understanding follows the decision.

We come first to faith through love, like the love of a small parish priest for his flock leads them to Love.  I guess that is what is most disappointing – that the love from the parents was insufficient to overcome skepticism and incredulity (regarding faith).

I’ll let Father Joe McKenna’s piece end the post. He needs no help from me.

Okay so how DID we get here?

I watch a lot of science programs… on PBS and the History Channel. I have a pretty good science grounding… for an amateur. I’ve been keeping up with the latest in Quantum Physics and Astronomy and the Origins of the Universe. I heard Stephen Hawking say on TV lately that you don’t need a creator to explain where the universe came from… particles just appear and disappear at random. I watched Brian Greene’s “The Fabric of the Universe.” He is a spokesperson for that scientific community who are investigating this very interesting topic.

Let me set up the problem that Greene’s community is involved with.

Here I am sitting at my computer typing this essay. Back 12 billion years ago there was nothing but quarks. So how did I get here from those quarks and why am I smart enough to write this essay?

If I do not accept a creator then the only solution is that I got here by chance; yes, the same chance/luck that is involved when you are sitting at a slot machine. (Well, not exactly because they are fixed to favor the house.) But explaining how I got here by chance requires a lot of lucky outcomes. Here are just a few: By lucky chance stars were formed; by lucky chance our sun was formed to be just the right size; cosmic dust was attracted by our sun and formed planets and by lucky chance one of them…the planet earth… was just the right distance from the sun to have the right temperature and just the right weight to keep its atmosphere from spinning off, etc., etc., etc. All these strokes of luck are now called the “Goldilocks effect”: everything had to be “just right” for life to even start.

What are the chances that each of these fortuitous circumstances would happen (and there are many thousands)? And they must occur at a given moment in the progress of the universe, because if they don’t happen at the proper instant as the universe progresses they do not have a second chance. You can’t go back and try again.

Just like you have to pull the lever on the slot machine quite a number of times…and fail… to finally get the lucky prize, so there has to be multiple universes in which the chances for all these events can play out… and fail… to finally get a universe (ours) and a planet (ours) where life can evolve and I can sit here at this computer. The task that Greene et al have set for themselves is to put into mathematical formulae all the variables that go into all these chances happening, ultimately resulting in me sitting here. It takes more than one blackboard on which to write them all out.

They use the mathematics of Statistics. (Yes, what you learned as seniors in high school.) That’s what all those equations are that fill their blackboards. This is what Steve Green means when he keeps saying “mathematics says that you have to have billions of this or billions of that”… and of course he is right… you would have to have billions of universes if everything depended on chance. And because he is a philosophical Determinist (no free will… everything is “determined”) he goes one further: he maintains that in some of these universes there could be another person just like you.

Do you have to accept this elaborate hypothesis? (Don’t forget, it’s only an hypothesis… not even a theory…unproven.) Will you be considered a science denier if you don’t? Will professors look at you with a condescending smile?

They probably will. We’re supposed to be intimidated by all those equations on those blackboards. Because we’re not cosmologists in the halls of science it can be considered “rubey” (do they still use this word?) to disagree with these very learned researchers.

But hey, you know what? They put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Yes, they have doctorate degrees. I know lots of people who have doctorates. I knew a Doctor of Literature one time who believed that the world was made 6000 years ago! My physician has a doctorate. And you know what he tells me? That I have to manage my own health. He is there to give me yearly physicals and to refer me to specialists if the need arises but I have to manage my own health.

I keep up with science. I keep up with Biblical Studies that investigates the meanings of the opening chapters of Genesis. I listen to physical and astronomical scientists explaining their hypotheses… I look at their evidence with an open “scientific” mind. But I manage my own world view.

Some of these scientists, you know, are not even following the scientific method. Scientific method says you start “with an open mind” and proceed to gather evidence no matter where it leads you. And if you find there are two possible conclusions, you follow the principle of Ockham’s Razor and accept the one with the least complications. But if you start with the premise that there is no creator and then proceed to weave theories that back that up… complicated theories… multiple universe theories… is that science?

And as for Steve Hawking: yes particles can come in and out of existence seemingly by themselves. But to conclude from this that the universe came into existence by itself is more than a stretch… it’s not good science.

My advice to the Brian Greenes et al is to put away your blackboards for a while and come out into the real world. Take a walk in a park or by the seashore. Many a genius has come up with an important inspiration walking along the seashore. All these universes you are positing… wouldn’t it be a lot more “economical” and logical scientifically to search for a creative force… of some sort… somewhere?

