When the whistle blows

By Joe Talbot Jr. | Mar 01, 2018

Camden — I took my first breath a long time ago at the Camden Hospital, formerly on Mountain St. My home at the time was across the street from there, and one day I might wind up a few yards south of there at what used to be Laite’s Funeral Home. My grandfather Nat’s, house was only a few yards away from that, where my father and two uncles were born. Talk about a small world!

My earliest remembrances took place on Chestnut Street, across from the YMCA, where I spent a million hours (at least) playing pool, ping pong, basketball and talking with everyone else about playing pool, ping pong,…..well you get it. All of my generation spent nearly all hours there after school. It was a healthy environment. We all were known by nearly all of the Camden residents, and knocking on a door to ask if we could use the phone to call our parents was normal. And often a couple of cookies appeared from the ether to make sure we didn’t starve to death before we made it home.

Mary E. Taylor and Miss Rydout were my seventh & eighth grade teachers, and they, and all the rest of the teachers there, invested in us, believed in us, and it was a unique experience to see them recite how they taught my father, so I better pay attention, or else!

When the bell rang for us to go home, I often walked down Knowlton Street, turned left on Mechanic Street and walked right into the Knox Mill. I would go to Jimmy Ball’s work station and sit on a stool and watch the “shuttle cock” zoom back and forth, back and forth, with great interest. Jimmy would glance at me and smile, and only a few minutes would pass when we would hear the mill’s whistle blow, and then this was the best part for me. I would put my elbows on my knees, with my chin in my hands and listen intently for all the machines to wind down from “screech & rumbling” down to a “whir," then to a slow “purr," and then to absolute silence. I was aware of a strong smell of oil in the air. It was a wonderful experience to then watch all the men do their closing chores, and almost in unison, pick up their lunch boxes and thermoses, and start for the door. I marveled at them walking up or down Mechanic Street. I didn’t know it then, but I muse now that they were the bulk of the producers of the town going home to family.

My uncle John Talbot and a fairly large contingency of men carpooled every day from Camden, 47 miles to Bath Ship Yard in the early morning, worked hard and then 47 miles back, most of them for 20 years! Remarkably, they chose to live and raise their families in Camden.

I disremember, (that’s an old word I just made up, my father would say) exactly what year it was, but around 1988 I brought my wife to Camden from California and we wandered in to the mill. I was shocked to see the entire mill completely empty, only floors, walls and ceilings on each floor. And to my disbelief, the exact same smell of the oil, which had permeated the wooden floors, was still there. I gazed around, trying to locate where Jimmy's machine would have been, and told her, if someone dropped a cigarette on the floor, the whole town might go up in smoke!

A few years later, when once again I came back to Camden, I was amazed at what the old firetrap had become. I thought of it as a minor miracle. The millions spent by MBNA was evident all over town.

When my Dad became president of the Megunticook Fish & Game Association, and I was a freshman at CHS, he rented the apartment over the Association club room for our family to live. The property was known as the “Fish Hatchery," next to the bridge where Megunticook River started winding toward the town of Camden. TV’s had just recently been invented, and only a few appeared in our area. During winters, the MF&GA would hold a monthly session apart from the formal meetings, to teach young boys all things related to hunting & fishing. We learned how to tie flies, safety rules of gun handling, mapping, boating & canoe handling & safety, etc. Sometimes we saw movies brought over by the local Fish & Game Warden Walt Bissett. But the gist of the whole thing was that we boys came to know the fathers of all of us. Jimmy Ball was one of those fathers. Occasionally he would invite me to go hunting pheasants in the fall, with his best friend, “Rocky," sometimes even when my Dad was unable to go. Rocky would find the birds, we’d bring the birds home for dinner. I assume by now, you’ve figured out “Rocky” was a yellow lab.

I’ve told many people over the years, that I was blessed with the best childhood of anyone I’ve ever known. Camden has and always will hold a dear place in my heart. I believe this as a result of witnessing what’s been happening in America, that far too many children have been robbed of “fatherhood," all in the name of money. My parents were there for me, every day and night, until I left for the military. I didn’t have to raise myself, I didn’t have to work to eat when I was young, and I never had to be worried about what might happen to me if I was out at night, going home from a ball game. You better believe that it’s not the same in the large cities and mainstream America these days. As I often drive down a street, or passing through Camden, flashback memories pop up in my mind’s eye, and I reach for my iPhone and press “voice memo” and quickly make note of the memory, so that I can refer to it later as I continue to update this epistle I’ve begun. Camden men, by and large, invested in all of the sons of it’s population. The men & women came to every basketball game, and knew all of the young people in school. Many folks in Camden now, would not believe it if they heard how the girls' basketball team’s rules were different in that the team was split into “Forwards” & “Guards," each occupying only one half the length of the gym. But get this: the “new gym” on Knowlton Street was packed with standing-room only for every one of the home games, and a very large group of townspeople went to all the “away games” too! They were Maine State Champions often.

We were a small community of people working and playing alongside each other. I referred to Camden, Maine as “Paradise” for many years of my adulthood.

Joe Talbot is a former columnist for Peterson Publications' "OFF ROAD MAGAZINE" and "FOUR WHEELER MAGAZINE." He lives in Belfast.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Sandra Schramm | Mar 07, 2018 07:02

Joe,  many thanks for the tribute to my Uncle Jim.  He was a very quiet humble man who took pride in a job well done. I believe your words resonate well, an issue needing to be recognized. At some point in time, you were our neighbor on Pearl and I can recall Harriett and Joe!  You had wonderful parents! I too miss the Camden of my youth where young people were mentored and appreciated for being the future of Camden. We were blessed to have a very philanthropic summer community exposing us to summer jobs and appreciation for a variety of arts.  One of my fondest memories was being afforded the opportunity, at a very young age to walk from Pearl to the Camden Public library, often twice in a day. The community watched over us. There were no worries, children did not live in fear of abduction, drugs and other social ills plaguing society today. We had the Y, the Bog, Shirttail and later The Children's Chapel to bike to each day. Children had paper routes and Camden Home Bakery!  I and my cousin Thomas Ball, were two kids wandering the mill selling seeds, greeting cards and such for spending money. My Uncle "Peanut" guided me around to the various departments as I hit up many relatives, friends and neighbors who supported our efforts. It was noisy but thrilling at the same time. Being as my Grandfather Dean and other relatives worked at the Camden Shipyard I was fully aware of the hard work my family did to support to their families and also to bring attention to the value of the Camden area workforce for skill and dependability.  Phillipine Artcraft, School House Togs and later Tibbetts Industries brought in good paying jobs for the female workforce. It was a different time, and yes, we were blessed with a wonderful youth.  Sandra Alley Schramm

Posted by: Mary A McKeever | Mar 04, 2018 14:37

Thanks for the memories. I lived it too. I remember when my twin sons Matt & Mike played and yes we parents took in every game and every tournament. No mind the weather or roads of snow and sleet, nor barely plowed. Then there were the swim meets and my daughter Maureen did me proud. Memories, again thanks!

Mary "Mickey" (Brown) McKeever +:)

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