Vanished are the old post office, the barn that housed a Model-T fire engine; gone too the general store with its elegant upstairs dance hall, its cellar crammed full of medicinal rum, grain, and harnesses, and a ground floor sporting dry goods, smoked fish, and a big wood stove for gossipers.
Time doesn’t necessarily alter habit. For gossip and an exchange of news and views in Hillsboro, Maine, you still travel to the post office, the fire warden’s, the general store-cum-Texaco station.
Bright-eyed Polly greets you at the post office, sympathetic to everybody’s woes, noncommittal in her political views, a shrewd listener. The “new" post office, an old chapel moved by horse and sled down from Georges Hill, has been turned spanking modern, as opposed to the old P.O., a little house also moved from Georges Hill. The old P.O. had brass bars to guard against bandits, and locked boxes opened by combinations. The new P.O. still has boxes (rural delivery may suit some villagers, but it doesn’t fetch the local news as quick as a trip to the P.O.), but the barred window has been replaced by an unprotected six-foot counter behind which stands a defenseless Polly.
As in all gathering places in Maine, weather is the first topic at the P.O. ("Wicked frost coming in tonight,” or “Mackerel sky yistidy: storm tomorrow”); then come newborn babies, deaths, barn fires, school board scandal, town hall suppers, beano at the fire department. Political discussions rarely take place at the P.O.; it’s up at Lila’s that you’ll get plenty of opinions.
Lila, who lives in a trailer with a parakeet and some scrappy dogs and cats, has been the town fire warden for nearly thirty years. The never silent CB radio, which serves as a central information exchange on fires, supplies a lot of other information as well, and little goes on that Lila doesn’t know about. Lila has lived here all her life, and it’s often difficult to get on to opinions because the gossip is so intriguing. “I guess that Elwell fire was the quickest I ever saw. That shack went up quick’s a firecracker, and when we found him he was no bigger than a cat and just as black. Course it wasn’t till morning anybody found his wife. Froze to death drunk in a snowdrift coming home from the casino. They dug her out white as a carp at 5 A.M, Least they both went the same time.”
She likes to talk about the town doctor who, fifty years ago, lived directly across the road from the one-room Academy. He took a fancy to a young teacher there, and each noon dinner hour, when the children trudged home to eat, he would place a candlestick in his window. If the candlestick was empty it meant his lady love was welcome to enter, but if it bore a candle, beware—the battle-ax was home. Many a noon meal went uneaten by groups of peeping Toms.
When you do get Lila on to politics, she’ll tell you right off that she wouldn’t vote for Carter if you tied her to an oak limb and made her saw it off (she weighs in at 280). Furthermore, there hasn’t been a decent President in the White House since Jack, and that’s why she’s planning to vote for Ted over his probably dead body. Rawlston, her octogenarian friend who lives up the road, doesn’t altogether agree. Rawlston grows an annual seven-foot patch of grass, well concealed by a hedge of wild bamboo—“So’s the planes won’t spot it,” he explains—and every day he wanders down to feed Lila’s donkey and pass the time of day. Rawlston says he’d like to see another Harry, himself.
“And just who do you see on the horizon, if I may ask?” says Lila sweetly.
“I’m considering Ed Muskie.”
“Ed! He ain’t even running. And what’s he got in common with Truman?”
“Well, nothing. Yet. Not so’s you’d notice.”
“Muskie! You know the ferry between Lincolnville and Islesboro is named after him. It’s a little boat, double-ended, has a noisy engine, and goes back and forth all day. Well-named boat, I’d say.”
Likely Rawlston does this just to tease Lila, a yellow-dog Democrat. Tomorrow he’ll suggest another non-candidate—somebody, preferably obscure, from the state legislature, perhaps, and Lila will be just as outraged.
