Gimme Shelter: Island to Island

AMBROSE CLANCY PHOTO An East End seascape by Alexandra Corcoran.
A seascape by Alexandra Corcoran.

I first experienced that mix of relief and melancholy some Islanders have on Tumbleweed Tuesday years before I came to Shelter Island. It was on a day’s visit to Fishers Island. What I took away always returns at this time of year.

I had learned that Captain Kidd, who is said to have buried treasure on Fishers — as well as here — was just the first of many buccaneers to invest in the place. Later pirates had names like duPont, Whitney, Luce and Firestone.

Shaped roughly like a fishhook, 11 miles long and never more than half a mile wide, Fishers is slung under the Connecticut coast out in the Sound four miles from New London. Getting there wasn’t easy. I took a 90 minute ferry ride from Orient Point to New London, changed boats and chugged another 45 minutes to “the Rock” — yes — as the residents called their isolated home.

On a sultry September morning, the Cross Sound Ferry was packed with business people going to Connecticut and points north and students starting school in Boston. The New London terminal was modern, bustling, efficient. But down the waterfront, the Fishers Island dock was quiet, with no terminal, just a few cars and trucks lined up in a muddy yard. A handful of people waited for the rusted old bucket that would take us across.

On board were construction crews and landscapers, some hung over from whatever nightlife New London featured. There was a man hauling stones for a private estate, mocking his buddy who was trying to light a cigarette in the wind with shaky hands. Nearby was a young man in white slacks, a pink polo shirt, yellow socks and brown velvet loafers.

The loud guys standing in work boots and the young fellow in the uniform of the Protestant leisure class was Fishers in a microcosm. In those days — and I doubt much has changed — about 300 year-round residents worked to maintain the comfort of about 4,000 summer people of vast and venerable fortunes. Captains and crews got along well, from all reports, both realizing their mutual dependency.

There was no supermarket, no ATM, no bar (except the VFW hall), one restaurant and an inn with just a few rooms. There was no movie theater after Labor Day, no UPS or Fed Ex delivery, no fast food, a coffeehouse that opened once a week.

I remember meeting a young woman named Allison Scroxton bagging groceries at a small shop. An elegantly dressed woman behind me, hearing Allison’s last name when she had introduced herself to me, said, “I didn’t know you were a Scroxton.”

“Yes, ma’am, Mrs. Browne.”

Their conversation, with its air of distant cordiality, in sharp New England accents, could have been from another century — the lady conferring with the tradeswoman.

The year-rounders lived on the west end, about one-third of the island, while the remaining two-thirds was tracked by narrow, winding roads where extraordinary estates and a world-class golf course and country club were hidden by trees and stone walls.

Unlike Shelter Island, which takes its time parting with summer, the season ended on Fishers with the suddenness of a door slamming. The man in velvet loafers at the dock and Mrs. Browne might have been the last birds of summer. The yacht club’s tethered boats looked asleep. The clubhouse was open but empty, chairs stacked against a glass case of cups and trophies. There was no one, not on the grounds or on the network of docks. No one working on boats. The silence was counterpoint to the creak of wood and rattle of chain.

In a cemetery, I met an arborist, a young man getting ready to go to work on a tall tree. I remember him as fit, red-haired and wearing a Red Sox T-shirt and shorts. “It’s real quiet in fall and winter,” he said. “The churches do social things sometimes.”

I got the impression that might be too often for him. As he buckled his harness, preparing to climb with a saw, he added, “I like working alone. Working on trees can be art, you know, shaping them, sculpting them.”

Then he was quickly aloft, carving out meaning from his solitude.

The evening ferry was crowded. Work crews lugged six-packs aboard, quickly setting up a game of stud before the boat disembarked. The dealer’s chant tolled the cards, “Jack no help, trey to the fives …”

A prim couple sat quietly, dressed for a night on the mainland. The ferry cut out through a warm rain, scattering gulls and cormorants. On a hill above the ferry dock two teenage girls shared an umbrella and watched. They waited until the boat was just about to clear the western end before turning their backs and walking away.