Leaving the 'Simple Life'
By Eva Murray
Created Jun 25 2008 - 4:57pm
Life on Matinicus Island is simple. It must be so. They tell us so all summer.
We know this is the simple life when we try to do simple things, like get ready to leave town for a week. Other people do such as that all the time, over in the "real world," which, we also are informed, this is not. People come here to spend their two weeks vacation, and assure us that we live in a permanent state of relaxed contentment, as there are neither traffic jams nor need of dry-cleaning establishments here. Those two things seem to be the agreed-upon indicators for "stress." Once here, nobody should ever want to leave this blissful isle of the blessed, because it is, of course, such a simple life.
However, due to the noticeable lack of a Grand Canyon on this particular glacial ledge-pile, and as we are inclined to hike in that equally inspiring bit of geography, my family is trying to leave Matinicus for a brief family trip. You'd think we were attempting to bust out of Alcatraz, for all the roadblocks.
One of our number is the station operator for the Matinicus Plantation Electric Company diesel generating plant, which supplies the island's power (there is no cable, there is no grid tie, and no, there is no windmill. Don't start with me.) He is also the lineman, the meter reader, the by-default station engineer, the trouble-truck weekend duty man, the obscure obsolete parts researcher, and the titled employee who receives deliveries of diesel fuel by the thousands of gallons, from the small tanker Anne. I understand that the hazardous materials manifest requires a signature and a job title; he signs it "dock flunky."
This individual cannot leave the island until he has arranged for a substitute. He must also have already read the meters, changed the lube oil if any of the engines will have run 500 hours since its last oil change, and repaired anything showing signs of upcoming trouble. He will have anticipated storms, transferred fuel among tanks, swept up, and Cinderella-like with all chores done, maybe he can then go (I once ribbed him, like Ugly Stepsisters: "He can go if he has something to wear!") There is no contract stipulating these things, nor has he any direct oversight on the part of any electric company supervisors. Officially, the members of Board of Assessors are his bosses, but none of them seem to be around right now. Still, if nobody goes down to the station and at least pushes the fuel pump button every day or two, the lights will most assuredly go out.
Getting ready to leave the power company for a few days is very much like finding a babysitter for a toddler, in more ways than one: 1. you cannot always be assured that a babysitter will be available, no matter how important your date; 2. you cannot leave a sick child with an inexperienced sitter…if all is well, some local teenager will probably do, but when the kid isn't feeling well, it probably has to be Grandma; 3.of course you will leave a list of where you will be each day, with contact numbers, and 4. the child will fuss just as you're trying to get out the door.
If everything is humming along swimmingly in the station, and no hurricanes or lightning or ice storms are forecast, then perhaps it would be alright to consider asking somebody new to get the station training, especially if that's all who are available; the duty is essentially to take daily readings (sort of diesel engine vital signs,) to pump fuel, and to lay eyes and ears on the whole deal a couple of times a day, in case of physical failures such as busted hose connections or the like. However, if any of the three engines are demonstrating idiosyncrasies, if any evil spirit has awakened in the switchgear, or there is unexplained "overcrank" or "under-frequency," or that lovely metaphor, "failure to parallel," this will all be meaningless to a new substitute. Think of it this way: the baby breaks out in spots, and the sitter has to be able to determine whether it's an emergency or just a passing irritation.
Then there is the issue of finding somebody who is reliably here the whole time, and not apt to come and go from the island spontaneously, as is the way of independent fishermen. The island's late-winter population tends to be around 35 people, including elderly people without vehicles, small children, and serious rummies. The substitute must be someone guaranteed sober, literate, comfortable working beside a running engine, and who doesn't ride around with known thieves, and who is not afraid of electricity, who won't panic and will follow instructions and is willing to get up in the middle of the night should there be a problem then, and who won't tinker or experiment with anything they ought not mess with, and who is willing to be on duty all day and all night in case of trouble, all while paid for two hours a day. In short, somebody has to find it technically interesting, or else must be especially community-minded. It's very, uh, simple, really.
Of course, once the substitute is lined up, there is still the weather to contend with before anybody can go anywhere. That is another story.