Twilight is not just a simple fading of the light. If you’re a sailor, there is civil twilight and nautical twilight. Then some sit, gin and tonic in hand, waiting to see the green flash as the rapid tropical sunset fades into the short tropical twilight. All these, except for that elusive green flash, can be gauged and timed. But, so far as I know, no attempt has succeeded in predicting the green flash.

The flash is debated. After exhausting that topic, a few more Pusser rums are consumed. Then the group discusses other maritime mysteries, like how the ship’s cooks can ruin perfectly good chow. Interestingly, the vessel size seems immaterial; everything from a thirty-four-foot ketch to a colossal tanker suffers the same fate.

After this, things settle down, and as the evening rolls on, other mysteries are divulged, discussed, and interpreted– the best bars in ports they’ve visited, the worst storms, women, and how much they miss the Loran-C navigational system. This last start a debate among the master mariners in the group about who can still use a sextant for a noon sight.

When midnight comes, and the Mid-watch is about to commence, the topic turns to nautical versus civil sunrise.
It’s terrific being a sailor…there is always something to bull shit about.

The Devil


You’d be hard-pressed to find any family of seafarers, fisherfolk, or plain coastal types without some horror tale on the water. It just goes with the territory; salt water envelopes most of the world and is dangerous. 

Lurking beneath that calm tropical paradise you’ve vacationed in are currents, tides, rips, rocks, tidal flats, and reefs – these might all be known hazards, but that doesn’t mean that they are less deadly. Circumstances and bad luck can be the dividing line between inconvenience and tragedy. And that’s just the stuff you can make plans to avoid or correct.

There’s just a ton of stuff you can’t plan for; rogue waves, sudden squalls, engine failures that put you at risk on lee shores, collisions with unseen objects, and illness at sea. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. It’s no wonder that hidden in every sailor is a tiny little superstitious knot. It might not be as apparent as a refusal to sail on a Friday, no bananas on board, or not whistling while you set sail, but it’s there. But without a doubt, the most dangerous element at sea will always be the human element.

Where I lived on the coast, it was considered bad luck to change the name of a boat. But, if you did, many boatyards followed procedures that seemed more like heathen rituals than practices you find in any of the local Baptist, Congregationalist, or Methodist church.

Libations would be poured to Neptunas Rex and Davy Jones. Coins under the masts would be added to, carefully put back in the exact locations after repair, or eliminated in exchange for a completely new set, and of course, the boat would be thoroughly cleaned fore and aft. Sometimes this would not be enough.


One of the Allens from over to the cape purchased a very smart lobster boat third-hand. He did this against his wife, father, and brother’s wishes. He’d been thrice warned.

The boat had started life as a workhorse lobster boat built by a well-known builder out of Boothbay. She’d worked the waters of the mid-coast for years as the Hattie Carroll. Then, about 1974, she’d been sold to a New York City Banker who had her gutted and fixed up as a fancy boat to tour clients around during the summer; what we call a lobster yacht these days. 

Then, without any to do, he’d had a signmaker slap some vinyl letters on her, and her new name was ” The Cheek Of The Devil” in a fancy script. The boatyard had suggested that a bit of ceremony would be nice, but he wanted what he wanted, so he got it. No ceremony, but it was the talk of the harbor. Using the Devil in a boat’s name was not typical and not thought lucky.

He didn’t enjoy his boat long. A fire started offshore, and all aboard went into the bay. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been enough floatation devices aboard for all the guests, so he yielded his floatation vest and drowned. 

The boat survived with severe fire damage but was salvaged and put up for sale.

She lay in Spinney’s yard for two years before being sold. I wouldn’t know if the reason was the fire, the owner’s death, the name, or a combination of all three. But sit in the back of the yard, she did. To locals, it was the Devil when someone referred to that boat. That should have been enough to discourage any local from buying it. 

History and name suggested that nothing but ill luck was involved in that boat. Wash it in a bathtub of holy water from Saint Jerome’s, pour libations all day long, and do whatever hocus pocus you wish, and none of that would help. My father-in-law, the Cap’n, put it succinctly enough when offered the boat at a bargain rate, ” I wouldn’t allow any of my kin to sit in its shadow, much less step aboard.”


