Independence Day

Thu, 05/05/2011 - 6:18am
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It is May Fourth and it is my duty to remind all that this date is Rhode Island Independence Day. The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, the smallest state with the longest name, was also the first of the colonies to declare independence from the crown as well as the last to ratify the new Constitution.

July is fine for a summer holiday but I have always been partial to May. It is, I tell people who expect to hear the more commonly offered September, my favorite month. The grass is new and green, the days are long, the evenings golden, the air — at least in my mind — warming. The nights are filled with the sounds of the spring surf and peepers, the mornings with birds rousing long before sunrise.

That is, except for days like today, edging toward cool gray with fog hanging at the edges and rain skulking about, running in to throw a few drops on the windows before retreating, undecided, waiting, threatening, then drifting off to the east, out to sea.

I do not go to the weather sites so often once the threat of real weather, the blasting cold than can easily steal the day, is less and the light is less precious by the simple virtue of its plenitude. The sun rises well before six and sets closer to eight than seven; at January’s end, when we begin truly to climb out of winter’s depths, the sun drags itself over the eastern horizon just before seven, never quite owns the sky, and scuttles off to the west just after five. Then, those short days feel blessedly long after the pit that is year’s end and beginning.

Now the grass is verdant, filled with sunshine and rain. In a month it will be tall and gone to seed, in two months, by the national Independence Day, it will be dry, beginning to feel the burn of the high summer sun.

This is the season of promise. The trees are alive with tiny new leaves, the shad is preparing for its annual show, the palest of pink buds opening to white flowers.  We used to say it bloomed on Mother’s Day, then realized it was often come and gone by then, fallen to the ground like spring snow by the weekend of the Shad Bloom Race; this year it is on its old schedule, abetted by the calendar that places the second Sunday in May as early as possible, just two weeks after Easter.

Here, in this town where the ultimate arbitrator of time is the boat schedule, we live by the quirks of the calendar. Easter, the most moveable of all holidays, is a sort of beginning that has nothing to do with any liturgical calendar. Memorial Day and, especially, Labor Day govern our whole summer season in ways that such arbitrary Monday distinctions surely shouldn't.

I have in my head the notion that there are great chunks of the spring and fall when the boat schedule is static, when four boats run every day, always at the same time, blocks of stability about which the rest of the year revolves like planets in irregular orbits, on sure collision courses in summer, spare in winter. It might even have been that way, once, but it certainly isn’t now, I realize when I am confronted with the printed schedule.

The cover is more interesting, or less confusing, than the eighteen — yes, eighteen — sections of schedule inside. It features the iconic Quonset. My parents’ friend Skeeter used to complain that “she couldn’t get out of her own way,” and I remember the big white vessel lumbering off the east beach, but it is a shock to realize it has so long been a part of our history. (It is the same Quonset currently chronicled in these pages.)

The Quonset doesn’t look particularly crowded in the sepia toned photo on the boat schedule cover; I remember my brother liked to ride in the stern, totally open to the weather with its large “windows” merely holes cut in the steel. It was usually quite empty back there.

We did not grow up with stern loaders, rather with these older boats that cozied up, parallel to the docks, and were accessed by gang planks of heavy, solid wood hauled, manually, with every landing. We were able to hang over the back rail and look down at the white foam, water churned into froth as the boat was propelled forward through it.

We also grew up hearing about the Lizzie Ann and the Rocket, vessels that had sailed into history before our memories, and now we talk about the Quonset and Yankee. It was a long time ago, years, that I was talking to someone about the small old boat and mid-way through the conversation, realized I was speaking of the Sprigg Carroll, while my friend spoke of the Manitou — still “new” to me.

Different boats, or more boats, come on in the summer but there is none of the great seismic shift there used to be when the winter boat was so small that the summer Quonset seemed, if not palatial — that was the big old Block Island on the New London run — at least roomy.

Yes, times change.

Sometimes, when trying to remember something very particular — say, the time the great pond froze, its ice so thick the little tanker that plied the coast delivering oil couldn’t make it into the Hog Pen where it usually unloaded — I've been blessed with wonderful conversations about the realities of the life that has passed away from us. The house shingles, the lady on the other end of the phone once told me, had been salvaged from a building being dismantled, and had been flipped to look like new. They lasted a good long time. It reminded me of all the buildings around the Island that used to be elsewhere, moved when lumber was dear and labor not so much.

Some years we skate on through, like the tanker captain on the ice that long-ago winter; others, like this one, we lose so many people who have defined the island as we know it. Like it or not, we can feel times changing as certainly as the seasons did when defined by the winter and summer boats.