Being a Registered Maine Guide in fishing, hunting, and recreation, this detail of my family tree has been important to me. I have played with my genealogy since shortly after my father died in 1998, but mostly I have just tried to bore straight back through the generations. On my father’s side it follows at least one line back to a William de Vernai or Verney, born about 1045 in Normandy — who must have been somebody important, because common folks didn’t keep such records about themselves.
My father and mother each collected a little material about the family tree but didn’t do any significant research. When Dad died I inherited the pile of material and then when the Internet went high-speed in the mid-1990s, I began poking around there.
Among my father’s things was a marvelous old book called Porter Genealogy, published in Bangor in 1878. In it, I have located several pages with salient connections. (I also have a hand-written list of Sweet genealogy, in the script of Dana Sweet, whose relationship to my great-great-grandfather, Andrew Sweet, remains unclear.)
Here is a salient relationship, from me (at the bottom of the list) back to Col. Ezekiel Porter of Strong, Maine, (who was not a Colonel, but a Captain of the Militia in 1787, so the Col. may have been one of those purchased commissions):
Col. Ezekiel Porter 1762-c.1814, mrd. Betsey (Wyman) Porter parents of eleven children, including
(3) Thirza (Porter) Cottle 1789-1865, mrd. Dr. John Cottle
(4) Ezekiel Porter 1791-1867, mrd. Eunice Hitchcock parents of nine children, including
(1) Thirza (Porter) Crosby 1819-?, mrd. Lemuel Crosby parents of
Cornelia Thurza “Fly Rod” Crosby 1854-1946
(2) Jeremy W. Porter 1820- (still living at time of genealogy), mrd. ? (name not given in genealogy) parents of
1st Lieutenant James E. Porter, Company I, 7th Cavalry, killed with Gen. Custer at Little Big Horn
(11) Eliza Wyman (Porter) Sweet 1807-1881, mrd. Zebediah Sweet 1809-1873 parents of
Andrew Jackson Sweet 1837-1892, mrd. Mary Jane Knowlton 1845-1913 parents of
Goldie May (Sweet) Hines 1882-1969, mrd. Ralph Gilman Hines 1881-1966 parents of
Clarice Augusta (Hines) Woodbury 1903-1969, mrd. Everett Hugh Woodbury 1889-1945 parents of
Victor Walter Woodbury 1927-1998, mrd. Dorothy Mae Miller 1925- parents of
David A. Woodbury 1950- (that’s me)
It’s tricky in the genealogy, because the younger Ezekiel Porter had an older sister, Thirza, and then named his daughter Thirza. It’s the younger Thirza who is important here. Cornelia’s middle name is spelled with a “u” in her official biography, and it’s possible, even likely, that the author of the genealogy was working from town records that had it both ways.
So I am the son of Victor, who is the son of Clarice, who is the daughter of Goldie, who is the daughter of Andrew, who is the son of Eliza, who is a sister to Ezekiel, who is grandfather of Fly Rod Crosby.
Fly Rod Crosby’s mother, Thirza Crosby, and I are first cousins four times removed, (“removed” meaning removed by generations, not convolutions of the family tree).
Fly Rod’s first cousin, Lt. James Porter, son of Jeremy Porter, was killed in Custer’s Last Stand. As with Fly Rod’s mother, Jeremy Porter and I are first cousins four times removed. That makes Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby my second cousin three times removed. (My first cousin’s child is my second cousin.) That also describes my relationship with Lt. James Porter. My father had occasionally referred to James and the Custer connection — as far back as when I was a teenager he tried to tell me about it — but I had never quite understood those connections or teased it out of the books until now. He never mentioned, and may not have known, that he and Cornelia were cousins, and in fact he was 19 and living in the next town when she died.
Cornelia lobbied the Maine legislature heavily, advocating that Maine Guides should meet some professional standards and therefore that they should be licensed as well, demonstrating that the standards had been met. On March 19, 1897, the Maine legislature passed a bill requiring paid hunting and fishing guides to register with the state. Maine registered 1316 guides in that first year. The honor of receiving the first Maine guiding license went to Cornilia Thurza Crosby.
She first discovered her love for the wilderness when, on the advice of her doctor, she left her job in a bank to seek “a large dose of the outdoors.” This prescription brought her to the nearby town of Rangeley, where she found work housekeeping in some of the large hotels in the area. She became friends with the local guides, and from them she learned the lore of the woods and the pleasures of camping, hunting, and fishing.
In 1886 a friend presented Cornilia with a five-ounce bamboo rod. She became so adept at fly-fishing that she once landed 200 trout in one day. She began to write up accounts of her fishing adventures and submitted them, under the name “Fly Rod” to O.M. Moore, editor of the Phillips Phonograph, (Phillips being another town near Strong and Rangeley). “That’s mighty good stuff!” responded Moore. “Send some more right away.” “Fly Rod’s Notebook” became a widely syndicated column appearing in newspapers in New York, Boston, and Chicago, and the new name stuck.
Although she shot the last legal caribou buck in the state of Maine, “Fly Rod” Crosby’s most remarkable and enduring contribution to her native state happened far from the north woods. In addition to being its first licensed guide, she was Maine’s first public-relations genius. She arranged an elaborate hunting display at the First Annual Sportsmen’s Show in New York’s Madison Square Garden, starring herself, rifle in hand and wearing a daring, knee-length doeskin skirt.
Her sensational appearance at the Sportsmen’s Show, together with the popularity of her column, helped to attract thousands of eager would-be outdoorsmen and quite a few women to the woods and streams of Maine. In time, she became friends with the most famous of the country’s illustrious outdoorsmen and counted Annie Oakley among her friends as well.
Since she never had children, and apparently never married anyway, there are no descendants. A neat little biography of her by Julia Hunter and Earle Shettleworth, Jr., is available at Amazon.com.
She was the girl illustrated on the covers of all the sheet music from the gay ‘Nineties in the pile next to my grandma’s piano. Although twice my age, Candace Dennett was the first woman I ever fell in love with. At 18, she had that ‘Nineties woman’s oval face and tiny chin, the pursed, garnet lips, limp lids, and casually cumulous brown hair piled against gravity all about her head.
Kenny Dennett and I had become best friends that September day in 1959, my ninth birthday, when I moved to Gomer and unloaded my belongings onto the front lawn of our new house. We were moving there so both my parents could start teaching at Sugar Creek Local School. Kenny straddled his flimsy, short bicycle and watched. He had never met a kid before who had a four-inch magnifying glass, a prism, a cat’s leg preserved in a jar of formaldehyde, a box of quartz crystals, and a three-legged cat.
“Scientist,” he had pronounced me, his first spoken word of our acquaintance. Kenny thought I was the smartest kid he’d ever seen and I thought he was the strangest. I had never before met a skinny, scabbed kid who could ride a bicycle while carrying an unbroken rotten egg in the pocket of his shorts, who whistled through his nose when he breathed, who said Heyyawannaknowwhat? before every utterance, whether statement or question, and who smelled like he had carried a rotten egg in his shorts once before.
Kenny had turned nine earlier in the summer, establishing an unspoken seniority.
Once school started I learned that Kenny was indeed strange, a fringe member of the fourth grade, maybe even a little behind in his development. To the rest of the school he was more a mascot than a classmate, and I entered fourth grade society at the doormat level for befriending him. I chose my friends then, as now, though, for the things that mattered. Kenny was loyal, trustworthy, and fun, without malice or guile, incapable of ill will. When I hurt myself, I could cry and Kenny would never tell. What’s more, he enriched my world in ways he’d never know.
For the next eleven months I glimpsed Kenny Dennett’s sister, Candace, almost daily when I went to his home. I was barely aware of her at in all that time and hadn’t noticed the resemblance, even though I had flipped through Grandma’s pile of old music dozens of times out of boredom in years of monthly visits.
The thing is, Kenny and I did stuff that kept us out of Candace’s, not to mention his parents’, way. Our playground started at his house and ran the straight length of an unlined, undulating blacktop road to a creek half a mile away. It included a couple of farms that lay in that stretch, where we were free to play hide-and-seek in the corn, chase the roosters, and help hoist hay into the lofts where we could later stack bales to make forts where we played summer and winter. We could sit high on idle tractors, shoot slingshots at cans and bird nests, and, when we had exhausted our imaginations, beg milk and cookies at screen doors.
At the creek we weren’t supposed to go near the water, so we played in it unsupervised. It was lined with oaks and willows and packed mud banks sprinkled with crinkly leaves and in summer proved to be the coolest place to get out of the heat. I think it was no more by design that we went there to get out of the heat than it is a cat’s conscious design always to seek the greatest comfort, even when that means climbing into the warm engine compartment of a car in winter where amputating blades stand deceptively still; we just went because it suited our whim as the most interesting place to go on any day.
We discovered a mess of intriguing junk under the short bridge that carried the road beyond our playground and into agricultural sameness. The junk yielded useful things like bottle fragments, spent wooden match sticks, and a battered cooking pot. One day we discovered we could, in one pass, scoop fifteen baby catfish into that pot. When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun. When we arrived to face Kenny’s father with our dwindling catch, we discovered that we were lacking an explanation, since boys who don’t go near the water like they’re told don’t catch fish.
Kenny solved it in a flash. “Heyyawannaknowwhat, Dad? A man gave them to us.”
“And where was this man? Sitting in his car?”
“Know what? Well, he was stopped for something. Like he had the trunk open, fixing the muffler, and he said: ‘You boys want to see something…’”
I bought into the lie and corrected Kenny. “No, he said: ‘You boys ever see anything like this?’”
“He showed them to us,” Kenny concluded, “and we said — Donnie said — ‘cause Donnie isn’t used to seeing fish — Donnie said: ‘Are they bugs?’ and the man just gave them to us.”
Kenny’s father evidently found our story authentic and drove off to go help the man with the muffler in his trunk. He never said another word to us about it.
I could brag about what we did with some of the fish. We had already spent untold hours tossing grasshoppers into the webs of giant garden spiders, those fat ones striped with yellow, black, and white that string webs capable of holding a tennis ball. We thought we’d see what a spider would do with a wriggling, bug-sized fish. (Not much, as I recall; left it hanging and returned to the center of the web.) We put some into a canning jar and tried to feed them grass. They starved before they’d eat it.
Kenny thought he’d frighten his sister so he put one in the bottom corner of her underwear drawer. A week later she still hadn’t noticed it, and Kenny could hardly find the shrunken, crisp remains. I just had a real funny feeling about Candace’s underwear, so I didn’t go in with him to hide it. Kenny dreamed up other notions for using fish to excite his sister, ideas that would have us first catch a shark in the creek.
I didn’t share his resolve to agitate Candace Dennett. In all the time I’d been there she had never said an unkind thing to me or about me. I never heard her say anything to Kenny any worse than an observation about his odor or his filthiness, which observations I heartily endorsed even though my more abstract thoughts, such as that, rarely found voice.
Candace was not my enemy, and the more I thought of playing tricks on her the more I recoiled inside. She may have been nearly ephemeral, but her ever-cheerful, if largely unseen, presence was part of the attraction at Kenny’s house. I never knew a moment of tension in that home.
What’s more, as the summer crested and descended into August, I began to take notice whether Candace was home when I came over. If she wasn’t, I found myself disappointed. To my relief she was usually somewhere in the house, but her activities seldom gave rise to any occasion to cross paths with two little boys.
By design I began to steer Kenny more toward indoor pursuits during the hottest part of the season, to the minor irritation of his mom. I wasn’t even trying to see Candace, just to be somewhere that allowed me to keep track of her. When she did enter the same room, usually the kitchen, I was careful not to look at her but made an effort conspicuously to be occupied with whatever Kenny was willing to do there with me. Before long he began wordlessly to abandon me inside the house in order to revert, alone, to our customary organic pursuits.
The day I fell in love, Candace was everywhere at once in her family’s little house, getting ready to leave for college in another month; searching, collecting, sorting, piling, humming softly, and packing. I was here and there under foot, not intending to encounter her. Abruptly, though, it happened. We came face to face in a doorway, and she paused to regard me openly. Kenny’s sister, owner of actual underwear, blithe spirit of the house, grown woman, frankly held my gaze and conferred a petite smile of eternal acceptance. I remember I stared back. We were alone. She wore denim shorts and a white tee shirt, same as me.
That was when I saw the face. There stood the girl from the monochrome sketches on the sheet music.
My grandma must have wanted to look like that. Maybe she had. Obviously the girl in all the illustrations was supposed to be the most beautiful woman of her time, some sixty years before. And if she were the epitome of beauty back then, she could be no less so now.
As I stared I noticed that Candace Dennett was not much taller than I and probably had no prospect of attaining greater height. I failed to notice much more that would later matter: her contours and the color of her eyes, her fragrance and the shape of her hands and her bare feet.
But I do remember the voice. Candace commanded my gaze with hers, stretched her lips to one side in a sort of half grin, blinked those eyes, and broke the silence with: “I love you, Donald. I just love you.” A few moments later, from across the room, she interrupted my statue imitation with: “You’re so good for Kenny. Which is good for me. Now go on back out and get dirty again.”
Kenny never detected my miserable infatuation. I was miserable for all the right reasons but at the precise wrong decade of my life. From that day forward I couldn’t leave Kenny’s house to walk home without yearning to know where Candace was at that instant and what she would be doing until I returned. I sat in my own room at night and wondered what time she would be turning off her light, out on the edge of town. I ran to his house as soon as it was decent every morning for the rest of August and sometimes saw her not a minute after she woke up, when she padded to the kitchen and poured coffee. I began to study her more and more openly. These times, with her flowing hair arbitrarily arranged by her pillow, she was that woman. I knew that face.
I couldn’t talk directly with Candace, but I was a real conversationalist with Missus Dennett when the three of us, (four if Kenny was up too), sat in the kitchen over breakfast.
Candace never again said that she loved me, but once meant forever to me. I didn’t know a thing about love, of course, except that it was something which engulfed me like sinking slowly in a tank of syrup, something that filled my body and made me ache in a way that I couldn’t stand and couldn’t get enough of. There was no future to think about, only the moment. The most beautiful woman in the world loved almost-ten-year-old me. I was not awakening to a physical attraction either — didn’t know that was even on the horizon, I suppose. It was only the face.
It wasn’t long before we visited my grandma again. While the rest of the household sat about in the kitchen and outside it, I sat on the living room floor, beside the piano, and sifted and re-stacked the pile of music, leaving the choicest pieces on top.
I wished I could play the piano, because I would have memorized all these songs and played them back for Candace Dennett, if her house had had a piano, which it did not. Instead, I tore the simple sketch that adorned a bottom corner from one of the brittle covers — there were others missing large chunks as well — and kept her folded picture in my pocket for at least a week. Then it went through the washing machine.
It was about the day after that when Kenny had an idea. “Hey, ya wanna know something?” he began slowly and portentously. (I never answered this. It wasn’t intended that I do so. The information or question he had in mind always followed anyway.) “Candace has a boyfriend.”
The sweaty weakness and nausea that swallowed me at that tidbit, that turned the sinking-in-treacle sensation to a sinking-in-poison feeling, I now know was shock.
Kenny went on, oblivious. “Ya wanna know something, we could play a trick on her. Not on her, on her boyfriend.”
I must have acceded, or else he forged ahead anyhow. “She writes him love letters,” Kenny snickered. In a sing-song he added: “She says she’s gonna miss him and she wants to feel his hand in her something, her hand I guess, and he better come see her in B.G., and other stuff.”
“How’d you see all this?” I finally managed.
“She writes one or two a day and I find them in her room. She hides them but I find them.”
I had never seen her with a boyfriend. Never heard of one. Never guessed that she might be that kind of woman. I thought she was the girl in the illustrations: always placidly posing and waiting for nothing in particular. Gazing into my world and loving me.
“She’ll be mad if she sees you,” I warned.
“She’ll just yell at us and tell us to go get dirty.”
“What do you mean ‘us’?” I croaked at Kenny.
“Ya wanna know what? Ya wanna do something? Let’s write her boyfriend a love letter and stick it in one of her envelopes.”
“She’ll tell your mom and then we’ll both…”
“Yeah. Well, ya wanna know something? Mom doesn’t know she has a guy. I heard her say she isn’t writing letters to any boy, even when she really is.”
“She won’t tell on us.”
“She won’t tell.”
I warmed to this sort of sabotage, although my inward image of Candace was going to tatters like the scraps that had emerged from the laundry.
By the next day Kenny had procured one of her decorated, pale pink envelopes and a sheet of her writing paper. Kenny had it all composed in his head, but insisted that I put it on paper because I could almost write like a girl. So we began, and with some unexpected help I am able to quote all of it:
Dearee sweetiepie Paulee, [I knew how to spell Paul; it was my middle name…]
Kissy kissy lovvy dovvy smoochy hoochy woochy hony!! I miss you so moch all ready!! And I’m still waking around in my house with toast crums on my bathrobe and on my lips. On my lips. Get it? I want to kissy wissy you and marry you and see you in september. Or maybe never!! Just kidding.