The Devil sat there until Jacob Allen went looking for a cheap boat with fast lines that he could pour a high-power engine into for lobster boat racing. The Devil fit the bill. And over a long Maine winter, he worked to rebuild the boat into his dream of a fast racer. 

During the spring, his trial runs seemed to indicate that he’d be a contender in any race he entered. Unfortunately, Jacob was not the type to go full speed ahead, only at a race. He’d run circles around other lobster boats in the local harbor gang he belonged to. Jacob took pleasure in almost swamping small craft he considered to be in his way. Jacob wasn’t well-liked.

Jacob was known to infringe on the territories of nearby lobstermen and was closely watched until, one day, he was caught. The first time you get caught, you will likely pull your traps and find a half hitch in your line. It’s a warning that your trespass has been noted. Do it again, and the penalties will go up. 

The Devil proved as successful as Jacob believed it would, and victory was frequent. Now I do not know how plush the prizes are these days, but back then, it was peanuts. You raced for the joy and pleasure of it. Jacob also raced because he loved to rub other skippers’ noses in how fast the Devil was. In a family of quiet Mainers, he inherited all the ego.


I was helping out at Spinney’s boat yard that September hauling out summer people’s boats, and overheard Spinney talking to my father-in-law, the Cap’n. They both agreed that Jacob was heading for a fall. they quieted down when I walked up, but it was common knowledge that Jacob had been robbing traps, and something was bound to happen.

Things get slower as the weather gets colder; lobstermen spend more time repairing and making new lobster pots ( or traps), repairing their gear, and taking care of their boats. But on Halloween evening, the blast rocked the entire harbor as the Devil blew up with Jacob Allen aboard. The official report said Jacob had ignited a puddle of gasoline while starting his boat. A death by misadventure, I guess. But knowing people understood that Jacob Allen had been a scrupulous man in caring for his boat.

Murder was suspected but never proven. There wasn’t much of the Devil or Jacob Allen left for an inquest, just the mutterings of people about the enemies he’d had and someone finally canceling a grudge hard.

At the coffee shop in the morning, there were comments about how the boat had been ill-fated from the start, and then, more quietly, someone muttered that the Devil had certainly known his own.

The Great Sail Contest

The Mermaid Inn was not the best in town. However, it had the distinction of surviving an insurance fire staged by New York owners and abandonment in the Great Depression.
Having survived hardship, The Inn had acquired the crusty “knock me down, and I’ll get back up” reputation that locals admired because they saw it as among their best traits. It also had the distinction of being the summer residence of J. Paul Henry, a prominent travel writer of the era immediately following the Second World War. Mr. Henry was in “residence” from mid-June through mid-October when he decamped to his Key West home.

The annual residency was heralded by the advance arrival of Mr. Henry’s great walk-in teak travel chest. A local boatbuilder opined that those chests were made from enough old-growth teak and mahogany to get out at least two fast motor boats. The boys who handled the delivery always questioned the pronunciation of the travel stickers, tags, and posters that decorated the chests. Of course, the many retired mariners and Navy men in town knew the exotic locations, but these were the first accurate indication that those places existed for the boys.

Despite a years-long effort by the local Chamber of Commerce to persuade Mr. Henry to write about the town, he refused. It was perfect as it was, he insisted. Too many summer complaints, he stated, would ruin the place. Local business owners construed this to mean that Mr. Henry wanted to keep it a well-kept secret all to himself, something he did not bother to deny.
Then a travel writer from a competing ” New York Rag” came to town for a visit. He stayed at the newer Mountsweg Inn in the center of town. Unfortunately, his opinion of the locale was at odds with that of Mr. Henry. The coffee at the restaurants was consistently weak, the local boating club plebian at best, and the harbor overvalued as an attraction.

This screed, when published, had more of an effect on a weak local economy than the years of celebrated residence by Mr. Henry.

