The wind slammed in from the east and northeast, driving sand inland, deeper into the parking lot at the pavilion and across the road where for all intents and purposes there are no dunes. My windshield was so covered with salt the first attempt at cleaning it did little more than make clear a space that let me see most of the second round of fluid shot from the little nozzles on the hood fly off to the west.
Often I awake around four in the morning. Last week it was when the dog stirred, and bounded off to the window in the sidewall, low enough that her nose touches the glass. Generally, I ignore her but that night I got up and followed, thinking the land lit by some round of predawn twilight instead of the moon it was. It was only when I thought the flash of white down the lane was an oddly low-flying swan that I realized I was half asleep; of course it was the tail of a fleeing deer. Another time of year the door would have been open and Autumn would have been outside without my knowing she was gone but it is January and she is stuck inside, no matter how loudly she whimpers.
This week it might not have been the wind that woke me at four but it was the wind that kept me awake, with its incessant crashing and howling and old-house-shaking. I flipped on the tiny television, a hand-me-down when it came to me more than 15 years ago, with a nearly square face and the limited reception that comes from old rabbit ears.
Before the signal went digital I could get local programming and remember doing this not quite so early on a July Fourth and hearing the first newscast of the day telling people if they had not started for Bristol and the famous parade it was too late. I fell asleep that morning with visions of streams of cars turning and heading south for Galilee and Block Island dancing in my head.
The morning of the wind, first I found a preacher, one of those guys with a head set and a studio audience. I cannot quote chapter and verse, but I knew the Gospel he was citing enough to know it was a trifle. . . spun and would lead me down the “but that's not right” road, hardly the white noise I was seeking. Infomercials for enticing — to the sleep-deprived — kitchen products finally lulled me back to sleep.
In the days of wind and no boats I read a comment from the World Beyond Block Island, of how “brave” people were to stay here in such weather. It made me think of the people who in summer ask if the storm tides reach up to the Front Street, seemingly with no idea they have walked or driven up a slope from the landing.
Then I remembered a more serious time, January of 1942. The country was newly at war, the vulnerability of the coast a reality difficult to grasp today. The threat was not academic, nor a created fear; German warships had prowled these waters in World War I.
Newport and Groton were major naval bases and German U-boats in the waters near Block Island were an expectation. Travel may not yet have been strictly limited in January 1942 when the state suggested evacuation but it became so soon thereafter. The Coast Guard would issue all residents identification cards “not valid without watermark.” Houses would be required to have black-out curtains on sides facing the sea and travel after dark would be curtailed, measures met with disdain by my stubborn Scots grandmother, the widow who would see her five sons all go off to war and would go to town when she darn well pleased.
Even many of the regular ferries would be conscripted and travel between here and the mainland minimized. The little boat that remained landed at the South Dock of the Old Harbor; later wharfage due would be forgiven by the Town in acknowledgment of the company continuing service to the citizens throughout the war.
In January 1942, Block Island may have still been wrapped in the throes of invincibility that came from riding out the Great Hurricane of 1938. As bad as the damage had been from that uncharted storm it was little compared to many nearby places. The population still relatively self-sufficient, gardens were aplenty and the fishing fleet that had sustained great harm had not been eliminated.
And there were always the life-source waters of the Great Salt Pond. A quote that lived long after the meeting with state officials, memorialized in an editorial cartoon in The Providence Journal, was simple: “you can't dig quahogs on Westminster Street.”
Following that meeting 75 years ago the General Assembly issued a resolution.
IN COMMENDATION OF THE CITIZENS OF THE TOWN OF NEW SHOREHAM FOR THEIR PATRIOTIC FORTITUDE IN REJECTING PROPOSALS FOR THEIR REMOVAL FROM BLOCK ISLAND
RESOLVED, That the commendation of the House of Representatives be and the same is hereby extended to the citizens of the town of New Shoreham whose patriotic fortitude in rejecting proposals for their removal is a splendid instance of the inflexible spirit that made Rhode Island; and be it further
RESOLVED, That the recording clerk of the House of Representatives be and he hereby is directed to transmit a duly certified copy of this resolution to the proper town authorities of the town of New Shoreham.
I hereby certify that this is a true copy of H 623, read and passed by the House of Representatives, January 28, 1942.
Lawrence A. McCarthy