President Obama Returns

From News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard

Diesel met President Obama and family as they whizzed by on their bicycles in the Manuel Correllus State Forest. Molly and I, like so many others, had got a tip about the cycling. Lots of Islanders have police scanners and VHF radios, which they monitor to see where the fire is or the car crash or the boat aground. Word of anything minor or major gets around quickly.

We collected Diesel and rushed to what we thought might be a useful vantage point, where we found a press pool of astounding numbers and a similarly large Secret Service troop. The security team scanned us for weapons, admired Diesel, who admired them slobberingly in return. Besotted, I suppose, by Diesel, the guards allowed us to walk along beside the bike path, between it and the press gaggle kept fifty yards farther away, who were certainly cranky over the unusual access granted us.

Around the corner came the Obama girls, their mother, and then the president. Diesel was instantly transported, not so much, I admit, by the figure of the president as by the bicycles that, unrestrained, he might very well have chased.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” we said, and the president, recognizing what he took to be adoring onlookers, spoke to us.

“That’s a really big dog,” he said. We’d heard that before, of course, but it seemed to mean so much more coming from him. Really, though, I don’t know if Diesel took it in as he should have, what with all those spinning wheels.


Love and Marriage

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On this particular Sunday, the rain thrummed mercilessly on the wedding tent. Inside, the guests sat talking in the lowering afternoon. They listened to the pelting and said, How mean of the weather on this wedding day. Later, a toasting uncle recalled that his father’s wise and determined response to weather like this was to embrace the challenge. It was one of those challenging days. A flutist, also merciless, attempted to lift the gloom, but it was a big job. A regiment of flutes would have struggled to raise the temperature even a degree or two. Fifes may have done the trick, but there were no fifes.

Thankfully, there was the bride. She came to her wedding beneath an umbrella, wearing rubber boots, on her father’s arm. She slipped from beneath the umbrella and through the opening in the tent. She was smiling, laughing, warming her chilled guests – playing the sun’s role, really. The groom, who was certainly nervous and may have been trembling as he helped with this or that last minute detail before she arrived, saw her and blushed. He knew a dream come true when he saw her.

The groom was just the fellow C.S.Lewis had in mind when he wrote, in an examination of love, that “very often what comes first is simply a delighted pre-occupation with the beloved – a general, unspecified pre-occupation with her in her totality. A man in this state really hasn’t leisure to think of sex. He is too busy thinking of a person. The fact that she is a woman is far less important than the fact that she is herself. He is full of desire, but the desire may not be sexually toned. If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.'”

Love, Lewis writes, “enters him like an invader, taking over and reorganizing, one by one, the institutions of a conquered country.”

From outside, as the evening darkened and the wet air thickened, the wedding tent glowed. The trees surrounding the small hilltop field where the tent was pitched danced and bent in the wind. Leaves spun frantically onto the tent and fell with the cascades off the sides. The effect was of a gigantic, luminescent sea creature breaching, far out on the tossing ocean, a creature inwardly lit and so bright that it banished the darkness and quieted the rollers; a musical creature, because inside, the dance band was having its way with the bride and her guests.

Weddings stimulate the advice gene in guests. Stay in college. Go to grad school. Stay in grad school. Grad school is a waste of time. You might try the law. Business school is the only way to get ahead. Get a good job with a good company and stick with it. I wouldn’t look too hard in the middle of the country, it’s the coasts where the action is. If you’re interested in tech, I know an outfit with a great future that is looking for someone. Remember, forgiveness is what it’s all about. No, it’s patience, marriage takes work. Don’t work too hard. Have some fun, kids will show up soon enough, then it’s all over. I worry ab out young people these days, it was easier in our day. Never let the sun set on a fight. Don’t pay any attention to what people tell you, you have to find your own way. Whatever happens, you’ve got each other. Let him think he’s the boss. Keep separate financial lives. Sign a pre-nup. Don’t sign anything without reading it. Love makes the world go round. You can’t live on love alone. Love won’t put a roof over your heads. Love is all you need. Love means never having to say you’re sorry. Love is bigger than both of you. Love doesn’t pay the bills. Don’t spend a night apart. Give each other some space.

Lewis wrote a long time ago. The culture he imagined is not the one we inhabit today. The answer today to the question Lewis posed to the smitten one might very well be “To bang the hell out of her.” Love may very well be a poorer thing than Lewis thought. But, even today love is not the pedestrian thing implicit in the advice one commonly hears.

Joan Didion knew better. In her commencement address to the 1975 graduates of the University of California, Riverside, she said of the world and what to do about it: “I.m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can, and good luck at it.”

