Camden, Maine — You wouldn't mistake Bob Oxton for Father Christmas. True, he has a bright red Jeep, but that belongs (as the lettering on the doors proclaims) to the service station he operates. True, he wears a red down-filled vest, although that may be because he's the fire chief. And the green gloves? They look like something he found in the garden shed. But every afternoon at about 4 p.m., from Thanksgiving night until New Year's eve, Mr. Oxton brings Christmas cheer to the 5,000 residents of this coastal community. That's when he heads out to the Camden Hills State Park, unlocks the gate, and drives up the winding mountain road to the top of Mount Battie. Why? To light the star.
That's what they call it around here: just ``the star.'' Everybody knows what you mean, because you can see it from just about everywhere. The town snuggles up against the base of Mount Battie, which rises almost 820 feet straight up from the harbor to become one of the highest points on America's eastern seaboard. On top is a stone lookout tower, circa 1921. And on top of the tower, bolted firmly on a base of timbers, stands the star.
As community Christmas decorations go, this star is no small matter. It measures 18 feet from point to point. It sports 92 light bulbs. It's made of sections of quarter-inch angle iron bolted together atop the tower each November by Oxton and other members of the Camden Lions Club and removed as soon after New Year's as weather permits. This year it's powered by Oxton's brand-new portable generator - since there's no electrical line going up the mountain.
``We discovered it was better to buy a generator than to run a line up from the end of Harden Avenue,'' recalls Bill Brawn with a smile, explaining the problems of trying to place cable across the steep granite ledges up to the summit. Mr. Brawn ought to know: He runs the downtown corner grocery that was established in 1868 and now bears his name, and the star was his idea.
The original star, he says, hung on the side of his three-story brick building in the mid-1950s. ``Of course, it wasn't a perfect star,'' he adds, ``because I just put boards across each other and nailed them together.'' It was eight feet across, with Christmas lights stapled to it. But people liked it.
Then one day an electrician explained how Brawn might improve the star with regular light sockets. So Brawn ordered the material. But about that time, he recalls, ``we happened to have a new freezer come, and it was 12 feet long.'' It was crated with a lot of nice, thick 12-foot boards. That year, not surprisingly, Brawn's new star measured 12 feet from point to point.
In the mid-1960s the road was built to the top of Mount Battie, and the Lions Club, of which Brawn is a member, got involved. They got permission to use the tower from the corporation that still owns and maintains it, and took the wooden star up the mountain.
``Putting it up there on that tower,'' says Brawn with a chuckle of Down East understatement, ``was a lot different from putting it on the building.'' That first year, he recalls, they didn't have much left to remove when spring came: The wind had done their work for them. But from the very first, they got floods of appreciative comments - some from as far as Vinal Haven, an island 15 miles away in Penobscot Bay.
The venture was clearly successful, and so the Lions Club decided to build the metal star in the late 1960s. The only real improvement since then - aside from several new generators - has been to down-size the bulbs. They started with such large ones that the outline of the star disappeared in what Brawn calls ``a blob of light.'' They now use 15-watt bulbs.
Standing on the crenelated stone rim of the tower three stories above the mountaintop, Oxton leans out precariously to replace some of those bulbs. Down on the ground, he fills the generator's tank with its evening allotment of three gallons of gasoline. ``When it's real cold, it'll go out around midnight,'' he says. ``But if it's a real warm, calm night, it will go until 3 or 4 o'clock'' in the morning, he adds, explaining that gasoline engines use more fuel in cold weather, and that the system shuts itself off by running out of gas.
With the sunset spread out behind him and the lights of what looks like a toy town winking far away below, Oxton checks the oil and yanks on the recoil starter. The generator rumbles to life. When it's warmed up, he flicks the switch. The star instantly comes ablaze.
Why does he do it? Oxton is not much given to philosophy. He puts the empty gas can in the back of his jeep, jumps in, and turns around to head back down. But before he begins the descent he stops for a moment at a turn-out overlooking the town and the sunset.
``It gives me time to think,'' he says, adding that last night the sunset was as beautiful a one as he had ever seen, full of deep reds and heavy cloud formations. It also gives him time, he adds, to appreciate just how fortunate he is to be living here.
Then, looking out over the town, he mentions some of the letters they get - many from elderly shut-ins.
``There's a lot of people in the Camden Community Health Care Center right now,'' he says, ``who are at the windows [each evening] watching for the star to come on.'' When it does, he says with a smile, ``they clap and carry on.''
No, Bob Oxton is not Father Christmas. But in an age that sometimes seems to lose sight of the old seasonal values of community-spiritedness and simple charity, he and his friends are giving their own kind of gift.