But time, and the recording of history, tend to forget many things once thought important, focusing attention elsewhere. So when a very oversized walk-in teak travel chest was bequeathed to the local historical society by the estate of Mr. Henry, it came as a surprise. It took a survey of older residents to recall who Mr. Henry had been. And then there was a minor crisis over where to put the walk-in travel chest; actually, what the hell they were going to do with it. Finally, the estate sent a warm note in Mr. Henry’s writing, glowingly recalling his time spent rusticating locally, the community’s wonderful residents, and the area’s gratifying natural beauty. This was all very well, but the Board of Directors of the Historical Society had to come up with a place to store the monstrosity while they decided what to do with it. A note of thanks went back to the estate executor that if a suitable amount of money was contributed, an exhibit on Mr. Henry could be mounted. The letter met with silence from the executor. They stored the chest outside under a tarp.

For years that was the fate of the chest; it was so solidly constructed out of old-growth tropical hardwoods that it seemed to shrug off the effect of the Maine winters and thrived under its layering of tarps. Who knows how long it might have sat there if not for the local boat club deciding to have a boat race open to all comers who’d enter the race in whimsical homemade boats. Prizes would be awarded for completing the course, being the most daring entry, and honorable mentions for most unique construction.

The Historical Society saw an opportunity for unloading, that is, making use of the large walk-in trunk; the chest might do for their entry. So they called upon my father-in-law, the Cap’n, and a well-regarded local boatbuilder Wallace Allen, to survey the chest, and determine what they could make of it.
The chest was solidly overbuilt. In its time, it had moved around the world on steamships to exotic locations marked on its surface with old travel posters. There were so many that, in places, they seemed to form a veneer over the teak and mahogany. An immersion test was done, and the vessel was declared tight and potentially seaworthy.

The Cap’n and the builder added a skeg for stability and some ballast. Sparring was selected, and renovations got made to allow for rigging. It would be a bastardized Catboat/Sloop with a tiny jib sail and a salvaged storm sail off a larger boat for the main. I was selected to be captain and crew.

The day of the race was also the first test of the rig. This wasn’t too much of a handicap because many other entries also saw water for the first time. Unfortunately, about half the entries sank before making it to the start line. Innovation in design did not necessarily equate with good sail characteristics, so the butterfly, the Batmobile, and the windmill boat went adrift very rapidly. We had named our vessel the J.Paul Henry, and our main competitor turned out to be the pontoon inner tube boat with Chinese Junk sails crewed by women from the Ladies Civic League. The only other boat that could keep to the course was a converted ice boat mounted on twin canoe hulls – the Ice Queen. Unfortunately, the Ice Queen had a mishap when the lashing holding it together failed. Now the race was between the Ladies Civic League and our boat. Despite shifting winds, we both made it around the course in good time and raced downwind for the finish. It looked like a dead heat until the main sheet on the Civic League’s boat parted, and she rounded up to windward and stalled in irons. The J Paul Henry smartly crossed the finish line, won first prize, and a photo in the local newspaper.
The only sour note was the scathing denunciation published by several local antique dealers the following week. They decried how a bunch of local heathen had cut up a historic teak and mahogany trunk, ruining its considerable value for a brief frolic. This letter appeared on page seven. On page two, there was another picture of the J Paul Henry, the Cap’n, and Mr. Allen. They would head up the committee for next year’s race. Since the race had been a great success, attracted lots of tourist visitation, and brought much attention locally, the Chamber of Commerce was thrilled that J Paul Henry had, at last, made a substantial contribution to the community.

You can guess which article received the most attention.

Cribbage, Lights List and Coastal Pilot

The broken cribbage board and the Coast Pilot Take me back to the days when I learned to “Hand, Reef, and Steer” aboard the 34-foot ketch Psyche. The lovely thing about the ketch rig is that you have a wide choice of sails and sail configurations. Pick the right combo, and the boat will “wing on wing” before light air leaving you to enjoy the sail. The less fun part of the ketch rig is gaining the experience to choose correctly. The knight in the Indiana Jones movie said – “Choose, but choose wisely.”

Among my duties aboard were to swing the lead line, go forward on a heaving foredeck to take in jibs, reef, steer under the Cap’ns instructions, and heave the anchor up ( no, no capstan chanteys). I also mess cooked, went for ice, was first off with the lines, and had a plethora of additional duties. Look, I was chief cook, bottle washer, mate and buffet server.

At night I was required on demand to play cribbage with the Cap’n. Playing cribbage was not an optional duty. His daughter, my first wife, was not thrilled by the game, and thus, I was required to play. I developed a robust distaste for the game. And that’s why the broken cribbage board will stay that way. 

