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Volume 39 Issue 7 • June 18-24, 2009
now in our 39th season

Time to Disarm the Firing Squad

by Robert P. Barsanti

For all of the great blessings Nantucket has in store, the month of June isn’t one of them.  In the rest of New England, the skies are clear, the wind is fresh, and the grass has been mowed several times.  Golf balls fly out of bounds, the Red Sox are still in first place, and the first roses have bloomed in the gardens.

On Nantucket, Juneuary hangs ten feet over our heads.  A brisk and raw easterly wind leaves the island as cold as it was in January.  Rain and mist alternate in canceling baseball games, boats, and airline flights.  Puddles form, streets flood, and the moorings in the harbor remain empty.  The winter that began back in early November stretches the last echoes of its stay deep into the summer.  We all wear the same sweaters, polarfleece, and thermal underwear that we wore after Christmas.  The sun burns through the mist for the occasional hour in the late afternoon, only to get smothered again in blue and gray.

The calendar has changed, even if the sky hasn’t.  The signature events of the spring happen, albeit in the warmth and light of indoors.  At the elementary school, the fifth graders parade once more through the school before leaving for good.  At the high school, the playoffs end, the finals are taken, the awards are given out and the seniors receive their diplomas inside the auditorium.  The first surfers break through the mist, the first keepers are brought into Madaket, and the stores open for the summer.

Graduation may be one of the most disappointing holidays for our young  folks.  All year, the threat and possibility of cap and gown has hung in front of the 18-year-olds like both a carrot and a stick.  Then, on a foggy Saturday, they line up in robes with pennies in their hands then stand on the stage and wait.  After two hours, they shake with the left, take with the right, and their lives have changed.  But they haven’t.  It’s just as cold and foggy now as it was before; they just don’t need a pass to go to the bathroom.

This year, Juneuary has been particularly harsh.  Every June, we stand on stage and wait, just like our graduates.  Chefs, bartenders, and T-shirt mavens are standing at the registers looking out at empty tables and empty streets.  When Wall Street has the sniffles, Nantucket gets the flu.  Now that the nation is wracked with coughs and sneezes, the island is paralyzed.  Everyone, from lawyer to realtor to landscaper to trashman, waits for the crowds of summer. The rich tide of the most recent boom has ebbed at a remarkable speed.  Storeowners stand in their doors next to their “Open” signs and watch the bricks age.

A close knit community loves boredom and predictability.  Let one year follow another as beer follows pretzels, and everyone is happy.  I know what my neighbor is about to do ten minutes before he does it.  I know what the guy at the coffee store is going to say, what my boss isn’t going to say, and what my student hopes that no one knows.  The island’s secrets are as familiar as coins.  When times get interesting, all of those secrets get sharp serrated edges and we can’t help but slice.

After seven months of fog, wind, rain, and dark, even the sunniest dispositions darken, curdle, and fester.  So, June becomes the month when community becomes conformity.  The circular firing squad forms, aims, fires, and reloads.  In two weeks, after Independence Day, we will be far too busy working and fitting beach time in.  But for now, we load the muskets with lead shot.

This year has been especially bloody.  Our Board of Selectmen spent three weeks in a passive-aggressive powderpuff football match.  The chair, it seemed, had been too assertive and rude.  The principal of the elementary school, not to be outdone, resigned seven days before the end of the school year and disappeared in a huff of headlines and tears.  The firing squad stood staggering, bleeding, and reloading.

Almost every major development on Nantucket had to survive the firing squad.  The whalers and the Quakers fought hard against the installation of rock jetties, even though it would have saved their businesses.  The town fathers opposed paved roads, water pipes, automobiles, and integrated schools.   The Land Bank was mocked; Walter Beinecke was pilloried; and the Islands Trust was laughed out of the hall.  We later regretted every single one of those dramatic moments.

Which makes what John O’Neill accomplished all the more remarkable.   Dr. O’Neill became the superintendent of schools in 1979.  The schools at the time were in a bad state, with leaking roofs, drafty windows, and downright frigid classrooms.  Sensibly, he worked on building new schools.  For his efforts, he was rewarded with scorn and anger.  New schools would increase the taxes. The buildings were good enough ten years ago and they would be good enough now.  In the ultimate insult, he was told that the boat came around Brant Point, and it went back around it as well.  He was berated on the street, in the stores, in school and at home.

To his credit, Dr. O’Neill showed faith and courage.  He went to the  groups that disagreed most vehemently and argued for the buildings.  He saw the island growing and the buildings falling apart.  By slow and uneasy progress, he moved the town behind him.  His finest tools were the handshake, the smile, and the chuckle.  Six years later, the town meeting approved the new schools in an overwhelming vote.  No project of similar scope and cost has passed town meeting since then.

Small communities support and bind with the same hands.  We lift people up and we hold them down so that we all are equal, blessed by the same gifts and marked with the same sins.  The friendly face in the grocery store is both our best friend and our greatest enemy.

Our strongest leaders were also our quietest.  This time of crisis needs the quiet strength of the good doctor, not the thudding drama of self-righteous cretins.  The lasting achievements of Nantucket were not built by men of arrogance and ambition; rather they came from men of quiet faith.  Charles Coffin and Matt Joy built and rebuilt the Atheneum that way.  Walter Beinecke didn’t Trump downtown into gilded towers.  Larson, Bartlett and the rest didn’t create the conservancy and the Land Bank as monuments to themselves.  The circular firing squad needs to be quietly disarmed.

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