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Layers
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I love winter, and I embrace it. I can’t afford to go skiing anymore, but even so I love all the outdoor fun that comes from a good, deep blanket of New England snow and sharp cold: tobogganing, ice fishing, pond hockey, you name it. As a Maine man, I also love the romance of winter and the pride of merely surviving day-to-day in extreme conditions.

From November on, I love the absence of light. The sun leaves the sky by 4:00 PM and to me there is nothing cozier than returning home and settling into the night immediately. The back roads are covered in a fog of wood smoke, the most intoxicating smell in the world. These are the days of stews and pies and baked bean suppers, and finding comfort wherever we can. When the snow flies, we Mainers fly into action, and shoveling and plowing snow and sawing and stacking wood become activities ingrained into motor memory. It takes a special character to survive and thrive in a Maine winter, and we pride ourselves on having this fortitude of spirit and intestine.

One of the most critical aspects of surviving a Maine winter is dressing for the occasion, and that means layering. From November through April, my standard wardrobe is t-shirt and a sweater, or t-shirt and a flannel, and often I go t-shirt, long-sleeve Henley and flannel. And frequently I throw on a pair of Long Johns for extra warmth below the equator.

Layering is a time-honored Maine winter tradition. Ironically, I learned the lesson in Florida on a day of national tragedy.

January 28, 1986: I was in seventh grade at Hendricks Methodist in Jacksonville. I was not Methodist, nor anything else: my family went to church as often as we flew first class, which is to say never. I had run into some major bullying issues in public school during my first three years in Jax (as we saw in the five-part series that started here), so my parents thought private school might be a good fit. Good idea, not so great results. But I digress.

Eight days earlier, my science class, led by Ms. Harm, had taken a field trip to Kennedy Space Center in anticipation of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the First Teacher in Space, New Hampshire’s own Christa McAuliffe. It was a brilliant, chilly day, and I had Led Zeppelin IV for my Walkman. We devoured all the exhibits and went crazy in the gift shop, and as we were herded back to the bus, there it was. The great ship was on the giant transport tractor, making the slow journey to the launch pad. Challenger and her booster rockets practically glowed against the brown/orange of the fuel tank. It was a magnificent site, and we all felt a sense of pride in the upcoming mission.

Eight days later, as the Challenger launched on her doomed flight, one of my “chums” spilled a full carton of chocolate milk all over my lap. The humiliation of my entire table laughing at me as my crotch and legs were doused was bad enough, but there was also a practical problem: my jeans were soaked and it was literally freezing out. What the hell was I going to do to stay warm?

I must have thought of my days tobogganing at the farm and my trusty Long Johns, because I went to my locker, grabbed my gym sweats and put them on, then pulled my jeans back on. I reeked like stale chocolate milk and humiliation. But I was warm.

The layout of Hendricks was definitely unconventional. There were rows of classroom buildings, almost like cabanas or military barracks, with outdoor paths in between wending through palm trees and evergreens with Spanish moss. I remember sitting in Ms. Harm’s science class, warm with my sweats on under my jeans, when she said, “The Challenger has exploded, and there were no survivors.” My class gasped and cried, and we all went outside. And 160 miles to the south, we saw the smoke in the sky: the Y-shaped cloud of death with the huge ball of fire in the middle where the shuttle blew up and the rockets separated. I stood there in the cold, stinking like sour chocolate milk, but layered in warmth, gazing at the smoke in the sky and realizing that the world had just changed inalterably forever.

Later at home I watched President Reagan’s “Touch the Face of God” speech in a fresh pair of pants. I remember the sky outside the Oval Office and how much it reminded me of winter sunsets in Maine (as we’ve seen here, this was a common occurrence for me back then). In spite of the horrors of the day, I remember dreaming of being back at the farm, back home in Maine. I dreamed of those 4:00 PM sunsets and cozy early evenings and wood smoke and sitting by the wood stove, safe and warm, and playing in the snow in the glorious winter cold.

And I remember thinking that when we moved back home, whenever that was, I would spend the rest of my winters layered and happy.

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Of the four years we lived in Jacksonville, FL – from the summer of 1982 when I was nine through my 14th birthday, 09/12/1986 – the only year we did not return to Maine for Christmas vacation was 1985. That year I transferred my homesickness to a familiar stand-in, living my dreams of a white Maine Christmas through Frogtown Hollow, home of Emmet Otter.

