For Ralph Friedman, to and fro on the ferry will end

Ralph Friedman walked off the ferry Martha's Vineyard Tuesday afternoon as part of a regular commute that will soon come to an end. — Photo by Susan Safford

The Monday morning after the weekend snowstorm that closed down much of eastern Massachusetts, Pilot Hill Farm resident Ralph Friedman took the Steamship Authority (SSA) ferry to Woods Hole to dig out his car in the long-term commuter lot.

Mr. Friedman, special education out of district coordinator for the Taunton Public Schools, wasn’t going anywhere that day. His office was closed, buried under almost two feet of snow. But he had an important meeting the next day and if his 37 years of commuting had taught him anything it was that if he didn’t dig his car out of the the parking lot the snow plows would bury it even deeper.

“Thirty-seven and a half years” rolls off his tongue like a mantra. “I’m retiring on March 15th and will be on the six o’clock boat on the 19th driving to Florida for a vacation,” Mr. Friedman said. It will be the same 6 am ferry he has caught most every work day since 1976.

His wife, Debbie Milne, program director of the Martha’s Vineyard Community Services early childhood center, will fly down later. They will drive back making stops to visit their two grown children, daughter Julia, a dance instructor in Atlanta and Ted, a New York lawyer.

Mr. Friedman oversees the educational programs of children who have disabilities that prevent them from learning in a conventional school environment and who must be enrolled in programs outside of the Taunton school district. Sometimes, he must develop what he described as “innovative alternative programs” to meet specific needs.

Although his work requires him to travel to the mainland, Mr. Friedman is well known on the Island. For years, he served on Island boards and committees and was involved in community theater productions.

After growing up in Silver Spring, Maryland, Mr. Friedman studied theater at American University. Following graduation he traveled to Ghana as a member of the Peace Corps where he met Bob and DiAnn Arcudi (now Ray). The couple later moved to the Vineyard and Mr. Friedman came to visit and decided to stay.

In 1976, while working with special needs students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, he was asked to run a similar program off Island. It wasn’t long before he was commuting.

His usual workday begins at 4:30 am in order to make the 6 am boat. The trip to his office from Woods Hole takes about an hour. He arrives about 8 am. Most days he catches the 5 pm departure from Woods Hole.

Mr. Friedman said it is not unusual to spend five hours a day in his car. He listens to recorded books, “reading” a book a week, mostly novels.

In retirement, Mr. Friedman intends to give his large backyard garden plot more attention and get involved in community theater again. He has fond memories of the shows, mostly musicals, he directed and produced on The Vineyard through the 1970s and into the 80s. He is mulling over ideas for plays and reviews. “I like putting things together,” he said.

On the ferry

For Mr. Friedman there is a bittersweet aspect to the end of his daily ferry commute. He knows most of the SAA employees on the Vineyard boats by name and there is a club-like group of regular commuters who exchange the latest news and gossip. He sits in the same seat every day, both ways. “When I sit down, I am right at home,” he said. “Sometimes I open my computer and do homework, sometimes I turn on my iPod and fall asleep.”

But it’s no longer like the old days he, when there was always a card game. “I miss the card games — that’s the number one thing,” he said. “We had a group of eight who played two tables of whist, a bridge-like game, every day for years.”

He recalled the time the Islander went aground off Nobska light and the boat was sitting slightly akilter. It didn’t bother his group at all. “We were there for hours playing cards,” he said. His partners have all since retired.

Mr. Friedman has seen some unusual things. There was the guy who played with a wooden paddle with a ball attached with a rubber band on the freight deck. “Back then there were hardly any cars on the boat in the winter,” he said.”He would be down there just banging away day after day.”

One commuter, a few years ago, Daryl Kaeka, found a good size snake at Otis Air Force Base and put it in a sack to bring home. “It got out down where the cars were and the crew panicked,” he said. “It was pretty funny. Daryl found it under a car and put it back in the bag.”

One of his memories is of Captain Antone Jardin, who piloted the Islander, known by some as Typhon Tony. “When the seas got rough you could always count on Captain Jardin. Even when the wind was blowing hard I never had to worry about getting home. He lived on the Vineyard and wanted to spend the night at home. His boat always made it back.”

The reliability of the boats has also changed, Mr. Friedman said. “One of the most noticeable changes in recent years is that the older boats always ran but with this newer fleet they don’t. It used to be a boat would be canceled about twice a year. Four of my boats have been canceled already this year.”

He estimates he has been stuck on the mainland about two or three times a year. When that happens he eliminates the morning commute by driving back to Taunton at night to stay in a motel five minutes from his office.

Mr. Friedman said he will not miss the daily grind, the cost of commuter books, the cost of parking, having an extra car, insurance and gas. “I figure it costs me about $10,000 a year to commute. Do the math,” he said. “37 ½; years, 48 weeks a year, 5 days a week, 2 trips of 45 minutes a day. That’s 562.5 24-hour days spent on the boat.”

He does not hesitate when asked what he will miss most, his fellow commuters. “We are literally in the same boat,” he said.