With love and hugs and kisses and feely weely and be my hony,
Candace, you one true love
I folded the letter into a tight little lump, the size of the one in my throat, as Kenny declared his sister always did with the notes she sent to this Paul. To our good fortune, Kenny was able to creep into her room while she was off taking a bath, and he found yet another envelope already stuffed with a note. Hers was sealed but not stamped and needed only to be addressed. We refolded our letter to match the thickness of hers, sealed ours, and Kenny crept back in to give her a perfect substitute in one of her own fancy envelopes before she reappeared.
I don’t know what Kenny did with the letter he stole. It might have made a difference then. But it may be better that we didn’t know. It might have shaken my world more than the mere, crushing realization that she loved someone else. If Kenny read it, he didn’t let on. I suspect that he wouldn’t have made sense enough from it.
Candace went on to Bowling Green a few days later. Kenny and I entered fifth grade. Halfway through that year my parents moved us again. Not that far; back to Lima, the town we’d left to come to Gomer. But that was the last I saw of Kenny and Candace.
Forty years have passed. My father died last fall. It took my siblings and mother and me all winter to sift through his clutter and boxes of effects. This mélange included two large grocery sacks stuffed full of letters.
“I don’t know who he thought would ever read those again,” Mom complained.
Pulling out handfuls and scanning the envelopes, we could guess that here were all the letters we had sent home from camp and college and the army, letters from Dad’s mother, letters from old family friends. I brought the two sacks home with me and promised to make them my evenings’ reading for the rest of the winter. I said I would photocopy any that would be interesting to anyone else in the family and return to my brothers and sister the letters each had sent so long ago.
Late one evening, after everyone else in the house lay asleep, I sat myself on the living room rug, dumped both bags before me, and prepared to reminiscence with the old letters. I had barely begun turning the envelopes right-side up when I glimpsed the corner of a decorated pink one, and that face thrust itself before my mind’s eye, still trying to appear innocent and adorable. Kenny’s love note, drafted in my girlish script, wasn’t the first to emerge from the pile. It didn’t have to be. A different one came out first. For many moments I held a lumpy envelope in my lap without opening it, letting the shock dissipate and the horror sink in.
I shouldn’t have done this alone. I’m a big man now, yet this kind of thing deserves a friend’s support. But whose? Who would have understood? Kenny? Who would have come and sat with me at this hour? How could I wake my wife and explain to her this betrayal I’d discovered on so many levels?
I unfolded the note in my hand, one from Candace herself to my father — to my father Paul, her Physics teacher and Phys Ed teacher. It didn’t say much, but enough. Clearly she adored him. Clearly they had met for necking and petting after school. I stirred the pile and collected thirteen more of the fancy envelopes. I scanned these until I found one written from Bowling Green, apparently on the day of her arrival as a freshman. It begged him not to come see her. It called off the affair. It apologized for Kenny and Donnie’s nasty trick but credited our note for helping her see her folly.
I found our note.
Elsewhere in the pile of letters, in an unaddressed envelope whose bold blue invited scrutiny, I found one Dad had started for her but evidently couldn’t finish. Folded with it was a brittle piece of thick paper now over a hundred years old. The note read:
Dearest C., Even though I have had your senior picture all spring and it now sits anonymously on my bookcase at home, surrounded by your classmates’, this is the image of you that I carry in my heart. I suppose you should know how I will always remember you. It’s from the cover of a piece of music. . .
It was almost like the one I had taken from Grandma’s. It was that face.
Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.
Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.
The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.
Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.
In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.
To the Venerable Owners, Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railroad Wiscasset, Maine
June 22, 1912
By now you have closed your case on the train that disappeared. You have done the only prudent thing. You conducted an investigation. I am pleased to know that the records of the Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railroad will always show that the Two-ten of April 27 left China Lake on time, also that the Five-fifteen, the same train, never arrived in Wiscasset. Those are the facts.
Your investigation concluded that, since no train can simply disappear, since you also did not find it in a ravine or in a river or run aground in the woods somewhere, it clearly was stolen. You could not prove as much in court, so you fired the train’s engineer, fireman, and conductor, and the dispatcher in China Lake, the last men officially in charge of the train. As surely it befit the circumstances, you accused agents of the Maine Central Railroad of conspiring somehow to obtain the narrow-gauge passenger cars by diverting them to their standard-gauge flat cars and whisking them away, a feat whose execution you have not explained, and whose purpose could only be obscure. And to save your reputations you will probably claim, at some later date, that the locomotive itself was dismantled and its boiler put to stationary heating service in a shop in Wiscasset.
Curiously, you left unbesmirched the name of the dispatcher in Wiscasset, whose innocence I can avow anyway even though I have never met him. You also failed to convince anyone in Wiscasset or elsewhere that a train could silently sneak across a town at evening, past ticket-holders at the station, past workers waiting to load ice, past the distraught Wiscasset dispatcher as well, in order to reach the tracks of the adjoining railroad company, where it would have taken many men and substantial conspicuous equipment to accomplish the theft of a train.
Your representatives who came to China Lake those several weeks ago to investigate the mystery promised to interview the passengers who had been set off from the last car just before the train vanished. There were five of us, besides the train’s three-man crew. I am one of those five.
Yet, you have not returned to interview us, and we can see by the newspapers that you consider the case closed. Therefore I propose to reach you by personal correspondence.
Now learn what truly happened to the Five-fifteen. I shall begin by introducing myself.
I am a dentist — B.S. Chemistry, Bates — 1904, Dentariae Medicinae Doctorae, Harvard – 1907. I have resided in Waterville and Winslow most of the ensuing years since embarking upon my calling. However, the villages of China Lake, North Vassalboro, East Vassalboro, and others proposed that one of my profession serve their communities as an itinerant dental surgeon until one or two of their own young citizens could complete the rigorous training in dentistry. That is how I came to be in China Lake off and on recently, particularly in the days preceding the April 27 disappearance.
I had come there most recently from a few day’s work in North Vassalboro, therefore I listened with particular interest one evening at dinner when my host, Mister Chet Flewes, commented that that poor village was being visited by a peculiar stranger. This conversation took place a couple of weeks or more before you lost your train.
The stranger had personal business in the area, Mister Flewes had heard: He was seeking information concerning a lost ancestor. Apparently he was succeeding poorly or not at all in his quest, but was lingering until he had exhausted all sources.
Mister Flewes, a headmaster, learned a little bit more each day, and so Mistress Flewes, as well as another boarder, and I listened eagerly for more news each evening at dinner.
The stranger in North Vassalboro was a Mister Efferfelz. He was residing in a room at the home of the elder Mistress Prouty, the same Lisbeth Prouty who had only recently provided my lodging there, and a person known to many in China Lake.
What we learned next had the character of a tale blown out of proportion in the telling. Mistress Prouty, a reputable and honest woman of modest means in her widowhood, was watching Mister Efferfelz as he approached her house one evening at dusk. He was described as a lean man of shadowy ways and foul disposition, whose age showed only in his hair, once red and curly but now like meringue: white throughout except for wavy tips that still showed burnt orange.
As the man came nearer, Mistress Prouty assessed that he had been drinking – perhaps not excessively, but enough that he would weave slightly. In so weaving, Mister Efferfelz strayed from the sidewalk and struck his foot against a low iron figurine decorating Mistress Prouty’s crocus patch. As he reeled from the blow, barely remaining erect, the man cursed, and, before her eyes, he pointed at the statue and caused it to glow instantaneously, then disappear.
The night this story was told at dinner I promised that one day I would return from another visit to Mistress Prouty’s house and would tell the people back in China Lake what really happened.
Then another story came home with Mister Flewes. Mister Efferfelz had gone to the home of the town clerk of North Vassalboro, there to peruse some old town records. Due to his morose manner and reputation for raising people’s anxiety, he was asked to stand at the back door as the clerk, an aging Mister Aberly, brought things to him. Mister Aberly had a wind chime in a tree near his door, which instrument evidently annoyed Mister Efferfelz.
Presently, (annoyed also that he was made to stand outside), Mister Efferfelz whirled on the noisemaker, snarled, and waved his hand at it, causing it to disintegrate where it hung. The tree branch was unaffected.
These were the facts as told us by Mister Flewes. Other stories less credible also circulated in China Lake, and were especially exaggerated by the children. All feared, of course, that this stranger eventually would make his way to China Lake. And, of course, he did.
Now, in China Lake there was one person who, we all knew, would best avoid a confrontation with this stranger. “Chuck-the-Talking-Ox” Wilbert, as he’s called behind his back, runs an all-purpose business on the shore of the lake. He rents boats and canoes, he sets a table and runs a restaurant when someone wants to buy a meal, he has a cot in the boathouse so he can claim to be an innkeeper. He repairs automobiles, builds privies, and does anything that might bring in a nickel.
Chuck Wilbert is also outspoken without inhibition, and one can tell as much just by looking at him. He peers through magnifying eyeglasses, which match his unusual height and broad girth. He wears overalls that are too short, and sneezes into countless rags that drip from his many pockets. The sole listener to his incessant opinionating is usually his cat, but any human being who passes within earshot usually finds himself snared in conversation — or shall I say, in “uni-versation” — as I learned one day when I recklessly passed his open-fronted establishment.
On or about April 21, as it happens, (it was that Sunday), I myself had skirted Wilbert’s storefront in order to sink a worm into a stream I had found a little distance from town. I was horseback this day, for once I was a mile or more from town I expected to cover about another mile off-road. I was not much disturbed by the gathering clouds, but if I had been more sensible that day I would have stayed indoors for what they forebode.
I was well out of town, on the road to the Vassalboros, I must add, when I realized that I must surely turn back. The horse was nervous due to the imminent storm, and hardly knew me. But then, in the distance, I saw a man approaching on foot. A little shabby in appearance but also retaining an air of dignity, he carried a light bag and made no effort to hail or detain me. Nonetheless, I paused until he drew near enough that I could offer him a lift.
He would have trudged past me as if I were a two-headed, four-legged bush at the road’s edge, but I spoke to interrupt his pace and know his desire. His up-turned gaze said leave-me-alone, and when he faced me squarely I knew whom I had intercepted. Beneath the straw hat grew the aptly-described hair. The face wore a look of disgust at my interruption of his journey.
“Sorry to stop you, Sir,” I explained, sliding from my mount but holding her reins fast, “but I thought I could offer to share my horse for a faster ride into town.” I wanted to study his face from the advantage of being a stranger, but somehow he turned his head this way and that to prevent my scrutiny of him.
After a mild sigh the traveler said, (unpleasantly, but less threateningly than I had expected): “You go your way, I’ll go mine.”
I indicated the storm with one arm after I rose back to the saddle, and as if joining me in contemplation of the sky he squinted into the first few heavy drops of rain. So, I good-naturedly patted the horse’s rump and said: “Last chance!” or something like that. But the words were barely off my tongue when the man shouted: “I don’t want your horse!” As soon as he had yelled this he swung his free arm at the sky as if batting cobwebs from a ceiling. I saw his face clearly in that moment: His jaw was set in a fierce frown, his eyes aglare, his nostrils flared, and his hair seeming to squirm out from under the edges of his hat.
Ignoring his gesture I spurred away toward town, for the poor mare had become edgy almost beyond control. But then, after — how long was it? — a half a minute? — the horse seemed to ease her gallop, and I drew her to a stop to assimilate what she had already discovered. The clouds, you see, had given way directly overhead. The rain, that had already begun to sting the back of my neck, was no more. Sunbeams shot across the road the fields and the forest at a crazy angle, setting the budding deciduous trees aglow against the moistened conifers. Still, the sunlight itself was an enigma under the blackened sky all around. The wind had barely had a chance to blow in with the first raindrops, and now it, too, was restrained. In the shadows beyond the horse’s flank a dozen evening grosbeaks stood, nearly offering to be trampled, but casting about as if to understand what was become of their expected weather.
I wanted to glance backward, to see whether the traveler had come into view, but I didn’t care. He had already refused my hospitality, and I understood too well what had become of our storm. I probably could have enjoyed my afternoon of fishing after all, but in truth I couldn’t have enjoyed anything at all at this point. I spurred the horse once again, scattering the dumbfounded birds, and didn’t ease up until I neared my hosts’ house.
As I was stabling the horse I thanked God that I was not, of my own innate goodwill, the one who personally brought Mister Efferfelz into China Lake, for, had I done so, the citizens of the town would never forget such a faux pas. I said nothing to Mistress Flewes, who was merrily entertaining guests. Within hours, I guessed, they would hear of the strange man’s arrival, and I could then be as “surprised” as everyone else.
And hear about it we did. For Mister Efferfelz, regardless what his other powers might have been, evidently was not gifted at discerning flawed character, so to avoid undesirable consequences. He walked into the village a half hour or so after I had returned, and immediately spied Chuck Wilbert’s signs. As Chuck later regaled everyone repeatedly, they haggled over the price of cot privileges and meals, and Wilbert himself admits to being subdued by the gaunt man, to the point of accepting the stranger at his opening offer.
But later, after Mister Efferfelz had settled his things and was politely eating the supper Wilbert had set before him in the open doorway of the boathouse, the innkeeper warmed to his usual talkativeness. Presently, a couple of Wilbert’s cronies sidled into the boathouse to have a look at the guest. Wilbert acknowledged them but continued to inform the visitor of all the political and social problems of China Lake. The three locals recall clearly that, without any extraordinary provocation, Efferfelz looked up from his plate and asked: “Why is it that as people grow older they lose the use of their eyes, their ears, their limbs, their bladders, their teeth — almost everything — but the voice doesn’t even falter?”
Wilbert turned red and stammered, quick to take the insult, and gripped his stool as if to rise in wrath, while the others scowled at the scene uncomprehending. The stranger calmly swept his arm at the talking ox’s seat as if whisking away a fly, and the stool disappeared — disintegrated completely. Gravity being what it is, therefore, Wilbert simply tumbled backwards, out the doorway and into the water lilies that clogged the shallows around his establishment.
Chuck Wilbert was unhurt, of course. And when he was back on his feet making puddles on his dock, his rage unabated, he was able to see Mister Efferfelz, bag in hand, sauntering purposefully toward the center of town. For the next several days Wilbert remained aloof from everyone, but it was said that he had hired a spy to inform him should Efferfelz ever again approach his business.
It’s a fact that China Lake, like any other town, boasts a half a dozen houses each with a discreet sign in a window advertising “ROOMS”. By such a sign at the Flewes house I was able to find lodging. However, when word of the mysteries happening in North Vassalboro had spread far enough, the signs simply disappeared, one by one. Thus, on a Sunday evening at dusk, a traveler in town became a vagrant.
No one knows where he slept for the next couple of nights. By day, no more dusty or unkempt than any other traveler might of necessity be, Efferfelz made his way about town inquiring after his lost ancestor. We now knew the name of the person he sought, the Reverend Mister Percival D. Welch. But it meant nothing to those whom he asked, nor to anyone else who heard about the stranger’s business.
Efferfelz took all his meals at the sandwich counter in Stuart’s Store, a tedious diet after a couple of days, I can attest. He eyed everyone who entered the place hour after hour, as if watching for the unknown ancestor to happen along. I had a different theory, though. I think he was looking for someone who resembled the person he sought. Mister Philip Stuart, a quiet and devout Christian, treated his dour customer with courtesy, and the Stuarts might have suffered a loss of business were it not for the fact that they were such respected citizens that the town simply would not abandon them. Sometime during the week Philip Stuart even made up an apartment for Efferfelz upstairs over a white, clapboard-sided storage building behind the store, generously shaded by a great chestnut tree.
Mister Stuart was ultimately able to determine that Percival D. Welch was an uncle to the stranger, and Efferfelz did not know whether the uncle was living or dead. What business he had with this uncle he would not say.
All through his first five whole days in China Lake I was able to avoid a reunion with the man I had met on the road. And on Saturday afternoon I was scheduled to leave on the Two-ten, so I might have escaped altogether, as it were. I had my ticket and would be making connections southward to Falmouth to visit an aunt for a while, before resuming my own dentistry practice in Winslow. But late Saturday morning I had need to visit Stuart’s Store myself, for the store was also the Post Office, and I had dental records and a bank draft to send home.
Efferfelz rounded the corner to the entrance to the store just as I also reached the door. I nodded politely and held the door open for him, which gesture he did not acknowledge. In that moment, perhaps from the surprise of finding myself side-by-side with the man in public, I felt like a stranger to town myself. Indeed, I sensed some pairs of eyes on the two of us together, thinking: “There are those two outsiders.”
It happens that there are street urchins in China Lake, as you might call them, children not yet in puberty who are free to roam the streets and yards, the water’s edge and the forest’s edge, from the school’s last bell until dusk. I saw about six such children almost every day, such that within a week or ten days I could put names or nicknames to every one. I had been in the home of at least one such to treat a mother’s putrid gums.
A group of these ragamuffins flew into the store like a flock of snow buntings, shortly after Efferfelz and I arrived that Saturday.
