Where we lived in Aroostook County, Maine, it was about the same distance to any large body of water no matter which direction you went. If you traveled west, you'd run into the Great Lakes. If you went North, it would be the mouth of the St. Lawrence that you ran into first and if we went Southeast, sooner or later, we'd finally run into the great Atlantic Ocean.
We were truly "woods" people. We were born in the northern Maine woods and we died in them too. Oh, it's not like we didn't have any large lakes, rivers or streams all around us. We did, but we never really knew how vast the Atlantic Ocean was until we saw it for ourselves when we were many years older.
When we were growing up in the "county" in the fifty's and sixty's, dad would go hunting and fishing in the familiar places all around us that didn't entail traveling too far from our rural home. So, in the spring of "55," when he came home after working in the potato house all day and announced that he might be going "deep sea fishin" sometime later on in May, mother, as well as the rest of us, was quite taken aback.
We had just sat down to a supper of mother's homemade bread, fried potatoes and roast chicken when dad made his startling announcement. All of us kids, upon hearing this stupendous news, stopped shoveling our food into our mouths and looked at each other. Dad going to the ocean! This was amazing to say the least! We knew somewhat where the Atlantic Ocean was in reference to our home on the Goding Road in Ashland but we'd never known anyone who'd actually gone there.
Mother, laid her fork down in her plate, took a sip of tea, and cast her brown eyes on dad and waited to hear what he was going to say next. Dad, lifted his bald head and looked around the table at the seven pairs of blue and brown eyes looking back at him, smiled and said, "Well, me and Raymond and Carl was talking at lunch and we decided that we'd like to give it a try. Raymond has a brother who lives down to Lubec and his place is right on the ocean. He has a boat that he'd take us out in and we could spend the whole day fishin and come back the next." Dad waited to see how this news was going to sit with mother. He slid his bright blue eyes in her direction and waited.
Mother forked another mouthful of chicken into her mouth, chewed for a couple of long moments and then she said, "Well, if you're only going to be gone overnight, that won't be too bad. I guess I could manage if these kids don't give me too much trouble." And with that pronouncement, she looked around the table at all of us. Mother was from the old school and she'd kill you just as quick as she'd look at you. We all nodded our heads that we certainly wouldn't be giving her any trouble, no-sir-ree, no trouble at all.
The rest of the evening was taken up with dad's plans and we all sat where we were, eatin mother's amazing "Stevens' Special" chocolate cake, mesmerized by dad's exotic talk about goin deep sea fishin in the ocean. It wouldn't have been any more shocking to us if dad had announced that he was goin to Africa or to the Far East or even the moon. It seemed a lifetime and a world away to all of us Stevens' kids.
Dad explained that he'd have to chip in about fifty dollars which would cover his portion of gas, food, the rental of the boat and their overnight lodging. Mother, upon hearin the amount of money needed, winced a little but then said, "Well, I have a little more than that put aside for school clothes for the kids but I guess we have all summer to save up again, don't we?" And with that last remark, she looked at all her children still sitting at the table. We knew what was in store for us because we'd already been down this road many times before.
Whenever dad's meager salary didn't cover a sudden expense, we were called upon to help find the needed funds in any way we could. It didn't matter how old you were either. If you had two hands and were reasonably healthy, you did as your parents asked. There was no ands, ifs or buts. We didn't have to worry about the other kids laughing at us as they saw us walking along the back roads pickin berries, dragging sacks half-filled with bottles and cans or selling freshly picked fiddleheads. Back then, most of the families that we knew were in the same situation as ours, too poor to have anything put aside for a rainy day and too many mouths to feed. The problem was that we had to stake out our territory first because; all the other kids would be out there just like us, looking for anything that they could turn into a money-makin proposition.
Once approval had been garnered from mother, dad set about making his deep sea fishin dream come true and we set about replenishing mother's saving account. If dad was working in the potato house up to Masardis, Jake, me, Bub and Helen would get up early and leave with him. He'd let us off at the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad tracks that separated Squa Pan from Masardis and we'd pick up bottles and cans along the roads all the way back home. On days when we had school, the other kids would tease us after having seen us dragging our burlap sacks along the road behind us. It really used to piss Jake off if all the "church goin" kids said anything about us "havin the best territory" to find cans in because that meant to all of us Stevens' that all the "real" alcoholics lived in our immediate area.