And, forget about the rain, it doesn’t matter.

Playing Possum

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Diesel, contemplating mischief. Read more about his adventures in News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard.

In the country where we use to live, the dogs ran free. No one lived nearby, except briefly in the summer, so for most of the year we could let the dogs roam. It must have seemed logical to them, having had the run of the house, inside, to have the run of the earth, outside. Happily, they were not adventurous, or ambitious, so they never to seemed to go far, although in fact we didn’t know for sure. We reached that conclusion by counting the number of credit card solicitations and political polls we received each day by phone (three to five) and comparing the result to the number of calls from the dog officer or irritated neighbors (none or, rarely, one). We also counted ticks, of course. If the dogs were dotted with eager ticks, they had covered some territory. Near1y all the territory for miles around our place was wooded, with the occasional run-out former pasture, so the tick population flourished. If the dogs were tick-free, or mostly so, we knew they had stayed near the house, where we had cut down trees and grown something resembling grass, which we kept short, thus shifting what should have been our proportional share of the local tick population to land that belonged to others. You’ve heard of tax-shifting, where the burden of running a town is reduced for one favored class of property owners and consequently increased for another. Usually the latter is a class that hasn’t got the voting clout of the former. I’m afraid tick-shifting is a variation on that theme.

The advantage of living where the dogs can be let out to circulate, rain or shine, in relative safety is considerable. The disadvantage is that, even if you have no human neighbors to interfere with, there are creatures out there with which dogs habitually interact with disagreeable results. Skunks, for instance. I’ve shot my share of skunks over the years, mainly because, smart as we know our dogs are, they haven’t been able to master their enthusiasm for the game of bedeviling skunks. That’s the competition where the skunk stands there, tail aloft but otherwise relaxed, as the dogs bark, dance, and dart around it. Eventually, it always happens that the skunk consults his watch, remembers that he has someplace to be, decides to end this nonsense, and gives a foghorn-type toot. In the house, we immediately know what’s happened. We regard one another horrified, each searching for the magic words that will move the other to be the one to go to the door and call the dogs. When I open the door, there is no skunk, though. As the saying goes, he’s left but he’s not gone, and the two idiots are rolling on the ground, pawing at their noses, trying once again to grasp the implications of what’s just happened. Then, there must be baths, no matter the midnight hour, and the dogs find baths thrilling, which means there must be house swabbing and vacuuming. And, then there must be incarceration in the garage for what remains of the night, which the dogs do not like, so there must be repetitive, unending barking, until we relent and let them in.

As I say, getting rid of skunks (and raccoons, for that matter) had been a passion of mine, but I did have some rules, or rather one rule: don’t fire the shotgun at a skunk that is in the immediate vicinity of the house. I learned to avoid this practice years ago when a volatile neighbor, driven temporarily insane by a marauding raccoon, dispatched the varmint one night as it came around the corner of his barn bound for the chicken coop. He blew the corner boards and most of the comer off  his bam, which was expensive and time consuming to repair. So, skunks, smarter by far than the dogs, made themselves at home under the front porch. He never went far when the dogs were out, and if they happened to catch him on his rounds, he leant nonchalantly against the porch, cleaning his nails and tilting his top hat rakishly to the side of his head, knowing that without question, his position was impregnable.

Pardon me, but I didn’t mean to go on about skunks. The point is that recently were visiting away from home in a village, very nice indeed, but not the sort of place where you let the boys roam. So, we put leashes on them and took them for walks, early morning, late evening. But, as cheek by jowl as village living was, there were nevertheless critters with which we had to contend.

One evening, after dark, at the edge of a lawn between two houses, a lawn that is the field of play for a croquet club, we unleashed Diesel, the English mastiff who made our lives messy for a decade or so, figuring a bit of a romp would do him, and us, good. Shortly, we heard barking, then thrashing in the border of tall cedars at the edge of the field. Then there was crashing as Diesel lopped off branches, opening up the vistas from the neighboring homeowner’s property to the sporting field. I thought skunk. I hollered for the dog. He paid me no attention whatsoever. I tracked the crashing cedar boughs, hoping I could get hold of the bloody animal before he began felling the trees, and suddenly there he was. I fished out my flashlight and shone it on Diesel, who was lying down covered with cedar branches. His nose was flat on the ground, and he was staring questioningly ahead. I moved the flashlights beam ten inches, and there, also prostrate, was a flattish, white muzzle and two black eyes, staring questioningly back at the dog. Each of them was calculating his next move. Neither was prepared to make it.

