Authors Posts by Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow

Barry Stringfellow
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Ralph Packer saved the day after heavy seas snapped the barge anchor lines hours before the show.

President Obama watched the Oak Bluffs fireworks from the North Bluff porch of Valerie Jarrett. (Photo by Max Bossman)

The estimated 12,000 spectators at the annual Oak Bluffs Fireman’s Civic Association fireworks show Friday night had no idea how close the show was to being postponed.

“The was by far the most difficult show I’ve had to deal with as chief,” Oak Bluffs fire chief John Rose told The Times. “We had a stiff northeast wind blowing 20 miles an hour and six to eight-foot seas, and two anchor lines on the barge broke. We lost the first anchor around 4 pm. When the second line broke, someone from [R.M.] Packer had to go back to Vineyard Haven for two more anchors.”

The wind direction also created additional complications. “Because the wind was out of the northeast, which is unusual for this time of year, we had to reposition the barge 1,600 feet offshore instead of the usual 600 feet,” Mr. Rose said. “We also had to move the barge 400 feet to the south so the debris wouldn’t fall on spectators or on buildings in town.”
Mr. Rose said that he and state fire marshal Stephen Coan were in constant contact with the National Weather Service station in Taunton, which provided critical data that informed the final fireworks decision. “They told us winds would diminish from sustained 20 miles an hour to sustained 14 miles an hour between six and eight o’clock,” Mr. Rose said. “They called it on the money.”

After a frenetic afternoon of repairing, recalculating, and repositioning, a test shot that was fired shortly after 5:30 pm showed the barge needed to be moved further offshore.

“We were having trouble orienting the barge because of the wind and the strong currents” Warren Pearce, president of American Thunder Fireworks told The Times. “I was pretty panicked. Then I called Ralph Packer and he told me the tide was going to change in an hour and the current will switch and the wind will drop and we’d be all set. He was right. That man knows what he’s doing.”

Mr. Pearce, a 25 year veteran of the fireworks industry, said Mr. Packer makes many unseen contributions to the show every year. “Generally barges are an expensive addition to a show, but not in this case, because Ralph donates it. He also has his guys pitching in doing all kinds of things. They’re an integral part of making this work.”
Mr. Rose also gave kudos to Mr. Packer. “He was generous enough to tell the tugs to stay on the barge during the show,” Mr. Rose said. “As long I can remember, it’s the first time we had tugs holding the barge in place. Without the tugs there wouldn’t have been a show. Mr. Packer stepped up and saved the day.”

Mr. Pearce said Mr. Rose also deserved credit. “Chief Rose called me four days before the show and said he was concerned about the forecast and that wind was going to be a problem,” he said. “That informed what equipment we brought and in the end we had what we needed. We had a plan in place even before we got there and John was an integral part of it.”

Mr. Rose said the annual fireworks show requires a great deal of planning and coordination, even in ideal conditions. “Nobody realizes all the different things that go into the fireworks show,” he said. “We do a ton of pre-planning, starting right after the first of the year. Everything has to fall into place.”

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Funding approval for clearing the little bridge channel appears imminent, but other projects face further scrutiny.

FEMA officials are expected to fund dredging the north channel into Sengekontacket Pond.

Town administrator Robert Whritenour presented Oak Bluffs selectmen with a good news/bad news update on the status of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding for Hurricane Sandy repairs at their regular meeting on Tuesday night.

“We’ve received verbal determination that the Little Bridge dredging project meets the public benefit threshold,” Mr. Whritenour said. “One big change: we can’t use it for beach nourishment at Inkwell and Pay Beach.”

Little Bridge crosses one of two channels that connect Sengekontacket Pond to Nantucket Sound. The two popular public beaches are approximately one mile north of the dredging site.

Mr. Whritenour said that FEMA guidelines for dredging funds require the most cost-effective disposal of the dredge spoils, which in this case means depositing the material on State Beach. He added that when the formal written approval comes through as expected, the dredging contractor can do the work within 30 days.

Selectman Walter Vail noted that FEMA will only cover 75 percent of the project and asked how the town would cover the remaining 25 percent. Mr. Whritenour said the town dredge account would cover the balance. The work will be done in October or November, if all goes as planned.

While things are looking up for Sengie, the funding forecast for another project under FEMA review, the reconstruction of the North Bluff, is not as promising.

In an August 22 letter to Robert Grimley, FEMA region 1 disaster recovery manager, Mr. Whritenour wrote, “The second critically time-sensitive project is the reconstruction of the North Bluff seawall that has been degraded to very poor condition as a result of Hurricane Sandy. In its current condition this seawall is no longer capable of protecting the adjacent coastal bank or the public roadway and we shudder to contemplate the risk of failure we face in the next major coastal storm.”

Mr. Whritenour also provided FEMA with an August 21 memo from CLE engineering consultant Carlos Pena, who wrote that the seawall, which was built in 1940 with inferior cement, “has a strong risk of failure during a major coastal storm” and needs to be completely rebuilt. FEMA officials has so far maintained that the less expensive option of reinforcing the existing wall can adequately protect the town. The North Bluff seawall runs from Oak Bluffs harbor entrance to the Steamship Authority terminal.

Other projects for which the town has applied to FEMA for Hurricane Sandy funding include repairs to Sea View Avenue bulkhead, restoration of beaches and jetties at Pay Beach, Jetty Beach, and the Inkwell, and East Chop bluff restoration. Mr. Whritenour suggested that the town consider appropriating funds for additional engineering studies on East Chop bluff, since they can be used to apply for funding from other state and federal agencies in the event FEMA does not award hurricane Sandy funding, which seems more likely in his estimation.

Cheers and jeers
In other business, the selectmen gave patrons of The Ritz Cafe something to celebrate with a unanimous vote to officially transfer the year-round, all-alcohol liquor license from Janet King, former co-owner of the Ritz for 31 years, to Joseph L. Stallings, president of BB&L management. The bequeathment was presided over by attorney Howard West.

Eastville Beach seasonal residents were again out in force to fight the proposed oyster farm that received preliminary approval from the selectmen in March after the proposal garnered the unanimous support of the shellfish committee and shellfish constable David Grunden. Chairman of the selectmen Greg Coogan told those assembled that the fate of the aquaculture project currently rests with the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF), and selectmen cannot act until that decision is made. Mr. Coogan assured the concerned residents that the board was taking in both sides of the debate, and he showed a thick stack of letters to that effect.

Selectman Gail Barmakian said a recent site visit to Eastville Beach gave her a better understanding of the group’s concerns. Eastville residents also asked for improved communication from the town during the off-season, including email blasts on upcoming decisions. Mr. Whritenour said that tailoring emails to specific groups is a large undertaking and is not in the town budget. He added that all taxpayers in Oak Bluffs can keep abreast of developments by checking the town website. Selectman Michael Santoro said that improving the town’s Internet infrastructure and social media is a high priority for the capital committee in the coming months.

Mr. Whritenour informed the selectmen that for the town to maximize insurance benefits to cover repairs to the fire damaged transfer station, a declaration of emergency had to be passed. Selectmen endorsed the move unanimously.

Selectmen also unanimously endorsed the appointment of Jennifer Parkinson to the Council on Aging board of directors. “I think she’ll be a great asset to the council,” selectman Kathy Burton said. “I’m sure she’ll bring some great ideas.”

