A dose of culture at Joe’s place’’

October 22, 2016

I would have loved to have met Joe Delaney.

 

Finding Joe’s place was dumb luck, really. Most of my attention had been given to the spectacularly rocky coastline of western Nova Scotia. I spotted the hand-lettered sign on the landward side of the road. It bore a cartoonlike head and the legend “Masque Acadie,” and saw what looked like a hundred or so scarecrows staging a demonstration in a field.

 

These are the sorts of things one should not resist.

 

“Back in 1984, my father tried raising a garden here, but the animals, the deer and the rabbits, ate everything up,” said his daughter, Ethel, who had opened a take-out diner and souvenir shop in a converted mobile home at the site of her father’s creation. “So, some neighbors said to my father, why do not you build some scarecrows and keep them away? So, he had some junk sitting around, so he made three, each about six feet tall.”

 

Joe used old clothes, Halloween masks, strips of bright plastic, and a lot of imagination.

 

The morning after the scarecrows went up, two tour buses and several cars stopped while Joe was tending his garden. Some people came out, told him they really liked the scarecrows, and took pictures.

 

“By the end of the summer, he had a dozen scarecrows,” said Ethel.

 

I poked around the little gift shop, and bought a tiny cup of coffee from her. She handed me the change. Ethel said she and Paul opened the little business two years after the tourists started showing up.

 

She wore a lot of makeup, with her eyebrows outlined carefully, the heavy black lines of the pencil leaving an oblong hollow. Ethel was an expressive speaker, and her eyebrows moved a lot. It was hard not to stare.

 

A couple of cars stopped. The people got out, took a few snapshots, dropped a few coins in the collection box that had a little sign saying the money was for the upkeep of Joe’s scarecrows, and drove away. I thought about buying some scarecrow postcards, but changed my mind. I am very cheap.

 

“The year after, he had 30 scarecrows, and the tourists kept coming,” said Ethel, her eyebrows sending semaphore signals of their own. “He had a little workshop out in the back, in the old bus, where he kept making more.”

 

Joe had died of lung cancer about two years earlier, Ethel said.

 

“He was doing real good right up until the end,” said Ethel, in accented English that told me she was more accustomed to French. “Then he got sick and we took him to the ‘ospital, and in just a little while ‘e was gone.”

 

In front of Ethel’s little take-out was one of those bright-colored windmill things, a propeller to catch breeze attached to a mechanism that made a little wooden silhouette of a woodsman make chopping motions with an ax. The blade kept hitting against the novelty’s frame. A stiff breeze blew in from the shore on the other side of the road. The little lumberjack chopped in a frenzy, a little toy maniac in the wind.

 

The same year that Ethel’s take-out went in; a vandal struck one night, destroying all but one of Joe’s scarecrows, whom Joe had named Rory. Ethel, her eyebrows rigid with indignation, said she knows who did it, but has no proof.

 

“It was a man who lives down the road, he left a bar that night after he got drunk and got in a fight. He comes in here sometimes, and I just look at him,” she said.

 

Joe wrote an account of the vandalism as though written by Rory as an eyewitness. The piece was published in one of the area newspapers. After it ran, a lot of people gave Joe money and old clothes so he could recreate his scarecrows. Today, there are about 100.

 

“We put’em away in the winter and bring’em back out in the spring,” Ethel and her eyebrows said. “We try to keep’em looking nice for people.”

 

The collection of U.S. president scarecrows looked a little tattered, but then, so does the office. There were scarecrows sawing logs, scarecrows playing fiddles. Most of them, however, stood in the traditional scarecrow pose, legs spread slightly, arms straight out at the sides, heads staring straight ahead or, sometimes tilted back, staring at the heavens. These latter looked as though they were either praying intensely, or asking God, “Why me?”

 

There were no scarecrows created to look like God providing answers, though there were a couple that looked like they could be televangelists.

 

Somewhere along the way, Ethel said, Joe forgot about the garden. He wasn’t around to ask why he simply kept making scarecrows, even to the exclusion of the garden they were designed to protect. Ethel, her eyebrows arching with pride, said her father’s scarecrows draw 20,000 to 30,000 tourists a year.

 

That’s a lot of coffee, meat pies, muffins, and postcards.

 

But I am not certain. Sure, that’s what keeps Paul and Ethel solvent, but I do not think money was Joe’s first consideration. I looked at the little photo Ethel kept of him, standing out by his workshop. There was a definite impishness in those eyes. I think Joe just kept building scarecrows and putting them out, just to see how many tourists he could lure in. I have a funny feeling he went to his grave bemused at the public’s apparently endless appetite for cute.

 

I finished my coffee, and threw the thimble-sized styrene cup into the trash. Ethel thanked me. Her eyebrows seemed to have dozed off.

 

“Come back and see us again,” she said.

 

I climbed into my van. The crazed lumberjack was taking a breather. A woman over among the scarecrows excitedly asked her husband, he of the white patent leather shoes and matching belt, to take a picture of her standing next to Ronald Reagan. I started the engine and left. A guy can only take so much culture in one dose.

 

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