Chappaquiddick turns back the clock

For a week in April, Chappaquiddick seemed to come untethered from the normal everyday world and drift back in time to when life was lived at a slower pace. The three-car ferry that runs between Edgartown and Chappaquiddick became a passenger-only boat, taking no vehicles for a week while work was done on the slip. That slowed things down for those of us who are used to coming and going as we please — if you don’t count waiting in ferry lines, limited winter hours, and the effects of ice, wind, and seaweed on ferry service.

The quiet of that week was like Chappy in the 1970s, before the building boom, when winter ferry hours were much more limited than now. Some of us who had moved here in our 20s were young enough then that when the ferry wasn’t running, it felt like the parents had gone out for the evening and left us to our own devices. The road would be deserted, and things happened in the empty hours that probably wouldn’t have if there were more of a chance someone might come along.

Somehow, that week felt like the way Chappy would like us to live — slowed down and listening to the birds and bees, with almost no construction and landscaping vehicles, chippers, or mowers, no delivery trucks rushing up and down the road. Some people think Chappy is a quiet place anyway, but it’s all relative.

Down at the Point that week, there was lots going on. Trucks and trailers, a crane to take out the ramp, an excavator, and a backhoe hovered around the slip. The rest of the Point was jammed with cars and trucks. By day, it was full of the vehicles of Chappy people who were in town for work or errands. Many who could had parked a car in town for the week. At night the Point was full of the trucks and cars of the people who worked on Chappy during the day. People parked all over the place, and no one cared, because no one was trying to get through. All the activity down there was big entertainment for us Chappaquiddickers. The repair crew hauled out rotten bulkheads and replaced them with corrugated PVC. Under the asphalt next to the slip, they unexpectedly came across a huge slab of concrete that they couldn’t break up with expansion compound, so they had to drag it out with the excavator. Eric Gilley operated the big machines; Jeff Lamarche spent seven hours in a wetsuit in the slip one day; George Fisher was busy cutting, drilling, and carrying things around. Peter Wells,ferry co-owner, was everywhere, answering everyone’s questions, and taking on the hard job of worrying whether the work would be done in the time allotted.

The little ferry house had been moved across the road and was sitting in front of the second slip near the walkway that led to the boarding ramp, which was taken up and down by hand. It was a mini version of the Steamship Authority passenger ramps. Co-owner Sally Snipes had put big pots of pansies out, and it all felt very homey and welcoming. It was so much more relaxing to get on the ferry without needing to watch out for trucks and cars.

On the way across, we talked to one another — even to people we didn’t know. We offered each other rides. I never saw anyone looking at their iPhones. It was like the old days, when we didn’t stay in the car but would get out and talk to the ferry driver or the other people on board. Encased in our big shiny metal vehicles, we’re separate and invincible. On foot, we become vulnerable and open, more human.

A more elastic timing took over my life, and others said they experienced that, too. I didn’t feel the usual pressure to try to get somewhere by a certain time — I didn’t want to feel rushed. When my clock started losing time, even with a new battery, I thought, “An approximation of time seems good enough for this week.” I didn’t have a business to run or a house to finish by Memorial Day. Other people had to figure out how to transport work crews and materials, had appointments to keep, and they probably couldn’t wait for life to get back to normal.

People living along the main road were affected most by the lack of traffic, but everywhere seemed quieter. Biking or walking was so pleasant with the road to oneself, and no fear of being squeezed off the road by a cement truck. Every car you saw was driven by a person who wasn’t driving that car anywhere else all week — unless it was four-wheel-drive and they went across the beach to town. That meant, basically, everyone you saw on the road or at the ferry was a fellow Chappaquiddicker, and someone to wave or say hello to.

The twice-a-month potluck at the community center was more crowded than it had been in months, but it was an unusually quiet evening considering the number of people, as if we were all more slowed down and speaking more softly. I don’t know if it was because the island was so quiet, but I noticed lots of ospreys and hawks during that week, and turkey vultures soaring overhead — maybe they thought it was so quiet that we had all died, and they were looking for the bodies.

Years ago, sometime in the past, maybe very long ago, we went places based more on whether someone else was going our way, what the weather was doing, and how long we could make do without a trip to town. We lived more in relationship with our neighbors, relied on them more and they on us. It was easier to ask a favor because that was more part of the culture. We didn’t operate so much as self-sufficient units with an unalienable right to get in our almighty automobiles and drive wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. It seems like it was a friendlier, less stressful way to live.

Alas, the quiet week ended. The amazing ferry maintenance crew put it all back together, and we got back in our cars and drove off to wherever we wanted to go.