So long, Matinicus
The finale of an island memoir
by Crash Barry
Editor’s note: For the past year and a half, Bollard columnist Crash Barry has been retelling true stories from two decades ago, when he lived and worked on Matinicus, Maine’s most remote island. This is the final installment of those tales.
My first full day on Matinicus, Captain Bert loaned me a motorcycle. I’d told him my only previous experience on a bike had resulted in a crash, but he insisted the Hondamatic was easy to operate. He said that as long as I was his sternman, the motorcycle could be my mode of island transportation.
“Take her out,” he said. “Down to the South End. Look around. Get a feel for the place.”
It was early April and the island roads were well groomed and graded. But I left the road to take a grassy trail that followed the shoreline, beckoned by glimpses of open sea and the sunshine that made a shimmering, sparkling path six miles out to Matinicus Rock and its infamous lighthouse.
I was a lucky fella. A couple months earlier, I’d finished my tour as a sailor in the U.S. Coast Guard fighting the War on Drugs and the War on Haitian Refugees. I had been lolling about in Portsmouth, couch surfing and wondering what the hell I was gonna do with my life. Then the call came from a Coast Guard buddy’s wife who was born and raised on Matinicus. Her dad needed a sternman immediately. The pay: 15 percent of the catch, plus a tiny room in a fishhouse on the shore of the island, 20 miles out to sea from Rockland.
Forty-eight hours later, I was riding the motorcycle, admiring the amazing view, breathing salt air and reveling in my good fortune. Perhaps I was driving too slowly. Or maybe the bike was too heavy for the sodden earth. It slid and toppled over, pinning me beneath, on a hillside sloping toward the rocky shore. Frightened, but uninjured, I squirmed out from under the heavy bike, somehow got it started, and headed back to Bert’s, shaking all the way. I vowed never to ride a motorcycle again.
The Hondamatic stayed in Bert’s backyard shed for the next year, until he hired a new sternman who liked motorcycles. That sternman killed himself after learning that his girlfriend got pregnant by another dude. The motorcycle was seized and sold by Knox County to help cover the cost of his pauper’s burial. I never did get back on a bike.
Aside from a tryst with a cougar, I had no romantic contact with women during my first few months on the island. At the end of the summer, I met Alice. She was 32. I was 23. A school teacher in southern Maine, her grandparents had left Matinicus to find work 60 years earlier, but kept the family homestead as a camp. A pal of mine introduced us, and we hit it off immediately, enjoying a dinner together at the island’s version of a restaurant: someone’s illegal, backyard picnic-table café. After dinner, she took me home to her grandparents’ sparsely furnished shack, where we really got to know each other.
The next morning, Bert and I rendezvoused, as usual, 10 minutes before dawn.
“Where were you last night?” he asked. “Couldn’t find you nowhere. Coast Guard called about a sinking boat. Ended up having to go rescue them all by myself.”
Bert had an unusual relationship with the Coast Guard. Because the island was so far off shore, at the outermost edge of Penobscot Bay, Bert often helped the Coasties with search-and-rescues. No money was ever exchanged, but Bert was welcome to tie up at the Rockland station, where the Coasties would keep a watchful eye on his boat and occasionally fill his fuel tank.
So while Alice and I were rolling around on the kitchen floor, Bert was en route to an emergency. A 37-foot boat under full sail, rented and commanded by a rich landlubber from New Jersey, had crashed into Matinicus Rock. Apparently, the skipper never saw the 90-foot-tall lighthouse because he was below decks, having sex with his mistress.
Jagged rocks tore a huge hole in the hull, and the boat was taking on lots of water. The couple escaped the sinking vessel by climbing into a little boat they’d been towing, a rubber skiff with a two-horse outboard. They waited for rescue, bobbing in a gentle sea, as the sailboat slowly went down. Every 10 seconds, the darkness was interrupted by a blast of light pulsing from the Rock’s towering beacon.
Bert reached the lovers just after the sailboat went under. He lashed the dingy to his stern and steamed toward the mainland with the two grateful passengers aboard his lobster boat. The Coasties met him halfway and took the couple aboard their 41-footer, but wouldn’t take the skiff (not their job). Bert agreed to keep the little boat until arrangements to retrieve it could be made.
Bert was tired and grumpy as he told me this story. He hadn’t gotten back to the mooring until half past midnight. Five hours later, it was time to work. We got underway and headed to the spot of the previous night’s drama, where 250 traps had to be hauled in shallow water.
We arrived at the Rock as the sun cleared the horizon. In the early light, we could see the very top of the sunken vessel’s sail breaking the surface of the water, like a three-foot-tall toy boat. We watched the waves splash over the mast.
