If you have a house overlooking the ocean on the coast of Maine, you can probably tell stories about the number of long-lost friends and relatives who materialize on your doorstep in August.
For although it might be 85 or 90 degrees and wicked humid everywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, your Philadelphia friends know that your bedroom on the banks of the St. George River maxes out at 65 degrees and that you sleep beneath three blankets.
Some folks who own 10-bedroom “cottages” on Casco, Blue Hill or Penobscot bays have learned that renting out the place for one or two grand per week, and living in their cars for the summer, is easier than entertaining an endless stream of friends.
Others simply hang two shingles by the front door – “Stagger Out Inn” and “Heated Room” – which entitles them to charge by the night right up through Labor Day.
Because my wife, Marsha, The Almost Perfect Woman, refuses to sleep in the back of my truck all summer, we opted for the latter. A side benefit of sharing our home with guests is suggesting local places of interest for them to visit. And sometimes being asked to accompany them to the Wyeth Center or Morse’s Sauerkraut.
This was the case last week when our guests, Betsy and Gar, who prudently rented out their “cottage” for the summer, invited Marsha to see the puffins on Eastern Egg Rock.
Puffins are much like Tooth Fairies: You hear a lot of talk about them, but it’s hard to find a sober adult who has seen one.
I asked to go along for the ride. My reasons for doing so were twofold. I knew I’d get some footage of the coast between Eastern Egg Rock and Port Clyde for my television show. And seeing puffins is on my bucket list.
Years ago, my neighbor Willard Hilt was ushered aboard a boat and brought to the island, where he gave a famous lecture on puffins. Long ago I memorized every word he said, and recalling those well-chosen words made me want to grab this chance to see puffins for myself.
Willard knew more about puffins than any living ornithologist, and it was not by choice. In 1918, his father, Frank Hilt, was the light keeper on Matinicus Rock. There were puffins on Matinicus Rock, so Willard grew up surrounded by puffins and not much else.
In 1918, there was a worldwide flu pandemic that killed 50 or so million people. A guard who was sent out to Matinicus Rock to watch for German invaders passed along the influenza to little Willard. He survived the flu, but the fever made him a bit more than moderate. Also, a child brought up on Matinicus Rock is not likely to be overburdened with platform skills.
Frank Hilt’s “Grampy Charles” was a brother to my great-grandmother Sarah Hilt, which made Frank a second cousin to my mother.
He was a big guy. When he first went to sea as a young man, he was told to pull up the anchor. They said that instead of pulling it aboard with the winch, he simply reached over the side and pulled up the chain hand over hand.
From 1929 until 1944, “Uncle” Frank was keeper of the Portland Head Light, which made him a local celebrity because he would be interviewed by Edward Rowe Snow and other media notables.
When I was a kid, he lived up the road a few houses and drove a tan 1938 Pontiac. When I was going by on my bicycle, he’d be sitting out front of his house in a chair and he’d holler, “Stop. Stop. Stop.” And when I’d stop, he’d say, “Your wheel’s stopped going around.”
Nothing fazed Frank Hilt. He’d dangle from the top of Portland Head Light, in a chair, suspended by a rope, and paint the tower.
One time he was shingling a roof with my father when the staging gave way. My father rolled down the roof, barely catching himself in time from going over the edge. And Papa said that Frank simply looked around at him and said, “Where you goin’?” (My father’s name was Sten. They called themselves “Frank and Sten – the gruesome twosome.”)
Another time, Frank Hilt was burning some high weeds and bushes and the flames were getting dangerously near Earl’s henhouse. Someone saw Frank with a watering can sprinkling the flames that were getting even higher and closer to the building, and the person asked Frank if he could fetch more water. “Water?” says Frank. “This is kerosene.”
But I was telling you about the puffins, which looked like chopped and channeled ducks. We only saw half a dozen, so our guide attempted to justify the price of the cruise by pointing out several eagles and ospreys on our way back to Port Clyde.
Willard couldn’t have covered the bases any better. When he was brought out to his childhood home on Matinicus Rock to see his little bird friends for the first time in 60 years, his audience stepped ashore in reverent silence.
Finally Willard spoke: “Yup, them’s puffins.”
The humble Farmer can be seen on Community Television in and near Portland and visited at his website: