Everyone’s got problems


In the post-Roundabout era, the rhythm of life on Martha’s Vineyard has relaxed. Throughput, that classic measurement of the efficiency of the new Blinker replacement, seems to most of us to be registering good numbers and putting a smile on the faces of most drivers. May, the prelude to summer, has kindled expectations that the weather will one day soon be, well, summery and that our summer friends and neighbors will return. The anti-Roundabout forces are in retreat, although they promise that July and August traffic volumes will prove them right after all. For the rest of us, the promise of the high season rinses a winter of disgruntlement away. Let June come on, strike up the band, we’re ready to party.

We may have hoped that medicinal marijuana might be the focal point for new political battles. Newspaper people thrive on such debates, or so we’re told, but the Vineyard’s enthusiasm for marijuana, for its medicinal utility as well as for its recreational pleasures, seems to have put that particular avenue of journalistic rewards off limits. Years ago, sleeping on the beaches, a custom indulged and enjoyed by college kids, made for good summertime news stories from the Dukes County courtroom, where police would perp walk teens by the dozen every Friday to get yelled at by Judge Samuel Flaksman, then dismissed. College kids these days don’t sleep on the beaches — the fleas, the grit, the fog — and the police have genuine mayhem that keeps them busy, letting the kids sleep wherever they founder.

Still every town has problems. Every neighborhood does. This Island, with six towns and dozens of neighborhoods, thinks carefully and debates strenuously how to solve each and every issue, and nevertheless, we often choose unwisely. The Vineyard anthem might be, We’re never doubtful, though often wrong.

How do towns elsewhere handle these things? A few years ago I wrote in this space about a book I’d come across, full of examples we might try. The book is “Our Smallest Towns: Big Falls, Blue Eye, Bonanza, and Beyond,” by Dennis Kitchen, with an introduction by Garrison Keillor (Chronicle Books, San Francisco 1995). Mr. Keillor lives in New York, but, inexplicably, he is everyone’s favorite authority on small towns and their problems.

Take the problem of the cost of education. An annual issue here and everywhere else. We know it’s related to the number of kids in school, but we can’t put our finger on just what that relationship is, or how to improve our chances of coming out on the winning end of the deal. The people of Victory, Vermont, pop. 28, address the cost of education this way.

“The Old School house here is only used once a year for our town meeting. We’ve got two school-aged kids here in town, but they go to school up in St. Johnsbury. We have a school budget, but it’s limited. In fact, it’s so tight that if a young family moved into town with kids who needed schooling, we’d have to raise everybody’s taxes. That’s why we try to discourage anyone from moving here. We don’t discriminate, but we do try to keep it down to a minimum.”

That was Walter Mitchell, the selectman, explaining how they do it.

How about animals? Dogs behaving badly is a big deal. Someone’s pets are always getting in someone else’s hair and vice versa, or even doing unambiguously horrifying things about town. What do they do about a problem like that in, say, Delphos, Iowa, pop. 18?

“No crime here,” reports Mayor Ralph Bramme. “Just dog killing. People bring dogs out here to the country and dump them. This ain’t no dumping ground. It’s our town, and it happens a lot more than it should. Last night I seen a pack of dogs running around out back of here. I’ve killed several. I’ll admit to that. I’m a farmer. I’ve got sheep and cattle around here, and I won’t put up with it. The sheriff said just catch ’em and have them put to sleep. And I said a four-ten will put ’em to sleep a lot easier. It costs six or eight dollars apiece to put them to sleep. I figure I save the county money by doing it myself.”

Then there’s the classic problem of not having enough spitting room. In Lost Springs, Wyoming, pop. 3, Bob Stringham, the postmaster, explains, “… The town’s name comes from the natural spring waters up here that disappear in the summers and return in the spring and late fall. Near as I’ve heard, in the spring of 1860, a wagon master by the name of Howard spotted our springs as he passed through here on his way out west. When he came back through here in the early fall, the springs were gone. In its place he drove a stake in the ground and hung a small, handwritten sign from it. The sign read Lost springs, and that’s how we got our name. We first came out here to look at the place in 1969. The wife said it best back then, when she said she always wanted to get up someplace where she could spit without spitting on her neighbor.”

The high cost of housing — actually the high cost of everything — is a big Vineyard problem. The solution that might work comes from Gosnold, pop. 42 (400 in the summer), which comprises the Elizabeth Islands and which is really a Dukes County town just like the six on the Vineyard. Charles Tilton, a selectman, explained, “It takes a real individualist to live here all year-round. You can’t go to the store, can’t buy liquor, can’t go to the movies, can’t even get your hair cut — without taking a boat.”

For what it’s worth, I’m skeptical of this one. Despite the savings, don’t you think it makes them grouchy?

In an island community even tinier than this one, where my family goes to vacation, the ticks are more numerous and more ferocious than they are here. Ticks are everywhere, and surprisingly, trespassers are almost everywhere. One day someone wearing a floppy straw hat came walking up the beach, and one of the resident sunbathers asked, Where are you from? Over there, the newcomer replied, pointing vaguely to distant mainland jurisdiction. Well, this is private property, the sunbather said. I didn’t know if I was trespassing or you were, the straw hat replied. You are, the sunbather said, and added, the ticks can kill you. The sunbather directed the unwanted visitor to a sign which said as much, along with a warning about the threat from unexploded munitions.

Some problems are easily solved.