Berry Bowls – 2022

There are many types of terrariums. But berry bowls are a peculiarly New England item I learned about while living in Maine as a young man. Using a glass bowl, or snifter glass, you fill the bowl with mosses, partridge berries, teaberry ( Gaultheria procumbens), and perhaps other woodland plants. They were something green and growing brought into the house during the winter. A berry bowl was a reminder of summertime and the woods. It was traditional to make them for the ill and housebound.

Last year I was seeking a different approach to berry bowls. So I decided to push the envelope just a bit and add an extra touch. I’ve been fascinated with carnivorous plants for several years and loved the bogs in Northern Maine where pitcher plants, Jack in the pulpit plants, and sundews thrived. So adding the carnivorous plants as centerpieces to my berry bowls seemed logical.

Here are this year’s berry bowls with pitcher plants, partridge berries, teaberry, and several mosses. The bowls appreciate a sunny but cool window; they only need water to moisten things.

My berry bowls remind me of the New England woods and are a touchstone to my past. Some of my earliest memories of Maine were going into the woods foraging for the makings of berry bowls with my friends.

I buy the carnivorous plants from a nursery and procure the mosses, teaberry, and partridge berries from the small bog I’ve created near my pond. If you wish to make a berry bowl, please consider that our native wetlands are delicate and threatened environments. Rather than injure them, consider buying your plants from nurseries.

Lazy Bones

Bubba Gray was having a meltdown. His wife and the business manager wanted him to accept a contract to restore an old rum runner, and Bubba was saying there was no way on earth that the cursed thing was coming into his yard. Lazy Bones had famously killed its owner, his lover, and two mobsters in the thirties when it brought Canadian whiskey into Maine harbors. It had spent thirty years in a shed, and according to Bubba, it was there the damned boat remained. His wife quietly argued that he either accepted the contract or found another way to extract the yard from eminent bankruptcy.

It wasn’t just that the Lazy Bones seemed to have been cursed. It was spectacularly cursed. On launch, the boat had rolled on its builder and crushed him. The reputation of having been christened in blood followed the boat. But an uncanny ability to disappear in fog, outrace the Coast Guard and slip into small harbors undetected had made it a money maker. The owners had wept when Prohibition got repealed.

 It seemed to drift from owner to owner, with no one holding it for more than a season. Its pattern of unfortunate accidents followed it too. It crushed one against a float in Bath. He slipped and fell into the water; the boat swelled against the float, breaking ribs, collar bones, and an arm. The wife of the next owner quietly committed suicide in the cockpit. The following day, she was found with her scarf tightly around the wheel. 

The boat did not age well; rumrunners like the Lazy Bones are not cheap to maintain. But, it’s like they always say, “if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.” So the boat was stowed in a shed screened behind years of old furniture, trunks, and household goods.

All this time, Lazy Bones was out of sight, but not mind. The boat was just infamous enough that it enjoyed a life in the town’s folklore. Tours of the waterfront always included retellings of the story of the Lobster racing boat Devil, and the Lazy Bones. According to rumors, these boats were seen on Halloween, racing in the harbor against low banks of clouds.

Against this background, the boat’s restoration began at Bubba Gray’s little boatyard. A canny business woman Evvie Gray charged entry to where the Lazy Bones restoration work was getting done. A natural storyteller, she wove threads of the boat’s history and lore into a powerful tale. Soon photos of her standing with the boat appeared in papers Like the Boston Globe and even the LA times. She re-did her wardrobe to be more dramatic for the Yankee Magazine spread that featured her and Lazy Bones against the background of the yard. 

It was a purely commercial decision on her part that she take the boat on a grand tour as soon as all work was done. And when a Las Vegas casino offered her a residency with Lazy Bones, it was again a purely commercial decision.

Divorce was not that common in town then. But the news that Evvie Gray was divorcing Bubba came as no surprise. Bubba was the only one genuinely surprised. The yard folded not long after; without Evvie struggling to keep it going, Bubba failed in a year. But he seemed happier just working over at Allen’s larger boat yard on the other side of the harbor.

Evvie milked the Las Vegas deal for all she could and wound up taking a position with a developer creating new concept ideas for casinos. And you can see the Lazy Bones on display at a museum of cursed and damned boats; it’s evil only latent now.

Some say that the boat’s evil caused the break up of the marriage, the closure of the boatyard, the ruin of bubba Grey, and even the fall of Evvie Gray into a ruinous Las Vegas lifestyle. All of this is open to interpretation, as is the history of the Lazy Bones. I can only comment on what I know; most of what transpired was human nature and failings.

But supernatural explanations, curses, and misfortune sell more tickets and makes the heart race on a cold dark Halloween evening.

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.

