One group was composed entirely of lesbians.
This is not a New England tradition when it comes to hand tubs.
The women were led by Rita Goodwin, an alias suggested by the tender feelings engendered in the tub wars. A person of no small stature, with the sort of biceps steroid jockeys would envy, Ms. Goodwin refused to be stereotyped into the hardy role of mere pumper. She and her friends, many of whom worked for Goodwin's lawn-care business, had spent the previous year pumping their hearts out at muster, and now, in '91, Rita was prepared to lead. She was elected as the "Oko's" foreman.

The other group was led by Danny "Big Bopper" Loomis, whose actual name has a better ring. Bearded and graying, Loomis often sports Marblehead khakis because he works for the town, cleaning storm drains in the summer and plowing snow off the roads the rest of the year.

The Big Bopper defied tradition and married his first cousin. The doctors asked the newlyweds to give up procreation in favor of the mere physical pleasures of straight rutting after their first child arrived in the world with a host of problems. But the Big Bopper and his bride believed in the sanctity of life and went on to have six children, each one more special than the last.

For twenty years, Loomis raised his family and kept the "Oko's" together. When it came time to rebuild the machine, he was pleasantly surprised to see all the new women in the club. One evening, something short of a light bulb, let's say a birthday candle, lighted in the Big Bopper's head: "By God, these weren't ladies, these were . . . ."

Because Loomis and his family always traveled together, they constituted New England's unique quorum; as such, they usually had enough votes to engage various lesbians in parliamentary discussions regarding the future of the "Oko's." Soon voices were raised. One row culminated when Big Daddy told Rita that all she needed was a . . . and by the way, he was just the city sanitation worker to do it.

The women turned to the club's rules, a move so unprecedented that the tactic was widely regarded as the social equivalent of the sneak attack on Kuwait by Saddam. The lesbians discussed impeaching the Big Bopper for sexism.

This was not traditional.
Both sides called Doliber. He understood the tradition of the Loomis clan, but at the same time, Doliber, despite his male-gender callousness, would not tolerate hairy-knuckle behavior from the louts directed at the lesbians.

As the only candidate acceptable to both factions, Doliber was press-ganged into rebuilding the "Oko's." Talk of impeachment dimmed, an icy civility ensued, and everyone quietly walked away from the restoration project leaving Doliber holding the bag.

When he agreed to help save the "Oko's," Doliber had just begun to remodel the bathrooms on the first and second floors of his home. He'd gotten to the point where he'd torn down all of the walls and ripped the fixtures apart when the telephone began ringing.

Seven months later, in July, I and Elvis, another friend of Doliber's, arrived in Marblehead. The "Oko's" was a rejuvenated, freshly painted thing of beauty. And Doliber was at critical mass regarding the upcoming muster. He could taste the victory in front of the hometown throng.

Earl's wife, by contrast, had little to say in these discussions. She would not be attending the muster. Neither of the bathrooms in the Doliber residence was back together; in fact, both were a maze of plastic staple-gunned to studs and lead-sweated copper joints waiting to be sheeted in dry wall. Upstairs, a massive tub, the kind used to fight dirt instead of fires, rested unconnected to water pipes. Downstairs, Earl's wife put a good face upon a marriage in which a husband would invite not one but two houseguests into such domestic pandemonium.

This, then, was the story behind the National Geographic pictorial that unfolded at the end of July in Marblehead. Perhaps you think a knockdown-dragout brawl among lesbians, the developmentally disabled and a tradition-obsessed Puritan, all of it sauced by bathroom anxiety, is not pure Americana.

Are you kidding me? What are you, one of those knotheads who wants to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony?

Of course, this tag-team free-for-all is what made America great. This is a country rich in the tradition of hair-pulling, thumbing the eye and the knee-drop delivered to soft tissue. Democracies shake it up, baby; they twist and shout.

Every tub at the muster had a tale of intrigue similar to the "Oko's." The ligaments that hold every political campaign together are the connective gristle of incessant feuds and backbiting. Our neighborhoods are collections of spite fences. The water cooler is where we gather to argue over which boss is the biggest jerk.

And when the rolling dust cloud of combatants gets out of hand, we depend upon law enforcement to blow the whistle. We don't expect the police to put the various factions against a wall and pull the trigger--as they have in Prescott--just to restore law and order. We expect an officer to reach in, extract the primary knucklehead and say in an authoritative voice, "We think it's time you had a cup of tea."

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