Guest contributor: Crash Barry
categories: Cocktail Hour
Last summer, Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour began serializing Crash Barry’s gritty memoir Tough Island. Then, in August, Crash took a break from Bill and Dave’s in order to turn his novel Sex, Drugs and Blueberries into a feature film. Now, he’s back and ready to finish telling the rest of his true stories from his time living and working on Maine’s most remote island. Click here for episodes 1 to 19.
Thanks to Captain Edwin Mitchell and his sweet wife, Nan, my second year on Matinicus was much better simply because they treated me with respect. They were an intelligent and well-read team. He was thin, strong and handsome, with a well-trimmed beard. She was kind and beautiful, with a quick smile and understanding eyes and ears. Good parents to their two daughters. Fine citizens. Moral and upright members of society. They didn’t treat me like their slave, obligated to jump at their beck and call. Plus Edwin’s love for Nan was so obvious and endearing. He enjoyed her company, so he didn’t dub around and delay the end of the workday as a way to avoid going home.
Edwin, without a doubt, was the smartest fella on Matinicus. Born and raised on the island, he graduated from UMaine followed, coincidentally, by a tour in the Coast Guard as an officer, then returned with Nan to lobster and raise their kids. I thoroughly enjoyed my time hauling with Edwin, since our conversations focused mostly on politics, history and current events. A sensible and rational being, he often questioned my anarchistic statements and gently corrected what he viewed as flaws in my thinking.
There was another huge perk: Food. Our daily lunches were delicious crab rolls on Nan’s homemade bread. After Mary-Margaret’s sloppy sandwiches and Donald’s grumbles, I was in heaven. And twice a week, they invited me to supper. Nan’s meals were always superb, with stimulating and entertaining table talk. And while taking a shower, I didn’t have to set a timer. Thankfully, their water wasn’t fuel-tainted. It was heavy in iron, though, which stained everything rusty. But a shower didn’t leave me smelling like kerosene.
Plus my housing was awesome. I had the entire upstairs of Edwin’s fishhouse – about twice the size of my old room. A studio apartment surrounded by islands, ledges, boats and open ocean. The tiny kitchenette had a nice gas stove and a normal-sized refrigerator. There was a sink (that drained into the harbor) and countertop beneath a window with a long southern view, six miles distant, of the ever-present beacon on Matinicus Rock. I especially enjoyed foggy days, when the lighthouse’s horn would wail and echo through the mist.
Edwin’s fishhouse sat on the edge of the island’s Lower Harbor. There were other shacks around me, but mostly workshops, and nobody lived in ‘em full time. So when the workday ended, the harborfront usually became all mine. I was glad my old neighborhood was a 15-minute stroll away because I was so easily distracted. Living in Donald’s shop with my pals in the immediate vicinity had made it easy to procrastinate. My writing couldn’t afford disruption because it wasn’t going so well. No one at The New Yorker seemed interested in any of the poems I sent, including the paeans to living in a shack with no running water or epics pondering the Rodney King riots’ impact on American history.
I missed the mahogany table still bolted to Donald’s floor. My new table was a little bigger, though, with plenty of room for my piles and vices. With my typewriter in the exact center, the table fit nicely in front of the large window on the east wall of the room. The view featured a deserted isle a mere hundred yards from Edwin’s wharf. Wheaton’s Island, forsaken 50 years before, was ten acres of rock and spruce, with a foursome of weather-beaten structures built so ruggedly that neglect and abandonment couldn’t destroy the ancient pylons, pillars and braces that held the buildings perched on ledge and seaweed. All the windows and doors in the mini-fishing village had been stolen by Matinicus thieves decades before.
A flock of six sheep called Wheaton’s home and lived among the ruins, grazing on the scrub grass above the tide line. They foraged and browsed among the vegetation that grew in pockets near the small stand of trees able to take root on the boney island. The sheep wandered freely, leaving droppings everywhere. They stayed out of the largest building, though, a long, two-story, rickety boat shop filled with broken glass, old net and an ancient and beautiful 20-foot vessel sitting in a cradle, left behind and long forgotten.
