Essays from John Gould

We had wanted to include these John Gould columns with the special coverage that ran in Monday's Monitor (Oct. 21, pages 12-13) to honor Mr. Gould's 60 years with this newspaper. We didn't have room on the two-page spread, though, given Gould's 30-book bibliography and so many heartfelt reader comments.

We present them here instead, starting with Gould's first "Dispatch From the Farm."

And if you missed Gould's live online "chat" Oct. 23, you can find the transcript at: www.csmonitor.com/monitortalk.

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Buck-saws and Christmas trees

Oct. 21, 1942:

There is reason to believe that, if the sun came up with a derby hat on some morning, most of my neighbors would not look twice, and would hardly mention it to their wives when they came up from the barns to breakfast. Our rural community has been conditioned by several generations of whimsical folk who seem to have had a lot of fun doing things that were not a bit different from putting a bowler on Old Sol.

This facet of life on the Ridge has never been satisfactorily explained beyond our borders, possibly because we are now accustomed to it and seldom feel the need of explaining. It is true that our explanations are always as queer to strangers as the original deed, and that naturally complicates matters.

I remember when someone looked up at Wadell's one morning and discovered that Chris Wadell had painted his silo with red, white, and blue stripes, making the structure look something like a huge barber pole. The silo sat on top of the hill, and could be seen to the limits of the horizon when it was merely a subdued weather color, but now it could be heard as well as seen. Not a man in the neighborhood commented on this improvement, and it is likely Chris never expected them to. It is said that a man from Worcester, who was driving through on business, once drove in and asked Chris why he painted his silo that way.

Chris said it was to preserve the wood.

I suppose I was guilty of some such foolishness when I made my buck-saw out of black walnut. Odd jobs that had been saved for a rainy day were being disposed of, and I came to the task of making a buck-saw frame. I stood up on a barrel and poked around 'mid the bits of scrap lumber that were being seasoned over the beams. I had some ash, but thought it would cut to waste, and hesitated to use oak because buck-saws sometimes get left out in the rain, and oak will soak water like a lobster trap. I turned over a board, and found a lovely piece of black walnut. I probably originally intended to use it for a silver chest, a stand, or some similar bit of beauty. But it was quickly fashioned into a buck-saw frame, and it was a grand piece of wood to work. When I had it strung together, and filed the saw, it was still raining; so I inlaid the handle with some cherry and basswood, and carved rosettes at the top. How far I might have gone, had supper not interfered, is anyone's guess.

I was sawing wood with it a few nights later when Charlie Little wandered in to see if I wanted to buy a shoat. I laid the saw down to put another stick on the saw-horse, and Charlie picked up my buck-saw and scrutinized it. He ran his leathery thumb over the inlay, rubbed the walnut against the back of his hand, plucked a thumb-nail across a saw-tooth to test the filing, and then reached over and sawed off a stick. He handed the saw to me without comment, which indicated that the matter had his approval, if not his understanding.

But I think it did have his complete understanding, for they tell me about the time Charlie set up a Christmas tree in August. He was swamping out a road back in the woods, and came across a young fir that had a perfect shape. The limbs were evenly spaced, each had an identical amount of needles, and the top tapered off with rare beauty. Charlie had to slice it down, because it was right in the middle of his road, but he thought it was a shame to let it go to waste simply because it wasn't December.

So he brought it to the house, fashioned a standard for it, and put it up on the front piazza ablaze with lights, festooned with strings of popcorn, and adorned with a number of gaily wrapped bundles that his wife fixed. It was a vision, and the family would sit out on the piazza in the cool of the evening and enjoy it. Neighbors who dropped in to sit would greet the Littles with, "Merry Christmas!" but that's about all the comment there was. . . .

My grandfather used to plant his flower garden along with his vegetables Gladioli mingled with carrots; dahlias were hung with pole beans; asters were revealed when the frost wilted pumpkins and squash; and nasturtiums entwined with the cucumbers. I doubt if anyone in town ever asked him why he, as if he couldn't tell the difference, thus mixed up his seed. It isn't usual, certainly. Had you asked him, he would have said he spent most of the summer among his garden sass, and that was where he had to have his flowers if he were to enjoy them. But nobody on the Ridge ever gave the hodgepodge second thought. Time and again there has been evidence that our neighbors are willing to indulge each other in whimsey.

