Guilty of homework

It was back in the 1940s that my friend Jake telephoned to ask, ''What do you know about Jackman?'' Jake, a lawyer, had been an angling crony from away back, but the only legal work he ever did for me was to notarize an absentee ballot. Jackman is an upcountry Maine town on the road to Quebec City, and if you wish to speak French there it will not seem out of place. Jake explained. He had been approached to represent some ladies in Jackman who felt they had a grievance, and he was doing some homework to decide if he would accept the case.

These ladies were guilty of homework themselves - they knitted woolen socks in their spare time, bringing them when finished to the parish priest, who sold them wholesale. The ladies earned useful money that way, cheated the idleness of remote rural living, and were glad. Now the priest had come to tell Jake the government had issued a stop order, that such home industry was illegal, and that for these ladies prosperity had come to a screeching halt. The Ladies' Garment Workers' Union had complained that these ladies upcountry were verily taking the bread from the mouths of paid-up members, and Uncle Sam had done his duty. Would Jake see what might be done?

Jake didn't take the case, as it turned out, but he was personally outraged at the absurdity of this and wrote several nasty letters to congressmen. But those Jackman socks became the first shot in a continued war story that has now reached Chief Justice Warren Burger - he has upheld an appeals court ruling that such home labor is illegal and must stop. Not just the little ladies in Jackman, but that kind of kitchen crime anywhere.

I've been wondering about pot heads. I wonder if the chief justice gave them a thought? All up and down the Maine coast we have factories, small and larger, that make wire lobster traps - the wire traps have rather much superseded the wooden traps of yore. Each wire trap, before it is delivered, is fitted with ''heading.'' This is the netted twine that guides the lobster to its destiny. In lobsterman jargon, this twine is called ''mashin' ,'' which derives from meshing , and the only other word permitted is ''knitting.'' When a fisherman says he is mashin' heads, he means he is knitting twine for lobster traps.

I surmise a chief justice wouldn't know that. Most of the trap, or pot, heads are mashed by men and women in their homes, and it should be fun to sit back and watch if the chief justice says this must stop.

We can presume with safety, I think, that the Ladies' Garment Workers' Union doesn't have a member who can mash a head. Any more, maybe, than it has a member who can knit a Jackman sock - one that fits snug in a Pine Tree larrigan and combats a stern winter. But the politics of Lady Justice weigh the impact of the many against the obscurity of a few, and that explains why you can't buy a decent woolen sock today.

If I knew his address, I would write and tell Chief Justice Burger about the sock of Anne-Marie Dufour of Chesuncook Dam. This was back in the 1920s when Anne-Marie was assistant to her husband, Dominique Dufour, who was cook at the boomhouse. The Great Northern Paper Company maintained a depot camp there to service the pulpwood drives, and a good part of the time it was a lonely outpost where Anne-Marie and Dominique played a good deal of cribbage and listened to a lot of loons. But on occasion a crew of men would arrive, moving up-river or down-river, and beds had to be ready and meals served.

Not because she needed the money, but to give her something to do with idle time, Anne-Marie sent away for a knitting machine and set herself up in the sock business.

There wasn't much to it.

The machine came with a book of instructions and a bale of woolen yarn, and it attached to a wall with screws. Anne-Marie had Dominique put it in the hallway, and whenever she felt like it she would stand there and crank socks. First the crank was turned so many times with gray wool, and then so many times with red. Next a few turns of gray, and then more red. This made two red stripes at the top, and Anne-Marie just kept on cranking until time to ''turn the heel.'' Then she ''finished off the toe, '' and the sock was done.

One day a crew of 20 men came, and as each filed into the dining room he gave the crank a few turns en passant, and after dinner Anne-Marie found she had a sock 37 feet long.

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