We had what seemed a routine snow storm in 1965. At the close of the school year, David Hawkins, one of our teachers, treated us to a slide show in lieu of an algebra or science class. He was young, just out of Brown, and he and his wife lived in the Bayside, the lovely white building on the west side of Corn Neck Road, just beyond the entrance to the Block Island Club. The building had long been a summer boarding house and the winter quarters were spartan, even by the standards of that time, probably more so to someone having spent the last four years in Providence.
Mr. Hawkins showed us the winter just passed, remarking upon the snow in the way I still do: “There was no snow on Block Island, it was all in the road in front of my house!” The only photograph I remember from that day was one of his wife and dog in the road, backs to the wind, before the pavement was lost to a drift. Others, taken on Kodachrome, the film that “makes you think all the world's a sunny day,” in the Paul Simon song, capture the easily-romanticized side of being snowbound and evoke “wish I'd been there then” responses. Winters could be deafeningly bleak and young teachers often stayed only a year; expecting a baby early the next fall, the Hawkinses were no exception.
The storm was not otherwise memorable. It did not fall in one of the winters of the late 70s when the New Harbor froze far out into the Pond and the long-time captain of the little Mobile Islander, the small tanker that delivered fuel along the coast, was finally able to use his skates. It was not the time wet snow fell into a windless night and left wires encased in shimmering white ice that stretched them so low I could almost reach them — a child's memory if ever there was one! It was not the first year I wrote this column, when I lay in bed the night of the Vernal Equinox and heard the plow scraping the Mansion Road.
When we were in school, we skated the broad and protected Mill Tail Swamp Pond at night, cracking the whip in the darkness, and went sliding down the east face of Meadow Hill, taking for granted that it would have been mowed through the previous summer, leaving a smooth surface. A new sled was a rare surprise one Christmas morning, shiny and new, an extraordinary luxury when we already had one, albeit rusty and worn but serviceable still.
It was a given that there would be snow, when it was heavy and the wind was blowing hard, certain places would drift beyond the capabilities of the plows. It was before the construction boom brought the fleets of heavy equipment that reside on the island today, what could be moved in a given day was smaller than now. School would be closed when the roads were impassable; one snow-day we walked out through the empty Minister's Lot and heard the bulldozer in the distance, working its way slowly down the Neck. Before that the road was dug out by hand, by whom depends upon the source of the story. I grew up hearing it was the raw-boned men who lived next door.
We were kids, we didn't have to worry about power going out and pipes freezing, or any of the things that drain the fun of winter storms today. We didn't care if we had to walk, it was a presumption some of our road would be drifted.
In that 1965 storm, the Neck was closed for two days. By the time the heavy equipment made its way past the big drift at the Breakers some of the fields of Mitchell Farm were bare. Of this I am certain because last winter the Historical Society received an email from David Hawkins, retired and sorting his thousands of slides.
It was forwarded to me with the “Do you remember... ” query that I once could, once had to, refer to someone older. This time I neither had nor wanted to pass it on. Soon after seeing the images, I referenced as “sharp and crisp as a winter's day after a storm.” When I had seen them before they had been fun but the quality was something I would not have recognized.
There are a number of photographs which Mr. Hawkins has graciously allowed the Historical Society — and me — to use to bring that winter 50 years ago to life. These are a sampling, all of that storm, when the whole Neck, not just a stretch of road or side road, was shut off for two days. It happened, I remember it, but the fact of two days now seems monumental.