Thursday, April 04, 2013

Memories of Martika, Maine, and Olive Higgins Prouty

This is about one of those coincidences when two things that have nothing to do with each other recall to one a similar time or long lost state of being.

I forget what I was doing when I heard this song--you may be confident it was prosaic--but it bore with it a heavier meaning than I would have thought, for I remembered hearing it long ago during one of those strange, semi-feverish hours when, unbeknownst to oneself and identifiable only in retrospect, one passes out of one stage of life into another. I do not remember the exact date of this event. The song however was the number 1 hit in the U.S. for two weeks from July 22 through August 5, 1989, which sounds about right. That was the summer I was 19 years old, which must be among the more important summers in nearly everyone's life. It was in mine too, and this despite nothing really memorable managing to occur. It set a tone for my future life to follow, however, and it was probably the last time that I harbored certain excitements and hopes with regard to friendship and other aspects of social life, or at least the last time I harbored them in certain milieus and aspects. I was still infused with something of this old spirit on the day I am recalling when I heard the song, though it was the last gasp of it.

This was the last summer I spent in Maine. I had graduated from high school there the previous year, but I had not yet really moved on in my life--the extra years it takes me to move on from various life stages compared with my contemporaries is a recurrent theme with me. I had at least been away a little--while I had not gotten into any colleges straight out of high school I did make a disastrous and very short-lived attempt to embark on a collegiate career starting after Christmas and had ended up living in Philadelphia with my grandmother for a while. One of my relatives had gotten a job for me in a dreary warehouse at the Franklin Mint, a company which used to be, and perhaps maybe still is, infamous for its kitschy collectibles--historical-themed chess sets, collections of classic books bound in faux leather with gilt-edged paper--probably my deepest readers will themselves own a few of these items. The Mint was an hour's drive away from my grandmother's house, and well outside of the city. I had to get up at 5 in the morning, I had no friends, I knew no girls--there weren't any girls in the warehouse at the Mint--I couldn't find anyplace to meet anybody who would be a likely friend for me. So as summer drew near, and the colleges let out, the urge to go back to where I at least knew people overcame my consciousness of humiliation over my disastrous college situation, and I decided to go back north.

Of course there was the immediate problem that I did not have any job there either. It seemed necessary and proper that I should work, as I was not doing anything else, and no one was giving me any money. I believed this in theory, of course. In practice I saw and found little enjoyable in the working man's life, and went about my task of securing employment half-heartedly at best. The obvious choice in that part of the world, restaurants, I was determined to avoid. It was already clear that due to my general appearance and bearing I was everywhere going to be deposited in the bowels of the kitchen, to be placed under the power of a tyrant, set to endlessly repetitive tasks which I would invariably do poorly, paid little, and be too diminished in every possible way to entertain the slightest hope of taking the mousiest busgirl in the establishment into the linen closet. This was long before the days of internships and other strategic preparations for post-college advancement, and most of my friends appeared to me to be keeping a fairly light work schedule, with hours that never seemed to conflict with parties or beach outings. They also were personable and competent enough at the jobs they did have that their co-workers, old and young, male and female, working class and professional class, more or less accepted them and seemed in most cases to like having them around. Sometime around the beginning of July one of these friends' fathers, who had worked there himself for more than 20 years, got me a job in the J J Nissen bakery in Portland, which was a bread and confectionary factory, Nissen's being a big company in New England (the son himself did not work at the bakery, I might add). I think I have written about the factory elsewhere on the site. I had to take a drug test, which so far is the only time in my life I have had to submit to this. Evidently I passed, though as I took the test at around 9 in the morning after drinking from around 2 the previous afternoon to 2 that morning, my alcohol level must have been near the top of the chart. I worked there for about 3-4 weeks. The pay was quite high compared to what I was used to getting and there was even overtime, but since I had no end in mind to work towards and I was having to go there overnight and on weekends and missing (as I perceived it) on all the fun, I barely cared about the pay. In many ways I would have been a perfect internship person, because when I was young so much emphasis was put on my laziness and aversion to hard work that when I began to be expected to get jobs I focused simply on getting the job and being present at it for so many hours a day to show everybody that I was not so lazy and that they could stop hating me and I never paid much attention to the pay. Even in the early years on the job I have now I did not often know specifically what my salary was (I have to be somewhat more aware of that now both for planning purposes and to be able to compare myself with people in New York Times stories).

