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A Jig at the Top Of a Ladder

`NOW you take Labor Day,'' said Uncle Guthrie (Banjo) Strout, ``and it don't amount to nawthin' no more. Time was it was a big day, and we held firemen's exercises. July Fourth we had musters, and all the towns sent their hand tub crews, but on Labor Day we had games and contests and fights, and ball games and a big clam bake. I was thinking just the other day what a good time we had in 1928, I think it was, when those rascals over to Livermore Falls got their come-uppance good and plenty, and I shook hands with the governor. ``It was at state fair grounds in Lewiston. Almost every town in Maine had its firemen there, and that was the year we stood a good chance of winning the governor's trophy. He was there, glad-handing, and so was Mrs. Governor and all the little governors. We won the bucket-brigade - filling a hogshead down a line of 10 men in the fastest time. Then we won the hose-coupling contest - hooking up 10 lengths of hose and getting a stream. If we could score in the ladder-climbing contest, we had it made. But Livermore Falls had their try just before we did, and they brought in a professional circus acrobat.

``We found out afterwards he did a ladder-climbing act in the circus, and for a hundred dollars and his train fare he came to make believe he was a Livermore Falls fireman. A fake. A ringer. What you did in this contest was you stuck a ladder up so it didn't lean against nawthin', and then you climbed as many rungs as you could before the ladder kerflummoxed on you. We had Tommy Pratt for our climber, and he could do five rungs, so we knew we had a good chance.

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``But this acrobat came out, and at the time we supposed he was honest, and he was a sight to see. He twirled the ladder around and then balanced it on one finger, setting it upright so it stood there by itself a couple of seconds before he grabbed it. Then he made a little jig, and with a hop he skittered up that ladder right to the top, standing there on one leg with the other held out in the air, and holding his arms as if he was showing how big the fish was he caught at Moosehead Lake. We could see we were sunk. Then he made a bow and came down the other side of the ladder to land like a Russian dancer and bow like the walking beam on the Calvin Austin. Pretty crooked business.

``So Tommy Pratt came to me, and he says, `Chief,' he says, `I can't help us none - it's up to you!'

``I says, `We could protest.'

``Tommy says, `That's cry-baby stuff, what we got to do is beat 'em fair-n-square. It's up to you.'

``Well, seeing's I was chief, it was sort of up to me, so I stepped out when our turn came, and I bowed around and then I stood the ladder up and tackled it. I never done the ladder-climb before, so I was some anxious about how I was going to make out. But clean living and honest ways are their own just reward, and I got to the top all right, and was able to keep that ladder from swaying one little bit. People said afterward they thought I'd been doing the ladder-climb all my life. Poise.

``I stood there on the top, looking out at the thousands of people who were staring in utter disbelief, and then I pulled two American flags from my pants pocket and waved them. While I was waving I cleared my throat and in my good tenor voice I sang all four verses of The Star Spangled Banner. The silence that followed was broken by thunderous cheering, and I knew right then we had Livermore Falls beaten if I could just get down. Which I did. I came down the other side, caught the ladder and laid it flat on the ground, and took my bows. The cheering was deafening.

``Then all the boys in our crew came and rousted me up on their shoulders and paraded me around the fair grounds and finally set me down in front of the grandstand where the governor was in his box. Then they announced that the judges had given us the full hundred points for ladder climbing, and Livermore Falls got only 75. That fellow from the circus was some unhappy, I can tell you.

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``But then the governor stood up, and he left his box and came down the steps onto the ground, and he walked up to me with his hand stuck out, and I tell you I was some old proud of myself. `Chief Strout,' he says, `I want to shake your hand. That was remarkable! You're the only man I ever bumped into in all my born days who knows all four verses of The Star Spangled Banner!''

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