Falling In Love With Maine
by Ralph Larsen as told to Burndett Andres
In the autumn of 1946, I was fifteen years old, about five feet tall and couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. I had lived in foster homes under the aegis of Catholic Charities for more than a decade and got into a lot of scrapes because I was a “home kid.” I also got into scrapes with bullies. They didn’t pick on me because I was a home kid; like all bullies, they picked on me because I was small and not so good at defending myself. I was little for my age; I was really cute, with black curls and the girls loved me, but I was a shrimp.
I had picked up a slim volume, probably in the candy shop or the drug store, about a number of sports figures. One of them was Jack Dempsey. When his trainer, Doc Kearns, had wanted to toughen up Dempsey’s hands he had taken him to a lumber camp; he said there was no better place to toughen up. I wanted to get tough fast, so I decided to take a page out of this book, so to speak.
My brother Johnny and I were living with the McAllisters on Long Island at the time, in Howard Beach, on a canal that went out to Jamaica Bay. Our house was built on pilings right at the water’s edge; at high tide we could dive out the second story windows into the water. We were dirt poor, but so was everyone around us, so we didn’t really know it. My foster mother had just died and there was no one else around who cared if I stayed in school or not, so one day I just packed up an old cardboard satchel I’d found in the house, said good-bye to my brother and left. I was heading to Maine to be a lumberjack.
I don’t remember what I took with me. A shirt perhaps. Some underwear, I guess. Everything I owned would have fit in that satchel. I had my hunting knife for protection. Mr. McAllister was a truck driver and managed to get our clothes from the U.S. Army at Fort Hamilton by one means or another, so I imagine I was wearing my olive drab Eisenhower jacket and I surely would have had on my paratrooper boots with high tops and laces. I was very proud of those boots; they were very macho and considered to be quite a trophy at a time when I had precious few trophies of any kind.
I had a little money from caddying at the North Hills and the Glen Oaks Country Clubs and from doing odd jobs, raking leaves and such, and I believe I must have taken a Greyhound bus to Bangor, or perhaps to Portland and then hitchhiked the rest of the way to Bangor. I really don’t remember how I got there; it was fifty-seven years ago. I do remember inquiring around about where to apply for work and being told to go home, that the only work available for kids in a lumber camp was sweeping out shacks and such. Well, I hadn’t come up here to clean house, so I started hitchhiking south.
I remember walking along country roads and getting rides for a few miles off and on. They were all country roads; I didn’t have a map, so I don’t know exactly where I was. I know I was out of money; I had expected to get a job so hadn’t allowed money for getting home. I subsisted entirely on apples for a couple of days. The trees where I walked were laden with them. They were so crisp; I remember the snap when I bit into them and the juice running down my chin. I often think of that experience at harvest time as they spoiled me for apples forever; store bought apples are unbearable by comparison and the farther removed in time the experience becomes, the greater the difference seems to grow.
A few times I stopped at farmhouses. “I’m hungry,” I would say and the woman of the house would take pity on me and give me some cookies and a glass of milk. Like I said, I was a cute kid. I don’t remember getting a meal although I might have done. I slept in the fields in the grass; the air was so cool and fresh. One sunny afternoon, I remember just lying down in a field by the roadside and taking a nap. You could do that then.
I remember sitting on a hill somewhere along the coast, under some pine trees, just gazing in awe at the crashing surf and the jagged shoreline covered with evergreens right down to the water’s edge. That sight is etched in my mind till this day, even though I don’t know exactly where it was.
By the time I got to Portland, I was dead broke and very hungry. I hung around, looked around and walked around, trying to nose out some sort of lumber jacking connection. When the hunger got beyond bearing I would go to this little drugstore/luncheonette in Congress Square and order a hamburger. After I ate, I’d go into the bathroom and crawl out the window. Hamburgers were five cents then and I didn’t even have the five cents. Some indication of how hungry I was can be gleaned from the fact that I had the nerve to go back there more than once. Looking back, I think the waitress must have liked me because she never squealed and a few times she gave me pie and coffee, too.
When I finally accepted the fact that I was not going to become a lumberjack, I decided to return to New York. I started hitchhiking again and got a ride just south of Portland. The driver dropped me off in a little coastal village. It was late at night and only one street lamp eerily penetrated the fog. I remember walking to the water’s edge and sleeping there that night huddled up against some building. I’ve always called that place Wales by the Sea, but since there is no such town on the coast (or anywhere else for that matter), I have come to believe it must have been Wells Beach.
The next day I got a ride with a trucker into Boston. I remember being outside Fenway Park that night; the Red Sox were playing St. Louis in the 1946 World Series. I eventually hitchhiked back to New York. The truckers loved me because I helped keep them awake; I never shut up. I grew another foot before all was said and done, got into weight lifting, personal training and even some professional boxing and ceased being a target for bullies.
I have vacationed in the state many times over the years and finally moved to Cherryfield in 2002 at the age of seventy-one, because I fell in love with Maine in the autumn of ’46 and never did get over it.
Originally Published in the Downeast Coastal Press of October 14-20, 2003