Another August's end

Fri, 08/28/2015 - 7:00am
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Years ago, I thought every year was so special, that every August was unique.

Then I scrolled back through columns I had written other years at the same time and found “August Muggies” the year it was so damp the gaps between the planks in the old table in the editor's house briefly lessened and a pencil might stop rolling but would no longer be lost.

There was “August Gray” of the early morning hour I used to spend on the beach with my dog, coming home with hair soaked from the heavy mist, and just plain “August Fog” which is self-explanatory.

Six years ago hurricanes — and of as great an impact, threats of hurricanes — were in the news. We had not had much rain, although this year we have had even less.

Then:

It feels we have hardly had a summer, more than usual this one has sped past us. The August goldenrod and Joe Pye weed are in gold and purple glory, undeniable signs of the season passing.

It is time for those pre-Labor Day necessities, today a trip to the New Harbor for a hot dog, one of those things that happens as summer draws to a close, that evokes promises of “next year will be different...” that will, of course, be repeated late next August. It ended up being a trip for a burger and a few minutes in the quiet of a beautiful afternoon. 

The New Harbor didn’t seem empty years ago, or as empty as it must have been. It is only in old photos that Champlin’s Yacht Station is spartan, a dock reaching out from a little outpost, an erector set windmill that I always associated with Dick’s Spring, a little shop and Pier 76. The last was a sort of a shore diner hall with murals on the walls, Smilin’ Thru, the house and the song lyrics, as well as the words of Faraway Places, and, possibly, a pirate and treasure. Job’s Hill was an open field waiting for the Oar and the marina to be constructed.

Payne’s was simply the New Harbor dock, the place the summer boats from Pt. Judith and New London and in my earliest, most cobwebbed memories, Providence, landed. It was where we met visiting relatives, it was the site of the only family picture I have. Someone must have been passing around the camera, there is a snapshot of my mother and father with my brother and me, another of our aunt and uncle, then of Massachusetts, and their two children then headed home — a rare time we had reason to be on that dock — and another still of the cousins, five of us, a single photo that encapsulates my childhood sense of summer.

That dock, now one of three marinas, was a different place. A great loop of salt water taffy was always in process, turned and pulled on ornate mechanical arms in the window of the appropriately named Taffy Tent. It was cut and wrapped in papers, vanilla and chocolate, the prized peanut butter cored and the mint, that were always the last left in the box.

It felt a carnival at boat time, when this place was so much smaller and boats and people fewer. Friday nights were special, the dock a place to gather and visit with friends there for the same reason, no reason at all. It’s hard to believe, today, but we stood on the wooden wharf and waited for the Quonset, big and bulky, to pull in. Lines, thrown into the crowd, such as it was, were run after and drawn tight, tying the vessel to the dock. It swayed, the dock did, and even now I wonder, how narrowly disaster was averted.

There were no stern loaders, then, no chains run through pulleys to lift the gangplank, there were deckhands who knew when and how to jump and haul and somehow get in place those heaviest of boards, ones thick enough to handle the weight of automobiles that drove out of the belly of the boat. Mr. McWright, nattily dressed, wearing a proper hat, tossed taffy into the air, advertising his product, hoping to lure visitors into his shop. Bellhops came to collect guests and luggage sang out their hotels names, Ocean View, Spring House, Surf Hotel.

The light in the sky when the Friday night boat docked was the measure of summer’s passage. It arrived in lingering sunlight in late June, then one week in August darkness was at the edges, closing in fast before the vessel was unloaded.

It was an event, there was a process and an unhurried feel to it. Years later, long after the boats had moved to the Old Harbor, long after the stern loaders were new, I convinced a friend to come with me to watch the Friday night boat come in. We got pizza and stationed ourselves on the little rise on the seaward side of Esta’s Park and as soon as we were settled the boat was empty, darkened, the parking lot closing down for the night. It was a startling realization that landing had become a near science; there would have been no place for Mr. McWright or the young men calling out for vacationers to ferry upland.

Six years ago the day began with awareness of the passage of time:

It might have been the mere sound of the radio that woke me, or the realization of the news coming from it. The senior Senator from Massachusetts had lost the battle; that the cancer we all knew would kill him had, not as quickly but as certainly as assassins’ bullets had felled two of his older brothers.

It was also a good day to sit by the blue that the New Harbor can be and wonder at little more than the passage of time, rather than the loss of another summer.