Islander's Blog

Archive for December, 2008

A light in the darkness

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

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When I first moved to Nantucket you could sit on my porch and see nothing but darkness. On summer nights you could hear the guitar riffs from the legendary music hall and bar called Thirty Acres, fighting for aural space with the peepers.

Corky Laing, who I got to know a few years ago and who was the drummer for the classic 1970s power trio Mountain, was said to have written the song “Mississippi Queen” on the spot one hot summer night at Thirty Acres, when the power went out on every instrument on the stage except his drums.

But this is not a screed about the way things once were on Nantucket. This is about how a neighborhood was created. Friendship Lane was built out of a sandpit in the last 20 years. Things change. This time the change was good. It is a neighborhood of working people, where my son and his pals would skateboard when they were kids. It is where my grandkids are now brought for day care.

And it is where the best Christmas lights on the island can be found. Every year Scott Bamber turns his house into a landing strip for St. Nick. These are serious Christmas lights. I have often wondered if you can see them from Google Earth.

Years ago I thought it was kind of cool when a couple of large blowup snowmen could be seen on some yards. And downtown always looks nice this time of year. But at Bamber’s there is even a small train that shuttles kids through the yard/exhibit.

It has encouraged some of the neighbors to fire up their own Christmas-light displays. But these fall into the category of outlining the silhouette of your house with lights. It can be very pretty, but it is the same holiday lighting scheme I use on a much smaller scale. They need a few upgrades before they can be called Bamber-esque.

I know Christmas is a religious holiday. I even know a yard where you can see a giant blow-up dreidel, if you want to be multi-denominational this time of year. Still, there are plenty of places on this island where when it is dark, it is dark. Lights in the darkness of winter, especially in times of struggle, are a good thing. Just ask the Druids. And a few bright lights in the darkness cannot be too far from what is sometimes called the true meaning of the season.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker on Nantucket

Foul Weather Musings

Friday, December 12th, 2008

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If you travel from town, down Madaket Road, past Ram Pasture but well before you get to the dump, there is a dirt road that leads to the ocean. It is a place that reminds you of the power of the thundering Atlantic. You can stand there and understand how this island must have felt in the 1800s.

This is especially true in the off-season, when you are not likely to see another person on the long stretch of sand. The word atavistic comes to mind.

There was a time when shipwrecked sailors, who made it to the beach alive, might well die of exposure before reaching the safety of a farmhouse. On a cold and rainy day in December, when the wind is making the drops go sideways, it is not difficult to imagine a different time here.

I left my truck and stood near the edge of a steep bank, where early this summer I had seen swallows flying out of nests in small holes in the sandy bank. I am not great at reading the water, after two decades here I still only pretend to be able to smell a bluefish slick. But I could clearly see several places where the waves broke over sandbars. I knew that in front of the closest one there was a deep drop-off. There is a reason that surfers like these waters.

There is also a reason that cargo ships that slammed into sandbars just 300 yards offshore were once in mortal danger. Here is how one unfortunate mariner crossed those sandbars to the beach.

“In attempting to clear away the long boat, a sea struck her, and washed him away; he clung to her and in a very short time found himself on the shore. After reaching the shore he heard the dying shrieks of the crew. The arm of one of the men, lashed to a piece of the quarter rail, had drifted ashore and the beach was strewn with fragments of the vessel.”

That description comes from a story in the Republican Herald newspaper, of Providence, Rhode Island, on Saturday, Dec. 15, 1828. The man who washed ashore was the first mate, and the only survivor of the brig Packet, which had left St. Petersburg for Providence, Rhode Island with a cargo of hemp and iron. They never made it. The ship was cast ashore near Miacomet Pond and immediately broke to pieces.

Almost 60 years later, a three-masted schooner named the T.B. Witherspoon also the bad luck to be navigating off our island on one of those January nights that can only be described by the weather. The crew, including the first mate’s young wife and 6-year-old child, found themselves in the teeth of a storm so bad that they could not make it to the shore and rescue teams could not make it to the ship.

In the end, they all died, except that first mate. They were just 100 yards from the shore.

I stood looking at the ocean, thinking of men dying just a football field away, close enough for those on the shore to watch in helpless horror.

Then modern life interrupted the moment. My cell phone chirped that I had missed a message. I coach junior varsity basketball and we had been getting this season’s team ready for their first game today. But it would have to wait. The team we were scheduled to play could not make it to the island. The boats had been cancelled due to high winds.
– John Stanton

Shop Local

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

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There is a lot of talk these days about keeping downtown viable, about saving Main Street. Much of that talk centers around our notions of a time long gone, when things were cheaper, old men sat on benches watching the world pass by, kids and dogs ran free downtown, and local businesses were where people shopped.

It is pleasant to remember such times. They make for great stories and memories. Much of it is retold in this very blog and by this very writer. But if we are to move ahead and retain something of a community feel, then much of that longing for the old days is beside the point.

