Remembering the songs

Fri, 11/10/2017 - 7:30am

It was chilly, today. We seemed to have skimmed over crisp fall sunshine, like one of those flattish, roundish rocks my father tried to teach me to toss with a spin so they would skip over the surface of open water until a last, fatal, ker-plunk sent them to darkness below the waves.  

I am not ready for these November-lying-on-the-edge-of-winter days when blues and grays chase each other around the sky, and the sun emerges only to disappear, its warmth felt briefly. The ocean east of the house was cresting into white-caps, foam breaking offshore, catching sunshine made erratic by those ever-changing clouds.

Out at the beach house work has commenced, interior demolition, visible from the road only as the removed wood, partitions and framing, fill the big container in the parking lot. The sand began its inland march early this year, in the end of October blow from the southeast, carrying parts of the shore up and over the dunes, spilling down their landward faces, readying to course into the lot.

We see the travel in the off-season, when the leaves have shriveled to a shadow of their plump summer selves. The grasses are swamped, in some places buried completely, leaving a bald look of unbroken sand.

Memories fade from one year to the next but on occasion someone will remark that the dunes look different, even under the thick cover of roses and silver grass, bayberry and beach plum, in some way they cannot define.

We see it now, with these storms that come off the ocean, and send sand enough to be plowed like winter snow from the pavement. We hear the arguments about letting nature take its course, and the futility of forestalling the inevitable, and I think of all those years the parking lot was so much larger, before there was a wide buffer between it and the highway, before the dunes had migrated west. The state had a sizeable crew and among their seasonal tasks was the putting out and taking in of snow fencing, a labyrinth on the seaward side of the pavilion.

I remember going there in winter when we were children, getting caught in the maze of it. I am quite sure I was there more in winter than summer.

That there was no roof over the wings was revealed to me from the air, probably a flight to a forgotten dentist or doctor in Westerly. It was the fact of that openness, which helped explain the floor boards rumored to have such gaps between them that a fortune in coins fell through to the sand below, that became forever lodged in my memory.

Then there were the jetties, wooden walls extended out into the water north and south of the beach house, put in to make the strand wider after an especially rocky year. They remained until they rotted and became dangerous and were removed when the facility was rebuilt from the floor up in the late 1980's. Hard as it may be to believe today, there was no pavilion at all for one whole summer and the better part of at least one, maybe two, more. It belonged to the state, there is little in the Town records, and the local paper made mention only every six months or so. 

It is a pain forgotten, or a memory repressed. 

When the topic came up a few years ago, I was astonished at the people who had only a vague recollection of it not being there at all, “replaced” by some makeshift temporary quarters hauled in by the State. 

This week I went in to look at the building, at the start of a job, which should be completed by summer, and at the sand amassing in many places it should, such as old paths worn through the dunes, and so many where it should not, especially around the structure.

I looked at the shifting sands of the dunes and the low cloud cover beyond them, a deeper blue than the sky behind them, creating an illusion of a great wall of water rising.

It was not even half past two in the afternoon but this first week of adjusting to early sunsets, this first weirdly exhausting week of this time change that does — I keep reminding myself — give us back the mornings, it felt end of day was fast approaching. 

We refused to follow the country one year in turning back our clocks, a symbolic act especially when everyone watched the six o'clock news when our clocks still read five. We remember from that time different things; while some talk of our celebrating two New Year's Eves, I recall a clip on that out of sync news, showing children on the big yellow school bus in the lingering dark of a morning come too late.

This time of year my mother talked of the date of the Armistice, the hopeful eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, a date to be marked forever. The guns of the war fought to end all wars fell silent, swords were beaten into plowshares in 1918. 

We had exercises at school. We learned songs, “Over There,” “Keep the Home Fires Burning,” and those of the Navy, Army, Marines and probably the Air Force, never mind that it wasn’t even written until the eve of World War II. Lyrics are easier to remember when carried on music, and I remember them still.  

There were no copy machines, instead a mimeograph that produced pages covered with blurry purple ink that had a smell in which we all delighted. We learned the words, as well as poems long-forgotten, lacking the music to give them life.

I remember the songs, and copying in a newly learned cursive hand into blue notebooks the poems we were to recite, and the grown-ups dressed up as they would have back then with the reverence given the holiday, marked by programs at a half-day at school rather than sales and trips to the mainland.