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When Bill Howell hires a recovering addict, he knows their situation first hand.

Bill Howell, owner of Concrete Bill. "Education and treatment is the silver bullet when it comes to overcoming addiction." (Photo by Michael Cummo)

This is the seventh installment in a continuing look at drug abuse and its effect on the Island community by Times reporter Barry Stringfellow. The series began on Jan. 2 “Opiate addiction hits home,” and was followed on Jan. 22 “Martha’s Vineyard police and physicians confront opiate abuse,” on Feb. 12 “Opiates, a love story,” and on May 7 “Battling Addiction on Martha’s Vineyard,” on June 5 “Section 35—when addiction calls for drastic action” and on June 25, Intervention—tackling addiction head on.

Bill Howell arrived at the Vineyard House construction site off Holmes Hole Road in Vineyard Haven early on a recent sunny Monday morning with his dog, Keeper, kicking up a cloud of dust behind him. Mr. Howell didn’t look like a typical cement contractor in baggy shorts, low-cut Chuck Taylor All-Stars and faded “Keep off grass” tee-shirt. He also bucked the stereotype with his easy-going, soft-spoken manner.

Jamie Kergaravat hauls boards that will make the form for a concrete foundation. (Photo by Michael Cummo)

Jamie Kergaravat hauls boards that will make the form for a concrete foundation. (Photo by Michael Cummo) — Photo by Michael Cummo

He gave instructions to his young and eager five-man crew as they put the finishing touches on an expansive foundation for the men’s dormitory at the new Vineyard House, the Island’s only sober living facility. The job has special significance for Mr. Howell. “I was one of the first residents of Vineyard House; I started living there in 1999,” he said. “I bid low on this job. I really wanted this one.”

Mr. Howell started Concrete Bill, his cement contracting company, in 2001 when he was still a resident at Vineyard House. He’ll have 15 years clean time on November 29 — “5,377 days clean, but who’s counting?” he said.

Mr. Howell has hired many Vineyard House residents and alumni over the years. “A lot of people in recovery won’t hire people in recovery. I don’t get that,” he said. “I did from day one. This is not a not-profit company. But I can’t not hire these guys.”

Four out of five of his crew today are in recovery. “We were five out of six, but we lost one last week,” he said. “He needed to borrow $500 for a new car, that’s the last I’ve seen of him.” Mr. Howell shrugged. “I don’t fire people who are struggling. In the past 10 years, I only had to fire one person.”

Solid reputation

Mr. Howell’s company, Concrete Bill, is well respected in the Island building community. “Bill has been doing foundations for me since he first started out,” Bill Potter, CEO of Squash Meadow Construction, told The Times. Squash Meadow is the general contractor for the new Vineyard House. “Integrity and honesty are core principles that we believe in as a company and we expect from the people we work with. Bill Howell lives up to that in every respect.”

“Bill’s easy to work with and his crews are quality,” project manager Woody Mitchell told The Times. “When you’re doing modular homes like Vineyard House, foundations have to be perfection. It’s not like you’re framing in the field when you can make adjustments on the fly. Bill does a quality job every time.”

Rock bottom

Originally from the Cape, Mr. Howell, 51, came to the Island because he was “basically homeless,” and he hoped the move would lead to the path of recovery.

Initially, it didn’t.

“Pills, cocaine, heroin, I took whatever was there,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to an addict. It has nothing to do with logic. lt’s a form of insanity.”  Mr. Howell began using drugs and alcohol at the tender age of 9. Addiction runs deep on both sides of his family. “My father died of complications from alcoholism, my grandfather was an alcoholic,” he said. “Being around addicts was normal for me, and I just kept doing it.”

In the end, the move to the Island was key to his recovery. In addition to gaining a foothold at Vineyard House, “It felt good to have an ocean between me and the people I was spending time with,” he said.

Pillar of the community

Mr. Howell is active in the Island recovery community. In addition to providing employment, he’s a sponsor, mentor and he helps organize an annual celebration of recovery that the Vineyard community has hosted for the past 26 years.

Per 12-step program protocol, no individual can speak to a particular  recovery program. While the ultimate goals are the same, there are differences in dictum. “The goal for us is not abstinence, it’s recovery,” Mr. Howell said, adding that he relapsed for the last time in the 90’s. “There’s zero hope or expectation when you start in recovery. All you think about, all day, every day, is using again. But if the times a person uses are shorter, and the clean times last longer, that’s a win.”

Mr. Howell said the dark days create a special bond among recovering addicts. “We’re all survivors of the same near-fatal catastrophe,” he said. “We pull for each other. If you need support, go to a meeting. There’s one on this Island every day.”

Mr. Howell also had a suggestion for people who aren’t sure if they need help. “If you’re wondering if you have a problem, ask your family and friends what they think,” he said. “They’ll tell you.”

De-stigmatizing addiction

Mr. Howell was unfailingly forthcoming about his addiction and his recovery and he didn’t hesitate to give his last name. “I think people are more comfortable doing that because the perception of addiction is changing,” he said. “It has to change. Education and treatment is the silver bullet when it comes to overcoming addiction.”

Two of Mr. Howell’s crew also elected to give their full names.

Jamie Kergaravat, 29, has been working for Concrete Bill for three months. He has the build and the close-cropped hair of a Marine who just finished boot camp. “I was homeless three times,” he said, lighting a cigarette. “I lived in halfway houses, homeless shelters, outdoors. I was not into my recovery.”

Like Mr. Howell, he was down to his last stop when he came to the Island. His aunt took him in after yet another rehab stint at the Brockton Addiction Treatment Center. He’d stolen so much from his mother that she had a court order to keep him 50 feet from her house. “Now, I can’t get her off the phone,” he said laughing.

“The best thing I ever did was going to my first meeting here. I raised my hand and asked for help. It was hard to do. It was like putting my tail between my legs. I was scared. I sat at a table afterwards, and there was a line of people who wanted to help.”

Mr. Kergaravat has six months clean time. He’s lived at Vineyard House for the past five months. “It’s a great group of guys — we all click,” he said. “It’s impossible to do this alone. It’s all about surrounding myself with people who are doing the right thing.”

Which is not to say it’s been a smooth ride. “There’s definitely white-knuckle times, especially in the beginning,” he said. “But I’m not going back. I love living here. This Island has so much to offer.” Mr. Kergaravat reached into the back of his pick-up and picked up a brand-new surf rod and reel. “I haven’t caught anything yet, but I figured it’s time to start learning.”

Emmett Cook, 21, went to 12-step meetings with his father when he was a child. “He did work at it,” Mr. Cook said. By the time his father moved the two of them to the Island for a fresh start, Mr. Cook had been a frequent guest of Rhode Island and Connecticut state youth facilities, starting at age 13.

He enrolled at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School but dropped out after a year. His appetite for drugs grew unabated. “My drug of choice was ‘More,’” he said. “It didn’t matter what it was, just ‘more.’”

Mr. Cook’s father has since moved back to the mainland and is no longer in recovery. Mr. Cook stayed and, after one relapse, has been clean for over a year. “April 17, 2013,” he said.

Mr. Cook had turned 21 the day before he spoke to The Times. He celebrated with a cake and a dip in the ocean, and a meeting. “I usually go to a meeting every day,” he said. “It’s an hour a night: there’s no excuse not to go.”