I’d like you to consider that for many years I could not recall the name of the game or could not force it past my lips. I still can’t remember the rules. Only in recent years have I been able to push those two syllables past my lips. I do not consider this a detriment, because by now you have realized that I loathe the game.

The Cap’n didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to play some other reasonable sailor’s game:

  • No Acey-Ducey.
  • Cheaters Monopoly ( and I don’t mean the wimpy civilian version).
  •  Or Craps.

He wanted to play cribbage, night after night after night.

One night on deck, the question arose about identifying the navigational lights we saw from the various lighthouses along the coast. That conversation lead to my introduction to the Lights List and Notices to Mariners. The next day the Cap’n introduced me to the Coast Pilot, a publication that lists important information for mariners regarding the harbors and waterways along the coast.

Over the next two trips, the Cap’n pulled out his worn 1941 edition of Bowditch, a sexton, sight reduction tables, and away we went. I eventually got good enough that I did not calculate our position as somewhere near Washington, D.C., when we were near Sequin.

All these instructions gave me a solution to the cribbage problem. I found that if I begged off playing because I had to study the Coastal Pilot or Lights List, my wife had to play cribbage with the Cap’n. Unfortunately, this “evasion of my duties” didn’t help my deteriorating marriage . 

Things came to a head just before I left to return to school one summer. I played my educational card once too often and got accused of selfish behavior. Too damn true! I self-righteously refused to give up my navigational studies for mere cribbage. I maintained that I was taking the high road to self-improvement. My wife seeing through my ploy, clocked me with the cribbage board. That night I played cribbage.

Somehow when we separated, the broken cribbage board wound up in one of my boxes. It went undiscovered for years but gradually found its way into one of the family game boxes; forgotten.

A few weeks ago, Matilda and I visited Shelbourne Falls with a few of our kids. In one of the used bookstores, I found this copy of the Coast Pilot, and all the memories came pouring forth: Psyche, my first marriage coming undone, piloting, navigation, and of course, cribbage.

I am reminded of an anonymous quote: A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner. However, I hope by now that I am at least somewhat skilled in life, if not too wise.


The other day I had a strange experience. Someone had posted a video of the fourth of July celebration in the community where I used to live on the Maine Coast. I had this strange deja vu sensation. Here was the Town Hall, the roadway, and the view off to the coast that was so familiar. There was the old school house that was a landmark. But all the people were strangers. The people driving the fire engines and cars looked nothing like the folk in my memory. The older people looked not at all like the ones I remembered, and the youth among whom I had once numbered were all alien to me.

Of course, I’ve been gone forty-seven years. Young people are now old, and the old long time departed. Still, some of me kept asking where the people I knew were. I stowed this bit of cognitive dissonance away, but I guess it wasn’t done with me yet because today, I read a post of someone vacationing there. Their photos and maps brought all the dissonance back to the forefront.

I should take a weekend with my wife and drive up and visit. But then I thought not. What is there about visiting a place that has all the memories, feelings and landmarks but none of the people? You are a sort of a stranger in a known landscape.
At the diner, the wait staff asks if you are visiting for long, and a light conversation develops as you explain that you used to live there. The motel clerk is local and confirms what you already knew; all your contemporaries are moved to Florida, deceased, or in memory care units. The house that was your home has been torn down and is a development of new homes. You are officially ancient.

At last, you glance across the cove from the restaurant and know how final change is because the 34-foot ketch that centered most of your life here is forever gone.

No, I don’t think I’ll visit and confirm what I already know but wish to deny.


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”.


I entered my shop this morning to smell linseed oil, varnish, and wood shavings. I was transported to my friend’s boat shop in Newbury, the WoodenBoat School in Brookline, Maine, the shipyard I worked in one summer, and the shops of mentors and friends from over the past fifty years. A woodworker’s aromatherapy.

It’s hard to explain the languor that overcomes you as you share the unity of experience across the years and distances. It’s like you could step back twenty years or five hundred miles. One place and a single time stand-in for the others. The chips and shavings on the floor tell a story. Put them all together and have a negative shape echoing the garboard or eagle crafted from the plank.