“Be about your business and then be gone!” Mister Stuart warned the children, expecting that one of them had been sent to buy the two-cent day-old bread or some salt pork for beans.
They set about their business, all right. Two or three went to the back of the store and began stinging Efferfelz with projectiles from home-made pea shooters. Efferfelz spun and glared at them in disbelief, while I, certain of his power but unsure how he might use it, stood nearby, numb and mute.
One of the hooligans near the door began urging another to “Tell him what he is! Tell him! Tell him what he is!” The ones with pea shooters hurried front, for Efferfelz had risen to his feet and was moving to intercept them.
But the little roaches were too quick, and the last one to reach the open door, a child I had previously learned was called “Petey” or something like that, stopped and shouted: “You’re the devil, you are!”
Petey reached the street still spouting: “You’re the devil himself!”
Efferfelz nearly caught the kid but missed. He stood in the store’s open doorway and listened to the same group of kids taunt him from the middle of the rutted street: “Devil in disguise!” and other shouts. I roused myself and would have gone after the man had he taken another step. But as I watched, his chin quivered and his eyes reddened and filled with liquid. And then, from my front corner of the store, I glimpsed the fleeting motion of his arm as he raised it to sweep a dreadful curse into the street. I’m told that, as I watched the child called Petey through the store’s front window, I shouted: “No!” in that moment when the little boy rose ever so slightly from the ground and then disappeared in a weak orange flash that seemed, as a lens, to magnify whatever was beyond it.
The remaining kids wasted no time analyzing what had happened. They all dispersed instantly. I half turned to glance at Philip Stuart, who had also seen. He had the large eyes and open mouth of a man whose deep religious foundation had just been shaken by an earthquake that could not happen. Others outside the store, for there were two or three passers-by, stopped in their tracks and raised their eyebrows. But then, one by one they saw the man standing in the doorway, and their oblivion turned to comprehension and panic.
Efferfelz stalked out the door and lurched around the corner of the building in the direction of his apartment in the back. Who was going to accost him, after all?
Stuart and I, as well as the others present, slowly approached the spot where Petey had last existed. A constable, whom I recognized as a local stonemason in an ill-fitting uniform, hurried from a nearby house, wiping his chin with a doily. Here, perhaps, was Wilbert’s spy. He too had witnessed the unbelievable.
Minutes passed, I suppose, as more and more citizens gathered around the suspicious spot, and the story had to be told and retold. It was a telling that could not be exaggerated. Shortly a diminutive young woman could be seen running and shouting hysterically from the direction of the apartment houses up the hill from the lake. She was surrounded by other young mothers and by kids, many more children than made up the normal group of street kids, but most of them younger.
Then things happened which are a blur, but the next thing I recall is that I was among a crowd that stood all about inside Stuart’s Store. It was clear that the boy, Petey, and his mother were somewhat new to China Lake. It was also whispered that she was divorced, and therefore living in near poverty with this one child, without significant social involvement in the town. In a sense, the mood of the crowd was not so much that Petey’s annihilation was a tragedy, but that it were now possible for such an unspeakable thing to happen to any “decent” citizen of the town.
Shortly the crowd was of one mind that someone needed to talk with this evil man. Once this decision was agreed upon, the entire group sort of poured thickly into the street, I along with the rest, agreeing.
Agreeing! For whom had all minds fixed upon to talk to him? Why the other outsider in town: me! I had added my assent, realizing too late that I was the lone designee.
To ponder this prospect I lowered myself to the steps of the store and sat with my face in my hands. Voices reassured me from all sides that I was perfect for the task. Perfect, of course, because I was expendable to these people. Nevertheless, they may have been right.
Without a word I rose and walked slowly around the store. Without a pause I climbed the outside wooden steps of the storage building to the man’s door. The door was slightly ajar, so when I knocked, it swung in a little. “Mister Efferfelz,” I said to accompany my knock.
I repeated: “Mister Efferfelz…”
“Go away!” he insisted, and I shuddered to think what a turning point this was in my life. In a little over an hour I could be on a train and out of this town forever. Or, in a couple of minutes, I could be vaporized, molecule-by-molecule, my displaced soul at the mercy of a power I didn’t comprehend.
I pushed the door and waited until it ceased its swing. Efferfelz sat in a dusty green colored, stuffed, wing-back chair under a dormer, his back to the entrance. I stepped into the dark storage room and saw for the first time the minute, Spartan space within the attic that this man occupied. The sleeping quarters seemed to be in order, and his bag was packed for departure, resting on a cot.
He turned slowly, but with obvious intolerance. “Oh, the dentist,” he remarked, and then turned back toward the window. “My teeth are fine. Go away.”
“I’m not here to antagonize you, Sir…” I began as I nudged the door with my elbow to close it part way.
“Then don’t,” he interrupted.
I pressed on: “But the town has asked me to insist that you restore the child…to life and body…” I was out of words.
During the ensuing pause, my mind tried to divert its attention from the danger at hand to any other subject at all, so long as it were more pleasant. Inscrutably, I found myself trying to repeat silently the steps required for a simple tooth extraction — to prepare the instruments needed and the procedure itself. My memory was as blank as if I had never heard of teeth.
“It was only a street urchin.” The voice, slightly edgy, broke my confusion.
I tried to muster words that would answer his condemnation of a child — a pest of a child, yes — whose value to this other human being stood alongside that of an urchin. A cooked urchin on your dinner plate? I wondered, or a live urchin in its littoral habitat?
“I can’t do it,” Efferfelz continued meekly.
I didn’t know what to say to this, so I waited behind him in silence. Petey wasn’t my child, nor did he have any relationship to me, but I felt my anger slowly rise. I was angry not so much at this man, but at the mere fact that a power could be placed at the disposal of an ordinary man, which power was able to pluck a human being out of time and space without having to account for itself.
Then Efferfelz turned. “I’ve been trying to think of a way,” he explained.
“Sir,” I ventured, disarmed by his quieter manner, “I do not come to judge you. Others have judged, and I cannot count myself among them, for I don’t know what experiences may torment a man’s past.”
“That’s good, Doctor Williamson,” Efferfelz said, sustaining the conversation. “I presume that you have never known another with my special — ah — gift.”
“You’re right. I have not known another. Nor can I comprehend such a talent.”
“Sit there, Doctor Williamson. I shall explain something to you. For I leave here in an hour, and in my wake I leave a chain of destruction in every town, although not by design.” He looked away and mumbled: “Mostly minor destruction.”
I took a step backwards and lowered myself to a trunk next to the door. I saw at this point that the door was closed completely. Should this meeting deteriorate, I was prevented a quick escape. Then it also hit me: leaving in an hour!
Hiding my scrambled thoughts, I faced him squarely from the trunk.
Efferfelz proceeded. “You’ve been deferential to me since our first meeting, Doctor. Perhaps you sense that I am not an evil man. Or perhaps your manners are so well-honed that you tip your hat to cockroaches before you squash them. I will assume the former, though.”
“I have not presumed you evil,” I answered honestly.
Efferfelz alternately turned toward the window, then away from it toward me as he spoke. And this is what he told me: “I once met an angel of Satan. I didn’t realize his position at the time, and indeed, any one of us could aspire to that distinction, angel of Satan, if we wanted it. In the same way, any one of us could become a saint in the service of God, and occasion the happening of miracles by summoning profound faith.
“I was vexed by a property boundary dispute, not so very long ago,” Efferfelz went on, “a truly petty thing, now that I can reflect on it clearly. The details don’t matter, but I was a wealthy man of property, and, of all the stupid things, a rock along a property line created a disagreement over the dimensions of the property, and thus its value. For the lot description referred to a ‘huge boulder’, and there was this one which troubled me, and there was another several dozen yards away.
“As I stood on the troublesome property line one day, a year and a half ago, a strange-looking man, dressed all in furs, wandered past — a trapper, I imagined. And, in a way, I was right. For although he only nodded to me in the field, he showed up at my office the next day.
“‘I can be of some help to you,’ the trapper told me at this encounter, ‘and you to me.’ I told him I was a busy man, so to make the offer and be on his way.
“‘You can will that stone gone,’ the trapper said. Now it’s possible that anybody could have known of my plight over the stone, so that didn’t surprise me.
“‘I’m not a church-going man,’ I said.
“‘Forget church,’ he said. ‘Meet me at your rock tomorrow at dusk. And bring with you the one possession you hold most dear in this world.’
“‘I wouldn’t give you my dearest possession just to remove a rock,’ I argued with him.
“‘I won’t ask you for it,’ he assured me. ‘Just bring it as a symbol of your desire to have the thing gone, and of your faith that it can be done.’
“I knew instantly what possession that would be, of course, but it wasn’t until he left that I pondered how he could guess it was something small enough to carry single-handedly. I don’t remember his departure from my office. I must have been deeply preoccupied. And all the next day I chided myself for my gullibility. Still, who would know, if I experimented with this odd plan?
“That evening I drove late to the field whose back boundary held the stone. I reasoned that the old trapper would tire of waiting and would find someone else on whom to practice his con games.
“This stone — this rock, whose total annihilation would be required to satisfy my greed — this solid piece of earth was perhaps a third the size of this building. I half-expected the furry old man to show up with a few sticks of dynamite, and yet he would realize as well as I that no one could shatter that boulder without drawing a crowd from town to investigate the explosions. Nor could the large remaining fragments be dragged across the muddy field without leaving traces. What’s more, a team and driver would be needed, and a place to dump the debris.
“So I knew he had to have another trick to demonstrate, or else he would stand there in the edge of the woods with a crowd of my business colleagues and they would laugh at my stupidity in showing up.
“But the old man was alone, beside the rock. He had a peculiar gleam in one eye, and he asked whether I’d brought my treasure. Well, I had, but I also had brought a substitute in case — well, just in case. So I patted the pocket which held the substitute, and he made a most sinister grin. He seemed to spring from foot to foot in a little dance, almost as if he desperately needed to urinate.
“Then he pointed at the pocket where my true treasure lay, and he screamed — screamed!: ‘I want what’s in that pocket!’
“‘And I want that gone!’ I shouted, swinging my arm at the rock looming beside me. I was angry, of course, and more determined than I must have realized. For the rock made a sort of loud ‘Pop!’ and disappeared. There remained a brief orange glow in the air, and through the aura I could see the old trapper running away into the woods, clutching something in his hands with which he was obviously well-pleased.
“My hands automatically went to my pockets. The pocket which had held a man’s jeweled ring, a gift from my father, still contained the gaudy ring. But the pocket which had held a silver locket with a photograph had been ripped open, as if the pocket had simply burst, and the locket was gone.
“I never saw the fur-bearing man again, and no one else I asked had ever seen him. And in the days that followed I found myself annihilating things around me with angry sweeps of either arm. You see, it’s a gesture which I must have used all my life, but now, when I desire something gone at the same time, it truly becomes ‘gone’.
Efferfelz suddenly addressed me directly, as if remembering for the first time that I was in the room. “Did you ever have the opportunity to do something you knew was wrong — steal an ashtray, for instance — and follow through impulsively, before you could stop yourself? And then did you discover that it was too late to reverse the act?”
I nodded slowly. “Something like that.”
“Well, I’ve always been quick to anger, so to Satan I suppose I was a good candidate upon whom to confer such a destructive power. No one can understand with what determination I restrain myself.”
“If it’s your faith in your ability to do this thing which makes it all possible,” I ventured, “then surely you would understand how to invoke a faith in God for the purpose of relieving yourself of the curse.”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Of course I realize that! And so it has become an obsession with me to seek the one man I have known who could, with enough forbearance, lead me to give it up to God.”
I supplied the name: “The Reverend Mister Percival D. Welch.”
“In the silver locket stolen by the trapper is a photograph of my mother and Percival Welch, her brother. My mother is long dead, but I don’t know what became of my uncle. I have been led to believe that he and his child, now a grown woman, is living in the central part of the state. He was married late in life, and had a child perhaps thirty years ago. I lost touch with him not long thereafter.”
“I don’t know what might have become of him,” I offered lamely.
“Of course not.”
“But perhaps I could put off my plans for a time and join your search.”
The whispery echo of a locomotive’s whistle gave us both pause.
For a fleeting instant Efferfelz seemed to soften, but then he set his jaw and rose from his chair, saying: “Save your energy. I have a train to catch. Do you suppose any officer of the law will try to interdict me for causing a child to disappear?”
I became alarmed that he would leave so casually. “Is that it, then? You annihilate a child, a human being, and now you walk away?”
Efferfelz gave me a condescending smile. “I am going to try to bring him back, if you can believe that of me. But I can only guess how to go about it. And I think I will have only one chance. So tell the town that they will have my answer after I have departed. Now, please. I must catch a train.”
He moved to retrieve his bag, and I gave him a smile I might put on were I a card-player about to show a good hand, for I was able to pull a ticket from my own shirt pocket and hold it before him. “I’ll see you on the train,” I said, intending to be friendly. I don’t know how he took it, though, for he brushed past me, pulled the door aside, and hastened down the stairway to the packed earth below.
I sat inside where I could watch his leave-taking for a few seconds. No human form interrupted his progress, although many eyes were upon him from within windows and around corners.
I too left the apartment. My bags were already checked that morning at the station, so I was able to pause at the front of Stuart’s Store and survey the small crowd still loitering there. Mister and Mistress Flewes were in the group, and the Stuarts, but mostly these were the faces of a distraught populace faced with fear and helplessness.
I sighed, swallowed hard, and shook my head. Someone asked: “How’d you spend so much time up there and come out in one piece?”
I didn’t know who asked. It didn’t matter. “He has a power he didn’t ask for. And he doesn’t know how to bring the boy back, but he’ll try.”
“Then let him come and try!” another hooted.
“Go get him yourself,” I invited, and the crowd laughed dryly.
Looking about, I mumbled: “He’s leaving on the Two-ten. I’m scheduled on the same train.”
Mister Flewes heard me, although the crowd was becoming unruly, and offered to give me a lift in his automobile the short distance to the station just as the whistle pierced the air announcing the train’s imminent arrival.
Ten minutes later the whistle blew again and we were off. The train was a mixed consist — a single small engine, a mail car, a couple of freight cars, and a single passenger car. It wasted no time getting up to twenty or twenty-five miles per hour, and jolted and creaked as only those miniature trains can do.
Efferfelz sat at the forward end of the coach. Four other passengers, a conductor, and I were distributed around the rest of the interior. When we had gone about a mile or a little more across fields and alongside woods and a stream, Efferfelz rose and exited the car toward the front of the train, where through the open door we could see the back of a wooden boxcar. No one gave it a thought, I suppose. But then, presently, the train slowed, and shortly, the engineer and fireman were ushered into the car.
“Run! Run!” the thin, wild-eyed engineer was shouting as he stumbled into the car.
Efferfelz appeared behind them, puffing from the exertion of climbing up and over the freight cars between us and the engine. I recognized the expression he wore, one of fading tolerance.
The train continued to decelerate, it’s throttle pulled partway back in the empty engine cab. One by one the passengers sized up the situation and moved to huddle in the rear of the car.
I didn’t fear the man, but I didn’t challenge him. In fact, I somewhat anticipated him, so that when he ordered us to jump from the back of the creeping train, I led the way. I hoped it would give the others courage, and it did.
While we all variously sat or stood on the ballast and rails, rubbing our bruises, we watched Efferfelz crawl back across the tops of the receding freight cars to the engine. The little train then picked up speed as it approached a curve ahead. And then, a couple hundred yards ahead, when Engine Number 5 was only half gone behind trees that lined the curve, but the rest of the train was still fully in sight, there was a dull clap in the air and a weak orange flash that reflected from the smooth crowns of the rails. A profound silence instantly replaced the hissing and clatter of the accelerating train. And, except for a sideways-drifting plume of thinning smoke, the Two-ten out of China Lake had vanished.
Eight pairs of eyes saw it all. The fireman and engineer, still and silent to this point, began running toward their train’s trail of smoke, but both stopped after a few strides. There was simply nothing toward which to run.
I led the way back to China Lake along the tracks, out-pacing the others in order to avoid the useless debate over what had happened. It was clear now what his idea had been for restoring the child. Efferfelz needed a vessel — the train — into which he could place himself, and then he needed to annihilate the vessel itself, and thus him with it.
As I strode over the cross ties, strewn on both berms with flattened, yellow-gray stalks of last summer’s mustard and wild carrots, there was something more I saw all too clearly — too late to posit to Efferfelz that he surely had another recourse. For he had been playing Satan’s game and losing. But isn’t the presence of a devil sure proof of God as well? Couldn’t you see, Efferfelz, (I wanted to say to him as I plucked a sprig of mustard), that you didn’t need to fight such a force with only your own weak power?
Near town we all scrambled onto the auto road where it swung alongside the tracks, and from here I drew back and let the others run ahead.
When I was halfway along the street toward Stuart’s Store I was joined by three of the same street urchins who had taunted Efferfelz that afternoon. “He’s back!” they shouted — an announcement I didn’t grasp but fully understood at the same time.
I broke into a run.
