Osprey Down

October 29, 2007

The last night of vacation started out calm enough. It had rained heavily for the previous 24 hours, so we were ahead of the game. Instead of doing a lot of running around, we had sat in The Osprey, the little cabin on the Maine coast where I’ve vacationed on and off for the past 14 years, and had packed up most of our belongings.

I won’t say exactly where it is, because the people in that little community have so far escaped the worst of the thronging Maine tourist trade, and want to keep it that way. It’s on a working harbor, where almost all the boats moored there belong to lobstermen, and it’s common to awaken briefly in the pre-dawn hours to hear diesel engines muttering out toward the open water.

I’ll call the owner of the place Leo. He’s a retired school teacher on the shady side of 90, but still active. He and the live-in manager at the cottages, all of which are named after sea- or shore-birds, have been clearing several acres of woods for the past few years. It’s starting to look like a park.

I have a photo of Leo building The Osprey in the spring of 1950, a month after I was born. It was the first of a double handful of cottages that he would build over the next decade or so, perched on a long slope from the farmhouse where he was born and still lives, down to the saltwater.

People come to Leo’s cabins like they come to family reunions. Some have been coming for decades. Some who bring their children have been coming since they themselves were kids. Every cabin has a composition book sitting on one of the plain pine shelves, and just about everybody who stays keeps a journal in them about their time at the harbor. Sometimes the entries are about things to do, where to eat, tips about this and that. But over the years, some of the entries become more personal.

The writers are from New York, Maryland, Florida, England, New Mexico, and Texas. The entries were as varied as the people who wrote them, in penmanship neat and tidy or fat and loopy. Kathy A. and her dog Simon spent a month at The Tern every year from 1981 until June of 1987, when Simon, she noted, turned 12 years old. Then she disappeared from the record.

Families from Hartford, Ct., bring their cats Signe and Moussey, and spend their vacation time seeking landmarks familiar to their ancestors: “Traveled to Acadia – 3 hrs. – and got seats on the mail boat from Northeast Harbor out to Baker island….to visit the lighthouse that was manned in the 1800s by our great grandfather. It was a thrill to be the first relatives in all that time to return to the remote island.”

In September of 1987, a New Jersey woman named Nora stayed four days at The Tern with her 14-month-old son: “We are here because we have just suffered an intense personal loss and I, at least, am seeking restoration in Maine. My son is oblivious to the unfairness of life.”

So, coming to The Osprey every year is a respite, but something that is a part of other lives, indirectly, yes, but a dance, of sorts, a shared ballet with strangers and the ragged coast of Maine. I once researched the address and phone number for several families who stayed in The Osprey and, before that, The Tern. But I never contacted any of them. It would be out of step, a break in the dance.

So, there we sat, the last Friday night of the trip. Everything but what we would need for the trip home was packed, zipped, tied, rubber-banded or otherwise tucked away. I would have already loaded the car, but the night was very dark and the grass slippery from the rain. I thought to would wait until first thing in the morning.

The stereo was packed, so there was no music but the soughing of the wind ‘round the corners of the cabin, and the faint slap of waves on the rocks below. Just about every light was on, because the night somehow wanted brightness.

In a bit, I thought, I would light a fire, read a bit before taking a shower, and then go to bed.

About 15 minutes later, the front door popped open. I started to get up to close it, and the whole house fell down.

No, really. The Osprey dropped about two feet on the harbor side and started sliding. I sat down – hard – in my chair, and clutched my bowl of ice cream tightly to my chest and waited, wondering if we would hit the water. All the furniture and luggage in the room slid toward us. Sue sat in hers, eyes the size of saucers. Lamps fell, flared, and went dark. Vases leapt from shelves, books and touristy gee-gaws followed. Then, everything was still except for Sue’s alarmed “Eek!”

I finished my ice cream, waiting to see if The Osprey was done fidgeting. I got up, and said: “Damn.”

The power was still on, though we could hear that a water pipe somewhere had broken. I was very happy that I had decided not to build a fire in the Franklin stove. I stepped to the front door. The porch lay at a crazy angle, and had come to rest several feet from the steps.

“Damn,” I said again, figuring if I couldn’t be useful, I would at least be consistent.