I have really wondered, lately, if this tolerance isn't a remote desideratum among other people. Are we peculiar in our private belief that a man's own inclination is to be indulged? Haven't other people taken too much stock in the belief that all activity must be rationalized – and that the reasons ought to be sensible? I mean, apparently sensible to others? Hasn't conformity to rules of behavior taken a lot of snap out of life? Who dares to paint his steps yellow, simply because he likes yellow? What housewife dares to hang the wash on the front lawn? It just simply isn't done – is it?

Well, I suppose I've got the only inlaid black walnut buck-saw in the world.

The missing fork

1959

It's the little things that count, and if somebody will just tell me where I can catch a three-tined kitchen fork, about so big and so long, things may improve about the old homestead. We've lost ours.

You would expect if the roof blew off the manor, or the foundation settled under the parlor, some degree of consternation would set in, but the simple loss of a three-tined kitchen fork might be borne up under with some fortitude. This is not so, for the progress of our domestic program has gone to pot, and unless I can find a fork soon the future is gloomy and unpromising.

"I've misplaced my little fork," she said, one day, I suppose it was a month ago. I was meditating on some abstruse hypothesis at the time, and didn't pay much attention, but a few days later she said "I wish I could find my little fork!"

After a few more times I said, "What's with this little fork stuff?" "Why," she said, "the little one with three prongs, the one your mother gave me. And it didn't go out with the swill!"

We still say "swill" around here.

Things do go out with it. Every time I clean out a hog pen I find artifacts long supposed gone forever, and all of the things a hog has no use for. She said she had gone down and looked.

I did, too, and I also poked around on the compost heap, and gave the duck pen a scrutiny, throwing the ducks into a tizzy. But the fork could not be found and we had constant moan over the disappearance. Not one bit of housework can be done, right that is, without that fork.

I remember my mother did give it to her. My mother was ever the practical one. It was an antique of sorts, something long in the family somewhere, sort of an old wives thing. It was approximately the size of an ordinary dinner fork, with a riveted wooden handle, and it had only the three tines. It was steel instead of silver, and the tines had a bit more upward bend to them than an ordinary fork. Made it more grasping.

When we set up housekeeping Mother contributed several smallish items like that, the kind of things wedding guests and the social set wouldn't think of – or give if they did. We had 17 table lamps and 33 pickle dishes, but Mother said, "I couldn't keep house without one of these," and she gave us the fork. It didn't get put on the table with the fancy things – nor did it get put in the barn after the ceremony.

It was a "utility" fork, of course. It would spear the brisket right out of the boiled-dinner kettle, and nothing would turn bacon so well. It could flip rolls out of the tins, stir scrambling eggs, and filch an olive right out of the bottle.

So, we exhausted the chances, and still didn't find it. It must be gone. Every time I go into the kitchen I hear the lamentations. Everything is harder without it, so much more clumsy.

"Look how I have to chase doughnuts around!" she says, and it's true – the little fork always snagged them so pertly.

We went looking for another. I took her to the city, and while I attended to my philanthropies she went up one side and down the other and asked in all the stores for a three-tined fork. None of them had one. None of them had anything even like it, she said, but in one store she bought a two-tined fork because the man was so nice. It is heavier and bigger than the favorite, and she hoped it might do – but it doesn't. No character.

Then one day I had a chance, so I made the rounds of the stores she missed, and I saw about every kind of fork currently available. They run heavily to a three-tined picnic fork with an extension shank on them, So you can thread on a hot dog and cook it over a fire six feet away. That's no kind of a fire to cook a hot dog on, anyway.

I became alarmed at the situation among our storekeepers they would hear me ask for a small three-tined kitchen fork (holding my hands about so) and they would beam and come trotting back with one of these barbecue spits with the long handle. It proves they are disposed to trade and friendly, but I can't say it is evidence of deep powers of comprehension. I looked at about fifteen of these forks, and couldn't fight it any longer. I went home.

It is just a little three-tined steel fork with a wooden handle, about like a dinner fork – and two tine's are no good and four tines are no good. You must take my word for it, I don't know why. It may be feminine logic, a phase of philosophy in which I am interested but not well versed. Anyway, that's what it is, and I'd like to buy one. Just one.

"Maybe," she said. "Maybe if you write a piece about it somebody will know." She seldom, if ever, thus presumes on my extracurricular literary pursuits, and this shows how serious it is. If it works, I may get some scrambled eggs again without lumps.

