Bridgegate in the Summertime

Tue, 08/28/2012 - 3:08pm

There are few certainties to life on Block Island and today with the news of Merrill Slate’s passing there is one less. We all knew it was coming, we had watched him decline with age and the loss of his wife, but a decline temporarily halted, maybe even reversed a bit, by reconciliation with the sister from who he has been estranged for decades. She died at the end of last year, at the close of a good, long life, capped by the day this brother so long missing from her life walked in her door and we all cried remembering their quiet reunited joy, cruising the Island like teenagers, greeted by all they passed for what they were, a sort of local royalty. It was as good a life lesson in “it’s never too late to make things right” as there can be.

While people grumbled that Bridgegate Square did not need any fixing anyone who turned that corner from Dodge Street to Corn Neck Road on a summer night knew it was a terrible accident waiting to happen. While necessary sidewalk projects often eliminate roadside parking we managed to convince the DOT to push the walkway in and actually gain [legal] spaces in front of the Historical Society. What we hadn’t envisioned was the creation of a mini-park in front of the World War I monument, making accessible the marker that had been lost in traffic. It was made special when Merrill’s nephew installed two stone benches, one in honor of his uncle, the other in memory of his father, Merrill’s brother, Albion, both World War II veterans.

Today in summer, visitors stop and sit on these benches inscribed with names not so common. They take the time to look at the monument that used to be lost in the madness that can be Bridgegate Square in the summertime. Often joined by a friendly cat or two, they have an experience not envisioned when discussions about improving the quirky old intersection began.

Years ago when there was talk of replacing the narrow bridge on Old Town Road, just up the way from Bridgegate, conversations buoyed with claims of its imminent collapse, Merrill arrived at Town Hall with a series of photographs of the brick lined culvert running under the road, the picture perfect tunnel through which Mill Pond funneled on its way to the Harbor Pond and the sea.

It was, to many of us, a surprise. Even when we were children (and Merrill’s wife, the beautiful Virginia, had come running to rescue a duck who had bitten into one of our fishing hooks putting an end to that adventure) and it was cold enough that the moving water froze to a safe skating thickness, we – or at least I – never noticed the arch that is visible in at least one much older photo of the pond. The envelope filled with crisp images of the vaulted brick culvert was tucked away in a drawer of a table accessible only to a few in the Town Hall.

A few years later I opened the drawer to show someone the extraordinary out of time and place passage beneath the bridge just beyond the office window and the photos were gone, not to be found in any appropriately (or inappropriately) labeled file; to this day I do not know what happened to them. (Come on, folks, time to come clean, return them, there will be no questions asked!)

They were replicated by a dear friend of Merrill’s enlisted to crawl down and capture the images Merrill no longer could. One was printed in the June 12, 2011 edition of this paper. Perhaps, as was suggested at the time, we’ll have a pedestrian walkway flanking the old bridge; stranger things have been built in other places. I hope Merrill’s passing will not mean the end of the bridge he so carefully guarded from destruction.

He was such a central part of all of our lives, for years the guy who held the power company and its crews together. He monitored the nesting gulls before most people paid much attention, going out to the lonely dunes west of Sachem Pond wearing his hard hat. He was a vocal advocate of driving on the beach [how to say “but, Merrill, if everyone treated the land with the respect you do it wouldn’t be an issue, but they don’t!!”]

“For Merrill” someone said to me earlier this afternoon, pulling into the back side of the Power Company, to a spot where the elevated platform which has enticed osprey to nest platform is visible. One bird was there, standing sentry as another passed overhead.

A day later, we stood at the edge of the cemetery, across the road from the Legion Park where Merrill had been such a presence for so many years. His fellow Legionnaires lined the hillside and a group gathered as much by word of mouth as the miracle of modern technology paused in the middle of a busy summer day to honor this man who had been such a strong link in so many of the networks that bind this community together.

The last roses of summer, mirroring the poem read to close the service, are fading, the bright hips, seed pods replete with Vitamin C, replacing them. It is not over, the mantra of the second half of August, even as people depart, and talk is increasingly of school openings, when there are not quite two weeks left before Labor Day and attention to storms gathering down south increases.

It’s still a bit of a shock, these funerals, and the reminder of the ever dwindling buffer of a generation ahead of me. Later, I wandered over to the grave of my uncle, still missed after more than ten years. I didn’t need a weather channel or an internet connection; I had an uncle on the west coast who called the systems swirling around Block Island as well as any trained weatherman.

He didn’t really live here after the early 1930s, but like Merrill, he came home to this plot of land with graves dating back to the 1600s. Yet only on this day, sitting on the grass in front of my uncle’s grave, does it finally hit me there is, there has never been, a crisp flag waving.

I’m going to chose to believe the realization was Merrill on my shoulder.