In front of the store, the crowd was milling still, and then it parted. I slowed to let whatever-it-was pass. Dr. Nadeau, the town physician, appeared, and then Petey emerged, clutched so tightly by his mother that his feet mostly dragged limply on the ground. His mother wiped at his eyes with her apron as she tried to speak to the doctor through her sobs. The boy was sooty and unkempt, but not perceptibly different than usual.
Dr. Nadeau hailed me as he led the pair across the street toward his office: “Doctor Williamson! Perhaps you could assist me here! This lad has had an unusual experience, and I will be examining him.”
I joined the trio, then, as they reached the doctor’s front steps, followed by the advancing crowd. Inside, Dr. Nadeau asked, making conversation I assumed: “Now, do I know you, Ma’am? Did I deliver this child?” The doctor’s gnarled hands cupped the boy’s face and gently turned his head from side to side, beginning the examination.
“No,” Petey’s mother answered. “We’ve lived here only a year and a half.”
“Ah…” the doctor said, and sat Petey onto his examining table. Then he waited for the young mother to continue.
“We, uh, moved here from Rockland when my father died there. My husband left us, and — and I had a friend here, and so we came here where things were quieter.” The woman blushed at the admission of divorce.
“Ah…” Dr. Nadeau said again.
“Doctor, I can’t pay for any examination,” the woman protested.
“I’ll not worry about that,” he answered. After he had obtained a sheet of paper and a pen the doctor proceeded to address the shuddering child. “What’s your name, Son?”
“Peter, is it, Ma’am?”
“Aw, Ma!” the boy protested before his mother could answer.
“He’s called P.D. His name is Percival Darius Baker,” she told us against his protest.
The doctor was writing this on the sheet while I stared blankly at the mother.
“And your name, Ma’am? For the record.”
“Theresa Welch Baker.”
So there you have it, gentlemen of the railroad. As it turned out, the boy recalls nothing but a sensation such as that of having fallen off a horse, which he described as having knocked him silly. He merely found himself sitting in the muddy street staring up at the backs of peoples’ skirts and boots as they still milled about in front of Stuart’s Store.
What more is there for me to tell you?
Well, the Reverend Mister Percival D. Welch, for one thing. His death in Rockland seems to have coincided with Efferfelz’s encounter with the trapper who made off with his locket. The Reverend Welch was a much respected pastor there, if his daughter can be believed.
It is not my line to speculate upon theological subjects, but the whole situation is so neat, don’t you see? Satan needed the good pastor removed from this earthly realm. Who knows why he had to contrive this method? And then, he needed to prevent Efferfelz’s discovering his own cousin and her son right there in China Lake. So Efferfelz was set up to destroy the boy, forcing the unfortunate gentleman, for he may have been a naturally gruff man but not naturally evil, to flee. I expect that Satan has claimed the tormented man’s soul in the bargain, while losing the good pastor’s to heaven. As for the boy, well, there’s still another chance to grab him.
And then there is Efferfelz, a man of wealth and property, or so he had told me. I have not inquired about him since this event happened. I do not have the resources to hire an investigator, not any personal or professional reason to do so. Because I have expected to be interviewed, in which expectation apparently I have been flattering myself, I also expected that the good people of China Lake would insist that he be found and made to explain himself, or that the investigative arm of some police force would pursue him. And perhaps they have done so; I have not been told. I suspect, though, that if he has been sought, he has not been found. What’s more, I suppose the people of China Lake have nothing to pursue him for, either. That which was lost later materialized as if it — the boy, that is — had never been absent.
I doubt that this letter will find its way into the official account of the disappearance of the Five-fifteen. I hope, though, that you will be kind enough to assign it a place in a lower file drawer, where it may enlighten future investigators of the incident.
Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.
Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.
That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.
Weary — Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: they came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.
In School Days — He lives to learn, In life’s hard school, How few who pass above him, Lament their triumph and his loss, Like her — because they love him.
Photography as we practice it was invented in the 1840s in France. By the 1860s and the start of the Civil War in the United States there were enough cameras in use to provide the first widespread photographic record of historical events. Who isn’t familiar with Mathew Brady’s posed scenes of President Lincoln visiting General Grant in front of a battlefield tent?
The 1860s was a period no longer after the invention of the camera than, say, the period during which we have had smart phones.
The technology of photography spread quickly, and with it a responsibility was born that most people didn’t think of — until too late. It is that responsibility which I want to press upon you now.
By the 1920s, millions of photos had been taken and perhaps millions of people had appeared in them. Movies were already being made by stringing together thousands of rapidly-shot tiny images and replaying them just as rapidly between a lamp and a reflective screen.
By the 1920s, also, the people who had appeared in the earliest photos ever taken were mostly no longer with us. But their children were still living. The people who held those earliest photos in family albums and lockets and ornate frames knew who they were. When I was a child, my parents, born in the mid-1920s, could name every face in every photo in our three or four family albums, even though some of those photos had been taken fifty years before they were born.
By the 1990s I was in possession of a large quantity of these old pictures. Also, by this time, my parents were dimming a little, and it actually occurred to me that I needed them to start labeling the old images. Well, we did sit down on a couple of occasions, but instead of methodically doing the work, we permitted ourselves to be entertained with a few stories that went with a few of the pictures, and the rest were set aside for a later date.
My father died in 1998, and the quantity of photos, not to mention other old documents, that emerged from his belongings after his death is a terrible waste of lost memories. We, his children, don’t know who most of those people are and didn’t know that most of those photos even existed.
A couple years later, I wrote to my father’s sister, Ginny, in the Farmington area, by then in her eighties, and told her I needed her help with some old pictures. She wrote back and agreed to the idea, but added that she was always busy making pies for the church and watching her grandchildren, but surely we would have a good time some day and go through pictures.
Well, we didn’t, and Aunt Ginny died a year or two after that. My mother, right now in 2016, still enjoys three square meals and a warm bed in a nursing home in Farmington, Maine, but she doesn’t even know any of her own children. [Addendum: Mom died in 2017 at age 92.] We’ve lost her contribution to the effort as well.
I have made an effort, though. I have a fairly extensive genealogy of the past few generations of my ancestors. And in many of the old photos, I do know at least one of the faces. By using some logic in the way you would solve a puzzle, I will add possible names to the other faces and see whether it makes sense according to their apparent ages and the setting or period in the image. Once I have made sense of one photo, I will look for the same faces in another and then follow my conclusion through a number of photos. If my guesses are reinforced by other photos and settings, I will call it good.
And this is where it struck me that my generation has an even more urgent responsibility than my parents had. For I am old enough (66 in 2016) that I knew not only the images, but was also actually acquainted with some of the people themselves, who were born as far back as the 1860s, if they were still alive when I was a kid. And it struck me how much farther back my mother could go, if her mind were still with her!
It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly. But it is difficult to bring the task to the top of the list of things that must be attended to day by day. I am the last chance that a lot of these people among my ancestors will be positively identified. If they are not, then the pictures (quite a few tintypes among them) are useless and may as well be donated to a garage sale.
I have the same responsibility regarding the images I have taken with my own cameras over the years. Fortunately, modern photo-organizing programs on computers urge us to pay attention to that detail. But for my generation there is a double-whammy, for I have thousands of photos I took myself using film cameras. And, what’s worse, one trunkful of a thousand of my own photos once sat in a flooded basement. Those pictures are now all permanently stuck together. My only hope, if there are any important ones among them when I tear them apart, is to find the negatives and scan those.
I have that project under way as well. On a make-shift desk in the basement I have a spare scanner and an old computer, both pretty much dedicated to converting film negatives to digital images. The scanner produces astonishing images from 35mm negatives, and I get to be the first to resurrect a picture I took in the 1970s, when we were just starting a family and making a home of our own.
If I don’t do it, though, it will be beyond my own children’s knowledge and resources, not to mention available time, to take over the job. It’s a job that I accept with enthusiasm.
A cousin in Ohio sent me a couple photos recently. She knew they were our ancestors, but there was no identification attached. I have an extensive family history, written by my mother, so I began to work on them. One photo features 16 people posed for a group picture, the other depicts ten people in a similar formal pose.
If you’re related to the Dershem family or any of the other names included below, you may find this interesting. If you’re not related, then the rest of this will be worse than boring, so be forewarned!
I was able to puzzle out the first photo, below, because I instantly recognized my mother’s father, Richard Ivan Miller, back row, second from right. I don’t recall that I had ever seen a photo of my Dershem ancestors, but I surmised that the woman sitting before my grandfather is my grandmother, Ella May (Dershem) Miller, although I had only ever seen a couple of pictures of them both taken much later in life. (I had also never seen them in person; both of my mother’s parents died when she was a teenager.) The next guess, since this is almost assuredly a family photo, was that it is a portrait of Ella May with her parents, siblings, their spouses, and children. Using the family history from my mother, I began attaching names.
This photo, then, taken in 1913, shows James Milton Dershem and Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem (seated in front row, left) with their six children and spouses and all their grandchildren. The three older children were married, the three younger ones were not. If this is indeed the explanation for the photo, then no one is missing and there are no extraneous people either (except the fellow in the straw hat on the left, around the corner of the house — he may be cropped out in some versions of the photo). The six Dershem children (with year of birth) were John 1881, Daniel Frank 1883, my grandmother Ella May 1884, Hattie Blossom 1895, Byron Homer 1898, and Oliver Perry 1900.
So here they are: front row, left to right: Oliver Perry Dershem 1900, my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem 1861, Cleta Dershem 1906, my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem 1862, Margaret Irene Miller 1908 (called Irene), Hattie Blossom Dershem 1895 (called Blossom) holding her nephew Bernard Ivan Miller 1912, Bernard’s mother and my grandmother Ella May (Dershem) Miller 1884. Back row, left to right: John Dershem 1881 holding Lawrence Dershem 1911, Goldie (Rabe) Dershem 1888, Daniel Frank Dershem 1883 holding James Cleon Dershem 1911, Ruth Velma (Ohm) Dershem 1889, my grandfather Richard Ivan Miller 1885 (called Ivan), Byron Homer Dershem 1898.
Oliver Perry was known to my mother as Uncle Dutch. Daniel Frank is sometimes listed as Franklin. Cleta, in front, is daughter of John, left rear. Margaret Irene Miller was the oldest child of Richard Ivan Miller and Ella May (Dershem) Miller. Bernard Ivan Miller was their second child, after Margaret Irene. I assumed 1912 for Bernard’s year of birth, although I’ve seen it as December 1913. If 1912 is correct as his birth year, then the year of this photo is 1913, likely in the springtime (Easter?).
Richard Ivan Miller’s father, Dan Miller (not in the photo), is written about in Kate Gardner’s 1884 diary, found elsewhere at this web site. And for a haunting look at this subject from my father’s side of the family, see my article Mary Jane, Mary Jane.
The photo below of the five couples with no names is older, I believe. Maybe 10-15 years older, some time in the 1890s up to early 1900s. I say this mainly because of their clothes.
The white-haired man is far older than the other four men, so I’d guess he is the father of the family and, if this is dated around 1900, he may have been born in the 1830s. Perhaps the other four men are his sons, or a couple of them are his sons and a couple of the women are his daughters. I started with James Milton Dershem, my great-grandfather whose family is gathered in the first photo above, and went back one more generation. If the old man is his father, John Rueben Dershem, born in 1838, then in 1900, at age 62, he had four living sons and three living daughters. Another son, Elijah, died in November 1900, so if these are his four sons, it would have been taken in the summer before Elijah died. But Jesse Glenwood Dershem, the youngest, was only 17 that summer. None of the men seated in the photo is that young, unless maybe the giant, who appears to be the youngest. I remember Uncle Jesse, and he was no giant.
Looking at their faces, the man in the middle could be James Milton Dershem, who was 39 in 1900, and the woman behind him could be his wife and my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem. And the young man standing off to the right side could be a youthful Jesse (not visible in the cropped version). So maybe this is John Rueben Dershem, the white-haired man, with his wife behind him, and his married children and spouses, some time after 1900, (but not later than 1905, the year both John Rueben and wife Louiza (Imler) Dershem died). So let’s say it’s summer 1903. (Jesse wasn’t married until 1907.) My great-grandfather James Milton Dershem was 42 in 1903. His sister Sarah Catherine (Sally) was 37 and, my mother says in the family history she wrote, that she knows Sally was married but knows nothing about Sally’s husband. Another sister Emma Louisa was 33 in 1903 and was married to a Miller but my mother’s history says he was not related to her dad Richard Ivan Miller (whose father came from Virginia by way of Pennsylvania, not Ohio). James’s brother Sheldon Aaron (known as Shell) was 29 and was married. And James’s sister, John Rueben’s daughter Missouri Mae Dershem (whom we all knew as Aunt Hattie) was never married.
The more I study this, the more I can accept the conclusion that this is a portrait of John Rueben Dershem with his wife and his married children, along with their spouses. It’s the summer of 1901 to 1904, but I’ll say it’s 1903. I’m going to say these are the people in the photo:
Left to right, the women are Sarah Catherine Dershem (married name not known), Emma Louisa (Dershem) Miller (younger than Sally), my great-grandmother Margaret Effie Alice (Sunderland) Dershem, my great-great-grandmother Louiza (Imler) Dershem, and Ollie (Harbert) Dershem, Shell’s wife, who my mother says was burned to death in her home when Mom was about 10 (about 1935). I place the first two women in this sequence, Sarah on the far left, because Emma was younger than Sarah and, if they are standing behind their husbands, I assume the giant to be the younger of the two men on the left.
The men, left to right, then, are unknown husband of Sarah Catherine, _____ Miller (no first name in my records) husband of Emma (whom my mother knew as Aunt Fid), my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem, my great-great-grandfather John Rueben Dershem, and Sheldon Aaron Dershem. These would have been all the married children of John and Louiza at the time. Four other children had died by this time including the aforementioned son Elijah who died in 1900. Jesse was 20 in 1903 and not married yet, and, as mentioned, Hattie never married.
The Aunt Hattie that I knew was John and Louiza’s daughter Missouri Mae but called Hattie, born in 1877 and sister to my great-grandfather James Milton Dershem. She died in May 1953. I remember going into her house with my parents after she died (the original Dershem family farmhouse) and the house being empty and cold inside. It was probably the late fall of the year, possibly even early in 1954. I know it’s odd to have a clear memory of something that early in life, but it stands out sharply for me.
James, my great-grandfather, had a daughter, Hattie Blossom, born in 1895, died in 1964. She was known as Aunt Blossom, married to Lewis Frysinger of Defiance, Ohio. Mom’s history says she had 16 children. (She’s the one holding her sister’s baby Bernard in the first photo.)
When I study the 1913 Dershem photo, I can see the near resemblance of James and Margaret to the ones I believe they are in the center of the 1903 photo. And the three men on the right in the 1903 photo, with the oldest in the middle of the three, all look enough alike to be father and sons. The other two men do no look like Dershems. But, to look at them, the two women standing behind those two men could be John Dershem’s daughters.
Let’s suppose that’s all wrong about the second photo, that they are not my great-great-grandfather Dershem and his married children and spouses. That explanation fits, but let’s say it’s wrong. Then, who is it? I looked through the Imler, Sunderland, Miller, Little, Betts, Gardner, and Wagoner (Waggoner) lines and could not find a set of family members who would fit the pattern, and besides, all who are my direct ancestors would be much older than those depicted around 1900. It could be some side branch of the family, like maybe a whole bunch of Sunderland cousins the same ages as our Dershem great-grandparents. But why would such a photo as that be in my cousin’s things, inherited from my mother’s sister? I go back to the man in the middle of the 1903 photo who, even though he has a moustache and would be about 10 years younger in this photo, still strongly resembles the one identified as James Milton Dershem in the 16-member 1913 photo. If those two men are the same person, then I stand by my conclusions.
[This memoir, written in the spring of 2005, was excerpted and condensed for publication in the August and September 2005 issues of BangorMETRO magazine. References to so many “years ago” in this article should be interpreted from that time frame.]
Perhaps unique among American employers because it was so remote from notice and completely surrounded by the natural resources that provided both raw material and power, Great Northern Paper Company in 1977 was the product of a century of American industrial Zeitgeist. Its 4,200 workers offered living proof that capitalism works and that both the employer and its people need merely to be left alone and they will indeed get it right.
The peak of progress and production. In 1977 GNP was still Maine’s second largest private employer after Bath Iron Works. Busy sales offices took orders in Boston, New York, and as far west as Chicago, and three-martini lunches were common; I once attended one. The annual sales meeting was held in such places as Pinehurst, North Carolina and Woodstock, Vermont, and no expense was spared to make them lavish. With world-class golf tournaments and celebrity guest speakers, the affairs probably rivaled the annual sales meetings of Chrysler or GE.
Great Northern’s last river drive came in 1971 and the last horse-drawn harvesting about the same year. By the end of that same decade, computer terminals were sprouting throughout the cavernous mill, and yet the place was alive with clanging metal and hissing steam redolent of hot lignin, workers bustling to keep up with production or occasionally relaxing deservedly. The constant noise had given rise to communication that was a combination of sign language, flashlight signals, and hieroglyphs on log sheets.
