After Roll Call

Wed, 11/02/2011 - 2:03pm
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The day began pleasant, then as I started out for the dump/landfill/transfer station the rain promised for later began to fall and, as soon, stopped. I do not often go to the dump/landfill/transfer station — unable to keep straight much more than open Wednesday, closed Thursday — and not needing to, with careful management of the trash a one-person household produces. After all these years it still surprises me that the facility is neat and orderly, and still costs me less than it did when it was not.

A chore in the New Harbor reminded me that only two days ago it had felt like summer. The pond had been winter-empty but flat calm, the air warmed by the sun. It was the sort of offseason weather I sometimes think summer visitors think is “Winter on Block Island” — not so unlike summer, just without people.

It was a perfect morning for a walk vacationers take all summer, from one harbor to the other, past places in various stages of preparation for winter. At 9 a.m. the sun had not been up a full two hours and the day felt new. A slow tide flowed under the bridge, and chevrons formed in the water where some invisible impediment hung just under the surface. A muskrat surprised me in the ditch where Harbor Pond almost meets the road, where there must be fresh water flowing into salt. It disappeared and I wondered if it had gone into a tunnel until I heard a rustle in the tall grasses. Pointlessly, I caution the creature against crossing the road, thinking of a pelt on the Neck Road.

Today, the rain stopped but the sky did not turn blue. It was still and sunless, a day without shadows. It is fall, when the mainland is pale shore and blue hills, floating on a silver sea. The big white water towers, even houses along the beach, were visible from the hill above the harbor, more than 12 miles distant.

I had been in the kitchen of the church on the hill, on a fool’s errand, trying to make some order among the drawer of assorted spoons collected over the decades, thinking ahead to Roll Call 2012.

Roll Call 2011 is behind us.

It is a tradition extending back more than 100 years. The congregation of the First Baptist Church had moved from the center to the grand structure on Chapel Street, the one originally built under the leadership of Pastor Braithwaite for “summer visitors of all evangelical denominations,” according to Rev. Livermore, a chronicler of island history.

The congregation eventually joined the migration of commerce from the center to the harbor and added a winter chapel, and church lore has it that Roll Call began with a need to repair the furnace with the approaching cold. The Rev. Dr. Roberts looked to other New England churches for fundraising ideas and decided to institute a Roll Call, coinciding with the formal gathering of the congregation in October of 1765. A letter he penned the second year cited a need to raise $274, a bit less than the $300 raised the previous fall, to retire the organization’s debt.

The great church with the pipe organ and rose window burned in 1944 when so many of the most important members in any volunteer fire company — the young men — were away at war. It would probably not have mattered if they had been here; the wind was blowing, the equipment was spare, the building was big and open to the rafters. The loss was always spoken of as a crushing blow, a subset of the triple blow of the Depression, the Hurricane of 1938 and World War II. My mother said it was one of two times her mother-in-law had called her in Massachusetts — the other when she heard one of her sons was missing in action in Eastern Europe.

Roll Call survived. In the way my aunt recalled the dinner in the church on Chapel Street, I remember it in the present building, as it was when I was a child. I went with my father and we sat with a few other fathers and children whose wives and mothers were in the kitchen working. Years later, the sole survivor of those men said he did not really have the heart for the event; he was too much reminded of those friends who would not be there.

The way we all have selective memories, I recall the tables, red and white plaid oilcloth over wide planks, with screw-in pipe legs. They were stored in a building since torn down, a dining room that had been in a freestanding building behind the Adrian, connected to the kitchen by a narrow passageway.

It was a two-story structure, I know from old photographs, but I have little memory of it apart from trailing behind my father, in his good plaid shirt, as he helped carry the table tops back into dark storage. I might have been handed a pipe or two to tote along.

It was dark when we went home.

There’s not much, really, that can be said to have begun at the start of the last century that is still in place. The location of Roll Call has shifted, this year even the manner of serving changed. It worked so well it was almost a disappointment; it could have been something to complain about all winter, a distraction from the more serious worries of many a little church without a healthy endowment.

Roll Call, like baseball, continues from year to year. Some years, most years, any World Series hopes have long faded by the night of the big dinner. It often comes as the weather changes. This year, the day before was still and warm, escaped from summer, the day after still and cool — looking, if not quite smelling or feeling, like winter.