The fortunate man who lost his suitcase

The taxpayers built a huge highway system for the trucking industry, and then built runways for the flying- machine people, whereupon the railroads quit and we found the country is full of railway buffs who wish we had trains again. We also read the sad news that Amtrak trains falter and that while flying is a splendid idea, it remains but hopeful.

My dad was a railway postal clerk, and in 43 years of riding trains he never saw an accident, except for the time a new clerk tripped on a mail bag and broke a shoestring. Meantime, we've spent billions upon billions to educate people to vote yes on bond issues and spend $99.99 to ride a distance that used to cost two cents a mile. "It's two cents a mile on the B&M, you ride with a smile on the B&M," and when you got there you weren't 10 miles out in a suburb. If I've not stated things about as they are, look at our public debt for a few minutes and then try to get a Pullman sleeping berth to Pittsburgh.

I used to wonder who Calvin Austin was, and nobody could tell me. He was a memory gem from the days of the Boston boat, a convenience of an earlier day that I used many times in my growing up, and I wouldn't swap the recollection for anything transportation now offers. I pity, pity, pity today's kid who will never go Down East to Maine on the Calvin Austin, which was in the fleet of the Eastern Steamship Co.

The Calvin Austin sailed regularly from Boston to that beautiful never-never land where everything has another place beyond it so it is impossible ever to arrive. Go Down East, and there are still places Down East. This is the fabulous coast of Maine and beyond that, Canada, including "far down," which is Down East, indeed. There is no other coastline like it.

The Vikings looked Maine over 400 years before Columbus discovered the New World. In 1620, the Pilgrims came looking for Massachusetts but first looked upon Maine. And every evening, the Calvin Austin or a sister steamship left Boston harbor to be off that Maine shoreline by sunrise, a sight of honest paradise included in the ticket. That is, $1.35 with another buck for a stateroom berth, and 75 cents for the fish chowder supper unless you carried a lunch.

There was a saloon with chairs where you could sit asleep for the night if you couldn't afford a bed. Breakfast, after you docked and disembarked, was at wharf restaurants in Portland, Bath, Rockland, Bangor, and even at St. John and Halifax. The Calvin Austin in her time had two sister ships named Governor Dingley and Governor Cobb, two Maine governors, and many years later I learned that Calvin Austin was president of the Eastern Steamship Co.

Governor Cobb was a Republican stalwart who explained the party situation in Maine in his time. A reporter asked him if he planned to run for governor that fall, and he replied, "Oh, gracious, no, young man, it's not my turn!" When his turn came, he ran and was elected.

Painted white, all vessels of Eastern looked alike. There's a dreary note: Two days after Christmas in 1898, the steamer Portland left Boston with nearly 200 homeward-bound merrymakers. She sailed into a gathering snowstorm and foundered in the night, costing all lives.

Just before the Portland had sailed that brooding afternoon, a man had come running down the pier with a suitcase. The ship was already three feet from the pier. The man hove his valise on the ship's fantail and would have jumped across the gap to join it, but the Portland had gone too far for his leap. He stood on the wharf and watched the steamer go to sea with his suitcase. He was the unfortunate man who missed the boat and had to go home to Maine on the steam train.

My down east trips with Dad were all successful. We'd watch the sun set over suburban Boston hills, and he'd tell me about the schooner Hesperus and the steamer Portland when we passed Norman's Woe and Cape Anne, and we'd ask the steward to give us a knock when we passed Monhegan.

Our first sighting of Maine would be about 2 a.m. Next it would be daylight and we'd swing from the open ocean between lonely Matinicus and lofty Owl's Head into Penobscot Bay, where the steamer began blowing her horn to warn lobster catchers to stay clear. The Boston boats always tried to go up or down Penobscot Bay with the tide, to save coal, so sometimes breakfast on the Rockland pier was a little early or a little late. After eating breakfast, the folks off the boat could get on the waiting passenger train and go wherever they pleased.

There was never a finer thing to look at than Owl's Head as the Calvin Austin caught the tide and came up to Rockland in the bright glory of a Maine coastal morning. Never. Set there on a primeval morning like frosting on creation's cake, the effigy of the wise owl asking us to be less forlorn.

It carried the message of the Calvin Austin, and all boats that ever sailed downwind into never-never! To see old Proteus rising from the sea and hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

The man who missed the Portland soon became a Maine legend. Every Down East family had an uncle or a cousin who was too late to come home on the Portland. And lost his suitcase.

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