Waiting for the Wind

Fri, 02/09/2018 - 7:45am

In the late 1970s, we were often surrounded by blizzard conditions.  

Forty-one years ago yesterday my mother wrote: “Heavy snow. Drifts. John (Littlefield, Sr,) plowed the gate 3 times. Huge drift in barnyard.” 

Forty years ago yesterday her neat hand recorded: “Everyone at the store at 10 a.m. Power off at 12:40 p.m. Worst storm in R.I. History. Blew over 100 m.p.h. here. Snow stopped about 10 p.m. on B.I.” She concluded her day's report with an afterthought “no boat.” 

The next day began with “Sun. Drifts. No power.” The power was restored around 1:15 p.m. The state was in disaster.

By Feb. 8, help was coming to Rhode Island from Georgia, huge pieces of machinery unloading from military cargo transports landing at Green Airport in Warwick. Normalcy was returning to Block Island “Albert (Littlefield) bulldozed Mansion Road” and the boat ran, although mainland roads remained closed and there was no mail. Ours was the only school in the state open on the ninth, but my mother’s main concern was of the coastal mess than tends to be forgotten in reports of that storm. 

Mansion Beach was rocky, the dunes were sheered, but the worst damage had been at the North End, when the ocean had raged and the east side of the road was “all water.” 

Then things sort of went back to normal on Block Island but for waiting for the mail. It was not until Feb. 13 that “Last Monday's mail” closed the chapter on the storm. 

It was a terrible storm in a time of terrible storms. A year later “John Jr. broke out the road.” We were lucky, on those years before the town bought Mansion Road, the head of the State Road crew lived next door and had to get home. 

Today, one of the anniversary dates of the Blizzard of 1978 on the mainland, it was chilly and raw in the  morning, but the rain did not begin until afternoon. The roads, my own, Mansion, West Beach, all show signs of the mud that comes of freezing and thawing, although none have any resemblance to the frequent mire of the late 1970s. 

It is only early February but it feels like late winter, the fact of out-of-sight construction jobs is disclosed by tracks of mud left by heavy big-wheeled vehicles exiting the sites. 

Today is Wednesday, a winter Dump Day, one I thought I would have to by-pass given the early forecast but the rain remained light — or absent — through the morning. I noticed rocks along West Beach Road, fallen from the wall newly constructed on, instead of rooted in, the land, near the turn from Corn Neck.

I though of someone talking about re-building a stone wall, one that had not been tended for many years. It is not one I pass daily and it was finished, beautifully, before I heard about the project. The old rocks were set deep in the earth and had to be excavated, I was told, pulled from several inches of earth, before they were re-stacked. 

It was finished, there was little point in saying the old walls were often started in shallow trenches, anchored, a guard against frost heaves, or asking “have you never read Robert Frost's “Mending Wall”? 

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it

And spills the upper boulders in the sun,

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 

Frost lived up north, where winters were and remain deeper than here but there is a commonality in rural, walled land. And, despite our parochial ways, New England is really not that large an area, Maine notwithstanding, of course. 

Here, back when the fields were grazed clear by animals contained by miles and miles of balanced, criss-crossed stone, walking the walls was something done in the spring to repair the damage of the thaw and of animals eager for that imagined greener pasture just beyond their reach. It has always been an art making these balanced walls stay in place; it was, by necessity, more commonly exercised than today. 

The new wall, the one about which I was told, is on flat ground and will likely survive this winter without incident, absent roaming deer. There are others I see everyday, along the Neck Road, that are perched as precariously as the one at the head of the way to the transfer station but they are carefully monitored and it is unusual for a rock to be out of place for more than a few days.

Today, there were several tumbled onto the narrow grassy shoulder of West Beach Road.

It used to be the roads, as well, that heaved and broke in the spring but the roads were different, not paved but made of layers of gravel-covered oil. There was even a resident oil truck, a black behemoth that would likely be dwarfed by any of today's dump trucks. 

A row of spigots floating over its back bumper released a flow of black oil which was covered by gravel sheeting from the elevated bed of a dump truck following in reverse gear. It was one of those things which might have passed from my memory but for seeing it, unexpectedly, years after it ceased being used, sitting in an exhausted sand pit just south of the Nathan Mott Park, a derelict vehicle, by then half-covered with overgrowth, but unmistakable. And likely still toxic.

It is dark, now, and the rain is falling into almost warm air. These 1978 anniversary days are always noted in the news, some years in storm, some in sun, and others, like today, in a bland melody of flat, sodden notes, longing to be blown dry, and tuned, by a sunny wind.