Happenstance

Fri, 06/23/2017 - 8:15am
Category: 

In a small town things have a way of intersecting. I read a restaurant review of Breakfast at Ernie's and thought how happy my father would be to know another generation was carrying on the tradition in which he had such faith so many years ago. 

It happened to be the weekend of Father's Day and in honor of my long-deceased dad, I put on social media a photograph of him and his little boy, my older brother, from the 1940s. It was taken in the yard of the house where I live, I presume, by my mother, although unlike every other photo there is neither a date, nor names, in her perfect Palmer penmanship, across the back.

My father is in his Navy uniform but it has to have been well after World War II; his son was born a scant month after Japan surrendered. They both sport the trademark white hats worn to this day by sailors. More to the point, the toddler holding his father's hand, is dressed in a dark suit I remember my mother saying she had made from the bounty of fine wool in a pair of those Navy-issue bell-bottom pants.

It was a sort of beating swords into plowshares but more it was simply what people did after WWII. 

The photograph, a snapshot, is from a time real film was used and every frame precious. By happenstance, it may be a better photo for it, my brother turned away, that child's wonder at a bird or a cow or a blade of grass captured.

It also captures a time when the world was at peace, servicemen had come home, many back to new families, ready to get on with their lives. It struck me only last week that when our father died, less than 25 years after that photograph, my brother had his own uniform, that of an officer in the United States Navy.  

How it happened that my parents came to live on Block Island was never clearly defined, as tends to be the case in our family stories. “Everyone” my mother would say, came back after the war, underscoring her point with the fact her mother-in-law, an older widow, packed a bag, went to Providence and got a job, escaping her grown children and their spouses. 

The family still owned commercial property around the Old Harbor but post-war prosperity was not rushing to Block Island and no one had access to capital to buy anyone else out, let alone untangle a web of family trees, wills — or lack thereof — and probate judgments necessary to clear titles.

People went back to jobs elsewhere and my parents bought the family house (with a loan they were able to secure only because my father was a veteran). The sale enabled my grandmother, who refused to learn how to drive, to return to a different home, hers alone, in easy walking distance of town. 

My father was left, as the family agent, with the disposition of what remained of the commercial holdings, the buildings around the Old Harbor, the remnant of the legacy of the forty-niner who had come home from the California gold fields, and purchased undeveloped land around the landing. The lot of sweeping sand dunes where the ferry docks are now located, was sold to people my father hoped would bring the summer boats back to the Old Harbor, for better or worse. When the Post Office lease expired and the facility moved to Bridge Gate Square, he brokered the sale of the building housing it, once his grandfather's General Store, to Ernie and Rita Sherman. 

How the building had come to rest where it does today is a tale of those family trees and wills and probate. It requires charts and patience, time and space, diagrams and citations, and, most of all, an interest in the arcane. 

Suffice it to say, the structure, and the bowling alley, now the Seacrest on High Street, were built on the land below the Adrian Hotel, now the Harbor Church. The store came into the ownership of my grandfather, but not the land beneath it. Ironically, both buildings were displaced from the same land, which decades later somehow came back into the possession of his children who deeded it to the town with the sole stipulation that it be in memory of their father.

As children, we were given few details; what our great-grandfather had owned was of historical note but had nothing to do with our lives.

Older people remembered the bowling alley being dragged up High Street, with oxen and a capstan set in the road. The moving of the store was a much more complicated matter. A thick file details old leases and new proposals for the building, part of which would come to house the Post Office, while another side later became — and remains — Ernie's. The old pages include correspondence and invoices from Farley Building and Moving Co, 137 Willow Street, in Providence, RI, a firm whose letterhead read: “Moving, Shoring, Raising and All Their Branches.” Their logo, in 1928, included an image of a three-story house with the notation “This 700-ton stone house, moved and turned around in ten days.” 

Here, moving a simple frame building was no great task, it was the relocation that was tricky, including resetting, and the “digging cellar and putting in foundation & transportation and insurance” to put the first floor at street level where much of the existing grade was a full story lower.

Thus was created the space that became an Express Office, and, today, is Finn's. 

My dad would be glad to see other generations of the same family carrying on the same types of businesses that gained a secure site when the building was sold to the Shermans. He would be pleased to still be able to get a cup of morning coffee in what had once been his grandfather's General Store.