The bread factory had a locker room like the one the coal miners had in The Deer Hunter. Besides the man I already mentioned, there was another father of a friend of mine who had also worked there for over 20 years, the thought of which is still mind-blowing. This second man is dead now. The first is still alive, though I assume he is retired by now.

There was a girl from my high school who worked there, in the cookie room, who was friendly to me and even made vague hints about us doing something outside of the factory. You would think I would have been jumping out my shorts at this opportunity but I was not attracted to her and was unresponsive to her attempts at friendliness. She was very skinny, kind of bug-eyed, had frizzy, badly-styled brown hair, and struck me as weird in the sense that she did not do anything in an endearingly girly way. In retrospect she does not seem all that bad. At the time my level of sophistication in these matters was such that all I could think was that I did not want her to be my girlfriend, as though if I made out with her in a car one time for half an hour or strung her along in some way suitable to my needs at the time or even put a clammy hand on her bony knee I would be harnessed to her for all time, with no hope of escape. Of course I am probably projecting--she probably wasn't interested in me in these ways at all. Doubtless she was taking pity on me with her snackroom patronage and airy suggestions. The whole business was really more of a Smiths song than anything real anyway. She probably talked to me twice.

Sometime near the end of July or beginning of August I had a night off from work that coincided with a party. To this day I have no idea whose party it was--it was at a house on a lake 15 or 20 miles out of town. I rode out their with some friends of mine. I do not specifically remember very much about it. I spent most my time outdoors, in a kind of grove, which had lights strung in the trees. I realize now that I reproduced this setting, which obviously was highly pleasing to me, for a party scene in the book I wrote, though I had not placed its origin at that time. A couple of girls of the sort that never talked to me spoke to me briefly. I don't remember how objectively beautiful they were, or even much of what they looked like--even with the Christmas lights, nighttime in the woods in Maine is very dark--but I remember that they were unfreakish, normal-looking girls with smart polo-type shirts and sailing shorts and their hair was obviously done by someone who knew what they were doing and they had talked to me--me!--as if I were actually a regular man. This was the most incredible thing of all. Perhaps they had mistaken me for someone else. Since this never happened on any other occasion throughout the whole of my life it is the only plausible explanation. When my friends came to me--so early it seemed--and told me they were heading back to town I could not go with them. I was happy and I had to remain where these girls were as if my life depended on it.

Unfortunately, five minutes after my friends drove away, the girls also left.

I think those girls, who of course I never saw again, must have been some kind of magical fairies or demons, because as soon as they left the party transformed into the ordinary nasty, hostile sort of party, and now of course no one left there knew who I was, so quite a bit of the hostility was expended in my direction. I soon left and began the long walk back to Portland in pitch blackness along the typical sidewalkless Maine country road, scampering off into the woods at the sound of a distant car to avoid being seen, though there were very few of these.

I walked this way until the sun began to come up, which would have been at least 4 hours. I was still not close to town. As you can imagine I was quite tired by this time so when it became light enough to see I decided to try to hitchhike. A policeman coming from the other direction duly spotted me and made the usual investigation into my affairs. It turned out there was a warrant for my arrest due to an unpaid speeding ticket from two years earlier--at that time about $75. I was carried back to Portland and placed in jail. I was only there for an hour or so but it seemed much longer, because I was so tired, in addition to having to share a cramped space with the dregs of society, of whom I was clearly one that morning--even the girls who had been at the party the night before would have recognized that. My father, somewhat to my surprise, because he was rather fed up with me by this time for many reasons, came quickly down and bailed me out of jail. He  was quite certain I was on drugs, which, as I tried to explain, I probably would have been if I had been cool enough to be given or know how to get them.