Jake wasn't a fighter by any means but Bub would take on all comers and he usually won too. He had a fiery temper to match his dark auburn hair and he had a mouth to match. He usually went around with his fists at the ready, a curled lip and an attitude and most people left him pretty much alone. But, sometimes I was glad when he stood up for us and took care of the snooty kids whose father didn't drink and they didn't have to pick bottles by the side of the road and they would finally mind their own business and leave us tha hell alone.
Days passed and before we knew it, it was time for dad to leave. He'd packed his fishing stuff days before and all he had left to do was have a bath, pack his clothes and be off. The night before, mother, not used to having dad go off for any length of time without her, fixed his favorite meal. In all the years they were married, she still couldn't understand how dad, whose whole life revolved around potatoes, still loved the taste of potatoes more than anything else. He wasn't particular about how they were cooked either. Fried, boiled, baked, it didn't matter to him. If it was a potato, he'd eat it. So, she built up the fire in the old Glenwood wood stove and greased the top real good. Then she peeled some red potatoes, sliced them real thin and cooked them on top of the stove until they were nice and crispy. She'd sprinkle a little salt and pepper on them, scoop them onto a plate and that was it. Depending on the time of year, she'd serve them with a slice of pan-fried deer meat and some homemade pickled beets or fiddleheads. Dad, with a nice glass of his home-brewed beer, declared this to be a feast! That night, he was one happy man, in the mornin; he was going deep sea fishin!
Before dad sent us off to bed that night, he and Jake and Bub had a lengthy discussion about what he might catch in the sea. Jake had been readin a lot ever since dad had announced that he was going to the great Atlantic Ocean and he had a lot of ideas about the kind of creatures that lived in the sea. He and Bub had argued long into the night for weeks about what dad might catch and bring back. Jake thought that dad might catch a giant squid or an octopus but Bub was adamant that he would catch a giant whale or a shark. Hearin all their views about deep sea creatures, dad just laughed and said, "We'll jist have to wait and see."
Early the next morning, we heard Raymond arrive and toot for dad and he was off. We were so excited for him. We pretty near drove mother crazy by running in and out of the house every hour or so asking what time it was. Mother finally gave up and sent us to bed early just to have a little peace and quiet for herself.
The next day didn't go any faster than the first day but we knew that by supper time that next night, dad should be home with all his sea monsters. Mother, saw the writing on the wall and sent us four older kids across the swamp to our grandparent's to while away the afternoon. We didn't like visiting our grandfather all that much so we took our sweet time getting there. Then we ate a few of Grammy's Colbath's wonderful doughnuts and headed for home. We couldn't wait for dad to get back.
Finally, around six thirty, we saw Raymond's dusty, green pickup coming down the dirt road in a cloud of dust and they pulled up in our driveway. Jake and Bub tumbled out the door and off the porch, hitting and punching each other, eager to get to dad first. When they'd gotten up to the passenger side door, Jake looked at dad and his big grin slid off his freckled face. Bub, a close second, stared at dad and he too stopped smiling.
Dad opened the door, slid down to the ground and holding on to the side of the pickup, walked slowly and carefully as though his legs didn't work quite right, around to the back of the pickup. He didn't look like the same man who had left us only twenty-four hours before either. His usually tanned skin was a sickly white and there were black circles around his blue eyes. His normally clean clothes looked like he'd slept in them and other bad things had happened to them too. There was a smell emanating from him that we'd never smelled before and we gagged a little as the wind blew it up our noses. We were used to fishin smells and huntin odors but these were altogether different.
He turned and said, "Jake, hop up there and git my things and take them inside." He walked around the truck and thanked Raymond and then he headed slowly for the house with Bub right behind him. "Dad!" "Dad!" Where's all the fish? Where's all the sea monsters?" Dad reached behind him and rubbed his calloused hand across Bub's head. "Hang on a little Bub and I'll tell you all about it in a little while." And with that, he headed for the house with the rest of us trailin behind him.
Mother, watched all of this from the front porch and she knew things hadn't gone at all like dad had expected. She welcomed dad inside and sent the rest of us outside until she could talk to him. We hung around the porch door hoping to overhear something that would give us a clue about what had happened to dad. Every now and then, we'd hear a roar of laughter from mother and after hearing this a couple of times, we figured that dad's trip couldn't have been too bad after all.
