The Contingent Nature of Island Life

text by Phillip Conkling
originally posted by The Working Waterfront

The ties that bind islanders together are reinforced on a day-to-day basis in hundreds of small ways. An island newspaper does not publish a lot of news in any ordinary sense of the word, since the front page is always given over to the innumerable acts of kindness that islanders are constantly performing for one another. A recent sample from this week’s edition of an island paper includes a heartfelt thank you to a pair of fishermen who “helped us with my boat that sank.” Another front-page note reported finding a “Skiff/Punt. You describe it, you can have it back.” Still another was a letter of grateful thanks from a widow for the cards, visits, kind words and food, which made her venerable husband’s passing more bearable.

Speaking of passages, last Sunday, a large cross section of islanders gathered at the community church to remember a strong, candid and long-respected island woman who had passed away during the winter. The community leader who presided over the service is actually an elder at another of the island’s churches, but he provided just the right touch of grace and inclusion for a diverse spiritual congregation of believers and non-believers.

The a cappella musical number “Peace in the Valley” was performed by a quintet of island men, including the local motel owner, an island EMT and general handyman, and the lobster semi-truck driver as well as the minister himself, the former owner of the island’s former hardware store. But this description of the group “Phil ‘N the Blanks” doesn’t even cover half of the number of roles this rich collection of voices plays in the day-to-day harmonizing of island life. At the close of the service, another musical number, Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be,” was sung by one of the island’s realtors, who not everyone knew could also sing for her supper if pressed.

After the service, boatloads of friends from across the bay departed in the dense fog, but not before telling of their adventure on the way to the island earlier in the day. While running a compass course and checking their position with various electronics aboard, a very large target appeared on their radar screen. The captain throttled back and announced “There’s something really big out there,” just as the captain of an oil tanker came on to Channel 16 with a string of very strong words for the skipper of another boat that had crossed under the tanker’s bow and had the 600-foot vessel in full reverse for some terrifying minutes.

Although fog can be scary onboard a vessel, the encircling shroud of fog can also draw us together in somber contemplation of the contingent nature of all our lives. And so in the dead of night following the memorial service, the ferry crew was scrambled for an emergency medical evacuation to take someone across the bay in the ambulance to the hospital. Swinging into the ferry parking lot the next morning, breathlessly as usual, there were no cars in line and the ramp was cocked up at an angle that was not inviting anyone aboard. It was soon apparent that because the ferry had not returned to the island until 4:30 a.m. following the emergency evacuation, neither the 7:00, nor the 8:45 scheduled runs could leave since the back-up ferry crew is short-staffed. As I mentioned, islands remind us of the contingent nature of our lives; we are not always the masters of our fate, nor the captains of our soul.

But the incident does highlight an issue that is likely to affect more of us more of the time. It turns out that Maine has the oldest population of any state in the country, Knox County has the oldest population of any county in Maine, and the islands have the oldest population of any towns in the county. The island’s town manager mentioned that last July set the all time record for emergency evacuations. This summer’s total has yet to be tallied. But if you absolutely have to be somewhere in the morning, you might want to make some contingent plans so your consternation does not hasten your kin into planning an early memorial service for you.

Philip Conkling is president and founder of the Island Institute based in Rockland.