Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Innocents Abroad: The Damariscotta Pumpkinfest
Damariscotta, Maine, is a village about forty percent of the way to Canada along the Atlantic coast, with about 2500 people living in it, and at least that many gawping at it at any given time. It's cuter than a baby trying to eat an apple.
Damariscotta is an Indian name that means something in Indian, I suppose. I don't speak Abenaki, and neither do Abenakis, so there's no use askin', but I think it means: "Place we'll burn down during King Philip's War, and again a few times whenever we're bored and the sheriff's drunk during the French And Indian Wars." The colonists got jealous of the Indians getting to burn the place down fortnightly, and burned the place down themselves so the British couldn't occupy it during the Revolutionary War, or maybe so the bank couldn't repossess it, I can't remember, I was very young back then.
There's a monument to the Indians in Damariscotta, at the site of the only evidence of the former landlords' existence, which consists solely of a 1600-foot square, 30-foot deep dump, which is entirely made up of discarded oyster shells. The current locals, although no doubt keen to do so, have been entirely unable to locate the Indians' enormous pile of smashed champagne bottles, but surely it must be around there somewhere.
The town is certainly twee, but that will only get you so far in this world. Towns in Maine look for some celebration of local culture that will galvanize the general public into a frenzied mob that will spend money willy-nilly if you can lure them to your burg. Our town of Rumford tried a Paul Bunyan day, but I don't think they sold many axes, perhaps because, as I've noticed in the comment sections of the Bangor Daily News and The Portland Press Herald, most everyone has one to grind already. Damariscotta, which has a long tradition of brickmaking and shipbuilding, and of course being burnt to the ground, has had much more luck attracting people from far and wide to watch them desecrate pumpkins in amusing ways. It's less crazy than it sounds; after all, bricklaying is hard work, and modern shipbuilding consists solely of sniffing fiberglass resin until your eyes are as red as a town drunk's -- if the town is New York. Pumpkins say: New England. Pumpkins mean: Thanksgiving. Pumpkins remind one... to get the furnace checked. It's just fun to say "pumpkin." Pumpkin!
Damariscotians gussy up pumpkins to look like this and that, set them out on the sidewalk, and judge them on their merits, and give out prizes, which should be attempted with the grammar school kids someday, too. They defy the local growers to find new and novel ways of force-feeding Miracle-Gro to a gourd day and night to produce the largest orange-y blob that can have a portion sent to a laboratory to determine if it's a pumpkin, because it stopped looking like one after about five hundred pounds or so.
I witnessed them shooting pumpkins out of a big cannon at a van with great celerity. The pumpkins, I mean; the van didn't move much. They threw pumpkins into the ocean with a catapult, instead of politicians, for some reason. I'm told that they hollow out pumpkins, put an outboard motor on them, and race them in the river, or pond, or estuary, or gulley, or sluice, or runnel, or whatever they have there. I had to be told because I was drinking Black and Tans in the haunted restaurant by that time, my ears ringing with the cannon percussion blasts, and my head haunted by the knowledge that people shoot pumpkins I'd eat at a van I'd drive.
The restaurant was identified to me as haunted, anyway. I was likewise informed that there's a tour that points out all the local haunted houses, which includes most every building in town but the Rexall. No one ever wants to die and haunt a Rexall. It ain't dignified. I believe to a certainty that I was supposed to be interested in the fact that the building I was in was haunted by someone besides a man with a liquor license, but I have a defective nature and I wasn't; but I was fascinated to learn that out-of-plumb doorframes, squirrels in the attic, and a hint of cupidity is enough to get you a paying job lying to people "from away." And to think I've been lying to strangers for free all these years, and on more diverse topics.
There's an interesting phenomenon I've noticed in small cities in the East. The really nice looking cities are made of brick, and all the buildings look like one another, because everything that was there before burned down eleven or four or nine times, until the residents all decided brick buildings were cheaper than a fire department, and built everything at the same time under a regime of architectural and intellectual coherence that is not abroad in the land just now. Damariscotta's like that; Providence, Rhode Island, parts of Boston, and Portland, Maine are too.
One likewise cannot help but notice that in Damariscotta, the rhythm of the lovely brick buildings, with the occasional gawjus neoclassical residence smattered in, is broken only by the public library, which is fairly new, and built in the Prairie/International/Cow Barn/Reform School style, because reasons. There's a plaque on the sidewalk that declares the entire downtown a member of the National Register of Historic Places, so you have to check with someone official about the color of the mortar you're using to fix a brick on your haunted ice cream parlor or haunted Kinko's or whatever you've got, but the town can hire Frank Lloyd Wrong to design the library and place it there like a dead cat at a picnic.
The library is called the Skidompha, a name somehow even less elegant than the building, because the club that raised money to build it wanted to make an acronym of all the last names of its founding members -- at least those who performed in the 1885 town production of The Mikado. I do not wish to cast aspersions on these noble ladies, but I'm agog they couldn't assemble a better acronym than SKIDOMPHA. They probably spent all their time trying to get the vote so they could close down all the local grog shops (haunted, natch), with not enough time left over for Scrabble. I also aver to no one in particular that I'd rather die and haunt a Rexall, forevermore, than go to see a local production of The Mikado.
Let's see if we can do better, acronym-wise. SKIDOMPHA. Hmmm. Oh yes. Perfect for a summer vacation rental in Downeast Maine; like a telegram from an honest realtor: DAMPISH, OK?