The View From Away: What's a Mainer? Find out at the lobster museum

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These missives never come out the way I want, and by “the way I want” I mean, “as good as I want.”

A recent column was supposed to be about learning to respect Maine and being more accepted by native Mainers for it. It turned out to be mostly anecdotes describing how I patronized Mainers on my first visit here and how they ran rings around me without me even knowing it.

Missing the bull’s eye is one thing. Missing the whole target is embarrassing. Oh, well, call it an introduction.

It’s true that Mainers made no secret of their “us against them” mentality 30 years ago. We heard many variations of the old saying: real Mainers had to be born here, and maybe their parents and grandparents before them. Most people said it with a smile, but they were, as my grandfather might have said, “kidding on the square.”

I can understand why. If I was any example, people from away would say they loved Maine without knowing a damned thing about it or the people who lived here. They came mostly to resort areas, mostly on the coast, mostly in the summer. The Mainers they met were serving dinner or selling souvenirs. Did summer people wonder where their waiters lived or what the clerk at that cute boutique in Camden did after work or how they managed to survive the eight months in between seasons? Doubt it. I know I never did.

My attitude shifted during my second trip here, on a belated honeymoon. It was summer again. Our room overlooked Penobscot Bay. The stage was set for another superficial week eating seafood in the only state I’ve ever been in that actually looks better than the postcards. By chance we were staying at a bed and breakfast near one of Maine’s many small museums.

There’s a difference between Maine and the other places I’ve been: mom and pop museums. This one was about when Maine was a hub of intercontinental shipping during the age of sail. I’m not talking about the glamorous clipper ships. Maine sent out the deep-bottomed trading vessels that did the heavy lifting. They were built here, I learned, and had captains and crews from here. They went to sea for months, even years at a time. I learned they were nearly self-sufficient, floating kingdoms ruled by captains and their wives. Yeah. These guys took the whole family with them.

At sea they had the power of life and death. They needed to. There was nobody to call for help if they got in trouble. When they got back, those captains were often rich men. The crews made out pretty well, too. If they got back. Maine wasn’t always Mexicali Rose and lobster roll country. Those quaint small towns were founded by resourceful, independent people who derived satisfaction from confronting the challenges of a beautiful and remote place.

We went to an even smaller museum that sounds like a tourist cliche: a lobster museum. I’m embarrassed to say this, but I actually thought this would pretty much round out my education. I know what you’re thinking: “Really, Mike? A lobster museum? Could you be any shallower?” In my defense, at least I didn’t make the Hajj to Freeport and call it a day, walking out of L.L. Bean saying, “OK, we’ve done Maine. If we hurry we can learn about all about New Hampshire and Vermont before dinner.”

Going through that small, not very fancy museum I got to experience a Mainer’s pride in being a Mainer. Our guide looked like she was fixing traps five minutes before the tour. She didn’t have a polished, memorized presentation, but she sure knew lobsters and lobster fishing. What struck me most, though, was her opening. I don’t remember it word for word, but this is close: “My husband is a lobsterman, and I’m a lobsterman’s wife. If you hear somebody say, ‘lobster fisherman,’ you correct him because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

I don’t know if that’s really true, but she said “lobsterman’s wife” with such pride, and something else, too, defiance maybe, or a kind of urgency. She seemed to want us summer folk to know that they weren’t extras in our vacation movies. They were living a life they had chosen, not an easy one, but an independent one, an extension of whatever made an earlier generation go down to the sea in ships, a life they were proud of. It probably seems silly, but that woman helped make Maine a completely different place for me.

Here’s my crackpot theory, then: the “us versus them” mentality is diminishing in part because more people from away have had their versions of my lobster museum moment. They’ve seen past the lighthouses and boutiques of postcard Maine, and Mainers have responded by becoming more inclusive. I say good for both sides.

Unless the natives are still running rings around me without me even knowing it, in which case I say curse their Downeast inscrutability, and curse me and my Midwestern thickheadedness.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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