Industrial Arts

Eva Murray: Public Works

Wed, 02/25/2015 - 6:30pm

Story Location:
Matinicus, ME
United States

MATINICUS — It isn't exactly a steady round of parties out here in the winter. The women don't gather at 10 o'clock for coffee, with a nice view of the harbor and all that floats within to stimulate commentary, or meet for "stitch and bitch" with knitting and cookies in the schoolroom, or stop by each others’ houses for a glass of wine after walking the dogs in the afternoon. There isn't a regular card game on Saturday night for which people steal extra chairs from the church, or much likelihood of a solve-the-world's-problems gab-fest across the hood of anybody's pickup truck. There is no longer a cadre of old fishermen holding court and telling lies and entertaining the children who've snuck down to the waterfront trap-shops for a forbidden candy bar and swearing lesson from Grampy. What little is left of those island social traditions is reserved for warmer weather, but not because of the temperature. It's more to do with the reality that there are so few of us now.

Some stay indoors all winter; others find themselves busier than a one-armed...uh, plow truck mechanic. There aren't many left among whom to spread the heavy lifting. In terms of population this town is what you might call "below critical mass."

So a chance to get together this time of year is an acknowledged treat. Last week, lunch aboard the Sunbeam was a wonderful example. It happened to be Mardi Gras, the sun was shining and the Matinicus Public Works crew was starving. Barbara, the ship's steward, had made jambalaya and muffaletta sandwiches, and all sorts of cookies. We arrived on a backhoe, and on snowshoes, and on cross country skis; we arrived as the plow crew and the phone company and the meter reader.

After lunch, some of us left to deliver take-out lunch and to collect up the outgoing mail for those trapped in their homes behind snowbanks, while others were off to resume the task of digging through those snowbanks. In any case it was the first time a gang of us had been together since the onslaught of the heavy weather, and we all acknowledged it good for our mental health. Many thanks to Barbara and the crew of the Sunbeam for their warm hospitality — this time, next time, and the thousands of times before on these islands.

We simply did not have a snowplow that was equal to this particular winter. When you can't do everything, you do what you can, and in that spirit Clayton scooped up snow with Danny's backhoe a bit at a time until his fingers nearly froze off, and Paul bucketed up snow with the farm tractor a little at a time until his fingers nearly froze off, and George, while stuck on the mainland, went browsing at Union Farm Equipment and Hammond Tractor, and Nick drove to Auburn to pick up equipment, and Chad plowed snow (and fixed plow trucks) like a madman, and everybody shoveled. Those of us who had cross country skis or showshoes struck out to accomplish whatever we could. Serious thanks are due Chad the sternman, who didn't start into this winter realizing he was going to be a major part of the Public Works. That's island life.

Last week we had another large community gathering, this time including 10 islanders and three pilots from Penobscot Island Air, as we congregated at the airstrip to unload the new snow blower for the John Deere tractor. With plentiful supply of youth, muscle, goodwill, necessity and probably chassis grease of some sort, the guys at Penobscot Island Air had shoe-horned most of the snowblower unit into a Cessna 207. Landing right behind the 207 was a 206 containing a few armloads of miscellaneous parts and two more guys, in case their help was needed to unload the thing. We were a happy crowd, in possession of a new tool that we hoped would make our winter less troublesome, but also reminded, on that icy gravel airstrip, of our strange togetherness. "Where's the beer and chips? This looks like a party!" Dave was there to help; Dave who last time we noticed had been one of the kids, but suddenly he's grown up, married and making extremely sensible observations about how we need to invest in the Public Works.

Mike the pilot took the opportunity to ask how the airdrop of plow truck repair parts had gone earlier in the month. "Not bad at all!" Clayton smiled. We joked about spray-painting a huge X on the snow should they ever have to rescue us that way again.

The tractor-mounted snowblower has proven to be just the ticket for chewing through intractable drifts, keeping the powerhouse and the recycling sheds and the propane dock open, and accessing people's oil tanks. Of course, it is no substitute for a plow truck when you need to maintain a runway. Amongst all the other fretting and stewing and floor-pacing, as we all loitered on our telephones, some productive communication was managed including at least four of us talking to Ray Sisk at Knox County Emergency Management. Many thanks to Ray for some good ideas, but also just for listening to us go through all our snowbound headaches.

"Hey, if you want me to call out the National Guard, I can do that," he assured me, unfailingly calm. We sort of figured that Boston needed them more. Of storms, Ray has been known to comment, "I used to ride my bicycle to work in stuff they call a hurricane around here!"

I'd also like to thank Fisher Plow on behalf of the entire community of Matinicus Island (which really is more than just the 19 of us, believe me...)

This winter could just make people at Town Meeting sit up and take notice of Public Works, but of course, the normal pattern of Annual Town meetings everywhere is characterized by parsimony, jitters, and the sort of joyful, warmhearted, community spirit normally seen at evictions, court martials and back-alley chicken fights. Presumably everybody will have been impacted enough — wherever they spent this winter — to consider the couple dozen who held down the fort on Matinicus. No municipality without a nuclear power plant gets its entire "wish-list" fulfilled, but let's just toss out the wild-eyed, crazy notion that a sand shed somewhere near the airstrip might be an idea. Either that or we might think about starting up a hockey team.

The point is, for a bunch of I-can-do-this-all-by-myself types, we know we owe a lot of people a smile and a "thank you."

Seeing as this little neighborhood has ordered so far at least three residential snow blowers for long driveways, at least one more plow truck, a set of tire chains for the tractor that cost as much as a week in Florida, several sets of cross county skis and snowshoes, not to mention the town snowblower and plow truck we just got — and my new woodshed (after each of the six or seven snowstorms I have muttered to myself, "We didn't build a proper woodshed before now because why?") I can practically guarantee we'll have an open winter next year. I think.