Our Lady of Fountain Square

Sun, 10/18/2015 - 7:30pm

Columbus Day this year was magnificent, a perfect coda to a near perfect season of weather. In town, in the late afternoon, a young dad called back to his trailing family, all of them on bicycles: “Is everybody ready for one more climb... to the summit!” before leading them up the hill.

There was less traffic as the day has wound toward lengthening shadows and cooler air. Two different people stand not in the crosswalk, or the cross-hatched yellow safe zone it overlaps, but in the road taking photographs of Rebecca. She is shining, our Lady of Fountain Square, washed so clean with last weekend’s rains that someone asked me if she has been repainted. 

The shirtsleeve part of the day no longer reaches into the time after sunset; it ends as the shadows lengthen. I find, on the last day of the last long holiday weekend of the season, that I am not alone in not wanting to let go of summer. One couple has their car on stand-by, not caring when they get off despite a drive to Boston after reaching Galilee. They will leave but it is easy to tell a part of them hopes there will be no opening and they can return for another night to his family house overlooking the harbor.

Another man tells me he got up and looked at the weather and decided to move his morning passenger ticket to later in the day. His friends’ dog is the beneficiary; the last time I see them they are starting on their third long walk on this gift of a sunny day.

Tomorrow the boat schedule drops back another notch, working us toward the winter. The Hi-Speed is done for the year; this coming week is the last until spring the “traditional ferry” allows a round-trip to the mainland with more than an hour every day. 

One market has closed, another has reduced its hours. Soon, most of the trash cans will be coming in for the winter, the Transfer Station hours will be reduced; Tricky Times in this paper are replete with “after Columbus Day” caveats. 

Still, the ultimate game-changer is not any one of these artificially imposed schedules; by week’s end the sunrise will be nipping at 7 a.m. and its set will have slid back almost to 6 p.m. In two more weeks the clocks will be turned back, an hour of morning recaptured at the cost of the afternoon plunging into darkness before five.

My mother said when she first came here, in the 1940s, some old-timers still went by “sun time” which was always just a little “off” in her words. The day hinged on true noon, when the sun was at its highest in the sky.

It was both absolutely logical and totally impractical, but Block Island was a very different place, one quite put aside despite all the would be military installations for which facilities were constructed. Today, the list of bunkers incorporated into structures is more than anything a trivia question. Surplus property they became after the war, they and other structures, barely if at all used for their intended purposes. Most still stand, private residences and one business complex (Twin Maples) whose origin is stunningly obvious only in the murals gracing the walls of Club Soda.

Sun time would have worked when the population dismissed evacuation plans with an oft-quoted “you can’t dig quahogs on Weybosset Street!” (one of the more known thoroughfares of downtown Providence).

Still, it is always a mind-boggling exercise exploring the winter of my early memories a bit more than a decade later when there was only one boat a day the whole off-season. There were bowling leagues, active fraternal organizations (with their sister groups) both of which had their own halls. Pot luck dinners were regular community events in the cafeteria of the school.

But more than that, there were two grocery stores, open year-round and parts of shops, the Star and Esta’s, I recall, were partitioned off, the remaining heatable space open for business. For a time there was a Credit Union with Saturday hours on the first floor of the present Darius Inn; checks were often cashed at the Red Bird, run by Brainard Day (“Buy from Day to-day”). When Ernie’s moved up the road from the shore of the harbor and opened in a newly renovated space it was modern and sparkling, with a Men’s and a Women’s Room! 

Photographs taken in the latter part of the sixties document a place very beautiful in its starkness but in truth quite bleak. We were kids, it seemed we had many nights of skating on Mill Tail Swamp Pond, and the school was a hub of community-wide activity but the little Credit Union closed. My summer earnings went to Old Stone in Providence; I have no idea what the grown-ups did with their money. The National was closed, completely, but there were stirrings of new life in endeavors such as Ragged Sailor, a gallery filling the by-then-empty Odd Fellow’s Hall (Koru), a stunningly daring venture in retrospect. The bank opened, a summer satellite with minimal winter service, which was gradually increased until it reached the expected norm of today. Even The Block Island Times, started in 1970, didn’t go weekly until 1988, which seems  a very long time ago to anyone who does not remember life without a year-round newspaper, when we would have to sift through pages of text to find legal ads buried deep in The Providence Journal.

The start of September is still a line in the sand, businesses reduce hours and the boat schedule changes. Columbus Day is not the New Labor Day, but the time in between is no longer the exclusive domain of birders. Earlier, a woman, surely new to the island, carrying what had to be wedding clothes, turned the corner onto High Street and gasped audibly.

“This is beautiful!” And so it was.