UNCLE Ralph, the country storekeeper, had a Reo Speedwagon that he'd built over into a meat cart. The thing was certainly a contraption, if anybody remembers the Reo. The wheels on it must have been a yard in diameter, so it was posted about like a hayrack, which was a good thing on the boulder-strewn roads of his time in that part of Maine. His meat route took him through most of northern Somerset County one day a week, and when I was a schoolboy I made the trip with him several times.
The back end had been converted to a cold-box, with a hatch for lowering in cakes of ice. When he opened the rear doors to get at his meat, he could pull out a cutting board that had a cash drawer beneath. Uncle Ralph, who was a menace on the highways as long as he lived, sat in the weather up ahead wearing the traditional straw hat, white apron, and straw wristers that identified the meat cutter in any store of that time. On the occasions that I accompanied him, I was introduced to everybody on the route as his underwitted nephew who was learning to tell tripe from baloney.
It would be hard to forget any kind of an experience that included Uncle Ralph. He knew everybody, and they all knew him pleasantly as a shrewd trader who never cheated except in self-defense. When he swung his Reo into a dooryard, folks were glad to see him. He jollied everybody and loved to have his keener sallies answered in kind. Most farms were self-sufficing then, but Uncle Ralph would sell something at almost every stop. Now and then somebody would ask him to bring such-and-such on his next trip, and if he were having a new shipment of ginghams shortly he would ask the women to be sure and make a trip down to the store to see them. He did take things in trade -- eggs and berries and butter and dry beans and such, and one time when I was along he took a live goat. We trussed the goat for the trip, and he sat between me and Uncle Ralph. That goat was to get the wildest ride in the history of goatdom.
Coming down off Mount Hunger in the wild land township of Mayfield is a seven-mile descent into Bingham. As the Reo peeked over the height of land, Uncle Ralph slipped the clutch into neutral to coast that distance. Uncle Ralph dearly loved to coast, and the Reo was just the car for that. Also, coasting saved gasoline. There were no customers during that stretch, probably no traffic, and let 'er go! As we rounded a curve in the road at 1,400 m.p.h., there appeared in the dirt dead ahead of us a mother skunk in a relaxed posture with a cluster of skunk kittens attending -- a sweetly sentimental domestic scene. Uncle Ralph pulled his straw hat tighter over his brow, gripped the wheel hard, and shouted, ``Goodbye Meat!'' I held the goat, which was terrified, and Uncle Ralph managed to straddle the skunks. The high-posted Reo did have a considerable straddle. The meat wagon had no rear-view mirror, so we never knew how the skunks reacted to the swift completion of our appointed round, but there was no reaction that tainted the goods in the cold-box. We came on down -- Uncle Ralph, I, goat, meat, and the day's profits -- into Bingham, where the Reo lulled to a reasonable speed and Uncle Ralph took off his straw hat and said, ``Whew!'' I seem to remember the goat made a similar remark.
On another trip we found one of the tires was leaking air. Uncle Ralph pulled in at a one-man garage in Wellington to get the tire patched, and the man was under a Lippert-Stewart truck straining with a huge wrench. He had a length of pipe on over the handle of the wrench to give him extra leverage. Uncle Ralph said, ``That wrench won't do it -- for 10 cents I'll tell you how to get that apart.''
``I wish you would.''
``Well, there's no thread on that fitting. It's held in place by a collar. Put your cold chisel to the collar and break it, and the fitting will fall off in your hand. Then, it'll cost you 10 cents for a new collar to put things together again.''
The man did just as Uncle Ralph said. He gave the cold chisel a brisk whack, the collar snapped in two, and the fitting fell into his hand. Then he patched our tire, and while he was patching it he said, ``Where were you all day yesterday?''