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Uncle Ralph's Skates Went Counter-Clockwise

By John Gould / March 14, 1997



My Yankee-storekeeper Uncle Ralph was a frequent benefactor in my boyhood thirst for all knowledge. He was forever a firm believer in his ability to sell anything, and a strong advocate of his right to turn a penny at the slightest chance. There was, for instance, the time he sent me 150 pairs of roller skates. At the time, I had a couple of cousins who also thirsted for instruction, but he didn't like them so well as he liked me, and he sent them 500 pairs each. Possibly someone might like to know how my Uncle Ralph came to have so many roller skates. It's a story about apples.

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The first apple orchard of consequence in the New World was planted in early Colonial times by a Richard Bonython at a place now named Old Orchard Beach in Maine. Once established, this orchard provided scions to graft about everything else planted in the Colonies. You must understand that apple seeds, because of the way pollen flows, do not produce stated kinds of apples. The seedling is hybrid, and if it chances to be of good quality, hooray!

The McIntosh Red was a good blend and was found growing wild in Ontario, but such good fortune comes only once in millions. The Johnny Appleseed tale about his riding wild across the prairies, scattering apple seeds, needs further information. What about the grafters who had to come in five or six years later to graft his wild seedstock with palatable varieties?

One of the old standards was a curious apple known as the Ben Davis. It was a handsome apple - red, bore early with plentiful crop - and it was always described as "Best Keeper Known." It had the same flavor as a 10-cent sawdust baseball. It would sell on sight, and if you put it down cellar in September, it would still look like a million dollars the next August. For home use, Maine farmers liked Northern Spies, Baldwins, Roxbury Russets, Nodheads, and anything else, but grew Ben Davis to sell. Remember that, at the time, every coastal acre in Maine was building ships, and the title "Captain" was appropriate for nine out of 10 men you met. Maine became the apple state, and Maine apples were legal tender in Liverpool.

It would be going-on a century before the English knew about other apples. But, when anybody has a choice, the Ben Davis ranks second. Shortly, Maine was out of the apple business and the world began to get Delicious and other varieties from New York State, the Pacific Coast states, New Zealand, and Australia. (In those days, "West Coast" applied only to South America!) What is pertinent to our narrative is that in my Uncle Ralph's part of Maine, the countryside was full of Ben Davis orchards where the fruit dropped to the ground and eventually remained uncollected and unsold. My Uncle Ralph saw an opportunity and embraced it.

He found he could have apples for the picking up. He could can apples for bakery and restaurant purposes, and American Can would extend credit. Cash in 30 days would cover loans at 90. As a grocer, he knew buyers all over the place. All he needed was some kind of place for packing apples. He bought the Riverside Rink, which had been out of business since just after the Civil War. It was kept in repair by Sim Colby, who used it at no charge for storing squarebars, an item no longer important since wood heels for ladies' shoes were now made of something other than kiln-dried rock maple. Sim Colby was long gone.

My Uncle Ralph now had only to recruit village ladies enough to quarter apples (peeling and coring by rented machines) and to fill the gallon cans. Corn season would be over, so men to run the retort would be available, and people to shake trees and pick up apples were no problem. Uncle Ralph was ready to become the leader in the canned-apple business, and he did, except he had to gain factory space by somehow disposing of about 2,500 pairs of secondhand roller skates.

THIS he did as explained above. We four, two nephews and two nieces, (but one niece too young to skate), thus owned 150 pairs of skates, and no place in town to skate. We had no rink, old or new. We had no paved places; even Route 1 was a gravel highway then. We did have a front porch the length of our ship-captain's parlor and living room, but it was floored a half-inch "apart" and was tricky to negotiate and made a fierce racket. Mother didn't like the noise. Not only that, but secondhand roller skates do have a danger quotient.

Well, in a roller rink, as paying customers glide round and round, bearings wear. Prudent roller-rink proprietors will stop the crowd after an hour to port, and make them skate to starboard for an equal hour, to make the bearings come out even. But our statistics indicated this hadn't been done, and that our uncle's skates had a predominance of counter-clockwise activity. I think we didn't have a skate in the bunch that had been custom oriented to port.

Every time worn bearings struck, one of us would go off the green side of the porch - that is, starboard. Thanks to our Uncle Ralph, we well knew - as Mr. Newton put it - that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and unless you wished to go larruping off the front porch in utter abandon, it would be well to reverse everything from time to time. It is sad to contemplate how many little boys and girls in this world do not have a dear Uncle Ralph to pack Ben Davis apples and open the way to knowledge.