Fall Arrives

With September absconding with the warmth of August, I should have been back in Boston. But there I was helping the Cap’n prepare Pysche for the winter layup. Unfortunately, the Cap’n was a bit of a frostbiter and wouldn’t truly yield to the cold until later in October, “there are lots of crystal clear sailing days into October, Wes!”

Of course, my practical and cold-averse wife suggested trips north as long as “Daddy” could get out for a sail. But, I was the one going out and getting frozen fingers and toes – that’s why it’s called frostbiting. So, no, Georgia would stay home and promise to keep the woodstove going and have hot chocolate or hot spice cider ready.

We sorted and packed everything that should not stay aboard through the winter months in September. There would be no multi-day long coastal trips and much you’d expect to need for those went ashore. We put on a heavy-duty rub rail at the waterline because the ketch spent the winter in a tidal gut that didn’t freeze up, but the hull needed protection from passing ice. The engine would get winterized when the Cap’n called it quits. Then we’d stip the sails for storage in the little lazarette below and cover the boat for the winter.
By then, I was approaching mid-terms and preparing papers. I was typing, reading, and attempting to keep my cat, the Grey Menace, out of trouble. There was a mountain ash tree in front of the cabin, and after the berries ripened, they sometimes fermented. Fermented berries meant drunken birds, and drunk birds meant great fun to the Menace. As a result, he was frequently confined to the dining room window, where he watched the birds cavorting without his assistance. To him, this unfair and arbitrary punishment made him more than usually interested in attacking passing ankles or bare toes. Finally, tripping the Cap’n on his way out with a bucket of wood ash got him summarily dumped outside. Now the Menace was in his element and began to stalk a drunken robin only to have the robin unexpectedly turn hunter and counter-stalk the cat. A loud yowling signaled that the robin had won the match and a chagrined cat retired to perch by the stove.

Sometime around the middle of October, the Cap’n would call it quits. At that point, you’d expect to be done. But a canny owner knows to double-check and check again. So as the fall rains and storms whipped through our area of the coast, we spent time going out and confirming that everything was secured.
Then the Cap’n and Cora would slip into their winter round of square and line dancing evenings, and my crewing services were no longer needed.

As winter approached, I’d take the little skiff out one final time, row around Pysche, and say goodbye to the cove until some snowy middle-of-winter trip brought us back with a growling cat who hated the snow between his paws; but adored evenings curled up in front of the fire.

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.

Chow

A lobsterman I knew back in the day was a chef on board his floating diner, his lobster boat. Although his dutiful wife always packed him a cooler of goodies, he was known for the impromptu repasts he’d cook on the muffler of his engine. I was aboard one day when lunch was a glorious cod cooked with onions and peppers.

The fish was a bycatch, something that wound up in the lobster trap that didn’t belong there. That day it was a cod. After cleaning the fish and dressing it with the peppers and onions, it was double wrapped in layers of heavy tin foil, tied to the muffler, and cooked until the flesh was tender. He stated, “You’ll never get a fresher fish dinner at a restaurant.”

Lunch was served on the fantail with chilled bottles of beer, his wife’s apple pie for dessert, and a view of Seguin lighthouse as a backdrop.

This meal stands out among the standard fare I experienced offshore. Unwanted mementos of offshore culinary disasters included gas and upset stomachs caused by the Capn’s favorite lunch of sardines and pilot biscuits washed down with tea, cold beans, stale meatloaf sandwiches, and indifferent cold pizza. Depending on who you were going out with and the time you expected to return, one could feel quite the gambler.

Among sailors, there is a saying, “Bad cooking is responsible for more trouble at sea than all other things put together.” I agree.

The Muffler

My first wife’s favorite color was purple, and the Grey Menace’s Favorite thing to lie upon was her long purple woolen muffler. He’d wait until she had placed it on a chair after coming out of the winter weather. Then, once he was sure she was not looking, he’d start dragging it away to his lair, one long loop after another. Once safely in his dark corner behind the sofa, he’d happily purr as he knitted on it for hours.

Sooner or later, there would be a dramatic scene as she searched for it. But, for some reason, she never seemed to remember where the Menace’s lair was so that the house would be pulled apart in a frantic search before I reached behind the sofa and extracted the fur-covered muffler. 

All this chase and excitement typically happened just a few minutes before she left for work. So she often left with the muffler shedding grey fur on her hat, coat, gloves, and whatever else she wore.

Everyone at work knew just what sort of cat she had; grey but primarily defined in short, nasty epithets. I always believed the Menace knew this, and his pleasure at frustrating her rekindled every afternoon when she returned from work.

