a reminiscence by Tom McGlinn
Midday, in a barroom on Main Street on Nantucket Island, in the Spring of 1970, three men were arguing about a 30-foot canvas banner that was draped over a few chairs, and one end bunched up on a large piano in the corner. It was dark and cool inside the bar, the glaring light on the street outside didn’t reach through the curtained window at the north end of the long room. Even at that time of day there were some patrons, mostly sitting at the bar that ran the length of the room, down the east side. Nobody else in the room cared about the banner. The bar was all about “letting everybody do their thing.”
“First off, we don’t have the money to buy the kind of letters that you want,” said one of the men, short, black scruffy beard, and ready to argue, “and furthermore, they ain’t going to let us put the thing up there anyways!”
They were arguing because they had no money to buy the lettering that they had counted on for the project, and they were arguing because they knew that the banner might not even be put up, after all their work, because the town was wary of them and of the new cause that had just been invented.
The bar was the Bosun’s Locker, the former First National Supermarket, that had become “hippie headquarters,” so far as many of the townspeople thought.
There was some fear in the air. In those turbulent times, local laws were passed, the “hippie laws,” aimed at stopping the flood of off-island, alternant lifestyle kids from taking over the island. A drug raid had happened, around a month before, with seven arrests – something incomprehensible on this little island, even a year or two before. Off-island, seen on the evening news daily, were many disturbing things, to staid Nantucketers. The Kent State massacre happened that year. 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington against the Vietnam War. Was there an assault on American values? Who were these kids? A good representation of much of that off-island bad news was who they saw coming and going around The Bosun’s Locker.
The patrons of the Bosun’s Locker were misunderstood, but so was most of everything else in those years. Too much was happening too fast for anybody to keep track, and even normal change was anathema to an island that had been relatively isolated, until recently. A vigilante police force was pulled together, the riot helmets lined up on a shelf in the tiny police station on East Chestnut Street. Rumors of a “Tent City” out in the state forest had locals worried about legions of hippies ready to … to … What? Panhandle?
But then a couple of fires were set at historic sites and there was the proof. The hippies were going to burn down … historic Nantucket? I don’t think it was ever determined who set those fires, which were quickly put out, but they carried on igniting lots of fear.
As it turns out, Earth Day, decreed to happen for the first time on April 22nd, added some sanity to what was becoming a crazier and crazier situation, locally. I say some. It was a crazy time, no matter what.
The patrons of the bar weren’t the stereotypical hippies that some of the islanders imagined, and the islanders weren’t what the hippies figured on, to the degree that they thought about it. A lot of them were kids from Connecticut looking for a beautiful place in the midst of the chaos in the world of 1970. Preston Manchester, the owner of the bar, recognized that, and didn’t turn them away from his establishment.
So when word of Earth Day started to get around, the people in the bar, and the people in the town, were probably equally interested and disinterested, initially.
This is where I come in, and I get to mention a couple of other folks who were involved. Briefly, I had been helping out at an outfit called “Ecology Action” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Mostly we were trying to get information out about ecology, recycling, being good stewards of the planet, that kind of thing. It occurred to me that Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (in Woods Hole, Massachusetts – where we used to get the boat to Nantucket) ought to give open lectures to the public about the Ecology of the Oceans, so in a naïve approach, typical of the times, I went down to Woods Hole and talked to various scientists I came across in the bars and restaurants in the little town. Not the organized, business-like approach, but this was 1970, after all. To my surprise, although the scientists I spoke to were keen on the idea, all who I spoke to were in specialized disciplines – “the Atlantic Shrimp,” or some such, and couldn’t speak to the Ecology of the Oceans. So I went to my fallback plan.
My fallback plan was to return to my hometown and start some kind of ecology action deal there – here – Nantucket. What followed was a very informal attempt to get people on Nantucket interested in Ecology. My method was, once a week, on a Sunday, I would bring a truck – often one belonging to Dave DuBock – to Steve Bender’s restaurant, “The Sandpiper,” and on the sidewalk, and in the restaurant, I’d recruit a few people to go out with me to pick up trash along the road of the day. I eventually learned to make the outing only an hour, which simplified everything – bathroom breaks, too much sun, you name it. I wasn’t really trying to clean the whole island, per se, it was a hands on way to deal with what we were dong to the planet in so many ways. This was a concrete way of improving things. With a handful of people on either side of a road, depending on the amount of trash, we wouldn’t get very far, but over the weeks we’d make progress. We eventually did Madaket Road from Madaket to the Telephone tower. And other assorted parts of roads. A few times we had so many people we had to drop them off in groups going different directions, because if you were behind a few people on a road there’d be nothing left for you to pick up.