“That fella was clueless,” Bert said. “When I picked them up, he had no idea where he was.” He shook his head. “Thought he was almost to Bar Harbor. Friggin’ idiot!” He sighed. “They’ll rent a boat to anyone, so long as they got a credit card.”
We started to haul our traps. A half hour passed and I was stuffing bait bags with herring when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something leap from the water.
“Bert,” I said, pointing at the brightly colored object floating 50 feet off our starboard, “what the hell is that?”
He put the boat in gear, came about and around, and gaffed the thing with his hook: a basket of silk flowers! A few seconds later, whoosh, another object, this one bigger and brown, emerged from the depths with such momentum that, for a moment, it actually broke free of the ocean’s grasp and was airborne. Then several upholstered cushions popped to the surface like corks.
“She’s breaking up!” Bert squealed gleefully. “Right now! We’ve got salvage rights!”
We fished the big, brown item out of the drink. It was a mahogany galley table with a storage box inlaid in the center. I opened the box and discovered treasure: a cup full of quarters, dimes and nickels, about 10 bucks’ worth of change!
“That table would be nice in the fishhouse, but the rest of it ain’t worth a damn,” Bert said, pointing at the floating debris. “I’m gonna keep the bouquet for Mary-Margaret. She’s always complaining about me never gettin’ her nuthin’!” He cackled and snorted. “Well, dear, I got you some flowers!”
Bert kept the skiff. His grandkids had a blast scooting around the harbor in that little boat. The guy from New Jersey called, and so did somebody from the insurance company. Bert told them both the same thing: the Coasties must’ve taken it ashore; he didn’t know nuthin’ about no boat.
Bert fired me after I saved his life, so for my second year as a sternman, I worked for Captain Edwin. He was, without a doubt, the smartest man on the island. Born and raised on Matinicus, Edwin graduated from UMaine, did a tour in the Coast Guard as an officer, then returned home with his sweet and intelligent wife, Nan, to lobster and raise two wonderful daughters.
My housing situation improved immensely. I now had a studio apartment in one of the fishhouses, instead of a closet in Bert’s shop. When I wasn’t working, I’d sit at my table – cluttered with papers, typewriter, ashtray, radio, dictionary, whiskey bottle and bong – and stare out the big front window. That window overlooked the Gut and, beyond, Wheaton’s Island, the home of a flock of sheep. To the south, I had a clear view of the Rock. The lighthouse was my constant companion. I especially enjoyed foggy days, when the lighthouse’s horn would wail and echo through the mist.
The only drawback was the lack of running water. As an insatiable tea drinker with a diet heavy on boiled potatoes and steamed shellfish, I required lots of potable water. My new pad was quite far, by land, from the well at the store, where all the sternmen filled their jugs. I had a rain barrel, but I used that water for washing up and dishes.
Once a week, I’d lower Edwin’s skiff from the wharf, loaded with six milk crates full of empty jugs, and row across the harbor. The ease or difficulty of rowing the third of a mile to the beach behind the store depended upon the tide. Slack high water was the easiest, but that wasn’t always the most convenient time to go. After landing, I’d lug the milk crates, two at a time, up the beach to the well, not far from the spot where natives killed and scalped Ebenezer Hall, the island’s first white settler.
There was a trick to dropping the water bucket. It was lashed to a long piece of old rope, and the surface of the water was 12 feet down. You had to tilt it just right. If you dropped the bucket incorrectly, it’d float like a boat, and no amount of jerking or pulling would flip or sink a floater — you’d just have to haul up the empty bucket and try again.
During the coldest days of winter, the top inch or two of well water would freeze. I had to muckle a long tree limb — kept nearby for this very purpose – and use it to bash and sink ice chunks until there was enough room to drop the bucket.
The row back to the fishhouse was always harder, due to the extra 200 pounds. Once there, I’d use Edwin’s donkey capstan (an ancient and loud, single-lung engine) to haul the skiff and crates onto the wharf. Then I’d lug the water up my shaky staircase, one crate at a time. Once finished, pour a tall glass, kick back and rehydrate.
Several years after I moved back to the mainland, the well was tested by the state. The water was poisonous, they concluded. Contaminated. Unfit for human consumption.
My parents visited the island once. For them, that was more than enough.
They had hoped to fly out from Owls Head, but the pilots wouldn’t take off in rain, fog, sleet, snow, heavy clouds or darkness. It was foggy that day, so they had to endure a three-hour trip in Captain Dick’s slow boat from Rockland.
Before dinner in Alice’s damp, cold shack, we decided to go for a stroll. Alice stayed behind to cook while my parents and I walked the grassy trail to South Sandy. Unfortunately, it was still too foggy to see the Rock, the ledges, the islands or the sparkle of open sea. As we approached the beach, not far from the spot where I’d wiped out on the motorcycle, my mother slipped on some wet grass and landed on her back. My father had reached for her, trying to stop her fall, and he too ended up on the ground.
