Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"Falling" in Nantucket



                                    "FALLING"  IN NANTUCKET

Did you ever find yourself unable to picture the face of someone near and dear whom you loved with all your heart, but from whom you were now separated. I have. I have to run and grab an old photo album and pore over the faces of those I love and savor the memory of the wonderful former reality of being able to see them, hear their laughter, smell them( faint perfume, soap, aftershave or perhaps pipe smoke) and feel, really feel the strength and warmth of their hug and perhaps the salty tang of their kisses.

It is like that with the best friends I’ve ever had, especially those six with whom we would take an annual Columbus Day weekend on unforgettable Nantucket. Nantucket is thought of as the vacationland of millionaires, and for sure, it has more than its share. But for us, this was the most economical of vacations. First of all, Gracie would make a “long distance call” to Nantucket to a nurse she knew on India Street named Flossie.  Flossie owned a large rooming house with more rooms than we ever got to see, and she signed us up five rooms from Friday night to Monday morning at $5/night per room. There was in each room a large double bed, a bureau, a closet, and a porcelain pitcher and bowl under each bed. The shared bathroom was down the hall and there was no food served; plus the heat wasn’t to be turned on before November.  It was just what we needed.

On Friday we raced to catch the Island Queen from Wood’s Hole and drove our van into the bowels of the boat for the two and a half hour trip to the island. There was as yet no Hi Speed boats to Nantucket. As the boat pulled into the dock crowds of people stood waiting and waving to incoming friends or relatives anticipating another wonderful weekend on this special and most beautiful spot. Many of those waiting on the pier were those who were returning to the mainland and for some strange reason looking towards it just as much. That’s because everyone leaves the island with such happy memories.

From our group, Terry, Grace’s husband went below to drive the van onto land. The rest of us pressed towards the gangplank and awaited the “go ahead” signal from the crewmember at the rail.  Of the seven of us, there was Jim, a Roman Catholic priest of the Order of Dominicans [O.P.] who was the brother of Grace; Archie, a high school English teacher and his wife Lisa, an excellent professional photographer; and my wife Cathy and I, we having met as lay missionaries in Jamaica, W.I. in 1961.

On board the van we had our backpacks and luggage filled with any essentials that we might need for the next four days and books, lots of good ones, a chess board for frequent use by Terry, Arch, Jim and myself while the “girls” were walking the beach or shopping in town; and most important of all, three cases of Heinekens.

We made our way in the van to Flossie’s and began what always amounted to the greatest vacations I have ever had. The essential heart of the four days was spent in stimulating and hilarious conversation about everything and anything under the sun that bobbed to the surface. The children were safe back home with their grandparents, being spoiled rotten and loving every minute of our absence, we parents were absolutely sure.

The weather was as usual, beautiful, bright, cool Fall- like with it being warm enough to bask in the sun all day and to use Irish knit sweaters, and one blanket nights during absolutely dreamless sleeps. Being October and Columbus Day, the summer folks had largely departed and a quiet descended on the island which is full of distant boat whistles and less distant happy conversational chatter. The great ambience of the weekend usually saw us drift off in pairs or threesomes or all together and open our hearts and minds to get to know each other better in a most caring and helpful way. All of us at times were having difficulties and trials with work or with families which could be fair game for sharing. Looking back on these times it is not difficult to realize that for all of us, the biggest trials and difficulties lay in the future and although we did not know it at the time, these bonds we forged on Nantucket would be of critical help in our later lives for some, perhaps for all.
          On our first evening we would generally wander out in town and stop for supper and the first of many Heinekens, conserving for the moment our stash at the Inn.  One of the places I remember dropping in on was called the Rose and Crown. It was an older looking bar and restaurant and when we entered we found it to be nearly empty. Salad, Scallops and French Fries were my usual, but here they were the best I ever had, real Cape scallops. Oh, how I miss those, forty years later when I’m usually served a scallop wannabe from Thailand under the menu name Cape scallops.  Others had Lobster, Shrimp, Haddock, Sword and other items locally caught that day and landed at the Rose hours earlier. In about an hour's time we had eaten our fill but had just begun to drink.