We learned where to look. A sharp left turn in the road meant that the passenger would be tempted to throw a bottle out the window there, getting the best throw. Also we learned signs were targets. We also went to isolated, scenic, public spots that lots of people frequented (there are fewer, now) and get out of the truck and throw a bottle where it “just seemed right to throw it.” Sure enough, we’d hear a crash and going to where our bottle had landed, we’d find lots of other bottles. (Lots of bottles, back then.)
Then came the news about Earth Day.
United States Senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, founded Earth Day. He didn’t want to call it Earth Day, that name just stuck. He wanted it to be called “The National Environmental Teach-In.” For years he had been frustrated with failed attempts to get politicians concerned and active in dealing with the destruction of the environment in the United States. He felt that citizens cared, but he couldn’t get politicians on board. He began to notice the success of student marches and “Be-Ins,” and decided to try to get young people involved in this cause, so that the politicians could no longer ignore what the population clearly was concerned about. The response to the idea of an “Earth Day” around the nation, starting with the schools and spreading to all walks of life, surprised all of the organizers. It was quickly getting too big for his group to organize. As Senator Nelson later said, “It was too big for anyone to organize – it ended up organizing itself.”
That was reflected on Nantucket. I loosely organized the event, but I didn’t really know if the town would support it. The Inquirer & Mirror newspaper treated us kindly, which went a long way towards making the event acceptable. So there was some kind of notice of the local event. And the DPW had been supporting us, eventually supplying us with bags and letting us leave the full bags by the side of the road for them to pick up. The DPW also gave us empty 55 gallon oil drums to put in those isolated areas where we found lots of trash, and agreed to do the pick ups. We had a contest amongst local artists to decorate the barrels. They looked great. And sometimes cars stopped alongside the road and offered us water. We stated to get a greater variety of people helping out, as publicity of the upcoming Earth Day was showing up on television and newspapers across the country. The newspaper let us start an Ecology Column. A friend of Charlie Folger’s wrote it and wrote it well. I can’t remember his name.
But we still didn’t know what would happen on the big day – April 22nd. We didn’t have a commitment about the DPW putting up the banner across Main Street, and we weren’t sure how the day would go. We were eventually told to leave the banner on the porch of one of the DPW people, and a decision would be made about putting it up.
So those guys working on the banner in the Bosun’s Locker were told we had to get it together, no matter what. Somebody found some felt and cut out letters, which were glued on. Somebody else cut out a map of Nantucket and glued that on. Loops were made for the four corners. The edges were sewn. We were done. A very homemade banner that said “Earth Day Nantucket,” with a map of the island. We put it on the guy’s porch.
Claudia Raab and her friends put balloons up and down Main Street on both sides, early on the day. Del Wynn wrote out a piece about “Earth Day on Nantucket,” and mimeographed copies at his job at the hospital and manned a card table in front of the Hub, and handed them out and wrote down suggestions from people on the street about how we could better care for our environment on Nantucket. The decorated barrels took their place in the back of Dave DuBock’s truck, in front of the Sandpiper, and it was a record day cleaning up the roads. And what was hanging across Main Street, shining in the sunshine and proclaiming that Nantucket was officially behind Earth Day? – the banner. The banner makers were not to be seen. Maybe they were back in the bar.
I remember Oswald (Tup) Tuppancy (who eventually gave his golf course on Cliff Road to the Nantucket Conservation Foundation) stopping by the card table and insisting on donating something toward an ecology library that some people wanted to start. We had Whole Earth Catalogues for sale, but I think we gave them away. It was a good day, and finally the hippies and the townspeople had something they clearly both believed in, because there was no doubt, the people from the Bosun’s Locker loved the island just as much as the people from the island.
Each year since, Earth Day on the Island, and around the Nation, and eventually, around the World, has been different – different problems to emphasize – different ways to celebrate Earth Day and concentrate on solutions. Like lots of things on island and off, it’s sometimes got more corporate and less of a “ground up” event.
I hope we can return to a Earth Day celebration on Main Street, with a banner hung over the street, with an information booth and some other Earth Day centric stuff. What about it? I’m sure we can get another two or three guys to put the banner together. Anybody out there got some canvas?
Tom McGlinn is a Yachtmaster and a filmmaker (greenflashfilm.com). He spent a lot of time sailing in waters other than these. He was born and raised on Nantucket.