As the crew packed up, Mr. Kergaravat surveyed the finished job. “It’s very cool that we got to build the foundation for this place,” he said. “If someone wants help, I’d say come to Vineyard House. There’s always a bed. The new place will have tons of beds.”

For more information about Vineyard House, call 508-693-8580 or go to VineyardHouse.org.

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Benito

Tracey Briscoe, the new owner of Benito's on Circuit Ave., kisses Benito "Benny" Mancinone in May, 2014, after his retirement.

This Saturday, Island stalwart Benito Mancinone, known to generations of Islanders as “Benny,” will be back in his former Oak Bluffs barber shop on Circuit Avenue that still bears his name. For the first time since he quietly slipped into retirement and left the Island in 2013, Mr. Mancinone will be cutting hair from 9 am to 12 pm for a minimum $40 dollar donation, to raise money for the Joseph Jerome Memorial Foundation (JJMF). Keeping with his long-standing tradition, Mr. Mancinone will not take appointments.

Former Edgartown School principal and longtime chairman of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, Ed Jerome, a close friend of Benny’s, started the JJMF in memory of his son Joseph, who died last September after a long illness, at the age of 24.

“The foundation was created to help Island families with chronically ill children afford the high cost of taking them to Boston for treatment,” Mr. Jerome said. “It’s unique to Islanders, the many trips, the ambulances. They might be in the hospital 50, 75 nights a year. It can create tremendous financial strain. Meanwhile, you have no idea if and when your child will get well.” Mr. Jerome said when his son Joe was receiving care in Boston, it sometimes required him and his wife Maryann to alternate five-day stays in the city while raising another child back on the Island.“It’s a difficult situation you don’t understand unless you’ve been there,” he said.

Mr. Jerome said that there are no strings attached to the assistance from JJMF and there’s no application process. “This is a fund where we try to find those folks who are too proud to say anything,” he said. He and other board members will rely on the Island grapevine, as well as local health care professionals, teachers, and counselors, to find families in need. “It’s all done very quietly,” he said. “Nobody’s going to know.”

Old friends

“Ed was the first friend I made when I moved to Martha’s Vineyard,” Mr. Mancinone said in his thick Italian accent in a phone interview with The Times. Mr. Mancinone moved to the Island in 1991, responding to a letter that he received the day after he was forced to close his Springfield restaurant. “I had to figure out what to do to take care of my family,” he said. “The next day, this letter arrives, asking licensed barbers to apply to Cottage City Barbershop on Martha’s Vineyard.” Mr. Mancinone was the first person to respond. He got the job and moved his family to the Island, and he soon met Mr. Jerome.

“Ed taught me everything about fishing, except he doesn’t give up his secret spots,” Mr. Mancinone said.

“I’m Italian, he’s Italian, we hit it right off. It became a great friendship,” Mr. Jerome said.

Mr. Mancinone and Mr. Jerome fished together often over the years, especially during the Derby. “Benny and I fished before work. He would go to his shop and I would go to school,” Mr. Jerome, said. “I caught some nice fish, 34-pound stripers fishing with Ed,” Mr. Mancinone said. “But 11 years fishing the Derby, I never got a bite, not even a bite. My wife was starting to wonder if I was really fishing.”

Under new management

Last year, after 22 years in his Circuit Ave shop, Mr. Mancinone sold his business to his longtime employee and de facto daughter Tracy Briscoe and her brother, Jason Gruner.

“He was Papa Benito,” Ms. Briscoe said fondly. “He never called me Tracy. It was either ‘that girl’ or ‘Fifi.’”

Ms. Briscoe worked almost every summer with Benny after he took over the shop and worked some winters as well. She originally hatched the idea for Saturday’s fundraiser.

“I adore the Jerome family,” Ms. Briscoe said. “I cut Joe’s hair when he was a boy. I watched him grow up. It’s a win-win to raise money for the Jerome’s foundation and bring back Benny at the same time.”

Saturday will mark the first time Benny will see the top to bottom renovation Ms. Briscoe and Mr. Gruner made to the shop over the winter. Per Benny’s wishes, they kept the barber shop spirit intact. They also redid the floor and the walls and added some modern touches like flat screen TVs and a popcorn machine. Still, Benny’s imprint is everywhere. The original barber poll still spins outside the window in which his old barber chair sits. A 1954 clock from his Springfield shop with inverted numbering — so clients can read it in the mirror — hangs on the wall.

“People that didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Benny now have the chance,” Ms. Briscoe said. Very few people knew Mr. Mancinone was retiring and moving to Connecticut. Which is the way he wanted it. “I hate saying goodbye,” he said. “It makes me very sad. But I’m really looking forward to seeing Ed and the rest of the guys.” Mr. Mancinone said he’ll cut hair at least until 12 noon, depending on how his recently replaced knee holds up. “I’ll go as long as I can,” he said. “Then when I can’t work no more, I’ll just tell them to give me the money. Give me 60 or 100 bucks. It’s for a great cause.”

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Rink booster says investing in much-needed roof repairs and solar energy conversion could benefit investor and Islanders alike.

The MV Ice Arena would reduce its operating costs by up to 50 percent with the addition of solar panels.

The Martha’s Vineyard Arena (MVA) is showing its age. The 20-year-old roof on the 40-year-old building is leaking. Since it’s not insulated, the roof hemorrhages heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer. The MVA electric bill is over $100,000 a year — more than half the annual operating budget.

Now the technology exists so the hot sun can keep the ice cold year-round. The opportunity also exists for an investor to make his or her money back, with interest, while helping to improve one of the Island’s main sports and recreation venues, according to Bob Mone of West Tisbury, a longtime supporter of the rink and former member of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

Owner of Mone Insurance in Vineyard Haven, Mr. Mone is looking for an investor to fund the new roof and the installation of photovoltaic cells that he said would supply over 95 percent of the arena’s energy needs.

“You rarely see an opportunity to donate to a good cause and get your money back with interest,” Mr. Mone said in an interview with The Times. “When I first saw the numbers, I thought it was just too good to be true. But it’s not.”

Mr. Mone said that the investor would be able to recoup his loan, which will be in the neighborhood of $1.6 million, with interest ranging from four to six percent over ten years, through a combination of tax benefits estimated at $806,196 after six years and proceeds from the sale of Renewable Energy Certificates (REC) expected to generate $642,834 over seven years.

According to the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs, RECS are tradeable energy commodities that require 1 megawatt hour of electricity be generated from an eligible renewable energy resource. RECS can be sold or traded at auction once a year. The investor will own the solar array and completely control the funds it generates.

“Right now, we’re leaning towards Bennett Electric to do the solar work,” Mr. Mone said. “They’re the low bid and they want to put the photovoltaic cells on the roof, which will cost less than putting them on a separate canopy, and would make the permitting process a lot simpler.”

The environment will also benefit from the MVA renovation. “I really want the rink to go green,” Mr. Mone said. “Currently it has one of the biggest carbon footprints on the Vineyard. By keeping the energy costs in check, it will also help provide long-term financial security for the rink.”