I'd say, offhand, the monetary value shouldn't exceed a dollar at the utmost, even with today's expanded ideas. But when a family's entire happiness and future security is at stake, price is no object.

[Editor's note: John and Dottie later received scores of letters from around the world containing dozens of forks. The missing one was discovered much later, stuck in a sink trap.]

That one-time simplicity

1962

"You know," I said, looking up from the vast bookkeeping connected with my many philanthropies, "It's been a long time since we've had a mess of dried beef on potatoes." Truth is, it has. Used to be almost a staple in the old days – made a good, hearty meal that everybody dove into, and all at once it came to me that it's been a long time.

"Well," she welled, "I was going to give you a three-way choice for supper tonight – hummingbird tongues on Melba toast with Turkish Delight, Mongolian pheasant tinder glass with kumquat soufflé, and dried beef on potatoes with hardtack."

"I would take the dried beef," I said, and she said, "It's the most expensive."

This turns out to be disturbingly so. What, from the memories of youth, was always a great way to stretch short pennies into the greatest good for the greatest number has become an epicure's ne plus ultra of the age of enlightenment, and she has been hanging back on dried beef so she might have more money to spend for food.

When I hear somebody ask, "What is the world coming to?" I always make answer that I do not know.

She observes, too, that when she does buy some dried beef these days it is not the same as it used to be. It used to come in fairly large slices, rolled together adroitly so it would fill the bottle or can. Now it is otherwise; you get two-three sheets wrapped around a gorm of shreds and crumbs, and pride of workmanship is gone. The bundle doesn't open out into the same product.

It has variously been observed by astute observers that a great many of the good things to eat that adorned the simple life back on the farm were cheap. This fact was known to the custodian of the family exchequer, but was not suspected by the others. We thought we ate those things because they were the best things in the world to eat. Take baked beans. On a farm that regularly laid out 10 to 15 acres of baking beans there wasn't anything any cheaper. But when adorned with honest pork, laced with dark molasses, and suitably infused with love and ginger, a pot of beans on the supper table was about as high off the hog as anybody wanted. We thought that was pretty good.

In the days when hands were busy all day at outdoor work and exercise was a process of life an appetite was a presumption of ingestion. And if you figured it cost maybe a quarter of a cent a portion to set baked beans before a family, you figured it high because there were always some left over for breakfast. And you were serving something the Waldorf chefs couldn't match, and can't. Put a pan of buttermilk biscuits alongside, some crisp, juicy sour pickles, and an apple pie, and if you listened you could hear mighty Zeus on high Olympus whimpering in envy as he toyed with his plain old nectar and ambrosia. This is true, because I was there.

Dried beef didn't cost much. It was supposed to be some kind of an orphan of the packing industry, and although it had a Chicago by-line on it we understood it was really South American meat and a by-product. For a few cents Mother could get a big jar of the stuff, and with the magic of her kitchen wand could translate it magnificently.

If she wanted to raise supper into the million-dollar category, she could bake the potatoes, but usually she just boiled them. Understand that we had potatoes pushing up against the floor timbers down cellar and the cows and pigs helped us eat them, so 10 or 15 bushels one way or the other worried nobody. So there was a big iron pot for boiling potatoes, and it never cooled off. People today don't use potatoes the way we did. We put them in bread, and made soup of them – not the cold, clammy stuff with the fancy name, but real hot soup. We had fried potatoes for breakfast, even, and with a bacon fat flavor they're hard to beat. And for dried beef the boiled hot potato was just the checker.

It got smashed on the plate, with a gob of butter on top, and then we dipped into the bowl to cover it with creamed dried beef. The top-notch kind would have a half-dozen hard-boiled eggs worked into the sauce, and the little chunks of yolk would look up and grin at you like a burst of sunshine. Everything was fine and dandy. The dried beef had a smoky, salty flavor that suggested the exotic; giving you a Westphalian ham or Labrador gasperaux effect.

Everybody got up full as ticks, replete and surfeited, convinced this was the best of all possible worlds and that fortune had favored us with the greatest cook ever to grasp a spoon.

Well, she argues that when she goes to the store to spend $25 for a little bag of modern goodies to stave off starvation, and her thoughts turn to dried beef, prudence suggests there are better ways to spend the last digits in the budget. As an occasional experience with the expensive, yes; but the one-time simplicity of dried beef and boiled potatoes has been priced out of sight in the great progress of logistics. "If we were millionaires," she says, "We could have it every meal," and I can't think of a better reason to be a millionaire.

