Washington — It's funny how the sight of the first purple crocus, blooming in a sheltered spot under the front wall, grabs my thoughts from important things that I ought to be writing about -- taxes and budgets and Congress and things like that. It sets me to thinking about robins returning and bygone events. For example, I know that if I lived up in Maine (my father's old home) the news of that saucy crocus blooming in Washington would be of more immediate interest than the Reagan budget.
Very well then: The year is 1871 and my father at 17 is attending Fryeburg Academy in Maine and tramping back weekends to Lower Bartlett, New Hampshire, while his father, the Methodist minister, drives over once or twice a week with food, including maybe a homemade pie. Fryeburg is chilly: there is a wide-spread feeling that New York and Philadelphia are exotic tropical places, and maybe even Boston; now that Washington's Birthday is past, however, maybe the snow in those southern places is off the ground. Let my father tell the story of one particular adventure with his chum, Will Gatchell, about this time of year.
They were recruited for an unlikely mission: to go out and gather gum. Yes, gum. Gum you chewed, only it was not this imported rubbery latex from the tropics, sweetened with sugar, flavored with spearmint and packaged in wax paper; it was spruce gum, fresh off the tree (like resin for your violin bow) with a rich turpentine taste to it and a reputation that would make it sell well in Portland. Let my father tell the story.
". . . It was zero weather during the four days that we were gone, with our snowshoes, sleds, blankets and frozen food, camping wherever we happened to be and each night in a new place.
"On three nights of the four we constructed a rude protection in front of which a big fire was kept burning so near our feet that we were more or less warm at one end at least.
"The usual procedure was to hunt until a spruce tree was found with one or more seams of gum; in case much of it was too high to reach the tree was felled. Our leader's skill with the axe was wonderful.
"On returning home Will and I decided that our supply was too small to send to market; it lasted us for a year or two for home consumption, chewed just as it came from the tree.
"Our guide, on the other hand, filled his pillowcase with his find for which he got a good price in Portland. At that time, I may say, every apothecary store had a conspicuous display of this delicacy. . ."
So you see, as America prepared for its first centenary celebration at Philadelphia, youths on snowshoes went into the north woods to fetch an unlikely article of commerce, something for their fellow citizens to ruminate.
But it wasn't to last. My father's narrative continues:
"And now our sojourn in Bartlett as a family was nearly over. The household stuff was to be removed to Saccarappa in Westbrook, Maine. Those yearly Conferences of the Methodists were interesting affairs for a minister's family. When father started off to one of these annual gatherings we were all in a state of excitement to know where he would be stationed the next year as pastor. Often he would send a telegram as soon as the final decision was made.
"Our joy at this time was great for his message stated the salary was to be the highest yet -- eight hundred dollars per annum."
What excitement! With that $800 cash, and those profitable if embarrassing donation parties, and the spare land some neighbor would donate for my father to help raise vegetables on, a family of five could make do, with a little planning. It was an era when the entire gross national debt of the United States was two and a half billion -- a little less than the combined deficits of Chrysler and General Motors last year.
Deficits did I say? So I am back again writing about living costs, and budgets, and annual expenditures. Whatever diverted me from the Washington statistics into the snowy Maine woods and spruce gum? Funny what the first spring flower will do to you.