March, 1949

Thu, 10/17/2019 - 7:30pm

There is another storm brewing, another October storm, the wind picking up in mid-afternoon as reports of rain are floating in from the west.

It is going to be a dark and stormy night, there is a great green monster on the radar moving toward the little speck of white that is Block Island, sitting so alone out in the blue sea that is on a map.

This is not my favorite month. October carries with it a litany of heartbreak and on top of that comes this bleak weather.

Yesterday, I started looking for one distraction and came instead upon a box into which I had long ago started putting “old photos” in one of my sporadic I-have-GOT-to-straighten-this-out moments. It was taken in March 1949, after a late snow storm.

It is, I think at first, sort of interesting, even this old snapshot in which some edges are blurred and some things cannot be what they appear: for example, there was never a building of any size in the front field west of the house.

Other details may not be apparent to someone not knowing what is — or was — there, a nub on the far hill, one of the World War II towers that were visible from nearly everywhere, odd counterpoint to the five that were carefully incorporated into “barns” and “houses.” Finding them in any photo taken from a distance is reassuring; as the brush grew I thought my memory of seeing them from anywhere had to be faulty, but there they are, unlikely, unintended background affirming it was not just my wishing it so.

Not many years gone is one of the four twin sets of brick piers that marked access to the Searles Mansion, all topped with a slab of cement or stone, and capped with a cast iron black ball, these the ones that flanked the two remaining squat stone pillars from which gates once hung.

There are utility poles which may be in the same place — may be the same poles — and a barn, the foundation of which remains. But it had snowed, the wind had blown, what is exactly where, how the more distant walls align, is unclear and would be even in a sharper photograph.

It is the land that is the most dramatically altered, not, as so often is the case, by more buildings, but by vegetation, one of the more dramatic examples of that shift in the landscape. The same photo, taken from the same spot, would show one only more house, up on Clay Head, built back in the 1960's. Looking over to the place from which the photo was taken I cannot see any lawn, only the brush that has grown up around its edges.

I ran into the neighbor, in the market, and told him of this find of mine. It is the brush on the hill rising to those war towers in its infancy I have mentioned when he started to say how people think it's so old when it has not been growing that long. He is only a few years younger than I, a fact he inevitably works into conversations, but on this day rushing toward stronger winds and higher seas, I was delighted to stop him with “it's from 1949, that's even before I was born, it's been... a while!”

The photo was taken from the field, then wide open, where the row of little ranch style houses on the last leg of Mansion Road was built in the early fifties. They were colored and fascinating, the house on the corner, already there, was red, the new ones continuing up the slope yellow, green, gray, and finally, brown.

It was the way out to the main road after a snow, then and the few years later when I was little, when the Minister's Lot was still an open pasture with the road running through its middle, not along the wall, and the brush had not made other passageways impossible.

I've a handful of photographs like this one, of a similar snow scene, one years later, from the yard looking in the opposite direction, my mother's Mercury station wagon clearly visible in the yard of the house on the corner. Today it would be hidden by brush.

Coming home this afternoon, before the morning's bright sunshine had been fully swallowed by clouds, I saw the good and bad of it in the little swamp that straddles the fence line, another thing visible if one knows where to look in this old picture, a board fence on the southern bound of the field, where it departed the stone wall in one of those quirks of old boundaries. There is fall color on Block Island, my mainland born and raised mother would insist when this area was still more a vernal pond. Now it sprouts yellow and orange foliage, and shiny red berries pushing out browning green leaves.

In the last of the afternoon sun the display is a boost on any October day, especially one over which so dreary a forecast has been thrown.

“It could be snow” seems to the feel-better mantra which does nothing for me because it is rain and I do not like heavy fall rains, cold and driving, making the days of less and less light seem even shorter.

So I go back to March 1949 and wonder about living here, coming out of the winter to yet another snowstorm, to leaving whatever single vehicle my parents had out beyond the sure-to-drift turn onto the sure-to-drift Mansion Road with hope the wind would blow the right direction and sweep the potential of drifts from the fields.

I wonder whatever my mother was thinking that day in March to use precious film to capture that particular scene.

Then I think of her talking of my father clearing the field, neglected in the ‘40s, already turning to scrub, when they and their little boy moved here after the war.