Going to haul

1972

For going-on a week, I've been waking promptly at 2:45 a.m. I don't get up, but I look at the luminous dial, say, "Good luck, Harold!" and go back to sleep. One swallow doesn't make a summer, but one trip to haul seems to make that much of a lobsterman out of a highlander.

Harold Jameson is a lobsterman, and for some time he had been saying, "You ought to get up some morning and go haul with me!" So long as it was "some morning" I was agreeable, but now Harold said, "I'll pick you up tomorrow. I set my alarm at 2:45, Harold tooted his pick-up at 3:00, and we were off down Muscongus Bay to attend 6~ traps in the vicinity of Mos-quito Rock. I will be glad when I get this 2:45 stuff out of my system.

Maine lobstermen are not the heave-ho and breaking-wave kind of mariner. They' respect their ocean to the point of timid-ity. It has been said the men who never fear the sea are its vic-tims; the cautious and prudent give it never a chance. The reason for pre-dawn hauling of lobster pots is in tune with this – on the long average the Maine ocean is calmest on the tail of night and before the morning breezes up. Each day's decision about "going to haul" is made in the darkness on the wharf, so after sniffing and with many a "waal, I dunno," Harold decided "mebbe" it would hold calm long enough to get his 6~ traps by Mosquito Rock.

Mosquito Rock is some seven miles "outside." This was the morning of May 29, so the full moon was a day old, and it didn't hurt the scenery a mite. Harold had his running lights on, and had tuned in the fishermen's band on his two-way radio. We were not alone on the ocean, and it was fun to listen to the chit-chat of lobstermen like us, on their wav out. We rounded a can at the harbor mouth, came through a channel between islands, and picked up the lights of Port Clyde on our left, the lights of Pemaquid on our right, and 15 miles straight ahead the Monhegan Island lighthouse. Revolving at 3o-second intervals, it became Harold's course, and his engine thrummed musically. He figured an hour and a half to sunrise. Not quite that to Mosquito Rock.

Harold is what we Mainers call an "old woman." This has nothing to do with sex, but means a devotion to detail. A place for everything and everything in its place. Other fishermen will tell you he isn't a "fahst" hauler, but will admit his methodical routine saves him time and effort. As we approached Mosquito Rock he began getting ready. A tub of alewives was disposed by his left foot, and he threaded three on his bait iron – a long steel needle. He laid his spectacles on a shelf – hauling would spray them opaque instantly. He set out his box of wooden pegs, which render lobster claws clampless, and tossed in his gauge – Maine lobsters must all be legal lengths. Then he hauled on his neoprene fisherman's pants – an exhibition of agility in a rolling boat considering that he was already wearing his hip rubber boots. "There," he said, and we began looking for his first pink-and-green pot buoy.

A Maine lobster trap is a slatted crate that lies on the ocean floor. The line to it is called a pot-warp, and at Mosquito Rock Harold fishes in 30 fathoms of water. A few feet above the trap is a plastic float that keeps the line from snarling about the trap. A second float is called the toggle, and its purpose is to take up slack when the tide ebbs. The third float, on the end of the warp, is the pot-buoy, and this is painted in bright colors in each fisherman's distinctive marking. The toggle may or may not be under water, but as we were on a slack tide it was now floating, and Harold gaffed his lines by the toggle. Out of 65, he missed once, and he turned to see if I noticed his clumsiness. It was the look Esposito had that night he muffed the easy one.

Maneuvering the boat to come alongside each toggle was, of course, routine with Harold, but the skill and beauty of it was exciting. Having no precious lobster license, I couldn't help him, so I watched him do his work according to his usual lone-someness. They tell me Harold doesn't ask "just anybody" to go hauling with him. With his bait iron threaded, he was ready for number one. Up came the toggle, he made a turn on his winch, he adjusted his motor controls, threw the knob on his winch, and the warp tightened. When the pot "breeched," he grabbed it, pulled it into position, adjusted his controls again, and in seconds he had taken out his lobsters, cleaned away the crabs, winkles, old bait, and had transferred the new alewives to the bait string in the trap. Watching his depth finder, he swung about to put the trap back in the ocean just where he wanted it. Then, approaching his next trap, he rethreaded his bait iron, measured his catch, and hove back all but the "keepers." He caught hundreds of lobsters, but only 44 from the 65 traps were legal to bring ashore. At $1.40 a pound, he paid for his bait, his fuel, and pocketed some $6o, much of which would go to amortizing his boat and gear.