Financial stability is an ongoing issue for the MVA. Like many public rinks of the 1960s and 1970s, the MVA grew in stages — pieces and parts were added over the years, when funds allowed. Mr. Mone and his wife, Gayle, were among the volunteers who built the first incarnation of the MVA in 1973, when Islanders laid the pipe and created an ice surface that was cleaned with a small plow on a Jeep. Side boards were added soon after, and later a roof. The MVA became a year-round facility in 1992 when side walls were added, making it a fully enclosed rink.

Family responds to tragedy

Ryan Mone, Mr. Mone’s youngest son who was a senior stand-out on the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School hockey team, died in a car accident on New Year’s Eve, 1998. The following year, the Mones began a drive to improve the MVA facilities, raising funds to replace the flimsy plywood dressing rooms with heated locker rooms and showers.

That the MVA has flourished is the result of the Mones’ desire to memorialize Ryan, and the effect their story had on Bob Levine, a summer resident based in Colorado, who read about the Mones in a local paper and went on to underwrite major MVA improvements. These days the rink bustles nine months a year with high school hockey, amateur hockey leagues, figure skating, and youth instructional camps and youth hockey tournaments, including the annual Ryan Mone memorial tournament. But the roof leaks are only going to get worse, and the electricity bill is only going to get bigger until the new roof and solar panels are in place.

“We want to get this project done as soon as possible,” Mr. Mone said. “Once we get the funding, we could have it done in six months.”

Auction tonight

Raising money for the MVA is a family affair for the Mones. Their oldest son, Jon Mone, a former MVRHS hockey stand-out, and executive producer of the hit movie “Ted,” is providing a walk-on role in “Ted 2” as an auction item at tonight’s Ice Savours, to be emceed by comedian Lenny Clarke. Other auction items include a sunset sail and cocktails on Nat Benjamin’s schooner Charlotte, paella for 10 from Kitchen Porch catering, two tickets to the PGA championship in Florida, four tickets to a Bruins game with a tour of the NBC live feed truck, four tickets to the October 5 Patriots game against the Cincinnati Bengals, rounds of golf at Farm Neck, Mink Meadows, and Vineyard Golf Club, and fishing with “Living it” charters. The event will be held at Farm Neck Golf Club in Oak Bluffs, from 6 to 9 pm. Cocktails and hors d’oeuvres will be served and the live auction begins at 7:15. Tickets are $100. For more information, call 509-693-4438.

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Obama’s visit gives local scribes a behind-the-scenes look at covering the commander-in-chief.

Inside the big yellow bus during a long "hold," two reporters file stories while most of the pool soaks in the glorious summer day.

The arrival of a visiting president on Martha’s Vineyard is an exciting prospect for a reporter at a local Island weekly. It provides the opportunity to join some of the nation’s top journalists and photographers and to ride in the motorcade with the President of the United States — POTUS in reporter parlance. And there’s always the possibility, however remote, that a local reporter will get the chance to ask the most powerful man in the world a probing question — a question that could possibly give the president pause for reflection.

The Presidential press pool passes a long holding period at Flanders, where AFP photographer Nicholas Kamm passes the time photographing horses and veteran pooler Rick Friedman jokes with the AP's Jacquelyn Martin.

The Presidential press pool passes a long holding period at Flanders, where AFP photographer Nicholas Kamm passes the time photographing horses and veteran pooler Rick Friedman jokes with the AP’s Jacquelyn Martin. — Photo by Michael Cummo

But past experience covering President Obama as a member of the White House pool has been akin to press purgatory — long hours sitting in vans and buses, and maybe, just maybe, getting a telescopic view of the president’s facility with an 8 iron. This vacation, the president has been even more cloistered than usual, and a Sasquatch sighting on Farm Neck seems much more likely than any contact with the commander-in-chief.

With a mandate to get something out of the money The Times ponied up for the costs to get this local reporter in the White House pool, I decided to interview some of these top-shelf journos, to get a window into the life with the president when something actually happens, to get their impressions of our Island, and to find out what movies they show on Air Force One.

A summer day in the pool

The White House pool reporters were welcoming and collegial when a Times reporter and photographer joined their coterie. It was not long before a photographer from a major wire service shared a moving story about a picture she took last winter that went viral and eventually reunited a mentally ill man with his searching family. When The Times asked her to tell her heartwarming tale on the record so Islanders could share in it too, her tone took a decidedly sour turn. “Aw man, I thought we were just hanging out,” she said, uttering the last words she would speak to The Times for the rest of the 13-hour day on the bus.

Journalists, it turns out, do not like to be interviewed. This irony stems mainly from corporate policy. Given the amount of print journalists who are blogging for less than minimum wage, they can’t be blamed for protecting their livelihood.

The big yellow bus, aka "The Mothership," where the White House press pool spends a good part of the president's vacation.

The big yellow bus, aka “The Mothership,” where the White House press pool spends a good part of the president’s vacation. — Photo by Michael Cummo

But over the course of a long day spent in cramped vans and pacing around holding sites, some reporters and photographers, who asked to remain nameless, eventually shared stories about life on the Obama beat. While President Obama sometimes visits with pool reporters on long flights abroad, the conversations tend to be short and measured, as opposed to the gregarious President Clinton, who loved talking politics so much that one now-retired reporter feigned sleep when he saw the president coming to the back of the plane.

Neither the pool reporters nor the president get frequent flier miles on “Air Force One” and the movie “Air Force One” has not been shown on Air Force One. Additionally, the M&M’s and even the tiny tabasco bottles have “Air Force One” stamped on them, and make great gifts at the holidays.

On that day we spent five hours holding at the end of the entrance to the Vineyard Golf Club off the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. The Times took an informal poll to see if these journalists, who are some of the best in the world at unearthing the truth, still saw the Island as an “affluent, exclusive enclave,” as so many of them describe it, after spending some time here. The unanimous response was, “Yes.” They were informed that locals bristle at these descriptions, that the average wage on the Island is 70 percent of the state average, that there’s a critical shortage of affordable housing, and that many Islanders are barely making ends meet.

“Really? Where are they?” one reporter asked genuinely. People who see the Vineyard from the point of view of the president can’t be expected to see the full spectrum of Vineyard life, especially when they spend long days wedged in vans and pacing around holding sites.

Hurry up and wait

After the president finished his round of golf, the “Men in Black” convoy sped up Island, and the press promptly went into hold mode again — this time at the Flanders property, a 65-acre former estate of a prosperous whaling captain who was coincidentally also named Flanders. The photographers took photos of horses from every possible angle, while some Secret Service huntsmen looked longingly at the abundant deer and turkey frolicking in the verdant meadows.

After POTUS got cleaned up for dinner, the convoy, this time including a bomb squad truck manned by men with permanent scowls, sped back down Island. After a circuitous route to Oak Bluffs, the president, the first lady, aka FLOTUS, and a few select friends had dinner at The Sweet Life, where the Obamas have often dined.

While the president ate, the pool was escorted to Giordano’s via Kennebec Ave., which required an explanation of the long line at Back Door Donuts and the wonder of a warm apple fritter. The pool members, who have dined at restaurants all over the world, were unanimous in their praise for Gio’s cuisine, especially the meatball parmesan pizza and the lobster ravioli.

