When Pea Soup Sets In

WE should all be politely amused that this newspaper lately got William Jennings Bryan mixed up with William Cullen Bryant. When I went for my latest haircut, Luke Nugent was ahead of me, and while Bob the Barber was trying to bring him back to respectability I heard Bob say, ``Now tell me, Luke, honest, now - can you leave Rockland breakwater in this fog and find Vinalhaven Island 'thout any trouble?''

Luke fishes for lobsters, and Maine was having an August thick-o'-fog that kept the summer mahogany tied up for three Sundays running. Luke said, ``I hope so.''

When a Maine sea fog settles in as this one did, it shuts out the world and everything with it. Raspberries ripen and mildew on the bushes, bureau drawers won't open, the handles on tools go sticky, and dispositions get cranky. There is nothing to do.

Here at our Back River the tide comes and goes and we can't see the water. ``Down below'' at Port Clyde, the harbor horn toots day and night on that verge of sound where you can't be sure if you hear it or feel it. Thick-o'-fog closes us in and we wait. Luke can find his way, all right, but he'll be walking on eggs. Maine lobstermen respect their ocean and give it no chance.

Years ago William Tudor Gardiner was stumping Maine for the governorship, and it came the day to shake hands in Jonesport and on Beals Island. For two weeks the coast had been socked in, so he found everybody in Jonesport ashore and ready to politick. Then he ``borried'' a skiff and push-rowed himself out to Beals Island to drum up some votes. It isn't that far, so he made it all right, and tied up and walked up the shore to the first baithouse, where he found Jeb Beals scrunched on an upturned trawl tub looking as disconsolate as the friendless.

Jeb was staring into the blank nothingness where the Atlantic Ocean was supposed to be, and he hadn't hauled nawthin' since a week ago last Tuesday. Affable as any Republican candidate could be in those days, Candidate Gardiner thrust out a hand and introduced himself, saying, ``I hope you're interested in politics?''

Jeb didn't move. Didn't look up. He said, ``I ain't interested in one thing until this fog scales off.''

The time the State-o'-Maine fog baffled the United States Navy makes good telling. Ralph Childs was an instructor at Bowdoin College and kept a small playtime sailboat down at Mere Point. One Sunday he intended to sail, but it had fogged in. So he rowed out to his moored boat and sat in the cockpit reading his Sunday Times on the off chance the fog would lift.

It didn't, but as he lolled he heard the sound of a motor off in the pea soup, and he wondered what fool would be out there in this! The sound came nearer, and all at once he realized it was bearing down on him. It was coming close, so he pushed away his newspaper and grabbed up the tin fish horn the Coast Guard required in equipment.

He blasted a few toots, and it had an effect. The noise of the motor diminished, and at drifting speed an 80-foot torpedo boat from Uncle Sam's very own navy glided out of the fog and came alongside. Admiral Childs, aboard his own flagship, was amazed and held his tongue; he could see real gobs on the vessel's deck, in their Sunday whites. And there was an officer who spoke thus, ``Excuse me, sir, but I'm hoping you can tell us where we are?''

Now Instructor Childs sizes things up, and he realizes that the United States Navy is lost in a Maine fog, so he stands in mock attention, salutes, and points over his right shoulder with a portside finger and says, ``Certainly, sir - The Win Smith farm lies yonder.''

It seems this boat, newly built, needed some sea trials before it was put in service, and just as the trials began our Maine weather foreclosed. For two days the boat needed a fix, which means to find out where it might be. Ralph Childs suggested the United States Navy relax, drop anchor, and wait it out.

Luke Nugent will find the island easily, for today the lobstermen have reliable instrumentation. They used to listen for waves breaking on ledges, and rely on instinct and good fortune - or they stayed ashore. They could pick up the bell at Gull Rock and they knew it wasn't William Cullen Bryan.

The harborside would be uneasy until the venturesome lobsterman returned; he'd be late but he'd come in. ``Some foggy down they'yer, warn't it?'' they'd say, and he'd say, ``Eyah.'' One time Jim Tukey said, ``Wicked foggy! Two-three times I was half minded to parss the night!''

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