It was noon when we came to the wharf, and 1:00 p.m. when had breakfast. Harold does this every day, but it threw my highlander schedules askew. Now, every morning when I awake at 2:45 a.m., and before I turn over, I meditate briefly on what a good time I had with him, and console myself that a farmer's life isn't so bad in some wavs.

When fire engines clanged and whinnied

July 31, 1998

You perhaps know of Medford as one of the towns on Paul Revere's route to Concord as the American Revolution began. He went right by the end of the street on which my primary school would be built. Alongside my school was the sub-fire station where Medford had a steam pumper, horses, stables, and upstairs quarters for firemen. Yes, there was a pole for them to slide down when the bell rang. Mine was named the James School. And while our teachers were properly strict, they didn't mind if we jumped from our seats when the fire bell rang and watched the engine take off, which didn't happen too often during school.

The alarm was indeed a bell, hanging in a hose tower and pulled by a rope. In those days, the police had a call-box system and the fire department had telephones, but communications were primitive, and most fires were announced by somebody running pell-mell to the station. The firemen cared for the horses. Besides feeding and grooming, they had to exercise them, and that meant daily trips around our schoolhouse, which we could supervise during number work and spelling.

We youngsters got an occasional chance to go into the fire station and visit the horses, who had nothing to do but stand and wait. The firemen would give us each a lump of sugar, and we could hold a hand out and feel the soft muzzles of the beasts as they willingly responded. It was wonderful, too, to see the great steam pumper sitting there with all the polished brass agleam, and once a fireman went upstairs and came down the pole so we could see how it was done.

The pumper, always kept loaded with kindling and coal, was drawn by a three-horse hitch, rather than a span. Unlike most horse-drawn vehicles, it had brakes. The animals were trained to take positions when the alarm sounded, and it took hardly more than an instant to get going. The kindling was lit before the horses were off, and by the time the engine appeared outdoors black smoke was belching from the stack.

Before the engine arrived at a fire, the steam was pretty well "up." That was a brave spectacle from a first-grade window, and I assure you it is easy to recall. I was conditioned somewhat. My mother helped, so I was reading before school. She had bought me a toddler's nursery book that had in it a story about a fire engine. A fire engine just like the one I would see from my schoolroom. I can quote it:

Clang! Clang! Clang! What is all that noise about? See those horses running down the street! Are they running away? No! They are going to put out the fire! Clang! Clang! Clang!

Without quibbling about the gait of horses, I'll offer that fire horses did not really suggest running away, or even a gallop. Trained utterly by firemen who had little else to do while the bell was resting, the beasts just about guided themselves. They were faultlessly in step, by no means excited, and they were moving a substantial load entrusted to them in a moment of emergency. It was no time for frolics. Horses may be dumb, but they're not stupid. There was a railroad crossing up the street, and the fire horses stopped for it and wouldn't cross until the policeman (Mr. Watson!) told them all was clear.

Only once did I get to a fire scene to see our pumper in action. I'll guess about 1915. The city of Salem, the witch city next to Medford, had a tragic fire that did great damage. At night it lit our eastern sky. Medford responded, as did other neighboring communities, and our horses had gone to do what they could.

On the Saturday, my dad walked me up into Salem where the fire was now under control. We were able to get to our pumper, and there she was, smoke coming from her stack, and one of our firemen standing by to keep an eye on the gauge and oil when needed. He and my dad spoke, and he patted my little head for me. I had never seen him in a helmet. He said the Salvation Army brought him things to eat. He was there three days in all, his steam up and the pumper attached to a hydrant and making a gentle swish-swish-swish, as steam engines did. Our horses had been disengaged and led back to their stable. They were led again later to retrieve their engine.

When my mother was about to be 100 years old, somebody asked her what she'd like on her birthday. She said she'd never ridden on a fire engine and would like to. So the fire chief in West Caldwell, N.J., where she was living with my sister, brought around the city's newest fire engine and they boosted Mom up beside the driver. Off they went, and it was something to see. It wasn't at all like the thrill of the three-horse days when I watched the Medford pumper streak past. The only similarity would be the same old Clang! Clang! Clang! as my doughty mom yanked the bell rope.

Now we were 6 again.

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