Essays of a Camden native

After high school

By Paul Putnam | Mar 02, 2013

The Maine Maritime Academy was an option for many of us who wanted to go on to college after high school, but tuition and books could run $400 a semester plus another $1,200 to $1,500 for room and board, whereas the Maritime Academy would actually pay one to go there if you qualified. I have told of going to a year of music school in Bangor at the Northern Conservatory of Music but not returning the second year because I couldn’t raise the $500 a semester for tuition, but my first choice had been the maritime academy. It was a three-year course year round and was not only free tuition but paid a monthly stipend of $65 per month as a living expense.

As a senior in high school I applied for entrance to Maine Maritime Academy and passed all the written tests well enough, but a physical exam was also required. Roger Calderwood took four of us boys down to Boston for the exam, and it was rather an exciting trip for us. Lawrence Sparta was one and I believe Dwight French was another, but I don’t remember who else, maybe Cedie Joyce. We stayed overnight in the YMCA, and Lawrence took us on the subway out to the suburbs to visit some of his relatives. For us country boys that was quite an expedition. I remember also that we were concerned about getting lost in town, and Roger made sure we understood the subway system in case we got separated.

Of course we were google-eyed at being in the big city, and so, having time on our hands in the afternoon, we decided to take a walk around the block. We reasoned that if we didn’t cross any streets, but made four right turns, it would bring us back to where we started, right? Wrong! We did exactly that, and after four right turns we were lost. I still don’t know how that happened, but the only way we got back to the Y was to get on the subway and get off at the right station, which was two stops away.

Anyway, I had my physical, and was rejected for the academy because I had crooked teeth. Some years before when I could have had them straightened, we chose not to because it was expensive, the orthodontist said he couldn’t guarantee a good job, and since my teeth were soft, I would probably loose them early in life anyway. He was partially right. They were probably not going to straighten out well, although I still have many of them at 75 years, but still crooked.

Anyway, I couldn’t afford college, and the maritime academy didn’t want me, so with the Korean War in full swing and the draft breathing down my neck, I joined the Navy. I guess growing up in a seafaring community, I wasn’t nervous about going to sea, but I always remembered stories and pictures from World War II of soldiers sitting in the mud in some trench or foxhole, and I decided I would rather be on a ship with three square meals a day and a dry bed every night. If the ship got into a fight, it was usually a short affair. If the ship was damaged or sunk, you were either dead, or you got picked up by another ship with a dry bed and good meals again.

The U.S. Navy did a lot of work on my teeth a couple of years later. The dentist on my ship, who was a full captain, didn’t ask any questions, he just went ahead and did what he had to do and I have appreciated that ever since.

I guess in the wake of World War II, the Merchant Marines, like all of the military, was a bit overcrowded and the academy probably tightened up on the entrance requirements. I was disappointed at the time, but have since been quite satisfied with the way things worked out. I would hate to have missed music school, Navy, and University of Maine. We often wonder what it would have been like if we had made different choices along the way, but happiness is founded in being content with the choices we have made.

I talked with a fellow Ghost of Camden Past, Gil Hall, to confirm some of the details of this story. Gil was a few years older than I, and he went on to a career in the merchant service and is well known in Penobscot Bay as a pilot, bringing ships up the bay to Searsport and beyond. Lawrence Sparta went through the academy, but eventually found work with the telephone company in Portland. He was also active in state politics. Em Hansel was another graduate of the academy who was older than I, as is Cliff Cameron, a Rockland boy who retired here and is well known in Camden. Some younger than I would be Doug Greene and Parker Laite Sr.

The academy was founded in Castine, Maine in 1941 with 29 students, but has developed a worldwide reputation for excellence. It graduated 384 students during World War II and used one of Camden’s Captain Swift schooners, Mattie, as its first training ship. While it originally was a boy’s school, it is now co-ed.

Four years in the Navy during the Korean War gave me four years of college on the GI Bill. I went to University of Maine at Orono and studied engineering and English to become an engineering writer. The GI Bill payed the bill plus took care of Helen and I and three children. It was a good swap.

Paul Putnam lives in Rockport. His four volumes of essays, "Thoughts and Reminiscences of a Camden Native," are available at the Reading Corner in Rockland and the Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden. He can be reached at pputnam@midcoast.com.

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