Nantucket Essays

Storm Warning

•  by Robert P. Barsanti  •

We felt the storm slip onto us from the East. The stars winked out the night before and the wind turned. By the gray light of the morning, the sky had grown hair and the wind had grown wet. Under the sound of words and engines, the ocean growled.

I was waiting to leave the island. My grading was packed, the upcoming week’s classes had been planned and the dirty underwear was buried in the bottom of the luggage. My boring life had sent me an e-mail with reminders of grades and attendance policies. It was waiting for me in a midsize
car in Hyannis, reading USA Today. In the wind, however, Adventure called out.

When you live on-island for enough winters, you answer that call, in one way or another. Storms bring their own rituals. You bring in the lawn furniture, find the candles, and hope that there is enough cat food. The first big storm of the season comes along with its own baggage of panic and impulse buying. You stand in line at the grocery store with a cart full of bottled water, batteries, and tuna fish. For the rest of the winter, those emergency purchases sit in the closet waiting for their triumphant dark moment.

Since I travel back and forth to America, my rituals include calling the boats, checking the website, and standing in the yard listening for the airplanes flying into the wind at full throttle. I always listen with a little boy’s hope in my heart; perhaps the island will send me a snow day and keep me in the Weather Channel’s bullseye.

Winter storms creep as slowly as Christmas Day. Days ahead of time, I hope for it. I want to see the waves lash the beach, I want to see the breakers in the harbor, I want to see the waves ride up and over the wharves and onto the cobblestone streets. The Weather Channel plays continuously; it glows with a silent, but constant light. Damp and deranged, the weathermen tease me with adventure and excitement….

I don’t want the destruction the waves will bring. I don’t wish financial ruin on anyone who can’t really afford it. As long as it hits mall developers and their bankers, I am fine with it. I don’t want to see families huddled in the high school and FEMA trailers parked at the wharf.

When the weather finally arrives, storms become excitement. In that moment when the boat cancels and the planes fall silent, Shackleton stands next to your bad boy self and Adventure extends its calloused hand. Huge waves are crashing at the same beach where you napped in July. The barn on the golf course has collapsed. Sheds have washed out to sea and scallops have washed in. And you are called.

Adventure and Peril focus the everyday overcast boredom of breakfast and bills into flashlight beams and candle light flickers. Your weight doesn’t matter so much, nor does your boss, or your failure to produce a best selling novel. The wind and water whips all the possible away and gives you the gift of the necessary. You can’t write any memos today because you need to get the boat out of the water and drop the storm windows. Nothing gives us the excuse to sit on the sofa and watch HGTV the way a nor’easter can. Filling a bathtub becomes a life or death task.

Once safe, we prowl on the shore of danger. The great storm comes with the promise of upending the coffee mug and stop sign regularity of life and fill it with urgent necessity. The Great Storm will rip off our roof, flood our street, and electrify the front yard. If the urgent necessity won’t come to us, we go to it; Madaquecham, Cisco, and Sconset, with a brief stop downtown to see if Easy Street Basin has flooded over. Stuck out here beyond sight of America and its malls, Nantucket becomes a special storm destination.

A good winter storm ushers the island into the spotlight and we all become Jim Cantore. We mark our adventure map on Facebook and the high water mark on the counters. Each storm allows us to not only witness the power of nature to flip our dumb little worlds like beach chairs, but also our ability to record it. We record the puddles in front of Young’s for our far off friends, then toss in a photoshopped shark head for laughs.

For most of my life on island, wind and gale provide an entertainment and excitement. The danger has not been all that serious, however. Unlike Queens and Fire Island, we are an island that gets whipped by nor’easters quite regularly. Old trees fall, power goes out, and the waves roar. But, for
those of us who look for game changing destruction, erosion comes terribly slow. The houses remain on the Sconset Bluff and the town remains dry. Every big wave looks like every other big wave. The storm itself is often a traveling show that we anticipate, enjoy, and bid farewell with theatre reviews: “It wasn’t as bad as the No-Name Storm.”

So, I sat at the airport and watched the wind gusts hurtle down the moors with promises of flying signs and sinking boats. This would be the storm to sweep houses into the sea. This would be the storm to flood downtown. This would be the storm that would whisk away all the boring routines and petty jealousies and expose our hearts to the wild heart of the North Atlantic.

And yet, it wouldn’t. Cape Air called my flight. I would return to my tiny adventures of flying and driving. The car needed gas, the classroom awaited, and I had to complete the thousand other details that the dull exercise in courage that a boring life requires. I wasn’t going to be in the audience, on stage, or sharing a screen with the Weather Channel stars.

The wind gave one more fierce cry as we boarded the plane.

Articles by Date from 2012