It was a possum. Diesel had never seen one before, nor had I. He adored that thing, you could tell, the way he adored the ride-on lawnmower tire that he liked me to throw for him, or the occasional cat whose sudden appearance in his path quickened his step. I was more reserved in my appreciation. If the possum was playing possum, in its tete-a-tete with Diesel, he was doing it with only the after part of his body. His face was no death mask. Rather, it was animated with a fevered mix of wonder, concern, and calculation. This was not the occasion for disinterested observation, to see what would happen next. We hauled Diesel away from the meeting and fled before the neighborhood watch got on to us.

There is nothing easy about dogs, and contrary to what we may have thought, the advantages of country living over village life are hard to calculate. If you consult the dogs, they’ll say, quite reasonably, “It’s not a decision for us to make. You decide. Just take us with you wherever you go, and we’ll find plenty to keep us occupied.”

Look for News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard, available  in print and eBook formats at or on Amazon at

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Real Life on Martha’s Vineyard


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The Chilmark dumpscape on Martha’s Vineyard, playground of the elites, Sunday afternoon. It’s just where anyone would want to be. In fact, just where everyone is, scrumming for a prime spot in front of the sorting table.
Captains of industry and finance had loaded their Range Rovers with empties whose partially peeled labels bespoke the best names in French viniculture. They were hunting on the trashy hilltop for the green glass bins. They prowled in the teeth of wind­ driven grit, which exfoliated their carefully honed complexions and the paint jobs on their SUVs, all at the same time. A kind of enhanced productivity two­for, you might say.
It had been that sort of week. It was a week that ought to have ended up at the dump. It began with a bit of unsuccessful varmint hunting. Some creature, probably a skunk, had been excavating my wife Molly’s perennial garden. Not the live and let live sort, her mood has become murderous, and naturally there has arisen a loud call for action on my part. (Why I immediately come to mind when the subject is illicit nocturnal activity, I cannot explain. It hurts, if you want the truth.)
I have historically had some success at varmint eradication, including the execution of an extremely wily raccoon that thought it was a finch. Sometimes one comes serendipitously upon a skunk, and blam, as Molly would say. That’s that. One never comes serendipitously upon a raccoon, if such is the culprit. They’re too smart.
Called to arms, I set my standard trap. I perched the dog’s stainless steel food bowl on an upturned plastic drinking cup, over the cement cesspool cover. I put a handful of Kibbles ‘n’ Bits in the pan. All marauding varmints love Kibbles ‘n’ Bits. I should report, for those who might be inspired to try this approach. After years of employment in this service, the dog’s bowl is extensively pockmarked by birdshot, and the dog is a heavy contributor to the lobby against firearms.
I turned the outside light on. Midnight. Clang, clang, clatter. I’m up, drowsily vigilant, but it’s just a stray cat. I held my fire. Back to bed. Three a.m. Clang, clang, clatter. This time, nothing’s there at all. Which has me thinking that we may be dealing with a raccoon of superior cleverness. Not good.
Anyhow, the score: varmint one, me nought (actually negative one, a night’s sleep lost). Molly’s mood grim. Glances in my direction have a sort of whatpossible­good­are­you subtext.
At moments like this, one casts about for escape, perhaps a chance to get out on the water, tootle around in the boat. But, I suspect that shirking may not be my best move. 
Stuck, there was nothing left but to assemble the new grill. The old one rusted out, and I took it to the dump and paid $3 to leave it there. Actually, the old lawn mower did the same, and I paid $3 for it too.
The new grill required some assembly, and boy, that was no lie. Not that it was hard. Anyone could have figured it out, anyone who didn’t have something better to do with an afternoon. But putting the grill together wasn’t half the job. Unpacking the whole thing left the garage filled with cardboard, and you know what you have to do with cardboard? You have to break it down, tie it or tape it up, and chauffeur it over to the dump.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favor of recycling, no matter how much it costs. I am big for recycling, the way I was big for confession and penance when I was a kid (usually three Hail Marys, once the Apostles’ Creed and two Rosaries for a whopper), the way my in­laws were big for early morning plunges into frigid mountain pools, the way monks are big for hair shirts, the way some folks are big for self­-flagellation of the non­sporting sort. But, no matter the wisdom or desirability or utility of it, folks say it feels so good when it’s done. For me, and I suspect also for the A-listers I dump with, it’s not going to the dump that lifts the heart. It’s leaving the dump that puts a bounce in the step and a song on the lips, even after a week as rocky as this one. 

News Hounds will be available at the end of July.

