The tractor, 25 years later

Fri, 12/30/2016 - 10:30am
Twenty-five years ago I submitted a handful of short pieces of writing to Peter Wood, then Editor/Publisher of The Block Island Times. The first he used was my recollection of sitting, with my niece from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on the old cistern cover in the back yard.

The neighbor was mowing the northernmost part of the old farm next door, a piece of land between my pond and the ocean. The view was wide but it was more a lesson for a visually impaired almost-city girl, listening to the sound of the old engine, clear on a calm summer afternoon, louder as it powered the old tractor up the slope of the land, softer as the machine coasted downhill. 

The tractor could have driven from the pages of a childhood book of mine all those years ago. It, or a close relative, still resides on Mansion Road and the fascination with it and its cousins still crosses generational and gender divides.

And so a short piece titled “Tractor” was run in the Dec. 28, 1991, 12-page, issue of The Block Island Times. Those scattered other pieces of varied lengths were run weekly, fitting whatever space was available, little commentaries, primarily on the natural world around me. I never expected them to become the regular column they did, formatted, named, placed above the fold on page three by the managing editor when the Big Boss was on vacation.

I was thrilled to be in print every week; it was not until a friend with a family background in publishing commented upon the placement that I had any idea it was a premium spot, one that I held most weeks until the advent of color printing which came first only to the outermost pages, making them a prime space for real estate ads. Therein lies a whole 'nother story, the evolution of those advertisements, from black and white line drawings to full color spreads.

At the end of 1991 The Block Island Times had been weekly only a few years. It had grown, in 1982, from a bi-weekly summer paper to one printed on an eight and eight schedule, eight issues over the four summer months, and eight more, once-a-month, winter editions. Circumstance alone made news timely.

The paper went weekly in early 1988 and, after establishing its ability to print on that schedule, became the “paper of record” for the town toward the close of the year. It was a move difficult even for the most hardened cynic to argue against with any conviction; legal advertising dollars that were going to be paid to some newspaper would stay on Block Island and all the notices theretofore buried in the small print in the Providence Journal — and occasionally The Westerly Sun — became much more accessible. The Block Island Times seemed a long-going concern when I unofficially became part of it in late 1991; years later it hit me that it had not been so long a year-round publication. 

My first pieces were typewritten, then typewritten and, literally, cut and pasted/taped. My first major, related, purchase was a word processor, with floppy disks that were not floppy at all, rather hard little squares I carried to the office on Old Mill Road, then Chapel Street and, finally, Ocean Avenue.

Today, they are emailed from wherever I am.

At the start, we lived in a very different world. I kept notes and letters, handwritten, that I received in the Early Years, messages which made me acutely aware of the intensity with which people read the pages of the paper, especially from afar, when printed text was the only connection they had to this distant land, a remote place colored with summer even — especially — in the cold of winter.

It was not just the news, the “keeping an eye on Town Hall” that was their concern. They were wanting, many told me over the years, “to be on Block Island for the minutes it takes to read the paper.” Once I called my dog on the summer morning beach and a stranger turned, knowing me from reading the paper all winter. That sort of thing still happens, and still heartens and humbles me, and reminds me to be very careful of the stories I relate. One never knows who will be reading.

It has been 25 years and many of the people upon whom I relied to verify my own vague memories have passed away. I think of Arthur Rose who prefaced his answers with “well, dear, you know. . .” and Barbara Sprague who remembered with detail things that were for me only childhood fragments, and Capt Lewis, cousin Rob, who left footprints — imprints of feet, not treads of shoes — in the sand in March, and, of course, Uncle Cash, who sat on his hillside overlooking the Pacific and foretold Block Island weather as well as any area meteorologist. And many, many more.

There have been, during “my” time with the paper, three locations, five owners, and a number of editors I have survived — or who, I was recently reminded, have survived me. Technologies have changed, communications are faster and easier. Today people read the paper online — at least until the hard copy arrives — and often comment via email or Facebook, updated versions of the cherished notes in my old files.

I am never sure how to take “You're still doing that!” Twenty-five years it has been — and I hope to still be writing this column for years to come — and I am not yet as old as some people thought I was when I first started writing!

Thank you to the readers and the paper owners and editors and colleagues, thank you all for your support, your encouragement, all the ideas offered over the years, including the ones that seem never used but in which I often found a spark. Thank you to everyone who answered, and continue to answer, my questions; for all your shared memories, and comments and concerns, I am, and will be, forever grateful.