Twilight Afternoon in Eastport

On previous visits to Eastport, I’d vaguely noticed the Quonset hut hunched on a dusty lot about a block up from Water Street and the pier. I don’t think it was painted bright blue then.

In case you’re not familiar with them, Quonset huts are rounded, one-story buildings that look as if a large piece of ribbed steel wanted to do a back flip but got stuck halfway through. They were designed by the US Army as prefab, portable structures that could be shipped in pieces to far-flung military posts.

World War II Quonset Hut

Whenever I heard the term “Quonset hut,” I assumed it referred to a steel version of some traditional dwelling created by Native Americans called Quonsets. Wrong! “Quonset” is an Algonquin word that means “small, long place,” but it refers to Quonset Point, a small, long peninsula reaching out into Narragansett Bay. The steel “backflip” structures are named for that Rhode Island peninsula, where they were designed at a Navy facility.

Anyway, the four of us were walking around Eastport on a cloudy afternoon when Roger and Robbie decided we should check out the blue Quonset hut with its sign indicating a woodworking shop. The yard was littered with discarded bark, warped boards, and other debris. A “woodie” station wagon sat out front with a matching, wooden “teardrop” trailer behind it.

There was never a huge market for woodies, but for a while, mid-20th century, they were popular with upscale resorts as quaint “depot hacks” to transport guests to and from railroad stations. Woodies staged a brief comeback in the 1960s when the Beach Boys made them popular for ferrying surfboards (and girls) to the beach. This particular woodie, parked in front of the Quonset, was a lovingly refurbished 1947 Dodge model able to seat eleven passengers. At one time, it transported sardine packers to and from work at Eastport’s now abandoned cannery.

When we opened the creaky door of the Quonset and stepped inside, we were greeted by a grizzled fellow with curling gray hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and a thick mustache. He was dressed in jeans and a faded blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt, which even in July seemed out of place with his Maine surroundings. He stood behind a cluttered counter amid a backdrop of wood creations hanging from the walls and resting in every corner—guitars and mandolins, skateboards and wooden luges, cutting boards and boxes. With him and the four of us and all that stuff, the shop was as crowded as it could handle.

Almost immediately, things turned creepy when the Hawaiian-shirted proprietor announced that the best way to view his creations was with the special lighting he’d installed. “Here, let me show you,” he said, stepping past us to close the door and then reach for a switch on the wall. Right then the regular lights—all of them—went out completely for a few seconds but long enough that all four of us later agreed we’d distinctly heard the do-do, doo-do, do-do doo-do Twilight Zone theme before the room lit back up in lavender neon.

In fact, I could have sworn, in those few seconds of total darkness, that I distinctly heard the voice of Rod Serling: You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension:….You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance,….

Right then, a storm came up, and rain began rapping above us as if we were hunkered down in a tin-roofed, Alabama farmhouse. “Oh well then,” said our host with obvious enthusiasm, “guess you’ll have to stick around until that blows over. Let me show you my scrapbook of the stuff I’ve made.” This did not sound promising, but it turned out to be.

Without the photos, we might have doubted some of the tales he told us over the next half hour, but the proof was right there in the laminated scrapbook lying open on the counter. He had built a huge—yes, huge—treehouse in the backyard of his home—complete with glass windows and paneled walls. Take a moment to appreciate the primitive but creative staircase in the photo above. “My wife and I sleep up there most nights,” he said. He’d also built by hand the teardrop wooden trailer that travels around town behind his woodie.

The creation he was most proud of was a sleek wooden go-kart he’d created for a young boy with cerebral palsy. He equipped it with a cushioned backrest and a framework for the boy’s legs so he could push himself along with his arms as well as anyone.

I learned later from another visitor’s Internet post that Jim Blankman hitchhiked from Santa Cruz County, California, to visit friends in Maine in 1978. He liked the slower pace of Eastport and stayed. That slower pace is definitely appealing.

As the rapping rain began to die down, my attention wandered to a sign above a side door I hadn’t noticed before. “Vintage Hats,” it said. And so, stepping through a second creaky doorway, we entered another dimension of shadow and substance–an incredible collection of heady haberdashery.

Classic movie and newsreel scenes flashed through my mind as we admired the cloches and newsboy caps, pillboxes and turbans on display. We were assured it was okay to try them on, and so we did—a Faye Dunaway/Bonnie Parker style beret, a Diane Keaton/Annie Hall bowler, an Indiana Jones fedora, a Jackie Kennedy style pillbox, and on and on. Meredith and I knew immediately that we weren’t leaving without choosing one of these reasonably priced hats, so we set about striking various hat poses in front of the large oval mirror at one end of the room. Meredith settled on a Stetson-style beige hat with a wide, creamy band that gave her a jaunty, western look, and Robbie opted for a greenish fedora with a feather. Thinking of my sunny walks with Gracie on hot summer afternoons, I chose a wide-brimmed straw with a flowered hatband and fluffy bow.

Roger stood off to the side enjoying the show until our host pulled several boxes of brand-new Stetsons from under a table for him to check out. “These aren’t vintage,” he said, “but they sell well.” All were priced well over a hundred dollars.

Eventually we emerged from Mr. Blankman’s fascinating “Twilight Zone” to find the reality of downtown Eastport freshly washed down and the sunlight dancing brightly on the waves across the way.

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