And so with the Christmas season upon us, and Stroll behind us, it was good time to take a look at Main Street from a shop-owner’s point of view.

Liz Rocks has watched Main street through the window of Wolfhound for two decades, as the owner of the shop for the last 10 years. Like a lot of local merchants, she can see the tide of business ebb whenever another downtown place closes its doors.

“When we lost RJ Miller’s and the pharmacy last year, that hurt,” she said. “Now the Camera Shop is getting ready to close and maybe the Atlantic Café.” She shrugs, not needing to finish the thought. She tries to remain optimistic. “The Friday after Thanksgiving I saw a more local people downtown than I have in the past.”

It is that local person she stays open all year for. This is not one of those shops or restaurants that have decided it is not profitable to stay open in the off-season. You will never see a sign on her door that says, “Closed. See you at Stroll.”

Rocks is not alone in staying open all winter. There are still a handful of true owner-operator types, people who take a loss to keep their stores open because they think it is the right thing to do. These are the kind of shops where the person behind the counter is very often the person who owns the place.

“On this little block alone there is Sammy at Nobby Shop and Stephanie at Peach Tree,” she said.

The core of downtown is built on shops like these. They are places where I know the shop owners by their first names – although if they are of a certain age I cannot stop myself from calling them Mr. or Mrs. – or more likely we recognize each other from years of seeing each other here and there around the island without even really knowing each other’s names.

Rocks knows that a lot of local people have begun to think that the stores downtown are not meant for them.

“My store is a mix of some things that are high-end and some that are more reasonable,” she said. “But every store downtown offers the possibility of finding something unique and reasonable and not from a mall. I don’t want people to run up their credit cards, but local people can make a difference by simply shopping on-island first. If you don’t find what you need, you can always go off-island later.”

Her small-town Christmas moment came on Friday night of Stroll weekend. Two big decorations, based on the “Nutcracker Suite,” were left outside for the night and the next morning they were gone. They are generally brought inside for the night for the very reason that they might be tempting to kids, or drunks, or who knows who. Anyway, they were gone. No ransom note. Just gone.

Then on Monday morning they were back. Just like that.

“We’re not sure of their story,” said Liz with a smile. “It might have been a good Samaritan or one of the cops that walk downtown that found them and knew where they belonged.”

These are not chain stores, where the money goes off-island. This is what our neighbors do for a living. These are places where the money you spend gets circulated around town.

It is easy to find books on or a new winter coat on LL Bean’s website. But you pay a price that does not show up on your credit card. That price is the loss of something important, the further erosion of that thing we call community.

Last week I was looking to buy a book as a gift for someone. I went downtown, had a beer at the Brotherhood, and walked next store to Nantucket Bookworks. I found the book. But I also said hello to Wendy – who owns the place and keeps it open later than her accountant might advise so there is another shop with its lights on after dark – and chatted for a few moments with Dick Burns, who has worked there off and on for years and knows about books.

It was just a small moment in my day. Pleasant but not momentous. Still, we spend time looking in the rear-view mirror at the past, longing for a different time. But if that small moment did not describe what we are looking for, then I am not sure what we really want. Sometimes it is up to us all to look with different eyes.
– John Stanton

Waterfront News

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

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The dredging project at the White Elephant/Children’s Beach area is well underway. A deep pit was dug up on Children’s Beach to accept the spoils. I’m thinking it will eventually be covered up with clean sand. After dredging the White Elephant/Children’s Beach area, the dredge will move over to in front of the new Great Harbor Yacht Club at the end of Washington Street to start dredging there. Pictures
– Martie Mack writes the Nantucket Waterfront News blog

Merle Orleans – The Quintessential Newspaperwoman

Sunday, December 7th, 2008

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Someone, I forget who, once wrote that he learned how to act by watching old cowboy movies. He meant those horse operas that filled Saturday matinees, before the genre was spun into spaghetti westerns, crafted to reflect the sensibilities of great Japanese Samurai films, or turned into political tracts.

As a kid I felt the same way about certain big-city newspaper columnists. They were a window through which I could see a certain kind of urban life, filled with attitudes and characters that to me felt as comfortable as an old pair of sneakers.

Then I moved to Nantucket. My first week on island I met a woman who was the island counterpart to those columnists that had shaped my youth, whose writing was a sort of mirror image to the urban world they walked.

Merle Orleans – her full name was Merle Turner Blackshaw Orleans – stormed into the newspaper office, where I had just begun my new job one morning. She declared that we should write that an elderly man – who appeared to have walked into the ocean the night before, in a state of confusion brought on by some sort of Alzheimer’s – like dementia, and drowned – had died in a swimming accident.

Merle Orleans had a very old-fashioned way of looking out for people, of allowing them to preserve a sense of dignity, when their names were linked to unhappy events. I was young and arrogant, and it took a while for me to understand that.

