30 Bottles of Milk On the Front Steps

Warnie Duty and Thad Buker were supporting the postal service, one on each side of the front door, when I came in to mail a letter. As I approached Warnie said, ``Well, you'll have to take your money in milk!''

It was good to learn that this ancient credit rating is still in use, even in its small Maine neighborhood where Bert Hunnewell gave it meaning so long ago. In Bert's time, and evidently still, it meant if you did business with the gentlemen you would wait and wait for your money.

Bert was our plumber in the long ago when rural people didn't have much plumbing, and a well piped into a house was the chief desire of every bride on the road. Lacking large contracts for hydraulic purposes, Bert also carpentered, tinkered, and could be persuaded to rim a wheel or come with his one-lung rig and saw firewood at 50 cents a cord.

Bert figured in many illustrative anecdotes of the day. For instance, he was soldering a milk can for Daedalus Coombs one time and had the can up on a chair in the dooryard with his blowtorch shooting a flame about a rod and half. A stranger with his lady drove a horse and buggy into the yard to say, ``I'm looking for the Archer Perkins place.''

Bert said, ``Turn right at the next four-corners, and Arch is first on your left - mailbox painted blue.''

Then Bert pointed with his streaking blowtorch, and it frightened the horse into a runaway that caused the lady severe discomfort and eradicated six of Daedalus's beehives.

Daedalus, who was a gentle man and never provoked to excess, simply said, ``My Gracious! Bert, you must learn to be more particular with that dreadful thing!''

Another time Bert piped a milk-storage tank for Jimmie Baker, and on his way out after finishing the job his torch set off a can of paint and burned down the storage shed. Except for small misadventures such as those, Bert was a good man.

One summer Bert dug a well for Simon Morton, installed a windmill, and piped the system into the house and barn. It was a major job, and Bert did it all himself.

Then bert found what was not then uncommon among Maine farmers, that Simon was habitually short on finances and was the last man in the county to worry about it.

Bert was stuck, and the most he got from Simon was a promise to think about it just as soon as an opportunity came up.

Bert visited to inquire about progress, and finally said, ``Now look, Simon, I can get Squire Devlon for $10 to take action, and he'll tie you up a lot more than $10 worth, besides making a stir, so why don't you just scheme something that will keep me friendly?''

That was when Simon proposed that Bert take his payment in milk.

The first the neighbors knew of this solution was when glass bottles, each holding a quart of milk, began to appear on the front steps of Bert's little house that stood by the road where all who passed could see.

A new bottle was added each morning, so that in a month Bert had 30 bottles of milk on his steps, and the next one was set down on the ground.

It was in the third or fourth month that I had occasion to call on Bert Hunnewell. I had a 400-gallon orchard sprayer, and I needed a three-inch Stilson wrench to start a coupling that had corroded. Bert would have such a tool and would lend it.

I found Bert in his kitchen, walled in by bottles of milk, all of them in progressive degrees of summer lassitude.

``What gives with the milk?'' seemed to me a reasonable way to commence negotiations.

Bert said, ``Simon Norton's paying for the work I did. I get it in milk - a fresh quart every morning.''

``Looks to me `s-if you've cornered the sour milk market.''

Bert grinned. ``Milk don't stand up too long in the hot sun.''

``I expect not.'' It seemed to me I was being somewhat lucid in an improbable conversation.

Bert said, ``No point in fetchin' it in - I don't use milk. Got no place to keep it. Marm and I, going on 45 years, ain't used a pint of milk yet.''

``I don't see how you figure you're getting paid for Simon's plumbing job.''

``It is a little curious, at that,'' Bert said. ``But every time he sets me down another quart, he's telling the world he's a deadbeat. Or so I figure. Sooner or later that's going to get him. And at a quart a day, he's got more than 30 years to think about it.

And he's thinking about it all right. Just last week he came in with his hat in his hand, stepped over the bottles and whimpered all over the place. He was in poor shape to whimper to me!''

``What bothered him?''

``Said I should wash and return bottles daily. Said he was runnin' up an unnecessary bill at the Farmers' Union for new bottles.''

Bert said, ``Taking it out in milk don't do nobody no good.''

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