The first time I heard his voice it came from my parent’s stereo system. I was a 7-year-old boy then. By the time I met him in person, some 20 years later, Mike was a living legend.
Although famous mostly for his spoken word recordings, in his late thirties Mike possessed the easy grace, casual good looks and thousand watt smile of a film star. His boyish charm and self-deprecating manner were so disarming that, within minutes of being introduced, you’d feel as though you were his closest friend.
Mike also had the gift, extremely rare in the ego driven world of professional entertainment, of genuine enthusiasm for the work of his fellow performers.
Oddly enough this was particularly true of those who logically might have been considered his direct competitors. In a manner reminiscent of president Lincoln, Mike tended to be most comfortable when surrounded by a “team of rivals.”
Although not a native, a fact that he was quick to point out, Mike nevertheless loved his adopted state of Maine. Following a well-worn trail blazed by such iconic Maine “transplants” as E.B. White, Andrew Wyeth and Robert McCloskey, he fell permanently under its spell. By the time I got to know him, Mike was considered by many to be Maine’s unofficial “ambassador of humor.”
Deeply fascinated with the oral tradition, Mike ferreted out the undiscovered tales and storytellers tucked away in the corner stores, bait shops and coffee counters of Maine’s “hinterlands.”
With the patience of an archaeologist and the energy and charisma of a natural born pitchman, he set to work polishing these rough-hewn treasures and putting them on display for all to see and appreciate.
As a means of showcasing undiscovered Maine talent, he founded The Maine Festival.
Debuting on the quad of the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick in 1976, this lively celebration of native Maine arts continued through the mid-eighties. It’s doubtful that anyone but Mike could have pulled off such an ambitious “cultural jam session.” But he made it look easy.
And Mike’s boundless enthusiasm for the eclectic and obscure was certainly not limited to the performing arts. His insatiable curiosity, mixed with a lifelong love of bicycles, a knack for tinkering and a network of like-minded “gear heads” resulted in a range of oddball conveyances.
One winter he proudly showed me his latest innovation, a 10-speed bike equipped with a set of homemade “chains” enabling him to navigate the streets of Portland during white out snowstorms. Perhaps his best-known invention was a truly bizarre contraption that looked like something from the mind and pen of cartoonist Rube Goldberg.
Utilizing the basic chassis and running gear from an old-fashioned railroad hand car, Mike managed to convert the original up-and-down hand pump mechanism to a new system of his own design. It featured a series of reduction gears powered by a rider with a bicycle style pedal arrangement bolted to the top.
He transported this rig to remote abandoned stretches of railroad track. Perched atop it, he’d head out on his “rail bike” to explore miles of track across rural Maine.
Once, following a Saturday night performance in South Paris, we were packing up our gear and Mike asked if I’d mind taking the P.A. system with me since his car, a muddy brown, diesel powered, VW rabbit was “full.”
Curious, I glanced over and saw that the whole rear end of his little hatchback was stuffed with an odd assortment of gear, including a colorful beach umbrella and a massive fully inflated inner tube.
“What’s all that for?”
“Oh” he said. “I’m sailing to Islesboro tomorrow.”
As if that explained everything.
Several weeks later someone mentioned that they thought they saw Mike early one Sunday morning about a half-mile off Lincolnville Beach.
He was sailing along, all by himself, tacking to-and-fro in some sort of strange watercraft. From a distance, it appeared to be a large inner tube rigged up with a beach umbrella as a sail.
“But he was quite a ways out,” the fellow explained sheepishly. “I might have been mistaken.”
“No,” I said. “You got it right. That’s exactly what it looked like when I saw it in the back of his car.”
These memories and many more came flooding back to me last week when a friend handed me a faded color publicity shot of Mike taken shortly before his untimely death at age 45, killed by a drunk driver while riding his bicycle in Hawaii.
Now, forever young, he grinned up at me from the worn glossy paper, my old friend Mike, known to the rest of the world as Marshall Dodge.
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