Tuesday, January 24, 2012

From the Archives: The Fenced Letter

When I was a reporter for the Martha’s Vineyard Times during the nineteen-eighties, one of my beats was the town of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. A story I covered concerned a private beach club, the East Chop Beach Club, suing the town over the ownership of a bulkhead.

At the turn of the 20th century, the body of water adjacent to the beach club was known as Squash Pond and was probably fresh water. At that time, about 300 feet of beach land was taken by eminent domain and a channel was dredged, creating a salt water harbor. In the 1930’s the town built a bulkhead. In order to do this, Oak Bluffs was granted an easement to give them access to build and maintain the bulkhead. Members of the town and residents of Oak Bluffs both shared the use of the bulkhead. In 1958, the beach club became a yacht club but kept the beach club name. The town said that they maintained the bulkhead until 1978, when the private club constructed a gate at the entrance to the bulkhead, limiting the town’s access.

 The town owned two acres of beachfront adjacent to the club and you had to cross over club owned land to get to it. This easement remained unobstructed and I would often use that stretch of beach as it was close to where I lived. I would also jog through there during my morning run. One dawn I noticed that the club had started to construct a second fence. This one was on the beach separating their beach from the town beach. It was an eyesore.

By this time, I had quit the Martha’s Vineyard Times twice, which is another story. I was working at a radio station, but this didn’t seem like much of a radio story. It was more of a literary event. I decided to write a letter to the editor and in addition to my former paper, I also submitted it to the Martha's Vineyard Gazette, which was established in 1846. The Martha’s Vineyard Times was established right before I got there. That’s another story.

I remember when I hand delivered the letter to my old paper, the News Editor asked, “Is this an exclusive? Are you just giving this to us?”

And a reporter who knew me better than he did said, “No, he wants this to be read.”

She was right. I gave the letter to both papers. As a matter of fact, I gave it to the Gazette first. They had an earlier filing deadline.

So here’s the letter I wrote.  There’s a lot of metaphor. You may be able to tell I had recently graduated from college with an English degree.  Some people liked this letter. Some people did not. This is what it said:

August 12, 1985

To the Editor:

I was sitting on the public beach in East Chop early one morning late last week, reading a book, when Robert Frost suddenly said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that sends the frozen-ground-swell under it and spills the upper boulders in the sun, and makes gaps even two can pass abreast.” It was not an unusual thing for the poet to say. He had said it before.

I looked up from the book and noticed that someone had started to build a wooden fence to separate the town owned beach from that portion claimed by the East Chop Beach Club. Whoever the builder was must have done  it during the night or on a previous day, for there was no one at the half completed structure to take responsibility for what was being done.

"The gaps I mean," Frost said, "No one has seen them made or heard them made, but at spring mending-time we find them there."

I stood up and walked over to investigate the fence builder’s handiwork. I brought the book with me.

It was shaping up to be a fine fence as fences go. The builder had gone to the trouble of pouring concrete into the sand to anchor the wooden poles. Further down the line, there were already other holes dug to pour more concrete in to anchor more poles to complete the structure.

As I said before, it was early. The beach was deserted. I looked over at the beach club building and its structure seemed to say, “Good fences make good neighbors.” I think if there had been a member there, I would have asked him to explain.

And Frost said, "We do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under his pines.”

Although I don’t always agree with Frost, he was right this time. But I didn’t tell him because I would never hear the end of it. I put the book down and ran into the water. There,  the beach club had no authority to build a wall.

On Saturday I returned to the beach with my book and the fence was almost complete. There was someone in the employ of the beach club making a great deal of noise, banging wooden boards onto the fence. The worker then proceeded to staple signs to the board which read: "WARNING! NO TRESPASSING. THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY. Hunting, Fishing, Trapping or Trespassing for any purpose is Prohibited Under Penalty of the Law." It was a common sign, not made expressly for the club.

When the worker was done, so was the fence done. He returned to whatever his other duties were at the club. Perhaps he worked at the front desk making sure that everyone who passed his way was a member.

"Before 'I built a wall," Frost took up where he had left off a previous day, "I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense." The poet sounded angry, but the beach club did not listen. 

I put the book down to go for a short swim. On my walk to the water I wondered if there would be more fences at the bulkhead if the beach club won the pending land court case. 

"Something there is," Frost grumbled as I dove into the sound,  "that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down.”

                                                                        James Tripp
Oak Bluffs

The Editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Times gave the letter the headline: “Frost on Walls.” I forget what banner was used by the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette. One of my roommates, who sold ads at my paper, asked me if I really had a Robert Frost book with me. I said, “No.” That seemed to bother him. He shouldn’t have been bothered; the letter was the result of the scars of a New England liberal arts education. It was bound to come out that way. He had had a New England business school education---different perspective. It probably would have bothered him to know that I really wasn’t at the beach that first day. I was just jogging through. That’s when I got some of my best ideas. One of my other roommates was a typesetter for the Gazette. She typeset my letter. She didn’t get it either. She thought I was weird. Those two were actually having summer sex with each other---nothing serious. I’m not sure if they got each other.

It turned out I was right to put the letter in the Gazette. Someone on the Planning Commission told me his father read the letter out loud at the dinner table. The next time the Planning Commission met, they determined the fence was built without a permit and they made the East Chop Beach Club take it down.

I don’t know how the lawsuit turned out. I didn’t stay on the island much longer. I did an internet search and I couldn’t find anything about it. I don’t really care anyway. That’s not the point of the story.

I remember that every time one of the DJ’s at the radio station saw me he said, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”

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