The epitome of a down-Maine Yankee
John Gould wrote essays as he pleased, and it pleased him to write many of them. At the time of his passing, our 'Gould file' contained more than 125 unpublished columns. We are pleased to present 10 of them, one each Friday, starting today.
Bert Coombs is just the one! I've been considering whom I might describe to explain the native down-Maine Yankee, who is unique in this world and has too often been misdescribed as a simpleton who can't get there from here. I'd like to show how the Yankee thinks and does, as the result of his exposure to his wind and tide, his farm and forest, his climate and geography, his hot suppers, and the vistas along roads not taken. Bert Coombs will serve.
I'm not thinking of fame or fortune, importance or failure. It's his nature, his way, his attitudes, his right and privilege.
Bert was typical, but being Yankee he was different.
The Coombses were numerous in Maine. The originals were three brothers from Bristol, England, named John, Jim, and Bill, who, in time, had three sons apiece named John, Jim, and Bill. To distinguish them, their schoolteachers called them John's John Coombs, John's Jim Coombs, and John's
Bill Coombs, and so forth, and when each of the nine thus designated had three sons apiece named John, Jim, and Bill, there appeared of necessity John's John's John Coombs, right through to Bill's Bill's Bill Coombs.
Thus there came after many generations our Robert Coombs, who was the only child of Butcher Jim's Jim's Bill Coombs of Richmond. Bert learned blacksmithing from his father. He became a particular expert at fitting racetrack horses, where the expertise of correct fitting is important to race winnings. Horsemen from great distances brought their horses to Bert, who was acknowledged the best.
Bert also did tinkering, tin knocking, and small fix-it jobs for the neighborhood, and was the repairman on farm equipment for six towns around. "Take it to Bert! He'll fix anything!" As things became more sophisticated, Bert kept abreast, and became agent for windmills, water pumps, milking machines, and so on, and made repairs on each. He added a dark room and developed and printed snapshots. He never worked on cars, but he became a radio expert, had a ham license, and actually built and sold early wireless sets.
Bert was also tax collector for the town of Bowdoin and held several town offices. He certified poultry damage by foxes and raccoons. He was a justice of the peace and married people. He was a constable and fire warden and usually was moderator at town meetings. He was janitor at the church, sang in the choir, and was parish treasurer.
He held an office in the Grange and another in the Masonic lodge at Brunswick. He played tuba in the band and gave lessons. He trained bird dogs and once a year went to Boston to judge the kennel show. There's rather a good story about his being a barber.
Having no children, Bert and his wife took a state ward to board. He'd play about the blacksmith shop and Bert would give him small things to do, and it was good to have him around the place. So it came time for the boy to start school, and Mrs. Bert said to take the kid down to Brunswick and get his hair cut. Bert forgot. It was Sunday night and school opens Saturday, and she says, "I will not have that child start school looking like a mop! What do we do?"
Bert took little Skipper to the blacksmith shop, set him on the anvil, and with the great farrier's horse clippers gave him a haircut. Bert did a fairly good job, and Skipper started school.
About a month after that, Walter Lane came to the shop just as Bert was closing, and he says, "Bert, I plumb forgot I've got to install at lodge Friday night, and I need a trim to look decent. Run your clippers up my neck, will you?"
Bert says, "You need a barber. I ain't no barber!"
Walter says, "I know, but you cut Skipper. Cut me!"
So Bert put Walter on the anvil and trimmed his neck. Next day Bert's wife sends to Monkey-Ward for some barber's clippers, and now Bert is a barber. The word goes around, and because the nearest real barber is miles away, Bert gets to cut a head of hair now and then and obliges. Not being a real barber, he doesn't charge.
But the real barbers from the larger towns nearby heard that Bert cut hair. They notified the statehouse.
So Bert has one of Elmer Keith's prize steers slung up, the forge hot, and two or three horses waiting, when the door opens. In comes a man with a suit on, and even a tie. He walks up and says, "Where is your shop?" And then, "I think that you don't know who I am!"
Bert says, "Woodrow Wilson?"
The man is an inspector from the state health department, and he's investigating a complaint. He wants to see Bert's barbering license and inspect his shop.
Bert cranks down the sling and tells the inspector to go back to the statehouse and put his feet up on the desk. "I looked things up," he said. "Your rules don't apply in small towns our size, and I don't barber for pay. Thanks for stopping by. And if you want to take action, I'm the JP in this jurisdiction."