Growing up on Nantucket
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Growing Up on Nantucket

• by Sarah Teach •

Growing up on Nantucket
Karl Lindquist | Cameron Gottlieb

Times are a’changing. The CEO of a Japanese Fortune 500 company and the lady who delivers your mail will both tell you so. Is change less pronounced out here on “yesterday’s island” than in the rest of the world?

Eighty-nine-year-old Karl Lindquist, who grew up on Nantucket in the 1920s and 30s, offers an intimate look into early 20th century childhood on the island. A modern perspective comes from 13-year-old Cameron Gottlieb, who is currently spending his teen years as a year-round resident of the island. Over the past nine decades on Nantucket, everything has changed and nothing has changed. These two fellows tell the tale best.

Some say that being a “real” islander requires that one actually be born on the island. Lindquist describes the pride locals take in being a “Nantucket native.” In 1925, Lindquist’s expectant mother was unconvinced of the island hospital’s childbirth care prowess, so she opted to deliver her baby off-island. Four or five years after baby Karl emerged, his mother divulged to him his birthplace. He writes in his memoir, Youth Interrupted: A Nantucket Boy at War in Europe: “[Discovering that I was not born on Nantucket] disturbed me to no end, and so when I was asked about being a native, I would reply, ‘No, I would have been, but my mother was off-island at the time.’”

Gottlieb and most of his 11 classmates, who are just finishing seventh grade at Nantucket New School, were born in Nantucket Cottage Hospital in the early 2000s. Contrasting the viewpoint commonly held by Nantucket’s older generations, Gottlieb doesn’t believe being born on-island makes a kid any more of an islander than his peers. “Tourists think you’re really cool, though!” he exclaims, adding, “But we really don’t care one way or the other.”

Growing up on the island allowed both Lindquist and Gottlieb to enjoy the very best of the sailing world. The older man says, “Sailing was to be a lifelong pleasure, which began when I learned to sail at age 12 in my own Beetle Cat.” (To make this purchase, young Lindquist had proudly handed over his newspaper route earnings.) Surprisingly, not many of Lindquist’s island friends had anything to do with the ocean. He surmises, “These days, I think the younger people are doing more of what the summer people are doing; for example, swimming, sailing and sport fishing. When I was a youth, these were the things summer people did, not the natives. I suspect it is less insular now with the internet and social media.”

Gottlieb certainly takes advantage of the vast body of water that lies just minutes from his front door. And as much as he loves sailing, he holds swimming and windsurfing in equally high regard. On many a spring day, he can be found in the yard helping his father prepare the family’s windsurfing equipment for the season. When he gets his land legs back, Gottlieb revels in the camaraderie and competition of soccer. Cleats and shin guards are not an unusual look for him. Lindquist wasn’t big on soccer, but he hails back to his high school basketball days, recalling a particularly joyous moment when his last-second layup won the game for his team.

Due to his involvement in sports, Gottlieb travels off-island almost every weekend, which is much more frequently than most modern islanders make the trip, and certainly more than young Lindquist ever did. “The mainland is big. Too big!” says Gottlieb, extending both hands to his sides. In his book, Lindquist recalls his first time traveling off-island at age six, around 1931. He writes, “I was struck with a great feeling of loss and sadness when I looked at a passerby. It struck me that I would never see that person again or get to know them.” Gottlieb too appreciates the smallness of Nantucket. He says, “Living on an island is cool because when you play on a sports team, you’re most likely friends with your teammates, or you at least just know them. My friend Sam who moved off-island says that he doesn’t even know half the kids on his team!” Gottlieb stares me down, letting his emphasis sink in.

With 21st century organized team sports comes traveling. Fortunately, Gottlieb doesn’t mind it. “Living on Nantucket is cool because you get to travel on boats. I bet some people who live in maybe Oklahoma or one of those states in the middle of the country” (he ponders his current coordinates for a moment then gestures westward) “have never even seen the ocean! We’re also lucky with the temperatures. We get to have seasons. One thing I don’t like is that Nantucket doesn’t really have a spring, though. Sometimes when you’re listening to [Cape Cod radio station] WCOD and they say, ‘Spring has sprung!’ you want to be like, ‘Hey, not fair!’ But it’s really uplifting when the seasons change and it starts getting warm again.”

But not long after shorts and sandals weather commences, Gottlieb is ready to get off-island. “I don’t want to spend a lot of time here in the summer,” he confesses. “It’s so crowded. People tell me that the most crowded is like, July.” Gottlieb is happy to escape to his family’s home in Avignon, France during Nantucket’s most congested months. His parents, Karen and Seth Gottlieb, wisely decided that their four children should understand that there is life outside of Nantucket.

