Lending a hand

There's a hazard to toying with solecisms, as witness a recent objective pronoun on this page. My neighbor had said to me, "Why don't you call on?" and it came out in print as "Why don't you call on me?" He meant, as Mainers have long meant, that he was ready to lend me a hand when I needed help. Mainers don't call on anybody in this sense, they simply call on. It mightn't matter, except that calling on is not the same as changing work, both being reciprocal from the early days when pioneers lived apart and did everything alone so long as they could. When they came to a two-man job, they could call on if a matter were minor and transient, but if a major task had come up there would be the more formal agreement to exchange labors.

So, if I should, say, need a moment's help to raise my flagpole aloft, I'd call on and my neighbor would come over and boost with me, and it would be understood that this was a favor and I was under no strict requirement to repay him, although we would understand that if he called on in turn, I would hark. But, if assistance involved getting in a field of hay, a matter of a full day or more, I would expect to give him equal time -- I might help him later with his field of hay, or I might come another day and split firewood.

By extension, calling on came to mean asking for welfare. Keeping one's head above water was then honorable, and a man did his level best to pay his bills. But when you "got snow in the woodbox" and the youngsters weren't eating right, and things were at sixes and sevens, a man had to smother his dignity and call on -- call on the overseers of the poor for town aid. By calling on, one thus was "on the town," a phrase now meaning quite another thing. I remember several gentlemen of my youth who struggled valiantly against various odds and remained perpetually on the brink of such failure, and the townsfolk would say, "Give him credit -- he's never called on yet!"

We've a granddaddy here who sits in the sunshine of his fishhouse door when it's pleasant to do so, and he takes his grandson on his knee and relates whoppers. Sometimes there'll be three-four tykes of an age, the others on bait tubs and coils of warp, and the old man puts on quite a show. Going by, one will see the group, the old man sawing the air, and the youngsters with their mouths hanging open and their eyes bugged like cucumbers. "Now this may sound some far-fetched," he'll be saying, "but it happened just as I'm telling it. . . ." Or, "I'm not stretchin' this a mite . . ." and he'll come out with what Mainers call a "stretcher."

Well, one day he was rehashing the old Holman Day tale of the fellow that had a set of double teeth. Fact. All the way around, up and down, he had two teeth where everybody else would have only one, and that gave him a jaw that was sure some old powerful.

"What would you say to THAT!" he posed, and the children all felt their teeth with their fingers, and it sure enough was something to think about.

Well, sir, the story goes that this fellow was putting a new roof on his barn one summer, and he had a ladder reaching up above the eaves, and he grabbed a bolt of cedar shingles under each arm and started up the ladder. About 30 feet to the eaves. Scampered right along up neater'n a pussycat, and just as he came to the eave something went awry and the ladder went right out from under him. There he was! And there old Grampy left the youngsters for narrative effect exactly the suitable amount of time, whereupon the fellow reached out real smart and bit bright onto the eave with his set of double teeth. Hung right there all safe and sound, on account of his amazing double teeth, but he did think for a minute that he was going to drop them there shingles.

"What do you think of THAT?"

"I guess he warn't about to call on!" said the grandson.


But he did call on. He let go, yelled, and bit right back, such is the advantage of double teeth, and somebody came and replaced the ladder.

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