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Down the Road

Farming, fun for this suburban kid
By Milt Gross
Jul 15, 2012 - 1:15:53 AM

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I've been thinking about John Gould's book, Last One in, about his boyhood all week, and eventually I got around to thinking a bit about my own boyhood.

I did have one. I wasn't always a grouchy old guy of 29.5, and I didn't have a beautiful wife. I was a kid.

What I remember most about those years of growing up was, no not the 18 years I may have spent in elementary, junior high, and high school, but fun on the farm.

Actually a couple of farms, but one was work. The other was fun. I won't tell you about the work one, where I helped bail and get the hey in on hot days in Pennsylvania. I won't tell you how mean the geese were that chased me up the hey bales nor how I had to get a shower each evening because I had so much bits of hey on me, "they" were considering me as a stand-in for Dorothy's straw man. And I certain won't tell you I wore my big brothers black ankle-high workshoes that were too small for my big feet.

No, I'll tell you about the one in Belgrade, Maine, where my Great Aunt Amy, now long deceased, took us when she met us at the train in Augusta.

Didn't think there were passenger trains to Augusta? Shows how young you are. Or how forgetful.

But when she met us she motored us out the Prescott Road to her farmhouse across the road from the Twombly's farm. Hers was a Model A, then about 30 years old, complete with that radiator cap -- don't recall that? Still either too young or too forgetful. It sat up high in the front, right in the middle of the hood, which, by the way, because you probably don't remember this either, raised from either side and kind of folded upright in the canter.

But it wasn't that radiator cap, but the fact that she used it to tell where she was on the road, which paved, also contained foot-long rocks that were also several inches high, and a fair share of holes, by keeping that radiator camp lined up on the yellow line down the middle of the road so you knew you were on a road and not a cow path.

That first ride with Great Aunt Amy was the summer and the motoring trip that taught me how to pray.

"Oh, God, if You really care, don't let a car come the other way, pleeeeze!"

God must have answered my prayer, because I'm sitting here several hundred years later, typing this to bore you out of your tree.

Most modern cars don't have that steering-system radiator camp out front there to show you where the yellow line is. No wonder all those other drivers, all except you and me, that is, are so crazy.

How can they not be crazy, trying to drive without that radiator cap to tell you where you are on the road?

The last I saw of the Model A was its resting in the old, unpainted barn, which leaned a bit to the north and was stabilized by several rough-hewn poles leaning against that side.

The house was a 19th century cape, complete with rough, squared beams in the attic fastened with square nails and held up by stones in the granite-walled basement. One long stone, about five feet in length, if I remember, stood on its end in the basement, the lower and upper ends held in place by smaller rocks wedged into it.

I always wondered why the house didn't collapse, but it's still there all these years later, improved and with new owners. My Great Aunt Amy died awhile ago at relatives in Maryland.

What I remember most about Great Aunt Amy's farmhouse was the silence. Not the kind with quiet music, nor traffic in the background, nor a neighbor's lawnmower ruining the quiet, but quiet....quiet, as in very quiet. We used to lie on the front lawn -- called dooryard in Maine -- and listen to the breeze swish gently through three tall spruce that graced that dooryard. In the distance, which the silence seemed to accentuate, we could see fields, forest, and lakes.

They say you can't take it with you, when you go, but maybe, just maybe I'll take the memory of that silence with me. Maybe.

My little sister Lizzy, which was her shortened name, her actual name being Liz, and I used to play hide and seek in the shoulder-height grass behind the barn. I now can't see how, but it was fun then.

My father and I did a good bit of wandering around the farm and into the woods bordering the fields. Once we started to venture into the cow pasture of the Twombly farm, but the cows walked toward us. We got out of that pasture pretty darn (copying that word "darn" from an evangelical novel I'm reading to review) fast. Who wants to be eaten by a herd of Guernseys and Jerseys?

(Now, not on a farm but in the woods, its the moose that like to scare the tar out of me. In case you're curious, which you're probably not, I have no tar left in me.)

My father and I got turned around once in the woods just off the edge of a cow pasture. Those cows made a career of making hundreds of little trails going every which direction, we were sure with the purpose of laughing at us in bovine laughter as we got turned around following them.

It was pretty frightening for a suburban kid and his suburban father getting turned around in the woods just off the cow pasture.

But the cows provided entertainment for us, when they were fastened in the barn and farmer Stephen Twombly was milking them. By hand. The entertainment came when he would squirt milk from a tit into a shallow pan, and the barn cats came charging in for their share. This suburban kid was fascinated by the hand milking, the milk squirted into the shallow pan, and from there tongue-lapped into the hungry cats.

(By the way, in Maine, if you listen to Maineiacs talk, you'll find that no one gets lost, but lots of folks get "turned around.")

Several times we went down the road to Belgrade Stream and rented an old wooden rowboat. That boat had a kind of curve in the keel on the bottom, so if you weren't careful you rowed in circles. We were careful and rowed -- not paddled a canoe or used an outboard -- rowed a mile or so upstream and downstream. Try that sometime, if you want some good exercise....never mind the gym, try an old wooden rowboat with a bent keel.

In those days, the stream went pretty much through open farmland with some woods along the banks. Now it's all summer camps. We refer to this improving Maine Vacationland.

We sometimes attended an elderly, white, wooden Congregational Church, where the men and boys wore suits that obviously were their Sunday suits. Some didn't fit quite as they should if you were, say, in the suburbs of New York or Philadelphia, but they were okay. Most likely they wore overalls the rest of the week to work their farms.

The church had a pump organ, and a local lad -- I like that word, "lad," which just jumped off the keyboard at me -- did the pumping.

Then we would drive back home to the farm, over the short steep-ramped bridge that spanned the railroad. That bridge has been replaced by a longer more comfortable bridge. I always thought that bridge was fun.

My father and I once stared at map of Maine, which led to a real adventure in Baxter State Park and up Katahdin (not Mount Katahdin, as "Katahdin" means Greatest Mountain). The road into the park was a one-lane grassy tract that sometimes became a one-lane wooded tract.

Several years ago a park ranger assured me the road had never been like that. Which told me she wasn't quite old enough to remember it. It had little back-off places you could use when you met another car going the other way. Oh, and signs warned you to blow your horn on those sharp forest-bordered turns in the road.

On that trip, we used my great aunt's '52 Plymouth sedan, which I loved, partly because I had learned to drive in one of them.

The final say of the week or two weeks was the train whistle at night, the mournful, comfortable call I was used to from being raised on the Maine Line of the Pennsylvania Railroad west of Philadelphia.

I would hear that whistle blow and grow lonely.

After all, I was a suburban kid from Pennsylvania, not used to cows, and fields, and lakes, and streams, and....silence.

Then we were back on the train, headed south.

But I thought about Maine throughout the entire year.

When I graduated from college, my first act in finding a career was my wife and my packing a U-Haul and moving to the Pine Tree State.

Been here ever since.

Some tourists ask me if I've lost the map "home." Ayuh," I tell them in my best fake Maineiac lingo, "and please don't give me another one."

I'm home, as home as home gets.

Milt Gross can be reached for corrections, harassment, or other purposes at lesstraveledway@midmaine.com.

Milton M. Gross Copyright 2012

Milt Gross Down the Road A Piece Column

Milt Gross Book Reviews


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