There was a hermit that lived next to where I grew up. ‘Ol Al Page was his name; he lived in an old shack on a friend’s land. No running water, no electricity, and a woodstove for heat. Once a week, he’d swing by my parent’s to charge the battery for his little TV, but once a day, he’d ride his lawnmower down to the potato house across the road from us. From there, he’d walk across the tracks and disappear into the woods with his bucket. A few minutes later, he’d reappear with a full bucket, and head on home. When us kids were old enough to cross the Rt. 11 by ourselves, we ran across the tracks and down the embankment to see what he was after. Down in the woods was a dirt path; at the end of the path was a board on the ground and a blue enamel tin cup hanging from a tree. Under the board was a clear, cold spring.
The water bubbled up on its own, and it was freezing and fresh, much fresher than the bogan (land-locked dead water with no inlet or outlet) thirty feet away. I once asked Al about the tin cup, and why he left it there. He looked through his coke-bottomed glasses, pursed his lips, and hmm’d in his usual way before he answered. “Dint hang it. Sumnelse did b’fer me.” Sure enough, I noticed that when the train would stop there (it was a junction of road and railroad, and within throwing distance of Squa Pan station), sometimes the brakemen would disappear down into the woods for a quick drink. Al always allowed that after you fished the newts out (and with his legal blindness, I’m sure a few became lunch), that it was the best water to be found anywhere. Even when my parents tried to convince him to come fill up in our kitchen sink, he’d still go get a pail from the spring.
I myself have pulled down the tin cup and had a drink. It was faded blue with black speckles. The handle had been flattened and reshaped, giving it the contours of a boxer’s ear. Someone long ago, before ‘Ol Al, and probably before the potato house, had been so impressed with the water source that they had hung a cup there. Not just for themselves, but for any traveler that walked that way.
The woods and hills where I grew up held many mysteries for a young boy. There are long, straight ruts carved into the woods, with full grown trees growing up between them. In our back field where we drove our go-cart, there were cement pilings peeking from the ground from where an old settlement had stood. There were at least three abandoned old cars in the middle of thick pine forests; so thick that you could barely walk through them, let alone drive a 1939 Mercury out there, roll it over, and leave it. Once, when I was about fifteen, I was walking out there, I was many miles from my home, and had no clue where I was. I wasn’t worried, because I knew at some point, I’d hit a river, road, or hill tall enough to see where I needed to go. In the middle of nowhere, I came across a bizarre site – a patina-ed tin cup hanging from a tree, about 6 feet up. This one looked almost like a measuring cup, all dull metal with water and sap stains coloring it. I started looking around on the ground, and sure enough – at the base of the tree that the cup was on was a rotten old board. And underneath the board was a spring so cold that your teeth ached after the first sip.
This is not a special case. Ask any oldtimer County resident about it, and they can point you towards a spring somewhere that has a tin cup hanging next to it. No one ever knows where the cup came from, and no one will ever take it home. At the edge of a potato field, not too far from a pull-off of the road, or just a little ways from where the old lumber mill used to be; someone made an investment in the future well-being of others, and left a tin cup. I’m pretty sure it was a per-individual basis – to the best of my knowledge, Northern Maine was never visited by Johnny Tincupseed. It is a thought process that those people never thought about. You know you will want a drink, and why not help out someone else too? Hang a cup. Something that will last, and something that the wife won’t ding you about the old ear hole when she notices it missing.
This is a mentality that I miss. We often lament about how life is nowadays, but for those of us from a more rustic area, it is a glaring change. No one hangs a tin cup. No one helps out their neighbor in an indirect way. In the rare occasions that people do help out a stranger, they hang around and hope to be recognized for it. I miss the days of people doing something because the world will be a better place for it being done. Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and iPhones and Clash of Clans, so I don’t want to go back, but I’m just saying let’s hang a tin cup. Do something for someone today just because. Leave something nice somewhere to help out someone else. Tuck a dollar into a library book when you return it. Stick a post-it note on a gas pump and say something nice for the next person who fills up. I’m not really sure what an equivalent gesture would be to the tin cup plan. If you think of one, please let me know. I just know that taking that drink connected me to generations of thirsty and respectful men, and I hope that I can do something someday to hang my own tin cup, and inspire anyone who follows after me. I haven’t been home in a few years, but when I do make the trip again, I’m going to take my son back to that same path through the woods, look for the tree, and hope that a tin cup still hangs there. If it doesn’t, I may have one in my pocket to leave.