The day ended with the pool gathering with hundreds of locals outside The Sweet Life. Just before POTUS and FLOTUS emerged, the bomb squad truck, per security protocol, pulled in front of the crowd gathered on a spit of land between Pequot Ave. and Massasoit Ave. POTUS and FLOTUS left the restaurant to applause, flashing cell phone cameras and about 100 people chanting “Move that truck! Move that truck!”

The press was warned ahead of time that we had to dash to our vans as soon as POTUS got into his car, or risk missing the motorcade. Despite being impaled by a charging soundman brandishing his boom mike like a lance, this reporter managed to make it back to the van in time.

The day ended with the press getting one fleeting glimpse of POTUS and FLOTUS. From a journalistic standpoint, it was a dud. But maybe, just maybe, a reporter will think twice before describing the Vineyard as a playground for the rich and famous.

0

The commander-in-chief racked up 72 holes of golf in his first four days on Island and the family spent some time at the beach.

President Obama is all smiles as golfing partner Ahmad Rashad congratulates him on sinking a putt at Farm Neck golf course.

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their daughter Malia, along with first dogs Bo and Sunny, arrived by helicopter at Martha’s Vineyard Airport Saturday for the start of a two-week vacation. The Obamas’ youngest daughter, Sasha, was not on Air Force One, but a White House spokesperson said she would be joining the family later.

Waitresses wave out the window of Bangkok Cuisine at people trying to spot President Obama, who dined at The Sweet Life Cafe just next door.

Waitresses wave out the window of Bangkok Cuisine at people trying to spot President Obama, who dined at The Sweet Life Cafe just next door. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Mr. Obama and his family have vacationed on the Island every year since his 2008 election, with the exception of 2012, when he was campaigning for re-election. Past presidential vacation activities have included golf, bike trips with the family, golf, dinners with friends, and golf. A White House pool reporter from a major wire service told a reporter from the Times that when he is in Washington, the president plays golf at least once every weekend.

The public was not allowed to welcome the Obamas at the airport, but well-wishers were frequent along the motorcade route to the president’s rented Chilmark estate. The commander-in-chief quickly changed into his golf clothes and was on the first tee at Farm Neck golf course in Oak Bluffs within an hour of his arrival. The president’s foursome that day included former football star and broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, Cyrus Walker, a cousin of White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Ray Allen, the longtime Boston Celtics star who later took his talents to Miami. After the round, the president did not disclose his score, citing executive privilege.

On Sunday, the president played a second round of golf at Farm Neck. His foursome included Mr. Walker, Mr. Rashad, and financier friend Robert Wolf. After the round, the president stayed in for the night.

President Obama waves to the throng of onlookers after leaving The Sweet Life Cafe, where he dined with his wife Michelle, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, Former Ambassador Ron Kirk and their spouses.

President Obama waves to the throng of onlookers after leaving The Sweet Life Cafe, where he dined with his wife Michelle, National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, Former Ambassador Ron Kirk and their spouses. — Photo by Michael Cummo

As with all presidential movements, security is everywhere. Earlier that day, Island fisherman in search of bonito by boat off the brickyard were shooed away by a crew from a Coast Guard cutter stationed off the Island’s north shore, just east of the Obama’s vacation house. Fortunately for the fishermen, bonito have been scarce this year, or the situation could have ended badly.

On Monday, the president began the day with a phone call to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko about the ongoing crisis in eastern Ukraine. Mr. Obama expressed his strong support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The President also spoke with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi about the latest developments in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine, as well as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, according to White House reports.

In the surprise story of the day, the president did not play golf. Instead, he went to the beach with the First Lady and Malia. The first family went to one of the private beaches only accessible by Pohoganot Road, in Edgartown, where property owners include the Flynn family, for generations the largest landowners of Pohoganot Farm and surrounding property at Edgartown Great Pond, Andrew and Pamela Kohlberg, children of Jerome Kohlberg who owns the Vineyard Gazette, Robert Levine, and Richard L. Friedman, an investor who hosted President Bill Clinton when he vacationed on the Vineyard.

That evening the president attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee event hosted by Berklee College of Music President Roger Brown and his wife, Linda Mason at their home in Tisbury. Tickets to the fundraiser ranged from $15,000 to $32,400. President Obama entered the event to a singer belting out “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”

Mr. Obama told the crowd of approximately 50 donors that he had called new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to offer his support and congratulations on his election. He reiterated that there is no American military solution to the problem and that Iraq must form an inclusive government. He said the day’s developments were a “promising step forward” in a “critical effort.”

Reuters photographer Kevin Lamarque lets paramedic Traci Monteith experiment with his camera during downtime in the Presidential press pool.

Reuters photographer Kevin Lamarque lets paramedic Traci Monteith experiment with his camera during downtime in the Presidential press pool. — Photo by Michael Cummo

The president began his day on Tuesday by declaring a major disaster in Washington state in response to recent wildfires. The president then played a four and a half round of golf at the very exclusive Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown. That evening, he and Michelle Obama dined at The Sweet Life restaurant in Oak Bluffs, one of his favorite stops on the Vineyard. The first couple were joined by National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, and former Ambassador Ron Kirk, and their respective spouses.

The Obamas’ presence electrified Circuit Ave. and a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the restaurant as they ate. The Obamas were greeted by loud cheers as they left the restaurant. There was also a crowd chanting “Move that truck!” to the Secret Service bomb squad, which had blocked their view upon the president’s exit from the restaurant, per security protocol.

Rainy, stormy weather on Wednesday kept Mr. Obama indoors and apparently on the phone. The White House reported that he spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and discussed by phone the ongoing negotiations in Cairo to achieve a sustainable ceasefire agreement. The President reaffirmed United States support for Egypt’s mediation efforts and underscored the importance of achieving a sustainable outcome that ensures Israel’s security and addresses Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, according to a news release.

Mr. Obama chose not to attend an afternoon book signing by Hillary Clinton at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven. Ms. Clinton’s sharp criticism of the president’s foreign policy earlier this week in The Atlantic magazine made their expected attendance Wednesday night a topic of much conversation by political pundits. President Obama and his former Secretary of State are on the guest list for an 80th birthday party tonight thrown by Vernon Jordan, the longtime Clinton pal and Washington insider, at the Farm Neck Golf Club for his wife, Ann Jordan.

According to a White House press release, the president will travel back to Washington on Sunday, August 17. He is tentatively scheduled to return to the Island on Tuesday, August 19.

15
An Oak Bluffs street sweeper makes an early morning pass along Kennebec Avenue Tuesday.

When members of the Oak Bluffs Downtown Streetscape Master Plan Committee (DSMPC) began their inaugural outreach campaign on July 23 and 24, the message from town taxpayers and tourists alike was that the town needs to clean up its act.

“An overriding theme was that cleaning and repairing the downtown should be a top priority,” committee member and Oak Bluffs selectman Gail Barmakian told The Times at the conclusion of the two-day public survey. “People were saying that we have to clean it up.”

Another committee member, Brian Packish, said, “Overall, town cleanliness was definitely a big issue.”

The issue is also trending on social media, where residents on the closed Facebook page “Islanders Talk” recently posted pictures of piles of litter sitting beside trash cans, of public restrooms with overflowing trashcans and even hypodermic needles on the restroom floor.

Last year, the problem was so bad that highway department supervisor Richard Combra Jr. made a plea for help to the board of selectmen at their August 6 meeting. “In my 13 years as superintendent, I’ve never seen so much littering,” he said. “It’s definitely worse than it used to be. It seems like it gets worse every year. It’s gotten out of out of hand.”

