Fri, 12/01/2017 - 7:30am

There was a rumbling in the morning, the kind that sounds close and I walked across the yard thinking I might see the source of it; tree cutters, perhaps, although I could not remember if I had seen pink ties marking any trees on Mansion Road. It could simply be routine work on the old dirt road, the filling and scraping and grading that keeps the way more passable than was thinkable when I was growing up, before the town purchased the beach and with it the access to Corn Neck Road.

There was nothing in sight and I went back inside only to hear more sound, implausibly, from the direction where there is no land. I looked out in time to see three helicopters emerge from behind Clay Head and fly low along the coast. They seemed to my untrained eye to be military, by their size and formation, likely on a training exercise. Later someone told me someone else had said — and we wonder how stories start on Block Island! — a military craft had been out there to the east early in the morning. It was only then that I recalled seeing lights in the night, bright yellow and aligned, not the scattered white of fishing vessels in winter. 

That aircraft can make such a sound always amazes me. I remember lying in the yard on summer nights hearing the roar of the engines — and seeing their lights — as planes rose up from the landing strip miles to the south.  

Even all these years later these sounds in the late fall make me think of that terrible night when huge planes flew near to the ground, their searchlights turning the fields to day as they criss-crossed the island and went back to the sea. We didn’t know what was happening, I wondered at first if they were just passing over land on their way to make one last sweep of the ocean, a final effort to locate a fishing boat that had gone down several days earlier. They were on another futile mission, one that would make national headlines, tragedy always pushing aside good news.

Later, bits and pieces of the airplane that had been swallowed by the sea, taking its passengers to that watery grave usually the realm of sailors, were found. In the way of a small town, everyone knew someone lost in that crash and everyone knew at least one other someone who had narrowly escaped being on that doomed flight.

I do not much remember the weather that year, it seems it was cold but once the sun has gone down in the fall it always feels cold, usually colder than it is for the scarcity of sunshine.

Today, it is mild, in the fifties, and over 60 on the mainland. The trees have shaken free most of their leaves and stand, gray winter-wood; the red ilex berries are shimmering in the sun; and the land is fading into the brown and tan of winter. The grass, where it was cut during the spring and summer and into the fall, is playing the same trick it does every year, staying green, disarmingly green. 

Last year the first light snow fell in December, a sugar dusting on the yard. There are spots, especially those protected from the wind and in the sun, where it is startlingly green into January, then I am distracted by errant blossoms of forsythia, or hopeful spears of snowdrops poking up through the hard earth and headlong rush into spring — at least the greening of the hills  — begins. 

The afternoons get no shorter than they are now, or no shorter by the rounded-to-a-minute almanac charts. There is some solace in that knowledge, even as the cold wind returns.

It defied logic but it is true, my mother drummed it into me every year, the sun sets the earliest during the start of December then holds even for several days; by the Solstice it has turned. The mornings come later into early January.

Now, with the approach of winter, I think of the settlers who first came here, to this desolate place where the wind never stopped blowing. In the oldest houses when the walls come down there is white wash on the wide interior planks, the single width of lumber that separated inside from out. I shiver in summer at the thought of it being the only wall against the weather.

These shortest days I think of my mother’s father’s people, come to the New World from Sweden. These hours of sunlight must have seemed a gift from above the first few winters they experienced them, before the darkness of their homeland faded in memory. Even my father’s mother’s family, shipped out from Glasgow, Scotland, came from a land more to the north than we. 

My world globe is tiny, not as large as a softball, it is not for finding countries and tracing boundaries but it does show me the place of countries, of continents in a way flat maps cannot. It is still easy to recall the colored charts that hung on the walls of classrooms, absurd we knew, even then with the mysterious Ross Ice Shelf to the south, and the massive Greenland dominating the North Atlantic, and the wonderful relief map, with its plastic mountain ranges like Braille beneath our fingers when the teachers weren’t looking. 

That was our idea of misbehaving, touching the topography, the most darkly colored Himalayas in particular. 

I have always loved maps, not for the usual reasons of tales of faraway places but for the spatial relationships that always surprise.

We have all seen the globes and maps drawn differently to display the inequities the geo-political forces apply to cartography but holding the globes in my hand, Antarctica up, is still amazing. In my mind the world, like the sunlight of the year, is balanced, a notion I know has nothing to do with reality.