Smelt Season and The Red-Hot Show

MINNIEBROOK was the best smelt stream in our small Maine coastal town. It fed into the ocean at Porter's Landing, and on a propitious night tide in the spring of the year, when smelts would run, just about the entire population of the town would be standing along the brook to catch breakfast.

The smelt is a sea-run fish of great popularity in Maine, and in my boyhood was taken by setting a smelt net in the brook to intercept the tasty delights as they passed up for their replenishing ceremonies. Every family had a smelt net that hung in the barn all year waiting for spring, and there was that happy morning once a year when the aroma of pan-fried smelts lingered over the village all day. The smelts were back!

Where the brook went under the road at Porter's Landing, by the clam factory, just upstream stood Minniebrook Hall, a community social facility that was well used for birthday parties, wedding receptions, all manner of sociables, and, now and then, a minstrel show or a ''mellerdrammer.''

It chanced that the best ''set'' on Minniebrook for a smelt net was just below the rear door of Minniebrook Hall. A ''set'' for a net was an arrangement of rocks that directed the swimming fish through an aperture. The net would be placed in the aperture, steadied by a man who held the long spruce-pole handle, and at intervals the pool below would be agitated to make the fish move into the aperture and the net. It would take the strength of several men to lift the loaded net and dump it into baskets for transport. Then, by longtime agreement, the set was available to the next in line and the smelt harvest went on until the tide turned.

The years have wrought changes, and I suppose the character of Minniebrook has been reduced substantially. Perhaps the environment now causes the smelts to find other places. I'd presume the town hasn't turned out for Smelt Night in many years. The clam factory disappeared while I was still a youngster. And Minniebrook Hall came to a dire and terminal end.

There had appeared in town, while I was still in grade school, a gentleman of talent whose name was Jim Stein, but he pronounced it Steen. Jim soon became the fix-it man for the community, and obliged by coming to solder teakittles, thaw pipes, cut raspberry canes, repair a step, and put back a wind vane that blew off the shed roof.

He was a comical sort and always had a witty saying, and his charge for a small job was in bounds. ''Get a-holt o' Jim,'' was the word, and Jim always came promptly and knew what to do.

One day, after he had been in town some years, Jim did some job for Howdie Lambert, and when Howdie handed him a 50-cent piece for his services, Jim swallowed the coin and then took it out of Howdie's ear. Then he said, ''The hand is quicker than the eye!'' and he did several other mystifying things with the half dollar, after which everybody knew Jim was a magician, and after a time Jim agreed to demonstrate his talent by putting on a show at Minniebrook Hall.

Arrangements were made to have the hall on a certain night, and tickets were sold at 10 cents apiece to benefit the library. The Relief Corps was going to have a sandwich and pie booth, also for the library, and Wallie Tuttle would come with his harmonica band to play incidental music. Wallie and his friends were good, and for their finale always did ''The Stars and Stripes Forever.''

Jim Stein was a sensation. It seems he had been on the stage before he came to live in our town, and he had theater posters showing how he looked in this play and that play. He brought them to tack up in Minniebrook Hall. He still had the magician's costume seen in some of those posters: tall hat and a black ebony cane. He did all the tricks everybody loved -- the linking rings, the big die in the hinged box, a lot of tricks where he tore a newspaper and got paper dolls and animals.

He had Mrs. Colby come forward and sit on a hot chair, and after she jumped and squealed other people came to sit, and the chair wasn't hot. But it was hot again when Mrs. Colby tried it. Minniebrook Hall was jam-packed for Jim's show, and the sandwich booth cleared $28.

Then the harmonica band blew a couple of tunes, and Jim said that to close the show he would perform his finest illusion of all, one that he had performed thousands of times in the greatest theaters of America, and even at the Palladium in London. He would, he said, smear gasoline on his face and shave with a blowtorch. Would three or four gentlemen from the audience come forward to assist him?

The committee assured the audience that the gasoline was gasoline, that the blowtorch was an ordinary plumber's blowtorch, and that Jim had nothing up his sleeve. When they tipped up Jim's magic table to show it concealed nothing, a rabbit hopped away. Now Jim turned the valve, and the blowtorch sent a stream of fire into space and roared accordingly. Jim ''lathered'' his face with a brush. Pure gasoline right out of the can. And he was ready.

Nobody was injured. Most of the audience escaped by the front door and waited for the fire engine to come. A few got out by the back door and stepped off into the best smelt pool in the whole brook. When the engine came, the firemen put Jim out first, and then tried to save Minniebrook Hall. But it was a total loss, and whatever Jim's trick was it was a good one. Neither of his eyebrows were singed.

What I started to say was that it's about smelt time again.

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