Fifty years after the end of World War II, the important part Maine played in that conflict has been forgotten. Particularly, I'm sure, the Battle of the Frozen Shad, in which I was involved.
I was an innocent hero. In truth, the coast of Maine was very much a combat zone in that encounter. Food and supply convoys made up here, and support vessels of the British Navy had their own special moorings in Casco Bay. Enemy U-boats prowled, and several were disposed of. We had a mine-sweeping detail.
But as a junior citizen, I played no part in serious warfare and attended to my duties as a very budding journalist on a minor publication that was wholly pacifist in its editorials. I didn't even know that I needed Coast Guard clearance and an ID card to approach the waterfront, which was a good many miles from our publication seat.
One of the first cold-storage and freezer facilities was built many years before that war, and without relativity to it, at Boothbay Harbor, here in Maine. It was not a sightly building. Made wholly of plain concrete, it was nothing more than several stories of identical rooms fitted with pipes that circulated the freezing brine. Meant for holding perishable fish, it was well ahead of its time, and in the food program of World War II it had importance. This, however, was not what attracted my journalistic attention. It was the shad.
Long ago, shad was an important fish in the larger Eastern rivers. Distantly related to the herring, shad would school in infinite numbers, their spawning runs foretold accurately by the shadbushes common in every dooryard anywhere near tidewater. When the little white blossoms appeared on the shadbush in the spring, it was time for the householder to go for his shad, and a seasonal feed of creamed shad was as routine as cranberry sauce with the Thanksgiving turkey.
There was no hanky-panky about this; the conditions that brought the shadbush into bloom were the same conditions that brought the urge to the shad. And it happened that the year this freezer plant was built at Boothbay Harbor, a seine-boat of some size had chanced to tangle with a late run of shad. Not knowing what else to do with out-of-season shad, the boat had come into Boothbay Harbor loaded to the scuppers and had taken a room for them in the new freezer plant.
The skipper had then gone his way, the shad had frozen solid, and the Horatian years had swiftly rolled from Postume to Postume as advertised in the newspapers. The fishing smack had been retired, as had her skipper, the owner had gone bankrupt, the rent didn't get paid, and the owner of the freezer plant decided he had inherited a bin of shad, for which there seemed to be no great demand.
As the years sped by, there arose a question as to how long shad, or fish in general, can remain in a frozen condition and still be suitable for human food. Then began a test program. Each year, on the anniversary of the freezing of the shad, the ice would be cracked around the casing, the great door of the room would be opened, and a shad would be taken from the pile to be cooked and eaten. The jury, or whatever you call a committee of shad tasters, would render a report, and as the years continued to pile up, the shad seemed to keep their flavor, consistency, and nutritional qualities.
I believe the 50th anniversary was coming up when I, as an alert young Stanley looking for his Livingstone, heard about these shad and "smelled" a story. On the appointed day, I put some film in my Brownie, bought a new bottle of flash powder, borrowed a pencil, and set out for Boothbay Harbor.
I was directed to the freezer plant by a man who knew this was Shad Day, and was halfway across the harbor footbridge before the United States Navy ordered me to halt. Actually, it was a Coast Guard, but in wartime the Coast Guard became Navy. Noticing that my challenger was armed, I didn't quibble but halted rapidly. He then interrogated me, and from his quaint speech I surmised he was from Nebraska, or possibly North Dakota. He desired to know my reason for being on the waterfront and would I show my ID? I said I was going to Shad Day, and what was an ID?
My memory of this lingers still in exceptional brilliance, and I can tell you without fear of successful contradiction that if you want to talk to somebody about shad, it will be well to find someone who knows what a shad is. I could not have been more thoroughly convicted had I cried "Hoch der Kaiser!" or "Heil Hitler!" I was waltzed back over the footbridge and into a building with bulletproof windows and a room full of crackling radio gear and Coke machines.
The secretary of the Navy or a reasonable facsimile thereof took over, and I could hear the firing squad getting ready out back. My Brownie was confiscated and my brand-new roll of film unrolled and held up to the sun. I was told never to do this again! When I asked what it was I had done, a marine came in and escorted me to the street. I missed Shad Day, and I never got to another one.
A spy with whom I was associated told me the frozen shad had been extricated as usual, and when baked in a milk sauce as usual had been eaten as usual by the usual committee and pronounced excellent. As usual. That was as close as I got to combat. I heard soon after that the freezer plant was demolished as out-of-date, but nobody seems to remember what they did with the remaining shad.