When you and your kind live shoulder-to-shoulder at the edge of the sea, and suck your life from it each day, it’s almost akin to being a barnacle. You learn to hold fast to your piece of the rock, and you grow a tough crust—one that can handle the waves and the weather, and keep your neighbors in their place. You strike a Faustian bargain with the ocean: It brings you a living, but all the while it’s pounding on you.
That’s okay, because in a place like this, appearances count for a whole lot less than performance. A man’s form tends to follow the function of what he does, and as lobstermen get older, their lifestyle leaves plenty of dents in their fenders. A few of them drown outright, but a lot more of them will have their back, hips, or shoulders start to give out as time goes by. There are ways to make it stop hurting—Advil, Budweiser, Vikes, whatever—or then there’s the option of just suffering on through. Perhaps they know, deep down, that all of those chemical helpers are just loan sharks looking to own them, but sometimes it probably seems like the only choice.
That said, it’s a good life nonetheless, with enough money on hand to pay the bills and have some toys, and a lot of days spent outdoors in the good company of others who look and think and live the same way. This mix of common beliefs and shared experiences is what constitutes a tribe. Whether one lives on Manhattan or Monhegan, we all need our tribe—and we all have a good chuckle over how weird other folks’ tribes seem, compared with our own.
The more remote your setting, and the closer you live to the wind and weather in your daily life, the tighter your tribe will be. Shared adversity makes a strong glue. And often rural tribes take a much keener interest in daily events around town than in the nightly news of the world.
Take Vinalhaven—the larger of the two Fox Islands that dominate the center of Penobscot Bay—as an example that tells the larger story of this region. Nothing of any import goes down without the whole town being promptly alerted by those in the know. In the wake of major events, like a fisherman drowning or a midnight medevac by helicopter, the computers across town will fairly crackle as the news gets shared.
Don’t think that this business of communal identity stifles the individuality on display here—quite the opposite, in fact. The truck you drive, the hat you wear, the name of your boat, and the number of traps you fish—all of these tell the town who you are. When boys here reach their teens, most of them start dressing like lobstermen, tromping down Main Street in rubber boots and wearing hooded sweatshirts that say “Eat Fish…Wear Grundens.” Their first job on a boat may still be years away, but they all want the look.
For folks in this part of the world, it’s obligatory to wave when a car passes in the other lane, and everyone develops their own signature style of doing this—a spread hand, a waffling wrist, or maybe a double index finger lift combined with a tip of the head. You will almost certainly have a nickname, and it may even be a multi-generational one: This island was home to Pung Young, his son Young Pung Young, and his grandson Young Pung Young’s son. Mainers grow up remembering whose brother married whose daughter. They’re born storytellers. They can cuss effectively. And the lines in their faces speak of a life that’s equal parts weather, work, and laughter—all good things, if you were to ask a lobsterman.