Christmas in Florida, even northern Florida, was depressing for a Maine boy. It was chilly – maybe in the 40s or at most 30s – but nothing like the pure Maine winter cold I wanted. There was certainly no snow. And my only lasting impression of Jacksonville Christmas cheer is an aluminum tree with the most garish lights imaginable on the roof of Jax Liquors. Bing Crosby had not visited my neck of the woods.

But we did have HBO, and with that came salivation. Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas had been a favorite since it premiered in 1977. The Jim Henson special, adapted from the 1971 Russell and Lillian Hoban book, came along at exactly the right time over Christmas 1985. The Frogtown Hollow inhabited by Emmet and Ma Otter served as a virtual Maine Christmas at my grandparent’s farm as I sat in my Florida apartment.

The fire-red sunset as Emmet and Ma row home from running errands made me dream of the sunsets I knew from the living room window at the farm. The sound of the snowmobiles driven by Chuck and the River Bottom Boys echoed the sound of snowmobiles heading up our path and into our woods. And the brilliant full moon that shone over Ma, Emmet and his jug band as they walked home in defeat from the Waterville Talent Contest was the same moon that shone over my brother Eric and I as we played football in the snow or went tobogganing by the barn light.

I suppose I’ve always had this ability to adapt to circumstance and try to improve my lot, and it certainly served me well over Christmas vacation 1985. And Christmas Day wasn’t all bad that year, in spite of being in a small Florida apartment rather than a snowbound Maine farm. We got our first VCR that day (the remote control was attached to the console by a wire), and our first VHS movie: Gung Ho with Robert Mitchum. And I got my first blank VHS tape, with which I taped Celtics/Knicks at Madison Square Garden and, later that day, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas

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Nightfall

The shortening days of autumn lead to a galaxy of happy and warm associations in my mind.

Let me take you to the family farm in Whitefield, ME. I was afraid to leave my mom for overnight visits for a long time, but by the time I was six, I couldn’t get enough of the Homestead. We visited in all seasons, of course, but the fall and winter especially stand out in my mind.

Sometimes my grandparents would arrive at our house in Brunswick to pick us up. As the baby-blue Oldsmobile pulled into the driveway, my mom always said, “Look who’s here!” and my brother Eric and I would go nuts. Grandpa was always clad in forest green Dickies, and Grandma always had a mod ‘70s sleeveless polyester shirt and, in the coldest weather, a knit sweater. We would load into the Olds, bathe in the magnificent cigar smoke wafting through the interior, and we were off.

I always loved the sound of the turn signal, but it seemed sharper when it was cold out. The sound was a comforting “click-clock”, from C to F, like a large interior clock. But the rhythm was eighth notes, so the C had a bit more urgency: “CLICK-clock-CLICK-clock” rather than “CLICK-rest-clock-rest-CLICK-rest-clock-rest.” My sense of rhythm and tone may well have developed here.

My grandfather’s wood pile towered in the yard by the hen house, always big enough to climb our way to the top and observe our kingdom. We would play Nerf football on the leaf-strewn great lawn, with puffs of wood smoke from the stove hanging low, or play on the tractor in the tool shed, with the smell of sawdust, kerosene and WD40 melding in the crisp air.

The main event came when the light left the sky in the afternoon. The sunsets at the Homestead during the cold months, to this day, grip my heartstrings and leave me speechless.

There is something about a person coming inside during the cold months. The door opens and a blast of fresh chill follows, infused with the smell of cold, leaves, earth and the mission of the arriving person. My grandfather, after feeding the sheep, always carried the scent of the barn, hay, his work clothes, kitchen matches, wood smoke and cigar smoke. This remains a magical concoction in my mind.

After dark, with a fire roaring in the wood stove, we would gather in the living room. My grandfather would smoke his cigars, my grandmother would make Jiffy-pop, and we would watch the classics of the ‘70s and ‘80s: Vegas, Quincy, Dallas, Hill Street Blues, Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Rockford Files, Alice, One Day at a Time. So we weren’t studying for the bar. But we were together and warm and happy.

As the days got colder, the pile of blankets on the beds upstairs got thicker. My grandmother would kiss us to sleep, and we were off to dream of breaking through coverage for touchdowns, playing a Les Paul through a wall of Marshall stacks at a sold-out Madison Square Garden and skiing or tobogganing from the edge of the woods to the house.

I was never warmer in my life than I was during those short cold days, but it all comes back to me every time I return to visit my parents in the old house on the farm.

