Raymond J. Harding
Confessions of a Yankee Swapper
TO: P.J. Dolan
FROM: Skip White
RE: Enclosed transcript
How’s it going, P.J.? I thought
you might be interested in this trans-
cript. I was on my way up to Presque
Isle to do a feature for Smitty, and I
ran into this character on the way up,
sitting outside his barn in front of a
sign that said “Antiques and Junque.” I
don’t know if he’s for real or not, but
here’s the story he gave me.
“Call me Ned. Ned Howel. I’ve made my home in this corner of Maine for all of my seventy-three years. Don’t mention which corner of Maine it is, either. At my age, I don’t need pesterin’ by city folks or hot-shot antique dealers.
“Mostly I’ve accumulated things. Things that could be swapped for better things, or else sold for better than what I traded for them. Guess it got to be a disease, somethin’ like alcohol or gamblin’.
“Just about everything I had was genuine, or close to it. Never held with ‘distress’ marks pounded on with tire chains, or worm holes made with #20 bird-shot. Can’t say I haven’t seen it done, though.
“Well, I may be a swapper, but Edna–she’s my wife–now, Edna’s a collector. Things been in my family or hers for years, tend to end up here in this old barn. Edna warned me once that if anything she had stored away in here ended up in one of my swaps, she’d swap me for whatever she could get. Back a few years, when Edna was a looker, that was a real threat. Course, I was tempted a couple of times, but when that woman said somethin’, she meant it! She took great pride in all that stuff, furniture mostly. Knew the story behind every piece, too.
“Take that cobbler’s bench. Solid rock maple. See that little gouge right there? Well, there’s a story in that. Belonged to Edna’s great-grandfather, old William Logan. The way Edna tells it, old William was a shy, sensitive sort. Wanted to be a painter. Pictures, that is, not barns. Seems to me Edna’s got some of his early oil paintings tucked away somewhere around here. Right pretty stuff, too: sunsets, cows, that sort of thing. Well, never mind, back to my story.
“Must have been 1863. Union Army ran out of volunteers and started a draft call. Great-Grandfather William was a young man of about twenty years then, and definitely not what you’d call the heroic type. Them types was mostly dead by then.
“According to Edna’s pa, old Will Logan sat alone this one evening. Everyone else gone to bed. Sat in front of that very same cobbler’s bench with his father’s single-shot dueling pistol layin’ there, and him mullin’ over in his mind what he ought to do. Wasn’t thinkin’ suicide; none of the Logans was like that. He figured if he shot somethin’ then the army couldn’t use him. Bein’ an artist an all, he didn’t want to shoot off a finger or wreck a hand. Nothin’ left but feet. Must have reckoned an artist could still paint, even if he limped around a little–take that Talouse LaTrec fella, for instance. Just about two feet high, they say, but he made out just fine. A foot it would have to be.
“I can just picture it myself, almost like I was standin’ there watchin’. House quiet; soft light comin’ from the whale-oil lamp, bringin’ out the swirls and texture of the wood on that old cobbler’s bench–new then; the gun layin’ there: cold, grey steel, walnut stock. Young man picks up the pistol. There’s a tear runnin’ down his cheek. He stands, closes his eyes, and with a tremblin’ hand, he points that gun at where his right foot’s supposed to be and pulls the trigger.
“Big bang! People wakin’ up, runnin’ into the living room, expecting the Rebel Army at the very least.
“And what do they find? There stands old Bill Logan, laughin’ his damn head off. The young fool forgot his foot was under the cobbler’s bench. That pistol ball bounced off that rock maple, leavin’ that gouge, and slammed through an oil paintin’ of Dan’l Webster that Bill’s mother had bought down in Augusta. Nailed poor Dan’l right between the eyes!
“When all the fuss died down, Will Logan decided that fate had meant for him to join the Union Army after all. Enlisted, served for a while with Ben Butler’s troops. Couldn’t stand the man. Will Logan said he was nothin’ but a damned Massachusetts’ politician. Had no business soldierin’. Later on, after the Wilderness Campaign, General Grant himself called him ‘Bottled-up Butler’. Sort of proved old Will right. Butler went right back into politics after the war, and Massachusetts’ politicians haven’t improved much since.
“Will stayed on with the army and got to be a full bird-colonel, and a hero after all. Medal of Honor and such. Then, after all that, some time in the Eighties, right after the Indian Wars were calming down out West, Bill was cleanin’ his service revolver one night and finishin’ off a bottle of bourbon that General Grant had given him personally, when that damn gun went off accidentally and shot poor Bill clean through his right foot! Sort of poetic, justice wouldn’t you say? Bill took it all pretty philosophical. Limped a little, and took to paintin’ again.