 

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Maine Tales – V, an Absence of Time

“Eternity is said not to be an extension of time, but an absence of time.”  Maurice Bendrix in The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Events, players from the theater of our lives and time are inextricably knotted in the woof and warp of our memory and in our character.  Many of the supporting cast we met during that period we lived in Maine informs our humanity, but they seemed not so central at the time.  In our encounters with them we paused on the trail like rounding a curve and sighting an unexpected vista.  I cannot tell you exactly how we met them, but the vignettes of our connection are indelible.

“What then is time?  If no one asks me, I know what it is.  If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know. St. Augustine

Alan and Donna lived in a hand framed wood house that Alan built on a wood lot they owned in nearby Vienna (Vy-anna).  They kept a large garden and goats and raised three bright children – Autumn, Oak and Brook.  Oak was the boy.  Alan sported shaggy hair and full beard; he cut timber, built houses, ran his own heavy equipment and made his own way in the town next to his birthplace in Mount Vernon.  Early on Alan seemed just a tough, very strong woodsman who handled a big chainsaw as effortlessly as other men handled a keyboard.  But it would be a mistake to miss his well honed intelligence.

 He made it his business to be as self sufficient as possible, never losing his edge to grow his own food, heat with his own wood and maintain his autonomy. His drive and ability made him a financially secure land developer and builder.  Alan’s tendency for Maine tall tales often led to wry humor and good natured exaggeration.  Donna was a refugee of flower children from New Jersey, an authentic gentle soul, who could mask her own keen understanding of human weakness with an indefatigable willingness to help anyone who needed some.  When Rita was working part time as an RN at Augusta General, Donna would bring Autumn and Oak to our house and provide an inexpensive home day care for our two little ones in the afternoon until I got home in the evening.  Our children adored her.

Rita was appointed as the Health Care Officer for Mount Vernon, a title with almost no money and few defined duties.  She conducted free blood pressure clinics and a mandated flu shot clinic in a year the state health department predicted a bad winter.  She set up in the Grange Hall where Alan and Donna had celebrated their Baptist sunrise wedding reception breakfast.  The mood was lively with the good natured gossip of mostly elderly ladies and nervous chatter speculating on the rumors that other towns had seen adverse reactions to the inoculations.  When Alan walked in for his flu shot, he jammed up his T shirt, exposing a bicep as big as some thighs.  Rita suspected his mischievous smile, but the free clinic was for all comers.  Upon sticking him, he moaned loudly, spun around, crashed through several rows of folding chairs then face first in a dead fall onto the floor, horrifying the kind old ladies.  They were more appalled when Rita headed over to kick his prone body now quivering with laughter.

“Saint Augustine was asked where time came from.  He said it came out of the future, which didn’t exist yet, into the present that had no duration, and went into the past, which had ceased to exist.  I don’t know that we can understand time any better than a child.”  Father Crompton in The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

Bert and Taffy owned a lovely piece of land at the edge of a large field.  They, too, had a big garden and a menagerie of laying hens and some turkeys. Bert convinced me that domestic turkeys were stupid enough to drown in a storm by looking up to watch the rain.  I was never quite sure if he was teasing me.   Their four children’s names all alliterated, starting in “B”. They looked just like their names would have you expecting them to look.  Taffy tended towards long dresses in winter, plaid shorts in summer, thick glasses and effervescent laughter.   Bert almost always wore bib overalls and a black full beard; he weighed close to three hundred pounds.  Again it was a grievous error to judge these books by their covers.

When we met Bert, he was a real estate broker with a booming voice that filled almost any space.  Instantly likeable, we came to know them and fed the laying hens and turkeys once when they visited Taffy’s parents out of state.  Bert grew up on a subsistence farm a couple of towns over in Stark, but came to the attention of state educators when he won the high school science fair as a freshman.  His prize winner was a study of irradiated bean seed growth. He irradiated them with a homemade linear proton accelerator he built in his dirt floor cellar with concentrically smaller circular magnets, a vacuum tube and hydrogen he bought mail order from Popular Mechanics Magazine.   He earned a full scholarship to MIT but dropped out as a sophomore, bored with the classes and the city.

Twice a week he drove down to the coast to teach Maritime History to cadets at the Maine Maritime Academy.  Occasionally he published academic articles and had worked for a time at the Brookings Institute.  He got into the real estate business because he needed the money after struggling for years to make a living off a small bookstore he owned in Boothbay Harbor.  Bert was a truly gifted story teller.