At this juncture I went mildly crazy. After sleeping for the better part of twenty-four hours--and don't I wish I could have one of those long sleeps such as were only possible circa 1989 now--it was clear I could not go back to the factory. My life needed stirring up. I had no idea how I might go about doing this of course but I thought it would likely entail venturing abroad. My father was due to go away shortly after my visit to jail--I don't remember exactly how shortly, but it was not more than a day or two afterwards--and he had left me his car in spite of my supposedly erratic behavior, though it seemed to me any normal person forced to have to exist as me would have been carrying on much worse. So I got in the car and began driving, figuring it would occur to me where to go once I was out. My instincts in this matter were typically ludicrous. It would be obvious to any real person that if you are starting in Portland, Maine and tired of waiting around for something interesting to happen in your life, that you would need to go to some place full of exciting young people. But I went out of town and began heading north, and not only north, but inland, towards Waterville and Bangor and places like that. It is true that there is very little traffic to contend with in this direction. It was also true that I had already come to Maine from what one would think would be the more dynamic mid-Atlantic area because I could not compete socially or in any other way with the comparative superpeople of the latter region and thought I would be able to participate in life more successfully in the less exacting conditions of the north. This I had been able to do, to an almost life-saving extent, but it was clear that that period had reached its end; and Portland and the wealthy surrounding towns had still proven too sophisticated for me to be able to impress upon people that I was up to the task of doing some of the major late-teenager activities like going to a real college or ravishing eager young women. Of course there was no place on earth where I could have impressed these facts upon people at that particular time, but what good would it have been to know as much?

I came to the last exit on Interstate 95 and, bearing in mind both my recent visit to jail, my lack of any money or plan (gas and greasy meals at this time were extremely cheap--a $20 bill could almost cover both for a couple of days--but I didn't more than 2 or 3 of those) and my driving a car that was not my own, I thought it imprudent to try to enter Canada. At the same time I could not bear to turn around yet, so I turned onto route 1, of which there remains at that point still several hours worth of driving before you come to its end, and continued on my way.

I should pause here and say that it not occur to me at this time to go to a place like Baxter Park or some other hiking place or vacation lake up there where I might have gotten to calm down among natural beauty or even met and gotten to tag along with, or at least seen, some other young people along the trail. I did not know anyone who went to such places. I never knew what to do or where to go to find activity and social opportunities, which is perhaps one reason why I am so keen on finding and recording and thinking about visiting interesting and moderately popular tourist spots even into my 40s.

Eventually I got into the very far northern part of the state, Aroostook County. The forest on the sides of the road there has been cleared and the highway is lined with farmhouses and potato fields. It looks similar to Quebec, not surprisingly. I pulled into Presque Isle (pop 11,000). It was a sleepy and rather ugly little town, as remote border outposts frequently are. I had lunch, sensed there were no very likely prospects of getting invited to a wild party or orgy with women who had never met an exciting person from far away before, and continued to roll onto Caribou (pop 9,000) which was even dingier and poorer-looking--lots of low-slung warehouses and third rate chain stores (the Shur-fine, IGA, Pathmark family, which is when you know you're a long way from any real place). It was just before the false glory of the entrance into Presque Isle that I heard the Martika song just as I was having a kind of last hysterical fit of imagining myself as a sexual tour de force of some kind about to descend upon an unsuspecting gaggle of provincial girls. Taking two, or possibly even three of them at a single blow seemed for a delirious ten minutes to be an almost inevitable outcome. Martika was only eight months older than I was, and she was so deeply immersed in real life, or what seemed to me to be real life at the time--sex, drugs, drama-filled relationships, hints of danger--and I was going to have these things too. Why couldn't I? It was absurd. But the dismalness of those pitiful towns proved equally deflating. I continued on and the towns grew only smaller and more dismal--Van Buren, Madawaska--finally the end of the road came in view--I am remembering something like a large dam, and the edifice of the border crossing producing something of a jolting effect after so many hours of tired potato farms and boreal forests.

I have no memory of where or when I slept on this trip, which would have taken 2 days to go all the way up and back. I also have no memory of the drive home, which I suspect is because I was essentially dead in spirit at the time. All of my recollections of these northern towns and potato fields occurred under a bright and almost too domineering sunlight, somewhere between the hours of 1 and 6 in the afternoon, though unless I had left home at four or five in the morning, which seems unlikely, I don't see how I would have been arriving there at that time. Most likely, I left around midnight in some kind of frenzy of frustration, drove until 4 or so when my directionless nighttime energy would have burned itself off and pulled off to sleep on the side of the road for four or five hours until the day's heat forced me awake again.