Now, why don’t you just give me a hand, and we’ll move this old plowshare out of the way. . . That’s it, don’t hurt yourself! Ah, there’s one of old Will’s oil paintin’s. Got cows and a sunset. He sure was one for what they used to call the pastoral scenes, wasn’t he?
Just move that over a little. This here is what I wanted to show you. Looks like the mice have been at the upholstery a bit, but that’s a good rosewood frame. Don’t make them like that anymore. Might send it out and have the old upholstery redone. Edna wouldn’t part with that piece no matter what you might offer her. That was her Aunt Annabelle’s love-seat. It was on that very same piece of furniture that Aunt Annabelle proposed to Charlie Collins–Uncle Charlie. This was back around the turn of the Century. Back when most people still put a lot of emphasis on the way things was supposed to be done. You know: form, ceremony, tradition. Young people today just don’t have any conception of how life was back then. Quiet and slow-paced, and–right. Kids today scoff a lot; call it old-fashioned or Victorian. Maybe they’re right. Maybe we were a little ‘stuffy’, but Annabelle was about as far ahead of her time as a lady could get in those days and still be considered a lady. Real liberated woman, Annabelle.
“Seems as Charlie Collins been courtin’ Annabelle for three, maybe four years. Annabelle was a right pretty woman in those days, and she could have had her pick of just about anybody she set her mind on, but she had decided it was goin’ to be Charlie Collins. Trouble was, how was she goin’ t’ set a fire under him?
“This one night, Annabelle figured it was the third, or maybe the fourth, anniversary of her bein’ ‘called on’ by Charlie, and it was time that she took matters into her own hands.
“In those days it was still expected that a young man would get down on one knee if he wanted to make a proper proposal. When Charlie came to call that night, Annabelle maneuvered him into the parlor, took her knittin’ with her, and set the stage for her big act.
“Well, sir, after about a half-hour of quiet sittin’, (Charlie not bein’ much of a talker,) Annabelle says, ‘Charlie, I think I dropped some pink yarn a while back. Take a look under the couch, would you?”
“So, down goes Charlie to look under the love-seat for the pink yarn that Annabelle knew right well wasn’t under there at all. While he was gropin’ around down there, Annabelle made sure he got an eyeful of her shapely ankle. Annabelle had quite a figure. Too bad she was do far ahead of her time. She sure would have made a splash down there on York Beach in one of those little bikini things!
“Anyway, there’s Charlie tryin’ t’ find the yarn and not gettin’ very far with it, when Annabelle sets down her knittin’, puts a hand on Charlie’s shoulder and says, ‘Charles, while you’re kneeling down there, is there anything you’d like to tell me?”
“Ay-uh,” says Charlie.
“Annabelle takes a deep breath, breathes a deep sigh, puts one hand on her bosom, and asks, ‘Well, Charles, what is it?’
“‘Can’t find the yarn,’ says Charlie.
“‘Oh, God,’ says Annabelle as she yanks Charlie up,” ‘You sit, I’ll get down!’
“So Charlie sits while Annabelle gets down on her knees. ‘Charles,’ she says, ‘there’s something I want to say. Do you have any idea what it is?’
“‘Yep,’ says Charlie.
“‘Well, damn it, man, what is it?’
“‘You can’t find the yarn either?’
“‘Charlie Collins,’ says Annabelle, ‘you are impossible! I’m down here on bended knee, and all you’re concerned about is the damned yarn. I’m probably the first woman in the entire state of Maine to get down on her knees to propose to anyone, Charles, if I’d ask you to marry me.’
“‘ You askin’?’ asked Charlie.
“‘I’m asking’,’ Annabelle said, losin’ patience a little.
“‘Wouldn’t be agin’ it,’ says Charlie.
“‘Well, now, that’s a relief,’ says Annabelle. Then she gets up and arranges herself quite ‘improperly’ close to Charlie and proceeds to chatter on about all the plans, dates, and invitation lists, she’s been organizin’ for the last three, (or was it four?) years.
“When she was all talked out, Charlie said, ‘There’s just one thing, Annabelle?’
“‘What’s that, Charles?’ said Annabelle.
“‘Wonder what happened to that yarn of yours?’
“Annabelle just looked at him. Never did tell him. Old Charlie never did figure it out either.
