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Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine

Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine
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eastport
Photo/Art by Keira Nevers
I am writing this for someone whose name I do not know, except I know you are a senior at Shead High School in Eastport, Maine, about as far Down East as you can travel before stepping into Canada. Your senior class holds only 37, and on graduation day one of you will receive the eighth Clarence E. Townsend Memorial Scholarship. There are no grade requirements. But one string is attached. You must have “overcome some degree of adversity … while maintaining a positive attitude.” You live where the surging tides of Passamaquoddy Bay leave visitors with their mouths open, but you also live in one of the poorest counties in America. Keeping a “positive attitude” I bet is sometimes shaky. Your scholarship is named for a man who has been dead for eight years. Clarence Townsend was one of those hard-working men whose life usually barely causes a ripple. If he stood out, it was because he was terribly self-conscious about a disfiguring birthmark. He worked in the sardine factories and distant quarries but mostly cleaned oil burners, never knowing a day when he wasn’t poor. There are lots of men like that where you live. Except he did one thing you should know about before you accept the scholarship bearing his name.

That’s what this is about. And about a boy.

When Shirl Penney was born on a December day in 1976, Clarence Townsend was 57 years old. He lived alone, in the midst of a divorce from Shirl’s grandmother. Shirl’s mother was one of many stepchildren who had come and gone from his life. “When my mother gave birth, she was just a kid,” Shirl says. “My father was from Canada and he was out of the picture.” But Clarence saw the baby boy in the hospital, bruised from a complicated birth, and he made a decision: He would not see the baby adopted. “It couldn’t happen many places other than rural Maine,” Shirl says, “but the hospital let Clarence, who was not a blood relative, take me home with him.”

Shirl called Clarence “Papa” or “Gramp” and they lived in a tumbledown house Clarence had bought for $600 up the hill from the bay. Clarence had no money for a car seat, so he got a handwoven basket from the Passamaquoddy Indian reservation, threw clothes in, and settled the baby inside. When he cleaned the furnaces, the basket and baby sat on top. During mackerel season he’d fill the freezer and they’d eat fish until they just couldn’t any longer. Neighbors ushered the growing boy into their homes for fresh bread and salads because, though Clarence was a loving man, he was not a good cook.

Age and ailments made it harder for Clarence to keep working. “We lived on $5,200 a year,” Shirl says. “We survived with welfare, Social Security, and food stamps. Still, he opened a savings account in my name. He’d put $5 in whenever he could. I remember him showing me the savings book and saying, ‘This is important.'” Clarence went to the local funeral home and asked what his burial would cost. He was told $2,000. From that day he tucked away $20 a month.

When Shirl was 12, the city condemned the house. “I came home from school one day and it was demolished. Gone. It was spring and we were homeless.” Clarence moved in with a brother in Calais and Shirl was taken in by Walter and Anita Lank, who lived nearby. “We didn’t know Shirl very well,” Anita says today. “But it’s just something you do. They needed help.” The Lanks had two other children and, like everyone else, they scraped by. Clarence came to visit nearly every day. The state bought building supplies, and carpentry students from the Indian reservation started to build Clarence and Shirl a new house. Two years later, the old man and the boy moved into a two-bedroom saltbox with insulation, a furnace, and their first shower. “To my granddad,” Shirl says, “it was heaven.”

Shirl was 14 then, a rawboned kid who raked blueberries in summer and played every sport he could. “I don’t remember many games he missed,” Shirl says. “Gramp never played sports. He didn’t know the rules. He’d get a ride with someone in town to all the games. He was so proud.”

School, sports, work, and Clarence defined Shirl’s days. He worked at the salmon farm. “It was brutal in winter,” Shirl says. “Your hands froze tight cleaning fish. As cold as it was inside, it was much colder on the boats. I earned extra cleaning the nets. The old pellets stuck to the nets, all the maggots too. We had eight to 10 men to a net and we pulled it up by hand. All that kelp and old food, pulling against the tide. You get spattered, your face covered, boots full of water. You stank. But you do what you have to do. You had a job.” Clarence never stopped telling him, “You need an education — you need to work with your mind, not your hands.”

One day Shirl watched a TV show about Wall Street. “It showed the stock exchange,” he says, “and for some reason I understood it. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.'” A friend told him, “There’s no one here who’s going to Wall Street. What are the odds?”

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4 Responses to Here in New England: Life in Eastport, Maine

  1. Ellen Slavin October 24, 2014 at 10:33 am #

    This is one great story, It shows just what Eastport is made of. You are not just a small New England town with big tides. You are a community of caring people who never forget where you come from.

  2. Laura Berry October 25, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Thank you for publishing this fantastic story. I have strong ties to Eastport and love to go back and visit when I get back to New England. My Mother and siblings were born and raised there. I remember fondly the house on Washington Street where my Grandparents lived. Only one of them still living today and he is in Rhode Island. He is 98.

  3. Ruth Morrison October 25, 2014 at 1:41 pm #

    enjoyed this story but was surprised to see my brother name there Walter Lank. it not surprising to see they took this guy in cause that what they did they took in and brought up many children. they would never see a child go homeless or with out. him and his wife always seen they had a home.

  4. Bob October 29, 2014 at 9:31 am #

    This story left me with a real sense of irony. I was playing music in one of the local bars on the front street in Eastport one night and stepped outside into the cold winter night for a smoke. A young man followed me out and we struck up a conversation. He was a trader on Wall Street and though the light was poor, I could see a genuine look of panic in his eyes and detected a similar tone in his voice as he told me that he had to get out of New York and find a place like Eastport to live. When I asked him to explain, he just kept alluding to the fact that “the #hit was about to hit the fan”. We’ve heard all that before, so it was pretty easy to be dismissive, but shortly thereafter, George W. Bush got on T.V. and told us our entire economy was basically on life support and we’d have to pony up trillions to save our poor banks and their CEOs. I’ve never forgotten that encounter.

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