JIM DODSON: A Vacation Letter From Maine
Actually, it's been nothing of the sort. It's been the usual vacation mayhem.
Listen to a podcast of this column .
I arrived home last week from a month in the heat of the Sandhills, thinking I would have time to catch up on my summer reading, poke around my neglected gardens, grab some horizontal refreshment in the hammock, recharge my batteries in solitude, and generally chill out in the cooler weather that never fails to arrive just before Labor Day.
Silly me. I arrived home to a house full of relatives, children just home from adventures abroad, teenagers suddenly in love, student athletes griping about pre-season, a wife baking the world's largest wedding cake, a daughter who says she may become a Buddhist, an acre of shrubbery that needs serious pruning, and a pair of needy golden retrievers who clearly feel underappreciated.
All this domestic activity couldn't come at a more challenging moment. The final fortnight of summer is a desperate time for locals and summer visitors alike. The locals will tell you they generate more than half their annual income in the space of a few August weeks. (The price of an average shore dinner will drop by almost a third come mid-September.)
Half a million tourists are wedged into the far upper right-hand corner of America as you read this, aggressively attempting to wring out every possible moment of relaxation and serenity from their dwindling vacation days and nights, even if it kills them. Everywhere you go there are honking cars, harassed road crews, and people who look as if they could use a small vacation from their vacation.
Suffice it to say there are no rustic lakeside cottages or cute little seaside motel rooms to be had anywhere, and finding a parking space on the beach road or in town or simply getting into a decent restaurant in under two hours is a minor triumph of timing or just plain dumb luck.
I wasn't home 10 minutes when I walked out to the side yard and found three small children camped in my new rope hammock in the hydrangeas. Luckily, they belonged to us. They could just as easily have been small noisy persons farmed out by an overbooked B-and-B. I agreed to let them stay on a temporary basis in exchange for a partial ban on Cartoon Network.
The next afternoon, I took the younger boys into town for hot dogs at the farmer's market and found eight bluecoats from Company B of the Maine 20th regiment camped on the town common, Civil War re-enactors lining up and loading their muskets.
"We're here to protect Maine from those who would disturb the domestic tranquility," a captain with a handlebar mustache informed me when I strolled over to check things out. He fingered a fine field officer's saber.
No Invaders Yet
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the common, members of the municipal band were setting up for an early-evening concert. Between them, a band of jugglers was tossing bowling pins and plastic balls into the air. Mimes were working the crowd.
"My goodness, this place is busy," a lady behind us in the hot dog line commented, taking in the snarl of traffic along Main Street. "We came to Maine to look at the ocean and listen to the crickets, but all I've done is wait in lines. The crowds over at L.L. Bean were huge this morning. I saw two men fighting over a half-price windbreaker."
"People love to shop," declared another woman ahead us in line, accepting her tray of kraut dogs. "They go on vacation to buy things. Haven't you heard? We're all targets."
I nodded, assuming she was referring to the sprawling new discount store of the same name that just opened in a field on our side of the river formerly occupied by wild lupins. Rumors are rife that six new major chain stores are coming soon -- and several new roads to accommodate the added traffic.
"I don't mean that kind of target," she said after I made some comment about the new store disturbing our domestic tranquility. "I mean the terrorist kind." She mentioned a plot to bomb 10 U.S-bound airliners from London that had been foiled that very morning. "Every place is a target now, according to the "Today" show. Even ordinary Americans on vacation. They showed the president of Iran on TV this morning talking about the end of the world. He says it's going to happen soon -- maybe next Thursday. That's the day we're having our kayaking lesson."
"Now there's a guy who could use a new windbreaker," said the other woman with a husky laugh.
I admitted I hadn't heard this news but tried to calm her fears, pointing out that Maine has never been invaded by anything worse than killer mosquitoes and busloads of elderly leaf peepers.
Suddenly there was a jarring explosion and a plume of smoke. I saw one of the mimes clutch his chest and topple over in the grass. The lady ahead of us dropped her tray of kraut dogs on the sidewalk. Several members of the municipal band actually ducked for cover behind their instruments.
"It's only the fake Civil War guys shooting their guns," one of our boys gleefully reported. "They're not really dead. They're just pretending."
Better Than a Therapist
That evening, we took the boys to the annual Demolition Derby at the Fair. If you can't beat the mayhem, I figured, pay six bucks and join it.
Late August is also fair season in Maine, and our town has one of the oldest in America, continuously running since the re-enactors were real Union soldiers, the biggest community event on our small-town calendar.
In years past, I've gone simply to savor the high drama of the pig scramble or the frying pan toss, sometimes to catch the battle of really awful bands and always to enjoy a little quiet time amongst the cattle and sheep. Last year, one of our brood distinguished himself in the blueberry pie-eating contest and still has the faintly purple T-shirt to prove it.