The next morning, the fog lifted. My parents decided to fly off the island a day earlier than planned. After breakfast, we went down to my fishhouse. They were disappointed and not a little disgusted by my living quarters.
The mood improved when my father and I rowed out to Edwin’s scow and packed a hundred pounds of lobster for them to bring home. Edwin was gonna truck the lobsters and their luggage up to the island’s tiny airport, so my parents and Alice and I could leisurely walk there.
About halfway to the runway, one of the island pirates approached, driving a beat-up truck without a windshield. “Crash,” he drawled, “you got any idea who was driving around with a shotgun last night? Shot out all my windows on this truck. Probably little after eleven…”
“Nope,” I said. “No idea. These are my parents. Visiting. We’re walking them to the airport.”
“Nice to meet ’cha,” he said, doffing his ball cap. “You hear anything about anyone shooting my truck, you let me know, OK?”
Despite its remoteness, Matinicus was, in many ways, a microcosm of modern American society. With a population of 50, it was easy to identify types and trends: the drug abuser, the drunk, the molester, the wife beater, the suicide, the killer and the thief. My two years on Matinicus were a strange sociological study, but I was also immersed in the splendor of a part of the natural world previously unknown to me.
I communed with the tides, the wind and clouds. Caught a blue lobster. On a couple occasions, I witnessed huge schools of mackerel, pursued by tuna, push and bump their way through a harbor of moored boats and scows, trying to escape their enemy. I showered in rain squalls, rowed through storms, camped on deserted islands. Matinicus enriched me with unforgettable experiences impossible to have anywhere else on earth.
But I had to leave. I wanted to be a writer. I had the big beard, black glasses, flannel shirt and typewriter, but I didn’t understand grammar, sentence structure, or onomatopoeia. I needed to learn those things, and that wasn’t gonna happen while lobstering on a rock 20 miles offshore.
So I applied for the winter semester at the University of Southern Maine, got accepted, and with Captain Edwin’s and Nan’s encouragement, made preparations to head to the big city of Portland, to a louder, busier life. Alice and I got married. Shortly after that, we got divorced. What followed was a life of writing mixed with manual labor, a life I still live today.
Five days before leaving the island, I decided my beard had to go. Couldn’t attend the university looking like a lumberjack.
Shaving was a big mistake. When Edwin and I went out to haul traps the last couple of times, the January wind and bitter cold froze seawater and spray to my cheeks. I worried that my face would fall off from frostbite.
My last day on the island was spent rushing around. I’d booked a flight for 1 p.m., a chartered plane for myself and my boxes of stuff — books, mostly, and lots of bad poetry and failed short stories, plus a couple sea bags full of fisherman clothes mixed with remnants of Coast Guard uniforms and Grateful Dead-wear, my boots and oilskins, stereo, typewriter, tea kettle and toaster oven.
Almost all of it fit into the borrowed car I was driving. Heading up Harbor Point Road, a station wagon surprised me. Danny, a fellow sternman, pulled out of a path in the woods that motor vehicles never used. I swerved to avoid collision and drove off the road and over a cliff. It was a small cliff, compared to the other cliffs nearby. Five feet to the left or right and I would have plummeted to my death.
Instead, the car landed about 10 feet below road-level, nose down on a dirt-covered ledge protruding from the rocky slope that ran down to the cove. Unscathed, but scared shitless, I climbed out of the car. The rear wheels were still spinning. I clamored up the rocks and crawled to the side of the road.
I think Danny was surprised to see me alive. We jumped into his wagon and headed up to Max’s house. Max was a bad-ass biker, but a sweet fella at heart. He owned a backhoe and, luckily, he was home. Ten minutes later, we were back at the scene of the accident. We attached chains to the rear axle and Max plucked the car up with the backhoe and dragged it back onto the road.
Max, having heard I was moving, didn’t want a dime. He wished me luck and went home. I drove to the airport and unloaded my boxes, which were undamaged by the crash.
I made one more trip to my shack for odds and ends, then back to the airport with a couple minutes to spare. The single engine Cessna from Owls Head landed on the dirt runway. The pilot had removed the extra seats on the mainland to make room for my boxes. Together, we quickly loaded the plane. Then we strapped in and took off.
I asked him to circle the island once, to fly over the Lower Harbor and Edwin’s fishhouse. That’s when I waved goodbye.
Crash Barry will be reading from his new novel, Sex, Drugs and Blueberries, at Longfellow Books on Dec. 16 at 7 p.m. Visit crashbarry.com for more details.