I was talking to Spinney. It was a late August Sunday evening, and we watched the sun sink into the bay. A conversation about the green flash had evolved into a discussion of the Golden Age of Piracy. I was going on about how the piratical equivalent of the fence was really the most essential part of the operation. There wasn’t much “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” without the cash to pay for the booze and fast women. Spinney allowed that this was true. He took a sip of his beer. Then, looking out over the bay, he went silent for a moment. Finally, he said: “it’s not just about a good fence; it’s also about a good place to hold the goods until the fence can move them, or until the fence agrees to a price.” I did a fast take on Spinney, “What?” This was Spinney speaking, deacon of his church, most ethical boatyard owner on this stretch of the coast.
Spinney said, “My family has been around this stretch of the coast since before the first Census. Even before the Revolution. Some families claim to have been here before the Pilgrims landed. Not a few of us moved goods that the Crown saw as against the “Navigation Acts.” My father was known to move goods from offshore and Canada during Prohibition. Not my family, but others made a racket some years ago, breaking into summer people’s homes and emptying them out. An excellent place to stow goods is essential. You can’t exactly keep two hundred cases of Canadian Whiskey in your garage. Well, you could, but that’d be the first place they’d look, Likewise with stowing four rooms of antique furniture.
I bit. “OK, where would you put it”? Spinney looked towards the bay, pointed out to Boomkin Island, then a bit further to the ledges known as the Spires. “Out there, here and there.” The summer cottage break-ins were solved because the police chief was a Grey. He knew the spots that old Alden Grey used in the Thirties. Unfortunately, Alden’s grandson was no Alden. He had no clue that other family members knew those spots. Todd was not too bright, and the Chief didn’t like a family member dragging the Grey name in the mud. So one morning, they rounded up the furniture and soon rounded up Todd. That was the last I can recall of the old spots being used. There were a few attempts to use sites on Old Ram, but those were outsiders.
“So Spinney, are there still goods out there? Could you show me a spot or two?”
Spinney quickly changed the subject to sports, a topic he knew I knew nothing about and liked less. Soon afterward, the sun went down, and we each went our own ways.
Next week Spinney showed up in his battered green pickup truck. I offered him a cold beer, but he said: “no time for that now if we’re going to get to the Little Widows before dark.” I didn’t bother questioning but assumed this was the inevitable continuation of our last conversation. Spinney was going to show me one of the spots. “Now I know that you anthropologists make a point of confidentiality. So understand that what I’m going to show you is in the way of being a family trade secret.” I glibly agreed never to reveal the secret … not that I could ever pilot a boat out to the nubs of rock and spruce we were about to visit.
“Anyhow, one of the Widows has been a family spot since before the Revolution. There are lots of Spinneys in the state. But, particularly my family to this one town. So my spots are only known to close family.” As Spinney laid out the family history, we were going recklessly, or so it seemed to me, through narrow passages from the inner bay to the outer. I had once been out with Spinney in a thick fog that he had navigated through solely by the benefit of the rare sounding, dead reckoning, and wave sounds from adjacent shores.
The sun was almost gone when we reached the tiny islet he assured me was the location of a Spinney spot. Searching around in the tide, Spinney eventually found a rusted chain with a shackle. To this, he secured the boat. Walking into the thicket of stunted oak and spruce, Spinney suddenly reached out and stopped me. He reached down and grabbed the edge of a ratty tarp. Shaking off several years of storm wrack, leaves, and jetsam, Spinney revealed a rusted metal hatch plate. “Grab the other side. I haven’t been out this way for years, and the last time I was still young enough to handle this myself.”
Lifting up the hatch almost pulled my arms out of their sockets. In his 80’s, Spinney was as lean and spare as they come. He was known as a compact powerhouse around his yard. Straining not to drop my end of the hatch, I awkwardly crab-walked back the few yards while Spinney effortlessly walked off with his side. “Ok, put this down easily now.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a flashlight, and careful not to shine the light about, he illuminated the contents of the stash. “We have to be careful about the light. Don’t want anyone ashore getting curious”. Inside were stacks of wooden cases, brandy, Scots Whiskey, rye, Canadian, liquors, sherry, and more. I felt a terrible thirst building. It had been a dry ride out, and the night was cooling. Spinney must have read my mind because I next heard the clink of two shot glasses being pulled out of his jacket. “What shall it be?” asks Spinney, as politely as the bartender at the Anchor Bar over in the harbor. “Well, Spinney, it’s your stash, so it’s your choice.”
Spinney cast the light over the stash and waved his hand over a few of the closest cases while he contemplated his selection. Then, reaching down seemingly randomly, he pulled up a Napoleon brandy. “This will take off the chill.” Opening the bottle with a bit of flair, Spinney pours us both a shot that we knock back fast, making room for refills. We lingered over the refills. I’m sitting on a speck of an island, drinking from a stash of booze that’s been sitting there since Prohibition. I am in on one of the biggest secrets on the coast. I’m also thinking about how hard it would be to confirm documentation from other families about similar spots and traditions. I am thinking about an article in American Anthropologist (Traditions and Family in Illicit Coastal Trades: Stashes and Spots along the Mid Maine Coast). It could help me get a tenure track after I finish my dissertation.
Spinney has been my confidant for years. He has questioned me closely about anthropology and academia as I have asked him about life in a coastal community. In the jargon of my trade, Spinney is a “key informant.” In short, Spinney knows what is running through my head. But then, quietly, he refills our glasses and says, “No, you’ll never be able to write it up, except maybe when you’re my age. But, it’ll be a nice story to tell when you’re out for drinks.”
I looked at Spinney and said: “Yeah, especially when I add that I sat here drinking booze hidden from the time of Prohibition.”
Spinney sat there quiet for a few minutes. “Uh. Wes?” “Yeah?” “This stuff is old, but it’s not from Prohibition. About twenty years ago, I closed the roadhouse we used to run on Route 29. The rest of the family are straight-out teetotalers, and I couldn’t stow this stuff in the barn, so I stashed it out here”.