There is a connection also, across the generations, to the mentors and masters who taught the trade to us. They sit on chairs near the woodstove during the winter, drinking coffee, smoking pipes, talking about the weather, and telling tales of launchings so long ago that the keel timbers are dust. Occasionally one will stand by our shoulder, whispering a suggestion.

I’ve been in the large industrial spaces some people call workshops, and I think they lack the sort of connectedness of the more familiar locations I am talking about. Instead, they perform a robbery of the spirit.

Maybe it’s the lack of patterns hanging from the joists, remnants of projects completed fifty years ago. The faint pencil marks tell a history of later revision as the project was modified for another client. Somewhere in the shop, you can find everything you’d ever need, every bolt, screw, or grade of sandpaper. All you have to do is find it.

So this morning, I entered my shop to smell linseed oil, varnish, and wood shavings. I was transported to my friend’s boat shop in Newbury, the WoodenBoat School in Brookline, Maine, the shipyard I worked in one summer, and the shops of mentors and friends from over the past fifty years. It’s nice to be rooted.

Town Meeting

I thought it was some archaic ritual, but they said it was the purest form of democracy. It was a Annual Town Meeting. No, it wasn’t the civilized sort of obscured politics of boroughs, mayors, and city councils I’d seen in New York or even Boston, where things happened in smokey rooms and offices. This was the vigorous, sharp-clawed, rip and tear, raw politics of small-town New England. The sweetest people in daily life, Grannies, got up and said awful things about the selectman. The moderator banged the gavel down hard three times and ordered the chief of police to remove a disorderly man pulled from the Meeting. I thought I knew something about the small town I was living in, but that first Town Meeting was a revelation.

First of all, everything seemed to be up for discussion. Parliamentary rules guided the Meeting, but in between the rules, there was ample space for innuendo, disputation, and the playing out of old grievances. It was a town of fewer than six hundred people, and about ninety percent were crammed into the meeting house, and they all had issues.

The Cap’n had tried to warn me. He’d pointed out that many of the Board of Selectmen were people “from away.” they’d moved into town over the past decades. As a result, they had few family ties to the local families and the town. Being naive about government, I asked why that was a plus. The Cap’n gave me that look he reserved for when he thought I was behaving like an ass. “Wes, there are about six hundred of us. Many families have been here since before the Mayflower was a silly idea of the Pilgrims. That’s a lot of history for nursing aggravation and dispute. Newcomers have no ties; they’re bound to be fairer.”

I was trained as an anthropologist, a surgical technician, a woodworker, and a folksinger. I had traveled widely. I could tell you what a dermatome was, why the size of a kerf on a saw was important, and parse the circle of fifths in music. I had met all sorts of people in my travels and seen many interesting things, but the Town Meeting was a unique nonpareil sort of thing. It had formal ritualized aspects mixed with just a touch of blood sport.
Critical documents were involved; the annual Town Report and the Warrant. The Town Report chronicled the activities of Town Committees, expenses, and government happenings throughout the year. You coud find rows of past Town Reports in homes.
The Warrant was another sort of beast. It outlined all the Articles that needed to be voted for. This was where the blood sport entered the picture. Individual articles got discussed in detail before balloting. This was where personality, family vendetta, and personal belief intersected and clashed. A two hundred dollar item for the library could be a half-hour of vicious back and forth.

At the end of the Meeting, I noticed many residents tearing up the Warrant, walking out, and talking amiably with those they had been in a violent dispute with an hour ago. Turning to the Cap’n, I asked how this could be so? Why didn’t they elect a mayor and a council to get the work done? Why this annual brawl. The Cap’n quickly told me to shut up before I was overheard. The Town Meeting was the primary underlying civic structure of small-town New England. ” We wouldn’t be who we are without it.”

I rapidly wrote my notes on the Meeting and started thinking about how I could describe it to my professors and in my thesis. What I found most amazing was that so much agreement and unity had come out of such vigorous dispute.
All these years after, and many Town Meetings later, I am still amazed by the process but convinced that the Cap’n was right. It is an underlying civic structure in New England, and its shadow extends even over the larger towns and cities that have moved beyond it.