It’s at the Texaco station and general store that the political talk gets as nitty-gritty as it’s bound to. There’s a sign up there now declaring “Hillsboro Mini Mall.” The store stocks everything from stove blacking to pickled eggs and after-shave, and there’s a lunch counter which opens at 6 A.M. sharp to accommodate highway department workers and truckers en route from the Whitefield gravel pits to Augusta. Town folk arrive just as early. Although the talk over doughnuts and fried egg sandwiches is usually local—dreen tides, worming, last night’s accident on the state highway, the latest hike in prices—there are stirrings of wry interest in the national election. A considerable stirring occurred last October when Governor Joseph Brennan announced his support of Ted Kennedy. He was the first governor in the nation to do so, risking Heaven knows what dire retribution from the Carter Administration, and dismaying many state party leaders, five of whom promptly went to a Carter-Mondale dinner of the faithful in Washington. Our local Democratic chairman, encountered at the Texaco pumps, said, “Maybe Joe didn’t want to go all that way just for dinner. One theory I’ve heard is that this early support for Kennedy is aimed at getting the strong Republicans to drop out, for fear they’d face Kennedy instead of Carter. Myself, I expect we’ll wind up with a Carter-Kennedy ticket. No more unlikely than Jack’s picking Lyndon in 1960.”
An early coffee drinker says, “I kinda like Stassen. He’s had the most experience running.”
Most of the regulars at the Texaco haven’t got as far as considering Bush or Baker yet, but they do believe that they are faced with some dicey candidates,
“Acquitted, convicted, it don’t matter. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Maybe we’d be better off back with Gerry Ford.”
There’s as much a pitch for Ford as for anyone. People in our neighborhood work hard all their lives, come to little reward and certainly not to wealth. They trust Ford as a man who won’t disrupt things.
Sometime after nine o’clock the store pretty well empties out until the noon lunch crowd comes, except for the old diehards such as Fred Staples, who’s supposed to be over filling in your leach field before snow flies. It’s then that you’ll hear more than casual remarks. Roly Perkins might be there. Seventyodd, and first selectman for thirty years, Roly’s now retired from everything “ ‘sides pigs,” he says. Though not a strict party man, Roly has firm ideas about the nation’s President: “Conservative enough not to be spendthrift, liberal enough not to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
He favors a candidate out for the good of the country; he says, “There’s too much commotion between Carter and Kennedy. The Republicans better have a bright, honest candidate. Somebody who doesn’t promise too much except to do the best he can.” Still, Roly has his doubts about all the declared, or about-to-declare, candidates. “An ill wind usually blows somebody some good,” he says ambiguously. “My present inclination is to write in ‘None of the above.’ Or mebbe ‘Norman Thomas.’ He’d always rather been right than President.”
Fox Andrews usually hangs out at the Texaco too. Fox has no occupation and is therefore ripely opinionated. With zeal he switches from party to party, passionately defending the candidate of each day’s choice, often with identical verbiage. To date, he has been heard to say of Carter, Brown, Kennedy, Connally, Reagan, Bush, and Baker: “Integrity, that’s what he got. And that’s what’s going to get us out of the pickle in the White House. You’d better believe me: Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
Fox is disappointed with Governor Brennan because he has been so mild and cautious that there aren’t many actions Fox can denounce. “Brennan is our own homegrown Carter,” he says. “Now, that governor we had before Brennan—Longley, was it?—there was a fellow you could really hate. He was like our own homegrown Nixon. I heard that after he was elected the only independent governor in the nation, the New York Times newspaper sent a reporter up here to write an article about him, but when the reporter turned it in the editors didn’t believe it, so it never ran. Guess he had to be seen to be disbelieved. I had a wicked running quarrel with my brother-in-law from New Hampshire about which of us had the kookiest governor. I had to concede to him when Meldrip came out in one month with statements supporting the governments of Taiwan and South Africa, (I now concede to my cousins in Massachusetts. Lucky I don’t have any relatives in California.) Longley only managed to attack state employees, teachers, labor unions, people on welfare, state legislators—he called them ‘pimps,’ which people didn’t know what it meant, but it sure sounded dirty— and the state university. He never supported anything, never sent up a program, just attacked targets popular with everybody who lives more than fifty miles from Augusta. Smartest thing Longley ever did was to keep his promise not to run for a second term. People always going to remember that this politician kept a promise. But you notice he never promised he wouldn’t run for the Senate in 1982 when Ed retires. Then—an independent candidate for President in 1984? Remember, you heard it from me first.”
