Things forgotten

Thu, 08/18/2011 - 5:39am

The land is almost as green as it is in May when the days are, incredibly, slightly longer than they are now. The light at day’s end is bright, sharply defining the façade of the Drug Store/Spa/Inn at New Harbor. I am just coming to enjoy the newness of the color yellow on the house on Indian Head Neck, and now wonder what it was before the monochromatic green so seared on our memories.

This week’s rain was torrential, turning the road to a running river, no more Camelot rain falling after sundown, rather heavy sheets that shut out the sun. Later, overheard conversations had us receiving five inches of rain; the weather site lists 1.9 which I think is the more likely reading, in spite of it certainly feeling like so much more. There was no real street flooding, just very big puddles on the pavement, extending across the Neck Road where they always do, disappearing quickly.

The goldfinches have taken up residence in the puddles in my road. They are there every day that there is water, which is every day of late. They are not quite as brightly yellow as they might be were they not playing at the edge of mud.

They used to be so commonplace, always in the bushes along the wall east of the house. I had “forgotten about them” in the way we do not truly forget, but say we have when in truth we have simply not thought of them in a long time. It is one of those figures of speech that I too late find annoying every time I use them.

There is a photograph on the wall in the gallery where I work, one in particular that evokes that response on a daily basis. It was taken from the roof of Dead Eye Dick’s in early September of 1983, the last day the great vessel Block Island sailed into the New Harbor and docked at Payne’s. It is filled with things “forgotten.”

It has taken a summer to sort out the memories. The Pemaquid, which sailed to New London, was the boat I remembered sitting at the dock when relatives were arriving from Point Judith. It was a rough riding vessel my mother said, and I still recognize it in old photographs by an oddity of running lights near or on the wheel house, although I never set foot on it.

Then the Block Island came on, so much clearer in memory, the behemoth that would bring so many more cars, the curiosity of that particular season. It didn’t seem one, the arrival of which was such a certain recollection, could have immediately followed the other, only vaguely recalled. Finally, this summer, one of the guys who keep track of these vessels explained it. There was, in fact, a gap in between the two, when another, the Yankee perhaps, filled the slot.

Others are surprised that so large a ferry came into the New Harbor, and I feel obligated to tell them the wharf was not built for pleasure craft but for steamers, and by a company I can never remember, a railroad perhaps, a name written in my mother’s perfect Palmer penmanship in an old college ruled notebook.

“It is Jaws!” some declare when they see the photograph, certain the movie was shot here, while others are drawn immediately to the date of the cars, mistaking the scene for one a decade earlier. That the length of men’s shorts is so often mentioned surprises me.

Then the memories spill forth, like a river running down.

It was the summer dock, where the relatives landed, the site of rare family photographs with everyone in them. It was the place where Mr. McWright tossed taffy into the air, and the hotel bellboys sang out the names of their establishments. We met the boat and we looked at the pleasure craft rafted four or five out, and never, until this summer, until someone else remarked upon it, did I realize what a wildly diverse place that dock we still called the New Harbor Dock was, with large passenger carriers mixing with yachts.

There were no rails anywhere, one could walk to the edge of the dock and fall into the water but it didn’t seem to happen. Even more bizarre, at the Town dock in the Old Harbor as well, there were ramps cut into the wharfs, downward slopes from which heavy gangplanks were hauled to the side openings in the big side-loading boats. They were there, unprotected, all the time the vessels were not in place.

Someone remembered the people being held back, out of range of the lines thrown as the boats slid into place at the dock and I remember before that, when someone was hit and fell to the deck screaming in pain. Most of all, we remember the dock swaying every time one of the ferries bumped against it.

The Block Island was a side loader and the cars were driven on and off the boat, and on and off the dock. They must have lined up to be loaded at some time, I don’t remember, and the photo shows a sign “no driving on dock.”

“End of an Era” it is called, this image from 1983. It is not new this year but it has sparked much conversation, and hits all the harder because the title is so right.

“It is so busy!” people exclaim, and do not seem able to realize there really are not all that many people or cars. The boat looks packed because it was one of those wonderful old vessels that came in bow first, with riders lined up on the upper rail, not crammed around the entrances ready to race off.

Other carriers would follow but the great Block Island, a diesel powered wide beamed boat, is easily the last of the great ferries to ply the waters of the Great Salt Pond.