Down East 2013 ©
I sure can pick 'em.
Last year, I willingly cleared my desk of several paperwork jobs, and was relieved of a couple of others. “Good,” I figured, disgruntled, indeed, but thankful at the same time. “More time to write.” I was content on my way to a stable, if part-time, employment as a columnist for numerous local publications. PRINT publications.
Like I said…
I think I've seen this action before. Herewith, a memory:
In 1981, I graduated from high school (miserably out of state) and by 4:30 the next morning was on the road, headed for South Thomaston. My father's family is scattered all over the country, there is no family homestead; his father came to the U.S. as a child, after walking from Minsk to Bremerhaven. My mother's family, though, is mostly in the same place, that being a few towns in Knox County. I've been called everything from a “G-dam outta-stater” to worse, but my mom's native credentials are unassailable. Hundreds of years, we're talking, no recent transplant from Masachusetts they. Lighthouse keepers, a Scotsman Monroe who came over to fight the English in the War of 1812 we hear, and a descendant of the Libby who landed in Maine back in 16-some-odd, plus that story about a young girl who climbed a fence and ran away from a “residential school” in Canada. My great-grandmother knew Edna St Vincent Millay. That is a tale for another day. So, by the way, is Minsk to Bremerhaven.
Anyway, if you have some recollection of Rockland in 1981, you'll know what I mean when I say it was hardly the land of opportunity.
Storefronts were shuttered, many just sat empty, and of the ancient and venerable establishments that were still open, I perceived a distinct hierarchy. You either shopped at J.J. Newberry's or at Senter-Crane's. My grandmother (my guide to all things Rockland, as she taught me to drive in the little Opel without power steering,) called them “the Newbreestore” and “Sentercrane's,” emphasis on the first syllable. I shopped at Newberry's, for cheap fabric, mostly, and for the kind of miscellaneous things like spoons and socks and balls of string that draw people to Wal-Mart nowadays (during which forays they likely drop a c-note on unplanned purchases; that didn't much happen at Newberry's.)
I went nervously into Senter Crane's a couple of times, once with a hoard of loot saved up to buy Icelandic yarn to make my brother a sweater. I was convinced that the glamorous salesladies realized immediately that I was unworthy, and wondered why I was there. I had strange, worn-out clothing (non-local funky bohemian secondhand or homemade, without style or confidence, and before there were lots of Goodwill stores everywhere by which to acquire inconspicuousness;) I looked ridiculously young even for a 17-year-old, and obviously could not have afforded to bring them my business on any regular basis.
In the fall, I worked in the sardine factory. First year, I worked both shifts, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., then a lunch break and then back on the line from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., five days a week. The second year much, much less. We rarely got a full week even on one shift. Hang out in the Dunkin' Donuts and wait for another boat to come in with hopefully enough fish to bother with. The herring were gone, the boom was over. In the winter, I worked in a chain restaurant, late hours for less than minimum wage, under people who were obnoxious and manipulative. I learned quite a bit.
That year I also learned how to build lobster traps. This work was a bit more satisfying, although it didn't bring home any real bacon. These were, of course, wooden traps.
One day, as we finished up in my grandfather's overwhelmingly-crowded workshop, the small-time lobsterman I was working with from time to time said, “You get this pile of traps fixed tomorrow. I'm going to be working at the boatyard.” I fell asleep in my grandmother's upstairs room that night thinking about the massive old table saw, which I had never run alone. Worrying about this wouldn't have occured to either my grandfather or my erstwhile "boss." He wasn't what you think of as a lobsterman anyway, really; he was a woodcutter from northern Maine who wanted to see the ocean. He'd done hard work since he was about thirteen, figured everybody else should have too, and was the only person who never said “Here, give me that” when I was lugging some huge heavy crate or something (which I took as a compliment.) This guy fished enough traps to stay hungry. Those weren't the days of lobstermen carrying their money to the bank in fish totes, you recall. I had my one string out on the ledge-pile by Little Island (Eben Island,) for a few to eat and a little pocket money. Nothing but a hobby. I fished just enough to justify my license, annoy the real fishermen, get the buoy tied to my painter (for how else to “show my buoy colors” aboard the boat?) swiped by summer people again and again, and learn to row. Hard. I may have been a transplant, broke and uncertain, thoroughly out-of-style and with a hell of a lot to learn, but I was strong as an ox.
Anyway, I woke the next morning knowing that this was a big day; either I did this right or I may as well wear a huge red sign saying “helpless.” The first thing I did was take the safety plate off the table saw, find a pair of pliers, and tighten the nut that held the blade. I'd been thinking about this all night; my grandfather's set up was a bit chaotic, and he hardly ever used that shop any more. He had the power tools we needed, but not much for elbow room… or direction. I pulled down the first of the oak planks, set the stop to the right thickness for laths, and began ripping out the long strips. Oak knots, cut through and hot, become smooth like marble. The freshly sawn wood has a distinct scent, which I can still remember. As things looked like they'd work just fine, I began to feel very happy.
I cut the laths to the three proper lengths needed to replace rotten ones on the traps, ripped off all the bad ones, pulled the nails, nailed on new laths, and inspected the heads. Very satisfying…much more than a tray of sardine cans or a clean sink in the back room of some ungrateful restaurant. Soon I learned the rest of the "art," and thought, well, being a trap builder wouldn't be a bad deal…
It wasn't long before I saw the first load headed down Route 1 on a truck. “What the hell…?” Wire traps. Green, it seems they were all green at first, plastic-coated rabbit hutches, strange looking mesh boxes that looked like something you'd catch a raccoon in or use to take a prize rooster to the fair. “They'll never work,” said a few of the old-timers, but they did work (after the industry worked out a few, uh, bugs.)
Hog rings used to be just for the twine heads (by the way, knitting heads shouldn't be allowed to become a lost art either, even if everybody uses those “turkey bags.”) Now, with the new traps, hog rings were integral to the whole thing, and nails were on the way out. No longer would a claw hammer and a handful of trap nails be as essential as a bait iron aboard the boat. We need not even mention the wooden pegs…they went out around that same time, but they claim for good reason. I wouldn't know.
I do know that I learned how to build wooden lobster traps just at the wrong time, just when nobody needed people with that skill. I feel about the same way these days. I think I am a columnist. I have been for six or seven years. I like to write for newspapers. I enjoy newspapers. Have you heard what is happening to this country's newspapers?
Does everybody really prefer to read everything online? Would we really rather stare at a screen than curl up with our coffee and dog and the morning paper? (Dare I ask…is every hot-head who can type the same as a journalist?) If any would like to see print publications survive, best to speak up.
Yes, Down East calls this my “blog,” and although I have said before that I don't love that word, I'm happy that they indulge me here. If the blog is sort of the wire trap, though, the inevitable course of progress, and if the job of the old-fashioned columnist is moribund, I may as well build wooden traps for the coffee table trade. How depressing.
Eva Murray went to Bates college on scholarship after the year described above, in part because the rooms were warm and the food was plentiful. Only one other student there seemed to know how to build lobster traps.