“Another downside is ticks,” says Gottlieb. “That’s a big one. I’ve never been bitten. I’ve only ever found one crawling on me once, probably because I don’t go into the brush.” Avoiding Nantucket’s Lyme-carrying deer ticks is a lesson that is drilled into Nantucket kids’ heads from toddlerhood. Lindquist does not recall ticks being a health issue during his childhood. “I was not aware of anyone getting sick from a tick bite,” he says. “After blueberrying on the moors, we always did an inspection when we got home. They were just a nuisance to be picked off.”

But for every downside to living on Nantucket, there’s a stronger upside, according to Gottlieb. He says, “I also like living on an island because you don’t have to drive like a million miles to get to a place.” Gottlieb is fortunate to have all the necessary amenities of modern life right here on the island. Lindquist’s era was less auspicious. He writes, “When I was 11, I needed to get braces on my teeth. Since there was no orthodontist on the island, I had to go to Boston. I remember my mom taking me up to Boston on the boat, then the train and next the streetcar to the clinic. We returned to the city to get a room for the night, returning to the island the next day. She went with me the first time then said, ‘There, Karl, you know how to go now, so you can do it alone next time.’” Little Lindquist had to make the trip every two months for the next year; the family simply didn’t have enough money for his mother to accompany him. But the boy loved the independence provided by these solo journeys. He got to know the folks at the steamship, the train conductor, the woman at the YMCA where he would spend the night. “It was a very friendly world for me,” he says. The 11-year-old redheaded Nantucketer on an orthodontic mission must have been quite a charming sight for 1930s Bostonians.

When asked about his modern off-island experiences, Gottlieb releases a deep sigh and says slowly, “The world has changed.” He maintains a caution when he is on the mainland, citing an uncertainty over which places are “kid-friendly” and which are “sketchy areas.” Blue eyes wide, he raises his brows and declares, “It’s hard to know what to stay away from.”

Even when Lindquist was young, traveling off-island was always not a walk in Boston Common. Lindquist remembers the 1920s and ‘30s as a time when winter weather regularly prevented islanders from leaving Nantucket. The Wright brothers’ flying machine hadn’t quite taken off in a commercial sense; so flying to and from Nantucket wasn’t an option. Lindquist writes, “The steamboat was our only way of reaching the mainland, and often, because of storms or ice, it could not make the passage. In winter, ice could spread as far as out as you could see. The icebreaker from the mainland would have to lead a steamer in. It would plow full speed into the ice, clearing a narrow channel until it could go no farther, then back up and make another run, over and over, often not reaching the harbor. Passengers were left to walk in over the ice, and no freight or supplies could be hauled to shore. This did not bother us much–we were our own little world and we took a certain pride in having it that way.”

Even in 2014, weather-related travel problems are not a thing of Nantucket’s past. Gottlieb recalls, “One time, we were up against Martha’s Vineyard and they’re, you know, our big rivals. The weather was so bad we couldn’t get off the island, so our game was rescheduled. Then it happened again that the weather made us reschedule. And by the time we had a third chance to play them, it was so late in the season that they just cancelled it.” Gottlieb grins and gazes downward in concession. “Pretty disappointing not to get to go play them.” Young Lindquist would have been just as crestfallen; he confirms that the searing Nantucket/Vineyard rivalry–especially when it came to football–was ablaze in his day as well.

Come winter, snow days turn into sledding days for Gottlieb and his friends. They usually head to Dead Horse Valley, which Gottlieb jokingly calls “pretty much the only hill on the island.” Back before the days of heavy traffic, Lindquist and his friends sledded right down Main Street. Gottlieb and his friends are able to do this from time to time, but only on especially snowy days when the town shuts down the main drag.

Winter boredom is a typical complaint of year-rounders; Gottlieb keeps himself busy enough to avoid it. “This past winter, though,” says Gottlieb, “Whew! Too long! It stinks when it snows just a little bit but not enough for a snow day.” When Lindquist was a boy, he very much shared Gottlieb’s sentiment. He writes, “In the 1930s, the winters [on Nantucket] were very cold. Often the snow was waist high, and we would be stranded for a couple of days waiting for the snowplow to reach us [at our old farmhouse in Polpis]. For me, the excitement was matched only by the joy of missing school.”

