My Chance Meeting With Mr. -----

I cannot remember when I first saw him. He was a celebrity, of course, and folks in the little town where he had chosen to live knew pretty much all there was to know about him. Naturally, their accounts of him trickled down to us summer residents, so that we felt we knew him also.

The permanent residents, though, drew a line. They would willingly tell an inquisitive visitor that this man lived in the big white house on the east side of the main road just beyond the Harriman Point turnoff: It's the one with the picket fence and colorful beds of hollyhocks, delphiniums, and sweet peas along both sides of the walk. But they wouldn't take kindly to an outsider who intruded on the man's privacy - which was why he had come to their town, and one of the reasons he had stayed.

Only once had I heard of anyone calling on him, and that was by invitation. Nor had I ever noticed a car in his driveway, except the one belonging to his combination gardener and all-around helper. The latter is a friend of ours, from whom we have occasionally heard what we like to think of as "inside stories." How a New York Times staff correspondent irritated the man so that the Times writer "didn't get much out of him." And how he did not like the format proposed by a Hollywood agent for a movie of one of his books and "sent him packing."

AS a token of special regard, his fellow townspeople addressed him as Mr. _____, not Bill, Joe, or Henry as they do one another. Privately, they considered him a "town man" - their highest compliment - and were considerably proud of him and grateful for his unpublicized gifts to their community.

On almost any clear morning, dressed in nondescript khaki shirt and trousers and sheltered under a buff-colored cap that shaded most of his face except his trim, graying mustache, he could be seen stepping out of his dark-blue Mercedes at the town dock (not the yacht club's). That's where his dinghy was.

Agile and slight of build, yet making no apparent effort even against a rowdy wind, he would row out to his 20-foot sloop. Unassisted, he'd unfurl her jib, haul up her mainsail halfway, and cast off her mooring. Then, seated with one arm around the "Martha's" tiller, he would maneuver confidently among the other craft in the harbor until he reached straight sailing in open water.

Then one morning it happened. When we arrived at the dock, the only rowboat left was the "Martha's." After a brief discussion, my husband and I agreed that we would have to use her to reach our little catboat. We had boarded our boat and were busy rigging it when, glancing shoreward for perhaps the 10th time, I saw the familiar khaki-clad figure staring in our direction.

Guilty embarrassment flooded over me. Jumping into the skiff, I set out with as much speed as possible toward the dock. It didn't help that in my wild haste the oars spumed geysers of water in all directions. From a dozen strokes away, I began apologizing and explaining why we had borrowed his dinghy. Narrowly avoiding a crash into the float, I clambered out, still apologizing.

Without a word, he looked at me for what seemed millions of minutes. Suddenly he smiled. "It's all right," said E.B. White. "Can I row you back to your boat?"

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