There I was the other night at a corporate banquet at a resort in the mid-coast region - waiting to provide the evening’s entertainment - when the conversation at my table turned suddenly to storytelling. That's when this fella from Massachusetts – showcasing an accent as thick A Penobscot Bay fog - attempted to tell a Down East story.
Within seconds this resident of the Commonwealth had his story so mangled, mutilated and messed-up that it was too painful to listen to. Finally, in desperation he turns to me and says: "Have you ever heard that story, John? That's more-or-less how it goes, isn't it?"
It's been suggested that warning labels be placed on all Maine humor books, tapes and CDs, advising amateurs about the dangers of attempting to tell these seemingly harmless tales at home or in public or anywhere.
I told the story-mangler from Massachusetts that I knew the story well and when asked to tell it I began by straightening out some of the more badly damaged details.
I'll tell the story here if you promise not to try it at home without proper supervision.
Tewkey Merrill was sitting on his front porch reading his newspaper when a car came tearing around the corner by his house and stopped dead right out front. A man jumps from the car, runs up onto the porch and frantically asks Tewkey for directions to Bangor.
Realizing the fella was in a hurry Tewkey tries his best to move him right along.
"To get to Bangor, you want to take this road out of town about five miles and you're gonna' come to a fork in the road..."
"Does it make any difference which way I go at the fork?" the stranger asks.
"Not to me, it don't," Tewkey says, honestly.
Realizing he's not helping, the stranger just listens.
"You take a left at that fork and after you go another two miles and on your left-hand side you'll see a big, red barn... No. Come to think of it it's a green barn... Two miles after that left at the fork in the road on your left-hand side you'll see a big, green barn...
Tewkey paused to think, while the stranger tapped his foot, waiting.
"Now that I've colored the barn green I realize it's not on the left side but on the right side," says Tewkey. "So, remember - two miles after the left at the fork in the road on your right hand side you're gonna see a big, green...
Another long pause, more thinking, stranger's fit to be tied...
"For the last eight years that barn's been nothing but trouble," Tewkey finally says: "Eight years ago the fella who owns that barn decided to paint it even thought it didn't need painting. In the middle of the job he gets a call from his daughter in Canton, Ohio who just had her first baby.
"Well, he and mother pack up and fly out to Canton to see their new grandchild. They stay out there for months, visiting. By the time they got back he couldn't remember whether his barn was red and he'd been painting it green, or she was green and he'd been painting it red. What's worse, he couldn't find any of the paint.
"His neighbor, Frank Farron, said, “Why don’t just wait 'til one side starts peeling. Whatever side peels first is probably the side you painted first, so you just go and paint that side the other color.'
"Tewkey agreed that was the answer. Trouble is, til he finishes painting his barn I can't remember - when giving directions - whether his barn is the red barn on the left heading north or she's the green barn on the right heading south.
"But I know for sure that two miles after the left at the fork in the road on either your left or right hand side I guarantee you're gonna' see a big red or green barn," Tewkey said all emphatic.
"Then what do I do?" the stranger asked.
"Nothin.'" said Tewkey. "You see it and just go right on by.
Well, by now the stranger figures he's probably asked the last person in Maine for directions to Bangor but it was too late.
From around the same corner came a deputy sheriff with siren wailing and all strobe lights going. He cut off the stranger's car, came up on the porch, slapped some cuffs on this stranger and arrested him on the spot. It was quite dramatic.
It seems this fella had just robbed a bank in Milbridge and was trying to make a getaway to Bangor and Tewkey Merrill stopped and held this dangerous fugitive armed with nothing more than his index finger and his colorful directions.
Well, they hauled the fella off to jail and under intense questioning by the department's criminal division they finally wrung it out of him: He had been in that very town about eight years ago and the only mischief he managed to get into was - he broke into some big red and green barn and made-off with about twenty gallons of green paint.
Now, before retelling this story to relatives and friends please consult a board-certified “Maine storyteller.”