Written By: Becky  Cole


By Becky Cole









In late August the leaves have turned [1] their darkest green and hang heavy from the trees, spent, dusty, all but lifeless.  Each summer [2] ShelterIsland swells with oppressive salt air humidity and temporary residents who press the limits of capacity, of parking, and of patience.  The single-lane, shoulderless roads fill to overflowing with cars, cyclists, and pedestrians.  Imported city sounds — over-loud conversations, gunned engines, honking horns — unremarkable in their own geography, overwhelm the island’s normal quiet heartbeat.


It is the season of my hibernation, when I long for September and the world to turn quiet again.


One August, however, I was tucked in an old barn with eleven strangers, studying the African-inspired art of making banjos.  We would spend six intensive days on that lush farmland shaping instrument bodies, carefully shaving tuning pegs, rummaging through scraps of exotic wood for just the right detail.  Originally scheduled for five days, the workshop had already been expanded to six, and even at that we worked fourteen-hour days, racing the clock to completion.  Our rushed, anxious looks at one another said we doubted we’d finish, and workbenches were still strewn with disassembled elements on the day Lieutenant John Ferris came home fromAfghanistan.


I didn’t know John; knew his parents only by reputation.  I knew that his father was an optometrist and that his mother once hired electrician friends of mine to sink dozens of posts with power outlets behind the trees outside her husband’s office.  She intended, they told me, to flood the one-third acre of evergreens with fairy lights at Christmastime.  That was all I knew of them.  That, and that John was their only child.


To mark his return, formidably large flags had been hung vertically across the main road, taut on wires strung from telephone poles and trees.  The largest I’d ever seen [3] so close to ground level, they cast deep shadows with their daunting size at intervals along the road.  Passing [4] through the shade of one into sunlight was disorienting.


All of us, especially we few local to the area, were torn between guilt and the time, wanting to go to the town center to pay our respects as the lieutenant made his passage there.  We worked on, pushing it farther back or forward in our minds, depending on our connections to the family.  But a little past noon, all our focus turned his way as we heard the Coast Guard cutters, on that sunny hot afternoon, incongruously blow their fog horns.  John was crossing the water and almost home.


The whole town went silent.  We heard no distant voices, not even a car passing by.  No human sound in the midst of a busy late summer day.


Some of us bent our heads over our work again, softly sanding wood or cautiously stretching water-soaked skins over the bodies of our incipient instruments.  About ten minutes later we heard motors.  Spontaneously and silently, everyone put down their tools.  We turned toward the unseen road, beyond three quarters of a mile of brush from where we worked, a dozen strangers uniquely connected in a moment not our own, yet now all of ours.  The motors drew nearer and must have reached the center, because the church bells began to toll, slow and respectful.


I heard later how even the most stoic and stone-faced islanders wept openly as solemn young men took down the massive yellow ribbon they’d hung atop the school when John deployed.  Tears ran in rivulets down the faces of hard-bitten old-timers, who hadn’t known a boy to come home from war this way in decades.  A few were heard to sob out loud.


From the barn, we heard John’s motorcade continue around the turn and down toward us.  I knew their route, and followed it in my mind, listening as they slowed at the curves and picked up gentle speed on the few straightaways.  They reached the T in the road and turned away toward higher ground, on toward the Catholic cemetery.  Amazing how far you can hear when humans quit making so much noise.  We lowered our eyes and said whatever prayers we knew in whatever beliefs we followed until the sound of the motors faded completely.  It took a very long time.