© 2023
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The past comes sailing out of the fog

Mary Bergman
Mary Bergman

A sailor got lost in the fog the other week while out on an evening cruise. His cell phone had slipped overboard, plunging into the drink. He’d no radar on the sixteen foot day sailer. As temperatures dropped and the fog thickened, he figured the safest thing was to beach his sailboat. Lifeguards on ATVs found him on the harbor side of Coatue, the sandy barrier beach that forms the sheltered harbor, sometime around three in the morning. For hours, police and firemen walked the shoreline, hoping to discover the lone sailor at the end of their flashlight’s beam.

This is a scene, save for the ATVs and the cell phone, that could have taken place two hundred years ago. Weather changes quickly, leaving sailors vulnerable. There’s an old lifesaving station out in Surfside, the last of its kind on the island. Long ago, lifesavers patrolled a six-mile stretch of beach, looking for shipwrecks and stranded sailors. Later, the building operated as a youth hostel for fifty years. The shuttle bus that zips around the island still announces the stop for a youth hostel, as no one has bothered to tell the disembodied voice on the recording that it closed three years ago.

We’ve been under a fog so thick, even the big Embraer jets can’t land. You’ll hear their engines as they pass over Milestone Road, then quickly accelerate, nose moving towards the sky, when it becomes clear that they can’t find the runway. When weather affects our ability to get on or off Nantucket, that feels like the most direct link to the past.

The fog in summer is like the wind in winter—every year, I forgot how much it engulfs us, until it won’t lift for days at a time. The mornings are quiet, no buzzing hum of Cessnas overhead, no newspapers at the newsstand until the first boat of the day gets in. The climbing roses out in ’Sconset, now just past their peak and starting to fade, provide a brilliant pink counterpoint to all the gray.

In the middle of the fog, I was having dinner with my uncle and some longtime family friends, people who have known each other for sixty of the last seventy years. Looking out across Long Pond in Madaket, already the gray shingled houses at the end of Sheep’s Pond Road were fading into the mist. My uncle was telling us a story about the summer he lived in the basement of my grandparent’s house, waking up to the smell of bacon sizzling and grabbing a cup of coffee with my grandfather, shooting the breeze about what they were going to do that day.

The past comes sailing out of the fog, memories thick and tinged with the smell of honeysuckle. My uncle spoke about his parents so vividly, I could see my grandfather there with a cup of hot coffee, probably wearing a wool tam o’shanter on a still July morning. He was always cold. They were already old when I was born, and I have gotten to know them through the haze of other people’s memories.

In the middle of all this reminiscing, one of the dinner guests looked up and right at me.

“I don’t know where it all went,” she said, “seventy years in the blink of an eye. It just goes fast.”

By the time dinner was over, the fog had settled so thickly, I could barely see Madaket Road. I drove slowly, ten, twenty miles under the speed limit. At least in that moment, time seemed to slow down.