As I have often related, there were wooden cartons on the boat on February Saturdays in the late 1960s. It was the Sprigg Carroll, the little vessel that plied the waters between here and Galilee, carrying everything from mail to groceries and, yes, the kitchen sink.
My mother and I were coming home from a mainland trip at the end of February vacation, visiting relatives and driving up the coast, stopping at an orange-roofed Howard Johnson’s, going to a new movie in a real theater, simple pleasures of mainland living.
The crates were not small, and she asked one of the hands what they were. “Deer, Mrs. Ball.”
It seemed too silly to be true, but they were large and sturdy.
The boat came into the town dock down by Ballard’s in winter, side-loading. Protocols were not what they are today if they existed at all. The few passengers were waiting in the stern cabin with the horseshoe, green padded bench running around its outer wall and a clanking radiator in the middle; there were not that many of us and no rush to get off the boat.
A young man bounded into the cabin, from the dock, to announce that at a certain time that morning his wife had had a baby girl and so many minutes later she had had another baby girl. Years later I got the story a bit straight, she’d been on the mainland with family, and had gone into labor earlier than expected. He would be flying off soon but that one boat that arrived at noon in winter was the gathering place, the source of all information, and the last island twins had graduated a year or so earlier. This was high drama.
And, still, there were the boxes!
It was a Saturday but it hardly would have mattered, people met that boat every day because otherwise some important news — like twins — could be missed. This was a multiple-event day in February we would learn, as we watched the crates loaded onto trucks and slowly driven up the hill.
There was no thought of doing anything but follow, all the way to Payne Farm, where the crates were pried open and, yes, four deer bounded from their dark confinement and disappeared into the brush. The Department of Environmental Management, or perhaps Fish and Wildlife back then, had loosed upon us those deer. To this day, people old enough to remember that day, like me, have no need to commit the Day the Deer Arrived to memory, it’s just a “When were the twins born?” phone call to a family member.
I was there, confirmed a dozen or so years later when Fish and Wildlife gave a little presentation in the basement of the very new library. They showed slides and there I was in the row of onlookers, in my blue suede coat with silver-fox collar, that came not from a catalog, but a real mainland store — such things were important.
At that time I had seen one deer on Block Island, not long before that meeting, a single animal in and out of the brush on the east side of the southern end of Pilot Hill Road. I later heard four more had been brought and released closer to town, to the surprise of the land owners.
And rumors continue to abound about earlier animals, brought over from a reserve on Aquidneck.
The only earlier ones I know were ornamental, one of cast iron with a broken ear on the lawn of the Spring House and another on a lawn, mounted or fake I don’t know, on a lawn east of Pilot Hill Road.
The real ones may have moved more slowly down the Neck, I have no idea, they long bothered nothing at my house. I thought I’d been discovered one day when a transplanted shoot of Rose of Sharon showed damage. Then I looked out to see a young golden dog lying beside it, happily gnawing.
I even had a glorious, unfenced garden one year, the first in a long time and untouched. The next year I went out to harvest one of those things that cannot come from ground too far from the kitchen – beet greens. The disturbance of the earth must have sent out an aroma; the next morning the deer were probably all sleeping off their feast of new, fresh vegetables. By then they knew and my enterprise had
Of course I’d grown up here before the deer, but with the cows who always knew when the peas were ready to pick or when there was a basket of apples on the neighbor’s porch, worth busting through the north fence to reach. There were blackbirds, the only things my father shot, to string up in the garden to ward off their compatriots. I think of that, and the chicken beheadings and the usual stuff of a tiny farm and wonder that I took it all so easily in stride even as we had a little graveyard for birds that hit the windows and kittens that just didn’t make it.
So the deer... they are creatures of habit, of DNA patterning perhaps by now. They are in a stupefied line in this photo taken four years ago, as the north lot was being returned to pasture. They had routinely come from the south, bounding over walls, rolling rocks, following paths through the overgrowth. This was the day after the lot had been cleared and was empty of people and equipment, not yet ready for horses.
The deer thundered in, dashed across the open land and stopped when they realized their destination, paths and worn spaces in the brush had been erased. They seemed collectively baffled, unable to realize they needed only continue north, go over another wall and they’d be in more of the territory they had staked out years ago, they or their ancestors.
But they are creatures of habit, they will come flying over a wall and if you’re really, really lucky hit your passenger side behind the headlight, below the windshield and the dent they make can be popped out so the door opens completely. Add really good counsel from your local police and garage and even if all things automotive are incomprehensible, it’ll work.