Nestled in the shadow of the majestic Katahdin, East Millinocket epitomized the village-raising-the-child mantra. Its men worked in the paper mill. Its women worked as homemakers. Its citizens lived the collective ethos of providing the best foundation in life for its children.

With minor variations, we were all fostering the same theme: shared pride. Pride in our town (the only town in the country built on one side of the street!); pride in our paper mill (No. 5 was the largest paper machine in the world!); pride in our basketball teams (tournament week at the Auditorium!).

For a long time, the future for most graduates lay “down over the hill” in the Great Northern Paper mill with the infamous rite of passage of the “grinder room” for boys and (yes, even) girls while anxious fathers looked on. The Map of Life included a secure job, a modest house, a camp on the lake, vehicles (toys for winter and summer), hunting and fishing and, of course, one’s own family. A simple and reliable future plan.

But as with the “best-laid plans,” things have a way of going awry. A digitized society and a poor economy have led to an exodus of folks from the town. Many of us left a long time ago to live our lives elsewhere, carrying with us a legacy of education, work ethic, citizenship and an indebtedness to our hometown.

“So, you’re from Millinocket, right?” is a common query from new acquaintances.

My response of “Well, actually, East Millinocket,” is often met with a quizzical look, followed by something like, “Whoa, excuse me … like there’s a big difference?”

I get ready for the next all-too-familiar question: “What high school is that?” I mumble a response that sounds like “skank.” I explain wearily, “It’s actually someone’s name, Garrett Schenck; it’s spelled s-c-h-e-n …,” my voice trails off. The giggles ensue.

We Schenck alumni and expats of East Millinocket share this common experience of futile explanations, defensive postures and eventual sighs. We respond politely, but we all know that it’s practically impossible to convey what it means to be from that tiny northern Maine town.

The 100th anniversary of the town was celebrated a few summers ago. It was our own little Woodstock. A few turned into many turned into a deluge of alumni over four glorious days, people from all over the country who came back to visit, reconnect and, in a way, pay tribute. The days were reminiscent, joyful, poignant — a heartwarming testament to what the town had meant to all of us and to what a town can mean to its children.

To this day, I love encountering people who hail from northern Maine, but I absolutely delight in meeting someone from my hometown. I don’t have to explain where it is or how the high school got that name.

Just that I’m also from East Millinocket.

Deborah Johanson lives in Yarmouth now, but she got her start way upcountry. 

– Special to the Telegram