Thursday, March 25, 2010

A flood of memories...

Today's post is picture-less. I'm going to try to paint some pictures in your mind's eye in a little while from my memory.

Yesterday's Wordless Wednesday post shows a car that was at the Maine Boatbuilders Show in the Portland Yacht Services area. Ok, you may ask why a car was at this show. Well, it's also a boat of sorts. The car was an Amphicar (more about the cars here) that was owned by a client of Portland Yacht Services and they'd done some repair or restoration work on the car for this client. If you look on the ground at the rear of the car, you will notice a mirror which reflects a portion of the car's propeller.

As you can tell from the name, this is an amphibious car based around a Triumph engine. At the time these first came out, Dan Neil of Time magazine called it "a vehicle that promised to revolutionize drowning". Nice thought, eh?

I hadn't seen one of these cars "in the flesh" in over 25 years.

WARNING! : Shiny pretty things digression from here...

...but I promise to get back to the car.

Before I was ever a glint in my father's eye or he in his father's eye, my grandfather married a woman who was the housekeeper for a local family. This same family kept boarders in their large home. One of those boarders was a woman from Lincolnville, Maine who like many smart, independent women of the time who were seeking opportunity left her home to become a teacher in our local high school. My father had this woman as a teacher in high school and my parents kept a relationship with this woman even after she retired to her family's home.

The family home is located at the end of the road on Fernald's Neck which is a piece of land that juts out into Lake Megunticook. She lived alone in this large rambling house at the top of a field with a detached garage, two well-heads, a hen-house and an old outhouse. The house itself was a very traditional Maine home with cedar shingles and white trim. The interior had gray painted floors more white trim and what was to me ancient wallpaper.

She lived on the second floor of the house ("Its drier.", she'd say.) in the east-facing rooms in what would be the front of the house. She had a small bedroom, a room which served as her kitchen living room and dining room with a large south-facing bay window, and a small bathroom. There were always bird feeders in these windows that she could see from anywhere in this room. Behind this were other attic rooms that were chock-full of family history - furniture, papers, household goods, etc. from many generations past that she rarely accessed. I'm sure that a historian would have had a field day researching in that attic.

On the first floor of the house, it was mostly vacant with the exception of one front parlor room in which were stored things for use out in the garden, There were boots, rain gear and bags of bird seed. In a back hallway off an immense and long-vacant combined kitchen, family room and living space with a massive wood kitchen stove. A sun porch off the kitchen was used for storing myriad items as well. At the far back of the house was a second bathroom. ("You can bathe in the water, but don't drink it or brush your teeth. The water in here comes from the well that's where the barn used to be.")

In the winter time, she would have the water in the house drained and she would go to live with her cousin and her cousin's beloved dogs at the head of the road. This dirt road which would be nearly impassable at times with winter snow and ice and spring flooding. Her cousin's house was not quite as large, but had a barn where peacocks had once been raised. I'm sure it also helped save on heating bills, too. On good winter days, she would walk down the road to check on the house.

This woman was very independent and would keep a pretty large garden and also had chickens that she kept for the eggs. Every now and again she would lose a chicken or two to the local foxes that roamed the tall grass of her fields.

As a child, my family would travel up to visit this woman during our summer vacations. When you arrived at the house, any one of about a half-dozen neatly hand-written cardboard signs in her distinctive handwriting that would be on the front door. "Upstairs", "In the garden", "In the field", "Up the road" (at her cousin's) "Out", "Gone for a walk", "Swimming". This is certainly something you wouldn't do today, but at the time, nothing seemed really odd about it.

The first time we went to visit, I was fairly small and my mother and I stayed in the house in a small room on the second floor near the back stairs while my brother and father slept in a tent. On subsequent visits, the whole family would camp in the shelter of a copse of trees in the middle of the field between the house and the lake.

We would use this camp in the field as a base from which we could explore the surrounding area including trips into Camden, Rockland and Lincolnville. Sometimes we'd even hop on a ferry out to Vinalhaven or Ilesboro with a picnic lunch. (Nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes on one trip to Ilesboro...) Treats would include trips over to Lincolnville Beach to The Lobster Pound or Duck Trap Woodworking, into Camden for ice cream.

As a youngster, I was felt honored to be given responsibilities that I wouldn't have at home. For example, on my way up to the bathroom in the morning, I'd collect the eggs from the hen-house and bring them up to the kitchen. I was also taught how to use a sickle and a scythe to clear weeds around the "house yard." We learned about the different birds and their calls and would listen to the haunting cry of loons down in the lake. I heard the story of Maiden's Leap and climbed Mount Battie to overlook the surrounding area.

I can also recall going up into her barn past the powder blue Ford Falcon that she had bought from my father and was still driving into the '80's to see a lapstrake pulling boat that she had rowed on the lake. We learned about the lime kilns that were on the path to the west shore of the lake. On seeing a tea-towel with a map of New Zealand on it, we heard tales of her trip to the South Pacific. There was much we learned.

One a Sunday morning, we'd all head out to the community church in Lincolnville for services. The church was a small, white wood framed building with hard wooden benches. The place was uninsulated and had a pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room that seemed to tell of the age of the place. A fire was lit even in the summer time to warm the building up. There was a foot-treadle organ for music and I don't think the building had electricity. Most of the congregation was probably over 60, but seemed everyone seemed ancient to me then.