When I got back people were largely busy, either going on one of those August vacations people go on, or, after the middle of the month, getting ready to return to college. I may have have gone out a couple of more times--it is probable--but I did so knowing that my social status was non-existent and that nothing very exciting would be permitted to happen to me. By the end of the month I too had gone back to Philadelphia. I worked at a store for about 3 weeks in September and attempted, with about $300, to set off on another traveling escapade, this time by foot and hitchhiking. I lasted almost 3 weeks on this trip, which included bouts sleeping outdoors in Pottstown and Scranton and New York City (Madison Square and Central Parks) and Litchfield, Connecticut, interspersed with some unannounced visits to friends in various colleges in New England, who allowed me to spend the night in their dorm rooms. However, by this time it was starting to get cold, I was nearly out of money, and it was becoming obvious that all of the people I really wanted to be meeting were in college. So I returned to Philadelphia and set myself to the task of getting accepted at someplace resembling what I thought of as a real college to begin the following fall, which happily I managed to do.

I never lived in Maine again.


A few months ago, around Christmas-time, I was doing some self-gifting by way of ordering some books online that were due to come up imminently on my list and that I was reasonably confident I would not be able to find at one of my local bookstores. One of these books was Edward Burnett Tylor's Anthropology from 1881, which was still, as of 1960 at least, according to the University of Michigan press, one of the finest introductions to the subject available (it was a good book). In my original order, however, instead of Tylor, I was sent a copy of Olive Higgins Prouty's 1947 novel Home Port. I reported the mistake, and upon being informed that the seller did not care to have the Prouty returned, I figured I would have to dispose of it somehow, as I do not have endless space to store books. However, as I noted that it was largely set in the Maine woods and had a romantic element to it, which in the 1940s time period promises to appeal to me, I decided to leave it in the bathroom for a few weeks and see if it happened to be any good.

I should start by noting that while I had never heard of Olive Higgins Prouty, I had heard of some of her books, as she was a fairly popular author from the 1920s through the 40s, and her two most famous books were made into decent movies with big Hollywood stars (Stella Dallas, with Barbara Stanwyck, and Now, Voyager, with Bette Davis). She lived from 1882 until 1974, but she fell into obscurity soon after she published her last novel in 1951, and even the late Home Port seems not to have attracted much notice on its first arrival. She provided financial support to the young Sylvia Plath. She was from Worcester, Massachusetts. Her burial site appears to be unknown.

Five of Olive Higgins Prouty's novels, two of which are Now, Voyager and Home Port, concern various members of the Vale family, whose headquarters are on Beacon Hill in Boston. The books are loosely connected and are not considered to form a saga. Now, Voyager, for example was about the spirit-crushing domination of Charlotte, the youngest daughter of the central family by her mother, the ferocious matriarch, and Charlotte's treatment and awakening from her lifetime of repression. Charlotte is mentioned only in passing (as the aunt of the main character) in the later book, and in the movie version at least of the earlier book, only Charlotte's sister, the mother of the main character in Home Port, appears among that volume's characters at all, and that very briefly. The protagonist in Home Port is Murray Vale, and being a member of this prominent family he is expected to go to Harvard, be a football star and leader of his class like his father and brother before him, and join the family law firm, which of course is one of the most venerable in Boston (money worries would not seem to be a huge problem in these books; however you must bear in mind that all of this fortune is controlled by a handful of old people who would diagnosed as sadists by modern psychology, so all the young people have to do exactly what the old people tell them to or they will be cut off, and this being the 1940s, and everybody having numerous children to play off against each other, those are not empty threats). This laid out course to guaranteed success and social status would sound like paradise to everyone above the lower middle class today, but Murray would have been happy to pass on Harvard and football and study botany at a state university out west. That is not an option however, so off to Cambridge he goes, where he has a non-descript career and is best known as the younger brother of the dynamic Windy, who was paralyzed in an accident maybe even before beginning college, but was still the life and soul of the place during his years there, as he is in every place he inhabits.

One place where Murray feels somewhat at home is Camp Tamarack, which looks to be located in central Maine, on one of the "ponds" that are really small lakes that are common in that part of the world. Although Windy is a higher god at Camp Tamarack as well, Murray is generally well-regarded by the headmaster, or whatever the administrators of summer camps for rich boys are called, and he continues to go back every summer as a counselor all through his college years. The summer before his last year at Harvard, the headmaster gives him, on account of his perceived sensitivity, the assignment of befriending an unpopular new counselor who is socially inept and suffers from some kind of asthma-like physical frailty. The object is still to man the new boy up as much as possible, of course, but preferably in some context of friendship and brotherhood. One day Murray and the weakling are out rowing on the lake when a storm blows up and they are hurled from their boat. Desperately they cling to what remains of the boat for what seems an eternity, Murray having to support the weaker boy, who however, Murray eventually determines, has not been able to hold, at which he lets him go and manages, near death himself, to crawl onto the shore, where he drags himself up a small bluff and finds a soft spot hidden by brush where he goes to sleep for what seems like days.

