His hands were wrinkled and stained like a used brown paper lunch bag, fragile and tough at the same time. Every scar and wrinkle had been hard earned. His arthritic knurl of knuckles was testament to the decades of sea infused cold he’d once endured on Grand Banks fishing grounds. This was my Grandfather. The sea was still in the voice of the rattling windows that constantly shook from this Nantucket winter. Nantucket had always been home to him, home to so many old salts who avoided the crowded streets of summer.
Nantucket winters were as different from Nantucket summers as Alaska was from Hawaii, not that Nantucket ever resembled Hawaii. Though the Gulf Stream warms Nantucket a good ten degrees over what nearby Boston might endure, Nantucket winters empty her cobblestoned streets of those summer crowds, returning this tiny island, thirty miles at sea, to the history that had born her. There is a timelessness to winter Nantucket, timeless like the sea itself. The sea looks the same to Barack Obama as it had to Columbus as it had to Constantine, to the Pilgrims, to Lewis and Clark. The sea didn’t care if you were Beethoven composing a symphony or some kid listening to an I-pod. The sea was and will always be – the sea.
Nantucket shares that timelessness. Sure, there are many quaint seacoast towns dotting all of New England. They range from old mill and port towns, which found a second life in the tourist trade, to sleepy little villages that now feature cozy little bed and breakfasts. Nantucket is unique among all of this. By 1800, Nantucket was a world class city. It had outpaced Boston and would soon rival even New York. All that, even though, Nantucket was but a tiny island thirty miles at sea. The world at that time, as with today, was run by oil. In the early 1800’s oil wasn’t pumped from the earth. The mass quantities needed to supply that day’s modern age came from only one place, whales. Whaling meant Nantucket. Nantucket became the Dubai of 1820.
By the 1840’s it would all be over. A sand bar in Nantucket’s harbor built up, keeping ships from easily getting out to sea. This allowed New Bedford to overtake Nantucket as the whaling capital of the world but by then it was too late, too late for everyone. The whale population had been nearly decimated; forcing ships to sail further into the huge Pacific, stay there for years or longer and come back with thinner bounties. Then New Jersey discovered that oil, in the form of petroleum, could easily and cheaply be pumped straight from the ground. Whaling was doomed. In 1849, gold was discovered in California, putting the nail in whaling’s coffin. Of the few whaling ships still rounding Cape Horn for the Pacific grounds, most were lured off course by the promise of gold’s glory and became abandoned in San Francisco harbor, their crews never to return.
This all happened so fast that Nantucket didn’t suffer a slow decline. Nantucket became frozen in time. Even today, in mid-winter, absent those tourists, summer folks and cars, Nantucket looks little different than it did when the last whale ship left, a well preserved relic of a glorious past – like my grandfather.
I sat watching him with reverence, rubbing my hands together to chase out the cold that had drilled right through my gloves. Beside me, the flame from an oil lamp, atop the old whiskey barrel, shuttered and shrunk at each blast of cold that sliced through the cracks between the window-joists in the cabin’s rough wooden planting. ‘Hadn’t he paid the Edison bill?’ The thought fluttered through my brain but was quickly killed. Lamplight was clearly a choice.
As his stooped over self, shuffled the few feet to his counter, he said, “What’s your pleasure?” The morning sun was still too low for whiskey, even for him. I knew the choices were between coffee and tea, at least for now. “Coffee.” I wondered whether such whiskey rules lessened for men in their waning years but I realized that those rules might be anchors as time ticked down. Coffee came from a dented saucepan of boiling water, poured through a hanky that bore a mountain of black grounds on top. I was glad for it. The scent by-passed my nose and went straight for my soul. For me, memories often came carried on the back of fresh coffee scents.
For me, those memories were always infused with sea salted air. The sea was never far from my psyche. Years ago, in a similar search for this part of my heritage and a quest to better understand the aged man now before me, I’d spent time sailing on an old Grand Banks schooner. Now as we warmed ourselves from the winter and the stoic rock of his face began to soften as he relived his love, I more than listened. I lived it with him.
It was easy to see why Nantucket fit this man so well. His years of sailing schooners and fishing the Grand Banks had much in common with a whaler’s life. Both featured long stretches of toil and hardship, splintered by instants of terrible beauty, beauties that are only revealed themselves to those souls at sea. I remembered that from my time on the schooner. Suddenly all of that came back. I remembered watching the cloud line of a late summer squall, seeing those growing, white, high-topped puffs, kissed with orange edges by the waning sun. I remembered grasping the forward shrouds as the schooner’s deck lifted and fell beneath my feet, watching her bowsprit stitch across the mottled, white capped horizon, the chill scent of sea air mingling in my nose with below-deck, wood-fire smoke and the groan of her wooden hull straining against the sloshing pound of heavy waves.
These are things that forever live in an old sailor’s heart. Yet, something in the way Nantucket stands one with her whole span centuries, rekindles those same kinds of feelings. The timelessness of her gas lamp-lit, cobblestoned streets, bordered by granite curbs and brick sidewalks upon which Melville once walked, deepens my soul and directly connects with my schooner memories and with my grandfather. The scent of wood smoke spilling out of centuries-old Nantucket chimneys that still stand etched against the mottled grey and purple of a storm-threatened sky in the quiet emptiness of off season, all of these swarm over my five senses, touching every corner of my being.
This is a Nantucket that summer folks many never see or notice as their Range Rovers, Trailblazers and Jeep Cherokees billow from those cobblestoned curbsides and histories scents are replaced with smells of exhaust fumes and sunblock. Still, Nantucket endures, waiting patiently for Labor Day, when she can reclaim her sleeping soul. I still do as well, an entire continent away from my beloved Nantucket, waiting to reclaim my own sleeping soul.
Jack Comeau is the author of Distress Signal, a 2012 novel set on Nantucket.