Welcome to Matinicus Island
Sometime during the night of February 25th, while the National Weather Service was forecasting twenty-five-foot seas and sixty-plus mile-an-hour gales, the bell buoy outside the Matinicus harbor breakwater broke free of its mooring and made its way into the inner harbor, within feet of the shoreline and a couple of fisherman’s wharves. The next morning, as islanders worked to clear trees and restore electricity to sections of the island that had lost power in the storm, the familiar ring of the harbor bell seemed a bit … loud.
I got a call from the powerhouse Friday morning: “You might want to come down here and see this. Bring your camera.”
For me, it was kind of fun to see the bell buoy up close. I’ve always had a soft spot for that particular piece of hardware. The sound of the harbor bell was one of my first memories, one of my earliest experiences on Matinicus Island (after the trip from Rockland on the Mary and Donna, sitting on a pile of lumber and damn near freezing to death). I arrived sometime the last week of August for my teaching job at the Matinicus school. If you don’t think you can shiver in August, you haven’t been on a slow boat in the middle of Penobscot Bay.
Why Matinicus? Actually, I thought I was headed for Alaska. I’d been seriously looking for a one-room school job, but I thought the little schools on islands off the coast of Maine were taught by long-term, career natives; I had no idea about the teacher turnover that was so common, especially on Matinicus, where they don’t offer a tenured position (perhaps too much potential for cracking up over the winter). From South Thomaston, where I had family, this move was hardly “pulling up stakes” — not quite like Kotzebue, Alaska, my other option.
I was supposed to rent the “parsonage” — an old house owned by the island Congregational Church and used as housing for the volunteer summer ministers. As Matinicus only has regular church services in July and August, the house is normally available the rest of the year, and has traditionally been offered to the teacher first, as there is no other winter-water housing guaranteed to be available any given year.
The minister, however, wouldn’t leave.
I don’t know whether he was oblivious to the fact that with the last Sunday of August behind him, he could leave at any time, or whether he took the need for an island preacher rather more seriously than any of the islanders did; in any event, I had no house to rent when I first got to the island. Harriet and Warren invited me to stay a few days with them. They and I would soon become good friends.
As I slept in one of the upstairs bedrooms in Harriet’s rambling old house, not far from the so-called “steamboat wharf,” the sound of the bell buoy outside the harbor made for quite a delightful lullaby. I’d never heard such a thing before. Welcome to Matinicus.
I told this story to Clayton on the 26th of February, as we were watching Paul up in the bucket truck replacing a line fuse and getting the power back on to the south end of Matinicus after that stormy night. “The bell seemed more musical years ago, before they replaced it, maybe twenty years ago.”
“This was in 1987,” I told him, “and it certainly was musical.”
Harriet and Warren made me feel truly welcome. Warren had come to the island as a boy in the 1930s to work for the estimable Aunt Marian Young who owned the store, ran the post office, and more or less orchestrated every event that didn’t take place in a trap shop. Harriet was from Duluth, Minnesota, and when she got “provoked,” as she’d say, about something the old Swede-Norwegian accent of her childhood would start to surface. In middle age, they had joined the Peace Corps and gone to Cebu in the Philippines, so Matinicus boasted at least two Cebuano speakers. Warren, retired from a mainland job and back on the island, was a sternman for Albert Bunker, and Harriet made Portuguese kale soup from a New Bedford recipe whenever the weather got cold. I don’t think I got kale soup (with hot linguica sausage) during that first visit; they weren’t sure yet whether I was tough enough. They also weren’t sure how I’d react to their tradition of popcorn for supper once in a while (they’d have had a big hot meal mid-day,) but it sounded like a fine idea to me.
Harriet had a bicycle, and I had my blue Raleigh three-speed that I’d been given after the fifth grade, and we set out together for a tour of the island. “There are certain people I want you to meet. One of them is Paul. You’ll need him if anything breaks down, in the schoolhouse or in the parsonage. These old houses, you know, it’s good if you know the repairman.” Or something like that.
She had a twinkle in her eye already.
The island’s general-purpose fix-it man stood on the doorstep of his house, in overalls, surrounded by a yard full of stuff. Not long into the school year the oven in the parsonage gas stove went all to hell — the “robert shaw valve” I heard (sounded like the name of a conductor, I thought) — and everything baked on “full blast.” It also roared like a jet engine, although I think that was a different problem. I had a batch of banana bread in the oven at the time, which turned black as coal with the oven inadvertently on broil. I hacked a few slabs off the edges of one of the loaves to indicate that the middle was edible, and went, with this somewhat loaded gift, to the repairman.
The bell buoy got me thinking about some of my other earliest memories of living on Matinicus. The parsonage was a bit strange but I’d been living in a camp without water or any heat except wood before that, so I did not complain about a place with a thermostat. There was a bathtub but no shower (I rigged a hose) and there were rumors among the neighbors of rats in the cellar but I fed a random tomcat who lived outside lots of pork chop scraps and I never saw a single rodent. The front room was sealed off and useless for anything but as a refrigerator in the winter (it is now the post office) and the furnishings were more or less other people’s cast-offs; people meant well and gave decent stuff to the parsonage, but got mad when twenty years later some piece of furniture or kitchen equipment was chucked out. “Hmph. There was nothing wrong with that!” I had my own full complement of mess gear anyway, mostly black iron frying pans, and the rocking chair I’d carried up the island over my head looking like a poor excuse for a parade. I also had my toolbox, because when I first signed on for Matinicus I didn’t know there was going to be a repairman.
Anyway, I sent the photograph of the bell buoy, adrift and clanging away up in beside the wharves, to the local newspaper. We immediately got one comment: “So, are you supposed to navigate past it to port or to starboard?”
Eva Murray reports that the Coast Guard has come out and collected the bell buoy.