Halloween was still on the make when the humble farmer phoned to say good-bye. He was on his way to winter in Floridy, and would be back come spring with the crocuses and tiddly birds, and have a good snowstorm.
"How can you go now?" I cried in astonishment. "We ain't had a sharp frost yet!" Maine weather this fall has been freaky, and we didn't have any snow in July at all. We never pull the turnips until we've had one good sharp frost, which puts the flavor to them, and until the turnips are pulled, no farmer, however humble, should head south.
I've never been to Floridy, and the notion to go there has not been entertained. You take a turnip that has been left in the ground till the first sharp frost, let it cook until it stops flopping in the pan, mash it with enough 90-score farm butter, add just a suspicion of sugar, and you've got something better than going to Florida.
Anyway, our humble farmer took off, and the last thing he said was something about gudgeon grease. Our subject this morning is the gudgeon.
The gudgeon is like many another seafaring word that came ashore into highlander speech. A gudgeon is a socket or fitting into which a pintle or trunnion sits and rotates, as any machinist would know. But in a vessel, it is a socket attached to the stern to hold the stem of the rudder, which at sea is activated by the helmsman with a tiller or wheel, and in modern vessels by power. Rudders on full ships were big and heavy, and it was well to keep the gudgeon greased to make things easier for the helmsman.
Ashore on the farm, the matter was adapted thus: In the spring of the year, when next year's firewood was being sledded from the woods, snow would melt and there would be bare spots the oxen had to strain the load across. The farmer would shovel snow from a drift onto the bare spot and "grease the gudgeon." On the farm, gudgeon grease became one word, and was kept ready at all times for lubricating wagon and carriage wheels until the spindle on which the wheel fitted was generally believed to be a gudgeon.
As we used the grease, it came in a two-quart can and was thick and firm, like peanut butter, and it was yellow. But when applied to a wagon-wheel spindle, it quickly turned a nasty black, and if it daubed hands or clothing, it was nigh impossible to remove.
Giving a farm cart a lube job was something the children were warned away from, not only because we'd get dirty, but for safety. The wheels were heavy, rimmed with steel, and they had to be removed for greasing. Best if young ones stayed clear!
In thinking about it now, it comes to my mind that we greased the heavy logging sleds we used on snow. Not the sleigh, cutter, and pung, but the big traverse runners, or two-sleds. Sleds had no wheels and gudgeons, but the front and back runners were held together by a kingpin, making a hinge of sorts so the back sleds would go where the front ones went.
Sleds generate a minimum of friction. When a vessel was launched at the shipyard, she slid down inclined wooden "ways" built for that brief passage. Some of the later hulls were so big, the tonnage caused massive friction, and the heat set the ways afire. Because the ways were always "gudgeoned" to let the new craft pass smoothly, the fire could be a considerable matter.
There was one launch in our town that slid out on bunches of ripe bananas, brought from Jamaica on purpose. The bananas were as good as grease and didn't catch fire.
Then there's the story of Henry Macomber and the speaking contest. When Henry was a schoolboy, he gave the classic declamation that begins, "When Greece her knees in suppliance bent.... " The whole town would come to these contests, and older citizens had repeated the same "pieces" back when they were in school. So Henry began: "When Greece her knees ..." and he couldn't remember what came next. Bravely, he began again: "When Greece her knees ..." Still unable to continue, Henry tried again, "When Greece her knees ..." A helpful voice from the back called out, "You've oiled her enough, Hank! Take a deep breath and try again on a dry gudgeon!"
One bright summer Sunday morning, with the crops doing fine and haying done, we made ready to go to church. It was a two-mile ride behind docile Old Fan. We decided to break out the two-seater carryall instead of the buggy.
That was high style. We were in our best bibs and tuckers and ready to go when Grammy said, "Did you grease the wheels?" The wheels had not been greased. Grammy said, "I'll not ride to town until the wheels are greased! Last time it was 'week-wonk' all the way, and we sounded like a bagpipe band. Everybody looked up at us!"
Uncle Nate said, "Everybody always looks up anyway. How else would you know who 'tis?"
Grammy said, "Grease the wheels!" So we all climbed down except Grammy, and she supervised from the seat, and we rode to church without squeak or squeal. There was one mishap, but nobody told Grammy. Somehow she got a smear of gudgeon grease across the back of her steatopygous, $5 go-to-meetin' skirt, and she walked into church unaware of this blemish. She never lived it down.
Uncle Nate said gudgeon grease was like that. You never knew just where it would show up, but it always did.