Block Island Then and Now
Fifty years, half a century, sounds so long ago it couldn’t possibly have any direct connection to me. And then I came across some old slides of mine in the attic and with the click of a projector, I was transported back to the summer of 1970 on Block Island.
The island made such an indelible mark upon me as a child I sometimes feel like it was imprinted in my brain. As I look back, I picture myself in Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill,” a poem that is a paean to his youth and the powerful and lasting impact a place had on him in his childhood when... “Time let me play and be, Golden in the mercy of his means”.
For me, the late 50s, 60s and early 1970s are the quintessence of my island experience. I truly was “green and carefree.” My responsibilities were chores at home and, later, summer jobs, but neither intruded on my feeling that all the island was wild and free, and so was I.
Of course, I was not raising a family or commuting back and forth to the mainland every week like my father. I also wasn’t trying to make a living here on the island at that time, which friends of mine who lived here yearround tell me was very challenging and how those items now considered necessities were often not available and certainly not abundant even when they were.
I know I was aware the world was bigger than me and more complicated. Vietnam was potentially on my horizon, but it didn’t feel that way and the prevailing images are of sunny days tempered by a cool breeze and a totally unspoiled landscape of open fields and captivating views. No place seemed off limits, nothing was worth anything monetarily and I do not recall a craving for anything other than what I had. Then, inevitably, and far too soon, came that fateful September Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, when we dragged ourselves down to the dock, boarded the Quonset and sailed in silence back to the mainland and school.
My favorite activity was riding my bike around the island. I remember the first time my mother let me ride into town on my own where I celebrated by downing two root beers at King’s Spa for a dime apiece, hard-earned cash from mowing our neighbor’s lawn. Exploring was my passion and one summer I was determined to ride down every dirt road. When I was eight my father and I walked around the island on the beach.
By the summer of 1970, I had just turned 17 and though on to other interests I still loved to walk and bike and began to take a camera along. Sometimes I remember it as a gift from my parents, but perhaps it was just a camera available to anyone in the house. Either way, I can still see it and feel the way it felt in my hands. It was a Kodak Instamatic, the pointand-shoot or phone camera of its day. Anybody could use it. Just select a subject, point, and click the shutter.
I was not particularly adept at adolescence, far from it, and I don’t often wax lyrical about memories of that period. But I am pleased to find that amid the tumult of my life I had the foresight to record images from what was for me a very special time on Block Island.
Of this photo, I wish I could say I remember all the details of taking it, but the years have erased or obscured those particulars. The only information posted on the slide was the date processed, the best clues in attempting to recreate that moment are revealed in the photo itself.
Owing to the time of day, I must have worked the day shift at the Narragansett and headed out on my bike after dinner. My destination was undoubtedly Black Rock so I could be there as the sun set and perhaps take a photo. Headed down Snake Hole and turning west to ascend the hill toward the Hollow, Bit o’ Heaven, that signature Victorian house on the cliff, came into view. As I began to pass by, I was apparently taken by the soft, golden, late daylight, which was illuminating the exquisite details and proportion of the house perched on and gracing the landscape around it.
Since film and processing were so expensive then, I must have been sufficiently captured by the scene that I put down my bike and took this photo. It was a one off, there are no other images save this one. And whatever I found at my ultimate destination, the prospect of the sun setting on the water, must not have moved me as much as I took no other photos that day.
Though 50 years is indeed a long time ago, one of the hallmarks of Block Island, unlike so many other places just across the water, I can return to some of those subjects and find them reassuringly similar to the way they were. At this strange and surreal time in which we live, there is solace in finding places that continue to feed our soul as they once did.