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Wall Street Journal

July 29, 2003

BOOKS
Remembering Their Maine
By STUART FERGUSON
The title of "Frankie's Place" (Grove, 273 pages, $23) refers to the Maine
summer cottage of Frances FitzGerald, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for
"Fire in the Lake," her 1972 book on the Vietnam War. But to Wall Street
Journal reporter Jim Sterba, Frankie's place is something more than a
house.
His account of summers on Mount Desert Island with Ms. Fitzgerald -- now
his wife -- is subtitled "A Love Story." It's about his growing affection
for her, yes, but also about his longing for a home, a refuge after a hard
childhood and years of globe-trotting as a foreign correspondent. The book
is something of a culinary memoir, too, interweaving Mr. Sterba's recipes
for such dishes as mussel stew and "Kitchen Sink Pasta" with his accounts
of newspaper-writing, wild-mushroom hunting, exploring the folkways of
Maine's residents and, not least, getting to know his father, who had
disappeared from his son's life many years before and suddenly tries to
get in touch. Some excerpts:
Childhood on a Michigan farm: "I grew up . . . milking cows, feeding pigs,
shoveling manure, weeding vegetables, baling hay, and endless other chores
that kept us going from before sunrise to after sunset. I let my
agricultural skills lapse as soon as possible. Indeed, one of higher
education's greatest virtues in my mind was that it might forever
foreclose the possibility of returning to farm life in central Michigan,
where dairy cows might again rule my life. Cows had to be milked twice a
day. We did it by hand which I had considered to be a form of slavery."

Writing, hunting for mushrooms, learning about WASPs, among other
things.


Early newspaper days in Washington as assistant to James "Scotty" Reston
of the New York Times: " 'Sterba, [said Reston] . . . the president is on
the line. Take some notes.' [Lyndon] Johnson chewed Scotty up and down for
fifty minutes, accusing him of joining critics who were disloyal to
America, who wanted the communists to win, people out to destroy our
country. Scotty had written a tough column criticizing the president's
Vietnam War policies. Johnson rattled on, spewing profanities, not
stopping to catch his breath. Scotty couldn't get a word in edgewise. . .
. I scribbled 17 pages of notes on a yellow legal pad. When the president
hung up, I could only read brief snatches of what I'd written. I rushed
into Scotty's office and confessed what happened. "'Oh, that's all right,'
he said gently. Then his frown turned to a big grin. 'I think I got the
drift.' "
The "FitzGerald Survival School," discovered on the first visit, as a
guest, to Frankie's place: "Frankie's idea of entertainment included
so-called walks up and down mountains that would have been called forced
marches in many of the world's armies. There was 'swimming,' an anemic
euphemism for the shock therapy that awaited us in the icy ocean waters of
Somes Sound. Tennis meant putting oneself at the wrong end of a vicious
forehand. Then came trips to smaller islands and walks around their rocky
shores. Then sailing, which meant following orders, sorting out a tangle
of ropes, being corrected for calling them ropes instead of lines and
sheets, and pulling them and cranking winches until rarely used muscles
burned and, later, ached."
Maine's fauna: "[The Maine Lobster Promotion Council] came up with the
idea of calling lobster 'the ultimate white meat.' . . . The National Pork
Production Council, which had come up with the phrase 'the other white
meat' for pork, took offense. It claimed that the lobster people were
guilty of trademark infringement and filed a lawsuit. . . . At the Maine
Lobster Festival in Rockland that summer, lobster supporters put on
anti-pork street theater. They borrowed a pig, named it Spam, and put a
saddle on it. They strapped a lobster called Leroy to the saddle. The
lobster rode the pig around for a while to demonstrate who was boss, at
least in Maine."
Its other fauna: "When I first came to Northeast Harbor with Frankie, I
paid little attention to its summer inhabitants. I heard Frankie's friends
describe them variously as 'high WASPs' and 'proper Bostonians' and
'snooty Philadelphians,' but in those early summers I met very few people
who seemed to qualify. . . . Just as Frankie consulted her birding books
for distinguishing features, I turned to WASP guidebooks. They told me to
look for men wearing pink or green trousers and having 'aquiline noses'. .
. . Their names are usually a giveaway: Schofield, Minturn, Hamilton,
Bradley, Whitney, Warrington, Denholm, Burnham, Crawford, Compton,
Stockton, and Granville. Those were their first names."
Placing a call to his long-lost father: "I took a deep breath. I didn't
know what I was feeling, but I was feeling something. I pretended to be
calm in front of Frankie, putting on my foreign correspondent's demeanor
-- stay cool in dicey situations and appear not to be apprehensive or
frightened, try not to sweat. My conscious mind was trying to operate in
this way, but my unconscious mind had taken over. This was not some war, a
coup d'etat, or a riot. This reached back to feelings about being alone in
a dark room in a strange house. This was about my broken home, living with
relatives, a mother who visited on weekends. This was about getting a
stepfather with a temper and little tolerance for talk about needs and
feelings. As I stared at the Florida telephone number, what I felt was a
child's fear of being hurt."
Mr. Ferguson is an editor on the Journal's Leisure & Arts page.

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