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A place to return to

Spruce gum begins as sap which collects in gray-green knobs on the trunk of the spruce tree. In the mouth of a dedicated chewer it eventually acquires the consistency of gum and the green, pungent flavor of the Maine woods -- but only after it has turned mealy and bitter on the tongue.

Why were we kids so determined to chew the stuff summer after summer? Why did we run barefoot over rocks bristling with barnacles and sea urchins? Why did we splash in waves cold enough to suck the breath out of us even before we dunked our faces? Why did we comb stingy bushes for berries and dig in the muck for clams that had to be pried out of shells to dip in melted butter?

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Because we were on vacation, of course. But mainly because there is something about the Rockbound Coast that inspires a show of stoutheartedness in the timidest tenderfoot. Each summer, as regular as the tide, came the realization that our yearround chew of choice -- soft, sugary pink Fleer's Dubble Bubble -- was strictly for tenderfeet.Spruce was for status.

A chewer sauntering up the porch steps with a properly worked mouthful of spruce gum couldn't wait for someone to ask, "Hey, what're you chewing?"

"Just spruce gum," would be the reply, tossed off casually between deliberate chews. "Got it off the big tree at the end of the drive. You should try some."

"Had some yesterday," or "Maybe I'll get some later," was the usual answer, accompanied by a look of grudging approval for the chewer who had the staying power to transform the bitter sap crumbs into what could pass for gum. I can't recall that any of us ever bolted down the porch steps intent on getting our share before the supply ran out.

If the questioner happened to be Mother, we admitted only to chewing "nothing much," hoping she'd assume we had our jaws wrapped around a caramel from the penny candy counter in the store next to the post office. No mother could ever approve of spruce gum. Any trace of it sticking to hands, or legs, or clothes left nearly indelible black marks which only time or a liberal rubbing of turpentine would erase.

Long before we gave up embittering our taste buds and blackening our hands with spruce gum, we had learned that most of our summer pleasures included a quota of pain.

The beach seldom gave up its treasures easily. At low tide a couple of scallop shells and a few bits of sea-clouded glass could be had only at the price of a cut finger or two. Often as not, the best sand dollar and sea urchin specimens crumbled in our hands as we scrambled over the jutting rocks on our way back to the shore road.

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Wild strawberry plants, which we hunted in the tall grass along the road, ripened their berries one at a time. They were tantalizingly sweet, but so small it took forever to gather half a handful.Using a pail was folly. By the time it was full, the bottom berries were reduced to a pulp.

Swimming in the bay was the ultimate test of tough-footed determination and immunity to cold. We picked our way across fist-size rocks to reach the water, sighing gratefully as the first icy waves lapped at our sore feet. Then we held our breath, waded in, and swam until we were so numb we could ignore the first three calls to "Come on out now, so you won't get chilled." Eventually we gave in, walking back up the beach on feet cold enough to be insensitive to rocks.

Our tough-footedness never lasted through the winter, but we returned every summer, eager to test ourselves against Maine's painful pleasures. We still go back now and then, just to make sure nothing has changed. Along the shore road strawberries ripen one or two at a time, and the bay is as cold as ever. A reassuringly bitter taste invades my mouth each time I turn into the drive guarded by the big spruce.

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