For her birthday, I got her a replacement purple muffler in the hope that the old one could stay safely behind the sofa and the new one remain free of fur. But unfortunately, this seemed to enrage my wife. The replacement was merely “store boughten,” while her mother, Cora, knitted the original. Finally, Cora and the Cap’n suggested that the Menace moves into the shed where I had my workshop. He spent half his time there while I worked, sleeping in front of the wood stove. But I pointed out that at night the shop was unheated. To this, the Cap’n, my wife, and Cora shrugged, “he has a nice thick fur coat.”

Despite having a tough cat reputation, the Menace was a great appreciator of the more refined comforts in life, his food bowl in the kitchen, and his place at my feet on the bed at night. However, he did not take well to living in the workshop. The first night he yowled so loud that the Cap’n got little rest. At the other end of the house, I slept peacefully. 

Everyone appreciated that the Meanace kept the house rodent-free within the week. Cora opened a pantry door one morning to find a family of mice setting up home near the flour. The Cap’n called a family conference about the crisis. The Cap’n and Cora wanted the Menace recalled to his duties inside the house. 

The Cap’n was severely sleep deprived, and Cora was on the verge of dumping all the pantry contents. My wife expected me to take her side as a faithful husband, but I sat and watched the action. My wife sat on the couch glaring at the rest of us. The purple muffler sat on the chair by the door in a pristine, fur-free condition as exhibit A.

At this point, in stalked the Grey Menace, who promptly rubbed against the Capn’s calves and continued on his way towards the pantry. I venture a small laugh but cut it short as I received the full brunt of the “look” from my wife. The Capn’ pulled out his pipe, packed it full, puffed it alight, and then pointed the stem directly at my wife. “Georgia, the little grey bastard is coming back into the house. Your mother is beside herself over the mouse turds she’s finding in the kitchen, pantry, and linen closet.” A thump, a squeak, and a rustle came from the direction of the kitchen. The Menace was back on the job.

 Cora shrugged her shoulders and said, “it’s alright, dear. I have more purple yarn; I’ll make you a new one.” The Menace trotted through the room, the squirming mouse in his mouth. I looked on proudly; that was my boy. I received a second dose of the “look” for this. Knowing that three could be fatal, I said nothing and tried to look uninvolved. Having been trained not to contradict her father, Georgia looked to her mother and said, “Thank you, Mommy.”

It was long winter. The Menace cleared up the mouse problem in a week of day and night long hunting. Cora knit a long muffler for Georgia that she gave her at Christmas. She also made a small purple blanket for the Menace; this he studiously ignored. Soon both mufflers were to be found in the Menace’s lair. I gave Georgia the best fur removal device I could find, but she still left for work covered in grey fur.

The Menace and the Cap’n could now and then be found enjoying the fireplace together on chilly evenings. But, most importantly, the Cap’n slept well every night, and the Menace returned to his place at the foot of the bed.

 It was a metaphor for life in that house, much fury, much action, but little change.

Dissonance

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.

Stash

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”.
“Oh.”

Flow

So I don’t know precisely when it crept into the argot used by my friends and me. But I suspect that it wasn’t until the early seventies. I remember another carver up along the coast telling me that the Eagles were “…way gnarly, man.”

The way and the man fit into the hipster jargon we used ( old school hipster, not idiots running around in beanies and plug earrings), but gnarly…as in a tree trunk? Of course, being this was coastal Maine in 1972 and not Greenwich Village, NYC, I was possibly out of touch with the linguistic changes of the past several years. I smiled and covered my ignorance. Things moved slower in those pre-internet days, more like the speed of the wind rustling through the cattails on a calm day than lightning-fast.

I can read the New York Times fresh online every morning. Back then, the Times wound its way up from New York to Boston and up to Wiscassett in the cargo space on a bus. So if you knew a summering New Yorker, you might see the Sunday times on Tuesday. Then in casual conversation, I found that the other carver was from California. Ahhh, that explained everything. If I was “from away” in Maine, he was from so far away that the Mainers and I could almost consider him an alien. The Cap’n, Cora, Lyman, and all my friends assured me that, by comparison, I was a native from just around the cove. He was that rare bird indeed from truly away.

His tales of surfing in California were fascinating. Few natives ventured into the water voluntarily; it was too cold for recreational swimming. So stories of surfing in the waves seemed exotic. It was not until after the Second World War that pools in the region made swimming a real sport and recreational thing for youth. Old-timers did not know how to swim, and every year lobstermen and fishers drowned for lack of water survival skills.

When he left, we were once again watching the New Yorkers and folks up from Jersey and Philadelphia. I was again called upon to explain to folks at the cafe that we had English muffins but no bagels. Nor did we have any lox. And, of course, the island store carried the Portland and the Bangor papers, but not the Times.

The nature of rapid information flow is to gradually make the exotic common. But perhaps it also makes things a bit less exciting and discovery a bit more of an anti-climax.

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