I climbed over the porch, and looked around. All the rain had so soaked the ground that the front piers had slipped out from under it. The Osprey had dropped between two and three feet, and then slid toward the harbor bank about three feet. This was a matter of great interest to me, because the edge of the bank was only about five feet away to begin with. It was quite a ride.

It took a couple of hours to get us set up in another cabin, for the night, and about as long the next morning to get the rest of our things out over the tilted, linoleum floor and busted porch.

Melinda, Leo’s daughter, told us the next day that the family was considering their options for what to do. The Osprey was actually in good shape….not even a window broken or a wall awry. But it was old, and at the bottom of a steep slope. One of the options, she said, was simply to do away with it.

That hit me later, halfway home, when I realized I still had the key to The Osprey. I emailed Melinda and told her I’d get it back to her. But inside, I knew there might not be any real reason to do that.

Whatever they do, I hope they remember the little stack of composition books somewhere on the floor of the old cabin. It would be a real shame to lose all those stories, all those steps in the long dance.

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© 2007 Marsh Creek Media,

Gettysburg, Pa.

“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.

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Friday, October 12, 2007, 09:15 hrs:

A voicemail from my mother on my cell phone told me that her friend and hairdresser Judy had died Wednesday afternoon after what obituaries usually say was a “courageous battle against cancer.”

After hearing several years of stories about Judy, I finally got to meet her in the spring of last year.

I grew up in the Deep South and, in many ways, I think of myself as a Southerner at heart, or at least by disposition. I know it is probably not true, but I think of Judy as somebody one could only meet, so to speak, down yonder. Here’s a column I wrote about her and her little beauty shop, shortly after my visit.

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Carrot Cake at the OK Corral.

By T.W. Burger

The issue of the carrot cakes came up during the usual rattle of gunfire where my mother gets her hair done.

My mother still lives in Georgia, in the bustling university town where I grew up. She likes to get her hair done by Judy, who runs a beauty shop out of her home out in the country.

Judy loves birds, and has a number of feeders out in the yard. She hates squirrels, who regularly conduct raids on the feeders, despite the risk of sudden death from the .22 rifle Judy keeps propped up by the door in her shop.Judy, her trusty .22, and Mom

A word to my more urbanized readers who are reacting with nervousness at the idea of a beauty shop operator having a loaded gun at the ready right in her shop. Understand that we in rural areas have a very different relationship with firearms than do city folks. While we do have our Rambo wannabes, for the most part country folk see guns as tools, mostly for hunting and perhaps a little bit for protection.

A few years ago, a woman called me to say her son had found a shotgun shell in the parking lot outside the local middle school. She wanted to know if I intended to do a story about it. I said no, because it was hunting season. It would have been different if her son had seen a student walking into the school with a shotgun. Tragedies like the shootings at Columbine and other places notwithstanding, I think people over-react to the presence of firearms.

All of which has very little to do with carrot cake.

Back at Judy’s beauty shop, it is a regular occurrence that Judy will drop everything in the middle of a trim and set, leap to the rifle, open the door, and blow one of the little rodents into that big pecan orchard in the sky.

“Lord, I hate squirrels,” she typically says, leaning the gun back against the door. Mom says these interruptions with gunfire make her nervous, but she keeps going back because Judy is such a good friend, and anyway she does nice work.

“Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah,” Judy said, resuming her place behind the chair, where Mom sat, watching through the window as the squirrel twitched its last. “I just decided I had enough with Leon and the carrot cake.”

Leon was her husband. Since she’d met him some years ago, he’d let there be no doubt that his favorite thing in the world to eat was carrot cake, a dessert Judy was entirely happy to bake for him.

Trouble is, Leon was real fond of the carrot cake his mama had always served him, and liked his mama’s recipe a lot more than he liked Judy’s, and wasn’t shy about saying so.

“I’d had it with that,” Judy said. “So, I called his mama and told her I just had to find out how she made her carrot cake. She told me to come on over, and I did. She took me out in the garage, where they keep this big, upright freezer. She opened it up, and there was six big ole Winn-Dixie carrot cakes, still in their plastic containers, pretty as you please.”

