I reveal the secret of Down East humor
A gentleman from some distance to the west'ard writes in perplexity to ask how to tell a State o' Maine story. He has been invited to address an Optimists' luncheon in a Midwestern community. As a boy he spent one summer at Camp Maranacook on the Maine lake of that name, and is thus an expert on Maine humor. I am happy to oblige the gentleman and assure him he came to the right place.
Terseness is the secret. Terseness and absolute positiveness and care about making the Mainer a simpleton who can't get there from here. At the moment, our better Maine storytellers are using the following, which was recorded last week at the post- season clambake of the Pine Tree State Oratorical Society.
The scene is a down-Maine farm kitchen where Mrs. Farmer Brown is taking a pan of biscuits from the oven of a wood-burning range just as Farmer Brown enters, left, from the barn.
He: Mornin', Abbie.
She: Mornin' Stewart. Finished milkin'?
He: For this time, eyah.
She: Good. Breakfast's on. Just sit and start.
He: When was Thaddeus born?
She: You mean our Thaddeus?
She: Oh. him!
She: Well, quite some time back, now.
He: I expect so.
She: It was on a Tuesday.
He: Any particular Tuesday?
She: Sixteenth August.
He: What year?
She: Oh, dear me!
She: I'm trying to think.
He: Was it 1939?
She: Might o' been. Sounds right.
He: I think 'twas.
She: Whatever made you ask that? Did you use the sugar?
He: Yes, I did. I was just wondering.
She: How come you was wonderin' a thing like that?
He: Well, he just fell off the roof o' the shed.
She: What was he doin' up on the roof o' the shed this time o' day?
He: Didn't say.
Long ago now, an elderly man told me he heard Bill Nye lecture when he (not Nye) was about 10. This was out West somewhere, and Nye was on tour with James Whitcomb Riley. Nye would tell a Maine story and then Riley would read one of his Hoosier poems, like "Little Orphan Annie," and they alternated to make a pleasant program. Nye was a native of Shirley, Maine, and handled Down East funny stuff better than anybody else. He also wrote for the papers and had a pile of books published.
This man told me Nye opened the stage show while Riley sat on a rocker to one side and seemed to fall asleep. At the appointed time, Nye stepped to the podium, seemed to have difficulty seeing, and took off his spectacles to look at them. He shook his head. From his breast pocket he got a handkerchief, unfolded it carefully, breathed upon the lenses, and began to shine them. This took some time, during which he paid no heed to his waiting audience. When he held the spectacles up for inspection he found a place he'd missed, so he shined some more.
At first his audience made no reaction to this housekeeping, but shortly the preposterous interruption struck somebody as comical, and the first chuckle was followed by others. Then, everybody joined in. The place rocked for more than 10 minutes while the great storyteller from Maine wiped his glasses. Nye hadn't said a word.
My friend, who told me in his old age about this recollection from his early childhood, said it was the funniest thing he ever saw. When Nye's glasses were clean, he began telling how it was so hot one July that a field of popcorn growing at Mattawamkeag popped. A horse in the next pasture thought it was snowing and froze to death.
"They's a stray hoss in the door yard," says Tobias Goddard, the positivist. Mrs. Goddard says, "That so? What color?" Tobias says, "From this side, he's white."
One day Tobias didn't come home to supper, and they found him at Greenback Corner disputing with a milestone about the distance to Lewiston.
Tobias had a clay pit and made a good grade of red chimney brick. He had a one-horse jigger, or tip-cart, for delivering bricks, just the right size for a thousand. He was on the jigger making a load one day and his boy was handing up bricks four at a time. Midway of a load, the bricks outbalanced Tobias, and the jigger tipped up and catapulted him, kerplunk! into the algae-green stagnant water of the clay pit. With Tobias off, the two-wheel jigger tipped upright again. Tobias came up from the depth of the pond, squished ashore, got up onto the jigger, and said to his boy, "The count was 288."
Molière said once, "Making gentlemen laugh is a strange business."