There had been speed bumps in the industry’s headlong expansion in the 1970s, notably the energy crisis of 1973 and the first rumblings of the Indian land claims in 1975. But the times were very, very good and optimism was high.
At the mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, the annual Foreman’s Picnic was a feast fitting a medieval castle. The foremen filled their trays with steamed clams and lobsters – no one was restricted to just one or two — or they feasted on slabs of steak and chicken breasts. Gallons of potato salad, barrels of chips, huge dill pickles, and kegs and kegs of beer made the picnics “complete.” These affairs were catered by Donat Busque, a fixture in Millinocket’s hospitality scene whose thick French lilt, jovial persona, and intense work ethic made him the ever-popular choice for catered events.
Blue after-dinner cigar smoke skewed the smiles of the locals as they bragged to the visiting salesmen about the fishing at Soddy Hunk or the new Polaris that the kids wrecked or the tournament that Stearns almost won again that year. The foremen and managers played half-serious softball, sales versus manufacturing. Until Peter Moir, a naturally-gifted local athlete, joined the company to help the mill team, sales had been on top in these contests. If you didn’t play softball, you could test your skill at horseshoes against Frannie McMahon, a reigning state champ and Finishing Foreman at Millinocket.
Paper coming from the Maine mills was the highest grade in the east, if not in the entire country, and this wasn’t just the opinion of local pride, but also the opinion of the customers. Telephone directories up and down the east coast were printed predominately on GNP paper, and directory paper from Millinocket was preferred in Indonesia, Australia, and Latin America. Big city newspapers such as the New York Times, Newsday, and later USA Today, preferred GNP’s product for their front pages, as did many papers in Maine, large and small. School workbooks snapped up Millinocket’s Baxter Text coated product. GNP research helped Moore Business Forms develop the first carbonless multi-form paper, and Moore bought out the production of one or two paper machines a year.
Great Northern Paper Company had bought Great Southern Paper in 1963. In 1970 GNP merged with Nekoosa-Edwards Paper to form Great Northern Nekoosa Corporation. GNP, meaning just the mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket, remained the single largest division within GNN, and in 1979 GNN was number 259 on Fortune’s list of the 500 largest companies in the USA.
In the late 1970s, groundwood printing paper, (paper made from stone-ground softwood pulp) was selling for $350 or so a ton, coated paper for upwards of $500. The starting wage at the mills for an entry-level temporary summer laborer was $5.15, which, by September, 1977, rose to $5.61. Millinocket was believed to have, if it did not have in truth, the highest per capita income of any town in the state. With 2.1 million acres, (3,281 square miles or almost 100 townships — an area the size of Puerto Rico), GNN was land-rich and water-rich, which was especially awe-inspiring once you had taken a few days to drive the Golden Road system.
Joining the team. In May, 1977, I was hired onto “the window” at the Millinocket mill.“The window” was a colloquialism that denoted the glassed-in aperture between the Personnel Office and the time clock hallway. I had a new Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Maine’s School of Forest Resources and a pretty and very smart local girl for a wife. Beth, now my partner of 30 years, was also a UM-Orono graduate, and we had married while we were both still in college. I was a veteran, had a naïve faith in the future, and thought the $12,000 or so I could make in a year, year after year, as a laborer was grand money. I had no chance of using my degree to become a game warden or state biologist — only the girls in my graduating class were getting those jobs. But it suited me to settle in the most splendid wilderness east of the Mississippi and slip comfortably into a manufacturing career. That was especially odd since, on a visit to the Rumford mill nine years earlier, during my junior year at Farmington High School, I recall remarking: “Thank God I’ll never have to work in a place like this.”
I was oblivious to my outsider status in Millinocket, and my oblivion seemed more to disarm my fellow workers than incite them. I was also Number 328 on “the window,” which meant that in order to get a full week’s work I had to let 319 men and eight women choose their temporary or seasonal assignments ahead of me. I was no particular threat to the locals anyway, because the tradition still held true that any kid could graduate Stearns High School one day and go sign on at the mill the next. A future of union-protected, lifelong, lucrative employment was an unquestioned certainty in 1977. Nevertheless, even though I was near the bottom of the pecking order, throughout that summer I had a 40-hour week every week but no overtime.
I started on the pond in the wood yard that May, working nights, keeping the sluiceway clear so that four-foot logs or “bolts” could float into the wood room where the bark was removed in giant slotted tumblers — horizontal drums that could each hold a railcar load of bolts. During the first few weeks as a laborer I managed to work my way into the wood room and onto the apron, a moving belt where logs that had been through the de-barking drums once were eyeballed for imperfections by workers armed with picaroons who picked them off by hand to be sent back if the first pass through the drums hadn’t adequately stripped them of bark.
I soon made my way into the grinder room, where the stripped logs from the wood room emptied from an overhead sluiceway into an indoor pond, the “block tank.” Using a 12-foot long pick pole, I “poled wood” as one of two laborers each shift assigned to break up the pile in the block tank and keep the logs floating into another maze of sluiceways. Eventually I graduated to “feeding grinders.” Every four-foot bolt that was converted into 850,000 tons of paper a year, at the rate of roughly a cord of wood to a ton of paper, was pulled from a sluice and into a grinder “pocket” by hand.
Power generation. Back in the early 1900s Great Northern Paper had invented the stone grinders of the sort that I was feeding pulpwood to that summer. Thirty of these massive grindstones, six feet in diameter and close to ten feet long, with their molded-Carborundum segments, operated simultaneously on six grinder lines. The grinder lines were driven by water flowing underneath the floor in ten-foot-diameter penstocks, underground pipes that funneled the water from Ferguson Pond at the top of the ridge in its 114-foot drop to the grinder room at the edge of Millinocket Stream. The mill in Millinocket was built on this site precisely to take advantage of the water power generated by that steep drop.
But there wasn’t a significant watercourse, underground or above, leading to the grinder room until the West Branch of the Penobscot River had been dammed at the outlet of Ferguson Pond, just behind the mill, and the pond raised enough to spill over where the penstocks had been placed to concentrate the flow. But all that was accomplished between 1898 and 1901, and had been so well designed and built that it still generates power today, although the grinders have long since been scrapped.
In order to turn 30 grindstones, the harnessed water drove six water wheels which could be used either to generate electrical power, when a grinder line was out of service, for maintenance for example, or could serve as electric motors to assist the grinding process when the pressure to produce pulp exceeded the ability of hydropower alone to drive the grinders.
The ability to generate hydro-electric power was one more of Great Northern’s awesome attributes in 1977. Within the company’s 3,281 square miles stood 19 dams: 13 storage dams and six hydro-electric dams. At one time GNP’s was the nation’s largest industrial hydro-electric system, producing enough power to electrify a city of 450,000 or, comparably, almost half the homes in Maine. At times this power, along with that generated in several boilers at the two mills, was more than enough to make paper, and so power was sold into the public power grid. At other times the company purchased power from the public grid. Various GNP boilers burned oil, spent “liquor,” a by-product of the sulfite pulping process, and, by 1980, also burned bark with a moisture content up to 60%.The bark boiler alone drew down 1,400 tons a day from the company’s ancient bark piles and reduced oil consumption by over 400,000 barrels a year.
Altogether in the two mills in 1977, this power system ran 17 paper machines and an off-machine coater.It also ran the old paper machine that by this time was producing heavy brown wrap and ran all the ancillary equipment involved in the process: saws, chippers, belts, sulfite cookers, pulp screeners, refiners, finishing machines, machine shops, cranes, lights, and heat for the hundreds of acres of indoor manufacturing space.By this point too, Great Northern also owned Pinkham Lumber Company in Nashville Plantation, a technologically advanced operation that, in addition to making dimension lumber, provided bulk wood chips for the sulfite pulping process at Millinocket.
Making paper.Later that summer, although still a seasonal employee, I applied for and was tentatively accepted into the papermaker apprentice program at the Millinocket mill. I hadn’t officially begun my training, but I was advanced into vacation replacement openings in the paper room. For at least a couple of months then, while working all shifts, I learned the rudiments of running the winders, setting slitters, chucking cores, pushing rolls, stenciling roll numbers and roll sizes, putting up splices, changing felts, and restarting the paper machines. I worked on every winder in the Millinocket mill except Numbers 2, 5, 11, and the Coater. I was eager to learn it, and Wiggie Robinson, a paper room foreman before he became a radio personality, was eager to teach it. [Posthumously, the Professional Maine Guides Association began conferring an annual Legendary Maine Guide award named for Wilmot “Wiggie” Robinson, whose avocational service as a Maine Guide was — well, legendary.]
All this seemed so… so secure, back in 1977: so secure that, when a certain office took notice of my college degree — not its subject but merely the existence of the degree — and offered me a position as Assistant Sales-Production Coordinator (communicating the production schedules to the paper machine crews), I accepted the job and started a 23-year paper industry career.
Settling down. In 1978 my wife and I and our year-old daughter were ready to own a house. I went to see Fred Morrison, Great Northern’s Manager of Townsite, and asked for, oh, thirty or forty acres of their less-desirable forest land somewhere outside of town. Actually, I told him, the Rice Farm property suited me just fine — later to become the first site of the New England Outdoor Center and the River Drivers Restaurant. Perhaps because my request was so absurd, Fred called me within a few days and offered me the last available empty house lot in Millinocket. (After we signed for that lot, prospective new-home builders had to wait until land was opened up on Morgan Lane in Millinocket or Wilderness Drive in Medway several years later.)
New concept, is it? Yes, Great Northern owned every grain of soil and every last tree trunk surrounding Millinocket. So when the town needed to expand to accommodate more residents — generally meaning more company employees — the company laid out a couple of streets at a time, marked out some quarter-acre lots in the manner that fitted the concept of house lots according to the company’s Connecticut-based owners, and sold those lots, with significant deed restrictions to assure an affluent-looking neighborhood.
Our last-lot luck, which cost us $2,500, permitted us to add a three-bedroom single-story modular home for an additional $35,000. We lived in our modest little house at 50 Heritage Street for 11 years, then bought Beth’s parents’ house when her father, a mechanical engineer who had risen in position to VP of Operations, retired after 29 years with the company.We sold the house on Heritage Street for something over $60,000 and handled the deal ourselves.
It was after I joined the management team in the fall of 1977 that I began to enjoy the experience of attending foremen’s picnics and annual sales meetings. Within a few months of assuming the position of assistant to the production coordinator, he moved on to another opening, I slid into his job, and hired myself an assistant.
Although it occupied an office in the Millinocket mill, this function was under the Sales Department, whose VP and administrative team occupied offices in the GNN headquarters in Stamford, Connecticut. Since my boss needed to see me occasionally and didn’t make frequent trips to the mills, I was ordered to make a monthly visit to the Stamford office. Scheduling the paper machines was in the hands of Ed Gardner, Dennis Danie, and Carmen Quinones, a team of math geniuses in Stamford supervised by the insufferable Warren Spearin, a native of Mattawamkeag who could be forgiven for his tortured attempt to adapt to life in the city. He was, in fact, the best teacher of business that I ever had.
What went wrong. Where did it go wrong? What interrupted this idyll? Why is Katahdin Paper barely an echo of what GNP had been a quarter century ago?
The nightmare began almost as soon as I had settled in Millinocket. While it is likely that none of these disheartening problems alone would have brought the company down, and it is impossible as well to ascribe degrees of blame, over the course of the next decade Great Northern — and the industry — was ravaged by labor unrest, the Indian land claim, the spruce budworm, the Big ‘A’ project, workers’ comp, and a simple tax law change. Once Great Northern began to bleed and squirm and to appear vulnerable under the assault, the environmentalists smelled opportunity and moved in like hyenas to prowl the perimeter and lunge at the company’s wounds. The coups de grâce, for they were several, were the corporate takeovers, each one diminishing Great Northern with indifference, like a log against a grindstone.
Great Northern, though, wasn’t the only victim of the decade’s bad laws and predatory do-gooders. For as the mills shriveled, various appendages did also or fell off altogether: the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, the Millinocket Foundry, suppliers of paper machine parts and fabrics (does anyone remember the Knox Woolen Mill?), construction contractors and the laborers they hired, Black Clawson and Beloit, the makers and suppliers of wood harvesting machines and the harvesters who ran them, the local small businesses throughout northern Penobscot County where company trucks stopped almost daily to pick up anything from gas cans to sandwiches, the school systems. Real estate in the Millinockets is now so cheap that out-of-staters are astonished.
The strike. Through the 1970s-1990s there were 14 union locals between the two mills, one representing office workers, one for guards, eight locals representing tradesmen, two UPIU locals for pulp and sulfite workers, and two UPIU locals for papermakers. A single labor agreement covered the latter twelve locals until 1978. That summer, when the company offered the tradesmen a 22.2% pay increase over the next two years, the eight trades locals insisted that that was not enough. The papermakers had been offered something different, and the trades wanted “parity.” They also insisted that their eight locals trumped the UPIU’s four within the single labor agreement, so the UPIU was outvoted. The UPIU, with a vast advantage in members, took a one-man-one-vote stance. The NLRB and federal courts refused to intervene, and federal and state mediators along with Governor Brennan failed to resolve the stalemate.
After nearly two months the trades capitulated and formed a separate bargaining unit. The bitterness between the factions, between neighbors and within families, continues to this day. The strike had forced all the company’s customers, worst of all its big customers like Bell-Atlantic and JC Penney, to suddenly find new sources of paper and quickly. The quiet summer off was a nice vacation for the wealthiest community in the state. The wealth, however, never returned.
Indian Land Claims. In July, 1979, Fortune published an article on the very complicated claim by the Penobscot and the Passamaquoddy tribes that had by then gone before a federal court. The Indians were convinced that the eastern states, which had been dealing with the tribes on a state-by-state basis for nearly two hundred years, had been doing so in violation of the federal Non-intercourse Act of 1790. In the west, which in 1790 meant Tennessee, the federal government handled all official dealings with the Indians. One federal court in 1975 had already agreed with them. The Fortune article explained that if that earlier ruling were upheld in appeal, then timberlands in Maine far in excess of Great Northern’s holdings could not just potentially but realistically revert to the tribes. While the land claims had rumbled in the background for a few years already, this published article emphasized the threat where it could hurt the parent corporation the most, in financial circles. Great Northern Nekoosa was already disenchanted with its Maine mills due to the strike, so what had been benign neglect of the GNP division up to then was eventually perceived locally as almost open animosity.
Budworm and blow-down. A little brown moth, or more accurately, billions of their caterpillars, have been a cyclical nuisance in the northern coniferous forests indefinitely. When its population cycle seriously threatened the steady supply of pulpwood to the mills in 1980, it had to be dealt with. The roar of crop-dusters taking off from the Millinocket airport starting at 4:30 most mornings, for weeks that spring and summer, was dramatic and briefly very expensive, but not of huge economic impact to GNP. The previous summer a forest fire had consumed 3,500 acres at Abol, partly in and partly outside of Baxter State Park. Sparked by lightning in a blow-down, it was nonetheless indicative of what could happen to a stand of commercial forest similarly killed by the budworm, and it had to be prevented.
The company had been battered by its own employees, then the Indians in the federal courts, and now nature was in on the act — this at a time when southern Maine was assuming the social and political character of spillover from Massachusetts and was awakening to the nastiness of such agents as Sevin-4-Oil (Carbaryl) and Malathion. It is nasty, too, which is why it was used, but it is also only briefly effective. Bacillus thuringiensis was also sprayed on the budworm with gratifying effect, but obtaining BT, a natural agent, in sufficient quantities was a challenge. Nevertheless, in that part of the state, “spray” was becoming a four-letter word, and the death of a few million trees was an acceptable sacrifice to people who lived a good 200 miles from the center of any potential forest fire.
The alternative, to reduce budworm devastation without spraying, would have been to cut some of every acre every year, a practical impossibility and also forbidden by other environmental regulations.
Dark days. By 1980, while I was still in the role of Sales-Production Coordinator, my staff of Phillipa Morrison, Andy Brunette, and I began to notice the atmosphere of looming austerity. I have kept a Bangor Daily News clipping from June, 1980, quoting GNP President Peter Yacavone’s prediction of “dark days ahead” for the company. What did he know and why did he give such a melancholy picture to the newspaper?
The unions were quick to accuse the company of fabricated gloom-and-doom predictions whenever contract talks were at hand. Contracts were renegotiated every two years during that period, and 1980 was a contract year. So the easy answer for Mr. Yacavone’s news release was that the company merely wanted to paint a bleak financial future in order to depress the unions’ wage demands in the wake of the strike.
By 1980 it was widely perceived in Millinocket and East Millinocket that for years GNN had been soaking the highly-productive Maine mills for profits and diverting those profits to the purchase of new equipment elsewhere, including the new “Challenger” paper machine at its Ashdown, Arkansas mill and the construction of an entirely new pulp mill at Leaf River, Mississippi. That sort of corporate spending, so the rumor went, could not have happened without the cash generated by the Maine mills.
