Nostalgia rides again in Eastport, Maine

In my woodie, I would take you everywhere I go. So I say from me to you, I will make your dreams come true. Do you love me, do you, surfer girl? - Surfer Girl

That Beach Boys song embodied the carefree lifestyle of the 1960s. It also made famous the "woodie" - the wood-paneled station wagon used for ferrying surfboards and girls to the beach.

In Maine, a California native who, years ago, thumbed his way across the country to visit friends in the Pine Tree State, has capitalized on the woodie's cachet and is taking tourists for scenic rides and picnics along a wild, unspoiled stretch of coastline.

Jim Blankman lovingly reconditioned a 1947 Dodge woodie bus once used to carry sardine packers to work. Now, the vintage vehicle, with its restored wooden panels, is back in service.

Wearing a faded pink Hawaiian shirt and jeans, Mr. Blankman greets visitors at his white-shingled house tucked on a side street in Maine's easternmost city. Flowers bloom in a small garden bordered by a picket fence. Firewood is piled high in the yard. A rack of moose antlers hangs above the door.

Blankman, a friendly fellow with brown curly hair and a handlebar moustache, settles everyone in the handsome woodie bus, which can hold 11 people. Candy-colored Mexican blankets cover the cracked leather seats that smell of camphor. A plastic hula dancer jiggles on the dashboard.

A wooden teardrop trailer, carrying hampers laden with fixings for the picnic, follows behind the vehicle.

With a few groans and creaks, the woodie wheezes to life and trundles off on a tour of Eastport and the surrounding landscape. Tooting the horn, Blankman waves to friends and points out sights along the main street lined with 19th-century brick storefronts. The woodie swings out onto the town pier where young boys are jigging for mackerel and pollack. Sea gulls wheel in the breeze.

"It was a much slower pace and I liked it," Blankman says, recalling his decision to make the distant Maine town his home 23 years ago.

When Blankman first came to Eastport in 1978, he brought his woodworking skills and broadened his repertoire from dulcimers to guitars, mandolins, and other stringed instruments. Lately, he has added custom-built luges, skateboards, humidors, and even coffins to his product line.

While working at a fish farm, he started smoking some rainbow trout in his backyard. The fish - hot smoked on applewood - proved popular locally and grew into a profitable mail-order business.

In recent years, Blankman has focused on restoring the woodie unearthed from an old cavernous barn belonging to the daughter of a former sardine-factory owner. The one-ton vehicle's back had begun to rot. The ash and mahogany side panels and basswood roof slats had to be replaced. New whitewall tires were needed. Racks to hold drinks and binoculars were installed.

Last year, Blankman took the woodie on its first long road trip - to the National Woodie Club's Silver Anniversary in Bennington, Vt., where it received an award.

"My woodie and I don't just work, we also have fun," he relates, heading down a country lane bordered by wildflowers. "I have been hired to drive 10 knockout bridesmaids to a wedding. That was rough. My woodie was used as a vintage prop for a movie being shot in Maine. Lots of times, I simply pick up weary walkers on their way home."

Blankman parks and leads the way up a pine needle-strewn path to a clearing on Estes Head. While his passengers pick wild blueberries and take in the scenery, he spreads a vinyl cloth on a picnic table sitting atop granite ledges speckled with pale-green lichen.

Out of the hamper comes a cheese board, smoked salmon dip, and smoked mussels in salsa. The Atlantic salmon and mussels were harvested from local waters and smoked by Blankman.

Next comes a roasted chicken, side of smoked salmon, hot oatmeal-molasses rolls, and potato salad topped with sprigs of dill and edible flowers. Carrot cake with creamy white frosting and watermelon top the picnic. All the food is prepared by Blankman and his wife, Judy.

Afterward, picnickers lounge on the rocks, basking in the late summer light. They watch a lobster boat hauling traps and gaze across Cobscook Bay at Franklin Delano Roosevelt's summer house on Campobello Island. A foghorn drones in the distance.

Then, it's back to town and more sights along the way. Blankman points out the former dump, local campground, and "Saab collection" piled in a front yard.

Back at his home, Blankman offers his passengers a free dip in his indoor Jacuzzi and shows off his custom luges before retiring his "funmobile" for the night.

*For more information, contact Island Tours, 37 Washington Street, Eastport, ME 04631. Phone: (207) 853-4831. Picnics must be reserved in advance, and cost $20 per person. Scenic rides are $5 per passenger.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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