The Working Waterfront

A supreme encounter on Vinalhaven

Eminent jurist meets island folk

By Phil Crossman
Posted 2023-07-25
Last Modified 2023-07-25

A few years ago, the chief justice of the United States administered the oath of office to president-elect Barack Obama. Perhaps he was all the while recalling his visit to Vinalhaven the previous summer and comparing this lofty and prestigious Washington moment with that less auspicious occasion on the island.

The chief justice stayed at our Tidewater Motel for a night. He and his wife were with another family, and all had sailed over from his summer place in Port Clyde. As he was checking in, bent over the counter completing his registration card, I was trying to recall where I’d seen his face before. His name, John Roberts, there before my eyes, did not register.

Rather it went, as things do nowadays, right over, or perhaps even wafted through, my head. I did notice his last name, but because Roberts is one of my ancestral island family names, I thought perhaps he and I were related; perhaps I’d seen him at a family reunion, so I told him he looked familiar and asked him if we knew one another.

Later that day, John—we’d grown familiar—asked if I could give him and his companions a lift to the quarry.

Although very circumspect, he indulged me in a cursory examination of that which we had in common, exploring our respective ancestral trees for a little while before concluding there was no connection. At about that moment, I realized, first that he was someone well known, then that he was associated with President Bush, and finally, that he was the chief justice.

As my own awareness sharpened, his realization that I was finally on to him became apparent, and I sensed that he was quickly despairing of the anonymity he’d probably been enjoying while on vacation. At that moment, a couple came into the lobby and, excusing themselves, asked if I might sign a copy of my book, Away Happens, for them. The chief justice leapt at this chance to shift attention from himself and said, “My word, you’re famous.”

“Yes, I never get a moment’s peace. May you never have to bear such a burden,” I said with a knowing glance.

Later that day, John—we’d grown familiar—asked if I could give him and his companions a lift to the quarry; the children wanted to go swimming. When we arrived, I was still in the midst of my description of the island’s granite quarrying history and how this quarry and others like it had come to be the town swimming venues.

I accompanied them down over the rock path to the ledges below, where we found several mothers overseeing their respective youngsters in the water, most kids calling for recognition and some for applause.

Also in repose were several teenagers and, in a shady corner nursing a Bud Lite, was Scooter Wooster. Scooter, quicker to make a connection than I’d been, sat up a little straighter and observed, “Well, suh, look heah; it’s What’s-His-Face.”

It took a moment for the chief justice to make the leap from the more respectful salutation with which he was surely accustomed to the somewhat less formal “What’s-His-Face” and to realize that recognition had come from this unlikely source. But Scooter stays on top of things and is much more well-informed than I or than he appears.

His observation that this was someone in particular was not lost on those assembled, and as he’d opened the door with a salutation of sorts, I felt compelled to follow through.

“Mr. Roberts,” I began, unsure of how to property address him, “This is Scooter Wooster.”

Scooter sat up a little straighter so he could accept the chief justice’s extended hand. “Welcome aboard,” said Scooter. “Glad you stopped by. I been festerin’ about some things. Want a Bud?” I left the chief in Scooter’s hands and, agreeing to pick him and his family up in a couple of hours, drove back to town.

When I returned, Scooter still had the Chief cornered and, although the latter’s Bud still sat before him and appeared little diminished, and although he did appear ready to go, he didn’t appear to have suffered any at Scooter’s hands.

Scooter got to his feet to say his goodbyes.

“Won’t be long now,” he offered. “A few more months, and you’ll be swearing in a new president. I hope you get it right. You want to run through it a couple of times?”

If Mr. Roberts were to show up today, I’d certainly sic Scooter on him again because he’s surely still festerin,’ even more now, as am I, about the depths to which our presumed bastion of justice has sunk, its disregard for its one and only constitutional obligation, and the equally contemptuous and transparent regard of three members, including Roberts, for those of us who are routinely and obligingly in compliance with the law.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven. He may be reached at