Merle had been around newspapers since she was a little girl. Her father was Harry Turner, editor and publisher of The Inquirer and Mirror in the early 1900s. The newspaper, like a lot of small-town newspapers has always had what might be called a local society column, where bits and pieces of news, announcements and observations, were cobbled together.

Merle wrote the “Here and There” column for 50 years, and once upon a time there was no way to get a sense of this island without reading it. Russell Baker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and long-time summer resident, once told me “Here and There” was always his favorite part of the newspaper.

She began her column by noting when the sun rose and when it would set, reminding readers when to light their automobile and carriage lamps. Years passed before I realized the importance of knowing when the sun rose and set, or got a feel for those rhythms. It was not until then that I began to understand life here, rather than simply tying to superimpose my own life over this place.

Merle was a living repository of those small moments that describe the bigger history of Nantucket. As in 1981, when a large group of pilot whales (sometimes called blackfish) had stranded themselves up on a beach, she wrote about how times and attitudes change.

“Back in 1918, over 59 of the creatures were beached on the north shore on July 3, and another 130 plus stranded on the Cliff Beach a month later. Among many other Nantucketers, we remember being taken down to the beach by our father, and walking from one blackfish to another, slipping and sliding, while he took innumerable pictures of the unfortunate animals. Such an activity – walking across the bodies – would be unthinkable today, but back then no one gave it a thought, just curiosity, while fruitless attempts were being made to get them back across the sandbar out to deeper water.”

These days when countless bloggers do their thing on the web, including myself, Merle’s work stands in high contrast. She did not write because she thought people might like to hear what she had to say. She wrote because it was her job. It was a trade she had been born into.

But it was not a stack of old newspapers or the newness of the blogosphere that made me think of Merle. It was catching a glimpse of the sky as I drove home early last week. The crescent moon with the two planets lined up so as to appear next to each other.

I tried to remember which two planets they were. Merle would have known. Twenty years ago she would call my wife – another woman born into the newspaper trade – every so often and tell us to go out into the back yard and look at something in the night sky.
– John Stanton is a writer and a filmmaker on Nantucket.

Thanksgiving Leftovers

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

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“When Black Friday comes, 
I’ll collect everything I’m owed. 
And before my friends find out,
 I’ll be on the road.”
– Steely Dan

We were on the road for Black Friday, visiting family for my favorite holiday. Nobody had spoken about the economy as we sat down to the turkey. As I watched my nephew play high school football, my brother, a surveyor, did say he still had work but was not sure what will happen next. We quickly went back to watching the game.

The economy is becoming this country’s main topic of conversation, and not in an abstract way.

The game itself was pure Thanksgiving Day high school football. The stands were filled. Both teams had marching bands that provided an ongoing soundtrack. The band from the school we were rooting for was selected to play at the Rose Bowl.

My nephew had a dozen tackles from his linebacker position. But in the end a team that was 1-9 was overpowered by a team that is heading to the Super Bowl. Great band, lousy team.

Friday morning the television was filled with people waiting in line for doors to open at shopping malls. Later that afternoon we heard on the radio that a clerk had been trampled to death. The news seemed surreal and I could not get the idea out of my head that somebody was going to have to remember that a loved one had died that way.

This weekend is our own barometer of the economy, the Christmas Stroll.

It is helpful to remember that the Stroll was originally a way to make it easier for islanders to stay home and shop. Then came the idea of extending the season into something called the shoulder season. Now the hope is for one last burst of summer-style spending from summer people.

Years ago I worked on a newspaper in West Virginia coal country. There was a local store from a chain I had never heard of, a sort of very small department store. The week after Thanksgiving, the store put up a Christmas tree and surrounded it with a four-foot chicken-wire fence.

The idea was that you would take a ticket and it would say boy or girl and age, so that you could buy an appropriate gift. The store would wrap it and you put it under the tree. By Christmas the gifts were piled to the top of the fence.

Now this was a very poor place, where unemployment was close to an all-time high. But just about everyone knew somebody worse off than they were and they dug into their pockets.

The contrast between that West Virginia reality and the fur coats and big money that I shared a flight from Hyannis with, as I made my way back to the island, was stunning.

Things are different this year, of course, and getting an influx of dollars into the cash registers of local merchants is a step in the right direction.

Deer season began this week, and somebody already got shot. Fortunately it was not fatal. The island’s very first deer season, in 1935, was brought to a halt when a man named George Sylvia was accidentally shot and killed. Then-Governor James Michael Curley stepped in and canceled the season.

It was a season filled with controversy. To begin with, the deer had been seen as a sort of wild petting zoo, ever since they arrived. So hunting them was not everyone’s idea of sport.