Mr. Combra asked the selectmen to consider a public awareness campaign to help battle the problem. “We live here because it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We do our best to keep it that way, but we need more cooperation from the public.”

The selectmen unanimously agreed that the topic warranted further discussion. A year later, the problem persists. “I don’t think it’s gotten any worse since last year,” Mr. Combra said, surveying Circuit Ave early Tuesday morning. “But it needs to get a lot better.”

On Tuesday, The Times joined highway department workers for their morning rounds.

Every day is trash day

At 6:30 am Tuesday morning, Mr. Combra and his crew were on Circuit Ave., making their daily assault on the trash that always awaits them from the night before. Two crew members in screaming yellow highway department shirts were cleaning Healy Square, where plastic cups and paper plates and all manner of trash sat in and around the flower beds, even though trash cans were just a few feet away.

“It’s frustrating,” Mr. Combra said. “If this was late September you’d hardly see any of this. But when you think about how many people are walking around during the summer, it’s probably as many as Fenway Park. Maybe we need a few people just picking up around town.”

The nightlife that draws so many tourists to town also presents the biggest challenge to the highway department.

“We have the most take-out restaurants and the most nightlife on the Island,” Mr. Combra said. “It’s part of the character of the town and that’s great. But for some people it’s not a high priority to put their trash in a barrel.”

As Mr. Combra circled in his truck from Circuit Ave. to Kennebec Ave., he pointed out more trash from the night before, much of it within throwing distance of a town waste bin. He stopped at Giordanos, the popular pizza take-out window and family restaurant, where paper plates and napkins were left on tables from the night before. “They work hard to keep their sidewalks clean, and look,” he said of the Giordanos. “And this is much better than usual.”

The highway department’s job is even more difficult this summer because one of the two trash collecting trucks has been out of service for the last three peak weeks — the peak of the summer litter surge.

While litter is part of the problem, sidewalks that are old and grimy and freckled with black spots also add to the dingy appearance.

Mr. Combra subcontracts a power washing company to clean the Circuit Avenue sidewalks once a month in July and August. This morning, they had turned their jets on the sidewalk that borders Healy Square.

“It looks good right now, but in three or four days, it’ll be pretty much the way it was,” he said. Then he pointed to a soiled section of sidewalk in front of the Game Room. “That was power washed a few days ago, and you can hardly tell the difference. You can only do so much with 75-year-old concrete. Maybe this new downtown committee can help us get new sidewalks.”

Beach trash

“Mark Rivers, our recreation director, has done a great job with keeping the beaches clean,” Mr. Combra said. “The lifeguards have also been a big help.”

“I get a full trash bag off the Inkwell and Pay Beach every morning,” Mr. Rivers told The Times. “Trash was also a big problem in Niantic Park. People were filling them up with their own trash to save the five-dollar sticker, and there was trash everywhere. So I removed the barrels. At first some people weren’t too happy about it, but it worked.”

Mr. Rivers said he puts out bins to accommodate basketball league play and makes sweeps of the park twice a day. He said he was perplexed at the growing phenomena of people leaving trash next to the trash cans, and not in them.

Mr. Combra said his department is responsible for 60 waste bins around town during the summer. While he doesn’t think more barrels will improve the situation downtown, he would like to see a few on State Beach. “We have eight barrels near the Inkwell and as you can see, it really helps. I know they’re big on the carry-in carry-out policy at State Beach, but I don’t think it works that well. No matter how many barrels you have, they don’t work if people don’t use them.”

Merchants weigh in

Many Circuit Avenue merchants think Mr. Combra and the highway department are doing a commendable job, especially given their limited resources.

“It doesn’t seem as bad as last year,” Mark Hanover, owner of Linda Jean’s restaurant, said. “I’m here at 5:30 in the morning, so I see what the highway department has to deal with. It amazes me how many people throw stuff on the ground,” he said. “The thing that really amazes me is the piles of trash that are next to the cans which have plenty of room in them. I mean, come on people, really?”

“I think Richie is doing a great job, especially with his limited resources — I don’t know how he stays so calm,” said Renee Balter, former president of the Oak Bluffs Association (OBA). “A busy town has trash. The town does a good job with it. The tone starts with the condition of the buildings. What does it say when there’s a building at the entrance to the town that’s literally crumbling? It’s so sad. I remember when people used to line up around the corner to see movies. There’s a big audience within walking distance of downtown. People don’t come here on vacation to watch Netflix. This town can support a movie theater.”

“There’s no easy remedy,” said Christine Todd, current president of the OBA. “It takes business owners and citizens working together. I don’t think this should be a situation where there’s finger pointing. People who care need to be part of the solution, whether it’s picking up a piece of trash or showing up at selectmen’s meetings.”

“I think the downtown business owners have to step up,” Erik Albert, owner of the Oak Bluffs Inn, said. “If the flower box around a tree on Circuit Avenue is falling apart, that’s on the town. If it’s filled with cigarette butts and litter, the surrounding businesses have to step up. If the sidewalk is chipped, that’s on the town. If that same sidewalk is greasy and black with dirt, the adjacent business owner should be responsible. It’s about setting a tone. It’s all about pride in our town. And I think a lot of people have that.”

“As a business owner, I want the town to be as clean as we want it to be, but the problem is bigger than the capacity that exists to fix it,” said Laurie Welch, owner of Basics and Eastaway clothing stores, who has been doing business on Circuit Ave for 33 years. ”The highway department is outstretched. They need some extra help. If the downtown was an amusement park and the ticket office was at the Steamship, think how many janitorial personnel would be on duty. We need to come together in a really big way or it’s just going to say the way it is.

Ms. Welch is also optimistic that change is in the air. “I know some people said they don’t want change. They said that when Ed Coogan put in the trees on Circuit Ave. Now there’s a new wave of energy and it’s pivotal to embrace it and not beat them down,” she said of the budding momentum of the DSMPC. “If they have the energy, let’s support them and help them run with it.”

The new energy is on display at the DSMPC Facebook page. While it’s an open forum where people can unleash their complaints, it’s currently dominated by expressions of civic pride, pictures that celebrate the town’s beauty, and a pervasive tone of optimism. It’s been online for less than a month, and it has over 1,000 “likes.”

Downtown detritus has been a hot-button topic for decades. The most recent Oak Bluffs Master Plan, a 92-page document completed in 1998, states on page one, “The vast majority of residents surveyed placed priority attention on the beaches, air and water quality, [and on] cleaning up all areas of town.” The plan goes on to state that the top policy priority for the town should be “to manage downtown trash better.”

To remedy the problem, the plan suggests, “Town should supply more trash barrels on Circuit Ave, nice ones, ideally no more than 20 feet apart. Consider pledging business owners to clean sidewalks in front of their businesses and recommend Selectmen enforce existing by-law requiring businesses to keep sidewalks and alleyways free of trash.”

4
The island of Chappaquiddick on the eastern end of Martha's Vineyard is without cable service.

This week, members of the Chappaquiddick Island Association (CIA) amped up efforts to obtain high-speed Internet, cable TV, and land lines for residents of the small island at the east end of Martha’s Vineyard. Their direct plea to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts and President Barack Obama is being made in ads scheduled to be published in both Island newspapers.