The little boat did kind of look like a terrapin. It was a bit beamy and of a design almost guaranteed not to capsize. It was a perfect small tender for a larger boat. And a safe one for a couple of adventurous teens to explore the Harbor. I had enjoyed my time with the kids as they “helped” design the transom banner I’d carve for them.

What I hadn’t enjoyed was my negotiation with their smarmy parents. They thought my asking price could be negotiated – rather haggled down. So instead, I reversed my usual fifty percent upfront and the balance on receipt and told them to pay it all in advance. It was that time of year when everybody wanted their boat in the water, trim and ready for summer. I had plenty of work and had a rare event: a queue of people wanting my services. So pay up; they did.

I found a short of mahogany for the transom banner from the shorts bin at Spinney’s boatyard. A short is leftover when a long plank is cut to needed size. The remainder is too long to be scrap and too small for most other jobs. But it’s just perfect for small carving jobs. Neither boat yards nor carvers make money on waste. I went into the office to pay for the wood and noticed that Terrapins “master” was in the office arguing with Spinney over storage costs for the previous winter. As he left, Spinney and I exchanged looks. As soon as he was out of hearing range, Spinney mentioned that the client might not find room for storage at Spinney’s next winter.

I delivered the banner on time and spent little time thinking about Terrapin, her owners, or their motor sailing Yacht called Queenie. But around the end of August, Queenie’s owners came asking me to carve quarterboards for Queennie. Hoping the payment issues were settled, I quoted a fair price for carved and gilded letters in teak. But once again, there was an eternal haggle over the cost of stock, gold leaf, and my labor. I eventually told them to go to a painter for lettering because I was too busy to take their work.

Not more than a month later, Events hit a pinnacle when Queenie needed to be hauled out for storage. Spinney told them flat out that he was downsizing his storage capacity, and they should move their storage cradle and find a new location for the winter storage. More than a few disputes had dotted the season over the use of utilities, mooring, and repairs. Every cost was disputed, slow paid, and full of anger.

Queenie was finally relocated to Grays on the other side of the Harbor for more expensive storage prices – old man Gray had seen the smoke coming from Spinney’s ears and decided to charge a premium for his last spot. The sign painter heard my complaints at the diner over breakfast one morning. The ships’ chandlery ceased offering credit for Quennies supplies, and the sailmaker was reluctant to take their business, and they wound up doing business with someone over to Boothbay.

We were sitting in Spinney’s office on a windy October morning, drinking coffee by the woodstove, when the topic of Queenie and her owners came up. They had spent an entire year creating bad feelings wherever they went. Spinney mentioned that the Harbor was a small place, and rumor traveled far and wide with great speed. Eventually, it caught up with them.

Spinney sipped his coffee, stroked his cat’s head, and opined that “It was best to remember Tom Paine’s advice that “Character is much easier kept than recovered.” 


It’s been called prejudice, but it’s loathing, and nothing is unreasoning or illogical about it. I came by the loathing step by step, day by day, and experience by experience. I do not attempt to hide my feelings in the tiny interstices of my mind. So what is it that creates such an active distaste? It’s a tourist restaurant fish chowder.

The subject came up just the last night. My daughter mentioned chowder, and I rolled off the restaurants within a hundred and fifty-mile radius with an acceptable offering to the gods of cod. Ten. I admit there may be more but, regrettably, right here in New England a decent fish chowder is not ubiquitous. I have seen scores of so-called restaurants that serve a watery concoction of fish juice, milk, and fish scraps.

Incredibly some visitors to New England have complained to me about their “dis-epitomable” experiences at famous Boston restaurants. One of these locations is a chain. The “chowder” comes frozen in large plastic bags that are warmed in hot water before serving. How do I know? I met one of their former cooks ( my oldest son).

finding myself, unavoidably, in one of these locations I avoid tiffs by ordering safer items – hamburgers. A good chowder is thick. A small prominence of cod sits in the middle like a seamount rising from the briny ocean. The fish is fresh, not reconstituted by injection or thawed out.

OK, I better stop now before I start in on the crackers, good halibut stew, finnan haddie, or delicious grilled haddock. I haven’t even covered the traditional fishhead in a chowder, cod cheeks, or tongues. So please don’t get me going! This weekend I know exactly where I am going to eat.

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