Today we welcome a new voice to Rainshadow Journal, Brooks Townes. Brooks is well known to many. We are immensely happy to have him produce a piece for us. – The editor.
Nearly 50 years ago I bought an old house in a small mid-coast Maine town. One summer I scraped and sanded bare the tongue & grove ceiling on its wide front porch. When finished brushing on primer, still up on scaffolding, I sensed someone at the bottom of my steps. It was an old man who resembled Robert Frost with the shock of white hair, old khaki pants, tired cardigan and sensible shoes.
I’d seen him around. We lived in a village. At first when we passed on the street I nodded or gave a little wave he ignored. After the third time we ignored each other. Now he was down there looking up.
“What cullah ya gonna paint t’ovahhead?” he asked eventually.
“White,” I said.
“Nah-sah,” he snapped. “Sky-blue. Ya wanna paint it nothin’ but sky-blue. Then slower, “Nobody but you younguns and people f’m away would evah paint a patch ceilin’ anath’n’ but sky-blue.”
“It’s my ceiling,” I said. “‘Already got the paint. It’s gonna be white.”
“Get down from theyah n’ follow me,” he commanded.
A little pissed but curious, I dropped my brush in a can of thinner and followed him across the leaf shaded street, lined with bright white clapboard houses of a certain age. Neighbors’ broad lawns joined without fences. Crossing a couple, we fetched up beside a porch with a sky-blue ceiling.
“See theyah? Ain’t been painted ‘n nigh-on eight yeah,” he said. “See how clean ’tis? Now come on.” We walked a few doors down to another porch.
“See how dirty ’tis? Painted white a yeah ago.” the old guy said. “Fly specks. Flies land theyah ’n leave it dirty. Sky-blue – flies think it’s the sky, won’t land theyah. Spidahs & such don’t go theyah neithah.”
I walked home alone recalling the wheelhouses on the old tugs, fishbouats, ferry deckhouses & such I’d been aboard. At the San Francisco Maritime Museum where I once worked, all were sky-blue. In the Freda, a restored San Francisco Bay sloop built in 1885, my home for a few years, the overhead was sky-blue.
I phoned Harold Sommer, veteran tugboat skipper, fine artist and the old gaff-sloop’s restorer, and asked why.
“Because that’s what they’re supposed to be,” he said.
I told him what the old Mainer said. “You’ve got me. I only know it’s traditional,” Harold said. “Why don’t you ask Karl Kortum? If anyone knows why, The Moose should.”
I phoned Kortum, “The Moose,” my old boss, founder and then-director of the maritime museum. Karl laughed.
“I think that old guy was having some fun at your expense, Brooks,” he said. “Did you look on the porch deck under that blue overhead?”
“‘Don’t remember, why?”
“Well, if you did, it should’ve been littered with flies that knocked themselves silly flying into the ceiling thinking it was the sky.”
When The Moose stopped chuckling he said he figured “light blue became standard for overheads because it was a very smokey era – lots of pipe-smoking, cigars, wood & coal stoves, old boilers. Put a little blue tint in the paint, it’ll look fresh longer. It won’t look dingy & yellow so soon. It also makes an overhead seem higher.”
I’d primed my porch ceiling on a Sunday. On my lunch break Monday I walked around town looking at mill-worker houses, at rich folks’ 100-year-old waterfront “cottages.” A lot of the porch ceilings all over town were sky-blue. By the end of my walk it had come to look right, and it’s good to get along in close-knit little towns.
I bought blue tinting.