Saturday, October 27, 2012

The calm before the storm

Those who live by the sea have the deepest respect for their fickle neighbor. They cherish the calm demeanor and tranquility of their fair weather friend, but they also know when it is agitated, slamming surf and kicking up sand, it is time to get to higher ground.

Many years ago, I met an elderly gentleman, an officer in the Coast Guard Auxiliary who assisted the Coast Guard on weekend patrols on Mount Hope Bay and the Sakonnet River.

In the 1930s, his family converted a small fisherman’s shack near Sakonnet Point in Little Compton into a summer cottage.

Coming of age there, he often sailed around the lighthouse or paddled his canoe up and down the coast, edging his way around the many boats in the fishing fleet.

He worked at the Fo’c’s’le, a popular seaside tourist spot, opening quahogs, shelling lobsters and peeling potatoes.

Then the 1938 Hurricane struck without warning.

“We lost the house, and I almost lost my father,” he told me. “He was washed out to sea from Sakonnet Point all the way down to Taylor’s Lane. He watched five people drown, and he couldn’t save them. He had cracked ribs and was bruised all over, but he came out alive.”

Fifty homes in his Sakonnet Point neighborhood were destroyed.

When my parents bought land near Fogland Beach in Tiverton in the winter of 1969, they learned that their neighbor’s cottage had been beachfront property. Fifteen years earlier, Hurricane Carol had dragged it to its current site, three streets from the water’s edge.

In 1991, Hurricane Bob made landfall over Newport. When the water receded, one of the rental cottages along our beach had been torn from its foundation and set down in the middle of the salt marsh.

Last year, on the day before the arrival of Hurricane Irene, we secured the summer house and boat the best we could and flipped the picnic table. Some of our neighbors had boarded up their windows, and most of the residents had already evacuated. When we drove away, we understood the very real possibility that upon our return, everything might be gone: the summer house destroyed and our yard underwater.

Here we go again.

This morning under sunny skies, with no wind and unseasonable warmth just a few days before November, my husband and I repeated the drill.  

An unprecedented fluke of nature, Hurricane Sandy, a Category 1 hurricane embedded in a nor’easter, is barreling up the coastline.
God help us.  

Saturday, October 20, 2012

An October ride

Sometimes I wonder what lures me from bed on a Saturday morning, especially on a day like this.

Light rain splatters against the windows and a heavy mist envelops the house; yet in the darkness I happily slip into my jeans and sneakers, instead of suit and heels.

No matter the weather, Saturday offers an escape.

Outside, I hear the idling car, where my husband awaits. I grab my raincoat and camera, and I’m off.

Today we head from Massachusetts to the Tiverton summer house by a different route, taking the back roads through Westport and Little Compton.

The fall colors are muted in the rain, splotches of yellows and oranges stand out amidst a predominance of greenery.

No one is about as we slowly make our way along the winding, hilly roads. I admire the well-kept houses. Pumpkins and chrysanthemums sit on front steps, and fallen leaves carpet yards.

Today’s trek reminds me of the short story “An October Ride” written more than a hundred years ago by New England author Sarah Orne Jewett.

Remembering these lines, I smile as I compare her ride to ours:

“After I was once on the high road, it was not long before I found myself in another part of the town altogether,” she wrote. “It is great fun to ride about the country; one rouses a great deal of interest; there seems to be something exciting in the sight of a girl on horseback, and people who pass you in wagons turn to look after you, though they never would take the trouble if you were only walking.”

Our sleek red sports car turns onto Pond Bridge Road, and we drive into a blanket of heavy fog.

Before us are bright orange shapes hovering in the mist. Thousands of pumpkins await harvest.

Parking on the side of the road, I open the window; and like a phantom, the wet, dense air fills the space.

I can hear the Sakonnet, the loud crash of waves in the distance. Although I cannot see them, I know the rows of pumpkins point the way.   

“I wonder what I am; there is a strange self-consciousness, but I am only a part of one great existence which is called nature,” wrote Jewett. “The life in me is a bit of all life, and where I am happiest is where I find that which is next of kin to me, in friends, or trees, or hills, or seas.”

Whether on horseback or in a Corvette, it’s always worth the trip.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Harvest home

One potato, two potato, three potato, four …

Driving from the summer house this morning, we passed some fields near Seapowet and spotted a dump truck filled with potatoes – thousands of them.

These Tiverton potatoes will be coming to a supermarket near you.

