Town Meeting

F. B. (Floppy) Tolman
From Grapevine-2, February 1991

Town Meeting. Block print by Fran Tolman

This block print of Fran’s – as a work of “art” – is both typical, and terrible. Look at all those legs, table and human. Which is which? Are there enough to go around? I haven’t counted yet. No matter, his print catches something special real “art” might miss –something homely, familiar, unstudied, like the hard-bitten characters themselves (hard-bitten both by frost and black flies). Here, in this print, they are grave, a bit stiff, conscious of their officialdom. And although none pretends to be a recognizable portrait (Fran couldn’t have done a “portrait” if his life depended on it), each has something reminiscent of a particular person. Both Frank Upton and I agree that the Moderator is old Wallace Dunn, an uncle of Ralph Page’s who worked at the Munsonville Chair Factory and who taught Ralph to play the fiddle. And the seated Town Clerk has something of Fred Murdough about him.

At the time that Fran made the above print (circa 1930) I was still Summer People, but after I became a genuine resident I went to every Town Meeting – had to, if I wanted to be nominated. But I don’t go any more. The Reason? Well, some of the sport has been filtered out of it. For instance, I used to get a charge out of anticipating the Nominations from the Floor. Suppose nobody nominated me? And, next, while perambulating around the edge of the hall in the slow-moving line to cast my ballot I enjoyed chatting with others who all too often I’d never met before, taking care to keep by ballot, a folded, tightly wadded piece of paper, in such a way as to foil any attempts to see how I’d voted, all the while slyly maneuvering to catch a glimpse of the ballot of the person in front of me.

While this was going on, the hall was a noisy shamble with people pushing in and out of their seats, trying to subdue howling babies amidst squalls of laughter – a brawling racket until the line thinned out and the Moderator called, “Have all voted?”– and then declared the voting closed. Seeing that he had everyone’s attention, he picked up the Ballot Box, turned it upside down on the piano, thumped it a couple of time – and there, in a fluttering, trashy heap of wrinkly scraps, were our lawful votes! These were sorted into heaps, a process supervised by the sharp eyes of us voters, until one pile towered over the other. When the Moderator had checked the figures he moved to the front of the stage and banged, really BANGED, his gavel. This brought on a silence as complete as if a blanket had been thrown over the assemblage and in this vacuum his voice boomed: “Are you ready for the Results of your Vote?”

Now this was drama, this stirred the blood! I know, I know, it was slow, it was inefficient, but in the long run Efficiency will be the death of us.

Fran didn’t overlook the part played at Town Meeting by the hanging brass lamp.  He’s given it center stage, portraying it as a trustworthy character; the Town Clerk sits directly beneath it in complete confidence. Fran admires its substantial, elegant shape and credits it with lending moral support (if not much light) to the official duties of the Selectmen. Its small flame works hard to dispel the grey chill of the March day. It does what the cold glare of electricity can’t: it adds a sense of warmth and courage with its inefficient good will. Often smoky, smelly, cranky; still, drink a toast to it (in kerosene)!  It played its part in the smoky, smelly, often cranky Town Meetings of Nelson’s past.

(Editor’s Note: With March 12 just around the corner, nothing could be more timely than Floppy Tolman’s comments and reminiscences of town meeting, inspired by her late husband Fran’s rendition of that annual affair, reproduced from his book of block prints entitled Mosquitobush.) 

2017-02-08T22:59:19+00:00 Floppy Tolman, Government, Stories|