My personal favorite of Bert’s stories told an archetypical favorite theme: the city slicker made a fool by the Maine farmer.  Bert’s father plowed his planting with a pair of oxen.  Late one spring, when the frost driven mud grudgingly gave back the land, he was turning over the soil behind his team when a Chrysler convertible with New York plates pulled over at the side of the dirt road adjacent to his field.  The wife had the camera, the husband yelled over to Bert’s father to ask him if he minded them taking some pictures of the scene too quaint for the folks back home to believe.  His Dad picked his way through the plowed rows and approached the car.  He removed his floppy hat, wiped his brow and told them that he would prefer they didn’t because the oxen would get spooked and he’d lose an afternoon’s work.  The couple discussed it as though Bert’s dad was invisible, and the man offered to pay $20 to take the pictures to make up for the lost production.  Bert’s dad thought for a long while and reluctantly accepted the money.  The city folks drove off, kicking up dust, happy to have a story with which they could entertain the cocktail party.

Bert would laugh raucously as he told us his Dad quickly resumed his plowing with a weeks’ worth of grocery money in his pocket.  Bert concluded his story telling his audience that you could shoot an ox on a Tuesday, and he wouldn’t fall over until Saturday.  His Dad related his story to all listeners for years.

I could never distinguish the story from the story teller with Bert and the truth was asymptotic, but they were entertaining.

“Take time: apart from cosmology, where the big bang marked the beginning of time, there is nothing in physics to distinguish one moment of time from the next.”  Paul Davies, introduction to Six Easy Pieces.

These stories and stories about stories are thirty years old now, but seem fresh.  Some memories don’t fade; they subcutaneously assimilate until they are woven into our nature.  The lessons about our self righteousness and prideful, premature judgment of others are indelible.  Our preconceived notions about the shortcomings and foibles of others we learned were products of our own insecurities.  Our stories and memories form us.  They become us.

“For example, love is not a science. So, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that there is something wrong with it.”  Six Easy Pieces, Richard Feynman

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Maine Tales IV – The Road Not Taken

For all its idyllic vistas and community spirit, rural Maine can be harsh, isolating and lonely, most especially in the winter.  Maine winters hold a stark beauty that shines an unforgiving light on the soul.  We soon found ourselves unable to escape our own frailty and foibles. At the end of our third winter, a singularly snowy and cold one, Rita and I were succumbing to a confluence of secularism, bad advice and the detritus of the Cultural Revolution by which we all are still afflicted. Our young, bright love was threadbare; ten years into our marriage, we were ready to move on.  Virtually all of our friends were counseling a fresh start.  “Time to hang it up,” we were told.  “Why hold on to a dead thing?”  “There are plenty of other opportunities,” and indeed there were for us both.

Rita and the kids

I  fought a separation for the whole long winter, but by spring had hardened myself to leave behind nine lovely years and one difficult, complicated one.  Not much anger, not even a lot of bitterness: after a few brief, generally desultory skirmishes about who got the Bob Dylan albums and other prosaic living arrangement matters, we settled on a Saturday in early May for move out day.  Two separate incidents led us to the other fork in the road.

The first was a coffee Rita shared with our friend, Pam, during the week prior to moving day.  Pam, a gifted artist and painter, lived a rough life; her ne’er do well husband had deserted her a dozen years before with six children.  An earth mother type, Pam soldiered on, tolerating occasional visits from her husband – no divorce and rare support.  She was much liked and admired in town, especially by Rita.  Pam took a chance and defied the common “wisdom” amongst our circle of friends; Pam told Rita that we were a good match wading through some confusion and pain, but that separating was a mistake – a big mistake.

When I came home from work on Friday, Rita asked if we could give it one more effort.  My resolve was hard earned, and my initial internal reaction was “hell, no!”  With my game face on, I looked at our two young children, the vulnerable hope on Rita’s beautiful face and could not, would not smash our one last attempt.  Although I held meager expectations, I thought perhaps, just perhaps, we could raise our children together and restore a semblance of the friendship that had always come so easily and that would allow us to do the right thing.  This was my best hope, but far short of what we would become. I agreed to try again – all in.  I quit my job with all its traveling and worked part time pruning and taking down trees to spend more time on our marriage.  We lived frugally and got by.  But there was no miracle cure.

