Usually a logistics challenge —

Looking back over years of island Thanksgivings

Sun, 11/26/2017 - 7:15pm

Do they count Penobscot Island Air when they do those surveys of “holiday air travel” for the evening news?

As I write, Thanksgiving approaches, and I’ve just flown home from a day’s errands on the mainland. The air service office at the Knox County Airport was a complete zoo, as several ferries had been canceled that afternoon and everybody was suddenly, unexpectedly trying to cross the now roiling bay by air. The wind had picked up and it would be a rough ride in a Cessna, whether to North Haven, Vinalhaven or Matinicus.

I believe I saw our Representative Chellie Pingree sitting inconspicuously in the waiting area, alongside the sternmen and the students and the construction workers, just trying to go home.

When we who were headed for Matinicus — a young sternman, the new teacher and Mrs. M., and I — landed at the island airstrip after a round of applause for the pilot, we had quite an audience and it was growing fast. As we pulled everybody’s gear and groceries — and one somewhat airsick cat--out of the plane, truck after truck bailed up the road toward the airstrip until there was absolutely nowhere to park. There were more people and pickup trucks than I can recall ever having seen at the island airpor t— some dropping off people who were headed to the mainland, but most of them there to collect their portion of a planeload of groceries. Behind us, another plane landed, heavy laden with the boxes from Shaw’s.

This is not an island of “granny carts,” like Peaks, nor is it the time of year for pack baskets. Our groceries require trucks.

The next day offered a forecast of rain, which could mean no flights, and after that was Thanksgiving. In Rockland, holiday cooks may be able to shop last minute, but for us this is the last minute. At 4:00 in the afternoon, with the sun setting, the last flights carry food, maintenance parts, and people traveling both ways over the water. But mostly food.

Remember, also, that we have to do our scrambling and traveling and freight-handling based not on the actual weather but on the forecast. If the next day is forecast to be “unflyable,” there will be a mad rush. Should the next morning dawn calm enough, with decent visibility and no particular hazards to either navigation or aviation, we mutter and swear and wonder why we jumped, why we haven’t learned to figure this out yet. Likewise, when we have plans to cross the water on a certain day and that day’s wind or fog or whatever conspires to interfere, we mutter and swear and wonder why we didn’t plan better, why we haven’t learned to figure this out yet. 

And yes, “flyable” is a word, an adjective used to describe weather conditions. It is a variable combination of horizontal visibility and ceiling, wind speed with respect to the direction of the airstrip, gusts, sometimes icing or braking conditions, sometimes other things. 

It is too soon to tell what sort of adventures we’ll have this year as my husband and I attempt a quiet, traditional Thanksgiving dinner on the island. This is will be my 31st November living on Matinicus. Not every year has offered a story, but more often than not, it has been interesting.

In November of 1987, when I was the teacher in the island’s one-room school, the weather was shutting down rapidly and there would be no way to fly off. The school board people told me to get aboard the Bajupa, an old lobster smack which rolled like a coke bottle (this was before that vessel was in the hands of her current owner, and before several retrofits and repairs, and before Jeb who runs her very capably). The guys aboard asked me whether I ever got sick. I told them no, because truthfully I never had been seasick before. My grandfather’s lobster boat out of South Thomaston had never worried my stomach. On account of rough conditions the Bajupa guys insisted I remain in the wheelhouse for the duration of the slow, rolling trip, where they were chain-smoking and eating rancid old Chinese food somebody had bought in Augusta four days prior. The waters around Matinicus were like nothing I had experienced before. Eventually, I bolted outside, despite their idea of what was safe. Never say never.

In November of 1988 I was living in this house, and cooked the whole meal on the wood stove. As I baked and boiled, Paul hauled his boat. We were beginning to become a household unto ourselves and that first Thanksgiving meal was a big deal, or at least a sentimental journey. I roasted a turkey and made stuffing and gravy. I boiled and mashed potatoes, and baked my mother’s cranberry-orange bread, and made a few candied carrots in a black iron frying pan. I made a pie shell and filled it with homemade chocolate pudding. I made hot applesauce with island apples. 

Stores on the island have come and gone over the past 30 years, but more often than not, there is no store. At present there is no store. Even when there has been a store, it may not have fresh vegetables, or “Bell’s Seasoning,” or heavy cream. It depends who is running the establishment. The same can probably be said for grocers on any island.

There have been years when we’ve crossed the water toward family Thanksgivings on the mainland, learning how the delivery of the more delicate pies by Cessna 206 requires some knowledge of angular momentum and specialized rigging. A steep takeoff can be prove disturbing to the custards and creams. There have been years when islanders have shared their turkey and pie with random contractors, sheetrock guys and carpenters, stuck on the island by weather. In 2013, as it happened, the first full day of Hanukkah fell on Thanksgiving, which coincidence suggested the Eight Pies of Hanukkah. That was a remarkable festival.

This year I am anticipating a holiday meal very similar to that peaceful, cozy first one in this house in 1988. Neither of our grown children can get here this year, and so far we have not received any marching orders, so I have procured a turkey from one of those good retailers in Rockland. The bird will cook in the wood stove oven (one of the many small things for which I am thankful is a wood stove with an oven big enough—and reliable enough—to actually use on a regular basis). We will enjoy our homegrown potatoes and onions, stuffing made out of homemade bread, and plentiful gravy. There will be cranberry-orange relish from his family recipe and cranberry-orange bread from mine. There will be yeast rolls made with a ridiculous amount of butter, and there will be, as is customary here, chocolate cream pie. There will be string beans and homemade hot applesauce. There will be a generous amount of leftovers (another thing to be thankful for is a husband who likes leftovers.) There will be no squash. Neither of us likes squash. Or turnip. Happy Thanksgiving!

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