April 07, 2020

Maine’s top post-industrialist sizes up ice storm

As one might expect, John Cole came through the great storm in better shape than most Mainers, although a bit grumpy about the quality of network television fare — and somewhat concerned that last week’s flirtation with the Neanderthal ice age style of living might have persuaded a few of the urban pioneers he lured to the state back in the 1970s to pack up their L.L. Bean attire, hop into their sensible Volvo station wagons and drive faster than the fuel-efficient “double-nickel” speed limit to places with warmer climates.

Cole, 75, said there was enough firewood culled from his 3.5-acre Brunswick lot to keep him, wife Jean, and his 87-year-old stepmother warm and toasty through three days of power outages. Cooking was handled by a gas-fired barbecue grill Cole rescued from the basement.

Still, it was not an entirely pleasurable experience.

“You want to know the thing that [hacked] me off the most? Even after the power came back the local cable system still is off line, which means we’ve had to watch just the three network stations,” Cole related in a telephone interview Thursday evening.

“Jesus Christ!

“Is this what America watches?

“Man, this is worse than a wisdom tooth,” said the retired editor.

Just staying alive has been an adventure for Cole since his glory days at the helm of Maine Times. The media keeps trying to bury him, prematurely.

In 1979, while he was undergoing heart surgery, editors at the Portland Newspapers prepared a two-columnwide obituary that summed up Cole as a successful “alternative” newspaper editor, a description the assumed-to-be-deceased deemed far too modest after he recovered and was shown the unpublished death notice.

Avis Boyd and Bob Pond, two Massachusetts outdoor writers, took the premature burial thing a step further last summer. Somebody sent the fishing column authors a copy of a funeral notice for one “Mr. John Cole of Kennebunk, Me.” Assuming it was the legendary John Cole, the Massachusetts writers hotfooted it up to Kennebunk for the burial service, and reported in their next issue that the “renowned author’ and Maine environmentalist had been laid to rest, where, in their words, he “surely is advising his Creator on the needs of his much loved stripers.”

“Apparently the other Cole was a great guy. Everybody cried at his funeral. I got calls from the “Today” show, the New York Times and Washington Post asking me to write something to show people I still was in the loop,” said the still-living Cole.

John Cole has done a lot of things in his life, but the one endeavor that left the biggest impact on the state of Maine was the vision of a “post-industrial society” he and Maine Times co-founder Peter Cox advocated throughout the 1970s.

There were two schools of thought during that era which took an apocalyptic view of the future. The so-called “survivalists” were mostly right-wingers who believed that the Cold War would end in a nuclear holocaust. They prepared for the inevitable commie nuking of America by building underground bunkers and debated amongst themselves whether it was moral to shoot one’s next-door neighbor were that person to attempt to break into the shelter to avoid being incinerated by radioactive death clouds.

Cole’s post-industrialists, who were mostly liberals, believed the world was fast running out of oil, which meant that mankind’s only hope lay with a return to the energy-efficient lifestyle of our New England ancestors. Cole and Charlie Wing, a Bowdoin professor, authored a “how-to” book about building compact, visually unappealing houses based on passive-solar technology, the centuries-old idea of having your biggest windows facing the southeast.

Wood was hailed as Maine’s energy source of the future. Maine Times shamelessly hawked a contraption marketed by Abby Rockefeller called the Clivus Multrum, which is a Swedish-type toilet somewhat resembling an outhouse that consumes no water or electricity.

If the post-industrialists had a slogan, it would have been, “Maine, The Way Life Should Be … Just Like The 18th Century.”

“There’s no denying,” Cole said, “that Maine Times generated a fantasy for many Maine wannabees … who discovered after going through a few winter storms that there is more to being a Mainer than wearing plaid shirts, owning a golden retriever and driving a Volvo.”

As things turned out, the world has more proven oil reserves today than back when Maine Times was predicting an end to civilization as we know it — just as the peaceful end of the Cold War made laughing stocks of the survivalists.

That said, the Mainers who probably fared the best during last week’s monumental ice storm were those now-aging yuppies from the 1970s who bought into the Maine Times strategy for a post-industrial society. Cole said he knows of a neighborhood cluster of diehards who, never trusting Central Maine Power Co., generated their own electricity and probably are feeling “vindicated.”

During the past 20 years, Cole said, technological changes like computers and the Internet have made it easier for people to leave major cities and set up small businesses in Maine. The culture shock of the ice storm to Maine natives and new urban settlers, however, is going to “reverberate” for some time, Cole said.

Too many people, Cole said, have become so unconsciously dependent on modern technology that they assume it’s “their sovereign right” to get electricity, or be served a double-bacon cheeseburger at McDonald’s without interruption.

“When something like [the ice storm] happens, many of these people act like they’re the victims of a big conspiracy,” Cole related.

On the upside, said the retired editor, “I bet there will be a nice little run on books like the one Charlie Wing and I wrote about passive-solar houses.” — WASHINGTON John Day’s e-mail address is zanadume@aol.com

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