Our local harvest reminds us of our connection to this land, something I learned at a very young age.

My mother worked part-time, and my babysitters, Tony and Molly, were farmers. They worked the family farm alongside Molly’s relatives in a nearby town.

Their daughter, Kathleen, is two years my senior; and I have always looked up to her. She taught me about the natural world.

Tony drove a blue, beat-up, flatbed truck; and we, farm kids, rode in the back with our feet dangling over the edge – something my mother never would have permitted so I never told her.

I remember running through fields of corn, hiding and chasing the other kids in the maze with blue sky overhead and endless rows of stalks pointing the way.

During harvest time, the farmers brought in a huge crop of butternut squash, which they prepared for market. My five-year-old self remembers the stacks of countless crates of winter squash; the underside of a huge table where they peeled, cut and packaged the orangey vegetable; and the musty, earthy smell in the old farmhouse basement where they worked. To this day, I have an aversion to the stuff.

But my most vivid memory is of acres of green beans. The farmers picked their produce by hand, working down the long rows and dropping the beans into bushel baskets.

Most of the time, Kathy and I played while they worked, roaming the fields, picking wildflowers and looking for birds and insects, especially fuzzy caterpillars.

But when Kathy turned eight, Tony decided that she was old enough to pick beans; and consequently, Molly gave me a basket and put me to work nearby, where she could watch me.

For hours I bent over the bushes yanking string beans from their hiding places; but by the end of the workday, the basket was only half full. That’s when Molly wandered over and started tossing beans in my basket filling it to the brim.

Tony loaded the baskets onto the flatbed, and when he came to mine, he took a dollar out of his pocket and handed it to me. I still remember the feeling of the crumpled bill in my six-year-old hands, the first money I ever earned, with a little help from a friend.
I learned two important things that day: Money doesn’t grow on trees – you have to earn it; and beans don’t come from supermarkets – they hide under bushes.



Saturday, October 6, 2012

A dog's life

I remember the day my husband brought the little dog home. He was a full-bred Jack Russell terrier, but he came with baggage.

Born on a farm, he had been adopted by a family; but they brought him back because he was vicious.

Before long, the terrier attacked the largest farm dog; and the farmer knew he had to find him another home – and fast.

My husband was the sap. He loves dogs, and the cute and expensive terrier was free.

Arriving home, my husband called me over to meet our new pet. I took one look at the animal and told my husband to bring him back.

The terrier had a large gash on his head that he sustained in the dogfight, and it looked infected. I was sure he would die.

Coming to reason, my husband reluctantly agreed. He chased the dog around the yard but couldn’t get him into the truck. When the terrier ran into the kennel, my husband shut the gate; and the dog moved into his new digs for good.

My son named him Wishbone, after the PBS character, a canine sleuth that reenacted the classics. But they were never close. Actually our three children were afraid of him.

Wishbone was territorial and seemingly unlovable. He growled and flashed his pointed teeth at any man or beast that came within a hundred feet of the kennel.

We bought Wishbone an adorable red doghouse with green shutters, and he loved it. In the winter we filled it with straw, and he snuggled inside with just his head poking out.

If a mouse made the mistake of stepping on his turf, Wishbone trapped it under the doghouse, burrowing a tunnel until he caught the squatter. Opossums tried to dine on his kibble, but their nighttime visits were always their last. We never had to remove the carcasses because he ate them.   

Despite his quirks, Wishbone endeared himself to us. My husband liked to carry him around in the crook of his arm, and the dog followed him as he did his chores in the barn.

Every morning I would give him a large piece of rawhide, which he would tear and consume in minutes. He let me pet him and scratch under his chin whenever I gave him a snack, a biscuit for extra-large dogs.

Just like other folks, the vet was afraid of Wishbone. While most animals were greeted sweetly and stroked by the staff, our dog was fitted with a muzzle as soon as he came through the door.

We dreaded the annual rabies shot at the fire station. My son had to accompany my husband because it took two grown men to accomplish the feat.

First of all, they had to stand in line, and Wishbone let the German shepherds and Alaskan huskies know who was boss.

One time he got loose, and my husband had to grab him in a headlock to protect both animals and humans.

And after the shot, he always left a present behind.

But the years passed, and Wishbone aged. He developed cataracts and lost his appetite. He stopped growling at strangers. We knew his days were numbered.

Last Wednesday he breathed his last, and my husband and I are grief stricken.

If dogs go to Heaven, we know that St. Peter was waiting by the gate with a muzzle.