The Block Island Times

Privet & Picket Fences

By Martha Ball | Jun 22, 2013

It rained great buckets and I found myself on the Neck Road thinking of driving with my brother out in Michigan, at night, between Lansing and Grosse Pointe, where every underpass felt like a fording. My brother, the submariner, just plowed on.

Of course there is no connection between running a nuclear submarine and driving a car in the rain, no more than fixing fragile pipes in an old house with duct tape and rags. This same brother dismissed my “can we just call the plumber?” (knowing it would eventually come to that as it always does) with “I had a hydraulic system on the submarine... ”

It was not the only time I wondered if there was justification to mystique surrounding that branch of the Navy, those sailors who manned the nuclear-powered beasts running silent and deep then still under the iron hand of Admiral Rickover.

When he went to Stanford Graduate School of Business, my brother and some buddies from school and the reserve worked in New York in the summer and came to Block Island. They sailed, or tried to, and I reminded myself theirs was not a Navy powered by wind as they crept into harbor.

To this day I marvel at the memory. As unlikely as it seemed, my brother and his pals did run nuclear reactors and sail under the surface of the sea in places they spoke of only in the vaguest cloaked terms.

He called last week, apologizing for missing my birthday, and I do not remind him that he always misses it or that this year he did call that day, fleetingly, when he hit the wrong button and rang me instead of his house. Instead, I tell him another truth, that somewhere, somehow, the rest of the family who did remember have it listed as the wrong day for reasons that defy explanation.

It has been too long since he has been here, a year of chaos at work followed by the year he lay in a coma from a head injury and another when he said he had already taken too long from work, but I think he may have still been apprehensive about the long drive. I say I will get a passport and go to Michigan (the best route is through Canada), an easy thought in the spring when the days are long.

We are almost to the Summer Solstice, the sun is rising two hours earlier and setting four hours later than it does at its worst on the other side of the year. Now I look up those times only for reference; they are not etched on my mind the way they are when daylight is precious.

A month ago we had a surfeit of sunshine; now the abundance of light is unsettling, starting before five in the morning and pushing to the edges of nine at night. Every night I look at the clock and think: “In December it would have already been dark for hours by now” and realize the hold daylight has on me from Winter Night in mid-October to Disting four months later is never really broken.

Every year around the middle of May I want to start banking the extra daylight to keep stored in some underground vault.

It is still and perfect as the sun slides down in the northwestern sky and the shadows lengthen. The pond, the little of it that I can see through the leafed out bayberry and pussy willow and shad trees is a mirror, the decodon doubled in height by its reflection. It is almost summer and already the wild growth of spring has slowed, the fields were coming to life such a short time ago have turned color, bright new green given over to the muted color of seed.

The multiflora is at its peak, eclipsing the blackberry blossoms that hold a promise of summer fruit. It is everywhere, like this late spring/early summer sunshine, carrying some morality play in its vines, so beautiful but so evil.

It is a time of year when every time I go up past the Fire Barn and turn east onto Beach Avenue it lifts my spirits, even when they are not low. It was years, decades, before I had firmly in my head exactly where that road ran, finally defining it as the way from Center Road to the beach, which made much more sense than what it is from Corn Neck, the road from the beach. Ocean Avenue, from Bridgegate to the New Harbor, makes less sense, perhaps the real reason the old timers refuse to stop calling it the New Road.

That easternmost part of Beach Avenue is beautiful all year, warm lights reflecting on the inner pond even on the darkest, longest, emptiest of winter nights. Now it is a ribbon of black run through green, bounded by wide clipped lawns and walls covered with multiflora roses, washed by the golden sun of late afternoon. It has privet and picket fences, historic houses and a tackle shop, old apple and maple trees and a peninsular of conserved, nearly hidden land. It even has a bridge over water softly flowing between tidal areas where there are often white egrets in the tall grasses.

Today a single dove sat on the overhead wires.

They do not bother me, these wires, out where they do not cast shadows on old buildings, and where the tilt of the poles to which they are attached often tells the story of the winter wind. They do not cut the sky but are a part of it when whole flocks of birds sit on them to rise and fall in one fluid motion or when on a summer night an owl waits until the last second before swooping just outside the reach of my headlights, as elusive as the bittersweet gone-in-a-flash Summer Solstice.

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