Words – What’s Happening to Them?


Lots of times, text messages I see contain letter combinations that mean nothing to me. I’ve learned some of the basics of this coded communication, but much of it is beyond the beyond, as an interior decorator friend would say.

For instance, I now know “lol” means “laugh out loud,” although at first I thought it was short for lollygag, which means aimless dithering. It’s a terrific word — from time to time, I suspect the kids of it — so I was disappointed that the children had foreshortened it so clumsily that it was no longer fun to see or say. Live and learn.

I find myself exposed to more and more of this moronic code — forgive me, it slipped out — in the comment posts to articles I read, so I consulted an expert in all things techno. He shook his hoodied head indulgently and referred me to the Urban Dictionary, which naturally lives online. Urban Dictionary describes itself as “the dictionary you wrote. Define your world, 5,688,030 definitions since 1999.”

I’m sure that the “you” they refer to is not me and that whoever it is, he or she or they are a lot younger. Of course, the Urban Dictionary is more than a dictionary. You can buy tee-shirts. The legend on one popular one is “Anything unrelated to elephants is irrelephant.” Well, that may be a teeny bit clever.

You can also record your thumbs up or thumbs down to a new phrase that’s really caught on, “Safe sexting,” defined as a mechanism to keep racy pictures away from folks who wouldn’t understand, for instance your friends, parents, or girlfriends distinct from the one you are texting.  I would have guessed that the only safe sext was one you never sent, but I would have been wrong.

Anyhow, the thumbs are about evenly divided on the wisdom of this practice, or perhaps on the usefulness of the phrase in their daily lives. I’m not sure. Twice as many Urban Dictionary users gave thumbs up to the phrase “pillow lust”, as had got behind “Safe sexting.” “Pillow lust” is “That feeling that college students experience where they feel so exhausted that the idea of their face hitting their pillow sounds so utterly fantastic, it’s almost sexual.”

My experience with college students has generally been a) that they may be lustful in the extreme and exhaustion will not drain the impulse, but b) it certainly has nothing to do with studying extra hard, and c) that they won’t be driven to their pillows if there’s a raging party in the apartment down the hall, no matter how knackered they may be, or d) in the alternative, if someone gives them tickets to Springsteen at Treasure Island. Oh, and safe sexting and pillow lust mugs, tee-shirts, and magnets are available with just a click.

I learned what a “beardo” is, when “froday” arrives, why “stfu” is something I’m not going to post to the comment boards, ditto “xio,” and that “ridin’ Qwerty” may be risky and illegal, but common.

English words and their combinations are slippery communication ingredients. Plus, as Urban Dictionary suggests, we’re busy as beavers making new ones, adjusting old ones, and shaping each one we use and each combination we construct to suit our purposes.

When committing oral or written communication, words may be indispensable, but they may also be meaningless, misleading, uninspiring, confusing, and clumsy. Used carelessly, words can defeat communication altogether. Strung together without a plan, collections of words that pretend to sentence or paragraph status may ultimately say nothing at all. Chop and trim them for texting, and you and your interlocutor may share a semi-private conversation with all the unspoken thrills and confidences such communication offers, but communicate nothing much at all.

Oh, clarity is that old virtue that written communication held dear. We loved clarity. We wished that words and their combinations could be as clear as any old, admirable English teacher taught us they should be. Now, perhaps, clear is not the goal. Perhaps the goal today is unspoken understanding, signs and symbols that presume that the recipient of your message will understand something and smile slyly.

Almost everyone who uses the language in the 21st century has learned that the dictionary guardians do not create the words or the meanings. They merely bless and catalogue what people conceive. And nowadays, there are so many new places to hunt for neologisms, to wit: Twitter, Instagram, text messages, the blogosphere, various ‘hoods in big cities, the indie film industry, and of course, the Urban Dictionary. You can’t think about words without stumbling over new ones. New words find their way into usage, fresh meanings attach to old familiar words, old meanings fall away, and in these ways the English vocabulary is enriched, or degraded, depending, I suppose, on how old, confused, and crusty you are.
Some of us play catchup as good old words become worn out or invested with new, sometimes mystifying meaning. Some of us say, oh, to hell with it. Communication suffers now and then, naturally, but English is a survivor. It’s the gnarliest language of them all.

