This summer I headed up to Maine for what I called my “book tour” for Maine Roads to Gettysburg. I spoke at the Maine Historical Society in Portland, was one of the authors at the Books in Boothbay Festival, and did two really fun talks at the Joshua L. Chamberlain Museum in Brunswick for the Pejepscot Historical Society. A few weeks later I went back to do a talk at the MaineGeneral hospital in Augusta and to tape a segment for News Center Maine’s 207 show (see the segment below).
I was born and bred in the great state of Maine. I grew up in Augusta, graduated from Cony High School, and attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick for two years. Then I realized that perhaps I should get out and see a bit more of the world. So I transferred to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
In March 1983, after I had graduated and returned to Maine, I packed up my car (well, my parents’ car, to be perfectly honest) and moved down to the Boston suburb of Brighton. I was 22. That officially marks the point when I ceased to be a Maine resident. After living in Brighton for a couple of years, I moved to Washington, D.C., and lived in that area for a decade or so before relocating to Pennsylvania. I have resided in the Keystone State for 22 years now. I live not far from Gettysburg, which is good, but it’s not Maine. I have been a Pennsylvania resident for about as long as I lived in my home state. That strikes me as strange. I am not a Pennsylvanian and I never will be. I am from Maine.
Being from Maine is something that stays with you. The connection even grows stronger the further away you go. I still remember my excitement at a concert in Santa Monica when I spotted someone in the crowd wearing a WBLM tee-shirt. I kept Maine plates on the car when I was in L.A., and one morning when I was driving down the Harbor Freeway a car pulled in behind me and the driver began flashing the lights and honking the horn. “What the hell?” I thought. Then the car pulled alongside me and the driver began pointing to the back of her car. When she moved ahead of me I could see she had Maine plates, too. Suddenly, I understood.
There’s something special about being from Maine. For one thing, we are the only state in the Union with a name that has only one syllable. (Go ahead. Look it up.) Second, we’re tucked way up in a corner of the nation. If you come to Maine it’s because you planned to, not because you’re heading someplace else (unless you’re going to Canada, but we won’t talk about that). Third, there just aren’t that many of us, so Maine feels like a small community. Whenever I pass a car with Maine plates I always glance at the driver, thinking there’s a good chance it will be someone I know. It never is, and even if it were, there’s little change I would recognize him or her. Or vice versa.
One of the joys of working on Maine Roads to Gettysburg is it gave me the chance to write about people from my native state. I included accounts of soldiers from Bangor, Dexter, Rockland, Wiscasset, Thomaston, Waterville, and Hallowell, all places I knew well. John Chase of the 5th Maine Battery, who was horribly wounded at Gettysburg, was from Augusta. I learned that Selden Connor, who had commanded the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, was buried in Augusta, just down the hill from James G. Blaine, who also appears in the book. I used to play Frisbee in the park around Blaine’s grave. I had the opportunity to explore archives all over the state, in Portland, Saco, Brunswick, Augusta, and Orono. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I learned that my great-grandfather served with the 31st Maine. I found his enlistment papers, with his signature, in the state archives in Augusta and visited his grave in Litchfield.
I certainly enjoyed talking at the visitor center at Gettysburg National Military Park for the official “book launch” in April, but talking about it in Maine was even better. At the Maine Historical Society talk, a friend of my parents’ surprised me by showing up for the talk. I used to go duck hunting with him. Someplace there’s a picture of him, my brother, and me in a hunting boat on the Sheepscot River near Wiscasset on a frigid morning during duck season. My dad probably took the picture around 8:00 in the morning, but we are all holding cans of Budweiser.
Another surprise at that talk was the appearance of my friend Peter. I hadn’t seen him in decades. He used to live on our street in Augusta, back when life seemed like an unending series of whiffle ball, capture the flag, ping pong, and sledding. One year Peter, my brother, and I rode out bikes all the way to Greenville, a distance of more than 100 miles each way. We had an epic time. Peter’s family moved to Cape Elizabeth and contact was limited after that. It was great to see him.
The Boothbay festival was a blast, too. I saw Sue, whose academic path first crossed with mine in kindergarten. Bill, a friend from college, also turned up. I was talking to a woman who bought a book and discovered that she was the daughter of another friend of my parents, who was also the realtor who had sold them their house. I met a woman who had an ancestor in the 7th Maine at Gettysburg, and an older man who told me he had an ancestor in the 16th Maine. “What was name?” I asked, feeling about as hopeful of recognizing it as I did when I peered at drivers with Maine plates. “George Bisbee,” he said. “His picture’s in the book,” I told him.
It is a small world, especially when you’re from Maine. It was like that during the Civil War, too. After the battle of Middleburg in June 1863, Walter B. Morrill of the 20th Maine was surprised to see that one of the Confederate prisoners was a man he had worked with while lumbering along the Penobscot River. During their march to Gettysburg, soldiers of the 17th Maine almost exchanged friendly fire with troops that had been sent out from the defenses of Washington. Those soldiers were from the 25th and 27th Maine regiments, and for some soldiers the encounter turned into reunions with old friends from home. When Thomas Hyde reached the battlefield at Antietam, one of the first things he did was ask around about people he knew in the 10th Maine, who had already been in the fight.
My favorite experience on the “book tour” was speaking at the Chamberlain Museum. When I went to Bowdoin, the building was right across Potter Street from the fraternity I had joined. Chamberlain’s old home was then being used an apartment building for students. I recall it had been painted yellow and was adorned with fire escapes necessary to meet safety regulations. If there was any kind of plaque, I can’t recall it. I doubt I had any idea it had once been Chamberlain’s home—or if I even knew who Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was.
I should have, for he and I were fraternity brothers. We both belonged to Alpha Delta Phi. The window in Chamberlain’s office looks right out at the big brick fraternity house on the other side of Potter Street. (The building postdates Chamberlain, so it wouldn’t have been a view he enjoyed.) I had lived in the frat house for one semester and two summers, so it was a little surreal to be speaking about Chamberlain just across the street. Several of my fraternity brothers (and a sister) showed up to hear me talk, too, as well as several other friends from various phases of my life.
So I don’t care what famous novelist Thomas Wolfe said. You can go home again.