Big Ambejackmockamus. Phyllis Austin reported in the Maine Times in September 1977 that “Wayne Hockmeyer of Rockwood, who owns Northern Whitewater Expeditions, Inc., has formed the Society to Protect the Kennebec and the Penobscot Rivers.” Austin’s article alluded to a project already being studied by Great Northern that would flood Ripogenus Gorge “from Ripogenus Dam to Nesowadnahunk Falls,” but presumably worse, “would put [Hockmeyer’s] raft expedition out of business.”
With the successful negotiation of new labor agreements in 1980 and a settlement to the Indian land claims that same year, GNN apparently softened and allowed engineers at Great Northern Paper to begin a serious study of building a hydro-electric dam at Big ‘A’ — just below Little Ambejackmockamus and just over four miles below Ripogenus Dam. Bangor Daily News environmental writer David Platt reported on this in a January 1982 article, where he noted that such a dam would produce 223-233 million kilowatt-hours of electricity and “would silence significant rapids on the West Branch.”
The company estimated the cost of building the dam at $96 million in 1982 money, but there is no perspective to that figure until one considers that the impetus was the energy crisis of just a few years before. The company felt environmentally responsible to propose its best prospect for alternative, clean energy. Since the application to build the dam, filed with the state in 1984, cost $7 million to put together, one can also imagine what a start toward building the dam could have been achieved either by putting that money to construction instead or by using the boxes of data included in the application as landfill at the bottom of the river to be covered with concrete.
The Big ‘A’ is where Brownie Carson, who in 1984 took over as tsar of the official-sounding, Augusta-based, private club called the Natural Resources Council of Maine, fought his biggest battle to date on behalf of his limited public, and perhaps his biggest battle ever, against big industry in the state. Carson has reigned over Maine environmentalists ever since.
The battle was on for much of the 1980s. Brownie Carson, a gifted fund-raiser and talented organizer, was effective in bringing together true believers from many far-flung organizations and other parts of the country to oppose what he portrayed as Great Northern’s wanton, inconsiderate, profit-motivated abuse of the people’s river.
The rapids from Ripogenus Dam to Big Ambejackmockamus are beautiful, and the dam would have flooded the gorge, but the 857-acre lake planned as a result had recreational advantages as well. So the company fought back, but it was a war of words, and the company’s engineering voices were no match for the shrill and the indignant. Inevitably, politicians could see the company’s mouths moving but could only hear the factions of the opposition, who were continually reinforced by fresh, passionate recruits.
An environmental impact study was ordered. Environmental mitigation plans were then ordered. A table in the hallway of the Millinocket town office began to fill up with thick three-ring binders containing the public copy of these studies — volumes upon volumes in addition to the initial application. I once looked at that table in awe, wondering what was being gained by this production of documents — and wondering as well how on earth I, minor minion of the company and humble citizen of Millinocket, could become rationally informed about the arguments. I contemplated facetiously asking for a six-month leave of absence in order to read the 31,000 pages of official drivel.
But one must choose sides without being so informed. In 1985, public hearings began in Millinocket. As Paul McCann noted in his chronicle of Great Northern, Timber!: “[u]nion leaders Bob Bernier, Leroy Michaud, and Jim Mingo traveled the state to enlist support of union members.” Town residents and mill workers filled the hearings in support of the project. The company brought in biologists who assured that the salmon population as well as the salmon fishing would not be harmed. According to Paul McCann: “Recreation specialists… said that a profitable and popular [whitewater rafting] trip could be developed downstream.” The opposition presented testimony from its own experts which, although sometimes refuted, was applauded in the Bangor Daily News and other news media, which had their own agenda and also had control of the flow of information to the public.
The Land Use Regulation Commission (LURC) attached one more condition to the application that, it is generally conceded, killed the project: no job losses. It’s not that Great Northern wanted to reduce manpower. It’s just that no company can sensibly say one year that operations will not change over time. Sure, no job losses were anticipated from the construction of Big ‘A.’ In fact, the project would have permitted GNN to consider other capital projects that could increase production and jobs. But if business decisions were made later — and how much later? — that resulted in job losses, how would the company prove that the dam hadn’t contributed in some way?
When GNN took its lawyers off the case and left the state after arriving at an impasse over Big ‘A’ — it wasn’t really shot down, it was simply impeded to death — GNN’s ultimate abandonment of Maine was plain to see. Dick Noyes, a GNP engineering manager heavily invested in the project, had attended a couple of the hearings and realized that some faces in the crowd were acquaintances from other paper companies, making him realize that the whole industry was watching. Noyes called the defeat of the Big ‘A’ plan the keystone event in the demise of the company.
A simple tax ruling. As Sales-Production Coordinator in the early 1980s I saw another sinister twist in affairs. After the strike of 1978, customers who returned to us nevertheless adopted two behaviors — one that seemed positive and one that was irksome but forgivable. First, they ordered large quantities ahead, on the off-chance that another strike would come in 1982 or 1984, one would suppose; but the advance orders were welcome. Second, even though they came back, they only partly came back, and they stayed with other sources as well, whom they had cultivated while GNP’s production was down.
Add to this an innocent-seeming ruling by the IRS in the early 1980s — after all, such rulings are merely meant to bring our laws more closely in line with the Constitution, (aren’t they?), which benefits everyone. This ruling forced manufacturers, which included printing companies, to pay a tax on any unused inventory (assets) at the end of the tax year. Big customers like Bell, or the big contractors who did some of their printing, like RR Donnelley, cancelled orders that in years past would have left them with a three-month supply of paper at year’s end.
As printing companies reached the ends of their inventories, GNP’s sales reps, who were notorious for scribbling indecipherable orders on cocktail napkins or the backs of business cards and submitting them on Friday afternoons, continued to do so but began to add: “for Monday shipment.” Customers were storing paper “on the machines,” as it came to be known. I was running to the paper machines on Friday afternoons with changes in roll sizes and sudden changes in the grade or color of an order and adding that it had to be shipped in 80 trucks beginning Sunday night. Then I was calling Larry Willinski in the Transportation Department to get Cole’s Express and whichever trucking company he could wrangle to start getting the empty trucks in there over the weekend.
We only barely understood what was happening at the time, how one ill wind was compounding another. But the ill winds were mere stinkers compared to what came next.
Workers’ comp. In 1983, in the name of working people everywhere, Maine made its own single greatest contribution to the decline of GNP: The firm of McTeague, Higbee, Libner, et al in Topsham succeeded in getting substantial changes in Maine’s workers’ compensation law through the legislature and signed by Governor Brennan. Then the firm was fortunate to see one of its own partners, Jim Tierney, appointed Attorney General for Maine. So the law firm that drafted the legislation, which took effect in 1984, was furthermore influential in enforcing the new act and was also poised to represent a new wave of injured workers seeking redress under the new improved benefits for injured workers.
Such a sweeping change in the law had to be justified somehow. I wasn’t present in the halls of the State House to hear the arguments in its favor, but I suspect that workplace deaths weren’t at the root of it. During an office remodeling project at the Millinocket mill about 1985, I found some accident reports from the late 1950s. Remarkably, the standard form at the time had a column at the far right for fatalities, and the year-end summary for 1958 showed a total of 12. That column had been deleted in the intervening years, and the last work-related fatality of a Great Northern employee had occurred a couple of years before I came to work there. That is, if you don’t count the car-pool member who was having chest pain on his way to work one morning and then died as soon as he hit the locker room, or a couple more like that, which were ruled work-related and compensable under McTeague’s 1984 Workers’ Compensation Act.
The lawyers of the McTeague firm set up a makeshift office in Millinocket and began luring customers. It paid off big for them. By the mid-1980s Great Northern, self-insured for workers’ comp, would be shelling out or reserving $11 million a year for medicals and indemnity, mostly indemnity (lost time), and Patrick McTeague and a couple of his henchmen were the beneficiaries of roughly a third of that money. GNP, isolated as it was in the forest, was like a lost reef in the ocean populated with docile fish and recently discovered by a trio of marauding sharks.
They came and they fed. GNP management was incredulous at the hostility of the 1982 revisions and then the even-more-insidious 1984 act. Employees who had little ambition in the first place began to see quarter-million-dollar settlements, or promises thereof, if they would merely fake it long enough that the company would pay to get rid of them.
In mid-1984, then, my career took a turn. A position in Human Resources had opened up when an HR rep, Ken Legins, was appointed Manager of Workers’ Compensation. I took his place in HR, documenting absences and administering (at first) minor provisions of the labor agreements — four labor agreements by this time, to cover the 14 locals. The relatively small OPEIU (office workers) group consumed as much HR effort as either the huge papermakers or trades bargaining unit. But I was soon up to my snorkel in all of them.
I was also right-hand man to Ken, who needed data, lots of it, and fast. Ken, a mere barracuda on the reef, was aggressive and determined to battle the sharks. He took them on with an innocent audacity that must have startled even Pat McTeague. It was a fun time to be in HR.
It was interesting, although not fun, to encounter the injured workers who had been coached into total disability in the 1980s. And here it will suffice to mention but a few cases that represent dozens more like them.
There was the papermaker in his late 20s who sustained a back injury. He went directly from the mill to the hospital, where his blood work showed the presence of cocaine. This report became part of the employer’s workers’ comp medical record, and the matter went before a commissioner. The fact that he was demonstrably under the influence of an illegal drug while on the job had no influence on the commissioner’s decision regarding the compensability of his back injury case. Nor could the company use the information in a disciplinary action for on-the-job drug use, because the employee was not tested for cause. He took his total disability settlement and started a business near the coast where he then proceeded to… work. His wife, meanwhile, also a laborer in the Millinocket mill, threw down her picaroon in the wood room one day and declared: “This job sucks. I’m going on comp!”
There was the pleasant young guy who left work on his motorcycle one day and rode it the wrong way in the parking lot, colliding with an oncoming car. His disability wasn’t total, but his permanent light duty made him the envy of other wannabes. In another motor vehicle accident, a Great Northern truck driver sustained minor injuries, but the workup for that accident disclosed that he had a leukemia. He recovered quickly enough from the accident, but he never returned to work due to the medical condition, and GNP paid workers’ comp benefits for the state’s only recorded case of work-related leukemia. This was an honest worker who would have accepted a separation of the two matters but was coached to accept all the law would afford him. Then there was the older worker on the machine that wrapped rolls of paper for shipment. He bent over one day to reach for a piece of paper on the floor and felt a pain in his low back. He never succeeded in touching what he was reaching for, so he had not put his back out by lifting anything even so lightweight as a piece of paper. The medical results could identify only subjective back pain, but he eventually received one of those quarter-million-dollar settlements. I was in the mill’s medical office one day and witnessed the conversation and demonstration when a worker, who had been on comp for months, came in, raised one arm to point directly at the ceiling light above his head, and said: “Doc, I used to be able to get my arm up this high.” Then he dropped his arm by 90 degrees to point at the wall directly in front of him and said: “Now I can only get it up this high.” Three work-related deaths occurred during the early 1980s, too. In one instance, a man scheduled for the day shift was presumed absent but was later found dead in his car in the parking lot. In another instance, a worker had arrived and had begun to change for work in the locker room when he suddenly pitched forward and hit the floor, a victim of a heart attack known as the widow-maker. Then there was the car-pool rider who complained of feeling sick all the way down from Patten, only to die in the mill as he was reporting for work. These deaths from non-work-related causes not only ruined the mill’s safety record, because the law considered them work-related, but of course were intensely costly to the company as well.
The company’s response to such an attack under the law was to use its only legal weapon and to controvert almost all workers’ comp claims. For me, where I dealt with the individuals involved and could distinguish between the real and the steal, it was disturbing that the real claimants were denied as well. Almost everything went to hearings, unless the employee simply gave up and became permanently soured at the company over it.
The announcement. In spite of the several blows that had pummeled Great Northern in the six or seven short years following the strike, the state, both its government and its populace, still had the perception that Great Northern was the quintessential success story, still rolling in the dough. The agony was all within the company, acutely felt in management, and not yet well understood or deeply felt on the street or on the production line. Generous wage packages still came out of negotiations. No one was being laid off.
Then, on a bleak January day in 1986, Bob Bartlett, president of Great Northern Paper, invited all employees to one of several sessions at the Stearns High School auditorium, where he would make an announcement. There would be, he told us, a re-structuring of the company that would result in the elimination of 1,200 to 1,400 jobs. As a human resources assistant with a year’s experience administering labor agreements, I immediately saw my future with the company: handling layoffs and grievances. I was among some good players, though, with HR manager Dennis Corson, safety supervisor Lin Davis, and mill nurse Rick Grunthaler. And thus we were occupied for the next several years.
The manpower reductions were to take place as much as possible by attrition and enhanced retirement offerings. The company also asked the unions for an early return to the negotiating table, because a massive reduction such as this had collective bargaining implications and, what’s more, if the unions wanted to forestall complete disaster, then they’d best come listen to some new concepts called team manning, multicraft, and cooperative work.
Those concepts were indeed accepted, eventually and grudgingly, by the unions, and not with the illusion that they would make the company Great again. Money was poured into incentives to retire, for those who had the magic combination of age and years of service. I remember finishing foreman Bob Morrison who missed it by a month and who wept. Hundreds of others, though, took advantage of it in 1986 and 1987, (and then again in 1994). The magic formula required a resulting number of 85 or greater and had to meet the minimums of 55 years of age and 30 years of service. Someone 62 years old with 25 years of service did not qualify, nor did someone age 57 with 28 years of service. Bob was in the latter category.
Reductions in force, RIF’s, did shrink the work force to about 2,800 within a year, then further still, until only 1,700 or fewer were left by the time I quit in 1999. Paper machines were shut down and whole “rooms” — spaces within the mills big enough to store a battleship — fell silent. People were laid off, especially as whole departments were shut down. Bumping rights were limited but did permit a junior worker from one department, once RIFfed from that department, to bump into another department. Quite a few capable workers who didn’t want to wait around to see when their RIF would come simply pulled up stakes and went to work in other mills elsewhere. As this happened, ironic as it was, I found myself calling those just laid off to come back to work. Each summer for the next several years, the temporary summer help consisted not of recent high school graduates and college students, as it had been, but those who had recently been “permanently” laid off.
Tempers flared and blame was cast and managers were shuffled around. The effects of the 1984 workers’ comp act were still fresh at the time of the January 1986 announcement, so people on restricted duty or disability due to injuries were offered settlements to get them off the rolls, allowing able workers to stay.
The “three-legged stool” of team manning, multicraft, and cooperative work, while ratified by the unions, was not well understood, so grievance poured in, not only due to the layoffs but because the wrong department had sent a man to patch a hole in the pavement somewhere — never mind that the hole had been patched by someone from the same local that generated the grievance. (A hole in the pavement in the wood yard had been patched by a wood room employee, not a yard department employee. Same union local, but a grievance just the same.)
Because the company was under siege from all these compounding elements, so too were the area towns. The schools threatened to cut back, and they did. Town services went through comparable reductions. As production was reduced, so was the need for the railroad’s services, and on it went.
From the mid-1980s to the end of the next decade, I had job security and ever more responsibility as others in human resources management left without being replaced. But I also questioned the wisdom of staying with it. The attraction of the surrounding wilderness, our family compound on Ambajejus Lake, our children in school, and the dogged determination not to be forced out of Maine all conspired to keep me in place.
And in spite of the company’s death throes, I never went longer than 15 months without an increase in pay. If nothing else held someone there, the “golden handcuffs” did. But those of us still handcuffed began to hear from those who had been laid off: “There’s life after Great Northern.”
Environmentalists.In spite of his criticism of the Big ‘A’ project and his assumption of proprietary rights over the West Branch, Wayne Hockmeyer struck a deal with Great Northern that allowed him to set up a campground near the river.He had some business sense and gained the cautious respect of GNP leadership while negotiating a minimum release of water from Ripogenus Dam throughout the rafting season so that rafting trips wouldn’t be cancelled for a dry creek bed in July, as would be the case under natural conditions, natural meaning no dam at Rip in the first place.
Hockmeyer never satisfactorily explained for me how it was environmentally friendly for 30,000 rafters each summer (his estimate) to leave their bodily waste along the riverbank in volumes that the poor river had never been expected to absorb before the protectors of it came to christen it in droves.
Big ‘A’ “expert” Brownie Carson had the audacity to solicit funds in Millinocket for his private club, the Natural Resources Council. But he made it sound as though the NRC was an under-funded branch of state government. I know; I received loads of solicitations from him. I made sure that I understood correctly, because anyone who didn’t check would have assumed what he wanted them to assume about it.
Even though blow-downs, “Mother Nature’s clearcuts,” met with little environmentalist protest or insistence on preventive measures, harvesting practices elsewhere, to which GNP did not subscribe, shamed the company into doubling its team of foresters to 40 between 1975 and 1980.Once again, emotional appeals trumped forestry in the managing of the resource, and the definition of a clearcut became ever more restrictive in forestry regulations.