When he wakes up, he is weak and starving, but eventually he manages to pull himself up and walk, though he has lost the sense of where he is relative to the camp and wanders for several days through the woods, the description of which resonated with me as I have spent a fair amount of time in the same general type of woods. Two or three days afterwards he comes upon a small house in the woods. The inhabitants, a couple in late middle-age, mistake him for a member of the search party looking for the bodies of the two boys who died in the storm. Murray realizes that he cannot appear at the camp, or at Harvard or anywhere else where he might be known, and provide an acceptable solution for why he is alive and the boy intrusted to him is dead. So he flees the vicinity--I forget what he does for money--he evidently had enough in his pocket to get on a bus and grab a couple of diner meals. He takes the bus to Millinocket, several hours north, in the vicinity of Mt Katahdin and the terminus of the Appalachian Trail. It was fairly remote in the 1930s and 40s. After getting into the woods again, I forget how, he gets picked up by a sputtering jalopy and taken to a hunting camp, where, adopting the proletarian-sounding name of Joe Jones, he pleads to be allowed to stay and work at the camp, soon making himself into a trusted guide to the hunters.

Now he is well out of the way of mainstream society, and everyone he knows thinks he is dead, and a hero for not abandoning the drowning boy even though it cost him his own life. He takes field notes and makes drawings of the plant and animal life of the woods and has made his cabin in spite of himself the most civilized place for three hundred miles around--breeding will always out--but surely this life cannot go on indefinitely. Maybe it could, but, in any event, it doesn't. Because of course Nora comes to the camp every summer with her uncouth and mildly dissolute businessman father. Nora is tomboyish and not completely refined, though she does live in New York City. Still, she is a girl, with an attractive curve to her neck, a sporty wardrobe that she wears well, soft features, and a crackerjack spirit. Also she is about the only girl Murray sees over a period of two or three full years, including five month Maine winters passed mainly sitting by the fire in the cabin reading, which sounds pleasant to a certain extent, but would also probably drive one mad in the end. At the end of one year's stay Murray is semi-conscious for some reason which I forget, and Nora, believing him unconscious, lightly touches his arm and kisses him on the forehead, though not out of love for him, she says, but to deceive another person. Murray has a beautiful but confused memory of this occasion, and it is only when Nora wears the same hat the next summer that he recognizes its texture. This romance only develops over several years, but eventually Nora comes to the realization that Murray is hiding something. He confesses his story. She loves him now and wants to protect him. World War II breaks out and Murray enlists in the Navy. While he awaits deployment his mother and various of his brothers and sisters who are en route to some hunting ground in Canada are forced to land their private airplane near the camp. Murray is discovered (due to various prior discoveries, his mother knew he was likely alive somewhere, though she did not know where). Nora wins over his mother with her plucky spirit. They marry. Nora has a baby and becomes a perfect enthusiastic and supportive 1940s wife and mother. Murray goes to war and redeems himself by rescuing a bunch of men who had been tossed overboard during a sea-battle and demonstrating his true heroism. Also his notes and drawings on Maine wildlife are collected and published.

This is a rather lengthy report for a book that is not great, though it was not bad up to the ending, where all of the problems of the problems are resolved too neatly and implausibly. The romantic element appealed to me, I guess. The remote location, the girl with subtle but extremely pleasing charms (who due to a lack of other options is obliged to spend a considerable amount of time with you whether she wants to or not), the 'discovery' in the face of all surface appearances by said charming girl that you are not uneducated and from the lower portion of society. I don't know, I've lost the thread here. Sometimes you come to the end and you just don't remember what you really wanted to say...

This is the alternative cover for the book, which I did not have. I did not imagine Nora as quite this boiling, or their stolen kisses between sips from the canteen while sitting on a flannel blanket to take the character depicted in this illustration, but I have to say I am taken with it. Here is a larger picture.

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