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It Pays to Ask Questions

Another Harmon story.

I had a service call in Scarborough. A side road off a back road, south of the speedway, headed toward the marsh. A pesky dishwasher was giving me a workout, both physically and mentally, but I finally figured it out. During the test run, the victory lap, my mind relaxed a bit. I chatted with the customer.

I mentioned that I had some relatives buried in this area, in a little backyard private cemetery that I haven't been able to locate. I asked how far we were from the Scottow Hill road, where I figured they were most likely interred. The Harmons had supposedly been the first to settle on the hill, overlooking the marsh. He was quick to reply. We were a ways from there, but he recalled seeing some graves in the local woods. It wasn't much of a cemetery, just a couple of headstones.

I felt the first little twitch of excitement. I tried to contain it, I hate unnecessary disappointment. Still, I think I knew. That’s why I had asked. Because he was the exact guy that I needed to ask. Nothing is simply random. Just a few graves. A little family plot. That’s exactly what I’m looking for. Exactly. Tell me more, good sir.

He gave me the scoop. Follow his road back to where I turned in, then take the next little private road to the right. All the way to the dead end, then walk straight out in the woods a bit, he thought I'd be able to see them. He gestured to the nearby woods. They’re right over that way, not far, at all.

Now I couldn’t contain my excitement. I wanted to tell him all that I knew about Alison Harmon, the guy I was looking for, as he was quite a character. I do like to tell stories. It would wait. More than anything, I wanted to go look for those graves. I went over the directions with him again, a step I usually skip, but I had extreme focus. I was heading into those woods, in my sneakers, between service calls. Right then. Thanks again buddy, I have to go.

I felt a little strange, there were signs at the end of the next road. Private. Residents only. I’m funny about rules, but there would be no stopping me now. I had a good excuse, as long as those graves were really there. Besides, I have my name and number splashed all over my car. I won’t be any trouble. I drove right to the end, where the big snowbank was plowed up, and hopped out. A faint path, tell-tale tracks of a person walking a dog. Perfect. A few steps ahead I saw the crude sign.

Harmon Graves.

The rest of the butterflies flew out of my stomach like a cluster bomb. This was it. Just like that.

Captain Alison Harmon. The Strongman of Maine. My 3rd cousin, 5 generations removed. Here’s what I’ve read about him. Born about 10 years before the American Revolution, he weighed 18 pounds as a baby. As a young man he was of medium height, and weighed 250. His neck was the size of a regular man’s waist, and his shoulders measured 3 feet across. His wrists were “double sized”. He worked for the Cutts Brothers in Saco, shipping Maine lumber to the West Indies. His brother Stephen would be lost at sea on one of these trade voyages. By age 21 Alison was a Master, or Captain, and part owner of a ship. It was said that he was promoted after taking over the ship’s wheel in a raging storm, and holding her steady for the duration. He once drug aboard a 1600 pound anchor that four deckhands couldn’t move. He could toss a 400 pound anchor over the rail with one hand. He rolled a huge timber of Southern Pine that nine men could not move.

He married Abigail Emery and had a big family, it was said that he loved her very much.

Something went sour, or South, later in life. He got a little off balance. Out of whack. Went batty, as they used to say. There were some incidents. He allegedly tried to kill his wife, by barring the doors and burning the house down. A failed attempt, but people were genuinely concerned. He was a powerful man. At one point they rounded up a posse, and went to arrest him. He climbed to the roof and tore apart a chimney, pelting the townies with bricks until they finally retreated.

They would be back. The locals put their heads together and came up with a perfect solution. Not a conventional jail, but a giant iron cage, like the one at the old carnivals where you could pay to get your buddies locked up. He would spend his golden years on display, where everyone could keep an eye on him.

For amusement, he would trick an occasional passerby into shaking his hand, acting all normal and polite. Once he got a sucker in his grip, he would yank them up to the bars, and threaten to rip the arm off unless they met his demands. A man has to have some fun.

This all sounds far-fetched. Hard to imagine. I saw a random post from the Scarborough Historical Society a few years back, with some hundred year old local newspaper articles attached. The first one I read was about local witchcraft, and wrapped up with a quip about “Old Captain Elison” breaking out of his cage one night. He holed up in a barn, grabbed an axe, and dared any man to try and take him. No one would step up, they watched him from a distance. Leland King was another big man, and apparently the only one that could reason with Crazy Captain Alison. They would wait for him. Leland came on the scene, calmly convinced Alison to give up the axe, and back in the cage he went.

There's more to every story. Some folks said that Alison was faking the whole lunatic act, and would never have hurt a soul. I bet they still kept their distance, and then some. Makings of a lonely life.

Captain Alison Harmon lived to be 75 years old.

He’s buried on a little knob, out in the woods. Today I got to stand with him for a minute, looking out over a valley that he couldn’t recognize. A noisy highway, ugly industrial buildings. I tried to imagine it the way he saw it. I felt more connected now, just knowing. Meeting him properly. I hope he knows that somebody still cares.

It was the super high point of a very average Monday. This sacred spot has all the signs of delinquency, big protective stones are tagged up with graffiti. His actual gravestone looks like it’s been shot with buckshot, there’s a tight little group right under his name. Good thing it’s a shotgun only hunting area, I guess. I used to get so mad, my blood would boil at every single act of disrespect. I’m getting more and more tempered to it, which is unfortunate. I hope I never catch someone in the act.

Even without the vandalism, time is a killer. Stones break, erode, and sink out of sight. Nothing is forever, Nature always wins. Ashes to ashes, and all that.

A mystery solved, a nagging hushed, with a simple question for a kind stranger. Thank you, Mr. Customer, for the helping hand. I needed it, I may have never found him.

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