The Demolition Derby is the fair's best-attended event by far, though in 20-odd years of spotty fair-going I'd never attended the major crowd pleaser.
So this year, fearing that the end of the world might be at hand, we grabbed funnel cakes and snow cones and elbowed our way into the grandstand and picked out our favorite rumbling heaps circling like Mad Max warriors on the dirt track before the start of the second heat. In the first heat, we learned, a lady driver had apparently outlasted four local brutes to earn her way into the evening finals.
A flag was waved, and five thundering heaps began ramming violently into each other, ecstatically crumpling hoods, bashing off chrome bumpers, exploding radiators. It was like watching Bumper Cars on crack cocaine. The crowd cheered like lusty citizens of Rome at the gladiatorial arena.
"So many targets, so little time," I heard myself say above the din. "How do you determine who finally wins?"
"Basically, the last car still moving wins," a blonde woman seated directly behind me on the bleachers helpfully explained with a shout in my ear.
Her name was Tina. Tina looked like a lobster-cooking Junior Leaguer from Falmouth. She turned out to be the winning demo derby winner from the first heat.
"My car just lost its rear axle over in the infield while we were trying to get ready for the finals," she explained, ruefully shaking her pretty head.
"Sorry for your loss," I shouted sympathetically "Is this your first time at the derby?"
"Oh, heavens no! I love this thing," she hollered back with feeling, watching a rusted-out Buick Electra ("Wiley Welding") pulverize a hapless stalled-out Pontiac ("Burt's Seacoast Auto Body"), smashing its grill to smithereens, producing a fresh geyser of steam. "This is my 10th demo derby. My husband thinks I'm completely nuts, but I spend my whole year getting ready for the derby. It's better than a therapist! You should try it."
"Maybe I will," I agreed -- suddenly thinking how much nicer this troubled planet would be if we could just settle our disputes on a demolition derby track somewhere in Maine. Or fight wars using fake soldiers and mimes.
I asked Tina how she acquires her derby heaps. After all, you don't just find the two-ton late-model fully rusted-out Cadillac Eldorado of your demo dreams just sitting around ready to lay waste to your neighbor's aging Bronco.
"Actually, you do. I have a very sophisticated search technique. I ask God to find me a great car, and then my girlfriend and I drive around Portland or Lewiston until we see somebody's beater in the backyard and go offer them a hundred bucks for it. The key is to get one with a good front end." She winked. "A good front end is the key to winning."
"God delivers junk cars?" I asked.
"The Big Dude hasn't let me down yet," she said. "This year, mine was a sweet little '79 Toyota Camry."
As she said this, a behemoth Buick was chasing a tiny, blue, crumpled car with a wobbling rear emergency wheel around the track. The crowd was howling at the comedic mayhem, and the announcer declared, "Well, folks, looks like we're down to the elephant and the mouse." Once upon a time, back in the Jerry Ford years, the little blue car -- now resembling a stepped-on Bud Light can -- might have been an Opel or some teenager's first Datsun. Old cars never die; they just get shipped to junkyards in Maine.
A moment later, the Buick went in for the kill, slammed into a concrete barrier, and shattered its front axle, its engine dying.
The little blue mouse won. The driver climbed out triumphantly, waving his arms like a victorious prizefighter or a Hezbollah fighter.
"See," declared Tina, nudging me from behind. "It's all about a good front end!"
After the demo derby, the kids went off to ride the carnival rides and I followed my nose to the agricultural barns to spend a little quality time with some attractive Hampshire sheep and miniature ponies. I suspected they had no clue they were targets.
On the way there, I bumped into our former neighbor, who just moved farther out into the country to escape all the new construction. She has a mouth like a Union soldier on vacation but a heart of pure gold. She also had six new tattoos, five of which she thoughtfully showed me. Personally, I liked the angel on a Harley best.
"I just saw your lovely wife over by the Ferris wheel," she said. "She was looking for you. Probably wants to ride to the top and make out like freaking bandits."
Only she didn't say "freaking." I smiled and pointed out that my wife fears carnival rides more than the president of Iran in his dodgy windbreaker.
A little while later I found the family wedding cake maker standing alone in the Midway, looking up at the moon. It was a pale yellow globe floating on the southern horizon, dreamy and full as a bride's bouquet.
"Let's ride the Ferris wheel for a cheap thrill," I gallantly proposed.
She looked at me as if I'd lost my mind, then grinned slyly.
Sure enough, we got stuck at the top, rocking gently to and fro. The view was wonderful -- lights for miles, and we could even make out the distant wine-dark ocean. I could swear I heard crickets, too.
I started to inform my wife that the end of the world was coming next Thursday but changed my mind. Instead, we enjoyed the first peace and quiet of the week and made out like a couple of freaking bandits.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More like this story