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Big hello, small farewell - cycle of one vacation

Vacation comes in a different guise every summer. This summer it came in the shape of four ducks, a mother and three ducklings, swimming up a Maine lake to our dock like a rather majestic welcoming committee. The amenities completed, our neighbors then snapped their beaks and asked, as it were, to borrow a cup of sugar, if we're any student of body language.

At any rate, a certain hungry expectation filled the morning air, though the sniffing was done with great dignity, like ballet dancers panhandling.

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Ducks do make the most distinguished beggars.

A generous scattering of bread crumbs earned us acceptance from these natives as being worthy of their lake, and the vacation had begun.

Ducks, towering pine and white birch, rock-ledged mountains, glacier-scooped lakes - these are the oldest presences of Maine. But even for the vacationer pretending he has retreated to virgin wilderness, every Maine town seems to proffer an irresistible history to go with the irresistible setting. Our town, like Thornton Wilder's ''Our Town,'' is richly peopled with characters of the past as well as the present.

The names roll over the tongue like apple cider when read on the week's rainy day in the chronicles of the town library, surrounded by cypress woodwork and facing a fireplace.

Way back when, Rowse Bisbee was the village blacksmith - inventor of a sled that could squeeze between trees by narrowing its tracks when running through the woods.

Desire Bisbee - relationship not given - operated a millinery and ''fancy goods'' shop in town.

Uncle Tom Farrar, the cobbler, specialized in shoes of ''tough'' bullhide.

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Caleb Besse ran a butcher shop - Ezra Jewell, a general store.

The past rings out in the sound of names, and more. There were mills here - a gristmill, a cottonseed mill, a sawmill, a shingle mill, all long since disappeared. But on a rainy day in the library the echo of the sound of wheels turning seems to linger in the air.

So does the tin horn that the first postman blew, back in the 1820s, to announce the arrival of mail.

On a summer evening you can still imagine hearing across the water the piano that accompanied the silent films shown in the opera house over half a century ago.

The history of a New England town passes before the eyes like a silent film itself, set to the sound track of birdsong and scented with fir balsam.

When the sun came out the following day and we abandoned the library for the lake, the two kinds of history - nature's and man's - came together as an organic whole. Ducks, trees, mountains, lakes, now coexisted with Rowse and Desire and Uncle Tom and Caleb and Ezra - along with the far-off whistle of a freight train bound for Montreal and the practice scales from a clarinet up the lake, heard by the vacationer, lying on a diving raft 20 yards from shore.

Such a vital little universe seemed deserving of special acknowledgment. On the day vacation ended we scattered an extra ration of pumpernickel bread for the ducks. Our welcoming committee - now our sendoff committee - certainly gobbled up the crumbs as if they understood our gesture.

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