An eye for pie

Not long ago our esteemed colleague Maddocks discussed taking the children to work - should Mummy and Daddy bring a lad or lass to the sweatshop so the little ones would learn about the grind? I am grateful, for this gives me an excuse to tell about Ralph Derby and The Basin. When Ralph was a little boy, his mother took him to her office, and irreparable harm resulted, as I shall tell, and his experience demonstrates how an innocent mind of early years may be permanently discombobulated by exposure to gainful employment. At the time I knew him, Ralph was instrument maker to the department of physics at Bowdoin College. He presided over a considerable workshop, almost a factory, in the basement of the science building, and befriended many a student who would come in and use the shop for hobby work. The college charged ten cents an hour for the use of shop and tools. Some boys whittled boats into bottles, some made furniture, some did metal spinning, and I used to sharpen knives.

Well, the countryside is full of dull knives and people who don't know how to put a good edge on them, so I used to walk along a road and pick up knives. Then for ten cents I could use the electric-powered grindstone in Ralph's shop, and pay my term bill. Sometimes when I had a lot of knives, Ralph would stop making Wheatstone Bridges and help me grind. Afterward, Ralph lofted himself a sixteen-foot boat, and I helped him with that. Ralph needed a boat, because he was researching The Basin, planning a monograph on the history of this interesting cove.

The Basin is in the Maine town of Phippsburg, almost down to where the New Meadows River becomes the Atlantic Ocean. England developed fisheries along that coast very early, and The Basin was on admiralty charts that showed anchorages long before our historians supposed that anybody was around. The Basin is a tidal pond hidden from the open ocean by fairly high land - enough to shield topmasts - and gained by a narrow gooseneck channel. It has depth, and is big enough to accommodate a small fleet. It has always been a hideaway, and remains unruffled in the wildest coastal storms. Pirates used it, and ''privateers,'' who were the same thing. Smugglers knew it well. As late as World War II our smaller coastal defense vessels moored there waiting for radio orders as convoys grouped to sail to England. When Ralph's boat was ready, we took her by trailer to the New Meadows, launched her, and went on down with a picnic to visit The Basin. We found the gooseneck, and as we moved through it Ralph related some of the history he had gathered. The Basin was beautiful, but silent and lonely, and when Ralph cut his motor we had no need to put down the killick. We drifted, but didn't drift anywhere, and after Ralph told a few more stories about pirates and warships, we unpacked the food.

Each of us had brought enough for both, so it was quite a spread when we laid it out. The time was July, so we could have our evening meal thus and still have daylight for returning up-river, and we munched and chewed and pleasured ourselves in the serenity of the place. In due time I opened my little ''pie hod ,'' whisked off the napkin, and showed Ralph the magnificent custard pie I had brought.

Well, sir! Ralph took one look, yelped out, ''Oh, NO!'' stood on the sternsheets to get away from the pie, and I thought he was about to jump overboard. ''Custard Pie!'' he hollered. I could see he was in some kind of a flap about custard pie. So he composed himself, made me put the napkin back on the pie, and related another bit of history, but not about The Basin:

His mother worked for a firm of engineeers and surveyors that occupied the eighth floor of a building on State Street, in Boston. Ralph usually went to the office with her on Saturdays, as this was back in the benighted days when the workweek had six. There wasn't too much to amuse a child, but Ralph loved to sit on a stool so high over State Street and watch affairs below through a theodolite. The powerful lens brought everything right up to him, and he had an ever-changing drama. Hour by hour he gazed, until it was time to close up the office and go home.

Well, one day he was moving his transit about on its tripod, looking for something to watch, and he chanced upon the window ledge of a bakeshop where a brace of custard pies had just been set to cool. Probably few people have seen a custard pie through a surveyor's transit. Ralph never got over it.

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