GNP’s pulping processes did not produce dioxins as a by-product, but naturally occurring dioxins became evidence enough for some keepers of the drumbeat. One GNP study demonstrated that as much dioxin contamination was present above the Millinocket mill as below it, but the report was decried as a lie and demands that GNP account for its dioxin releases continued until I left there. (Dioxins are by-products of the decay of granite and other natural phenomena.)
Environmentalists of less distinct identity were at the root of the company’s urgency to reduce dependence on high-sulfur fuel oil for its boilers, a noble enough recommendation, never mind that domestic supplies tend toward a higher sulfur content. Low-sulfur oil is typically imported, but the company was equally pressured to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Go figure.
One of the earliest environmentalist hazards the company had to deal with was LURC. Created by the Maine Legislature in 1971 to serve as the planning and zoning authority for the state’s townships, plantations, and unorganized areas, the Land Use Regulation Commission has regulatory jurisdiction over land use in these areas either because they have no form of local government or decline to administer land use controls. But these are precisely the land areas that constituted Great Northern’s 2.1 million acres. So the company had to hold the Commission in due respect and pray that its membership didn’t tilt too steeply toward the tree-huggers. LURC’s regional officials do take their don’t-move-that-rock mandate seriously, and while their overall nuisance level was considerable, LURC was “manageable.”
Great Northern’s — and Maine’s– most insidious outside enemy was and remains the well-heeled and zealous organization, RESTORE: The North Woods. Started in Massachusetts in 1992, RESTORE almost immediately laid claim to Maine as if refusing to accept the state’s separate identity since 1820. In 1994, RESTORE distributed a glossy brochure arrogantly proclaiming that Maine, (or “The North Woods,” to remove any disturbing implication that Maine might have a say), was about to become a national park. That brochure has an appeal that even I almost can’t resist.
But wait! As Millinocket school teacher Dave Dickey once proposed, why not RESTORE: Boston! Maybe future generations should enjoy an authentic urban experience of the 1990s, and wouldn’t it be ideal to declare half of Boston off limits to any further development for the greater good of those a few hundred years from now who will otherwise never know what a cramped, dingy city looked like! Of course, RESTORE: Boston should be based in Benedicta, Maine, for the convenience of those who know the most about authentic Boston. And RESTORE: Boston should also make sure that the eastern timber rattler is restored to its original habitat, especially where Concord, Massachusetts now sits.
I lived part of each summer on Porter Lake in New Vineyard from the early 1950s until I graduated from Farmington High School in 1969. I have a degree in wildlife management, University of Maine, 1977. My undergraduate major was the science of ecology, (as opposed to the politics of ecology, which has everything to do with emotion and little to do with science). I lived in Millinocket for 23 years and for the past five have been in Lincoln. I know these woods and I know the Great Northern that took all the grief for its supposed rape of the forest, fouling of the air, and corrupting of the waterways.
The sheer hubris of the environmentalist elite is breathtaking. RESTORE has been the example to emulate for the last ten years. These are people who want to save Maine from itself and wrest the land from the best stewards it ever had or will have. (Was that an editorial?) If I join the NRA or start a rod and gun club, it will be chiefly to irritate the irrational interlopers who ought to be picking up the trash along the Amtrak routes in their own state instead of pooping in the woods along the pristine rivers of Maine.
Takeovers. If there’s a factor that did not have as much influence on the demise of Great Northern Paper as is presumed, it would be the corporate takeovers. Great Northern Nekoosa had poured big bucks into the Millinocket mill in 1972 to build #11 paper machine, but ever after almost neglected the Maine mills for the duration of the 1970s and 1980s. Yes, there was money for the Big ‘A’ study and GNN funded the 1985 rebuild of the two large paper machines at East Millinocket, but nothing on the scale of #11 ever came again. GNP simply failed to compete with other GNN projects for capital, in large part due to the influence of non-Maine senior managers and directors such as corporate president Bill Laidig.
GNN, as distinct from GNP, had its crown jewels in Ashdown, Arkansas and Leaf River, Mississippi. These were the elements that attracted Georgia-Pacific and resulted in its purchase of the entire GNN in 1990. But G-P wasn’t interested in the Maine mills either. So by the end of 1991 a buyer had been found for just the old GNP, and on the first of January 1992 it became Great Northern Paper, a division of Bowater, Incorporated.
At this and each subsequent takeover there were debates and lawyered agreements about who would assume GNP’s persistent debt, pension obligations, unsettled labor issues, unresolved legal threats, and environmental challenges: the buyer or the seller. Georgia-Pacific may have overlooked some of that load, like retiree income benefits and cost of retiree health coverage, liability for tort, unresolved grievance settlements, and liability for clean-up of PCBs or other hazards not previously discovered or not previously known as hazards.
Bowater seemed genuinely interested in developing the productive capacity of the mills, but they also sent people to spend the first year studying the work force. Apparently they didn’t like what they saw. It was my impression then that the trauma of the 1980s had created an obvious intransigence in those left behind. I believe we were, frankly, unmanageable. Nevertheless, Bowater started the recycle plant at East Millinocket in 1992 or 1993 and invested a lot of money in training the rest of the work force to embrace ISO and quality improvement.
If Bowater ever succeeded in realizing a steady profit from the Maine mills, I don’t recall it. There were brief periods of respite, but by 1997 and 1998, I was aware that the company was losing money on the order of a million dollars a month. A break-even month then was cause for celebration.
Finally, Bowater, too, gave up. Once Inexcon had lined up its financing in late 1998, which included the sale of all but 439,000 acres of timberland to reduce debt, its buyout of Great Northern Paper from Bowater had left it with five operating paper machines and an off-machine coater, and $22 million in real or pledged financing to proceed with capital improvements.
Bowing out. Still, as 1999 unfolded, we were losing money at the rate of a million dollars a month. I don’t have skills in sophisticated finance, but I understood two things and I did the math: It cost six million to seven million dollars a week to run the company and we were coming up a quarter million short a week, so how many months before that $22 million pledged for improvements was eaten away and we wouldn’t even make payroll? Oh, and after 20 years, uncoated paper was still selling for under $500 a ton. Was it competition from subsidized Canadian mills that depressed the price? Mostly. Did the Canadians put GNP out of business? No. If it hadn’t been for the strike, Indian land claims, ruinous tax law, workers’ comp, the Big ‘A’, and the corporate hostility that resulted from all of these, Great Northern probably could have survived the rest, including competitors, and could, today, still be operating ten or so paper machines, a couple of them newer than Number 5 and Number 6 at East Millinocket.
During the year that the company should have been celebrating its 100th anniversary, (1998 or 1999, depending when you start counting), there was not even a mention of a centennial among the employees or in the press.
In most ways reluctantly but in some ways jubilantly, I left when another opportunity was offered me. It took a year longer than I guessed it would for the money to run out, due largely, I suspect, to the creative financing engaged in by Inexcon’s new, high-profile leader, Lambert Bedard. And so, now, the once mighty Great Northern Paper Company has been rendered a mere toothpick to its original, full-bolt size and influence.
The owners of the existing Katahdin Paper are to be congratulated for their optimism and their investment in the future of the towns. Even though I was frustrated by the hundreds of grievances I handled and the exigencies of surviving without administrative funds and even though I worked for bosses in the 1990s who had no respect for the labor agreements that I had administered since before they worked there, I never met anyone I didn’t genuinely like. If I butted heads with the president of the Machinist local, Jim Federico, in the daytime, I could go dig plum trees in his yard that evening to transplant to my own. Maybe that sense of community and the geographic isolation that kept strangers away accounts for the lack of violence during the 1978 strike. We were mad at each other, but we wouldn’t kill over it.
If Katahdin were to become a ski resort like Loon Mountain, then perhaps one of the mills could serve as a shopping center like the one in Lincoln, New Hampshire. Otherwise, it remains for Massachusetts to reclaim The North Woods and set up some sort of propaganda center at the spot in the mill where my next-door neighbor, Tom Herring, used to be the number one man on the number one machine in the number one mill of the number one groundwood paper company in the world. And it’s remarkable how proud and yet humbled Tom stood after I pointed that out to him one day.
It remains a fact that the towns where the mills still stand are still home to a high concentration of men and women who know how to make the best groundwood printing paper that ever there was. As the means were gradually taken away with which to do that, they kept trying. They didn’t buy buzzwords or slogans or empty promises. They wanted to make paper when it was their turn to work and then be left to themselves to go to camp or go to their kids’ basketball games. They were pretty sure the politicians would make things right, but the politicians understood neither what was killing the company nor their role in enabling the process.
Loyal Democrat, Joe Brennan, whose lifelong political career began in 1965, served as Maine governor from 1979-1987, during which period U.S. District Court Judge, George Mitchell, rose to national prominence after Brennan appointed him to the U.S. Senate — appointed at first to replace Edmund Muskie, who resigned the Senate to become U.S. Secretary of State. East Millinocket mill worker, Mike Michaud, was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1980 and remained a mill worker while serving in the Maine legislature until he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and began serving there in 2003. Others holding heavy sway over the regulations and attitudes of Maine government during this period included two-term governor Angus King and former Representative to Congress, then governor since 2003, John Baldacci, both Democrats. (King, independently wealthy, generally ran as an Independent but did not conceal his political affections.) Republicans Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins all held prominent elected and appointed positions during these critical years for Great Northern Paper. These powerful people, while expressing their best wishes for Great Northern’s future, all did their best to assure that the business environment in Maine and nationally would favor the demands of the AFL-CIO, the Sierra Club and its Maine minion, the Natural Resources Council, the IRS, and every other entity dedicated to restraining the ability of industry to grow and prosper. Like the steel industry a generation before and the energy industry a generation later, Great Northern Paper became the “beneficiary” of too much government. (That, indeed, is an editorial comment.) Co-beneficiaries, naturally, are the workers, the towns, and the pristine state of Maine. And Maine, no doubt, will soon become the beneficiary of too much protection by its admirers in Massachusetts and beyond.
Thirty years ago, folks in Millinocket and East Millinocket could boast that half of the people in America regularly held something in their hands printed on paper that had been produced in one of those two towns — a newspaper, a catalog, a school workbook, or a telephone book. While a skeleton crew is still making paper today, the once-proud stewards of the forest must accept the realization that their towns now serve, not as the envy of Maine industry, but merely as a remote gateway to its controversial wilderness.
This memoir was written in 2005 essentially from memory, with reference to articles and clippings in my possession at the time. Timber! — a brief chronicle of GNP in the 1970s and 1980s by Paul K. McCann, provided corroboration of some of the facts cited here.
Marzy Mays waited behind one other customer, and shortly it was her turn. Wearing her most confident face she stepped forward to clutch the high countertop and told the agent: “I’d like to buy a bus ticket.”
“To where, Lady?” The agent had seen this old Negro woman on the sidewalks many times. She could have been a “homeless” person except that he had never seen her attempt to use the depot’s rest rooms. Then again, maybe she didn’t bother with facilities.
Marzy hadn’t heard well. The waiting room echoed with the clank and clang of heavy doors, whoosh of dragged suitcases and parcels, the voices of live conversation and the aural assault of the required pseudo-music.
She guessed at the question and answered: “Uh, where can I go? I mean, what cities does the bus go to?”
The agent had anticipated this kind of conversation when he saw Marzy further back in the line. How did I know this was going to happen? he asked himself silently while he turned around to reach for a stack of schedules on the desk. He pushed one across the counter. Can you…”
“Uh, yeah, I can read. I can read fine,” Marzy assured him. She took the schedule and wobbled to a bench to study her choices. The booklet was about twenty pages thick, and the print was extremely fine. Marzy feared she’d take an embarrassingly long time to read through it, but it fell open to the middle, and while she was collecting her wits and courage, three or more names on the left-hand page struck her: Lima, Findlay, Bowling Green… There was something right about those names. Briefly she flipped through the latter half of the schedule, then the front, but in the scan nothing else appealed to her.
Back at the ticket window she pointed to the correct spot on the lucky page and asked: “How much to Lima?” She pronounced it Lima as in Aunt Jemima. She, of all people, would know.
Marzy said no more, but with a satisfied smile she carefully measured piles of change onto the counter top. She sensed the agent’s studied patience with her, and in her heart she thanked him. Then she pushed the coins across the worn marble in low stacks, watching them go as a duck might watch her ducklings paddle away to explore.
“Gate Two in a half an hour,” the agent said noncommittally as he slid her a ticket.
Marzy returned to a bench facing Gate Two. When a bus pulled in five minutes later and three or four passengers debarked, Marzy wanted to leap to board it, but she thought she’d better wait for a call. The terminal was not very busy this morning, but it was early yet. Marzy looked around and tried to determine whether others might be boarding with her. No one else appeared to be ready for travel, though, so Marzy resolutely held the bench down.
She shifted often, unable to satisfy her desire for comfort. It wasn’t the hard bench that was at fault, exactly. Something felt, well, out of place inside her. It wasn’t a pain, really. Indigestion was an approximate description. Marzy was pretty sure she had eaten well that morning, but she fussed that she couldn’t remember where. Or what. But she never took chances with her diet, so the unsettled feeling wasn’t from something she’d eaten. It also had an insidious side to it, teasing her into a momentary panic a couple of times as she sat, then subsiding so that she all but forgot the discomfort. Then it would creep back and just sit there with her, inside her; her companion, her parasite, her secret.
When her bus was called, Marzy was the last of a half dozen or so who went forward, while from the platform she could see that a couple of heads had stayed on board during the stop.
Now, Marzy had learned some dignified ways in her seventy-one years, and this was one of those times to use them. She was careful not to put on airs as she climbed the steep steps into the front of the coach, but she wanted to be respected as a worthy traveling companion by whomever she might meet. So, with her best plastic Lazarus bag clutched close under her right arm, she stopped in the front of the aisle to choose a seat. The seven or eight others were already seated, and maybe three pairs of eyes gave her a fleeting glance.
Marzy was smiling. She felt it. It felt awkward, and she worried that it was her subservient-obedient smile. She tried to change it to one more gracious, but by this time nobody was looking. The driver pounded up the steps, dropped into his seat, and hissed the door closed while Marzy continued to a suitable seat next to the window on the driver’s side of the bus. She wouldn’t be hurried, but she feared that, if she didn’t lower her rather large body to a seat soon, the bus would lurch backward out of its berth and topple her. Again, she sensed a white man’s calm but unpredictable patience while she sat.
Diesels sounded angry to her when they roared into action. They were power under protest, like tigers performing in a circus ring. This one roared that way now, backing out of its berth. Then with gears gnashing into forward it jounced across the deep gutter into the street. It growled through several more gear changes, and Marzy watched a blur of mismatched buildings slip past. One thing she noticed, always noticed, were the people. There were people on sidewalks, beside parked cars, in windows, on steps. There were approachable people, such as she, and there were people who resembled park statues, such as those wearing neckties or those in high heels.
No matter how fast the bus careened through the streets, nor how blurred the buildings became, the people were distinct — their hair, their shoes, the rings on their fingers. But nobody looked toward the bus. No one saw Marzy leaving.
One moment Marzy saw a face that was familiar, but only inasmuch as it reminded her of someone. A girl — a college student — had sought out Marzy and some of her acquaintances recently, and had “studied” them for a psychology class. She was a pleasant young thing. Her name was Randa Tash, Marzy remembered, and she called herself black, but the pity was she was as pale as anyone of the other dominant race which calls itself white. Marzy chuckled half aloud over this black identity thing. She preferred to be a Negro. She hated to be called colored. And she cringed at the contrived word Negress. To her, Negro was dignified. Yes, it referred to skin color. But someone who wasn’t really coal-black in color could wear the name nonetheless. And Negro was capitalized, even by white people. They respected it.
Randa Tash hadn’t meant anything to Marzy personally. She’d been around a few times, then had stayed away. Maybe school had finished for the summer, or something. As Marzy appreciated the soft, formed coach seat with its erect back, she pondered the only thing she could recall from all that Randa Tash had said to her: “You people live from moment to moment, don’t you.”
You people, she had said, after earlier claiming to be one of the same. Then she had said, moment to moment, which was true of Marzy; the girl had understood well. Or maybe she had understood Marzy well, and by You people she was referring to the certain few urban wanderers she was interviewing, not to members of any particular race. The plain fact was, Marzy couldn’t keep anything outside the moment in her present thoughts. If she tried to plan which street to turn onto next while she was out walking, by the time she reached that intersection she always completely forgot the plan. If she tried to catch a fleeting memory of something past, even a useful thing like where she’d last seen a certain friend, or that friend’s name, it escaped her. Memories were pleasant when they showed up, but they were like chipmunks or like hummingbirds: They came and went of their own accord, not to be captured and held for later examination and enjoyment.
Marzy tried to remember now how she had made up her mind to board a bus this day. She could recall pushing wide the front door to the terminal, and a little of what took place inside, but where she had been before that, or with whom, she couldn’t say.