Judy’s mother-in-law said she’d never baked a carrot cake in her life. She just waited until they were on special at the Winn-Dixie, and bought a half -dozen of them at a time.

“’What Leon don’t know, don’t hurt him,’ she told me,” Judy said.

So, Judy went out and bought herself a mess of Winn-Dixie’s carrot cake, freezing all but one. That same evening, she carved out a big piece and served it to Leon after supper, and sat back to assess the results. Leon dipped out a big bite with his fork, put it in his mouth and started chewing. He closed his eyes, and gave out with a windy little sigh, and swallowed.

“Oh, my, but that’s good,” he said.

He took another bite, and leaned across the table to whisper, even though only the two of them were home.

“And, you know, I believe it’s even better than

Notes from the coast

October 10, 2007

I am camped out in a tiny cottage perhaps 50 feet from the waters of a small, working harbor on the midcoast of Maine. I’ve been coming here on and off for many years. I always keep a journal of thoughts, observations, and notes from things I’m reading, even descriptions of what I cook.

There are 10 cottages, all built by their owner, Leonard Osier, between 1950 and 1966. Leonard is still with us, and in his late 80s. He lives in a house painted a good, strong red perched at the top of a hill that slopes down to the harbor, its brood of cabins between it and the water. I am in The Osprey, the first to be built. The others are all named for water birds as well, Tern, Cormorant, Loon, Gull, Mallard, Heron, Teal, Petrel and Gannet. The cottages are simple wooden affairs with no insulation or fancy accoutrements, but comfortable. The following is from my journals.

Night things:

This cottage possesses a water heater with a gift for gab.

It is most noticeable at night, when everything is quiet. Like all of Leonard’s cottages, this one is simple post-and-beam wooden structures with no insulation at all. The other side of the simple plank wall in any room is either the inside wall of another room, or it is out in the world’s weather.

More complex homes, the kinds most of us live in, mutter to themselves all the time, but nobody hears. Not so here. Lying still in the house, especially in the morning and evening when people are washing dishes or taking showers is a little like eavesdropping on a conversation held in a foreign language.

The refrigerator hums and snickers to itself in the corner, like some demented old uncle. The electric baseboard heaters, when in use, tsk and cluck quietly along the walls, like elderly women with loose dentures gossiping in a little huddle. The house stirs slightly in the wind and shifting temperatures, creaking like an old man in troubled sleep.

The water heater is the real orator, though. All through the day, but especially in the morning and early evening, it pops and hisses, ratchets and thuds. He is the maestro, the grand rhetorician, the leader of the congregation, the more so because this heater provides hot water to at least one, if not two, of the other cottages. We are all members of his harem, his audience, his flock.

Last Saturday, His Reverence went off on a real rant. He began popping and pinging at a furious rate, so that I thought he must have been deep into a sermon on Revelations and The End of Days. Then, at the end of a long and, I thought, particularly monotonous passage, he gave an extended series of descending hisses, a shorter series of gurgles, and fell quiet.

Sensing disaster, we arose and checked around the house. We had no water.

Leonard later explained that a fitting had broken in The Loon, causing hot water to flow everywhere. He was forced to turn off the water and drain the entire system before he could replace the broken part.

About half an hour later the pipes in the house glugged into life. The Rev. Heater ticked and wheezed for a bit, then settled down, perhaps needing some quiet time to ponder what had just occurred.

I think his next sermon will be about The Flood.

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Between two and three a.m., I awoke briefly, and went out on the porch to see what the world was up to.

Spectacular stuff, as it turned out. Funny thing about the world: It apparently has no ego, and will do the most spectacular things while nobody is watching.

The cloudiness that had teased the sky late the evening before had disappeared, leaving the sky clear, the stars bright, even through the thin arm of the fog we had seen offshore at sunset, which had crept ashore while we slept.

The moon we had watched for in vain last night had appeared, though I couldn’t see the waning face from where I stood.

The fog played around the resting lobster boats and pleasure craft, and around pilings, and sifted itself through stacked lobster traps on the working dock across from us. The moon illuminated every droplet of vapor in the fog, transforming it into a silver mist, jewelling the entire harbor.

No admission charged. All that is required is that we show up, and take time to see.