The next few weeks in retrospect we likened to living in a bombed out, post apocalyptic city among sterile ruins.  There was no healing, no fighting, no feeling, no animus, no forgiveness, not much of anything.  I remember vividly one striking mid spring day of bright sun and burgeoning green, we drove up to the Orono campus of the University of Maine about an hour and a half north.  I had been invited to join the board of a state wide non-profit and thought it would be good to be together for the day.  On the silent ride home, the juxtaposition of vernal splendor, new life and our hollowed out spirits almost brought me to tears.

 The second incident that permanently altered our lives for the good occurred a week or so later.  Rita found an old set of rosary beads given to her by her late aunt, Rose, and awkwardly prayed with no confidence Anyone was listening, a desperation move if ever there was one.  On Saturday, she asked me if we could go to Mass.  Cradle Catholics, we hadn’t set foot in a church for a decade; I wouldn’t have been more surprised if she suggested we move to Zambia.

Rita has always acted as the emotional and spiritual catalyst in our marriage; I tend to be the implementer, who thinks through the how and the why.  It is our defining character and the personality of our relationship.  I didn’t fight the suggestion, but told her that if God existed, if we found any truth in our attendance at Mass, our lives would change profoundly: our activities, our friendships, how we spent our time.  She cautioned me not to get all “cosmic” on her, that she merely sought the solace of a childhood faith for a Sunday morning.  “We’ll see,” I said.

We looked up Catholic Churches in the Yellow Pages (an anachronism now).  Mount Vernon was at the center of a fifty mile circle roughly encompassing Augusta, Waterville and Farmington.  Rita worked part time as an RN in Augusta, but Farmington for some reason attracted us.  I called St. Joseph’s Church in Farmington; a friendly voice picked up with a lively, “St. Joe’s!”  Father Joe McKenna answered his own phone calls and was nearly perfect for hurting children of the sixties — an admixture of intellectual, poet, faith filled priest and wonderfully warm and funny human being with holes in the elbows of his sweaters. We entered the little, wood framed church on a side street, far smaller than the Baptist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist stone and brick edifices on Main Street.  It was Pentecost Sunday, no happenstance, and Father Joe was alive with the Spirit.

St. Paul on the road to Damascus – Caravaggio

We began an utterly surprising and unexpected faith journey that fills our lives and has never disappointed.  The human mind is immured by limitations of intellect, knowledge and imagination; the soul is unencumbered.  We asked and continue to deepen our understanding of three questions, perhaps the three questions, trinitarian in nature, an inexhaustible wellspring.  To me, no person addresses our existential human loneliness without asking them.

Saint Bede on his deathbed in 735 is known to have said, “If it so please my Maker, it is time for me to return to Him Who created me and formed me out of nothing when I did not exist.”  From whence do we come? Why?

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian and commentator, said, “Christian faith stands or falls on the proposition that a character named Jesus, in a particular place at a particular time in history, is more than a man in history, but is a revelation of the mystery of self and of the ultimate mystery of existence.” Is there a bridge to the eternal, a gateway?  If so, Who?

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects… It does not come down now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature… In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each..  Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.” If the gap is so bridged, where do we go from here?  How?

Nearly two millennia ago on Pentecost, the Church was born with a visitation of the Holy Spirit; thirty five years ago on Pentecost this weekend, our marriage, our faith, our lives and our souls were reborn.  Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.

“Only the Christian thinker is compelled to examine all his premises, and try to start from the fundamental terms and propositions.”  T.S. Eliot

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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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Maine Tales 2

Tumbledown and Webb Lake

Lew’s Country Store ran tabs for local residents in a spiral notebook, which we would pay every couple of weeks or when we got around to it.  If the tally got too high, Lew Flewelling would quietly signal us over when we came into the store.  No beer and wine could be put on the cuff: state law required cash only, and Lew assiduously complied.   Lew was trusting, but not uniquely so.

Once, when Rita did her biweekly shopping in Augusta, the total came to over fifty dollars, which now 35 years later would be inflated to nearly $200.  She went into her purse juggling two kids and found no checkbook.  Debit and credit cards were not an option, and she didn’t have nearly enough cash.  The IGA was a large chain, and she didn’t know anyone nor did anyone know her, Augusta being nearly thirty miles from home.  The register clerk took her name and town, and then casually sent her home with the groceries, “Don’t worry about it.  Pay us next time through.”  He didn’t even check her driver’s license.