The ad published in The Times features a cross-section of 31 familiar Chappy residents in a collection of 23 photos under the headline, “President Obama and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, help bring high speed Comcast communications to Chappaquiddick residents, businesses, and school kids.” The ad was paid for by the CIA. A similar ad is scheduled to appear in the Vineyard Gazette.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to reach Mr. Roberts while he’s on the Island, with his friend the president, and to put a friendly ad in the paper to help bring world-class Comcast service to Chappaquiddick,” Lionel Spiro, former CIA president said over his buzzing landline in an interview with The Times. “Our hope is Mr. Roberts will make inquiries to his people and perhaps someone on the president’s staff will see it as well.”

On Monday, the White House announced the formation of the United States Digital Service. “I want us to ask ourselves every day, how are we using technology to make a real difference in people’s lives,” the President said, according to a White House press release.

Long time coming

Service to Chappy became a major stumbling block during negotiations for a new 10-year contract between Comcast and the Island Cable Advisory Board (CAB), a committee representing the six towns on Martha’s Vineyard. Initially, Comcast said it had no interest in serving sparsely populated Chappaquiddick. In September 2012, Comcast agreed to include Chappy as part of a separate deal, and in January 2013, the six towns endorsed an Island-wide agreement with Comcast.

The first benchmark of the deal that Comcast struck with Chappy required that 270 letters of commitment be on file at Edgartown National Bank, escrow agent for the deal, by October 1, 2013. The letter did not require any financial obligations, but gave Comcast permission to survey each homeowner’s property to determine if additional charges would be added to the minimum installation fee of $2,139 the cable giant said it needed to make the deal feasible. It also required each homeowner to commit to two years of basic cable at  $24.60 a month. A core group of Chappy residents campaigned relentlessly and 294 letters were on file at the bank by the October 1 deadline.

The next deadline of the multi-step deal required at least 270 deposits to be on the books at Edgartown National Bank by July 21. On July 11, there were 92 deposits at the bank. But proponents were given a reprieve when Comcast moved the deposit deadline back to March 1, 2015.

“Representatives from Comcast and Edgartown have stayed in constant communication during this process and we continue to offer assistance and have voluntarily extended the deadline in the hopes of the project moving forward,” Comcast spokesman Marc Goodman said in an email to The Times on Monday. Comcast has also indicated that some families with children will qualify for high-speed Internet services at a reduced cost of $9.95 per month.

Long way to go

To help homeowners who can’t afford the high up-front cost, a group of Chappy residents established the nonprofit Chappaquiddick Community Fund (CCF). The Board of Directors of the CCF includes Dick Chasin, CIA president Roger Becker, Cynthia Hubbard, Woody Filley, Peter Getsinger, Travis Jacobs, and Mr. Spiro.

“The long-range purpose of the CCF is to provide financial help to face a variety of issues and needs that might arise within the Chappy community, such as emergency fuel assistance, emergency medical costs, and other such needs,” Mr. Spiro said in an email to The Times. “The application to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) also described the need to raise funds to help pay for the cost of cabling under town roads.”

Thus far, members of the Chappaquiddick community have committed $200,000 to make up any shortfall on the required 270 deposits, a total of $577,530, if needed.

As of this past Friday, the Edgartown National Bank reported 130 deposits on the books. According to Mr. Spiro, 16 households who have agreed to financial assistance from CCF haven’t sent in their deposit yet. He also said that Edgartown town administrator Pam Dolby has indicated she has another 10 to 15 deposits on hand. Adding in people who didn’t send in letters by October 1 and have since changed their minds, along with a significant number of new homeowners on Chappy, Mr. Spiro estimates that there are up to 193 funded commitments at present.

“This is not guaranteed,” he said. “However, there are about 80 more who sent letters last summer and whose intentions we do not know.”
The Times asked Mr. Goodman if the deal could move forward now that the deposits are guaranteed by the CCF. “While we’re open to the association contributing towards the construction cost, the agreement requires the commitment of 270 Chappaquiddick residents to have Comcast service for at least two years,” he replied in an email.

The CIA more recently said that there are two to three miles of road on Chappy that do not need to be cabled because residents along these stretches have indicated they do not want the service.

“We propose this as a way to reduce the initial investment, thereby meeting their return on investment needs,” Mr. Spiro said, adding, “We still stand ready to pay Comcast $2,139 for each house short of the required 270.”

Not everyone on Chappy is concerned about bringing Comcast services to Chappy. “One of the reasons people come to Chappy is the serenity and the wilderness,” seasonal resident Jay Hunter said in a recent interview with The Times. “It’s one of the reasons why we’re here, to get away from things you’re inundated with. My bookcase is full of books that actually get read. We go hiking and blueberry picking and fishing. My 26-year-old was just here with a buddy, and the TV or the computer weren’t on once. There were too many other things to do.”

Mr. Hunter also questioned the current strategy from a technological angle. “Communication is going to be wireless, that’s the direction technology is going,” he said. “This technology is going to be obsolete well before the deal is over.”

3

Veteran Martha’s Vineyard oysterman Jack Blake combines innovation and perspiration to raise an increasingly valuable mollusk.

Jack Blake hand picks oysters that he's been raising since 2012 and immediately puts them on ice.

Katama Bay is still as a mill pond when Jack Blake boards his 23-foot skiff, early on a recent morning. The shrill cry of a hungry osprey breaks the peaceful silence. That, and the sound of Mr. Blake slapping at a swarm of no-see-ums. “Usually there’s a breeze here and they aren’t too bad,” he says. “Let’s get moving.”

The early morning stillness greets oysterman Jack Blake when he starts his day.

The early morning stillness greets oysterman Jack Blake when he starts his day. — Photo by Michael Cummo

For the next 10 hours, Mr. Blake will not stop moving. He will lift heavy loads of ice and oysters and the cages and the bags and the trays in which they grow. He will inspect hundreds of oysters, one by one, and knock off the jingle shells and barnacles that can slowly kill them. He will pack his oysters on ice, or put them back into the bay, as quickly as possible. Back on land, he will cool the day’s take — which averages 700 oysters — down to 33 degrees. Then he and Susan Blake, his wife and business partner, will load their refrigerated van and deliver Sweet Neck Farm oysters to restaurants around the Island. Sweet Neck Farm oysters are in such demand that the Blakes can’t spare any for their off-Island distributor, J.P.’s Shellfish from Eliot, Maine, until October. Then, the exported Sweet Neck Farm oysters will end up in restaurants from Florida to California.

Mr. Blake’s day begins at 3 am. He works at his computer, entering data from the day before and figuring out what cages or trays need tending that day. “I don’t like working at the computer that much,” he says. “It’s a helpful tool, but I just want to be on the water.” Mr. Blake loads up his truck at 5 am and tries to be on the water by 6, although that depends on what needs fixing. “There’s always maintenance, every day,” he says. “But that’s part of the fun. I like figuring things out.”

Oysters are gently tumbled to knock off jingle shells and barnacles in a machine designed and constructed by Jack Blake.

