By Tom Lamia
In the April issue of WestView, I spoke of a long-ago first visit to Maine. That visit was an introduction not only to the splendor and rigors of coastal Maine, but also to the rugged and resourceful character of its people.
Moral strength, wisdom, mental and physical toughness, humility, taciturnity, and like qualities are well-known parts of Maine character. These qualities can produce humorous results on occasion. See my examples, both humorous and non-humorous, below.
Chet Brown and Toni Brown, my in-laws, fully embodied the Maine character. From South Bristol farm lad to Chief Surgeon at Hahnemann Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, and back to South Bristol to pioneer oyster aquaculture on the Damariscotta River, Chet reached great heights professionally without ever breaking with South Bristol. While pursuing his medical career in Massachusetts, he spent several months each summer with his family on that rustic island I first visited in 1968. Toni was from Newcastle, a few miles north. Both went to the local schools, graduating together from Lincoln Academy in Newcastle. Toni was the valedictorian, Chet the salutatorian. Chet went 20 miles south to Bowdoin College in Brunswick; Toni went a bit farther south to Bates College in Lewiston. They married while Chet was in medical school at the University of Rochester in New York (there being no medical school in Maine). They were, quite literally, from a backwater and had no money (the whole family still saves string and shopping bags) yet they made that journey together and did not consider themselves to be anything special.
Uncle Walter Gilbert (Chet’s uncle), now deceased but never to be forgotten, would stop at our farmhouse on summer mornings for coffee and freshly-made doughnuts and tell his tales of shrimping and lobstering. On one such morning, I asked Walter how he had come to have a prominent indentation in his forehead. “Well, Tom (except when he said it, it sounded more like “Taaom”) we was trawling for shrimp off Pemaquid Point and the spacer line got snagged as we was coming into port. No sense in stopping to free it, so I was wrestling with it and the line parted at the bolt connection and that bolt just flew back and smacked me there in the head. Hurt real bad but I was still conscious so we brought ‘er on in and that was how I got that hole there.” I had no words.
Ralph Gray had a small building on the gut in South Bristol, next to the swinging bridge, where he kept and repaired propane-fueled appliances for use on offshore islands that lacked electric power. Toni and Chet Brown’s island had several of these appliances: stoves, refrigerators, washing machines, even a dishwasher. After a generation of use, a refrigerator had stopped working. Ralph came out to look. He pronounced it dead—never to run again, no way he could fix it. Toni argued, pleaded, cajoled, threatened, but Ralph held firm. Finally, he said, “Well, Toni, let’s take it back over to the shop and I will see what I can do.” Into a 14-foot scow we all went: Toni, Ralph, refrigerator, and me. Halfway to shore, Toni expressed some concern about whether Ralph would make a serious effort to fix our cargo (she had known Ralph her whole life, you see) and Ralph said nothing, only listened. Toni looked toward the dock at that point and the scow lurched as Ralph pitched the refrigerator overboard. “Ralph Gray!!” I had no words.
Herbert Kelsey operated the swing bridge across the South Bristol gut that separated the mainland from Rutherford Island and the summer community of Christmas Cove. Herbert’s job was to sit in the helm house on the bridge and wait for a boatman’s signal to open the bridge. Herbert spent most of his day passing the time with travelers waiting for his bridge to open or close. One summer, I had stocked the small pond behind our farmhouse with trout. For kids and visitors, it was easy fishing. The fishing seemed to tail off abruptly near summer’s end. About that time, I stopped to chat with Herbert at the bridge. “Tom, I been catching quite a few trout up to your place. Tom, how do you expect them trout got into that pond??” I had no words.
Mainers: solid, straight, no frills, no pretense. What was then is now and likely always will be.