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Jack and Pal guard the woodshed, February 1969. I would join them in September 1972.

The screen door from the kitchen to the woodshed always slams four times behind me: once with authority, then a pause followed by three quieter slaps in rapid-fire succession. SLAP – slap-slap-slap. Closed. This is the sound of running outside into summer at the farm.

There are two steps, covered in green carpet, in the woodshed. The first step is slightly below the height of the kitchen door, and a jar of kerosene always sits on it. Just left of the steps is the wood box. We fill the wood box in the shed, and pull the morning kindling and logs out of the box in the kitchen. A rolled up copy of the Kennebec Journal, a little kerosene, a flick of a kitchen match and the woodstove roars to life, taking off the dawn chill.

On top of the wood box are my grandfather’s work gloves and a can of OFF! Hanging to the right of the door are threadbare leather leashes for their dogs Jack and Sally. Both Jack and Sally are now deceased, but Max, the giant retriever owned by Dennis, who lives in the log cabin up the road, will be lying in the grass outside the shed, panting and alone.

The woodshed is dark, and always smells of fresh sawdust from the endless stacks of firewood. I love this part of the shed. Directly across from the kitchen door is the door that leads to the attic above the woodshed and also the door to the henhouse. I am terrified of this part of the shed.

The attic is filled with bric-a-brac that feels old and creepy. Rattan baby carriages with iron wheels, porcelain dolls with noses or eyes missing, broken wood and wicker chairs, plastic deer lawn ornaments. It is blazing hot and stuffy up there, and I always feel like I’m about to fall through the floorboards.

The henhouse entrance is worse, though. There is a dust-covered grain barrel, then a slatted wooden door, and then the coop itself, dirt-floored and rickety, with hens charging me as I open the door with a scoop of grain in a trembling hand. The sound of the hens squawking as I approach fills me with the kind of fear that makes my ears pop and my heart race.

But, at twelve years old, I am running away from the attic and henhouse and toward the lawn. The barn doors of the woodshed are always latched open, thus I have no time to adjust to the blip of dark in the shed between the kitchen and the outdoors. The door slams (SLAP – slap-slap-slap): I am down the green-carpeted steps, and I take one step on the plank floorboards of the woodshed, and then I’m outside.

Immediately I have to jump over an oblong semi-circle of mud. Then, like a wide receiver, I do a cut move around Max on the lawn by the cellar bulkhead, and I’m across the dirt driveway to the big lawn. Here are the lawn chairs, picnic table, kettle grill, games of Wiffle ball, Nerf football and the general joy of summer in Maine, thousands of miles from our new Florida home.

To this day my ears pop and my heart races whenever I get near the door to the attic and henhouse. So I don’t. I stay close to the wood box, bounding out to the lawn in three steps and keeping the slap of the old screen door in my head, keeping all the summers of my youth close at hand.

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A well-stacked wood pile is a thing of beauty: a jigsaw puzzle, a study in geometry and aerodynamics. As an old Maine saying goes, the idea is to leave enough space between logs so the mouse can get through, but not the cat chasing the mouse. It is a proud Yankee art form, choosing and placing the logs, and the finished pile is a rustic monument to hard work, tradition and ingenuity.

The wood for the upcoming winter is hauled out of the forest, split and stacked in late spring. Saturdays are spent swinging an ax, or using a splitter, and the air fills with the perfume of sawdust. One puts in the effort as the blooming season begins, and the payoff is gotten as the bloom dies for the year.

Summer is the time for seasoning. The hottest months whisper the intoxicating smell of wood smoke and the coldest nights of winter. This is the essence of life in Maine: each season brings hints and intimations of the coming seasons.

The summer goes on, and the wood pile stands its ground, at work in sure silence. The hot breezes that rustle the hay pass through the logs, pulling the moisture out of the wood. In high summer, the wood pile cools the soul with visions of chill nights spent in a stupor next to the wood stove.

Finally the wood has seasoned. The autumn has arrived. Saturdays are spent disassembling the pile and reassembling it in the wood shed. The first logs, perfectly dried and ready, go into the stove, starting the warming season.

Firewood is born in spring and matures in summer. It hints of the autumn harvest and cozy winter evenings. It is of its time, and of the seasons to come. The wood pile is quintessential Maine and New England: timeless art, practical utility and harbinger of the seasons to come.

