Thursday, April 5, 2012

No. 100 "Our sissy who was anything but"

If Hurricane Donna brought the erosion of the landing shore to a point that something had to be done to stop it, it also provided us with another amusement park of sorts. Several of the stately oaks that had stood there for hundreds of years did not survive the storm. They were felled by the combination of erosion at their roots and the strong southerly winds that raged at over a hundred mph as they passed directly over the Island.

One of these was at the shoreline edge of the yard of my Aunt Louisa. “Ezzer” as she was called, had lived right beside us until just before the storm. But as she grew older she had given that home to her son, Creston, and his growing family, and she moved into a small home nestled in the backyard of her oldest daughter, Audrey.
A view of the landing after Hurricane Donna. Through the
porch on my grandfather's house can be seen one of the oaks
that remained after the storm had felled many of the others.

The oak that fell in her yard must have been at least seventy-five feet tall. Once the foliage and small limbs fell off or were removed, the skeleton the remained was not all that different from a high adventure climbing apparatus in a modern amusement park. Soon it was laced with ropes that served as both ladders and swings for the neighborhood boys and girls who met there almost every day.

One of those who gathered there to play was a girl we called “Sissy.” She was a year younger than me, but she was nothing at all like what her nickname might imply. Her real name was Laura, and she lived just to the west of where the giant tree had fallen. Perhaps for that reason, she became the unofficial caretaker and curator of our newfound playground. She could climb and swing between the branches like the “Tarzan” characters that we watched on Saturday morning TV shows. Not only that, she had a “tarzan yell” that could be heard for a quarter mile in every direction.

Sissy’s prowess was not limited to the gymnastics and trapeze moves she performed on the oak tree at the landing. She was just as talented and physical as any of the boys she played with every day. In fact, when the older boys were choosing sides to be play baseball in “Rennie’s Field,” she was one of the first ones picked. Without any discussion or direction she would head out to shortstop where everyone knew she belonged.  Not only could she play ball, she could shove a skiff as fast as any of us, and she was often busy working on nets and trawls beside her father and brother.

As might be expected for one of only a handful of girls in our neighborhood that was so dominated by boys, Sissy was sometimes at the center of tussles and even fights for her attention. But in her case, it was because of disagreements over who might get her on their side for whatever game was starting.

As time went on and we all grew older, “Sissy” eventually went back to being one of the neighborhood girls, like her younger sister, Cheryl. But a whole generation of Island boys grew up with a special appreciation for the skills and talents of the “weaker sex” because of our experiences with a “sissy” who was anything but!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

No. 99 Breakwaters, Junk Cars & Net Spreads

My father used to talk about playing baseball on ground between his home at the landing and the shoreline to the south. That was hard for me to imagine even then, since the waterline was no more than thirty feet from the south porch of Ole Pa’s house. As Daddy described it, the grassy back yard he had played on extended out as much as fifty yards or more towards the Banks. But that was before the Storm of ‘33 had cut an inlet at the Cape, and the much stronger tides that resulted began to eat away several feet of shoreline every year.

The clutter on the shore in the 1970's
Even at that, it is tempting to remember the south shore of the Island as an almost unbroken ribbon of golden sand — but that’s not how it was. Skiffs and smaller boats were pulled up all along the landing, but they were temporary and often moved from place to place. And there were twenty or more raised walkways that led out to private or commercial docks or moorings. Still, those were not the only or main obstructions, and some of the others actually disfigured the shoreline.

In the early 60's the state installed tons of granite rocks in groins running perpendicular to the shore. The jetties were intended to stem the rapid erosion of the shoreline that had intensified after several powerful hurricanes of the previous decade. For the most part, these seemed to work, at least to the point that the waterline now is not all that far removed from where it was when the “breakwaters,” as we called them, were first installed.

An example of the clutter and waste that accumulated on
 the shore at the Landing in the 1960s. 
Even more than the jetties, the expanse of the shore I knew as a boy was blocked by piles created when the landing was used as a combination junkyard and community dump. I guess it was assumed that the sound was a natural recycle bin that had no limits. Refuse along the tide lines ranged from household garbage to abandoned cars that were placed on or around the breakwater jetties. It was assumed that metal frames would somehow augment the work of the solid rocks, at least until they corroded completely away from the natural effects of the salt water that washed over them several times each day.

But there were other stationary structures that dotted the shoreline; and these ones actually added to both the beauty and the function of the spot they sat on. These were the “net spreads” that were used by fishermen to dry and mend their cotton nets. The spreads were framed of wood, either of rough cut lumber or sometimes of small trees that were trimmed with a hand plane to smooth the knots that could snag the net. The cotton mesh of the nets was prone to rot if not dried out soon after to being used, so almost every day, before heading up the path for home, the Island fishermen would spread their nets over the raised platform so they could thoroughly dry in the sun and breeze.

Willie Guthrie's net spreads at our landing (@ 1962)
Photo by Tommy Hancock
When not being used for their purpose, they had another, and even more fundamental use, at least for us children who saw the landing as our own “public” playground. The spreads were the closest we had to the fabricated gym-sets that might be seen in the parks and towns of the mainland. Many hours were spent balancing on the upper boards and even walking their full length with arms extended for balance. At other times we used the longer planks for “skinning the cat” and similar exercises that might now be labeled as gymnastics. Even when the spreads were in use and covered by the white cotton nets, they were a safe haven when playing “tag,” “hide ‘n seek,” or the much more intense, “old bears.”

By the later part of the decade cotton nets began to give way to nylon, polypropylene, and other fibers that were not nearly so susceptible to the ravages of salt and moisture. Eventually the old net spreads were not needed, and no longer maintained by the ones who had used them. The top boards broke or were pulled off. Then the posts either rotted away or were washed up by the encroaching tides. No new ones were built and within a decade they were gone completely, not so very different from the way of life of which they remain a pleasant memory.