Finally, as the sun was sliding into the western horizon, mother came to get us and we hurried inside, but dad was nowhere to be seen. We had a million questions for mother and she merely shushed us and said for us to get washed up and go to bed. She said that our questions would jist have to wait till morning, dad was already in bed and he was very tired. She didn't look too concerned and she did have a small smile around the edge of her mouth. She told us that with a good night's sleep, dad should be feeling a lot better by morning.
Morning finally came and we descended on dad like a pack of hounds. He had made it from his bed to the living room and was sitting back in his old chair with his bald head lying against the back of it with his eyes closed. Mother, hearing us come flying down the stairs, hurried into the living room and motioned for us to leave dad alone. But he opened his blood-shot blue eyes and looked at us and he knew that he might as well get it over with. We all sat on the floor around him and he began telling us the story of his encounter with the ocean.
Dad said that after leaving home, they drove about five and a half hours before they reached the fishing village of Lubec. Dad declared that he could smell the town even before they'd reached it and when they'd finally gotten to Raymond's brother's house, he already knew that he wouldn't like the ocean. Jake, mystified by this statement, jumped up and demanded to know what was wrong with the ocean. Dad motioned for Jake to sit down and said, "Jake, the ocean ain't a bit like the rivers or lakes that you've been fishin in all your life. It smells! And I don't like that smell one bit!" "But what does it smell like dad?" Jake and Bub asked. Dad thought about it for a little while and then he said, "To me, it smells like rotten potato tops and the smell never goes away. It's in your nose for as long as you are on or near the salt water." With that explanation, Jake and Bub looked at each other and agreed that they wouldn't like that smell either.
"But dad, where's all your fish and sea monsters?" Jake asked. Dad shifted in his chair and as his memory took him back to the day in the boat, you could see his belly roil up under his union suit and he had to swallow real hard a couple of times before it stopped. Mother, seeing his reaction, hurried to the kitchen to get a pan. Dad coughed a couple of times and then he continued.
"We had a real nice supper at Raymond's brother's house and I slept pretty good that night too. Raymond's sister-in-law woke us up at four-thirty for breakfast and to appease mother he added, "But her biscuits weren't nearly as good as yours mum." Hearin this compliment, mother's dark skin glowed a dusky pink and she looked real pretty sittin there on the arm of our old couch.
Dad looked at us and asked mother for some aspirin and then he continued. "We walked down to the pier and loaded out fishin gear onto the small boat and we were off. We went out about a mile into the ocean and we dropped anchor. I put some cut fish onto my pole and dropped the line into the water alongside the boat and waited but nothing happened. After about an hour of this and no bites, we all reeled in and changed our bait but by then the sun was pretty well up and it was gittin hot too."
"Raymond, sick of not catchin any fish, asked his brother to try another spot and we went out a little further but we still didn't get any bites. Then, the wind shifted out of the southeast and large waves began pushing the boat this way and that and I felt my belly begin to feel bad. Then, I saw Raymond being sick over the side of the boat and the next thing I knew, I was sick too." Hearin this news from dad, Jake and Bub looked at each other. This was news to them. Dad being sick when fishing! They couldn't believe their ears.
Dad, remembering all the ways the small craft had shifted to and fro, burped and held a washrag to his mouth and waited before he continued. "From that point on, all of us were sick. First Raymond, then me and then Carl. We upchucked until there wasn't anything left to upchuck. We were seasick and it was the most terrible thing I have ever had. I never want to see the ocean again!" "But dad" Jake exclaimed, "How big is the ocean anyway?" Dad looked at Jake and said, "I want you to go outside tonight and have a good look at the sky, Jake. The ocean is nearly as big as the sky." Jake's eyes widened with the thought of how large the ocean really was. "From now on," dad said. "I'll stick to the lakes, rivers and streams right here in good, old Aroostook County. They're good enough for me!" With that final announcement, dad laid his tired old head back against the chair and closed his eyes.
Hearing dad's final declaration, all hopes of dad taking them deep sea fishing when they got bigger slid from Jake and Bub's mind and the light in their eyes went out. No sea monsters, no sharks and no giant squid. They'd have to be content to catch a few chub, some suckers and maybe, if they were real lucky, maybe a trout every now and then.
Mother, seeing that dad was really worn out and still sick, sent us outside to play and Jake and Bub sat on the end of the porch to try and digest all this information. Mother said that they discussed the pros and cons of deep sea fishin for a long time and then, still not wanting to give up the dream, she heard Jake say to Bub, "Maybe dad caught a really huge sea monster and he didn't want to scare us so he didn't bring it home!"
Martha Stevens-David Column Magic City
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