Paul Bunyan’s gaze

Paul Bunyan, keeping watch over Bangor.

All of us have a special place, or maybe a couple of locales that hold a unique position in our personal geography. Often, hometowns hold both special memories, as well as memories clouded by family conflict and the struggles that go along with coming of age in that place where we’re born.

Readers of my books and blogging know I’m firmly planted in a place called Lisbon Falls. Beyond my hometown, however, there are other quadrants on the map of Maine and beyond that are infused with recollections and stories.

While hometown memories are less idyllic, and often rooted in gritty realities, there are places that will always occupy a more idealized niche with all of us. Bangor is one of those places for me.

Maybe because Bangor was somewhere that as early as I can remember, elicited anticipation and excitement when the word got out that we were headed up the interstate for a visit to my Aunt Rita and Uncle Charlie’s. Two hours north meant an early departure and eagerly awaiting baseball games and bike riding with my favorite cousin, Rick.

Also, I got to spend part of the day observing my first flickers of awareness about the strength of family bonds among siblings. My father obviously cared enough for his older sister to load up the car and head to Bangor to spend part of the day golfing with my uncle. Charlie was an avid golfer, while my father rarely played—except he loaded his clubs in the trunk more often than not for a morning of municipal golf when Bangor-bound.

When my uncle and father returned, it was usually time for us kids to return to their house just off the interstate and situated between Ohio and Union Streets. After fighting for sink space with my sister and three cousins after being ordered to “wash up for dinner,” it was time for us to eat. Rita wasn’t a gourmet cook—few women were back in those days. She was, however, one that always offered a hearty spread; either a ham, or a pot roast, with accompanying salad, potatoes, and rolls piping hot from the oven. Of course, being a Baumer meant that she loved dessert, so there was usually an apple pie with ice cream, or cookies baked that morning.

When Mary and I were students at Bangor Community College and the University of Maine, respectively, Rita had Mary and me over for Sunday dinner numerous times. Nothing’s better than a home cooked meal after dining hall food for several weeks straight—at least the college fare we had back in the Reagan 80s.

I first glanced upon Paul Bunyan’s larger than life frame guarding the Main Street entrance to Bass Park and Bangor Auditorium back in 1968 or 1969. I was just a pudgy six or seven-year-old at the time. Charlie took a few of us out for a drive around Bangor and probably an ice cream cone.

Clad in flannel and holding his trademark axe, Bunyan seemed to be standing guard over the entire city, and scanning the Penobscot for interlopers from across the river in Brewer. Years later, I still see this figure as some kind of municipal sentry from another time and place.

I was in Bangor once more—this time a mix of work and later, time for pleasure and two visits before pointing my compass southward for home.

I haven’t seen my Aunt Rita for at least a year and probably longer than that. She’s now all alone in the house that she and Charlie bought five years before I was born, in 1957. Charlie’s been gone for eight years and I’m sure she misses him even after this passage of time.

Rita’s always been a special aunt and time hasn’t diminished my fondness for her. We spent an hour catching each other up on our news. I asked a little about the past as I like to gather history about my family that I tuck away for the future.

After leaving Rita’s, I stopped by the new house of my oldest friend, Greg. After 23 years of living three hours north in Presque Isle (where I was last week, ironically), Greg and his wife Mary have decided to move a bit closer to their former home bases of Lisbon Falls and South Portland. Me, I’m glad Greg and family are a bit closer for me so that that our visits are more frequent than they’ve been for the past two decades. Despite the passage of time, we’ve managed to pick things back up like we were still back walking to high school together, or smuggling home brew out of another friend’s basement. Some friends are like that and distance and time doesn’t diminish the bonds that  were forged on swing sets, over Wiffle® Ball battles, and later, music, girls, and even discussions about politics (or who taught us all to think).

A few more random memories of Bangor:

  • Buying U2’s “October” on vinyl, at Knapp’s, in downtown Bangor.
  • Buying an engagement ring (stolen during our break-in) at another downtown store, GM Pollack and Sons.
  • Schlepping copies of “When Towns Had Teams” to bookstores, including BookMarcs, back in 2005.
  • Mary and me walking from Bangor Community College, braving the frigid winter air to catch a Lumberjacks’ game at “the Aud” with about 500 other hard cores (the building holds 6,000+)

Bangor’s changed over the past few decades. The downtown and waterfront area have experienced a sort of renaissance. For people with tastes that run to games of chance, Hollywood Casino has become a destination, just like the Bangor Mall has been for travelers from the less populated northern regions.

For me, however, the more Bangor changes, , the more it stays the same. And I consider that a good thing.

Hollywood Casino; a 21st-century Bangor destination.

Bangor’s waterfront has seen a renaissance the past 10 years.