The Merits of Maine Cold

When President Bush returned from his little meeting in Ottawa with Prime Minister Mulroney, his helicopter set him down at his seasonal dwelling at Kennebunkport, here in Maine, and the family had a quiet weekend far from carks and cares. The only sour note came from CBS radio news, which looked about for something to belittle and then told us that the Kennebunkport house was a poor place for presidential affairs, ``...as few of the rooms are heated.''

Pshaw! I have long contended that CBS may yet amount to something if it can find a few staffers who know something about something, and I know now I've been right.

Since 1607, when living in Maine officially began, the number of rooms left unheated in winter is a touchstone of intelligence, prudence, and good management, so instead of carping the CBS experts should have construed this as promise of good things to come.

Knocking 15 or 20 cords of firewood off your fuel bill is a good place to start, and President Bush should appeal to us as just the right man to tackle the deficit.

Mr. Bush seems to be the first president since Honest Abe to relish the rugged rigors of basic living. Even Calvin Coolidge had a cushion on his milking stool, and Teddy Roosevelt's ``roughing it'' required a clean shirt every morning.

Until I went away to college I slept in an unheated upstairs bedroom, and my father kept telling me I was lucky. In the old farmhouse where he grew up, the windows had long ceased to mesh with the casings, and a winter storm would blow snowdrifts across his quilt and onto the bureau. At least, he kept telling me, my windows were tight.

Dad used to tell me how he sometimes didn't come home after high school, but went to spend the night with Royce Purinton. Dad had to walk two miles to high school - and two miles home - but Royce lived over on another road and had four miles. But Royce didn't walk - his father let him use the horse, which was stabled during classes in a barn near the school.

When an afternoon snowstorm shut down, Dad would help Royce harness the horse to the pung, and it was understood he wouldn't be home. He and Royce would give the horse his head, and he'd wallow through the drifts. Dad said Royce's bedroom, although unheated, had blankets nailed up to cover the windows and was cozy. That was true comfort in the lap of luxury. Dad's old farmhouse with its leaky windows had been lived in since the 1700s without any fanciful whimsy about heating anything except the kitchen.

Bathroom?

What bathroom?

When I was 15 or so I rode in the Model T up to see how Cousin Jimmy was doing. He was distant family with no closer kin, and it was Dad's custom to look in on him now and then. Dad asked if I'd like to go. It was something of a ride from our house, and a perilous one in a Model T in winter.

We paused at a market to get several bundles of groceries to cheer Cousin Jimmy, and we arrived frozen stiff. We had a lighted lantern under a blanket to keep the groceries safe on the back seat in the minus-zero weather. Cousin Jimmy came out when we clattered into his dooryard and was glad to see us.

Jimmy's home was about as remote as you could get - he lived on Federalist Ridge in the Maine town of Industry, far from anything.

His hot kitchen felt good when we stepped in. The lids on his range were red hot, and the geniality was enhanced by the ripe aroma of woolen socks and mittens drying on the rack.

We sat and visited on three rocking chairs until time to make supper, and after supper we went to bed. Cousin Jimmy lit a kerosene lamp and led the way upstairs to the guest chamber - the spare room. This room had been cooling for us since July.

Dad and I shared it with a hog. Cousin Jimmy had lately processed a hog into inventory, and he was using his spare room as a freezer. Glistening with frost in the lamplight, the pig was suspended from a hook in the ceiling, and after we blew out the lamp he continued to glisten in the moonlight through the window. Cousin Jimmy had simply put the hog in the coldest place he had. Dad and I kicked off our boots, and the boots were all we removed that night, and crawled under the covers. We slept well, because enough quilts will help, and in the morning Dad told me to snuggle and he'd be back for me after he kindled the stove and got the kitchen warm.

But Cousin Jimmy was already up and had the eggs cracked. After breakfast we drove home, glad that we had made the effort to look in on Cousin Jimmy and had found him doing all right.

CBS may want to know Cousin Jimmy lived to have his 102nd birthday.

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