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Chapter 001 How do you spell magic?

I was 16, and during every summer of my life up to that point, I’d spent several weeks in Maine. Until I was 10, my family would rent a cabin on a lake at a family camp, a place with many separate cabins, each for a family like ours. These camps had a recreation hall for rainy days that contained a ping pong table and a big stone fireplace. A community dining room hosted meals served family style. Small boats were available for rent and there were sandy beaches for swimming, and outdoor fireplaces for grilling meat and roasting marshmallows. It was heaven on earth for a kid.

My dad would signal the onset of our Maine time by hauling our one-and-a-half horsepower, sickly lime green, rope-pull-start, Sears Elgin outboard motor out of the basement of our house in Winthrop, just north of Boston, putting it into a 55 gallon drum filled with water, and firing it up for a test. Time for the magic to begin again, and for this city kid, that magic was spelled M-A-I-N-E! Woodrest Camps in Belgrade was the magical place during my toddler years through age five, followed by another five years at Camp Wildmere in Harrison.

We have some brief, underexposed 16mm film of our time at Woodrest, and some better shots of our time at Wildmere. I was too young to recollect much from Woodrest, but those old movies, show me, having one helluva time in McGrath (pronounced in true Maine-ese as m’GRAW) Pond – a genuine water baby, even at that tender age.

One memory survived – the now family legend of my worm expedition. “Time to go fishing,” Dad declared. “Robert, go next door and get some worms.” So I did. Joe’s Live Bait was the place to go, not only for worms, a.k.a. night crawlers, but also frogs, crawfish, and helgramites – small black centipede-like water insects. I soon returned from Joe’s, apparently empty handed. “Why didn’t you get the worms?” queried my father. “I got ‘em,” I replied, and thrust my hands into my pockets to retrieve the evidence. Sad to report that Joe died recently and with him Joe’s Live Bait.

Wildmere I recall vividly. I remember being in the natural world, adjacent to Long Lake. I remember huge pine trees smelling strongly of pine sap, ground covered with pine needles and sticky pine cones; blueberry and raspberry bushes dripping with scrumptious fresh fruit, chipmunks and grey and red squirrels, chattering indignantly at our presence in their woods, fireflies electrifying the nights, and FISH!

I remember the old Coca Cola cooler, on the shady lake side of the dining hall, filled with white perch we’d caught with our worms, staying fresh under a mountain of ice until they could be cleaned, fried, and consumed at the delicious fried fish dinners we had several times a week.

I remember the frozen Three Musketeer bars I’d get each Sunday from the canteen, and the roasted marshmallows – I was a master of the brown ‘em but don’t burn ‘em method. I remember the annual kid competition of potato sack, three-legged, and egg-in-spoon races, as well as the main event: the tug-of-war, an event so epic even the teenagers joined in. And of course, my first heart throb, Cherie – an older woman of seven to my innocent and fragile six.

I remember the rainy days spent playing cards or board games in the cabins or rec hall and the sunny days spent at the lake swimming, rowing boats, paddling canoes, and the crème de la crème for this young boy: power boat rides. Some of that old film contains footage of me, aged six, grinning from ear to ear as I piloted an old wooden boat, my right hand firmly on the handle of that old Elgin outboard, with its chromed metal needle of a throttle jammed all the way to FAST. Back then, anything that moved through the water, not by the arm-strong method, was quite exceptional, although if you didn’t have to sit in the back holding the engine because it had a steering wheel up front, it was seriously wondrous.

I still recall my first ride in a real speedboat. During our third summer at Wildmere, one of the dads showed up with the epitome of 1950’s boating gear. It had a 35-horsepower outboard motor and a steering wheel up front. It was wooden, dark brown, shiny, beautiful and fast, and one day he took all the kids for rides – extraordinarily memorable.

At age 10, my Wildmere days ended but not my Maine days. I was lucky enough to go to a summer long boys’ camp for the next five years. Those times were filled with activities: swimming, sailing, baseball, basketball, photography, archery, riflery, and camping and canoe trips, all with a ton of kids my own age.

When I was 15, I decided I didn’t want to leave my year-round friends for the summer anymore, so I spent most of that summer at home. It was good, but it wasn’t Maine. Still I did get to go to Northern Maine, bordering Canada, for a week of fishing with the boys – my dad, my Uncle Billy, my Uncle Eskie, and my big brother, Jerry – since I was now deemed old enough to accompany them. What a time that was. We stayed at a remote fishing camp run by a local family, as so many things in Maine were and mostly still are. We went fishing each day in three separate boats, each with a local guide. The family’s niece, Candy, one year my senior, worked at the camp for the summer and I fell head over heels for her. She had a boyfriend back home, but somehow before the week was out I managed to wrangle a brief kiss, which is still fresh in my memory 50 years later. Summer romance meant Maine to me – that’s just the way it was – and the fishing wasn’t bad either.

The next spring, in May of 1961, IT happened… My dad pulled me aside and said, “You know, Billy and Eskie and I have been talking about buying our own lakeside cabin in Maine.” “Uh, huh,” I responded, disinterested in a subject that had been broached often over the previous several years without anything substantial ever coming of it. “Well,” said my dad, “I think we’ve found one, and I want you to go to Maine tomorrow with them and check it out.” My brain engaged, my heart leapt, my spirit soared, and my voice almost failed me as I replied, “You bet!”