Unless it snows during Stroll Weekend, seasonal residents don’t see the Grey Lady cloaked in white. When Lindquist was a boy, people had only just begun summering on Nantucket in large numbers. He discusses the year-round/seasonal resident dynamic as it existed in his day: “There was not much interaction socially (or animosity, that I was aware of) between the natives and the summer population.” Gottlieb agrees, and draws a pragmatic angle: “The summer kids don’t have attitudes or anything. They’re just not around long enough to become good friends with them. I’d never be like, ‘Want to go see a movie?’ or anything. With my [year-round] friends, all our parents know each other, and our friends’ parents know each other, too.” Gottlieb says he is sociable with a couple of summer kids through his involvement with Strong Wings Adventure School and Nantucket Community Sailing. In Lindquist’s memoir, he too names sailing as the conduit between himself and summer kids: “By the age of 16,” he writes, “I had become a master sailor, sought after by Nantucket Yacht Club members to teach their sons and daughters the techniques of sailing and sailboat racing. This gave me access to a whole group of young people my age. I was a local and they were the summer crowd. Normally, the two did not mix. Yet I fit right in, even having a summer girlfriend.”

“The island was my world and my normal,” continues Lindquist. “I had no sense that my childhood was different from those of other kids.” With the rise of the internet age, Gottlieb’s generation has a great deal more information about life off-island than Lindquist’s contemporaries did. Gottlieb says, “My life is definitely different from other kids. I mean, I live on an island; they don’t!” He laughs. “I haven’t decided yet whether I want to live on Nantucket when I grow up. I was thinking about it, but then I found a really cool group of islands called Madeira that are owned by Portugal. For English, we had to write a fictional essay so I made up a story about a family that sailed across the Atlantic. Their mast broke in a storm, but they found Madeira. It’s a place with good surfing and sailing. So it’s probably either there or Nantucket that I want to live.” At 13, Gottlieb has plenty of time to explore the world and decide where he’d like to settle.

Lindquist did not have the same freedom and choices that are available to Gottlieb. He did not have a computer to hop onto and research his own castle in the sky. Not that he desired to live elsewhere, anyway. He recalls, “Everyone I knew was happy to be on Nantucket. Those who did leave the island seemed to do so with regret. I never dreamed of leaving Nantucket. However, circumstances dictated otherwise. My parents sent me to boarding school on the mainland, and then came the Army, college and a career. Choosing a teaching career allowed me the great pleasure of returning with my family every summer to the cottage I built in Madaket, and to spend time with my parents. In a sense, I really never left Nantucket.”

Lindquist speaks of people who did move off-island when he was a boy: “My feeling was I would never see them again, which made me sad.” Gottlieb shares Lindquist’s outlook. “If I meet somebody off-island, I don’t expect to see them ever again. They probably won’t come visit you on Nantucket. But when you live on a small island and make friends with somebody who also lives here, you have more of a chance to see that person again,” he explains.

Gottlieb continues, “I know a lot of people in town because my mom talks so much, and to everybody,” drawing out his last word. (It is evident that the beach plum does not fall far from the tree.) Both his parents are schoolteachers within the Nantucket Public School District (NPSD). “It’s good I don’t go [to NPSD] because then I’d have to see my parents all day,” he says wryly, and quickly adds a jovial shout to his parents, who are in the next room: “No hard feelings, guys!” Of course, it’s natural for a 13-year-old–islander or not–to desire some independence from his parents. Lindquist knows what Gottlieb is talking about. At age 17 in 1943, he was thrilled to spend his final summer as a youth on-island sans parents, who were working in Boston on the war effort. “What a fabulous feeling that was to be on my own,” Lindquist gushes.

Lindquist is grateful for his Nantucket childhood. He says, “Looking back on it, Nantucket was a perfect place to grow up; and later as a parent, returning for summers, it was a great place to raise kids. Of course, that was many years ago.” Lindquist’s daughter Karol must have been born on her father’s wavelength. As an adult, she has chosen to remain an island resident, and makes a living as a master lightship basket maker.

In boardroom fashion, Gottlieb clasps his hands and summarizes our interview without even being prompted: “Growing up on Nantucket definitely has its advantages and disadvantages. But I think the advantages overpower the disadvantages.” He makes sure to finish by throwing in a quick jab about how much better it is to grow up on Nantucket than the Vineyard. Lindquist says, “My happiest Nantucket memory as a young person was the freedom and safety of the island. We kids felt like we owned it!” Gottlieb’s lighthearted countenance and enthusiasm for island life tells the same tale. For you see, Nantucket is just as much “today’s island” as it is yesterday’s.

Interested in learning more about Lindquist’s childhood on Nantucket and also his experiences fighting on the ground in France during WWII? Find his book, Youth Interrupted: A Nantucket Boy at War in Europe, at Mitchell’s Book Corner (54 Main Street) or Bookworks (25 Broad Street). An unassuming account of a young islander abruptly forced to face the darkest horrors of the world, this warm, poignant book is not to be missed.

Articles by Date from 2012