By eight  o'clock the restaurant had filled considerably and the conversation, laughter and noise had increased asymptotically when the front doors opened and in came five couples, all black,  very well dressed in evening attire, who greeted the bartender with familiarity, doffed their outer coats and began to set up instruments on a platform in front of the large plate glass windows at the front. Their ladies sat at a table to the right of the stage and all had drinks served to them without having to order them. Then they began to play.

It was the Teddy Wilson Orchestra and they proceeded to play for the next three hours with stops for lubrication only. There was no announcement as to who they were, or advertisement; it's just that they happened by and dropped in to thrill us all with their magnificent music making.  Teddy Wilson had played with many fine orchestras including his own and was a member of the Benny Goodwin group which toured the world and performed the unforgettable "Sing, Sing, Sing" in Russia and at Carnegie Hall. We then had the chance to talk with them to give us all the memory of a lifetime. At the end of this beautiful evening we happily strolled back through the cobblestone streets and into our real world at $5/ night. Back to our "digs" we slept like babies until awakening to another beautiful Nantucket day.

It was Saturday and we got our suits on under our casuals, got books, towels, sunglasses and block out and headed across the island to Madaket Beach. Oh, yes, we took the van with the concealed warm Heinekens and spent the mid day searching the beach for shells, talking, drinking and reading to our hearts content. Much of our conversation focused on the Church today, politics (Watergate, Nixon and Viet Nam) and other forbidden topics. On our return to the town, we wandered down to the pier to watch the boat come in and then depart, feed the gulls, scrounge in the clothing and curio shops and talk with Brownie, the old, old guy with the captain's hat who sat at the end of the pier and told long ago stories of Nantucket. Lisa took lots of photos which grace the walls of all of our homes forty years later. It was a real mellow time. At night we were all talked out so the girls curled up with their books and Terry, Arch, Jim and I sat down to some serious chess. At ten o'clock, we all took some beer and drove out into the middle of the incredibly dark night out to the Maria Montessorri Observatory. None of us had ever seen a sky the way it looked on Nantucket that night. There were no clouds, no humidity (i.e., fog), no moonlight  and the stars were brilliant down to 4th and 5th magnitudes, and the Milky Way, our own galaxy, was incredible. We sat on the porch encircling the dome on benches made specifically for such stargazing, and we literally "lost our minds" in our cosmos. For once on the weekend, we were all speechless. Then I killed it by giving an astronomy lecture.
  
Terry, Jim and I had all been students together at Northeastern with majors in Chemical Engineering. Terry was brilliant, quiet and a wonderful friend. Jim was an exceedingly humorous guy with a spirituality and dedication which later showed itself as a Missionary in Pakistan for 34 years. Terry was the only one of us to stay in the engineering field throughout his career. Archie was perhaps one of the most unforgettable persons anyone ever met, and definitely became one of Walpole High School's all time favorite English teachers. In addition to his love of Shakespeare, Arch was a devoted follower of early Rock and Roll, Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Boston Red Sox(especially Ted Williams), High Fi and fishing. I think you might call that eclectic!  This description of the three falls far short of helping you to appreciate how much we valued this what was to be our life long friendship which will last into eternity I know.

Grace was Jimmy's older sister and an equally amazing person and thankfully close lifelong friend. More people no doubt consider her to be that than all that I will ever meet.  Jim and Grace's Mom and Dad were parents to us all in our youth and help to explain the goodness in Grace and Jim, and in their older sisters Mary, Virginia and Patricia. Their after midnight Mass open house remains one of the most significant events in my life which helped begin my attraction to thoughts of a religious vocation. Their home became truly my home away from home during my years in college.

Lisa's mother and father were both doctor's in Virginia and Lisa's perceptions could be seen in her work in photography which was to stay with her as a career.

On Sunday morning, we rolled out pretty early and went to a natural foods place which smelled of weed and was staffed by the most content help I'd ever seen. Their specialty was making sandwiches, huge ones, according to what you wanted to be included in it. We stowed the sandwiches away and headed south to Surfside Beach, the most beautiful, desolate beach I had ever been on. Nobody there, and we could see for a mile in either direction down the beach. The ocean was wide infront of us and headed out to Spain as the next stop. 