“Now, if you just help me move some of this junk out of the way I’m sure we can find somethin’ else you might find interestin’.
“Charlie and Annabelle had a pretty good life for themselves. Charlie always was a worker. Had seven kids. All turned out just fine, except, maybe young Tom. Moved to Connecticut. Got mixed up with a lot of New Yorkers. Stage people, you know.
“But that’s a whole different story. Now, take it easy with that horse collar y’ got there. That’s mine. Most of this stuff, like I said, is from Edna’s folks, but that’s one thing I ain’t partin’ with. That collar almost broke up my ma and pa’s marriage.
“It was back in forty-eight. I was still livin’ at home then, just courtin Edna. The war was over; things were about back to normal, except my old dad was goin’ through a delayed mid-life crisis. Too old to serve in the war, and too young to accept it. Pa fretted a lot over the fact that he just hadn’t done anything to help his country through those terrible years. Ma tried to tell him that the country not only needed young men to go out and fight, but the country also needed strong, steady men at home, men that could keep families together and do the work that had to be done just to keep things goin’. All well and good and true, but Pa just didn’t buy it. Pa had the soul of a John Wayne hero, but nobody ever gave him a chance to show it. That was when he started spendin’ more time than he should have at the Three Lions Tavern.
“You must have passed the Three Lions on your way up here. Well, anyway, it was 1948; Truman against Dewey. The smart money up here was with Truman all the way. In spite of that old sayin’, ‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation,’ Pa backed Dewey.
“Monday before the election, Pa drove all the way to Brad Dunlop’s place to pick up that collar. We still had two Belgians then, and we were short one collar. On the way back from Brad’s, Pa stopped at the Three Lions. After a couple of beers, old Chet Aikens starts spouting off about how Truman’s goin’ to keep the economy rollin’, and Pa tells him what he thinks of Truman, and of all the good things that Dewey’s got planned. All this time that old horse collar is propped up on the set next to him. Pa wouldn’t leave it in the pick-up for fear it would get stolen. Not too smart, since he had the only horse for fifty miles in either direction could fit that collar. Upshot of the whole story is that they bet on the election. Loser had to wear that collar for a week, day and night.
“Tuesday night Pa sat glued to the radio until after midnight, and he went to bed with this reel sneaky grin on his face, thinkin’ how silly old Chet was goin’ to look wearin’ that collar all week. Pa got up, still smilin’, Wednesday mornin’, but the mornin’ news wiped the smile right off his face. Never did have a President named Dewey, did we?
“Pa grumbled around the farm all day. About ten minutes before supper he disappeared. Now, remember, we didn’t know anything about this bet with Aikins. That is until about nine o’clock when Pa wandered in, smellin’ of beer and wearin’ that collar. My brother Timmy got a gigglin’ fit until he saw the look that Ma flashed at him.
“‘Been to the Lions, have you?’ Ma asked. Pa just nodded as best he could in that horse collar. ‘Looks more like you’ve been thrown to the wolves. You of a mind to practice spring plowin’ with the horses, or is that the latest style in men’s overcoats from Boston?”
“‘Now, Ma…’ Pa’s voice sort of trailed off to nothin’.
“‘Don’t you now-Ma me. Set that damn collar out in the barn and get back in here. I’ve kept your supper warm, thought the Lord only knows why I bothered.’
“‘Can’t put the collar in the barn.’
“‘Nope. Got to wear it.’
“Ma’s mouth clamped shut over whatever it was that she was goin’ to say. Too many ears listenin’. Kept quiet for a full minute. Finally, she asked, ‘Night and day?’
“Ma slammed the dishes down on the table while Pa tried to get himself seated in his chair. Wasn’t easy. Eventually, he got into stiffened position with his legs straight out under the table, and his posterior just barely hooked on the edge of his chair. Only trouble was he couldn’t reach his plate from that positon. For a long time he just sat there starin’ at his plate. Ma made no move to help him.
“‘Chet Aikins?’ she asked.
“‘He goin’ to know whether your wearin’ it or not?’
“‘I’ll know. It’s a matter of honor, Ma.’
“‘Is your honor wearin’ his judicial robes to bed?’
“‘Well, then, you’re sleepin’ on the couch until your week’s up, or you come to your senses. Whichever comes first.’ And with that Ma stomped out of the room to set up the bed linen for the couch. Pa stood up with a little difficulty and started eating his supper on his feet. It still wasn’t easy with that collar on, but I think that Pa had lost his appetite by then.