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Hurry up and wait. It’s March in Maine, the nadir of my seasonal depression. The landscape is brown and bare, and I am burning for greens and summer. I feel like I’m stuck at the border in Portsmouth, waiting for the drawbridge and hurling oaths at I-95 traffic screaming across the Piscataqua River Bridge to the left. Come ON, let’s GO! Let’s put the top down and cruise! Rt. 1 is calling!

I can see the route in my mind’s eye. I breeze past the outlets in Kittery and crawl along York Beach, between dune grass and hardcore east coast surfers. I stop at the Nubble Light and inhale the warm Atlantic salt air like my life depends on it.

Traffic is stop-and-go through Ogunquit, Wells and Kennebunk, as the invading summer swells from Connecticut and New Jersey gawk and pillage antiques. But I love it: this is the quintessential Maine summer resort stretch. Salt water taffy and ice cream stands, vintage Gulf station signs, bronze weather vanes and lobster buoys for sale. I roll the window down and picture Sandra Dee on every corner.

All the way up, the Atlantic looms on the right, culminating in the magnificent sleaze that is Old Orchard Beach. Equal parts Jersey Shore, Southern California and French Riviera, OOB and Palace Playland are vestiges of past glamour and decay. The ocean is freezing, but the taste of Pier Fries gets me through the most brutal winter.

Industrial boom and bust and boutique renewal tell the tale of Biddeford/Saco and Scarborough. Next stop: Portland. The Forest City is an adventure for another day, though. I’ll be back.

North of Portland I find myself in Brunswick, my home town and home to Bowdoin College and Danny’s Hot Dogs on the mall. From here north, my parents and grandparents are with me. We have all driven these miles countless times, together and apart. They are in my soul and memory bank with every shift of the wheel, and every trip from Portland through Rockland is new and old alike.

Past Brunswick, Rt. 1 curves inland, through Bath and Wiscasset, the self-proclaimed Prettiest Village in Maine. And it just may be. Wiscasset is the home of Red’s Eats, which serves what may be the best Lobster Roll in the world. The lines form early in the morning and the wait can be an hour. Pretty compelling evidence of greatness.

At Rockland/Rockport and Camden, the Atlantic reappears. Rockland was once a rough, hardscrabble town, but it’s coming back. And Camden is white spire and windjammer perfection. One of my favorite towns in the world.

We can continue along the ocean to Bar Harbor and the indescribable beauty of Acadia National Park, and from there all the way to the farthest north of Maine and the Canadian border, but this is the stretch of Rt. 1 I know and love. It starts at the border in Portsmouth, and it ends at home, no matter which exit takes you there. And in between, Maine Rt. 1 will give you enough memories for a lifetime, even in a spring dream.

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The Ice Storm.

String those three words together around anybody who lived through it and watch the cringes and shudders. It was catastrophic, deadly, destruction on a scale previously unimaginable. It came on suddenly on a balmy day in January 1998, and it threw our world into primitive chaos for weeks afterwards. You had to live through it to believe it.

I was in Boston, trying to get home to Maine for a few days. January 5th was warm, with a light rain. There were rumblings that it would get colder, especially up north, and ice might be a factor. Little did we know.

I talked to my dad before getting on the bus, and he suggested I get to Portland, get a room and he would pick me up when he could: things were getting bad up north as the temperature started to drop. The entire trip was a cacophony of rain and ice, increasing in intensity against the metal roof of the bus as we inched northward. This was the sound of impending disaster.

I got a cab and headed for the Swiss Chalet in Westbrook, two miles away from the bus station. I checked in, and would remain trapped in my room for the next three days. And I was one of the luckiest ones in town.

Power was lost immediately. The weight of the ice on the trees and power lines caused a swath of crystalline destruction from New England far into Quebec. Power transformers were crushed and crumbled, wooden electrical poles were snapped like toothpicks, and entire forests were sagging and begging for mercy. And roads were completely impassable.

The Swiss Chalet had power, so I hunkered down, escaping only to eat at the adjacent Denny’s or to skate across Brighton Avenue to the Shop ‘n Save for beer and smokes. Literally, skating in the middle a major thoroughfare in my hiking boots.

Finally, after three days, the roads were cleared barely enough for my dad to get me. My parents had lost power at the beginning of the storm, and now I was joining them. It would be another eight days before I would know electric light and power and bathing water again.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus. Still the cold held on, and the omnipresent ice glared in the sun, and even in the dark.

We could occasionally get into the nearest town, Gardiner, for provisions, but with no electricity, it was mostly non-perishable, easily disposable fare. I choked down cups of Nescafe Crystals brewed on the woodstove and dreamed of three squares and a hot bath.

