It has always been one of my favorite stories. I will tell it at the drop of a hat, whatever that means.
It is … the famous garage door opener. It is even more famous now, since Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Russo has given it a supporting role in his latest book “Everybody’s Fool.” One would assume it will become a movie such as his “Nobody’s Fool,” which starred Paul Newman.
It all goes back to August of 1988, when Camden Town Manager Paul Weston fired police Chief Gene Ryan. Ryan thought Weston was a “prude,” police officers said. But Weston thought Ryan was unable to deal with the public, had a public extramarital affair and was “shut off” from further drinking at the Samoset Resort Inn in Rockport.
For reasons only he knew, Ryan insisted on appealing the firing and demanded a public, public hearing. It was held on the stage at the Camden Opera House, with the set of “Exit Laughing” serving as a backdrop, with scores of residents — including me — eating up every word.
Ryan was a gregarious, Irish wiseass, who served in the Secret Service under two presidents before taking the Camden job. As another Irish wiseass, we got along just fine. He gave me recommendations about my approaching Ireland trip. He was a shocking change from his predecessor, Chief Albert Smith. Smith despised the press. Ryan did not.
Weston testified on the stage that Ryan’s affair caused numerous jokes and comments about the — now famous — garage door opener.
It seems Mrs. Ryan opened the Sears bill one day and found a charge for a garage door opener. She deemed this strange because they did not have a garage. She called Sears to complain. But the company reported that not only had the garage door opener been purchased but installed at a Rockport address.
Let us check in with “Everybody’s Fool.”
“One of the more serious obstacles to small town adultery was the problem of what to do with your car. If you left it out at the curb, it would be noticed and maybe recognized. You could leave it a couple of blocks away but people would still conclude you were having an affair. … Better to arrive under the cover of darkness, drive directly into your lover’s garage and lower the door before either you or your car could be identified.”
Mrs. R, now understandably curious, drove to the address armed with a remote control for the garage door opener, which she discovered in one of the family cars. She tested the opener at the address. Presto! The garage door opened. On the other side of the door was her husband’s car. She had such a good time with the device that she closed the door. Then opened the door. Then closed the door. We can just imagine the state of the discovered pair, with the garage door slamming up and down.
Back on the Opera House stage, Ryan’s attorney Stephen Hanscom said the dismissal was based on “gossip, vague innuendo and newspaper editorials … right out of Watergate … a cruel game.”
The Board of Selectmen heard all of the public, public testimony and sided with “Prude” Weston and upheld the firing, to no one’s surprise.
Russo moved to Camden and eventually heard the garage door opener story, he told Newsday last week. “Another part of it was a story I heard at a dinner party about a decade ago. It was about this cop who got into his wife’s car and discovered a remote that did not open his garage door. He immediately leapt to the conclusion that his wife must be having an affair and he went all over town, trying to open garage doors, thinking that if he found the one that worked he would find his wife’s lover.
“It gave me a wonderful comic premise that I thought I could get a lot of mileage out of and gave me another main character,” Russo told the newspaper.
All right, the Pulitzer Prize winner got the details confused. Artistic license. Maybe it was a cocktail party where he heard the tale.
One thing is for sure. The famous garage door opener story will be told even more, now. Maybe even in a Hollywood movie.
Emmet Meara lives in Camden in blissful retirement after working as a reporter for the Bangor Daily News in Rockland for 30 years.