one thriller wouldn't kill you

First Word from the Spirit Carpenters

The journal entry remains: March, 1981.  Chilmark, Massachusetts. First contact, on rooftop. . .

And I have been answering the call ever since.

It was an austere centennial summer cottage, high on a hill that overlooked a shore named Squibnocket —

— a place where time had not caught up — where Ivy League homeowners mixed well with the workman — a cathedral of learning in its own right.

Knowledge of my youth had left its indelible footprint.  Those who taught English at my seventies-era public high school enjoyed a worthy refuge from the Viet Nam draft.

True higher learning awaited, they’d explained, outside the halls of colleges.  Assigned readings told of treasures along roads not taken: books like Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory,

Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie

or Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. 

Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig

And so, seventeen, diploma in hand, with the Viet Nam war and draft no more I rolled along on road narratives, out to engage the (so-called) real world.

My escape from Worcester, Massachusetts came aboard a bicycle, then the Woods Hole ferry to the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where for that summer I camped in the Edgartown State Forest.

Since then, as an itinerant carpenter and most-often writer, I’ve been shaving away at books and lessons that in the end shaped me.  Yet Spiritual teachings of old parishes held their grip:  Nothing pre-textual can be Sacred.  Heed the words of Spirit carpenters.

An ambitious apprentice, hungry for knowledge, that morning in March I hunched over a rusty pitchfork stripping red cedar roofing.

The age of these shingles was mystery, all paper-thin and windworn, so grain patterns stood relief like the fingerprints of old giants.  They snapped and shattered in rattling splinters, filling the light breeze with a hoary black dust that left in my nostrils the scent of attics.

I had cleaned off the roof’s South slope by seven-thirty. Then the light south-westerly brought off the dense fog to reveal the heavenly blue dome of new day.

I stood at the roof ridge to survey the beyond, stretch my sore back, and gaze down one side of the hill toward Menemsha Pond, still and indigo, until scallop drags carved the sand bottom to raise in their wake puffy aqua swirls.

And to the other side of my lookout I watched Squibnocket beach, and further, toward Lucy Vincent beach the ripple and swell of white foam, the breaking peaks rolling crossways, to where they met in a vee at one offshore point in a regularity too perfect to have been accidental, and one that took my attention oftener, perhaps, than might benefit my position.

But none of the seasoned crew had shown up yet, so all of this was mine.

Thoroughly recharged by my gazing I resumed the task, just as I think now, twenty-four years later, still energized by the vision in a way that inhabits my senses: there’s a place in my right elbow that remembers one stubborn nail that caught my pitchfork in a hard, unforeseeable stop.

Then, magically, some five shingle courses below the ridge line, I came upon my treasure — their Missive: the perforated front page of the Vineyard Gazette, June 24, 1898, nailed in place over the reddish rows of ancient roof boards. With a single word penciled boldly across the front page by the hands of some ancient, anonymous carpenter.

I wish I could convey that greeting in all fullness.  I do remember. And my isolation had ended.

Stunned to find the words of one so long gone – I was deeply touched by this greeting – a welcome, I imagined, to a new member of the trade — my solitary initiation into a group of carpenters whose mystical words transcended ages.

I read those letters a second time.

A third.

A light spring wind kicked up.

The text could not be real without an audience.

I glanced toward the driveway.

Nobody still.

So, dubbing myself a jobsite preservationist, I carefully pried at the large-headed roofing nails.

But the corroded discs jumped off.  Only nail spines and habit held the leaf then, so I expected my job to be a simple lift.

I knelt.

With the point of a razor knife I picked each fiber free of the headless black pins that dotted the field like thorns.

Then, painstakingly, I prayed and pried at the brittle newsprint with the thinner edge of a wood shingle to liberate each of its corners.

Sliding spread fingers beneath the sheet, I set free this textual artifact. And claimed it.

I stood, triumphant, delicate edges between tentative fingers, I held my prize there before me, for a second or two, no more.

I glanced toward the driveway.

Then a gust.

The relic tatters took flight like a hundred moths.

Then the sound of crunching of gravel.  I turned to watch the three cars lumbering up the steep incline.

The seasoned carpenters — my mentors — Mike, Phil and Ebbie parked, lit cigarettes, pissed in the boxwoods, and sprung into action like a band of woodworking Labrador retrievers. Someone plugged in a battered radio and the job site came alive with The Talking Heads, and it was all slam-banging for the rest of the day.

I never said a word about that newspaper.

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