On a distant hill

Fri, 12/09/2016 - 8:30am

It rained through the night, battering the east windows, and the wind howled its winter banshee wail. It sounded cold so it felt cold, but did not make me think beyond reaching in the dark for the comforter that has been waiting, patiently, at the foot of my bed.


There was an odd noise, continuing, in the morning, but it was not until I stumbled down the stairs that I finally realized the back door had blown open, and air, chill and raw, had been flowing inside for hours. There had not been the tell-tale clatter, the falling over of something in the way of the breeze, any of the noises that generally alert me to this not infrequent occurrence of every season but winter.


It is December, time to remember to close the weirdly north-facing door to the back entry, a simple enough solution.


The kitchen, thankfully not the location of the thermostat, was cold even by my standards, a full 10 degrees cooler than it is normally, and probably only as warm as it was from the heat of the coffee pot. It is programmed to start a bit before my alarm sounds, usually an alarm in itself, the sudden gurgle of it kicking into operation flowing up the stairs.


Like the cold air.


The sky is gray and white with a touch of blue at mid-day when I happen to go to the window as the noon boat emerges from behind Clay Head, catching for a moment whatever sun is shining out over the water. It it pitching more than I would have guessed from the straight line of the horizon and the ocean, dark and crinkled but not white-capped. It seems to be running late but I lost track of the schedule many years ago, when the generally forgotten initial trial of two three-boat days a week shifted from Tuesday and Thursday to Monday and Thursday.


There is no noon boat on Wednesday this week; slowly I remember there has not been one for a few years. That just-after-12 arrival once was the anchor of the off-season. The mail came, and freight, and the few travelers on any given winter day. It was an event, commemorated on a page in one of the school yearbooks, with a few snapshots, including one of the long-time deck hand with the caption “any freight, today, Buster?” 


There was freight, at least the mail, always, but nothing of the magnitude we see now every day. There were no big trucks carrying building supplies; lumber was on-loaded and off-loaded by hand. Even the darn deer came on that boat, in crates that had to have been maneuvered up the gangplank and onto a truck. Everyone on — and meeting — the boat delayed lunch to be part of the procession to Payne Farm where the poor, frightened creatures were released and disappeared into the brush.


That was when the little Sprigg Carroll landed at the South Dock of the Old Harbor all winter. Today is Pearl Harbor Day and one thought tumbles into another and I recall a passage in the records of the Town Council. Wharfage was forgiven during the war years, thanks from a grateful, isolated town for continued service despite uncertainty of travel even between here and the mainland.


They have been talking on the radio, this morning, of the German U-boats that were so close to our shores, of the frighteningly detailed charts taken from the last one sunk less than 10 miles from here. It was not much spoken of in my house when I was a child, but, as I realized years later, the war, that seemed distant history to me, had ended a disconcertingly short time previous.


A pair of observation towers, part of an extensive military installation that spread to Newport and Narragansett, two simple structures of reinforced concrete, still stood on Bush Lot Hill. They were wide open, the floors accessible only by a ladder of iron rungs set in the walls. I don’t think I climbed them more than once. They scared me — and I could barely reach the narrow horizontal slots that provided a view of the ocean.


The towers that remain in place, today, were built to be camouflaged, incorporated in buildings made to look like barns or houses. Yet the two that were the most visible, higher than the single one on the cliff edge of Lewis Farm, were set apart with no effort at disguise. 


We learned how heavily reinforced they were when a mainland demolition company was contracted to take down the pair. People came from all over the island to watch, even a group of school children stood on the lawn and porch of the old Hayes house on an adjoining hill.


We waited, and waited, and waited, and the countdown finally began only to end with an insignificant puff of dust. We eventually gave up and went home; they came down in the early dark, hours after the appointed time.


Now, they exist in old gray and white snapshots, visible only when one knows where to look, and in the murals on the walls of Club Soda, where they show as oddly set posts, one larger than the other, on a distant hill, at the same time unidentifiable and much in keeping with my earliest memories. In those murals World War II is silently portrayed in the color of the Twin Maples buildings, dark green, easily recognizable as the military structures they were, not the pleasant and peaceful summer place the complex came to be.


Time overlaps in those murals, especially in the New Harbor where the stately steamers of times gone by and elegant yachts of old populate the waters. The Rocket is there as well, a vessel I know of only from my mother’s stories, a boat so small it was not conscripted into the war effort. It is like those towers, of little notice unless one knows where to look and, then, impossible to miss.