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Home » Maine » JEAN SHEPHERD Travel–in Maine again part 2 of 2

JEAN SHEPHERD Travel–in Maine again part 2 of 2

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Speaking of insight, I am whistling along through the dark through a gigantic, insane, Atlantic gale, a hailstorm, through Maine, and on either side is the primeval wilderness.  They really have it there.  You see this giant evergreen forest and once in a while a deer comes shooting out of the woods and wildly goes to the other side.

The wind is screaming up and down the road, and I see, as you always see in Maine, a little place carved out of the woods, and here is a miserable-looking shack that’s not the classical log cabin you know.  If it were you’d feel better about it, but these places look like somebody has gone around the county collecting a lot of old Pepsi Cola signs and nailed them together, and they’ve gotten themselves an abandoned Oldsmobile Rocket 88 that has been dragged to the backyard and has been slowly falling apart.

These Maine woods, by American standards, are truly the wilderness.  Are you aware that there are large sections of Maine that are till inaccessible by any form of normal transportation?  There’s about a third of that state that is not inhabited at all.  If you want to get to certain places you fly in.  You just have to fly in a little plane with floats, and set down on a lake and that’s about it.  Nothing there.  Howard Johnsons hasn’t made it, nothing is out there yet, and there’s a vast untapped area for dance halls and beer parlors and everything.

maine woods scene

There are signs, though, that America is everywhere.  That is one thing that has made this country totally inexplicable to other countries—you might say, the homogenous quality of it.  If you travel two-hundred miles in any direction in Central Europe, you’ve gone through at least three languages.  The architecture changes, the religions change, even the looks on peoples’ faces change as you go a couple of hundred miles, even sometimes ten miles in one direction.  You stop at the little border fence.  Achtung!  The guy comes over in a uniform and he checks your passport.  You go into the country ten feet!  And everybody’s got a different look on their faces. The food tastes different, you get sick a different way.  It’s an eerie thing.  So in Europe, this is the way it is.

But you can travel three thousand miles in America and find the same knot-heads.  All over.  We’re all made alike.  What did it?  Who knows?  A lot of things.

The coaxial cable, of course, is the most obvious.  Here in this darkness I’m riding along and I look into this little shack, this little house stuck in the woods.  The income of this family is probably about seven dollars a year.  Poverty is rampant in many of the far-northern areas.  But every little shack throughout Maine has a gigantic antenna in the air, a better antenna system than most of the top radar stations had during World War II, just to get “The Beverly Hillbillies.”  There through this little window, you can see the flickering blue light is on and you see a couple of huddled heads there looking at this thing.  They‘re in touch with the infinite.  They’re paying obeisance to whatever gods are out there.

There’s a strange sense of unreality you get coming from the world where all that jazz originates, that comes down the pike on the cable to the place where people are really living.  They’re really having trouble—it’s tough to get the bacon there.  They’ve got real problems.  You should see Saturday nights.

I’d love to do a documentary on the kind of discontent that is going on in the little towns in America.  That almost every last chick in America in little towns like Waterville, Maine, almost everyone is just waiting for that instant when she can cut out and go to New York.  I’m talking about the social discontent that exists among the girls.  Primarily the women want to go.

I want to say this about Maine.  Coming back is always a problem.  You see everything anew, briefly.  You see how unreal most of the things that are being done on the air about America are.  You hear people being interviewed all day long who have written plays, who have done movies.  And it has no real relationship at all with the life lived by a guy in Oakland, Maine.  None of the stuff they’re writing, doing, saying, anything!  Nothing! Oakland

Gateway to the Belgrade Lakes Region

(which includes Snow Pond Lake, site of Shep’s house)

What is it?  It’s become a separate entity in our world.  This whole business of show biz, writing, the whole jazz.  And you find as you get out there, that the great problems that surge through the minds of everybody up and down McDougal Street and over at the 92nd Street Y have not even touched anybody.  The influence doesn’t extend twenty feet the other side of the Hudson!  It begins to fade out at about West Morris, New Jersey.

The discontent is becoming evident, the terrible discontent that is felt by peasants everywhere, simple people who have somehow glimpsed some kind of strange rite that is being held off in the distance.  You find this true in outlying districts in Italy, for example.  There’s a great discontent about wanting to get to Rome and be part of some big ceremony that’s happening in the Vatican.  It’s a religious thing, you see.  Make the pilgrimage, go to Mecca.  And everyone today wants to go to New York, and, if possible, take up residence in Mecca.

I want to describe a scene that I ran into in a little town in north-central Maine.  This little tableau.  I’ve spent a lot of time in small towns in the Midwest so I know something about small town life.

They have a law that no liquor can be sold after one o’clock, Sunday morning.  I went into this place, about six-feet square, just before one o’clock and two guys are wildly making pizza and Italian sandwiches, and out in front all the local males have arrived in their ’46 Mercurys, in their ’51 Hudsons and they’re pouring into this place to buy beer!   They’re piling the beer on and in three minutes it’s going to close.  No more beer.  This is the thing I couldn’t believe.  Out of ten guys who came in, I never saw such insane drunkenness in my life.  Insanely pie-eyed.  It was like the whole town was drunk, wandering in and out of the streets, yelling and hollering and buying the beer, and nowhere could you find a woman.  Just a whole lot of men coming in to buy beer as fast as they could.

One guy has two cases of beer in his arms.  And the guy behind the counter has one eye on the clock.  He says, “No, I’m sorry, it’s too late.”  He says, “I’m sorry, Charlie, I can’t take your money,” and he takes the beer right away from him and throws it back in the icebox.  And the guy’s crying!  He’s standing there and he can see the whole weekend he’s not going to be drunk!  What am I gonna do!  The whole weekend!

I wonder when anyone is going to do a real documentary on the peculiar kind of discontent that is settling in on the small towns in America, because of the glimpse—I think it’s because of the glimpse they see every night, of this never-never-land that television lives in.  The wild, wild sense of unreality that’s beginning to take over.  Even the stores these days have a vaguely TV-commercial-look about them.  Endorsements by TV stars everywhere you look.  People living in a world that is bounded on one side by Channel 8 and on the other side by Channel 6.

And everywhere you can see in those hemlock trees of Maine there are these long, tall, thin antennas reaching for Parnassus.

TV antenna

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1 Comment

  1. Gary Gravelle says:

    Shep talks about a universal human syndrome: “the grass is always greener…”, whether you grow up in Hammond, IN or Bucksport, ME, as I did. Ironically, Shep also described Maine as a mythical, Oz-like place to which he longed to escape. Is there anyone among us who hasn’t said at least once: “I can’t wait until I’m 18, so I can get out of this dump”? Happy New Year.

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