Out her window Marzy opened her eyes and glanced at the passing fields. Corn it was mostly, waist-high and thrusting for the sky under a very warm and very friendly July sun. She shut her eyes again. She would probably doze, and that would be nice, but she knew her butt and her back would sweat against the cloth-covered seat. When it would be time to rise and leave, her skirt and blouse would stick to her. Well, she’d deal with that when it became necessary. Her insides were soothed by the rocking of the bus, at least for now.
A bit of her history swam across her drowsy thoughts, then. These were the rare memories that she could recall at will. In her bag she carried crumbling clippings and wrinkled photos of that certain period, which helped keep those days alive for her, but they came back now more vividly than if she had sought to consider them:
Her church. She could see it, but couldn’t say now where it was. A big square church, brown with white trim. The roof was steeply pitched and was capped with a blunt steeple. Inside Marzy was clapping and singing, leading the singing.
She could see the man in the pale yellow suit while she sang, and she knew that he would want to talk with her after the service. He was a Negro, just like everyone else in the church, but he was not familiar to her. So, she found him afterward, and yes, he was thinking of speaking to her. Would she like to be a professional performer? An actress? He needed a woman much like herself to tour the Midwest as Aunt Jemima.
Aunt Jemima! What a gloriously happy time that had been. All through the mid- and late-1950s she really was Aunt Jemima. She had an act of songs and storytelling that she put together herself, and she took her act to elementary schools and high schools, parades and holiday celebrations. She even appeared on many local television shows. She understood that she was one of perhaps a dozen such women across the country who had been hired to promote Aunt Jemima pancakes, of course, but not to do so overtly. If she did her job well, and she did, then thousands and thousands of people would allow as how there really was an Aunt Jemima, and they had seen her in person. They would remember this in the grocery store aisles.
A special pride went with her identity as Aunt Jemima that comforted Marzy even now. She never shared it with another living soul. It had been the deciding thought when she took the job many — how many, dear God! — years ago. She didn’t care about the sponsor or the product, although she was confident in its quality. She didn’t care how much money it brought in. She didn’t mind acting in a certain way on stage, the way she had been instructed to act in order to project the Negro kitchen servant image. She was creating the character, in fact, against a mental model she knew too well; in years past she had known plenty of neighbors who had played that rôle in real life. She was proud to do the job because people who bought the product would make terrific pancakes and would believe that a Negro was responsible for the recipe, for the perfection of it, for the reliability of the product box after box. To this degree Marzy had understood marketing, although no one had ever taught her any of its precepts and assumptions.
Marzy remembered when it had ended, too. The memory came back forcefully in her nap on the bus. It had nothing to do with her. She was tops. It was the company. They wanted to keep the name, but didn’t want to have such a stereotyped front person. Nobody took pains to explain this to her, though. One day she walked off a school stage, and another stranger was standing there like the man in the yellow suit. He asked for her props and then simply said: “We won’t be needing you any more.”
That wasn’t so bad, it turned out. She only had to tell one job agency who she was, and she had a job as a cook in the governor’s mansion. They didn’t hire Marzy Mays; to them they had hired Aunt Jemima, even though she had given her real name. She didn’t even have to prove whether she could cook before she joined the governor’s kitchen staff.
For the next — how many years? — she toiled at this job. She had the 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift, Saturday through Thursday. Breakfast, of course. And it had been good work, but very hard. She vaguely saw faces in her mind, the approving faces of family and old friends who were thrilled to know someone who had made it so big, and so late in life! — first Aunt Jemima and now cooking for the governor! Who was governor then, anyway? To Marzy it hadn’t been important. He didn’t know her either, so why should she remember?
The recollections faded fast, and Marzy felt herself waking. The bus was cruising up I-75 and the slight elevation gave an artist’s perspective of a Midwest cityscape, rendered to fit narrowly in the bus’s window frame. Yes! Marzy thought. It looks right! Then she feared that maybe it was right, but maybe it wasn’t the town for which she’d bought her ticket. She struggled to remember the name of the town she was going to, and gave up without looking to see what was printed on the ticket.
But the bus did turn off, and entered the city, and whisked past houses and buildings that were different from the ones she had seen that morning. In no time the bus stopped and she was in the aisle. She had waited to be the last one off, and counted herself lucky that she was, for she had to adjust her moist clothing while the others filed ahead of her. She had sweated warmly in the soft seat.
Outside the terminal Marzy wasted no time wondering where to go. She still had bits of the memory from her nap to ponder, and so she let her feet plot her a southerly course past shouting signs, rich marbled bank-fronts, and huge storefronts. Her stomach begged attention, and she burrowed into her Lazarus bag for a brown banana and a courtesy pack of two crackers. Her dry throat could wait for moisture.
The memories fizzled, and Marzy had no present thoughts at all for a while. She knew that a toilet would be needed by day’s end, but that was a minor worry. No, now her feet ached. In fact, once she had begun walking she ached everywhere. She could tell that her organs ached deep inside her, as if her companion discomfort had shared its poison with other gullible parts of her body. Her muscles were fatigued. Even her skin felt strained.
Marzy could put a word to it all: weary. She was profoundly weary, in a way that someone working bent over in a field should feel at the end of the day. But Marzy had only sat and ridden and napped. She was sure she shouldn’t have felt so…
Marzy paused to consider her location. She was near a street corner and she had just crossed a concrete bridge spanning a narrow, muddy river flowing between steeply-sloped banks. An endless line of small businesses stretched ahead — gas stations, one- and two-story stores where someone sold appliances or repaired shoes or cut hair. Here and there a bar, a corner grocery. Here and there between these buildings were once-proud residences on hard-trampled bare earth lots still dotted with tenacious tufts of yellowed grass clinging to foundation corners and sidewalk edges.
Marzy dropped her gaze and pressed on.
The aching never stopped, but it didn’t threaten to grow any worse. She felt, after a while, as if she had walked two hours. Once in a while she’d had a sense of wrong direction and had let her feet retrace some blocks. Once in a while she worried a little that she was not in the town she had hoped for. If she weren’t, that was OK. She could handle any town. She wasn’t even sure she had ever been to the town for which she had bought the ticket. She had just known she wanted to go somewhere, and Lima sounded nice. It sounded right.
The businesses had given way mostly to houses. Some were row houses of brick, two or four apartment fronts to a building. Most were single family homes and were very modest. Eventually, as she trudged onward, the homes were very humble. Occasionally she paused again and looked ahead and all around. At one such stop she realized that there were no white people among those in sight. Nearer the bus terminal she had passed people on the street who didn’t acknowledge her. Now she was passing people in their yards, and they watched her openly. The women faced her and watched. The men, many in white undershirts showing off their dark arms, took a back-to stance with their hands on their hips and peered at her over one shoulder, then the other. They were all Negroes.
Marzy trudged onward. The pain in her feet, the challenge in her chest, the need to relieve herself, all became intense simultaneously at times, then all were forgotten soon afterward. Eventually, if she had thought about it, Marzy would have realized that she felt none of it any more.
At another stop in her forward progress Marzy found herself standing on the ties between a pair of rails. These were busy rails, too: no grass growing in the ballast, fresh black oil down the center of the roadbed, shiny crowns to the rails themselves. She hurried off the tracks and onward into the neighborhood beyond the tracks.
She passed several quiet, well-kept little churches. As she turned to glance at one such, bigger than most of the others, the setting sun, split by a distant rooftop, caught her square in the eyes and left her sightless for a few moments.
About this time a small car rolled to a stop beside her and a thin older man with a bald head and pink scalp leaned across the seat toward the open window near her. “You look like you could use a lift, Ma’am,” he told her. “I’m just offering, understand. You look mighty tired.”
Marzy stopped and pondered for a moment, but concluded that she didn’t even quite comprehend what he had told her. “I’m just fine, thanks, Mister,” she replied. She realized that her voice wasn’t as full as she had intended, but she was pretty sure she had given him a grateful smile. Then she slouched back into her journey. The little automobile pulled back into traffic and Marzy noticed that the man seemed to be concerned for her still as he drove away. In her heart she thanked him. He didn’t know her, and yet he cared. She pressed on.
Now and then she read street signs. They told her nothing.
Marzy dropped one heavy, hard foot ahead of the other. She was rewarded, at last, by one street sign: Mizpah Mission Drive. It stirred no memories, although she half expected that it might as she pronounced it to herself. No, it was simply a pleasant-sounding name that was interesting to contemplate until the thought and the name would slip from her mind’s clutches and elude her.
She began having a serious problem walking. The narrow, quiet street was paved, but the paving didn’t fit the surroundings. The houses — well, now they were shacks — sat flat on the ground. They had a little more yard space than the larger houses had. The paving was laid onto the same flat dust as the poor shacks, and there were no storm drains or gutters or curbstones. Everything from tar to floor was on one earthen level. Marzy tried walking on the dirt at the edge of the street, but it was too rough and threw her off balance more than once. But the pavement was too hard. She ached the same all over, but once again her feet really hurt.
In the gathering dusk the streets were empty except for an occasional cat with matted fur or a child sitting still on a tricycle, watching her pass. Voices and smells of cooking drifted from open doorways, then radio crackle and the brief tap of a hammer, all signs of life crudely lived, but obstinately too. This was not a neighborhood that anyone passed through on the way to anywhere else. The cars in the yards were few and broken.
A profound sadness descended over the old woman, as if from a realization that she was nobody, nowhere, with no one and nothing. Then she glanced around one more time, and saw a shack she knew was right. Yes, it was right. “Thank you, Jesus!” she muttered. Twenty, forty, sixty paces — she counted them — eighty, eighty-six, until she reached the warped door. A hasp hung loosely. There was no padlock. The house was dark inside and silent, but of course it would be. With more effort than she expected to need she pulled the door part-way open. It scraped hard against the earth. Vines grew in the hinges. She couldn’t pull it closed just yet, but that could wait.
The yard was wide and ran far back from the street. The dwelling was too small for the lot, and seemed to have sunk into the earth, crouching perhaps, trying to make itself inconspicuous. Inconspicuous it was, too, and inconspicuously Marzy disappeared into the shadow of the entryway.
And inside! “Dear God…” she rasped when she glanced around the darkened main room. “It looks like I didn’t clean it this morning.” Everything was gray, either with dust or from fading — everything consisting of a broken down oak drop-leaf table with a suggestion of white paint in the crevices, a two-burner white enamel gas stove, a cupboard hanging in a tired tilt from the colorless gray wall, and several plastic bags of unidentified belongings or trash against the front wall. A stool stood at one end of the table on the rough-planked, leaf-strewn floor. A movement of air, hinting of a coolness yet several hours away, grazed Marzy’s cheek and she turned toward the only source of deepening twilight. The room’s only window was half gone, leaving a wide section of glass only on one side edged with an odd diagonal curve from top to bottom. As Marzy tried to comprehend the broken pane, a wasp circled in through the open half and then out again straight-away.
“I didn’t leave it like this,” Marzy cried half-inwardly, half in a mumble, like a child saying: “It wasn’t my fault.”
There was a narrow room off the back, and if she could have walked that far she would have been sure to find the bed. If the rest of the house was like this, then the mattress probably lay bare, in need of sheets. Where were her sheets? She couldn’t look just now. Just now she needed to sit, and the stool was right behind her, next to the table, where she could rest an elbow and catch her breath. How long had she been standing here without drawing a breath?
Glancing over her shoulder, Marzy aimed her butt at the stool and let her legs give out.
Patrolman Neal Schwertfager, one of a proud line of Schwertfagers of mixed German descent who had made careers of law enforcement, and Rookie Wendell Upthegrove, no less proud but the first of his former-Georgia-sharecropper lineage to wear a badge, were standing alongside their patrol car outside the central police station, discussing baseball with a trio of teenage boys, when the call came in: body found in an abandoned house at 1419 Rayburn Street.
Schwertfager and Upthegrove were partners. Rayburn was on their beat. Neal flicked on the old car’s original red bubble-gum-machine when they pulled out on this call, but no siren. People were just now going to bed, and besides, this was a no-pulser. The night was tropical and the air eddying through the patrol car’s open windows was thick with the voices of the night: shouts, screen doors on taut springs, muffler decay, wolf whistles, naughty laughter, colicky crying, even a flush, and above it all the descant of crickets. To their passing car it was all merely scraps of sound, an orchestra tuning up, a trip around the radio dial, a barrage on the senses.
Neal drove at a moderate but no-nonsense speed, the sounds professionally shut out but first professionally filtered for a cry of distress, a crack of weaponry, a tinkle of shattered glass. Wendell concentrated on a string of words here, a movement there, and finally concluded that it would be interesting just to walk this street, Metcalf Street, at night, so that whole, uncut, even though brief, episodes of others’ lives, played from open windows and railed porches on the public stage of a darkened summer night, could be absorbed and analyzed. He wondered why such a simple exercise wasn’t part of an officer’s formal training. He would make it part of his own.
“Remember Aunt Jemima?” Wendell asked Neal as the car’s tires provided a drone for the trip to the south side Lima neighborhood. Schwertfager gave him an affirmative nod but kept his eyes on his driving. “House we’re going to is the one Aunt Jemima used to live in. Before she was famous. My old Aunt Marzy, actually.”
“Aunt Jemima was your aunt?” Neal responded, giving his partner a glance that held no mockery, just a measure of amusement.
“Yeah, really. My great aunt. Marzy Mays is her real name.” Wendell sat silent for a few seconds, then added: “Nobody around here’s seen or heard from her in ten or twelve years.”
“I saw her way back in, probably, fourth grade,” Neal said. “Lincoln School. Would have been 1954 or thereabouts.”
“You went to Lincoln?” Wendell asked. “So did I. Missus Mummaugh, kindergarten. Missus MacDonald, first grade. You were there before me, I think.”
Neal chuckled. Probably only five or six years before Wendell, he guessed. He and this Army M.P.-trained rookie were a lot more alike than different, and Wendell wasn’t wise-cracking about the veteran officer’s age, only remarking on it in order to gauge the span when they had both passed through the same elementary school. A few seconds later they turned off Metcalf and cruised passed the school itself. Schwertfager faced front as they went by but noticed that his partner turned and took in the whole street lamp-lit scene.
Seconds later Wendell was thrown into a hard lean as Neal cut down a shortcut and then glided past a stop sign in front of Duff Truck Lines. There was no other traffic.
“What’s she been up to?” Neal ventured. “Aunt Jemima,” he added.
“Last I knew she was splitting her time. She stays some of the time with a son in Columbus, but his wife thinks her mother-in-law is bats. So she puts herself on the bus and goes to my Uncle Charlie’s outside of Cincinnati — that’s her brother — until he gets tired of her and ships her back to Stoney’s.”
“That’s her son.”
“She rich?” Neal asked, guiding the car onto the first of several narrow streets in the target neighborhood. He was just keeping the conversation going as a way of steeling himself for the always-unsettling first glimpse of a found body. He wondered what Wendell’s reaction to it would be.
The rookie may have been bracing for the same jarring sight and seemed to understand the nature of the question. “She did real well, for an old mammy. Cooked for the governor after the Jemima thing. But I don’t expect she had a pension or even a bank account.”
Neal slowed the cruiser half a block from the destination as Wendell radioed dispatch of their arrival. The street was populated with a hundred expressionless faces turned toward the headlights, faces made blacker by the color drain of nighttime. Casually, but respectful of the official car, the thin crowd parted and made way. Neal pulled onto the dirt in front of the shack, the high beams aimed at the tilted cross-buck door. A dozen grownups stood around the front yard in twos, and twenty kids on bike fossils were drawn up to an imaginary perimeter eight or ten yards from the shack. At the half-open door, a white-haired old man in a sleeveless, yellowed undershirt and stiff, brown leather breaches, with skin so black it shone almost bluish, stood as erect as his hunched back would allow.
Upthegrove recognized the old gentleman, Everest Shambley, and waved to him with his flashlight as he exited the cruiser. The young policeman had played pretend policeman in this very yard as a child, on visits to Aunt Marzy, and Ol’ Everes’, as he had always been known, had been a neighborhood fixture even then. The two officers strode to the low doorway, and Wendell paused to shake Everest’s hand. The old man seemed distraught, but didn’t, or couldn’t, say anything as Neal first, and then Wendell ducked inside. A second or two afterward, those closest to the house heard Wendell’s choked voice from inside: “Oh, geez, Neal! Oh, geez!”
Racing the Light at Dershem’s Corner — A line of elms stood sentry on each side of the road just before the new, improved ramp approach to the state highway intersection. As we came upon the elms, which up to now had obscured any view of the traffic light itself, I saw a glint of red through the branches.
Off Course — No one suspected how an elderly couple first met in their younger days.
The Dentist’s Proffered Testimony — The Dentist’s proffered testimony, locked against public discovery for 87 years, until discovered in 1999, explains the disappearance of an entire railroad train in April, 1912.
That Face — When we pedaled our bikes back toward Kenny’s house, taking turns with the sloshing pot, we discovered what happens when a black, cricket-sized catfish hits blacktop that has been bubbling under the noonday sun.