Paper and the proper improvement

A MELLIFLUOUS female voice greeted me when I answered the telephone, seeming to promise instant intrigue, and I was reluctant to pursue this conversation with my wife so close at hand. The telephone is at my elbow when we settle the world's championship cribbage title anew each evening, and this was not a voice to cuddle with in that context. I shrugged off several possibilities and said, ``What can I do for you?'' ``I wonder,'' she said, sounding like violin and flute music beside a babbling brook in a sylvan and bosky dell, ``if I am speaking to the correct gentlemen?''

``I had that same thought,'' I said.

``OOO-oo-oo - yes, well, I am Gwendolyn Faversham, and I'm calling for Ace Home Improvement, Incorporated, and I hope you'll answer a few questions. Is your home adequately insulated?''

I submit it is not fair to send a sultry female voice, intended for whispering endearments, on an errand about nuts and bolts, plumbing and heating, and other commodities of coarse commerce. So I winked at my cribbage partner and said into the telephone, ``Sweetheart, my house is so thoroughly insulated that just now when the telephone rang you blew out all my windows.'' I have had no further conversation with Gwendolyn Faversham.

Back in the days of my journalistic apprenticeship on the weekly Record, I was also the exchange editor. Every weekly paper gave free copies to all the other weeklies, and we'd pick each other for whatever we could find.

Accordingly, I had some 25 or 30 papers from other communities in Maine on my desk every Saturday morning, to go through looking for ideas and inspiration. Sometime on Mondays I'd lug them to the pressroom where we kept a paper baler. Then one day a delightful old gentleman came in and introduced himself and said he had retired and was restoring the old family home over in the town of Bowdoinham. He said he had been in the ice cream business, and he told me something about that.

Ice cream, before mechanical refrigeration and fast delivery, was wholly local. But this man saw an opportunity, and he devised the wooden ice cream tub, into which a steel container of ice cream could be buried in ice and sent a distance. Maine, then, had any number of summer hotels and vacation camps that were a ready-made market for his ice cream. Friday was ice cream day, and his little factory loaded all the upstate trains out of Portland with wooden tubs.

Each camp and hotel met its respective train, and the tubs would be re-iced to hold the ice cream for Sunday dinner. Ice cream was then strictly a Sunday dinner delight. And hotels were judged by the number of tubs they bought each week. A one-tub resort (vanilla) was outranked by one that also took chocolate. The three-tub place added strawberry, and the bang-up, big-shot snooty joint also got a tutti-frutti. Tubs were returned on Monday trains.

Which was all most interesting, and I made a little news item about the man, telling how he was restoring the family place. On those old weekly newspapers, it was a disgrace to have the foreman of the composing room stick his snout into the sanctum and shout, ``COPY!'' in a rude and accusing tone, so I made grist of everything that was at hand.

I wasn't too proud of my occasional items that said Mr. and Mrs. Jones remained at home last weekend, but they helped keep the foreman calm. Anyway, before he left, this delightful old gentleman asked me what I did with my exchange papers after I'd read them. ``Paper baler,'' I said, and he asked if he might have them. Why not? That would save my lugging them to the back room, and I could understand that the delightful old gentleman would have plenty to read in the loneliness of his retirement back on the old family place. Every Monday morning he came in precisely on the dot of 9 o'clock to pick up his armload of exchanges and stagger away with them.

I was sitting on a good yarn and didn't know it. He'd been coming in for over a year before I chanced to say something about the tedium I endured in reading exchanges. ``But,'' he said, ``I don't read the things!''

Turned out he was methodically taking down the walls of his house, filling between studs with pasted-up newspaper sheets, and then putting the laths and plaster and wallpaper back. He was insulating decades before insulation's time. ``I know a bit about heat and cold, you see,'' he said. When I went to do a story on his achievement, he told me, ``Plenty warm here with just a candle burning on the table.''

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