Fox drives seven miles every morning to get his coffee, hear the news, and vent his views. According to Edward, the owner of the Texaco station, he is “a real radical —very conservative.” (Maine’s political language is sometimes confusing.) Fox claims that, town meeting votes are rigged in advance by the town’s power structure; Edward denies this. “The moderator helps determine the outcome by the way he puts the questions to the vote, and by how he schedules the items. He puts the essential appropriations first, because the town is in a generous mood and votes for them; later they get tired and conservative, and start turning down money bills, so he schedules the less essential ones towards the end. On the other hand, he also schedules the most controversial items towards the end, because by then a lot of people are tired and hungry and they go home, leaving only the solid supporters to vote. Sometimes he’ll bring up an item for reconsideration after it’s been turned down, and get it passed by fewer votes. I don’t like that.”
What is the town’s power structure? Edward says, “Fire department. They get what they want. Twenty-five volunteer firemen, that’s fifty votes counting wives, plus four more each counting their moms and dads.” (Our town’s population is 771 as of the last census; about 100 to 200 turn up for town meeting, depending on the controversial questions on the call.) “And the firemen talk up their appropriations in the store. You know, line up the people.”
If you ask about the snowmobile club, Edward says, “They’re weighty, but they only use it on matters of direct concern—access to trails and the like. They don’t throw their weight on other matters—probably couldn’t agree on them, anyway.
“The best source of information on town doings is Ma—Lila. When I was looking to buy the store, she came to me and said, ‘You going to stay a while? We don’t want anybody taking over the store and looking to make a bundle and clear out in a year or two. Also, you have to take the fire department from 8 to 5 every day. Townspeople won’t let you have it, otherwise.’ I said I’d stay a while, and would take the fire department, days. Ma said, ‘You know, that means when the fire-phone rings in the garage, you’ve got to go right away with all your help. Customer can go with you if he wants. Everything shuts down in the shop.’ I knew Ma was on that phone too—it rings in three, four places in town—so I agreed right off. Used to cover every daytime fire in town.”
One of us expressed surprise at being the longest-term settler on the town Conservation Commission after living here only seven years. Edward explained: “The old settlers don’t mind the new people running conservation commissions and planning commissions. They feel uneducated, compared to you people from away. Also, they’re content with things as they are. They don’t like government interference, from Augusta or from Washington, in their business. They want to keep things in local hands, especially the schools. But they don’t volunteer for the school board. You don’t want to try to change things too fast in Maine. Just leave things alone a while and you’ll make a dollar.”
Uncle Alfred, Edward’s brother-inlaw and the cashier, died last year. He was a laconic man. When someone in our town dies, the store sets up a carton next to the cash register with a handwritten note requesting contributions for flowers for the deceased (since most people in the town can’t afford bouquets on their own). Once, seeing such a note about an octogenarian neighbor, we asked, straight-faced, “Died unexpectedly?” (the standard line in newspaper obituaries around here, no matter how aged the subject). Alfred said, “No, he’d been sick a few times.” “What was his trouble?” “Dunno. Got discouraged, I guess.” The day we knew we had been accepted as settlers was the Sunday we went late to the store and asked, “No Boston Globes, probably?” Uncle Alfred smiled shyly, reached one out from under the counter, and said, “I saved yours for you.”
Another time we told Uncle Alfred that our son was going to build a house on our back lot, half a mile from the store. He smiled again, and said, “Oh, right in the heart of downtown Hillsboro, eh?” That’s where we all are, and intend to stay.