It is August, long awaited by some, too quickly arrived for others. The already frenetic pace of summer on Block Island goes into overdrive as The End looms earlier and earlier, driven by school openings long before the once traditional Wednesday after Labor Day.
When I was a child, the tourists left on Labor Day Monday but many of the people we knew did not depart until Tuesday, pushing their summer to its limit, cutting as close as possible their return to the mainland and their life beyond Block Island. I remember standing on Payne's Dock (when going to the “New Harbor” meant to that, and only that, destination), waving, as one young woman let a roll of toilet paper unfurl, like those streamers we used to see in movies, drifting from the decks of great ocean liners, all of which seemed to be arriving and departing against the backdrop of the New York City skyline.
It was a long time ago, and I realize I need note, it was when the summer boats, from Point Judith and New London, sailed into that gem of a green-rimmed New Harbor. It was before the efficient stern loaders came onto the scene and the vessels slid up to the narrow wooden wharf, tossed off lines and were pulled in to lie alongside the pier, after the expected bump and following sway as the whole structure reacted then righted itself. People — and vehicles and freight — all exited via a gangplank the deckhands had maneuvered into place. The ramp, itself, was fixed, the tide a greater factor than it is today.
It was a ritual, this docking, a slow process, and no one was in a rush to be on their way. I heard someone talking of the novelty of conversations held between travelers on the upper deck of the boat and friends waiting on the wharf and was surprised; it was the only way I knew until the advent of the stern loaders.
Then, it all just took longer, the unloading of freight by hand, the passengers slowly descending the stairs and collecting luggage before walking up the gangplank, then the waiting, if one had a vehicle, for it to be driven off the boat and onto the dock by a deckhand, the only ones who could manage the turns necessitated by side-loaders. How did it all work, I wonder to this day, the cars and freight and people all making their way down that narrow wharf, with everyone there to meet the boat ambling, talking, visiting, catching taffy tossed into the air, samples from the hand of the vendor.
August, as we used to know it, a singular month of madness, now comes in July. The season, for all our conversation of extending it, seems tighter and tighter by the simple fact of the closing and opening dates on school calendars, compounded by the ever-expansive sports and arts camps and programs that consume weeks.
It is the start of August, proper. Today, an ambulance came through town in mid-morning, and later a single fire truck, horn blaring, a sure sign that a helicopter would soon be landing behind the Medical Center to transport what I later heard was a bicycle accident victim, although I have no idea if that detail was fact or supposition. Something happened, that much is certain.
It was too early in the day, I thought, knowing even as those words formed in my mind that they carry an implication that there is a time that is not “too early” to have a vacation shattered by an air-lift to a mainland hospital.
It reminded me that the Neck Road had been unusually busy, lined with moped and bicycles too numerous to even consider counting, a task reserved for much slower days. The way is hilly and winding and in summer I do not look much beyond my path until I pass the Breakers and Capt Willis House, and the sky rises above the land ahead of me, over the south end of the island. It offered, as is often the case these days, a window on different weather.
This summer, especially, I seem able to go from sun to fog to pale mist and back to partly sunny all in the middle section of the mere three mile distance between my house and town.
The day seemed to calm down by noon time, be it the pall cast by sirens in the morning, or, more likely, clouds rolling across the sun, stationing themselves in the sky, until mid-afternoon when they regrouped, leaving blue, light allowing expanses. Forecasts of a slight chance of rain disappeared. The temperature which had been, weirdly and unusually, higher here than in New York City, went back to normal — or New York reasserted itself.
Autumn greeted me in the late afternoon with her recently adopted I'm-not-moving-until-you-get-out-of-the-car attitude, then became energized when I collected a tennis ball and threw it across the yard. I was distracted by the summer sky in the north, big white painted-in-place clouds over the trees grown up in and around the old barn foundation. My dog, remembering she had not yet been given her dinner — or forgetting she is a retriever — refused to engage in chasing a fuzzy off-yellow orb when I turned my attention back to her.
And then came the dark, still and calm. The tinny sound of crickets in the blackberry vines and long grasses at the edge of the yard is so loud I have to lean out the window to hear the surf crashing on the beach. Partly cloudy it is, but while listening to the ocean I see the moon, framed by tree branches, set in a soft sky. Tomorrow will bring more traffic and, sadly, the likelihood of another accident, but for these moments, with just a hint of a breeze, it is a near perfect summer night.