Sagadahoc Stories #79: 2/13/99

A Hog On Ice

They're pulling down the old fertilizer mill, and the mechanized crunching and backup beeping reverberates over our icy river. Another town landmark gets disappeared without any vision of the future except clear it and pave it. Another empty lot at the center of town. Oh, and don't forget to plant shrubs.

Old Mill Backside
The town acquired the mill property last year to "protect" it , from the horrors of industrial development. A blue collar business setting up operation here might spoil the perfect future, a bedroom community without any visible economic activity. Heaven forbid we should see semis loading and unloading, or paying taxes.

You have to credit the current regime with being masters of propaganda. Two weeks ago they released a story to the Brunswick paper that the collapsing mill buildings were a public hazard, and would have to be razed. Never mind that the mill has been crumbling for years, and was well-posted. One man's romantic old pile, is another's dangerous eyesore. Or a contractor's opportunity.

Last Tower

Now Doug is going at it with his heavy equipment, and the muttered question is, "When did it go out to bid?" I guess emergency demolition doesn't have to be approved by the town at large, or contracted to the low bidder. Nobody talked about salvage lumber. The big tower came down today, and my paintings are instant history. Better chronicle this burg quickly, it's going the way of New Guinea tribalism. They're tearing it down and dancing around the burn pile.


Winter is taking off its feathers, too. The warms are winning. A light dusting of snow patterned the river ice early last week, and I had to take a spiked hike to Town Farm Turn before I was convinced it was skateable. I did manage to get in some morning glides, before the sun mushed the surface, but skating was marginal at best all week. The places that looked ideal, all glossy shining, were often half-frozen meltwater, with a layer of air under it, and you'd slice through and trip. Sometimes the best travel was across the snow layer, where the ice had been insulated, and it's strange to cut skate tracks into a powdered whiteness. It was crunchy slow where snow had congealed to rough ice. Too slick to ski. A sour sun glinting on the glaze.

Eagles are back upriver in force, as the landscape opens, and the bait scampers. Climbing the thermals over our house. I skated right up under a perched adult one morning, without jumping him, and we went eyeball to eyeball until I blinked. Geez they're big animals up close. I didn't have the camera, of course.

This morning the trees were full of birds. Morning doves cooing, chickadees deeing, flocks of twitterers sipping on the maples. Sap is starting to rise on these warm days, and hidden flocks are coming out of the evergreens to sup on the sugars. Mitch and Jimmy are talking tapping, and I can almost smell the evap. Mr. Mann says the turkeys at his corn are putting on their breeding colors, and the big Tom is all red bearded strut and bluster.

The world is in somber shades, however. Gray skies, faded umber woods, beige fields, dark evergreens, dirty snow. Pretty dreary. Or am I just grousing? We were supposed to fly to Puerto Rico today, but American Airlines isn't flying. The best we can hope for is Monday, and that's a thin hope. It's one thing to choose to be a local artist, another to be compelled to record every nuance of Winter.

When the frost went out of the woodpile this week, an arthritic wind turned southerly, and the river puddled over. I had to jack up the Eagles to open the door, and the boys started shifting shacks. Jimmy yanked half his village, and Littlefish is hauling off tomorrow. This maay be the last weekend of the commercial smelting season. The fish have slacked off, and the operators have had enough. When I commented on the hired busses delivering customers to Riverbend, Andy grumbled that he could do without the busloads of Massholes who left lines down and garbage everywhere. When the weather slumps everyone gets cranky.

If it comes off cold for a couple of nights, the skating would be superb again, though. There's still better than a foot of ice on the river, although there have been drownings downeast, and the wardens are warning of thin ice statewide. Hard to understand how tidewater like this river can make heavy ice when freshwater lakes upcountry are thin. Maybe there was more still air over the Cathance while the ice was knitting. Even the margins stay solid. The iceout pool is posted at Jeanine's, and I've put $5 on my favorite day: April Fool's. Just trying to convince myself it's still OK to play on the river.

Stubborn as a hog on ice. That's the piece I've been working on in the shop. Actually it's the latest performer in an ongoing commission: a symphony orchestra I've been concocting for 16 years. A boar playing the xylophone, this time, and as intractable a creation as I've argued with this season.

David Perlman called last Fall suggesting that a boar might be the next act in our design collaboration, but it's taken me until now to get him out of the woodpile. A nice chunk of spalted maple gives him a mottled pigskin, except the bit of heartwood for a snout. He's dressed up in a walnut tux. ash shirt, ebony bow tie. The pieces of image came together easily enough, although he swelled up considerable from his intended dimensions. I try and keep these musicians all the same scale, but I really don't have much control over size. The wood dictates. Or the character of the subject. This boar is a beast. Pigged out of proportion. I realized when I had the parts carved he was a difficult personality, so I went looking for a block of ice to sit him on. Some shimmering curly maple looked chilly enough. Didn't improve his attitude.

Soon as I set him on ice he got truly miserable. I'd made him a nice curly tail to drive his mechanism, and hollowed out under his coattails for the devising. I envisioned his tail rotating 360 degrees, activating a crank and cams which would move his arms and wag his head back and forth. His head has to rotate side to side so his xylophoning trotters won't get tusked, and I like the idea of him cocking his ears to hear the music. Only trouble: none of the devices I concocted would work.

Then my bandsaw motor choked and died. A salvage half-horse that's done noble duty, it has exposed windings, and I figured that they were clogged with sawdust again. But this time no amount of futzing would get it to start. I hot-footed over to Motorpower in Lewiston, where the shop manager scolded me for using such a motor on a bandsaw, smiled and said, "Watch this." Blew it out with compressed air. Then HE couldn't get it to run. I smiled. Sold me a brand new enclosed half-horse, and I was back in business. Sort of.

The boar still wouldn't reciprocate. I decided to compromise. Rig his tail to only wiggle 120 degrees and dispense with cams. But you can't reason with a hog on ice. Take him apart, frig with the rigging, put him together. Nada. And again. After much ado I got him to waggle and hammer his instrument, more or less, although he was prone to jam at either end of the rotation. I hoped that getting him together in proper alignment would solve the problem, but when I glued the pieces together he wouldn't play at all. Figures. I had to saw the hog apart and remake his inner workings.

That was when one of my Dremel tools decided to self-destruct. Basically hobbyist tools, these small grinders get eaten up in a carving factory. I've got a box full of lunched Dremels I cannibalize for parts. Both my current tools have been cobbled together with external switches and swapped brushes, but this time an internal sheer-coupling had severed, and I had no spare. I had unkind thoughts about that miserable pig, but kept on grinding with my other Dremel.

I'd already spent twice as long as I'd expected on this animal, and he still wasn't together. But the replacement mechanism worked like a charm, and he waggled his head at me. Looked amused. I guessed the worse was over, and applied epoxy liberally. Which is just fine, when you have a grinder to remove the excess. I was happily scouring under his backside when I started to smell this curious aroma. Something cooking? Nope. The other Dremel igniting. Poof. I dug out the last of the epoxy with files and imprecations.

If it's true you have to invest yourself in your work for it to take on character, I've imbued this beast with enough of my winter aggravation to make him the image of irksome. And laughed enough at my foibles, to make him wry. Max says he always heard it as, "Stupid as a pig on ice." But I'm convinced it's "Stubborn."

What's the message for me? Is it about perseverence? Sticking it out in a cold climate. Keep on playing your crude instrument. Enjoy the absurdities. Hope the parties at American Airlines aren't too stubborn. But don't be surprised if they are.

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