Along with her church-going nature, she was a teatotaler. She recounted a tale of some young men who had been fishing and came ashore on her property during stormy weather. "There were cans rolling around in the boat", she said disdainfully. She let them use the phone to call for someone to pick them up. Later, they returned with a a bottle of wine to thank her. She returned it to them. My mother asked why she didn't keep the bottle and give it to someone else. "Well, I don't drink and I don't want anyone to think I do!"

I also learned some unusual lessons. We were eating ice cream in the kitchen one evening. The dishes were old. I mean antique old. She said that they were hers and she was going to enjoy them. That's what they were there for. As we ate the ice cream and talked, the phone rang. Keep in mind that this was long before answering machines were common. She kept talking with us. My brother asked, "Are you going to answer that?" The reply was simple. "That phone is here for my convenience." Good lesson!

One thing that always surprised me about this woman was her distrust of the Nature Conservancy which purchased a large parcel of land at the tip of Fernald's Neck that included the balancing rock down the shore. She was concerned about people trespassing and what would happen to the land in the future. With her love of nature, I could never understand her opposition to this group's preservation of the plot of land adjacent to her property.

End of shiny pretty things digression...

One morning we were having breakfast in camp and a little red convertible drove down the track that followed the stone wall that bordered the property from the house down towards the beach. It disappeared down into the trees at the edge of the lake and disappeared.

What the heck?

Later we asked our host about the disappearing car. It turned out to belong to a man who had a summer house out on one of the islands in the lake. He was, in the vernacular, "people from away". The car was a candy-apple red Amphicar with a white vinyl interior that looked just like the one in yesterday's picture. Arrangements were made for us to go on a ride in the car out to the island. Two days later, the man pulled up on the road and introduced himself. He showed us the car and told us to hop in. We all got in and he drove down to the beach. Once we got to the beach, he pulled some handles to engage the propeller and to seal the doors and then drove into the water. It was an odd sensation to see the water rising up the side of the car to within a few inches of the top of the door. The man read the mail he'd picked up at the post office that morning as he steered the car across the lake towards his island controlling the steering wheel with his knees. We arrived at the island to find a paved driveway that rose out of the water with a garage at the head of the driveway! It was truly an amazing sight. I will not forget that ride anytime soon.


After many summers on the lake, I returned one more time when I was about 15 and my Boy Scout troop was headed up for a week long trip in the Grand Lake Stream area. We were invited to go for a swim in the lake at her beach on the way up and I could see the man's island from the beach, but no sign of him or his car. It would be the last time I saw this woman. A book was written about another cousin of hers in which she is mentioned. The book is titled, Frost You Say? and was written by Marshall Dodge and Walter Howe. You can listen to it here (requires Real Audio Player) and see a picture of this woman's cousin. There is definitely a family resemblance.

About three years ago, I was invited up to WoodenBoat School to tour the shop before I went up to teach there the following year. On my way up, I camped at Camden Hills State Park. The coast was socked-in with what this woman would have called "sea smoke". While the woman who hosted us had long since passed away, I wanted to see the places that I remembered on Lake Megunticook that reminded me of both her and my youth. I drove down the road passing this her cousin's house and barn. The sights were all familiar. As I finally passed by her next door neighbor's house, I saw the house standing at the crest of the hill in the field. It looked much as I remembered it, an immaculately cared for building, but with the addition of a new outbuilding to the south of the house. It was odd, somehow to think of someone else living there.

I drove around the road towards the Nature Conservancy's parking lot and passed a gate where the path to the west shore of the lake and the lime kilns used to be. Behind the gate was a large new house that belonged to this woman's nephew. In the field near the parking lot, deer were grazing and seemed undisturbed by my presence. I walked down the trail to the balancing rock and enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of the place. Most of the place had large stands of white pine, mountain laurel and blueberry. The wind whispered through the needles of the pines as the swayed n the breeze. There were many more deer to be seen along the trails and they had eaten a fair amount of the under-story lending a park like atmosphere to the place. As I climbed to the top of the balancing rock, I looked out over the lake and watched the waves run up on the smooth rocky shore.

At that point I realized that as many times as I had been to Fernald's Neck, I had never been in a real boat on the lake, just the Amphicar. I've always wanted to paddle the lake, but when we went to visit, my father didn't own a canoe of his own.



Mel and Angus said...

You write beautifully! Very visual - I could imagine myself there. Thanks for sharing your story.

Anonymous said...

I remember occasionally seeing a powder blue Amphicar on Rangeley Lake in my youth. The owner would drive it in local summertime parades and festivals.

Thank you for the story.


jbchicoine said...

What an evocative story—Oh my goodness—I can just picture the place. And what a fascinating character. I suppose one could write an entire novel around someone so out of the ordinary. I’m always intrigued by the memories we carry, and how one prompt can bring it all back with the vividness of yesterday. You have a real way with words, to be able to put me there. Thanks for taking me on the circuitous route.

matthew houskeeper said...

I have only seen them from a distance. 2-3 times I have seen them driving down the road, probably heading to a car show.

I remember reading how they were not watertight. The bilgepumps were expected to pump the water out faster than it came in.

Oh and great post by the way!
Have a good weekend.

Canoez said...

Thanks for the kind words, everyone. What is really amazing is that I probably could have written a small book on the subject. The detail that I can recall from that time was really surprising to me and I had to edit out lots of details that could really flesh out the story even more.

Matt - they did have a bilge pump, but the seals on the doors were the most important bit. The mechanical bits were all in pans that were sealed front and rear. I do recall slowing down very slowly when we approached the shore so that a stern wave wouldn't sneak up behind us!