Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 22 • Sept 27-Nov 18, 2007
now in our 37th season

The Best Season

by Robert P. Barsanti

The weather warmed last weekend and they came down for the weekend.  The reservation book filled, the parking places disappeared, and the line reformed outside the Juice Bar.  Fog built up around the island and settled onto the airport and the harbor, sending us off to Shangri-La and Brigadoon. The wedding parties stared at their watches and consulted the weather channel with worry if she was going to make it.  And  of course she did.  Then, in the fading reception as the sun set over Madaket and half the sky glowed red and purple, they looked for those whispy tendrils of fog to keep them here for one more day. 

Autumn is our best season.  The sun remains, the air stays warm, and the fish have grown monstrous.  The corn and tomatoes have finally ripened into a commonplace sweet, and the surf rolls in with the playful punch of a six-year-old.  The heat and crush of summer fade into cool nights, leaving Main Street to the locals and the millionaires.  You can swim at a deserted beach, play golf on an empty golf course, walk a solitary path and feel lucky each and every moment. 

In the suddenly still September air, the buzzing returns as well.  I may have missed the construction in the press and rush of summer, but now, I stand in the backyard with my cup of coffee, I hear the far-off erratic heartbeat of the hammer gun and the raspy breathing of the skil-saw.  A new roofline rises over the trees over here and, over there, the distinctive plywood yellow pokes through the scrub and underbrush.  I have found myself bargaining with the developers.  “Okay,” I think, “You can build that house over there, where I can’t really see it and I can pretend it doesn’t exist.”  If I can pretend that time hasn’t passed, perhaps it hasn’t. 

Then, of course, I come across projects of such size, scope, and situation that I can’t either ignore or cover up with a baggy sweater.  I had grown comfortable with land that had held the Mad Hatter and red-light parent; I had affection for the elms in the back of the property, and my boys liked selling lemonade on the corner.  But the backhoes came as they must, and a new spa with the latest seaweed and hot rock treatments is on the way.  Across the street, The Gordon Folger continues its metamorphosis into the Cozumel Ritz Carlton, complete with upscale bowling alley, tennis courts, and underground parking garage.  Somewhere, in the H.D.C. regulations must be some provision for underwater parking.  Every heavy mist turns the yard into a swamp, yet the developers feel that those acres of still water are a great place for Escalades, Tahoes, and Acadias.  Money builds the dream of wealth, then calls it change.

Autumn on Nantucket has also brought football back.  Saturday afternoons brought about a welcome silence on the workplaces of the island as most of the community made its way to the football field and the weekly embarrassment of some off-island foes.  Sixty to seventy sons of carpenters and contractors stood in blue and white across the field from a slightly seasick traveling squad.  Around them were older Whalers of various ages and sexes.  The top of the stands filled with the gangs of middle school kids, the bottom with the former cheerleaders and the fence along the field with former players and would-be field generals.  At one end, the smaller kids put on their own touch football game.  At the other, the Labradors and German Shepards chased tennis balls.  At each Whaler touchdown, a miniature howitzer announced the kingly conquest to all of the ships at sea.  Afterwards, the team rode through town in a victory parade and the loser slunk off to the boat.

The games built in size and intensity until the Vineyard game arrived in the end of November.  More likely than not, both teams came to the game with one or fewer losses on their record.  For one weekend, a trip to the Superbowl (Division 5-B) rested at the outcome.  At the same weekend as Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy, The Game that brought thousands to the field was announced over two radio stations, and replayed at bars and jobsites for years to come. 

Whaler Football took as it gave.  Its detractors pointed out the huge expense, the newly-sodded field, the sparkling uniforms, and all of the hoopla surrounding the boys.  At its height, Whaler Football had all the drama and pathos of football at Permian or Southlake Carrol.  The players and parents foolishly saw collegiate success passing quickly into a shot at the professional ranks.  Friday Night Lights shone out here as well.

For the players, the dreams of professional football faded before the Vineyard floats got dismantled.  A small handful went on to collegiate success and an even smaller number appeared on one or two Sundays.  N.F.L. glory faded as fast for the mighty Whalers as it did for almost every other high school player.  But Vito’s teams built the island that we see around us.  His players graduated and went to work with friends and fathers.  They became plumbers, electricians, landscapers, and contractors.  A linebacker met a lineman at coffee and the lineman went to plumb his house.  The quarterback called in a favor from the punter, who roofed his house one Saturday.  The informal bonds of boyhood and huddles became the beams, struts, and supports of Tom Nevers and Quaise.  The riches of the NFL never materialized, but they built the wealth of the island around them.

For all its excesses, the football game was a central event in the week for the community.  Far more islanders attended the games than ever crossed over the threshold at town meeting.  The winter population, in all its glory and shame, appeared on Saturday afternoons and recognized each other.  We stood as we always stood, looked as we always looked, and said what we always said.

Time and tide have not been kind to the Whalers.  Even though the school is bursting at the seams, the football team is as small as it has ever been.  Including the J.V. squad, the team now numbers 32 players.  On its opening weekend, Vito started five freshmen.  For four years, Nantucket has lost the Island Cup and it doesn’t look to be coming back anytime soon.  The team is still covered by radio and television, but the games have ceased to be the events they once were. 

Many different pins went into the deflating of this balloon.  Night games cut down on the amount of kids and families who attended.  Off-island finances and the length of the trip pushed Nantucket off the schedules of many schools.  Soccer, or “Commie Round Ball,” became successful and drained away many of the athletes who once only had football as a fall outlet.  For years, Vito claimed that the island didn’t have enough male athletes to field a successful football and soccer team; he has lived long enough to be proven right. 

For many, this change is all to the good.  Soccer, sailing, and golf have their virtues.  After years of being budgetary afterthoughts, their ascendence seems like poetic justice. 

Perhaps it is a better world with goalies and middies instead of quarterbacks and linebackers.  As the game switches, I hope that it assumes the central location that football once had.  I hope that fathers groom their sons to play the beautiful game, that players reconstitute their old teams on softball diamonds and jobsites, and that the whole community sits in the bleachers on Saturday afternoons.  Football was once the excuse to celebrate the island, may futbol do the same job.

Much has changed on our island, and the glory of the Mighty, Mighty Whalers may just be a fond memory.  Too many of our jobsites are worked by men with airplane tickets in their pockets.  Too many out here see Nantucket as a paycheck and not a home and will not put the nail gun down for a round ball or a pointed one.  The bonds of teams and Saturday afternoon games pale next to a cell-phone and a contract.  And with that, we have lost more than just a football squad. 

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