Category Archives: Maine Tales

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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Maine Tales 1

We lived in rural central Maine for just shy of a decade from the early seventies to the early eighties.  Idealistic, back to the land, modified hippies with jobs. Mount Vernon was in the lakes country about a half an hour north and west of Augusta, the state capital.  The town’s population was an eclectic mix:  fourth or fifth generation Maine Yankees; professionals with lots of letters after their names who taught in local universities, practiced law or medicine or worked for the state government; and a colorful subculture of neophyte farmers, sculptures, writers, painters and other artists who lived in hope, including the “poet laureate” of Maine, John Stevens, an eccentric given to public poetry recitations whether scheduled or uninvited at any gathering.  Many of us were amateur musicians, had large gardens, raised livestock, canned our food, heated with wood and lived in old houses or converted barns. Many, also, were looking for an escape, new connections, new meaning, which we, after a long, hard journey found, just not where we had expected it.

Lake Minnehonk

Twelve lakes graced this pretty land of rolling hills, farms and forest.  The summer months, both of them, blew the town’s population up from 600 to over 2,000.  Our first house was an ill advised, but romantic, small converted post and beam barn off the Vienna Road (pronounced Vy-anna) with two wood burning stoves: a sky blue porcelain Glenwood cook stove and an antique, side loading, cast iron parlor stove with a lovely 5” porcelain medallion with an enigmatic woman’s face.  We had three large rooms, one of which we used for our two young children’s bedroom, a living room and a dining room in addition to a small back room, used as an office.  A tiny galley kitchen on the south end of the house led directly into an even tinier bathroom with a shower and toilet.

Adult sleeping accommodations were a choice of two open  lofts that we accessed with a rough pole ladder.  Each loft had a floor of painted pine planks supported by cedar poles with the bark still on them across the full width of the room. In the winter we used the one over half of the living room, the rest being open cathedral ceilings.  Summers, we moved the mattress into the dining room loft, which had a window and good ventilation.  Set back from the road a hundred feet, the driveway ended in a ‘door yard’ at the foot of a small hill, which we would climb over and down to enter the front door.  The north end of the living room faced out to a stone wall and a field with the beginnings of the western mountains beyond. In a bad winter, snow would drift halfway up the north and east windows.

On the back end of our five acre wooded lot, about thirty feet in elevation higher than the house, we had a spring house.  The pipe ran 400’ down the slope dug deep about three feet to the ledge.  Even when the electricity and the pump went out, there was sufficient gravity pressure to supply a good flow.  We moved in towards the end of the winter, and the house hadn’t been occupied for a month. Unused, the pipe froze solid going up to the springhouse, and we hand carried water two buckets at a time for the first two months in residence until the frost went out.  After a couple of tumbles on the hill, the spilled water turned the path to a steep icy slide. Baths were in a galvanized tin tub set for warmth next to the cook stove, which heated up large pans of water.  With two small children, I designated my wife, Saint Rita.

The native Mainers were friendly, but reticent with a wait and see attitude towards newcomers until they saw you could learn to bear the winter, which hit twenty below, and stick it out.  I was a lumber salesman traveling the state, so the jury was definitely out.  Our first spring, looking for extra income, I advertised by word of mouth that I was a licensed arborist.  Phil and Mimi Judd lived in a gracious large colonial with an open front yard directly across the main street from Lew’s Country Store, which was on the shore of Lake Minnehonk next to the post office.  In the Mount Vernon universe, Lew’s was the center.  Nestled close to the front right of the Judd house was a ninety foot American Elm stricken with Dutch Elm Disease and doomed.

On a warm early June Saturday, I tackled the elm, hiring the help of local character, “Tunney” Leighton, who had a backhoe.  He ran the ground ropes while we lowered on a one inch rope from the house side of the tree several large leaders that extended out over the center chimney and the roof.  I was tied in near the top with another line.  After we had sufficient weight off the back side, and would clear the chimney, to be safe we ran the 1” “bull” line from three quarters up the tree through a block pulley secured in a white spruce set in the front corner of the yard. Tunney put a steady pull on it with the backhoe.  The base of the tree was about 42 inches in diameter; I cut a notch in the front of the tree, checked the fall area and started the back cut to drop the elm into the front yard.  By this time, half the town was in attendance.  I knew if I buried the tree into the attic, I had done my last tree work in Mount Vernon.   The tree broke correctly and accelerated to a booming crash with pieces of dead elm scattering into the street.

A couple of weeks later, Everett Williams drove into my door yard in his pick up truck.  Everett was the “rudd cummissiona” (road commissioner) and chairman of the town selectmen. He and his wife, Hope, were fourth generation Mount Vernon residents.   I was on my white cedar shingle roof with my trusty chainsaw installing a new Sear’s triple insulated metal chimney for the cook stove.  Any Mainer will tell you to cut the stove pipe out a side wall and corbel the metal chimney up an outside wall, not through the roof, but I was following the certified Sears directions.  Everett watched me silently, probably to his amusement.

I shut off the saw when I saw him and greeted him.  He yelled up, “Does your roof leak?”   I replied back a little indignantly, “No, it doesn’t leak!”  Everett finished his end of the conversation with, “If I had a roof that didn’t leak, I wouldn’t cut a hole in it.”  It was classic Maine Yankee, and I found out as I got to know him, meant kindly.  Of course, he was right, and we always had ice dams and dribbles in around the chimney as long as we lived there.  His visit meant that after the elm tree, the long time residents decided there was more to us than flat lander, temporary dreamy interlopers, and the path to full acceptance was open.

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