At Large: A week in the life

When one’s filled this space weekly for nearly 12 years, as I have, revisiting columns written long ago can be deflating. One is reminded of what one thought and saw then, and one is astonished at how often life spinning along catches one by surprise.

For instance, on September 6, 2001, I began by describing an end-of-summer, beginning-of-school party. The evening was mild, the mood bittersweet.

“Summer ended Monday evening at Menemsha Bight. Not because it was Labor Day, not because it was a holiday, not because school was about to begin, not even because there was a party. The moment just arrived, and everyone knew it.

“For a week or two, really since the middle of August, according to a friend who works on the Islander [obviously, it was long ago], the balance has shifted. More cars are traveling to the mainland than are headed this way.

“And folks who’ve told me that this was the worst, the absolute worst, the most congested, summer on Vineyard roads have begun to describe in dreamy prose the parking places they found on Main Street in Edgartown.

“I must say that in each of the 30 [now 40] or so summers I’ve spent here, someone has said the very same thing. And someone else has said, we can’t fit any more cars, and if we do, no one will come.

“How can so many of us have been so wrong for so long?”

The party was to welcome Elaine Pace, then the new West Tisbury School principal. Teachers, parents, and kids greeted Ms. Pace.

“Everyone wanted to know, from everyone else, ‘How was your summer?’ And it turns out, everyone’s summer was terrific.”

There could not have been a lovelier, more sweetly characteristic early September, Vineyard moment. But you might say that this evening or last, in September 2011, was the equal of it. And perhaps, early September evenings here have ever been the same.

“Late in the evening, before the party ended, a white sloop let go of her mooring off the beach and spun round to head east. In her cockpit, the crew added sweaters and jackets, and then sleeping bags as the evening grew cooler. She jibed and then slipped quietly along beneath Prospect Hill, by the Brickworks and Cape Higgon, south of Lucas Shoal, by Cedar Tree Neck and Paul’s Point and Lambert’s Cove, by Norton Point, along Makonikey, beneath the Redstone battlements, by Northern Pines, Tashmoo, West Chop, and home to Vineyard Haven.

“Shortly after the sloop got underway, the sun dropped onto Westport, at the western end of Buzzards Bay, flashing green as it was extinguished. Soon the yellow moon rose over Lambert’s Cove to grow huge and silvery and light the dark water hurrying east with the flooding tide.

“There was no traffic in the Sound, and until Makonikey the shore had a wild, lonely look that said plainly, things have changed.”

The column of September 13, 2001, conjured some of the events of the week that had passed. Change was apparent.

“In lower Manhattan this weekend, along Canal Street and on Grande, the strangest people crowded the sidewalks. It was bright and warm, the refuse was in bloom, and the curbside vendors sold whatever you wanted. Lighthearted, semi-clothed, workweek dweebs ate lunch in restaurants whose doors and windows opened directly on the passing crowds, the better to show off the downtime glad rags. Others, at least temporarily unemployed, slept against the buildings where it was shady. EMS tidied them up in the morning.

“The September couture for the weekend, when the power suit rests at home in the closet, is apparently tattoos and green hair.”

Such innocents as we were, no one knew that death and chaos impended.

” … Tuesday morning when I booted up the computer on The Times network, and because thankfully our web connection, which has been giving me fits lately, was up and running, I did the usual looking around on the news sites.

“… Shortly after nine, there was a headline on the screen: Plane Crashes into World Trade Center. Wow. But, no details.

“Little while later: Second Airliner Plows into WTC; Buildings in Flames; Terrorist Attack Suspected.

“That was attention-getting, but the real tip-off that this was big, and appalling, was the thunder of footsteps on the stairs as Times staff hurried up to watch CNN.

” … Soon the airport was closed, the Steamship Authority was checking bags and making folks carry them on the ferry, and the schools were making plans to talk to kids about what was going on.

“Before long, Elaine Pace, the newest principal on the Island, had consulted with clinical psychologist Nancy Brightman and written a letter to parents and teachers with suggestions about how to talk about it.

“‘It is with great regret,’ Ms. Pace, who came to the Vineyard from New Jersey, wrote, ‘that I send home this letter regarding the tragic apparent terrorist attacks that occurred in our country today. We have been working hard all day to inform the older students that some terrible events had occurred, but no direct communication was made to students in kindergarten through fourth grade unless they asked specific questions. Those students who had friends/relatives who worked or lived in the New York City or Pentagon areas were invited to call home. Some parents elected to come to school to pick up children.’”

Thus ended a week in the life of an early September, end of summer, Vineyard life.