The street level of Lew’s store had canned goods, boxed cereal, sugar and bags of flour, spices, fresh local vegetables, dairy and eggs, household goods like clothespins and paper towels, paperbacks, magazines, newspapers, postcards, wheels of cheddar, a coffee counter (one flavor – dark and fresh, cream and sugar only), snacks, gloves and some work wear clothing – mostly warm; downstairs held a large selection of hand tools, axes and hickory or ash axe handles, splitting mauls, shovels, rakes, sheet metal wood stove parts, snowshoes, hardware, nails, nuts, bolts and miscellany  – a classic, “if we don’t have it, you don’t need it” establishment.  Lew’s was a clearing house for information, and a venue for impromptu conversation.

We learned, among many other things, how to prepare our old barn of a house for winter: at least six cords of wood, 8 mil black poly secured with nailed lath strips about 10 inches up from the foundation and draped down to the ground with bales of hay pushed up against the plastic to insulate and protect from the wind.  Dry, cut-last-year maple, oak, ash and some apple wood would be delivered to our house for $25 a cord by Ray Hall, a local dairy farmer who also sold us raw milk.  A generous cord measure would come either in log length or 4’ pulp length.  Several weekends were consumed cutting it to fit the stoves and splitting it. A decent supply of kindling in bags from the dowel factory, mostly kiln dried birch dowel ends, sufficient oil for the lamps, and clean chimneys set us up to persevere.  We squirreled up canned pears and tomatoes from our trees and gardens; from our garden we froze peas, corn, and squash.  We kept a potato bin and some frozen black bear steaks.  Well, maybe not the bear.

Winter nights occasionally brought Northern lights, undulations of color that had a soft sound difficult to describe.  Without the interference of city lights, on a cloudless night, no moon was needed to walk; the stars were sufficient with the January constellations like Orion, Taurus and Gemini bright against the backdrop of countless stars that are muted near towns.  The illumination that hit our eyes began its journey from some of those points of light 100,000 years before man walked, putting our infinitesimally small scope, reach and understanding into stark perspective.

Loon with chick

Summers in the lakes and rivers and garden were close to paradise with warm, sunny days and cool evenings, but that was after we got through the snow up to the windows and frightening cold of winter, then mud season with frost heaves that could send the unprepared airborne in their pickup trucks, and then followed black fly and no-see-um season until the misty dawn over the lake echoed again with the 10,000 year old haunting calls of the Common Loon. (click link to hear)

Society and social life exposed a sometimes desperately needed relief from cabin fever, and a darker side of country living.  Pleasant communal Grange Hall pot luck suppers, occasional amateur locally written and directed theatre (e.g. the Mount Vernon “Abu Dubai” musical review, with elaborately painted camels, tents and palm tree sets – so woefully abysmal, it was very entertaining) and regular house parties.  Witty repartee was held in high regard. Parties ranged from fairly sophisticated wine and cheese affairs with side entertainment of a shared nude wood fired sauna to Tunney Leighton’s annual barn party in late February with many smoking homegrown weed and tapping into the previous fall’s apple cider kegs.  The barn party started Friday night, and continued with momentary respite through Sunday afternoon as people came and went and came again.

The seventies were experiencing the full onslaught of the ‘sexual revolution’, and rural culture, especially relocated back-to-the-land culture, was not exempted.  In fact, to some degree the nature worshipping, almost pantheistic, setting was ground zero.  Many marriages hit the shoals.  One indelible memory of Tunney’s barn party was a mixed couple (by mixed, you may infer a male and a female both married to other people) openly making unrestrained love in a snow bank with the temperature a balmy fifteen above.  Apple cider is subtle, sudden and devastating.

Two of the mavens of “upper” society in town were a couple who frequently entertained.  He was a psychiatrist, and she a part-time professor of English literature at the local campus of the University of Maine. Much time must have been spent tweaking the list of invited callers.  Their gatherings were of the wine and dope variety with particular and skilled attention paid to poking the visitors into untoward personal revelations and conflicts, then lighting up the pipe and watching the fun.  Like a good game of “Get the Guests” from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”.

Our own marriage barely survived the third winter.  Only a kindly neighbor and a return to the faith of our youth saved us.  Country life is or can be idyllic, but it does not provide a panacea to cultural ills, urban stress or inner demons.  The beauty and peaceful surroundings benefit only so far, then we must learn, mature, love, mutually sacrifice and deepen our faith.  Lacking spiritual healing, stunning mountain and lake vistas or moonless, starlit nights become commonplace, and merely pleasant, momentary distractions.

‘In Maine, there is a deeply ingrained sense that you can always get a little more use out of something.”  Tim Sample

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