Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 37 Issue 5 • May 24 - 30, 2007
now in our 37th season

Placed to Remember

by Robert P. Barsanti

I woke up this morning to the sounds of summer, but the chill of winter.  Outside my window, the birds had been up and chattering, the southwest wind rattled the crabapple branches, and, in the distance the surf broke.  Nantucket’s greatest sound is silence; in between the birds and ocean, silence rests.  To those of us lucky to live here month after month, year after year, the silence becomes as familiar as the community. 

To our visitors, the silence announces itself.  The cars aren’t racing by, far off, on the interstate, a trash truck is not beeping in reverse a half-mile away, the ordinary hum and hiss of compressors and engines buzz at the edge of your attention.  On island, those noises rest underneath the silence.  On Memorial Day, the first marker of summer, our visitors come to the island and soak the silence in.

They are soaking other things in as well.  At the end of May, the island has gotten itself ready for the prom.  The fairways are lush, the ice cream line is empty, the littlenecks are cold and plentiful, and the bluefish have begun to bite.  For islanders, Memorial Day is either the end of a quiet winter or the beginning of a prosperous summer.  For our visitors, Memorial Day brings respite and relaxation.  The noise, the smell, and the chaos of the mainland fades in the fog.

With it being Memorial Day, you have to feel more than a tad guilty to be enjoying the island summer.  We are a nation at war, after all.  We have been at war in Iraq longer than we were at war in the Pacific.  On the afternoon that we drink imported beer on the deck and watch the blue fog roll in, six more Americans who never heard of the word Madaquecham, will die in a horrific explosion.  More will find their way to Ramstein Airforce Base in Germany for emergency medical procedures.  They will lose an eye, but regain their lives. 

For most Americans, this war is fought on TV and in the privacy of other people’s homes.  We don’t ration, we don’t turn off our lights at night, we don’t get taxed for it (yet), we don’t make U.S.O. packages, we don’t contribute to lint drives.  At most, we pause on days like this one for a momentary wave of guilt.  Our memorial is in the icebox, next to the cold cuts. 

We have many war memorials on the island, and, unfortunately, we are likely to have several more.  For an island founded and built by pacifists, the island has a long and active history in American Wars.  Island boys slipped out to warships during the Revolution and the War of 1812.  They signed up, en masse, for the Civil War and for World War II, then a brave few have served since in Vietnam and in the Middle East.  A dozen or so Whaler graduates have served, and, probably will continue to serve, in the current war.

After the Civil War ended, the town put a memorial smack dab in the middle of Main Street.  That war had exacted a heavy cost to the former farmers and whalers of the island.  The builders of the memorial didn’t want these names fading into a field.  Instead, they placed it in the dead center of town (in those days) with a grindstone at its base.  They wanted that war to be unavoidable, even to the Escalades and F150’s that come racing down Main Street.

Presumably, the town fathers of 1875 wanted the heroism of the dead remembered.   Many of those who died, perished in combat with the ideals of the nation on their back.  Many others died of dysentery and diarrhea; war deaths do not always make good stories.  To often, it is the “useless slaughter of gallant men.”

Leander Alley was one of those gallant men.  He had been the first mate of a whale ship before the whale ships had gone away.  When George Nelson Macy had returned to the island in search of volunteers, he signed up and left for Boston as a private in the Army.  As a first mate, he was at the right hand of God on a whaleship.  As a private in the army, he was under God’s heel.  Yet, he thrived.  After the “hurricane of bullets” at Ball’s Bluff, he was promoted to First Sargeant.  Then, at Fredericksburg, he died attacking the fortifications at Marye’s Heights.  His body was returned to the island at Christmas.  The schools and businesses closed, the funeral was performed, and the first military burial occurred on Nantucket.  Seventy-one more Nantucketers would die in that war.

The memorial features the name Leander Alley, of course, as it does the rest of the men, whether they died on the march or on the cannon.  It is both impossible and foolish to imagine what they would think of seeing their names carved in the granite.  It would also be foolish to imagine what the builder’s had in mind when they put it in the middle of the town square.

Some of our more civic-minded folks have proposed moving the memorial.   It slows the traffic flow, confuses the tourists, and doesn’t allow for up close study, unless you happen to be pinned to the passenger seat and stuck behind a delivery truck.  One wag would put it in the center of our new rotary, so that drivers would have to travel over more Belgian block in order to hit it. 

Being a curmudgeon, I like the memorial right where it is.  In the summer, when the fish are biting, the surf is up, and the dinner reservation is waiting, the obelisk slows us all down.  In these days, when the war is only on pay cable and the Internet, it reminds us not only of  honor and sacrifice, but also the stupidity and savagery of war.  Would that it could slow the nation down on the way to war the way that it slows us down on the way to the beach. 
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