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A village's 21-float salute to Sandy

By BEN GREENFIELD

Publication: The Day

Published November 04. 2012 4:00AM
Tim Martin/The Day
Stonington fishermen check their vessels at the town dock as as the rising tide roils up through the slats as high tide approaches Monday evening.

I first heard about the impending tempest around mid-week. This was to be The Hurricane of 1938 on steroids, the storm to end all storms. Weather folks fought to define its pedigree: Sandy was born tropical, but it would become a "cold core" storm, and we could all die. That Sandy had no gender and could not be classified a hurricane, or a tropical storm, only added to our collective morbid angst.

I was never totally impressed. I imagined I'd lose electrical power, so I warmed up my old generator, tested it on a shop vac and cleaned out my car over the weekend. I even bought a bunch of groceries, but why I bought a case of bottled water I never understood, since I'm on city water.

"Stockin' up for the storm, Ben?" I heard more than once.

"Not sure what I'm doing, haven't been to a hurricane in a while," I offered.

Back home, I found the flashlight I'd bought for a past meteorological non-event and a box of candles. I ran two extension cords from the cottage, filled the generator with 10 gallons of fresh gasoline.

And that was that.

When Monday arrived, I watched L.L. Bean-clad TV storm correspondents jawing about winds ramping up this, and ramping up that. I thought about the Gestapoesque mobile loudspeaker announcements urging largely unheeded mandatory evacuation orders. I decided to go for a walk in the morning blow and see what I could see in my safe, secure village of Noank. I was weary and strangely numb from the incessant assaults of the experts and authorities.

It's time, I thought, to face up to whatever Sandy has in store. In the prior few days my boatyard neighbors had loaded their yard with nearly 100 poppet-braced yachts. The gigantic sailboats looked like an imaginary armada. I dreaded waking to a stainless steel bow sprit piercing the thin skin of my little house.

At Ram Island Yacht Club I noticed seven stacks of wooden rafts - 21 in all - sitting untied in the parking lot. The Mystic River had already breached and was gurgling towards the rafts. Feeling purpose, I went home, grabbed some line, ran back and started securing the rafts. Tim Bates, an old friend, came out to help.

"We almost had these floats on Front Street during The Perfect Storm," Tim told me.

"Amazing how fast the water's coming in," I yelled over the howling wind, sounding like the script from a weather disaster movie. When we finished, half the rafts were bobbing in the parking lot.

Would Sandy be the dire disaster some of us simultaneously seek and dread? Even with the power out, the air was electric. Folks seemed charged with frantic energy. At the town dock, I saw a man in khakis don a slicker and a life vest. He and his son hopped into a kayak shooting down the dock steps, out into the Mystic River. Their boat needed more mooring line. Paddling in 35 knots of wind, they made it back alive.

The Groton Town Police officers were not amused. I tried to explain that the soul of a sailor is built differently than most. A friend listening to my specious drivel yelled, "Greenfield, you're full of sh.." He added, "Those guys were nuts! I just dragged two other drowning idiots out of the water!"

Walking home, admonished for advocating for strangers, I found satisfaction knowing that I'd keep the day in perspective, even survive it. I was prepared; I kept my sense of humor, made myself useful. I even tried to understand why a father and son would risk their lives in a storm, wondering if all they had to lose was each other.

Eventually, night came. Gloom broke and a brilliant full moon appeared. With a flashlight beam, I followed a rabbit across the yard. Loose rigging whistled an ominous end to the storm. Lilly Hinkley, our black cat, burst into the beam and made the rabbit run. Down the road, the Mystic River poured in, blocking the road with the floats I'd recently tethered.

After all the hype and denial, Sandy presented itself as a terrible consequence for many on other shores. But in Noank all was as it should be, I realized, standing alone in my yard, listening to the growl of generators and the wind blasting, watching shredded clouds racing across a Sandy, moonlit sky.

Ben Greenfield has lived in Noank Village since 1965. He was the creator of the Mystic Chips potato chip brand. The author of several published essays, his day work is as a lighting conservation specialist.

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