August alchemy

Tue, 08/14/2012 - 11:39am

A plane roars by, seemingly outside my window, and I think of open windows and the sounds of summer they gift us, airborne engines as well as chirping birds. It’s a nice moment, before I remember that, of course, there is more air traffic in the summer. As there are more people, strangers, among us.

Someone wearing a shirt with the words “Coast Guard” lettered on it claimed not to be affiliated with that service. I asked, nonetheless, if he knew where the Eagle was this summer. As if to prove he really was a civilian, he replied that he had no idea. He was quite convincing, I’m not sure he had any idea what it is, much less where, which made me wonder how he happened upon that shirt in the first place . . .

A day later I bought the Providence paper for the first time in months and read that the Eagle was in Newport; according to the schedule posted online, it should right now be somewhere between Newport and New London, which could be somewhere near Block Island.

The Eagle is, of course, the 295-foot sailing barque, a grand square rigged ship built in 1936 in the Hamburg shipyard, commissioned the Horst Wessel, and used by Nazi Germany for cadet training. Taken as a prize of war, it was sailed by Coast Guardsmen back to New London in 1946, taking the name used by five previous cutters dating back to 1792, only two years after the establishment of Alexander Hamilton’s Revenue Cutter Service from which today’s Coast Guard grew.

It has been said that the Eagle was launched in the twilight of the age of sail, although it was at most astronomical twilight, when the sun is between 12 and 18 degrees below the horizon and does not contribute to the illumination of the sky before this point in the morning or after it in the evening, when the traces of light may not even be detectable. Sail had, as a practical matter, gone off into the sunset.

The vessel looks like a tall ship sailed out of history, excepting the orange slash across its bow, but its design and construction embody centuries of development, a thing of beauty pulled from the evil of Nazi Germany. It is steel hulled, with decks of teak beneath a half acre of sail and six miles of rigging.

The Eagle is among the boats that draw too much water to come safely into the Great Salt Pond, but it has been anchored off both the west and east beaches, a truly grand vessel.

Its homeport is at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, but I learned of it not from off shore sighting or peering through the rails of the great arcing bridge over the Thames River, but from a short film, the sort that used to be shown before the movies. I have no recollection of the main feature, I was little and probably fell asleep, but I do remember sitting in the Empire with my parents, watching cadets scamper throughout the rigging of the Eagle. The Coast Guard was a very real presence on Block Island; the station at the mouth of the harbor, and the Southeast Lighthouse, were manned, and the North Light was empty but tended.

There may have been history but I remember only the visuals, it was decades later before I learned of the origins of the magnificent white ship.

Neither did I then begin to comprehend the complexity that is the Coast Guard, created when the Revenue Cutter and Life Saving Service were merged in 1915, expanded when given the Lighthouse Bureau in 1939, shifted to Transportation in 1967, then Homeland Security in the early twenty-first century. The Coast Guard, always underfunded, shifted in and out of the Navy as war came and went, voyaged out on search and rescue missions in the worst of weather, but has, now, the singular glory of possessing the only square-rigger in active United States government service.

Nothing as grand as the Eagle, a single mast rose high above the Old Harbor, visible from the sidewalks encircling the oddly named Fountain Square (and we dare wonder why visitors stand with their maps, wondering what happened to Water Street?), catching the glow of the setting sun.

The moments of summer we remember in the growing dark of November and December and the (sometimes) deepening cold of January and February are not moments of crazy traffic and energy sapping heat and humidity, not of dust on the Mansion Road or doors that will not close, or once closed, easily open.

We remember a night of illusive light, when the brown mast of a not so interesting vessel and the gray granite of the long east wall of the Old Harbor both glow, not merely illuminated but turned to gold, and the white trim on the rambling church on the hill above the town, and the mansard of the Post Office building, shine with an unearthly light.

There is a lull as the sun sets, a quiet on the streets that extends out to the water, silver reflecting the aqua sky, laced by boats, both high-speed and two traditional ferries, all out on the water at the same time, my favorite time of summer. The ropes of lights woven into the pickets on the fence become visible as the day fades, and the life of summer, which fills places that will be boarded and dark come winter, brightens as night falls.

Day’s end still comes slowly in early August, with the alchemy that turns a yacht’s mast and a town’s breakwater to shimmering gold, with salmon clouds ribboned over brightly turquoise heavens.

The boats land — or disappear out to sea on their way back to the mainland — and quickly settle for the night, more lighted than they were an hour earlier, sitting quietly at the dock, empty and pretty in the night, in wait for a rapidly approaching new day of summer.