The sheep were owned by Captain Red. It used to be common to leave sheep on Maine islands to grow ‘em into mutton. Even though I couldn’t stand Captain Red, a lying, stealing, thieving son-of-a-bitch, I appreciated that he put the sheep on Wheaton’s. From my vantage point, they lived a pretty awesome life. They were curious and carefree and a little numb. They were enamored with a long piece of frayed rope, tied to a davit on the old wharf, that fluttered and flapped whenever the breeze blew over 20 knots. So on windy afternoons, I’d sit in front of the typewriter, ignore my writing, and smoke herb, hypnotized by the sheep hypnotized by a wiggling piece of rope.
My window was a picture frame around Wheaton’s. A living, moving, breathing portrait of land and sea in constant flux, thanks to the winds and tides and the sheep. Better than any painting, television or movie, that’s for sure.
The Gut, the name for the narrow channel separating Matinicus from Wheaton’s, was another distraction. During the incoming and outgoing tides, the sea flowed fast through the Gut like a river. The width and velocity of the water changed with the passage of the tide. At the lowest of low tides, the Gut was barely a foot wide, a mere trickle, and the tideland of the Lower Harbor’s seascape turned lunar. A temporary land bridge made it wicked easy to walk between the two islands. But when the tide turned, the bridge disappeared.
“AHOY THERE! AHOY!” the fella hollered. “AHOY!”
It was a summer day, late in the afternoon. I stood on the edge of my wharf, covered in fish guts and smoking. Standing on Wheaton’s beach was a man and woman. Didn’t recognize ‘em. Besides, islanders wouldn’t let a rising tide maroon them on Wheaton’s. And these folks had the looks of yachtspeople. They must have boldly ignored all the warnings in the sailing books and cruising guides that recommended avoiding Matinicus because of its reputation as a tough island.
“AHOY!” the fella hollered again, cupping his hands to his mouth. “WE’RE STUCK OVER HERE!”
“STRANDED!” yelled the woman. “COME GET US!”
They didn’t say please. Please and thank you are words I loved to hear. So I didn’t respond. Just stood there, deaf, on the wharf, and stared at them.
“HELP US!” the woman yelled again. “PLEASE HELP US!”
Ahh, the magic word.
“TWENTY BUCKS!” I bellowed to them across the Gut. “TWENTY BUCKS!” I yelled again. “I’LL COME AND GET YOU!”
They waved me over, so I launched the skiff and rowed the 100 yards to Wheaton’s. Made ‘em pay before they even got in the skiff. One of the easiest twenties ever.
The only drawback of my new pad was the lack of running water, especially considering my extreme dependence on boiled potatoes, steamed shellfish and black tea. While living at Donald’s, the store well was conveniently located. After visiting the post office, I’d fill a five-gallon jug, which would last a couple days or so, and lug it back along the shore path. Not a big deal.
There was a trick to tilting the water bucket correctly before dropping it into the well. Dropped at an incorrect angle, the bucket would float on the surface of the water, twelve feet down. No amount of jerking or pulling would sink a floater. Had to haul up the empty bucket and try again.
I didn’t mind using the store well and carrying water. When I was in Haiti a couple years before, I visited a village where the closest potable water was seven miles away. My chore was easy in comparison. Even on the winter’s coldest days, when the top couple inches of the well froze. I’d use a long tree limb – kept nearby for this very purpose – to bash and smash ice chunks until there was enough room to drop the bucket.
Even though moving to Edwin’s in the Lower Harbor put me farther away from the store well and made fetching water more work, I reminded myself that it was still nothing compared to a Haitian’s hike. Once a week, I’d lower the skiff from the wharf, loaded with six milk crates of empty jugs, and row across the harbor. Slack high water made the third-of-a-mile row the easiest. That wasn’t always the most convenient time to go, but I’d rather have gone thirsty than try when the tide was low.
After landing on the store beach, I’d lug the milk crates up to the well, not far from the spot where natives scalped Ebenezer Hall. After filling the jugs, the row back to the fishhouse was always harder, due to the extra 200 pounds of drinking water. Once there, I’d use Edwin’s donkey capstan (powered by a loud, single-lung engine) to haul the skiff and her watery load onto the wharf. Then I’d lug each cumbersome crate up my shaky staircase. When finished, I’d pour a tall glass, kick back and drink the liquid fruit of my labor.