Two hostlers andtwo hostiles

This poignant and revealing story comes from the long ago, but needs entering in the record so historians may contemplate its nuances and evaluate its didactic importance.

Now that you have looked up those words, I continue: In those times, fire departments had horse-drawn steam pumper engines, each with a span of three magnificently trained and groomed beasts. It was a showpiece equipage that arrived on the scene in prancing grandeur no longer known.

The steam boiler, with cannel-coal fuel lit as the engine left the hose house, already had power to begin pumping. While the fire was being extinguished, the horses would be detached and walked back to their stable, to return later for the engine. The men who cared for fire horses were the elite among civil servants, and there was nothing in childhood to equal the thrill of patting the soft nose of a fire horse and being allowed to hold out your chubby hand with a cube of sugar.

And in Roslindale, or Roxbury, or Watertown, or some such place in Massachusetts, the two hostlers for the fire department were Bert Craig and Larry Barnes, or something like that.

The newer days were at hand, and the automotive fire engine was ready. Suddenly, Bert and Larry - and the horses - were "out to pasture."

Bert and Larry, still able, needed jobs in a trade that no longer existed. In this extremity, it chanced that Larry heard that up in Maine the lumbering people still used horses to bring logs from the woods on snow. To his inquiry, the Great Northern Paper Co. responded that they were in need of two experienced teamsters, and to apply after Oct. 15 at the Duck Lake Lumber Operation, West Branch Division, ready to work at such-and-such wages. A company conveyance would meet them at the railway junction at Mile 56, west of Indian Rock Depot. Bert and Larry had never been north of Revere Beach, but were overjoyed.

Their wives, I hasten to add, did not speak to each other. There had been some trivial falling-out going on 20 years ago, and the grievous wound had never healed. They just didn't speak. And this was curious, because their husbands were buddy-buddy since boyhood and were seldom seen apart. Not so Edith and Marilyn. And it was now necessary for these four to make ready for winter in a lumber camp.

I assume that you, dear reader, foresee some difficulties, but will not know until I tell you that the one unalterable rule in the days of Maine forest harvest with lumber camps was: no women! It was unthinkable, because conditions in the woods were completely masculine. Bert and Larry didn't know this, and nobody thought to tell them.

So, on a given day in October, off the four took. They boarded the train for Bangor at Boston's North Station, Bert and Larry sharing a middle seat in the coach and the two wives each by herself at opposite ends. A long, rugged, snowbound winter was ahead.

The two couples did arrive without incident, being met at the train as stated, and were greeted at Duck Lake Camp by the company clerk, Delmont Bates, who handled all affairs related to the workforce of 150 choppers and cooks, filers, bosses, chore-boys, scalers, teamsters, and so on.

Del, who told me about this years later, hadn't expected females. And as it was now 4:30 in the afternoon, he had a problem. He retired into his clerk's camp, wrung the magneto crank on his telephone, and reached Felix Fernald, the veteran company clerk at Pittston Farm Depot. He was the man to whom Del was to apply if he had a problem he couldn't handle himself. Felix, in turn, phoned Charley Nelson, superintendent of the West Branch forestry region. Charley said, "Do the best you can, and we'll discuss it in the morning!"

So Del shifted some men about in the several sleeping camps and got two adjacent log camps for the new-arrivals. Night descended.

Before morning a storm developed. By daybreak, five feet of new snow had locked in the place until the daffies came in the spring and the new drive would take off downriver. Which meant that Bert and Larry, with wives, stayed in the two adjacent camps, not 10 feet apart. And while Bert and Larry teamed every day, their wives didn't speak.

There were no great problems. The camp cook kept the women supplied with groceries, and Del's little company store had the other needs. The nights went down to 45 below, the snow went over the top of the snow board on Del's office (the "cock shop"). Del finished three books of crossword puzzles.

Then there came an unusually bright, brisk, and beautiful Maine-woods morning, following a calm night with just a dusting of new snow. Del was on his shop steps with a broom, having swept the snow, and he was looking off over the surrounding abrupt forest to admire the beautiful creation that prevailed. Magnificent!

Then he saw Mrs. Craig come from her door with a broom, and also Mrs. Barnes with a broom, and there they were, surprised and not speaking, face to face not 10 feet apart, with the beauty of a sparkling morning all about. And Mrs. Barnes, at last, spoke to Mrs. Craig!

"Ah, good morning," she said. "Top o' the mornin' to you, Mrs. Craig! And how are you this fine day? Not that I care a hoot, but it's polite to ask."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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