These recollections are not about Mrs. Luce, who lived in the big house on Main Street in Freeport, Maine, where McDonald's now sells quick eats. Mrs. Luce was not a looker, but as her husband, Captain Luce, seldom came home from the sea, there was no particular need for her to be attractive. I say only what was said in my boyhood in Freeport.
Mrs. Luce accordingly lived alone in the great Luce house, depending on the daytime services of Ruel Hanscom, her hired man, who lived in the last house on the right before the Pownal town line. After Ruel did his own chores, he would come in time to milk the one Luce cow, feed the 10 Luce hens, and pass the day working the garden, cutting the hay, fitting the wood, and the other things Mrs. Luce required. Ruel was a volunteer fireman, town constable, truant officer, humane agent, and court crier for Judge Larabbee, so it was understood he could leave his Luce responsibilities when duty called.
When I was 10, I was trudging willingly home and went through the Luce dooryard to save steps. From an open cellar window, Ruel called to me, "Hey, bye!"
Meditating as I was, probably off on the Crusades, this startled me and I jumped. Then I spoke, "Hello, Mr. Hanscom."
He said, "Want an apple?"
It was that time of year. We, too, at our house, were gathering the fruits of summer and laying them by for cold-weather reference, a happy way to look forward to pies, brown betties, and bedtime treats. We had more apples at the moment than did Mrs. Luce.
But Mr. Hansom had modulated his remark so it was a command more than an invitation. I was expected to say yes. But I would have, anyway. I was aware that the Luce orchard, consisting of trees around the house and barn, included one variety that ours on the hillside did not. It was a Russet Sweet apple, and in a state that then grew some 300 kinds of apples commercially, it had no other name. As far as we knew, there were four trees of its kind in the world. One was in France, where Capt. Nugent Pettingill had swiped scions years ago, and the three trees he grafted when he got home to Freeport - his own, and one each on the lawns of his neighbors, Captain Winslow and Captain Luce.
The apple was not quite so big as a Dalliance Pippin. It was smooth and round, with a brown russet skin, and a long stem, like a cherry. The insides were white, and the flavor was merely sweet. It dropped when ready, and about the time school opened for fall term the children could sidestep at one of the three lawns and help themselves. The apple was not a good keeper, so the youngsters were welcome. When baked, these sweet apples were delicious, but as soon as Northern Spies were ready, all demand for baked sweet apples ceased. Ruel would be putting down perhaps no more than a peck of carefully selected sweet apples, the last of the season, to please Mrs. Luce until the Spies had mellowed.
So I said I would like an apple, and Ruel said, "What kind?"
I said, "A Russet Sweet, please!"
Ruel said, and I couldn't see him in the cellar, just hear him through the open window, "You gotta fat chance, you have, bye!" Which I had expected. It was late for sweet apples. Mrs. Luce wouldn't use all the few he was storing, and most would mush and be fed to the hens. But none was to give to the "bye" who came along. Ruel said, "Want to try for the $2 prize?"
And in apple time, at a cellar window, what would be a second choice? Baldwins, Spies, Tompkins Kings, Greenings, Nodheads, Fallwaters? Those were all winter apples, to be used after New Year's. The Porters, Gravensteins, St. Lawrence, Early Harvest, Red Astrachans? These were summer apples, had gone by, and were not stored.
The Delicious, the Mac, and the Cortland were not then common. The Granny Smith was miles to come. I came home that afternoon with a beautiful Northern Spy that Ruel had passed through the window to me, green as grass and dandy come February, the very same apple my dad and I were packing in our shed, off our own trees, for winter. That evening, as we sorted and packed some more, my dad looked over at me now and then, wagged his head, and went "tch, tch, tch." He also said several times that all our family needed was another nut. I had fetched home a Northern Spy!
MAYBE a year later, the house next above ours had a chimney fire, which was not uncommon in those days of woodstoves. It was a typical Maine winter day, wind from the No'theast at lickety whoop, and the snow coming in the keyhole faster'n you could shovel it out through the shed, and the sparks coming up like the fireworks at Vesuvius. The lady came wading down because she had no phone, and cranked Central and reported a fire. In due time we saw Ruel coming across the field, waist-deep in new drifts, and he carried a pail. It was snowing so hard he had to dump out the pail every few yards.
Ruel was the fire department that day, and he saved the house. He closed the damper of the stove, cleaned the hot embers into his pail, and carried them out of the kitchen. In 10 minutes the chimney had burned itself out. When his pail cooled off, he waded back down to the home of Mrs. Luce, but he stopped at our house to tell us the fire was out. I said, "Want an apple?" Ruel said, "I'll have a sweet 'un, thankee." I brought him the Spy, this one ready to eat. He looked it over, no doubt hoping for a blemish, before he bit into it. "I owe you one," he said.