A kinder time...

Thu, 07/30/2020 - 5:00pm

There are few certainties to life on Block Island and today with the news of Merrill Slate’s passing there is one less. We all knew it was coming, we had watched him decline with age and the loss of his wife, but a decline temporarily halted, maybe even reversed a bit, by reconciliation with the sister from whom he had been estranged for decades.

We all cried remembering their quiet reunited joy, cruising the Island like teenagers, greeted by all they passed for what they were, a sort of local royalty. It was a life lesson in “it’s never too late to make things right.”

While people grumbled that Bridge Gate Square did not need any fixing anyone who turned that corner from Dodge Street to Corn Neck Road on a summer night knew it was a terrible accident waiting to happen — note: as it did to me three years after I wrote this column, not terrible, except to my car, a drunk driver I saw coming and could stop to lessen the impact, not a pedestrian hit.

What we hadn’t envisioned was the creation of a mini-park in front of the World War I monument, making accessible the marker that had been lost in traffic. Additionally, Merrill’s nephew installed two stone benches, one in honor of his uncle, the other in memory of his father, Merrill’s brother, Albion, both World War II veterans.

Years ago when there was talk of replacing the narrow bridge on Old Town Road, conversations buoyed with claims of its imminent collapse, Merrill arrived at Town Hall with a series of photographs of the brick lined culvert running under the road, the picture perfect tunnel through which Mill Pond funneled on its way to the Harbor Pond and the sea.

It was, to many of us, a surprise. Even when we were children and it was cold enough that the moving water froze to a safe skating thickness, we – or at least I – never noticed the arch that is visible in at least one much older photo of the pond.

A few years later I opened the drawer in the Council Chamber to show someone the extraordinary passage beneath the bridge just beyond the office window and the photos were gone, eventually replaced by a dear friend of Merrill’s enlisted to crawl down and capture the images Merrill no longer could. One was printed in the June 12, 2011 edition of this paper. Perhaps, as was suggested at the time, we’ll someday have a pedestrian walkway flanking the old bridge. I hope Merrill’s passing will not mean the end of the bridge he so carefully guarded from destruction. Note: And it did not!!

He was for years the guy who held the power company and its crews together. He monitored the nesting gulls before most people paid much attention, going out to the lonely dunes west of Sachem Pond wearing his hard hat.

“For Merrill” someone said to me earlier this afternoon, pulling into the back side of the Power Company, to a spot where the elevated platform, which has enticed osprey to nest, is visible. One bird was there, standing sentry as another passed overhead.

A day later, we stood at the edge of the cemetery, across the road from the Legion Park where Merrill had been such a presence for so many years. His fellow Legionnaires lined the hillside and a group gathered in the middle of a busy summer day to honor this man who had been such a strong link in so many of the networks that bind this community together.

It’s still a bit of a shock, these funerals, and the reminder of the ever dwindling buffer of a generation ahead of me. Later, I wandered over to the grave of my uncle, still missed after more than ten years. I didn’t need a weather channel or an internet connection; I had an uncle on the west coast who called the systems swirling around Block Island as well as any trained weatherman.

My uncle didn’t really live here after the early 1930’s, but like Merrill, he came home to this plot of land with graves dating back to the 1600’s. Yet only on this day, sitting on the grass in front of his stone, did it finally hit me there is, there has never been, a crisp veteran’s flag waving. Note: there is now, thank you, Dan Millea.

I’m going to choose to believe the realization was Merrill on my shoulder.