Most people know the story of how the deer got here. In 1922 some commercial fishermen picked up a buck they came across swimming in the sound, and released him into the wild on Nantucket. Four years later a man named Breckinridge Long had two does shipped here and let them free. Before long there was a deer herd.

Deer hunting meant driving out into the moors just before dawn or just at dusk, sitting quietly for a while, then turning on the car lights to see if there were any deer nearby. People were outraged when the state decided to allow for an open season on deer, and hunters from the mainland began to arrive.

These says there is just as much discussion over the fate of the herd, but now it centers around deer as carriers of Lyme disease.

And “Old Buck,” the original deer who was fished out of the ocean? He was hit by a car on the Polpis Road and killed in 1932.
– John Stanton

Fishy Advice

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2008

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He was making leftover Thanksgiving turkey into turkey pot pie as I sat in his kitchen. You could see a boat called Fishy Advice in the back yard, like a car up on blocks.

“I love that boat,” said Ken Wiggin. “When I was a kid, my father and I fished all the time together. He used to say that someday we’d have a boat, and that boat is just what we both had in mind.”

It is a 25-foot Privateer, perfect for kicking around looking for striped bass and maybe doing a few charters. I happen to know that Fishy Advice is also the name of a race horse that Ken and our mutual pal Bill Mentes put a few bucks on now and then, as they followed his racing career.

It says something good about a man that he would name his boat after a race horse. And if just the sight of a hardworking little boat sitting in your back yard puts a smile on your face, you know you have found a place to call home.

“Sometimes I pull into the driveway with (his wife) Kathy and see the boat there and it just makes me very happy,” said Ken. “I wish my dad had lived to see it.”

But we were not there to talk about charter fishing. We were there to talk about scalloping.

“We had another old boat in the back yard that used to be a scallop boat,” he said. “The kids had been using it to get out in the harbor and fish, but eventually it was just sitting there. So I decided to fix it up.”

Like any number of guys, Ken came here to work on a construction job and one day woke up to find he was still here, even though the job was long ago finished. He grew up in the South Shore town of Rockland, and began working in the HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) trade as soon as he graduated high school. It was the trade that brought him to Nantucket.

“The local guys I worked with used to joke that I was never going to leave the island,” he said. “I kept telling them I was leaving after the job was done. But I never left.”

Ken and Kathy raised seven kids, the last few on the island. “I wish I had the chance to raise them all here,” he said. They now help raise their grandkids.

In between raising the kids and working, he fixed up the boat. Oscar Bunting and Karsten Reinemo, two guys who know as much about scalloping as anybody, gave him some advice on how to set the boat up to dredge bay scallops. He bought a new four-stroke engine.

Then he bought a commercial scalloping license and went out on the harbor. His first season on the water was not the kind that breeds optimism.

“The year before had been a great year,” he said. “But my first year was one of the worst years anyone could remember. I figured that I had single-handedly ruined the industry just by being out there.”

Over the next few seasons he learned a lot about fishing for bay scallops. “The hardest thing I had to learn that first year was identifying which were seed and which ones you can take. This is a small island and people here love to talk, and I did not want them saying that I was taking seed.”

He shrugs when asked for an opinion on this season’s sometimes heated debate over which scallops can be harvested. He wonders why these debates always take place after the season starts, rather than being settled before the first dredge is dropped. But mostly it is the learning experience that he takes pleasure in, the idea of finding something out by doing it.

“The first thing was getting adept at the process of using the equipment,” he said. “That first season I tied to fish where there wasn’t any boats. I did not want to go out there and look like I didn’t know what I was doing.”

“I wanted to go out alone and find out how to do it by experience, which is the only way you ever really learn anything anyway. I like that you are in control of your own boat and you learn what you can do and what you cannot do. You see how you can get into trouble out there and what to do to avoid it.”

He is 65 years old. No longer in the HVAC business. He worked for awhile as a sort of handyman at the MSPCA but is done with that now. These days he is on the water as often as possible. A couple of years ago he got his captain’s license.

So between the first of November and the last of March he scallops. There are the usual costs that cut into a scalloper’s share of the price per pound you read about in the newspaper – repairs on the boat, gas, the cost of a license, paying the opener – after which you hope to stick a few bucks in the bank.

“Don’t get me wrong. I need the money, just like anybody. But one of the things it pays for is my enjoyment of being captain of my boat. There is something about being out there that I just feel good about. You’re outdoors and that makes you feel healthy. You feel like you’ve done a day’s work when you get in and you’re tired and that makes you really feel like you earned it. I find that very satisfying.”

There are few things Ken Wiggin likes to do more than talk, especially when the subject is fishing, but now he had to go pick up one of his grandchildren at school. He pulled the turkey pot pie out of the oven, the top toasted brown and ready for supper.

Family, a chance to be on the water, and something warm to share for supper. Some men understand the value of things.
– John Stanton is a writer and filmmaker living on Nantucket.