Before the storm

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 10:00am

It is unseasonably warm, 50 degrees and sunny, a day I have twice caught myself leaving my coat on the car seat as I walk away wearing a sweater that is more a weight for spring and fall than winter.

The ground is slightly soft from yesterday's rain but there has been no deep frost and no mud producing thaw. The forecast is dreadful, both a winter storm and a gale warning posted, overlapping, for the whole of tomorrow.

This day, though, began slowly, damply, and in late morning there is still on the surface of the road that lingering moisture that glimmers in the sun. It can be dangerous stuff, turning to black ice in a flash freeze. There is a place on upper Spring Street that triggers a fading memory of this damp turning to a slick cover at a warmer day's end, and the life of a roller skater ended by a misstep.

The mist may have closed the airport, I remember with certainty only the doctor of the time later saying it would not have mattered, the young man's life was over the instant his head hit the pavement, one of those terrible, tragic mishaps.

There are layers of history at every turn in every town; here they feel closer because we knew so many of the people involved. 

One piece spills into another into another. Up the hill to the east is the house where Bill Stringfellow lived, a place of refuge in August of 1970. The late Father Daniel Berrigan walked out of it to meet law enforcement agents sent to take him back to a jail sentence and by so doing threw Block Island, this little unknown place off the coast, into national headlines.

Berrigan will stand in history as one of the more prominent dissenters against an increasingly unpopular war in far away Southeast Asia. Protests were loud and growing, but perhaps not as reaching as television that brought the battles in all their horror to the living rooms of the nation and finally, firmly, turned the tide of opinion. We did not then doubt what we saw with our own eyes. 

Many of the houses in the area had not been built in 1970, the land was far more open. It is difficult to remember the great expanse of lawn/meadow that ran down the slope north of the house, affording an easy view of the brush where those federal agents, posing as oddly out of season “birdwatchers,” lurked.

[In the midst of thoughts of another time come words over the radio, so out of step with the sunlight beyond my windows: “They just put up a blizzard warning for Block Island.” Sure enough, the orange advisory band on the weather site has turned red, and, for the first time, I see “Niko” and make a decision not to rant over naming winter storms, beyond noting the absurdity of it.] 

What became known as the Stringfellow House was built in the 1950's, one of a few places featured in a Providence Journal article about a boom on Block Island. It had a salt water swimming pool fed by a line running all the way to the ocean, and a two-car garage at the end of a long sweep of a road filled with some sort of gravel stone mix that might have been compressed by Searles Ball with his legendary Buffalo Springfield steamroller

It still boasts a fieldstone facade and a great chimney but in reality the house itself was little more than a two bedroom ranch with curb-appeal upgrades. A later owner exclaimed “it didn't even have a dining room!”

In February the heavy summer brush is a fretwork of naked twigs, traffic is sparse, what we can see and process more than in summer's lush rush.

There is another house, just beyond the little compound, probably around ten years older, and with a very different place in history. It was built not as the summer home it became within short years of the time its fancy neighbor arrived, rather as a governmental installation, a structure that does-not-really-look-like-a-barn with a great white sort-of-resembling-a-silo tower attached, never mind that Block Island was a place where silos were a rarity, the exception to the rule.

There were several of these World War II buildings scattered about the island, the rest with square towers, incorporated into structures, with varying degrees of success at camouflage as barns or houses. They were the off-shore outpost of the Narragansett Bay Defense system, comprised of fortifications at land's end from Narragansett to Sakonnet.

They were built when the war on-going was one of distant battles, brought home by radio and newspapers, and of immediate threats, of shores regularly patrolled by Coast Guardsmen, driving and on foot, with communication available only via phone boxes set some distance from each other around the Island.

Years ago I asked one of the men who walked the shores during World War II whatever he would have done had he encountered invaders far away from one of those phones and the reply was simple: “run like hell!”

At the crest of the hill of the Grand Lady of federal buildings, the National Landmark Southeast Lighthouse,, comes into view. It is softly backlit by a pale blue sky, the elsewhere departed early mist still hanging off this corner of the island like summer fog. 

For all the times I have experienced this weather pattern it remains a surprise to reach the top of Spring Street and find the sensation of touching the clouds. The sun is still shining on the lawn of the lighthouse but the fog horn is sounding, confirming that the veil though which the turbines off-shore are visible is real, not just my fancy that an area so steeped in history should have a protective shroud.

It is warm and damp, cool for a summer morning but in February, with a blizzard warning looming, an easy leap of imagining.