Green Light Gone
It is Veteran’s Day. Observed, which makes me crazy; the Armistice was signed on November 11 at 11 a.m. for a reason.
I think of my dad, with his two perforated ear drums and an eye that had been pecked by a rooster when he was a child, who went to five recruitment centers before he found one that would take him. His story was not unusual. Unlike his four brothers, he was never stationed outside the United States, but remained on a net tender guarding the mouth of the Thames River in Connecticut. Unlike his brothers he had no stories of building airstrips on the Pacific or being shot down over Eastern Europe, or literally holding together the wires that enabled a wounded plane to get back over the Channel to England, or even of the occupations.
He used to talk of fishing when he was younger, of sailing into New York City to Fulton’s Fish Market, then of going uptown to the Apollo Theater, of his captain talking about people he knew in that part of the city. And when I was old enough to understand the implications of “Harlem” I one day asked how that could be. It was at the dinner table, where all conversation took place, and my parents paused before explaining that the captain, this revered man about whom I’d been hearing as long as I could remember, had dark skin.
Years later someone who lived here years ago said to me “your father was a radical” and I said, no, he was just a Stevenson Democrat on Block Island in the sixties when politics was overridingly Republican. It’s all relative; he had early on understood that Joe McCarthy and his hearings were a disgrace and was called a Communist for it. Later, he was the first adult I knew who spoke against the growing war in Vietnam; he was proud to know a civil liberties lawyer who was forcibly removed from a House Un-American Committee hearing. (It was a great photo, a strapping marshal dragging out this small-of-stature man).
He was very proud of being a veteran, and very upset that in the last years of his too-short life, when he was questioning Vietnam, that, again, his patriotism was questioned. He would be exalted and appalled at recent events in this nation, pleased with the national election and horrified at the immediate fallout, of petitions seeking secession being signed by people who claim so loudly to love this nation and its processes, its elections, yet want to leave it because their guy didn’t win.
I think of his friend, later my friend, Jack Gray, our Republican pal who so well served this town. He talked of being a Coast Guardsman during the 1938 Hurricane, standing in the tower of the Life Saving Station located where the Beachead is now. They watched the water rise, he told us, and I wish I remembered more.
I thought of Jack and his story when I saw that section of the Neck Road eaten by the storm, raked by the gnarled hand at the end of the long arm of Sandy. It is a stretch I travel daily and have often wondered how differently informed my life would be if I lived in another part of the island.
Up until the storm, there was — traveling toward town — that spot where the dune diminished and the sightline was clear to the horizon, where the roofscape of the old Victorian buildings around the harbor came into view, the granite arms embracing it told the weather. Some days there would be whitewater crashing over from the east, other days there would be white ice on the rocks, confirming the cold, often there would be a boat coming or going, our own hourglass. Heading home there was a different vista, the sweep of the beach, Clay Head and the mainland in the distance, and either way, when the energy of the ocean was right, surfers riding the swells, waiting for them to crest.
There are gifts along the Neck Road, the New Harbor, on a summer night all white lights on swaying masts, on a winter day, bright empty blue water, the grand houses of Indian Head Neck in any light, the egrets of the inner ponds, and especially this stretch of highway seeming almost to overhang the sea.
Then it was gone, the road closed, barriers erected, the way no longer passable, the way to the harbor longer, wrapping around the innermost pond. A week ago the second storm, the longer-lasting blast from the northeast settled over us and I did not leave my house. It was the next day, when I remembered to allow extra time when I left my house that it hit me: the fact of that routine being displaced, of that brief, daily communion with the sea being removed from my life for however long it takes for repairs to be completed.
That was the day I drove around the Surf corner and saw the battered, naked end of the east wall, all jagged rock and no tilting tower. The green jetty was missing its defining light. I found myself asking if the Coast Guard had removed it, a silly question given the previous day’s storm.
It was gone, tumbled into the sea, and as much as I know we have not experienced any serious loss — the road will be rebuilt, the tower will be restored — in my heart the Pole Star has tumbled from the sky. That line of emerald path lying on the black ocean, connecting the breakwater end to the shore is missing, a void lessened only as the road from which it is most visible is gone, the old two negatives creating a positive. Still, it is like the beach, weirdly disorienting, the sand too high, the dunes misplaced, the roads and pathways not quite where they should be.
We were so lucky, but I look at the news of all this destruction where so much was built on sand and do feel like Indiana Jones at the start of the movie trying to explain the importance of the Lost Ark of the Covenant, finally asking “Didn’t any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?”