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We get the job done - in French, even

By John Gould / April 4, 2003



To make things perfectly clear, let me explain that at Caucomagomick Dam we had two Tom Begins, father and son, both French-speaking "bonds" from St. Georges, Quebec. Both worked for the Great Northern Paper Company in Maine's Great North Woods. One was Joe, and the other was Pete.

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They were called bonds because they had to post bonds when they came into the Boston states to work. They were both called Tom because nobody knew which was Joe and which was Pete. I think of them every time anybody mentions Joe Taylor, who was never called by his correct name, Edgar Curtis Taylor.

Joe was a proud native of the inconspicuous town of Derry, N.H., who, after being graduated from Bowdoin College, went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. He distinguished himself scholastically, and became Master of The Curtis School in St. Louis, if you'd care to check me out. At Oxford he'd become chief tub-thumper for his hometown, and shortly had everybody at Oxford convinced that Derry, N.H., was America's principal city. Joe was an easy, outgoing, Rotarian sort, and the Brits accepted his every word about the wonders and splendors of Derry.

And it happened that Joe Taylor returned to America, and the next year a Rhodes scholar from Harvard University came to Oxford. In the scholar's introductory days, an Oxford English student asked him what part of the Colonies he was from. Thinking that "Cambridge" might be an indelicate word to utter at Oxford, the young man said, "I'm from Boston, Mass."

"Oh, yes," said the Oxford boy, "Now just where is that in relation to Derry, N.H.?" So, Joe or Edgar Curtis, which Taylor do you prefer? And of the Tom Begins, Joe or Pete?

The Great Northern let Bill and me use the Cauc Dam camp on our annual grandfathers' retreats. We'd pick up the key on our way in, and it spared our making do with a tent. The camp was fully equipped and kept ready for company men who might work on or about the dam, which made a water storage basin of Cauc Lake, 15 miles long.

On this occasion we were told Tom Begin would be there. It was a dry season. Tom read the depth board at the dam every morning and by the woods telephone line reported how much water was in the lake. Then, by opening or closing spillways, the flow of the river was adjusted to keep the dynamos constant. It was a simple and customary matter, but somebody had to read the board at each dam.

Tom was in camp when Bill and I arrived, sitting in a chaise à bascule.

It has been said that Benjamin Franklin invented the rocking chair, but I think not. I believe a Frenchman did that long before Ben was born, and that an early model was brought to Maine and Quebec by Jacques Cartier, in time for the opening of the first lumber camp.

Anyway, we found Tom unhappy. His son, Tom, was being married on the morrow, and he was about to miss the mass in the morning and the bachelor supper that night. Tom, told to read the board each morning, did so in seconds, and then had nothing to do the rest of the day but sit and rock and feel sorry for himself.

Understand, please, that he spoke no English. And when I spoke French, he couldn't understand me. Neither could Bill. But Tom kept repeating "Charley Nelson" until I understood.

Charley was superintendent of West Branch operations, Tom's boss. He'd told Tom to read the board each morning. Tom couldn't leave to attend a wedding. Knowing this, Bill and I had only to tell Tom to be off. We'd read the board for him.

You can say many things better in French than in any other language, but you still need to know how. Tom Begin kept shaking his head and kept saying "Charley Nelson." At last I remembered "va t'en" and "chez vous" (your house), and Bill added "schnell-schnell! " I tried "noce" (wedding) and then "fete," and then, "go home!" We finally got Tom on the road home, we presumed in great fear that Charley Nelson would fire him.

The next morning I walked over to the dam spillway, thinking what a splendid day for a wedding, and the board said Cauc Lake dam had five feet, four inches of water. Charley Nelson cranked the magneto on the woods telephone promptly at 7 o'clock, and I was quite ready to play-act Tom Begin for him.

I yelled, "Allo! Fi'-fo!" Charley said, "Thank you, John." It was difficult to fool Charley. Tom was back at Cauc Lake by noon, and was reading the board himself when Bill and I lit out for home. Bill and I had no finer friend in the Maine North Woods than Tom Begin, whichever Tom it was.

Did I ever tell you about the poet Bill and I found in a tent one summer who was rewriting the Psalms of David? Bill said, "What's the problem? Don't you like them the way they are?" He said he did, but they're very old and it's time for them to be brought up to date. Bill said, "Oh, I don't know, I happened to hear one of them a week or so ago, and it seemed fine to me." The poet said we couldn't go on forever living in the dead past. And Bill said, "You stayed out too long in the hot sun."

Actually, we didn't hang around a great while. Bill and I never wanted for things to do.

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