A Story of Loss
I have put off writing this piece for a long time. No matter what I say, it's apt to be wrong. Whenever you read this, be it this week or next year, the timing may well be terrible. Yet to avoid this subject here, where the editors say I write about “nearly all things Matinicus,” doesn't seem right either. There's nothing to be done but to accept that this is a sad story.
A month ago, we lost one of our number to the sea. This very small community is just a bit smaller. Twenty-four year-old Chris Whitaker disappeared, along with his small boat, on Monday, October 27. Nobody knows what happened yet. Floating equipment clearly from Chris' boat was spotted early in the afternoon; before long, the Matinicus fishing fleet was all out on Search and Rescue. The local private pilot and the charter air service pilots searched. The Marine Patrol, the Coast Guard, the State Police Dive Team searched. His gear had to be hauled, and that's no fun…think about it. Islanders gathered for a systematic effort to search islands and coves and ledges and beaches. People walked the shoreline alone, quietly, aside from the organized searches. The weather got nasty. The weather got better. They went back and searched again.
The day before, on Sunday, October 26, I got a call from a relative in South Thomaston. There's this guy on Channel 6 who does a little warm-fuzzy sort of inspirational talk thing each morning before the morning news; “Daily Devotions” is the name, here is a prayer, but it isn't always all that churchy. You can look it up online. Anyway, on that
particular day this particular family member happened to hear the piece, and in it, a reference to Matinicus Island.
It turns out that the Reverend Peter Panagore, who offers the early morning thought, is an actor, and that he has had occasion to share the stage with our Suzanne. After those two performers got done being riotously indelicate for the betterment of the public welfare, and yes it was probably around Valentine's Day, and yes I am avoiding the search engines at the moment (sorry, Eve Ensler,) our Ma Rankin told the good reverend the story of how a small island boy once blurted out in church, when asked by the summer minister only half rhetorically if anybody was “perfect,” that “well, maybe Suzanne” was perfect.
Panagore worked the “nobody's perfect” story into his homey repertoire with a segue that started with Matinicus Island, touching on our inclinations toward berserkitude and our undeserved reputation for xenophobic hostility. It isn't really that bad, but folks will think as they like. Anyway, the little sermon boiled down to this line, which I pass along verbatim:
“Yet islanders risk their own lives to save anybody drowning at sea.”
That sounds overly simple, but everybody gets the idea. On an island, in a crisis, any crisis, everybody responds. You don't wait for the authorities. You do not worry about whether you've been trained, certified, insured, licensed, inspected, approved, fingerprinted, ordained, or issued OSHA-approved equipment. You also do not reserve your efforts and help for your friends alone. You run like hell. You just go. We do. We must.
On the 27th, and for the next couple of days, I was in Rockland dealing with the dump run on the ferry, and then stuck on the mainland by the bad weather. Everywhere I went, people stopped me and asked the same question: “Have they found that lobsterman?” The word had spread quickly. I kept thinking about the guys out searching. With Josh who works behind the counter at Rock City I reminisced about the two kids from South Thomaston, Philip and Rory, lost from their small boat a few years ago, and how that search involved the whole community and all of the lobstermen. I remembered Brad L. about 20 years ago, lost hauling alone off Matinicus, and how the school field trip was delayed because everybody was busy with the search. I remembered the Harkness rescue in 1992, and other instances where people were saved, pulled from the water…like that guy and his sweetie off the Rock that time, who didn't want to be in the paper.
Over the years, some of our neighbors have become quite good at this stuff. It isn't the sort of on-the-job training anybody enjoys, but these guys are who I'd want looking for me if I was overboard.
Eva Murray lives on Matinicus.