December 5, 2007
The first Saturday of December may be a lot of things a lot of places, but here in Farmington it's Chester Greenwood Day, and we have a parade.
Chester Greenwood invented the earmuff, among other things, and almost anyone in town can tell you how it happened: he loved to skate as a young teen, 1873, but his ears got cold. He wrapped his woolen scarf around his head, but that was too itchy and uncomfortable, so he got his grandmother to sew circles of beaver pelt on a metal frame he'd fashioned, and (as a French-challenged college student of mine once wrote): wallah!
He patented the invention as "ear-mufflers" on March 13, 1877, and went into business, building a factory that produced 400,000 sets of earmuffs a year at its peak. He made his fortune during World War I supplying the U.S. Army, and the factory continued production for 60 years, till Chester's death in 1937. His house is a beautiful old cube of federal architecture (clapboarded and painted yellow) high up on the bluff over the Sandy River, just behind and above the Farmington offices of Maine Human Services.
The parade is great fun, always cold. Community groups sponsor home-style floats pulled behind pickup trucks, or just ride in a pickup truck, all wearing earmuffs. Kids march in school groups, yelling and waving. The championship Mount Blue High School ski team skis past on wheel trainers, wearing earmuffs. I wear earmuffs, too, because I always run into Jan Roberts, my chiropractor and movie pal, who gets into Reny's early and buys a few dozen pair to hand out.
At the end of the parade someone tall (Chris Buschman most years, husband of my massage therapist) sports a fake mustache and bowler and plays Chester Greenwood. And Chester's actual descendants ride past waving from old convertibles, wearing earmuffs, both cars and people. My favorite thing is the giant earmuffs on the school buses and fire trucks, and all the sirens. My other favorite thing is the Civil-war re-enactors, who march in a small phalanx of six or eight soldiers with muskets (but no earmuffs, since that wouldn't be accurate). They've apparently gotten over their animosities, as Gray uniforms and Blue uniforms march together. Every hundred yards or so they stop and load their muskets, lots of elaborate plunging and tamping, then aim at the sky and make an explosion so loud that the entire crowd (1000 or so intrepid souls) leaps in the air. Babies scream, dogs bark. The only people unaffected are guys wearing their ear protectors from work because they couldn't find their earmuffs that morning.
Oh, and several people march with dogs, or ride past on well-brushed ponies, or lead miniature horses. I'm here to tell you that there's no more beautiful thing than a horse or dog or mule wearing earmuffs.
I guess all the teens wearing headphones and trying to disassociate are in the spirit despite themselves, because the design of headphones surely goes back to Greenwood. I hope the kids are listening to John Philip Sousa marches. There's no marching band at Mt. Blue High anymore-budget constraints, lack of interest-but once there was (they won a competition and marched at the first George Bush's inauguration in Washington). And once they marched in this parade, which had its first year in 1977. Never fear, a couple of the floats have their own boom boxes, and not even ear mufflers can shut out the joy.
I'm thinking about building a giant pair of earmuffs for my house, with heating oil posted at $3.27 a gallon this week. Gasoline is up there, too. I'm sure how people are going to get through the winter. Apologies to Chester, but earmuffs alone aren't going to do it. Monday after the parade, I stopped at Irving to fill up. A nicely dressed older woman came around the pump with a beseeching smile on her face. I recognized her vaguely, that small town circumstance, familiar face. I think she'd been a volunteer at one of the church booths, Farmington Fair. Maybe she recognized me, as well. Something was wrong with her right eye: it dripped tears, the lid was drooped, the sclera bright red, awful looking. I thought she was going to ask me to help pump her gas, and it made me happy to think I could be of service.
Rapidly she said, "I have an unusual little problem. I have to go to the doctor in Augusta, but I don't have enough gas." Of course what she meant was she didn't have enough money. "I've been working on the problem all morning, trying to get a ride, but nobody's available, nobody's home. My husband passed away last year. And I have to get there today. I really have to. They fit me in. My appointment's at 1:00." One hour away! "I should have thought of this last night. I just need ten dollars. Of course I'll pay you back."
Gently, I said, "Can't you go to the doctor here?"
Her good eye began to cry, too. She didn't want to have to explain. Clearly, the whole thing embarrassed her, from widowhood to illness to sudden poverty to supplication. She blubbered: "The insurance won't pay if I go back here. I've already gone here. This is the specialist. He's in Augusta."
There's no public transportation in Farmington, and only a single taxi. The railroad tracks were torn up years ago, following a national trend. Maine Care will cover the costs for transportation to medical appointments they have set up, but perhaps my new friend wasn't yet part of that system, or had understandably clung to her independence. If you're paying yourself, the tab is seven dollars each way, plus seventy-five cents a mile: $31.00, roughly, and you have to plan well in advance. I thought of the afternoon's schedule-I didn't have time to give the good woman a ride, and of course that would be nearly the same as giving her the gas.
I said, "And you don't have a credit card?"
"I'm past my limit, I'm afraid."
No great sin-maybe she'd filled her heating oil tank-that'll max many a credit card this winter. Plus it was the end of the month. Pension checks, social security, part-time work, these things only stretch so far. Her vehicle was an old Chevrolet Suburban with Support Our Troops ribbons and a good deal of rust, her late husband's no doubt. I figured it for ten miles a gallon at best. Augusta is about 35 miles from Farmington, 70 miles round-trip, seven gallons of gas minimum at $3.19 a gallon, call it ten gallons in case my mpg estimate was too liberal (very likely): $31.90. I did this figuring out loud, in a tone of bemusement so as not to seem to chastise or judge her, tucked my credit card into the slot on her side of the pump.
She was horrified. "Oh, I can't take that much from you."
"But that's what you'll need to get over there."
I pumped the gas for her, and just let it keep pumping, 20.3 gallons in a 20 gallon tank, phew, almost $65.00, a good chunk of the average monthly Social Security check in Maine, which is $851.00. And Franklin County is below the average by quite a bit. And not everyone even gets Social Security. What do you do if a fill-up amounts to ten percent of your monthly income?
She wanted my address, promised to send me a check, her good eye crying again, but I didn't want to hang that over her head, not this month, what with Christmas coming and an eye patch looming. I said, no, no, it's on me. It's not a big problem. It's just gas. Happy Chester Greenwood Day."
And she said, "Earmuffs," very seriously, a way of saying thanks.
"Drive carefully," I said.
"Or don't drive at all," said she.
I watched her pull away.
At her speed she'd be lucky to make her appointment on time, but I supposed she'd make it.Bill Roorbach lives in Western Maine and is the author of Temple Stream, among others.