A Matter Of State

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I have to admit, too, that the town is about as chock-a-block with churches as any “red state” community: Congregational, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Unitarian. I was brought up mostly in the Pigeon Cove Chapel, an Evangelical church that billed itself as “a friendly little chapel by the sea.” There used to be even more places of worship, but these were Scandinavian-language churches that went out of business and were converted into private residences as their congregations learned English. For years men from all over Scandinavia—and from Italy and Ireland—came here to cut the granite that became part of the base of the Statue of Liberty, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Holland Tunnel, and the Philadelphia Public Library—among many other public structures and streets throughout the United States. The granite cutters were an irascible, independent-minded lot, as might be expected of men who spent much of their time blasting out 40-ton slabs of rock from the hillsides. A wonderful old picture survives of some of them, mad as hornets, on their way down to Granite Pier to throw a company official there into the water. The granite quarries they dug are closed now, but they make invaluable swimming holes. I believe I could still feel my way blindfolded up the ridges of Pine Pit to the bluffs we used to spend a whole summer’s day diving from.

Cape Ann is an old place, by American standards, and a considerable amount of history runs through it, or at least has touched on it. Champlain stopped here, as did John Smith, and being a place full of Scandinavians, we like to think a few Vikings did too. Emerson and Thoreau, T. S. Eliot and Charles Olson have written of its beauties, and Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, Childe Hassam and Fitz Hugh Lane have painted it. A local tool works, recently closed, built some of the parts that went into Lindbergh’s plane The Spirit of St. Louis . Some of the nation’s earliest art and literary colonies were founded here, and there is even an old red fishing shack known as Motif No. 1 that is supposed to be the most painted building in America, though none of us understands why exactly.

The first permanent settlers arrived in 1690, and their family names—Tarr and Poole and Babson—are still represented in town. There was even an accused witch, the wife of John Proctor, of The Crucible fame, who fled the hysteria down in Salem. Her house still stands, next to a pond where I caught my first frog and where we used to skate in the winter. Ghostly rumors about the place abounded, and we boys probably drove the people who lived there crazy peering in their windows for signs of supernatural goings-on.

It has been a fortunate place, my old hometown, largely free of the ravages of war or natural disaster. During the War of 1812 the British frigate Nymphe did show up to fight what must surely rank as one of the more ludicrous skirmishes in American history. Marines from the Nymphe managed to capture the town’s entire redoubtable garrison of “Seafencibles” while they slept and then tried to storm the beaches. A cannonball from one of their barges even hit the steeple in the Congregational “Old Sloop” Church. No mean shot, but the recoil from the blast also blew their boat apart, and the invaders were captured by townspeople armed with muskets, pistols, and home-made slingshots. After what must have been a red-faced truce and an exchange of prisoners, the Nymphe sailed off again, with no loss of life and the less said all around the better.

But men have gone from here to fight far more serious action in every one of our wars. We honor their memory every Memorial Day with a procession to the town graveyards, then down to cast a wreath on the water. The Fourth of July “Horribles” parade—a sort of charivari sponsored by the town’s volunteer fire department—is always headed by the Rockport Legion band, led by my old junior high school teacher and baseball coach, George Ramsden, in a long red nightshirt and a plumber’s helper. The parade always concludes with a bonfire down by the beach and a concert from the gazebo outside the Legion hall.

I could go on, but I’m aware that this sort of reminiscence might make my old hometown sound like a modern version of Our Town , and I don’t mean to idealize it. Things change, and Rockport has its problems and limitations just like anyplace else. It has never been as diverse as many American places, certainly not as much as the Manhattan block where I’ve lived for the past quarter-century and which I also love dearly.

That is, I suppose, the point. America is a country that was founded on a principle, but most of us know some part of it we are uncommonly attached to. As I understand it, there are even some people who are very fond of Texas.

I never like it when people call the South “redneck country,” or when news commentators flippantly refer to our great industrial heartland as “the rust belt.” I think if we really are to pull together as a nation, we need to restore at least a basic respect for how we all live and where we come from. An apology would be a good start, but I’m not holding my breath. As an old New Englander I know the worth of the place I come from and that its values and its character will endure long after the noise of another campaign has receded.