My friend Dana, a Korean vet who lived in a cabin in the woods, had given me an Army-issue winter coat that he had worn during the Battle of Inchon. It is still the warmest garment I’ve ever had, and I wrapped myself in it while hovering beside the woodstove over those eight days. I also warmed myself with nips of Jim Beam, and wished I had a hound dog to sit at my feet and complete my Jack London fantasies.

For eight days the power company worked 24/7 to get electricity restored, and crews worked 24/7 to get the roads cleared of fallen power lines, trees and other detritus.

And then it was over. Power was restored, life went on and suddenly it was summer, then it was a year later, then five years later, then ten. But nobody who lived it will ever be the same, and we will never take a day of normalcy for granted. If you survived The Ice Storm, you know. You had to live through it to believe it.

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State Street, Portland
State St. Church

We were NOT prepared for life as car owners.

On moving to Portland in 2002, after nine months without a car in Boston, we were gifted a slightly worn white 1996 Hyundai Elantra from my parents. At 100,000 miles plus, our new car was an elderly Maine gentleman, so we named him Chester, because that sounded like the name of an elderly Maine gentleman. Parking for our new ride was not included in our rent, but we were so excited to be home, we figured we’d make due as meter slaves.

State Street is a one-way heading east. Both sides have meters, but for every three meters on the north side, the south side only has one. Often, trying to snag a meter was like trying to get on the last chopper out of Saigon. Many nights we would literally drive in a square for upwards of half an hour, spying for abandoned meters, cars that looked like they might be backing out or people walking in the general direction of a meter.

Wednesday nights meant street-sweeping on the south side, and this meant a mad scramble for north side meters between 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM. This is how we ended up getting towed on our first week in residence. I guess we should have been a bit surprised at landing such a prime meter almost in front of the apartment on the south side. We were even more surprised in the morning when Chester was gone, and we had to take a bus and walk a few miles through some godforsaken industrial park to pay $50 to get him sprung. We thought he looked scared, and he hiccupped a bit when we started him up.

But the height of our virgin-car-ownership brilliance came on Christmas 2002. The day was clear, but overnight brought 12 ½” of fresh snow. Because the City of Portland did not call a Snow Ban, nobody was forced to park in a city garage. We parked on the street as usual. In the morning, poor Chester was buried up to his windows in snow.

Did we have a shovel inside? Nope. We spent three hours of the day after Christmas 2002 digging our car out of four feet of packed snow with a cookie sheet and two expired debit cards.

I choose to look back at this experience and see my native Yankee ingenuity kicking into gear, but it was really my big-city ignorance putting us in a hole of unpreparedness. And now, needless to say, we have a shovel, along with expired debit cards, in the house and in the trunk at all times.

I miss the apartment somewhat, and I greatly miss the neighborhood, the wisteria vine and the proximity to everything that comes with living in town. But I don’t miss the parking situation at all. No man is an island, and this man is no meter slave.

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September, 1986: I was freshly fourteen, freshly home in Maine after four years of Florida exile and ready to start eighth grade. I missed Maine like crazy, but I got used to the life of a pre-teen Florida beach bum/skate rat. Every day in Jacksonville was like a Cameron Crowe film, and I was straight out of central casting, bedecked with a devil-lock (nicely highlighted by fourteen bottles of Sun-in), surf and skate tees, Jimmy-Z’s skate shorts and violet Chuck Taylors.

My new Maine chums were, to put it mildly, a little taken aback by me. Walking into Sugg Middle School, Lisbon Falls, Maine, circa 1986, was like walking into a documentary about the Nixon years. I decided to dress up in a Cosby sweater for that first day. My classmates were all bowl cuts and bangs and jean jackets. I was listening to and skating to The Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, The Ramones and Agent Orange. Transportation for the rest of the class revolved around the most extreme engines on two or four wheels, and the Maine airwaves were filled with Grace Slick and John Kay and Steppenwolf on the dinosaur station.

And there were only two feet clad in violet Chucks for many miles around.

It was September, 1986. Reagan and Gorbachev were staring each other down. The Red Sox were cruising in the American League East. The Beastie Boys, Robert Palmer and Don Johnson (sic) ruled the charts, and Who’s The Boss?, Growing Pains and ALF were must see TV.

I was fourteen and finally back home after four years of dreaming. And I was about to become a middle school pariah; a purple-wearing faggot.

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