The Working Waterfront

The Outer Bell

A ferry’s imagined part in islander lives

Phil Crossman
Posted 2019-12-03
Last Modified 2019-12-03

By Phil Crossman

(The perspective is that of a Maine State Ferry on a day in 1973 when I was reminded of its involvement in our island lives.)

A cocky young man from away who one of our girls has brought home strikes a jaunty pose on the bow and, shielding her from the headwind, pretends at an ease he doesn’t really feel.

The wind’s northeast; I waltz them by the Outer Bell.

One of our old women, widowed an eternity ago and leaving behind a simple aging son, has ventured into oblivion. She’s tucked away beneath the pilot house, where she’ll be less frightened, as I ease her by the Bell toward terminal convalescence.

One of our families has packed its numbers and generations into a van

laid catercorner on the bow. I bring them close to port of the Bell and one of them tosses an English muffin to the gull perched there.

Three of our boys, newly graduated, assume their customary drinking station on the stern. They’re newly enlisted and off to kick some ass. They sail by the similarly teetering Bell, roaring about approaching Asian women sideways.

Our curmudgeon rambles down the ramp, returning home. He’s had a first grandchild. A puppy sticks its nose out of his vest. Later, I rock the Bell and the puppy pisses itself, still in his vest.

Another of our young men watches the Bell emerge from the spotty low fog. Above, the sun struggles to lift his fright and apprehension. I’d lived half a lifetime when first he passed the Bell a newborn, and now chemo is an hour away.

Today we’re hunkered down—vulnerable, appointments cancelled, weddings unattended, flights missed, no mail.

Today I can’t do anything for anyone. The Bell weathers what we cannot. Laid horizontal, it bobs back indefatigably, mindlessly attracting my attention, but I’m not coming.

Our latest minister’s on board—leaving instead of dying in office. This one did good. He gave God a good name, and wore at our resistance. The Bell nods respectfully.

My heart nearly feels the anguish that must fill a car below. After years of immunity, the world has seen its slight and given us a War Mother. Gazing at the Bell, her mind is elsewhere. Tomorrow his name will be added to the infinite litany of the Vietnam Memorial.

It needn’t have been there; neither did he.

It’s unnatural but the fog demands I not try to see where I’m going. Through it I bring happiness and heartache. Winds defy my passage, and against them I carry sustenance and affliction.

Wisdom and foolishness ride with me. By the Outer Bell I bring life with the regularity of a heartbeat.

Phil Crossman lives on Vinalhaven.