Reporting Live, From Matinicus
A bunch of the Irregulars were sitting around my kitchen table the other night comparing notes on the rather heavy crop of newspaper reporters that we’ve seen this season. This particular summer, members of the press corps are some thick on the ground around here. Evidently last week a couple of the boys from the Associated Press found their way into the “Farmer’s Market” (this year, sans farmers). That would be our little summer craft-fair and coffee-break gathering held weekly in the Matinicus church basement. “Who’s in charge here?” the journalists asked. Sure.
Anyway, around my table, and as is generally the case where we loiter over cheap wine and Cider Jack (I promise…more on the Wines of Matinicus another time), conversation eventually finds its way to the retelling of a few of the greatest hits of recent Matinicus folklore. Among broad topics within that august canon, one of the perennial favorites is the trial and tribulation of any who were ever a passenger on the old Mary and Donna, when she served as “the Matinicus boat.” The State ferries were once even less frequent than they are now, and Captain Tarkleson’s Robin R. was probably just the occasional musing of a large-animal veterinarian in northern New Hampshire (that’s Captain Tarkleson, DVM).
I haven’t gone completely off the subject; just hold on a moment. You may need this bit of background. If you are among those who have experienced a crossing to Matinicus aboard the Mary and Donna, you no doubt remember quite a few details — among them, perhaps, the much-beloved but completely deaf octogenarian deckhand Chaney Ripley.
Ripley, who died just a couple of years ago, was himself a bit of island lore. A gifted musician, musical instrument maker, painter (he did reverse-image-on-glass work, among other things), poet, satirist, salesman, book-lover, doctor-hater, junk-food-junkie, conspiracy theorist, quack, raconteur, student of the truly obscure, doddering passenger-boat deckhand, small-boat lobsterman, and dedicated liar, he was forever filling the heads of tourists with nonsense (claiming to be even far older than he was), while also charming the islanders with his various artistic talents. With a pocket full of Little Debbie’s snacks and nary a bath in a while, Ripley eventually had to remove to the mainland for the last few years of his life. He claimed that he’d given his house to the Maine Sea Coast Mission (which knew nothing about it) and that of course he no longer owed property taxes, so he sent notes to the town tax collector referencing “blood from a turnip.” A few of us were considering him as a write-in candidate for several offices of the public trust.
Returning to the present, Matinicus is experiencing a bang-up year for mosquitoes, carpenter ants, and reporters. We always get a few, sent out here by editors who think another tale of the Quaint and the Rustic may be desirable. (What? Short on covered bridges this Sunday?) Sometimes they are freelancers who don’t realize they’ll be writing number ninety-two in a series of similar pieces. We’ve had a rough summer, and we aren’t to be left alone with our shell-shock, our stomach acid, and our territories; nothing will do but the rest of the nation needs to be informed of the crimes committed here so they can weigh in and make unkind remarks. Such is life.
Our local troubles are unmistakably legitimate news, however, and that cannot be helped. To that end, we’ve had the Bangor and the Portland papers, of course, but they were expected (the Sunday Telegram guys liked my blueberry coffee cake but I wasn’t any help to them otherwise). The Boston Globe was here, actually the same day as the Portland paper; one wonders if they compared notes. The word was buzzing around on Wednesday that the Associated Press was out here, hoping I suppose to hear something that nobody else had heard before.
The AP reporters finally managed to find a fisherman who was willing to comment, and said local person dutifully filled their note pads with whatever he found it prudent and reasonable to offer. Considering that we’ve also had detectives popping their heads up from the back seat of the Subaru to interrogate the local teenagers, he probably figured somebody fairly rugged had to do it. Anyway, after he’d said his piece, the reporters, glad to have finally found a native island lobsterman who had an interest in speaking on the record, asked our man for his name.
“Chaney Ripley,” he earnestly replied.