When you see legions of robins happily pulling fat, juicy worms out of the brown, dead grass in your backyard, you know that thousands of summercators, who annually enrich us with their wit, erudition and dollars, cannot be far behind.
Who are these people? Many of them, like Bill Norton, who lives in Virginia, have roots here. They remember feeding the chickens on Grampy’s farm or the smell of the fish factory and the sound of the gulls. And, although it’s true that you can’t go home again, you can at least drop in for a week or two and sniff around.
Bill seemed pleased when I told him that in 1951, his grandfather said something that comes to mind every time I start my car: “Never back up an inch more than you have to.”
Bed-and-breakfast guests come from Greenwich and Joplin, Ann Arbor and Ivoryton, Miami and Chelmsford. When they are told that our ancient house was built in Massachusetts, some wonder if it were moved to its present location by boat or oxen.
Our friends and relatives come in Volvos filled with kids, dogs and tents. They drag boats behind three-quarter-ton pickups loaded with red plastic gas cans and tools. They creep toward Camden State Park at 30 mph in campers covered with stickers. They have been everywhere, and, if you’ve ever been the seventh car in line behind a camper, you know that getting there is half the fun.
Gramp Wiley once very excitedly dragged me out of the Port Clyde store, saying that he wanted me to see something out on the Monhegan dock that no native had ever seen before. Thinking it might be a nubile young feminist exercising her right to be “free,” I rushed out behind him, only to see a New Jersey Volvo station wagon with no roof racks.
When I asked the owner how he could drive about in a Volvo without roof racks, he sheepishly admitted that he removed them after cleaning off two bicycles when he forgot they were there and drove into his garage.
But I digress, for it is the seasonal fluctuation of Maine demographics that concerns us here.
Some of our more affluent visitors come by sea. A father with his eye on the bottom line might encourage his co-ed daughter to spend weekends at a nearby Harvard or Princeton, but he does not let her off the family yacht while anchored near Port Clyde, DiMillo’s or Beals. Anyone who has read Robert Frost knows why.
A family from Greenwich, gunkholing along the Maine coast, once dropped the hook in Tenants Harbor, which is about as far from a gunkhole as you can get.
Three pretty sisters and a little brother climbed in the dinghy and paddled ashore in search of two paths that might diverge in a local wood. The junction appeared in the form of a young man who had just pushed his 1919 Model T into Lowell Brothers Garage, where he was plugging a gas line leak with Garlock packing.
Seeing the little party go by, the young man quickly completed his repair and just happened to have his trap parked in their path when the girls had finished surveying the village of Tenants Harbor – which really doesn’t take all that long. By the time the boat sailed the next day, the skipper had lost his oldest daughter.
Evaluating this from an economic standpoint, if Maine’s population must increase, this might be the way to do it. We gained a college graduate without spending one Maine tax dollar for her 16 years of education. And, because she came in by boat and not overloaded truck, no potholes were created in the highway.
One can’t help but wonder how many of us are in Maine today only because one of our ancestors was just passing through, much as Sheridan Whiteside only intended to come to dinner.
When my father came to town at 21, he probably had no intention of spending his life here. But it is also probable that, once in St. George, he could never earn enough money to leave.
Luckily for those of us who do live in Maine, most of our distant relations either went west with Brigham Young or did well peddling Peruvian guano and ended up in Oyster Bay. If most of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s descendants hadn’t moved away, there might be 50,000 people living in Thomaston today. If no one had ever left Maine, there would not be all that many people who would be able to put on a Maine sweatshirt and come back as a visitor. The most popular tourist attraction here might be the occasional native with four thumbs.
Why do some Mainers with generations of respectable credentials have to show their papers when they come back as visitors, and why do some Maine natives never leave?
If you’ve been in Maine for any amount of time at all, you might have paid to see one of those Maine humorist people stand on a stage and confess to the audience that he still lives seven houses from where he was born and brought up.
He pauses, looks around and asks, “How many of you still live in the same town where you were born?” After acknowledging the several hands in the air, he nods and sighs, “Two or three of us here without no ambition.”
The humble Farmer can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website: