The 27-hour Vacation, Maine and Back 

... The good times just kept coming, and soon we were home. 

by D. R. Norris

Twenty Seven hours isn't very long for a vacation. Even a mini-vacation. But this one surely made a difference. A million-star difference.

We had in mind to visit the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland, Maine, some 180 miles northeast of Boston and situated on the bonny shores of lower Penobscot Bay. Our object was to see a special show of nine paintings of Frank Benson, New England impressionist from the first half of this century, whose work was coupled for this show with several paintings of George Bellows, yet another American impressionist.

Rockland is an older, quaint town that has felt some economic decline in recent decades -- although the new Farnsworth is drawing quite a crowd. You can't quite throw a rock across Penobscot Bay to Vinal Haven and neighbor North Haven, but these two historic islands are only a brief ferry ride away. It's a gorgeous, old-timey place.

To hell with all this, I'm going on vacation ...

Even in retirement things can get hectic and out of hand -- but the advantage of retirement is that one can usually throw up his hands, say to hell with all of this, I'm going on vacation! You can do that just about anytime in your 24-hour day, if you're of an impetuous nature. So when work at the SilverStringers got too heavy, and the yardwork was badly in need of attention, and a month of paperwork had to be caught up with -- and your grammar goes awry -- why, THAT's the time to scoot up to Maine. Take a break.

Somehow a three-hour editorial committee meeting at the Milano Center Monday morning turned into a seven hour work day -- unusual for a retiree. It was so hectic that I never got around to e-mailing Microsoft, thanking them but turning down their offer of some joint venture they wanted with the SilverStringers. I simply forgot. Important stuff to forget.

And so, before Lorry and I could jump in the Honda for Maine, we had to stop by the center Tuesday morning, insure ourselves that the mail system was working that day, zip off our message, and fly out the door. It was 9:20 a.m. before we got away. Twenty minutes off schedule. But who should care?

In an hour and a half we were munching our sandwiches and Pepsi as we rolled through Portland -- a particularly pretty city, we feel. In another twenty minutes we by-passed Freeport, the home of both L.L.Bean and the DeLorme mapping outfit. And at Bath we ran out of super highway, crossed the bridge over the Kennebec River, and were on old Route 1 the rest of the way. It was neat: Light traffic, and everybody went 50 or 55 mph. Such a beautiful day. The coast of Maine was there for the photographing.

Somewhere between Bath and Wiscasset, on the north-bound side of Route 1, is a lonely A-Frame store that sells "Native Crafts". Lorry and I have long been collectors of silver and turquoise, and we can never resist the urge to stop at any store that carries some authentic American Indian jewelry. We've bought here before, and this time our fancy turned toward a rather plain sand-cast (I suspect a second generation casting) silver bracelet. It kind of rang a bell that we had seen it a year ago, but the price was relatively attractive, so Lor walked out $54 lighter but glistening at the wrist. Love that store.

And by 12:45, we were parked outside the Farnsworth, looking forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the works of  Frank Benson. Rockland looked about the same -- three or four blocks of forlorn stores, tightly compacted on the one-way main drag. Quaint, prices are reasonable and selection is quixotic.

... in awe, and pleased as punch.

Most everybody goes to the Farnsworth -- the newly rebuilt, beautiful Farnsworth Museum -- to see the collective work of the three Wyeths, N.C., his son Andrew, and his son Jamie. But not us. Our mission was to study at close hand those nine paintings of Benson -- three of which we had seen at other museums. And, believe it  or not, one of those Bensons hangs in the Malden Public Library -- not three miles from Melrose. But the show, brief as it was, was magnificent. And in the new galleries, here was a real touch of class, here in Down Maine. We were in awe, and pleased as punch.

Then came our third surprise. While walking through the gift shop, Lorry spotted this attractive, petite lady, walking toward us.

"It's Betty Bliss", she screamed, "that's Betty Bliss from Melrose!" With that she barreled down the aisle to hug her old friend before Betty had a chance to recognize who this attacking stranger was. Betty was Lorry's bridge mate, active in many Melrose endeavors in a previous part of her life. She had moved away some twenty years ago, and we had not seen her since.

"It's not Bliss any more", she said, holding onto Lor. "Can you imagine, at my age, I've re- married! I'm now Mrs. Cowan, Mrs. Horatio Cowan". We laughed and giggled and compared notes for a half hour, and she had to run, so we sort of arranged to meet again in the near future.

It was a day of several pleasant surprises.

Bumping into Andrew and Helga ...

From the gift shop (where we managed to escape without spending a dime), we started viewing the three double-ewes: N.C. Wyeth, Andrew Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth. For my money, N.C. takes the prize, for his painting not only displays a complete commandery of his tools, but an inspiring imagination that was whetted by his commercial commissions.

And for us, there is the problem. Modern critics have determined that NC's success was primarily as an illustrator, and therefore he cannot be considered in the realm of other great fine artists. But if you see those beautiful paintings that he created as illustrations for (of all things) fiction that appeared mostly in Harpers Magazine, you can't help but see the man's mastery. It is innovative, precise, and beautiful. It hardly looks like it should have been painted for a mere magazine illustration.

And then on to the old Methodist Church building that has been purchased and transformed into bright, functional galleries. Upstairs, in what had been the main hall of the church, was a large collection of Jamie Wyeths, the youngest of the clan. A walk around, some wonderment, and then down the stairs to a Gallery that features yet another large batch of Andrew's work. It is precise, muted in color, the action lines often rescuing a dark scene.

I was in the back corner of this gallery, quite intent on studying one piece when suddenly a hidden, flush door next to me burst open, punching me sideways. And there stood a scarecrow of a man, all in black, his metallic gray hair uncombed and bunched in six directions. He and I were both as surprised and for seconds we stared at each other. And without a word, he turned right and came into the gallery, followed by a shorter, hefty blond woman who looked vaguely familiar, another younger man, and a curator bringing up the rear.

I turned to Lorry, winking, and joshed that this strange looking fellow must be Andrew himself, and that the blond woman was his former model, Helga. We laughed, but when this party carried a painting to a vacant space thirty feet away, and the elder man with the young curator carefully positioned a missing painting on the wall, the dawn was there. This was Andrew Wyeth and Helga. In person, in the flesh.

After verifying our find with a guard, we and a dozen other guests in the gallery kept a sideways eye on the exalted artist. The younger man was his nephew, who is apparently the manager of Andrew Wyeth's holdings.

His appearance was startling. He appeared to be about 70, his hair was disheveled, and he was dressed in black casual, except for his Dunham workshoes. He wore a thigh-length black coat, black ankle-length tights and tan shoes. So help me, he looked like he stepped out of one of Jamie Wyeth's paintings.

The work party continued their inspection of several paintings, and paid some attention to the temperature and humidity controls on the nearby wall -- ignoring the spectators who were trying their best not to stare too openly. We were together for some ten minutes, long enough to gather a few lasting memories. Later, the attractive curator told us that Andrew, who was one of the principals in the expansion of the  Farnsworth, makes a regular trip to Rockland to insure himself that this collection is faring well.

That was it. Our ten minutes with Andrew Wyeth.

... another side of that coin!

The stretch between Rockland and Camden, eight miles away, has changed in the past few years. It was for the good, if the judge is the modern commercial interests. Not so good for the natives who (as one waitress told us) wished that things were as they once were. Plain, simple, uncomplicated, low taxes, friendly people, and no tourists.

When I asked why she disdained the Wyeths and the new Farnsworth, she said that I was as bad as all the leaf-peepers. Whereupon she turned away and left.

On the other hand, the strip is lined with new gas stations, motels, fast-food restaurants and recently built old Maine home restaurants. There are gift shops galore, and a Wal-Mart a couple miles outside of town has apparently put a final nail in the commercial viability of downtown Rockland. Camden, on the other hand, has grown and prospered, and welcomes the tourists and the boost to an otherwise defunct economy.

We met one matron in the Farnsworth who said that she was going back South, where people are more gracious, more understanding, kinder. She said that since her husband died last year, people in rural Maine had come close to  shunning her, and she had had enough. Of course, we didn't get the other side of that coin.

It was this same lady who recommended a new, smallish "colonial" motel on old Route 1. It was now five years old, the owner told us, but he had run a group of cabins on this very site for some 15 years before that. He put up with our humorous effort at bargaining for a better room rate, but we ended up with one of his better rooms anyway. Winter rates in Maine are attractive, and there are far fewer of us obnoxious tourists.

And so we have to count this fine room, with its spectacular view of the whole of Penobscot Bay, as another blessing of our 27-hour vacation. Which leads to our miracle.

Sleep for a senior is fitful, and one tends to rise in the middle of the night. And so it was, somewhere around 2 a.m. that I awoke. I guess it was the funny blue light that was streaming in through the window-wall of glass, and I stepped out on our private balcony to investigate. It was the sky. The whole sky was filled with millions of stars, so clear and so bright that I felt that I could reach up and pick them by the handful. It was spectacular. There was hardly any vacant space up there, the stars were so plentiful. From my vantage point on the balcony, the scene centered on the constellation Orion, and its seven significant stars glistened in a sea of a million lesser heavenly lights. This was our miracle -- the view of the heavens that we so miss by living in metropolitan Boston.

Sardine-packed tourists ...

There were two more exceptional moments in our 27-hour vacation. We had a hankering for an ice cream soda, one like we used to get when we grew up in Jersey -- unfound in New England, unfortunately. We stopped at the Purple Plum ice cream shop (recommended to us), but the time was 4:02 p.m., and, yes, they closed at 4:00. The owner said he'd serve us, but the sit-down section was closed. So we went on to downtown Camden.

Of all the tourist towns in the east, Camden has to be way up there, if not at the very top. It's on a beautiful bay off the Penobscot, which serves as home to a bunch of two-masted schooners -- the Maine schooner fleet. And the people there have capitalized on the old town itself, transforming it from a sleepy old Maine town to a quaint, authentic, realistic, believable, attractive place for people to visit. Not a tourist town, because it is for real. But off-season is the best time to visit, for mid-summer is unbelievable in sardine-packed tourists.

So, back to the New Jersey Ice Cream Soda in Maine. Actually it was the Matron at the Museum who put us on to this place. It is a former operating, old-timey drug store that is now on the National Register of Historic Places, right in downtown Camden. But now it is basically a soda fountain -- but with old wire-back chairs, worn out tiles on the floor, crazy old shelving holding only a sampling of funky goods -- but what an Ice Cream Soda! Out of this WORLD! How to rejuvenate two aging tourists, just give 'em a New Jersey Ice Cream Soda. Made with half and half, real rich syrup, super-calorie ice cream and seltzer. It's to die for. In Camden, Maine, yet.

One last gem ...

And the final jewel in this saga -- just as we were leaving Rockland at 9:30 a.m. the next morning,  Lorry spotted a small railroad turntable and engine house, not 50 feet off Route 1. Now this might not be too exciting to somebody else, but the fact is that one of the key members of the SilverStringers is a fellow by the name of Bill Jodrey, who spent part of the Great Depression riding the rails about this great country. And now Bill writes his memoirs for the Mirror, and has two potential offers for a book.

So a turntable means something to me now, now that my buddy Bill is producing hobo stories. So outside of Rockland I made a U-ie and pulled onto the dirt road leading to a bunch of sheds called the Beaver Company. For the next half hour I photographed the turntable, the old miniature engine house, three old parked passenger cars and a neat Central Maine caboose (retired, but now serving as someone's home). Nostalgia counts when one finds something as valuable as this. Eh?

And so we ended our 27-hour vacation with a quick three-hour trip back to reality, to Melrose, to be on time for the 1p.m. weekly meeting of the SilverStringers. On time, with a good story.

March 6, 1999

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