“That was Wednesday. By the time Saturday night rolled around, things were extremely quiet around the place. Tim and I found ourselves tip-toeing around and whisperin’. What we didn’t expect to see was Pa changed into a clean shirt and trousers. Goin’-out clothes. I guess the terms of the bet allowed for takin’ the collar off to change or to take a bath, because Pa was rigged out to visit the Three Lions.
“‘You goin’ out?’ Those were the first words we had heard Ma say to Pa since Thursday mornin’ when she told him he had to wash the sheets he was using on the couch himself, and if he couldn’t get the horse odor out he’d have to burn them.
“‘Have to. Terms of the agreement.’
“‘ Humph!’ was all that Ma had to say about that.
“Tim and I heard Pa come in well before midnight, but the house was in darkness. Drunk or sober, Ma wasn’t waitin’ up to see whether or not he was still wearin’ that collar.
“He was. Sunday mornin’ Tim and I were all dressed up for church, and we were waitin’ for Ma to get ready. We were both surprised to see Pa walk into the room, sportin’ his black suit, a starched, white shirt, his new wide, striped tie, and that damned collar. ‘Mornin’, Pa,” we said quietly.
“‘Mornin’ boys.” Pa looked worried. We all knew what was comin’.
“‘Now, just what do you think you’re up to!’ Ma snapped at him, the moment she entered the kitchen.
“‘Goin’ t’ church.’
“‘Terms of the agreement?’
“‘They’ll all be there? Chet Aikin and the rest of those no-goods from the Three Lions?’
“‘And you’re goin’ to make a damn fool of yourself, and embarrass me and the boys?’
“‘Matter of honor, Ma.’
“‘Take the damned thing off!’
“‘Alright, then, I’ll really give you a chance to show your honor!’ And with that, Ma stomped out of the kitchen, through the front parlor, and into Pa’s den. In two minutes, she was back, carrying pa’s double-barreled shot gun. ‘Already checked,’ she said. ‘It’s loaded. What’s in the shells?’
“Pa turned white, ‘Heavy stuff,’ he choked out. “Double-ought buck. Deer load.’
“‘ Well, then,’ Ma said. Tim and me didn’t like the way she was smilin’. ‘that ought to be just about right to take care of that horse collar.’
“‘ What are you talkin’ about, Ma? I’m inside this horse collar. That’d be murder!’
“‘Now what judge or jury’s goin’ to have sympathy for an old fool don’t know enough not to push a poor woman to this? You think Mr. Dewey’s walkin’ around in a horse collar, you old idiot? I’m countin’ to ten, and then I’m unloadin’ both these barrels into that horse collar, whether you’re in it or whether it’s sittin’ over there in front of the fireplace.
“Pa started sidin’ toward the door at that. ‘And if you make one more move toward that door,’ Ma warned, ‘I’m cuttin’ loose without countin’. One– Two–‘
“pa started takin’ off the collar. Big as it was, he had a little trouble when that wide tie got caught in it.
“Tim looked at me with panic in his eyes. Neither one of us could believe what was happening.
“Pa was out of the collar now with Ma still countin’. He practically flew over to the fireplace with that collar while Ma swung that old shot gun from the hip, followin’ his moves like a hunter leadin’ a rabbit.
“Pa jumped back out of the line of fire.
“‘Nine–‘ Tim covered his ears.
“There was a sort of double Blam, loud enough to wake folks as far away as Kittery. Blew that old collar half way up the chimney. Left nine holes in the leather that cost Pa forty dollars to have fixed. Then Ma put the gun down nice and easy like, took Pa’s arm, and said, ‘That’s a right nice suit. Looks good on you. Looks a lot better than it would with a lot of holes in it.’
“Pa was still a little grey around the edges, ‘Ma, you wouldn’t really have. . .’ He left the question hangin’.
“Ma just smiled, started him toward the door and said, ‘Let’s go to church; wouldn’t want to be late.’
P.S. So, P.J. that’s it.
That story that I was going to do for Smitty
turned out to be a real bomb. However, the
trip wasn’t a complete waste of time. Ned
gave me the cobbler’s bench, the love-seat,
and an early William Logan pastoral scene for
my Leica and an extra lens. He said Edna
would probably kill him if she ever found out,
but he knew where he could get a great deal
for that camera.
Now, if you like this article, I’ll wave
my usual commission and swap you the story for
that grandfather’s clock you’ve got in your
office. With that and the other stuff I’ve
got, well…Ned put me on to a great deal down
in Bangor on a 1936 Packard convertible…