Oysters are gently tumbled to knock off jingle shells and barnacles in a machine designed and constructed by Jack Blake. — Photo by Michael Cummo

From March 15 to October 15, Mr. Blake works seven days a week, except when a hurricane rumbles up the coast. During the winter, he averages three days a week, which at times this past winter meant working on the bay in heavy snow. “The bay used to freeze solid before the breach,” he says, referring to the rupture of Norton Point Beach during a nor’easter in April 2007. “The day after the breach, Sue and I were out here and it was like being on the high seas. We both got seasick.”

A new trade

Mr. Blake moved to the Island from Marshfield two years after high school, in 1974. He worked as a cook at Lawry’s Fish Market during the summer and as a scalloper during the winter. Eventually he got into the construction trade in 1979. “I wanted to build my own house, so I figured this was a good way to learn,” he said.

Mr. Blake built his house and became a custom home builder. “I built all kinds of houses — capes, gambrels, even a six-sided house. But after a while, I needed a new challenge,” he says. He started quahog fishing full time, but eventually his conservation conscience began to kick in. “I got to the point where I pretty much fished out Caleb’s Pond, and I felt bad about it. Then I heard about a new aquaculture program run by Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG) and I applied. It was intended to help the commercial fishermen who were going out of business, but one of the spots didn’t get filled.”
“Of the 15 guys that started in the program in 1995, Jack is one of the five who stuck with it,” MVSG director Rick Karney said in a phone interview with The Times.
Mr. Blake says his career as an oysterman has been an ongoing process of trial and error and improvisation. “There was a big learning curve. I didn’t make a dime the first three years. What works in Wellfleet won’t work here. You always have to fine-tune things, you’re always learning.”

Making the rounds

Katama oysterman Jack Blake was one of the first oyster famers on the Vineyard.

Katama oysterman Jack Blake was one of the first oyster famers on the Vineyard. — Photo by Michael Cummo

“Pretty good office huh,?” he says, indicating the expanse of Katama Bay as he motors to his first stop of the morning — his 650-square-foot raft, or as he calls it, “My home away from home.” The raft is moored next to his one-acre farm where 350 buoys mark each one of his cages. Mr. Blake built his raft, which has a tumbler that he also designed and built to knock off unwanted hitchhikers from his oysters. “That took 7,400 welds,” he says, pointing to the slowly rotating cylinder with oysters from cage 279. “I put it on gentle cycle. You don’t want them to be jarred or they leak some of their water.”

The tumbler, and all electronics on the raft, are powered by a small wind turbine that sits atop the canvas roof that also gives the oysters shade. Most of the oysters in the tumbler are from seed that he began raising in 2012.

“I just love being out here on my own,” Mr. Blake says, lifting a heavy bag of oysters out of a cage.

But his treasured solitude comes with an additional element of risk. The effects of the polio he contracted when he was two years old are still with him. “My legs are getting much weaker,” he says. “Because of the polio, my leg muscles never fully developed. Now, if I fall down, I can’t get up by myself. People always ask me how long I’ll do this. I used to say until I’m 85, but I’m not so sure,” says Mr. Blake, who turns 61 on August 11.

Sweet Neck Farm Oysters are in such high demand they're only sold to Island establishments during the summer.

Sweet Neck Farm Oysters are in such high demand they’re only sold to Island establishments during the summer. — Photo by Michael Cummo

After the oysters are iced or put back in their cages, Mr. Blake, sweat dripping from his brow and his white tee-shirt besmeared with Katama Bay silt, heads to the mouth of the bay to tend to his upwellers — a nursery for juvenile oysters. Mr. Blake designed and built his upwellers to utilize the swift current that runs between Katama Bay and the narrow mouth into Edgartown Harbor. “The upweller feeds the seed a steady stream of nutrients,” he says, admiring a tray of thumbnail-sized oysters. “It also keeps them spaced out and keeps them clean. Look at them, they’re beautiful.”

With funds from MVSG, Mr. Blake helped other Katama Bay oystermen build their own upwellers. “Jack trained other farmers how to build the upweller he designed,” Rick Karney said. “They built them communally at the town oyster barn. Jack’s been great about sharing all his knowledge.”

“There really isn’t competition,” Mr. Blake says. “Katama Bay oysters are some of the best because we all share information. A few guys started out competing like fishermen, but they’re beginning to understand. There’s plenty of places to sell.”

Mr. Blake says timing plays a crucial role in oyster farming. “You have to plant at the right time, you have to air dry at the right time, you have to know when they’re spawning and you have to harvest at the right time. It’s an art.”

Booming demand

Oyster farmers on the whole are also benefiting from propitious timing with the nationwide surge in the popularity of oysters and oyster bars. Oyster production on the east coast has doubled in the past five years, according to East Coast Shellfish Growers Association (ECSGA), and last year, cultured shellfish from farms between Virginia and Maine brought in $103 million, more than the groundfishing industry for the same area. In Massachusetts in 2012, 4.1 million bushels of oysters were sold, bringing in $9.5 million to Bay State farmers. In 2013, 4.3 million bushels of oysters worth $10.8 million were sold.  Closer to home, last year, between the 34,050 bushels of oysters harvested in Chilmark and the 163,500 bushels harvested in Edgartown, sales for Island oystermen totaled $1,963,500, according to town reports. Mr. Blake says he’s getting up to 90 cents per oyster this summer, well above last summer’s peak of 75 cents per oyster.

Battling vibrio

As with any farmers, oyster farmers have to deal with pests and pestilence. Vibrio, typically a warm water problem, has become an increasingly serious problem for Island farmers. Last September, an outbreak of Vibrio illness led to a month-long closure of oyster operations in Katama Bay. It was just one of numerous closures across the state, which has seen a steady rise in Vibrio cases since 2011, when 13 cases of the disease were reported. In 2012, 27 cases of Vibrio were reported, and 58 were reported in 2013. Twelve of those cases had some relationship to Katama Bay, according to state reports.

So far this year, two cases of vibrio have been confirmed by state Department of Health (DPH) officials. One of them was linked to a Katama Bay oyster harvested on July 2. State regulations, adopted from this year’s Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, require an immediate shutdown of a farming area when two cases of Vibrio are confirmed within a month. August 2 passed without another reported case, so for now, it’s business as usual for Katama oystermen. But the specter of a shutdown still looms, especially as water temperatures rise. “I know where the oyster came from,” Mr. Blake said. “The DPH inspector said he did everything right. Sometimes there’s nothing else you can do.” One mitigating factor in a Vibrio outbreak is that, unlike an agricultural pox, the oysters are not permanently damaged. When the water turns colder, the bacteria count will drop, making the oysters edible once again. Mr. Blake said that after last year’s shutdown, he was eventually able to sell all of his crop.

Happy as an oyster

“Oyster farming is a win-win,” Mr. Blake says, as he heads back to the Katama boat launch with the day’s harvest. “You put back what you take in, and the oysters take a lot of nitrogen out of the water. It’s the ideal business for the Island, and it’s a great way to make a living.”

Mr. Blake says there’s also an intuitive element to oyster farming. “I know what makes my oysters happy,” he says. “They need space. If you crowd them, and they get stressed out, and it shows. You can’t get too greedy.”  Mr. Blake also has an attachment to a few oysters from his 1999 crop. Of the 400 he put aside, three or four are left. “They’re my pets,” he says. “I think the record in the United States is 12 inches. I’m going to bring one out when it hits 13 [inches]. But nobody’s going to eat it.”