Father Jim brought out from the van an empty Heineken case, turned it upside down, spread a small white linen cloth on top of it,
placed two yellow candles in holders at each side and placed some small round beach stones on top of the cloth to prevent its being blown off by the gentle 5mph wind from the SW. The altar was ready.  We all sat around the "table" and had an extended moment of silent prayer. Jim then began from memory to say the oldest words in the Catholic Church, the words of Jesus' last meal with his disciples on the night before his death. The sound of the wind, and the surf, and the gulls in the sky above us were gently brushed aside as jimmy led us all through the Eucharist. We prayed for everyone we loved, everyone we knew, and every need we could remember. We prayed for each other with words of sincerest gratitude for what we were being allowed to participate in on Sunday before Columbus Day on this beautiful island of serenity.

After consuming the host and the cup of wine, we said the "Our Abba", for that's what we felt God to be, our "Daddy", our "Pa", closer to us than we were to ourselves or to each other. Jimmy said the concluding prayers of the Lord's Supper and then each of us drifted off down the beach in deep meditation. It was this event, above all, which I shall ever hold closest to my heart as my dearest memory. Forty years later, two of us have died, Terry and Jim, two of us have been divorced, Arch and Lisa, Cathy and I have been separated since 1981, and there have been scores of crises, sicknesses, worries and disappointments in all of our lives, but this moment on Nantucket remains as the high point against which all others are compared. 

But the weekend was not yet over. 


After eating our gyro sandwiches and drinking some more of that delicious warm Heineken beer, we took off in the van and headed east towards Siasconsett. 'Sconsett, as it is called, is at the southeastern extreme coast of Nantucket. It consists of a lot of old, weatherbeaten gray houses perched on a cliff overlooking the water facing towards Africa. Many of these houses are in critical danger of falling into the ocean as the beach erosion is severe. We decided to go off road here and take the beachbuggy path north to  Great Point Light. from there we retraced our path but on the way back we took the right fork and headed out onto Coatue.

Coatue is a huge sandbar peninsula which lies about 500 yards across the harbor from Nantucket Village but can only be reached by driving across the entire island to Siasconset, then going north to Great Point Light, then going East on that peninsula until you arrive at its tip directly across from your starting point, a trip of approximately 20 miles one-way. It is a beautiful stretch of untouched nature with multitudes of perfectly formed conch shells fit for a collector and shore birds of every type, excited by the approach of the rare auto.   The women sat in the back seat and the men sat up front. The paved road which ended at Siasconset, continued as a bumpy dirt road to Great Point Light, then it becomes beach dunes to the end of Coatue. The bumpy ride got us all laughing, and the two women, Grace and Lisa, tried to make it less bumpy for Cathy and for the baby at 7 months within her, by putting their hands on her quite large tummy. Cathy wondered aloud what the baby, Chuck to be born on December 27th,  must think. At the end of Coatue, we  all just sat down at the very tip of the peninsula and looked across the 500 yards to the main harbor. It was so peaceful and the sun was slowly sinking in the west. A beautiful end to a beautiful day. Then someone said, "I hear a snake hissing!" We all jumped up, but it wasn't a snake. It was our left front tire on the van slowly going flat.

We all looked at Terry. As was typical of him, he rubbed his jaw, said, "Hmmnn...", then set about searching for the spare donut tire and the jack mounted under the van. In ten minutes we were on our way backtracking on Coatue with Terry to thank. It was always that way with him. I guess that's why he was a Summa Cum Laude. We sang all the way back in a happy Heinekin glow.

That night we rested, read, talked, and began to realize how soon we'd be heading back home. We all made calls home to check on things and went to bed early.

On Columbus Day, we strolled downtown for breakfast, newspapers and sitting at the dock taking photos with the old guy, Brownie, getting our attention. Most of us bought some small gifts for the kids, some cards to send to those less fortunate and returned to the Inn to pack up and head for the boat. 

It was slightly foggy as our boat pulled away from the shore with a lot of passengers waving to those staying behind and choosing seats together for the 2hour trip back to the mainland.  The ladies chatted and Terry, Jim, Arch and I settled into a mini chess tournament.  I, myself, felt an all encompassing glow of love and gratitude for these wonderful days we spent together on this heaven called Nantucket. 

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