The expression “smart-ass” began to be popularly used in the early 1960s, according to Dictionary.com.
I remember my mother admonishing me not to be a “smart-mouth,” but it wasn’t until many years later that I remember being called a “smart-ass” . . . by Maine Senator Ed Muskie. My mother also tried to teach me that we all “reap what we sow,” and I certainly experienced that lesson big time that same day.
We all remember him, right? Governor Muskie, Senator Muskie, candidate for president, Secretary of State Edmund Muskie . . . father of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act . . . first generation American citizen, the son of Polish immigrant Stephen Marciszewski? And ok, I can’t swear that Senator Muskie was the first person to call me a “smart-ass” (not the last, for sure), but it was the first time the epitaph struck me . . . and was seared into my memory.
Here I was, a rookie newspaper reporter at the Presque Isle Star Herald, 20-whatever-years old. Senator Muskie was visiting Presque Isle for a community meeting and a subsequent stroll on Main Street’s sidewalk. My editor sent me out to walk along with him.
Three months earlier I had been lumping 2x4s on a construction site. When I had interviewed for the job as a reporter, the editor asked, “Can you write?”
I answered, “I can type, and I can think.” He hired me, offering me long hours and tiny pay. Then, the day I met Senator Muskie, he damn-near fired me.
I didn’t have any questions for the senator when we struck out for the walk. I knew nothing . . . nothing of him . . . nothing of Maine politics . . . nothing about much else, according to my editor’s evaluation later that day.
Senator Muskie and I chatted a bit as we strolled along. He talked about fishing, and I, not being much of a fisherman, had little to add to the conversation. I did notice that no one stopped to talk to him. Everyone downtown that day certainly seemed to know who he was. He was greeted over and over again, but nobody stopped to talk.
That was all I remembered, and that’s what I wrote in my wise-ass tone. Senator Ed Muskie was in town, and nobody cared to talk with him. I hadn’t even done enough homework to know that the previous evening, he had hosted a public meeting. No homework at all.
The paper was out the next morning. My small desk and typewriter station was near the office’s Main Street window. I saw the senator approaching the front door. A second visit?
I was reading the long story written by Bangor Daily News’ Presque Isle bureau chief Dean Rhodes, detailing the public meeting with Senator Muskie. Looking up, I watched the senator’s six-foot, six-inch tall figure nudge open the office’s front door. He clenched a fat, eight-inch cigar between his pointing finger and middle finger, each of which looked as if they were each close to eight-inches long.
Seeing me, he towered over my desk, unhappily. “That’s the best you could do?” the senator snarled at me, leaning from the waist, his cigar pointing directly at me. “Smart-ass?”
I tried to apologize, but the deed was done. He stood to his full height and shook his head. “Rookie,” he said to me, and then again, “Smart-ass.” Then, the great Senator from Maine turned and walked out the door onto the Main Street sidewalk, where he was immediately greeted by two men.
Why don’t we listen to our mothers more, huh? Why is that?