In the world before written languages were universal, and still today in the far reaches of the most remote regions of the earth, it has been the responsibility of “story-tellers” to record and pass on the most important elements of human society, and to preserve for succeeding generations and ages the genealogy, traditions and history of the people. I learned more about the intimate, day-to-day history of their Crow villages from hours spent at the feet of Elizabeth Smart Enemy and Barney Old Coyote than from archives accumulated by post-graduate university scholars. I mention this in an effort to excuse the hubris which has led me to print a personal business card which has the hopeful word “Story Teller” printed under my name. It also gives me a reason to pay homage to a number of people whose examples have touched, encouraged and motivated me to even aspire to such a lofty self-expectation. One of those names which will be relatively unrecognized in the region where I presently make my home just happens to be an important one for me personally, thus justifying my taking up this space to talk about him.
After flying a bomber in WWII, studying abroad, and having a full career in government and public service, Bill Caldwell fell victim to a love affair with the state of Maine in 1964, leaving behind a busy life in New York City and moving to the coastal village of Damariscotta – population 1000. Jobless, and at the invitation of a friend in the publishing field, he began writing a column for the Portland, Maine newspapers. For want of the “Big Story”, Bill began finding a lot of “Little” stories, all around him and wherever he looked, and what’s more he had a world of fun doing it; and the readers loved it. In every cove and inlet, and around the stove of every country store, he found an endless range of characters, each with their own unique tale to tell.
He also fell in love with Maine’s coastal waters, and ended up buying a “retired” 30-foot lobster boat he fixed up and named “Steer Clear”, in which he and his wife Barbara would spend live-aboard week-ends and summers visiting Maine’s hundreds of offshore islands and remote seaside villages. There he found even more stories to write up on his portable typewriter and send off to the anxious editors, each conveying a personal look at the human side of life in his adopted state.
Not content with telling just one side of Maine’s story, he traveled into the interior, finding himself as much at home with trappers and lumber jacks, moose hunters and game wardens, potato farmers and blueberry pickers, as the clam diggers, lobstermen and lighthouse keepers of his home base.
I began crossing trails with Caldwell’s work in my annual Down East visits each year, always managing to “just miss” his itinerant footsteps, despite the fact he docked “Steer Clear” within a mile of my own Maine headquarters. I was quick though, to snatch up copies of his books, beginning in 1977 with “Enjoying Maine”, and in 1979 “Maine Magic”, each a collection of his newspaper articles printed with the help of his publisher – Guy Gannett Publishing. Then in 1981 came “Islands of Maine”, in 1983 “Rivers of Fortune” and in 1986 “Lighthouses of Maine”, each a veritable treasure trove of history and real-life stories which might have occupied a full-time staff to produce, let alone a single guy with a typewriter and a boat. I would like to hope that something of the “story-teller” which is trapped somewhere inside me, was put there by my “unmet” friend and exemplar – Bill Caldwell.
While I cannot help but confess to raw envy for the story-telling skill and story-gathering opportunities which filled 20 years of Caldwell’s life, I have to admit that the exact time and circumstances which made that magic combination of factors come together is a part of the story itself. Bill Caldwell passed away in far-away Arizona in 2001 at the age of 82. At his request, his cremated remains were scattered off the coast of Maine, not far from his home “Piper’s Bend” which I pass by almost every year.
At the end, and from everything I know about him, I believe that Bill Caldwell must have believed as I do in the Story-Teller’s Creed as passed on by Robert Fulghum, a copy of which I keep where I can always see it:
“I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge; that myth is more potent than history; that dreams are more powerful than facts; that hope always triumphs over experience; that laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.”