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A Maine Lobsterman, by E.B. White in 1954

If you’ve got 18 minutes or so, the time will be well spent.

E.B. White is known to most folks as the guy who wrote Charlotte’s Web. Ink-stained wretches know him as the White in Strunk and White, authors of the bible of recipes for sentences, The Elements of Style. I know him as an essayist about Maine, where he is unexcelled — so far.

He lived in Down East Maine. He knew and respected the men and women he describes in blasts of interest like this one. Unlike today’s writers, he doesn’t rely solely on describing objects to achieve verisimilitude. He tries to understand the motive force behind the populations, traditions, and the landscape he’s surveying. Others skim over an ocean of meaning without dipping into it. E.B. dropped his traps, and hauled the good stuff up, just like Eugene Eaton.

This video is all before my time, of course, but I’ve met plenty of stalwart people like Eugene when they were a lot older, and I was a lot younger. They were taciturn fellows. Chatty guys don’t stand in a wheelhouse alone for very long before they find a job elsewhere. The laconic Maine lobsterman was the real deal. Calvin Coolidge was a gadfly compared to them. E.B. doesn’t have the right accent, but he’s close. He has Maine stapled over New York City. Eugene’s is the real deal.

I’m always sort of in awe of people like Eugene. If you watch him pull on his oars when commuting out to his working boat, you can see how much force he’s putting on each stroke, with how little effort. He could do it all day and not get tired. He’d wear out an Olympic oarsman, if he could be bothered to race, which he couldn’t. He rolls his wrists perfectly as the oars leave the water and again as they enter it, never showing a splash of water, coming or going. There’s no wasted effort in his whole day. Plenty of effort, mind you, just none wasted. When he pulls alongside his working boat, he ships his right oar effortlessly without looking at it. It’s a small thing, but his life is made from such small things. Just stuff I can’t help but notice, because I’ve thrashed oars and banged into boats and lost oars overboard and wrenched oarlocks out of the gunwhales and sprayed water on everyone and everything within hand-grenade distance while doing these things. And I dare you not to get seasick with the boat rolling in that chop, next to a barrel of reeking bait, with the stink of the diesel exhaust. I couldn’t.

I’ve knocked together lobster traps like Eugene is using. They’re fun to make. No one uses them anymore. They’re all brutish steel cages, pre-made now. Something lost, something gained, I guess. I love Eugene’s no-nonsense clothing, too. It was from back when LL Bean made more than men’s pinstriped button-down shirts for WASP ladies to vacuum the house in.

Out on that ocean in a 34′ boat with nothing but a hinky compass and tide chart. They should have left Michael Collins at home, and brought Eugene along instead. He’d get them back from the moon with a hand on Apollo’s tiller and an astrology column from the Bangor Daily News. No Tang for me, fellows. I brought my lunch with me.

I’m reminded of the Breton Fisherman’s Prayer. A snippet of it was on JFK’s desk, a present from Hyman Rickover, who could order battleships around and all, but I doubt he could row as well as Eugene.

Tag: eb white

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