Our little island

Thu, 03/19/2020 - 5:00pm

We live on an island.

It is not the Block Island of 1918, already sliding from the Glory Days of early tourism. A war was winding down while another trend was emerging: transportation was starting to shift away from the rail and steamers that had fed the great hotels all along the New England coast. Search eBay for Block Island postcards and one that often pops up is a wharf in Watch Hill, the end of a spur of a rail line from the Westerly station. Many continued to travel by train, especially from cities, but the freedom an automobile promised was too enticing.

Despite the downturn, the Spanish Influenza found its way here. We grew up hearing a great-great aunt, a Block Island woman, died from it in 1918. Doing family research for a cousin, I discovered that her death certificate in Town Hall listed other causes. Today, reading about past epidemics, I discovered that many of the casualties of “The Influenza” had, in fact, succumbed to under-lying illnesses, pre-existing conditions we call them today. What had gone from fact to family lore returned in an instant to probable fact.

It makes sense, now, and ends my wonderment that such a story would have been passed down absent factual basis, and confirmed that the terrible pandemic had touched the little island then so much more isolated than it is today.

More than a generation later, when I started school in the late 1950s, we were still an insular place where a winter boat running only six days a week was a given. There were three grades in our primary room — no kindergarten back then — and a boy in third grade, on the window side of the classroom, had a pronounced limp. He was, my parents explained, a year older than his classmates, because he had missed so much school, or started late, I do not remember which, because he had polio. He had an older sister who by then lived on the mainland, confined to a wheelchair (she led a full and productive life, she was even the Snow Queen at her college, with her photo in The Providence Journal) and a brother who had had either a mild case or escaped it altogether.

I am old enough to remember the last terrible summer of polio, of numbers in Rhode Island climbing, and then the news of a vaccine arriving. Our parents, mothers mainly, shepherded us to the Firemen's Hall, the second floor of what is now Aldo's, where we milled about for what seemed an eternity, awaiting our turn to have our arms punctured with needles. We later pretended to have been brave. I was not, thinking I could somehow hide under my mother's coat and avoid the fleeting pain.

Her coat was an oddity of the time, a piece of clothing salvaged from a yacht gone ashore off Cow Cove. It was red, a detail imprinted on a child's memory.

Still, it was not until I went to school that I quite understood that boy didn't “just have a limp,” like a character on a Western that was a Saturday night television favorite of my dad's, and that what had been a news story on the radio had in fact touched our little island in the early part of the 1950s. That happened when we were at our nadir, lacking even a winter boat on Sunday. Small wonder we were all gathered as soon as the vaccine arrived.

Today, on this beautiful morning, I walked about in the clean, fresh air, wondering at the deep blue of the pond and the ocean, deeper in March for the land still working its way to greening. It is the last full day of a winter during which we never had a long, deep freeze.

There is a relic of a hay rake in the field, barely recognizable, collapsed upon itself, its wheels rimless spokes poking the air. It was hidden for years overrun with bittersweet, its condition of decay hidden. Now, I know I should let it be gone for the traces of scrap metal remaining but I can't, not just yet, so there it sits, more memory than substance. We are on our little island hoping and, yes, praying, that the dark cloud of pandemic  hovering over us somehow slips around us and wafts away, a memory of a threat we were able to keep at bay by measured action and not a fantasy of immunity.