Around the Island

Sat, 03/07/2015 - 7:45am
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Snow was forecast last night. Just snow, no great wind or tidal surge, nothing to turn the shouting red “advisory” on my favored weather site to a screaming bloody “alert!”

So it snowed into very little wind, unusual-for-Block Island snow, settling in thick blankets on cars and walkways. It is the rare snow that does not fit into summer mythology about our lack of same, or that what snow we get “all” blows into the ocean.

“You were talking to someone who either does not really live here,” I tell visitors all summer. “Or doesn't live off the main road!”

I went out last night before it was completely dark, a strange time to be on the road, well after the sun has set but when what little light is lingering in the sky is magnified, even through falling snow. Headlights made virtually no difference and I wondered what it would be like to drive in such conditions in an unfamiliar place, or one with any amount of traffic.

The storm, such as it was — hard to think of “storm” without great winds — had passed by the time I came home, after the Neck Road had been plowed but not Mansion. The tracks my tires had made a few hours earlier were softened; the only real impressions were of deer hooves.

It was, this morning, the snow of selective memory, the imagined snow of my childhood, not drifted to fill roads, but even, smooth, that of photographs of other places. One of those lost memories surfaced, a jigsaw puzzle someone gave us when we were children, a farm yard dressed in white, the only splash of color a red gas pump. My older brother grabbed those pieces, the only ones easily identifiable, while I was still wondering at the marvel of it all. Not fair, he was a lot older than I, and not only did he snarf the only pieces not white or brown, after smugly assembling them he abandoned the project.

There should have been a red barn, there was always a red barn in those farm puzzles, but I remember only the gas pumps.

Yesterday, I wrote — on the online forum I long eschewed — in response to a posting by a next generation cousin, a remembrance of his grandfather, my uncle. He was the same who convinced his plains-born-ocean-hating wife to return to Block Island with their children in the early 60s. They arrived in a big Mercury station wagon with Alaska license plates.

He and his wife were teachers and had been lured to the then new state by salaries higher than those in the lower 48. They expected a harsh climate; he was from Block Island, she has lived through the Dust Bowl, but they had not expected such a high cost of living. The combination, though, helped make his childhood home a more inviting place.

They taught school here. They had three daughters and he decided we could all play basketball which we did, running across the fields to the Spring House every afternoon to play on the lumpy macadam tennis court. We happily shoveled snow when need be.

One February vacation he talked us, a group of kids with no vacation plans, into sharing his notion of a great adventure. We would walk around the island, meeting at the Coast Guard Station in the morning, hiking around the rocky south side of the island and on to Old Harbor where our parents met us with lunch. Then we continued, north, along the east beach, past Clay Head, out to the North End where we wrote our names in black marker on the lighthouse foundation ruin out on Sandy Point. We trudged up the West Beach to what we called Hippocampus and the breach where he had arranged a rowboat and oarsman to ferry us across the water back to our starting point.

We saw the island from a different perspective, the water coming out of the south bluffs onto the beach, and one stretch I have never since walked, from the great lighthouse to Old Harbor. We climbed over the breakwaters and marched down the east beach to territory most familiar to me, the crazily shifting land under Clay Head, Pots and Kettles when it was still massive, the places where veins of clay run to the beach, and that northeast corner that is a bank of sand, a place the late Dr. Sirkin finally explained decades later.

We were in junior high and it did not seem bad at all, excepting that last leg. My uncle carried us along on the wave of his conviction it was such fun that we did it again in April. He loved Block Island and walked a great deal when he was here, as though savoring every inch and every moment knowing even he could not talk his wife into staying forever.

This was the uncle who ultimately settled in Michigan, the one who had been Block Island's first native born pilot in what was then the Army Air Corps. His plane was shot down over the oil fields of Eastern Europe. My mother said it was one of only two times her mother-in-law called her in Massachusetts when long distance was an expensive luxury. “No,” my mother told me years later. “I was never worried. Bert could get himself out of anything.” As he did, and his whole crew, or he would not have been leading that round-the-island trek 20 years later.

One of his daughters, who had begun the whole thing with a comment that she had reached a birthday her father never achieved, a cousin who was on that walk, remarked that her father had been inspired by President Kennedy's physical fitness initiatives.

It never stuck me as any kind of political statement, and it was not; it was simply a program my uncle thought was right. He left us with a memory of accomplishment, and a great "what-we-did-in-February-when-we-were-kids" tale to tell.