Look for News Hounds


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News Hounds: An Accidental Newspaper Life on Martha’s Vineyard is now available in print and eBook formats at

It’s an amiable account of a newspaper editor who found during a career of more than 40 years that the editorials and columns he wrote about life on a small New England Island were actually joint undertakings. Writing this book, I discovered what I ought to have realized years earlier, that I had conspired with a changing cast of partners in crime. They were the dogs, the small host of them that made our house their home, plus the odd and occasional cat and a selection of the beasts of the field, the air, and the forest, who claimed a shockingly large relative share of my attention and did a lot to smarten me up.

Look for News Hounds in print and eBook, at Amazon,, or at your favorite bookstore. There is a smile in it.

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Your Day Could Go Either Way

You choose. Which beginning to your day would please you most? Rosy fingered dawn illuminates your quietly snozzling, comforter-ed self. Eight quiet hours – no bathroom disruptions – after your eyes closed, they open lazily. It’s 9 am. You’ve no place you have to be. Everyone’s left the house already – peace. perfect peace with loved ones far away –without so much as a sound. The day stretches without obligations ahead. In the distance, Bach is tootling softly, conjuring images of well behaved but eager satyrs and charmingly shy but desirous nymphs gamboling in the yard out back. The book you were enjoying when you dropped off is ready to hand, so you fluff the pillow and take up the volume, your morning’s activity plan well begun. I hope that’s how it is for you.     Or this, the giant dog breathes heavily in your face. It is barely six hours since you took to your bed, and your bladder has had its way with you, trimming the six to maybe five. Your eyes open inches from the Niagara-like cascade of drool that descends from Diesel’s flopping jowls – called fweys in our family. He wants, no, demands out. You say, Moll, Diesel wants to go out. No answer. It’s pouring, and it’s deafening, plus the wind is screaming, and the lights are flickering. Sigh. Heave. Diesel, a mastiff, steps on your bare toes in his 180-pound enthusiasm for the great outdoors. You slide the door open. Gusts of wind-driven rain greet you and Dees, an affectionate diminutive not right for a moment like this. You are dumbstruck, or perhaps poleaxed. Diesel blinks and stares out but won’t go. Finally, sufficient synapses close so that you move to slide the door closed. Diesel pokes his head between door and jamb. You widen the opening. He stares some more but does not advance. The rain is now puddling on the floor. You move behind the hairy, slobbering behemoth and shove. He collapses like a telescope. How can he do that at his size? It’s time to wake the kids. It’s time to make the lunches. Diesel decides he’ll begin his day later and resumes immediately his snoring, stretched out, dreaming, drooling rest upon the sofa, which now features a glaze of congealed canine saliva. Decidedly his sofa. You advance on the children’s rooms. Rise and shine, you say. Get out, they say. You find your way to the kitchen.
     Yesterday, you thought you’d make a prosciutto, mozzarella, fresh tomato and basil sandwich, a sandwich that would not attract the sort of scorn from their peers that the children report they must endure when their lunches are unpacked at school. We can’t even trade your lunches dad, they say, no one will take them. This morning, you think, the hell with all that. Peanut butter and jelly it is. Get up Al, you holler to the youngest daughter Alix. Stop it, she replies. Get up Critch – that’s youngest son Christian – you scream. Don’t you ever do that again, he answers. It’s nearly 6:30. They’ve got to make the 7 am to the mainland where their school is. We live about 20 minutes from the launching ramp. Critch is in the kitchen. Al has not descended or condescended, and her music player is so loud that the paint is peeling off the walls. Perhaps it’s the lyrics rather than the volume. You pull foul weather gear over your PJs and head for the car. Got to leave at 6:30, and it’s 6:29. You start to blow the horn. Suddenly, the pent up inner man finds his own melody. You honk and honk and honk. You try the panic button. The children, faces grimly hostile, clamber into the car. You, a broad smile on your face for the first time this morning, move the gear shift to drive. Morning children, you say.
      More or less, that’s morning for me. We have no nearby neighbors, except in summer, so I never gave a thought to the 6:30 horn medley, but it turns out my inner man’s escape has had a neighborhood-wide effect. Molly ran into Sheila the other day. She is a teacher who lives not so far away to the east of our house, a half a mile or a little more, I guess. The intervening distance is a hodgepodge of marsh, brambles and tortured scrub oak, about none of which am I enthusiastic. And, it turns out, I’m right. This characteristic Vineyard vegetation is not even useful for veiling the occasional inner man’s breakout. Sheila is very pleasant, but also sleuth-like in her amiable way.
     “Does Doug ever blow the horn in the morning to hurry the kids out of the house and into the car on the way to the 7 am boat,” she asked Moll.
Moll, staggered at the penetration of this woman, replied truthfully. She always tells the truth, you can’t stop her. “He does, has he disturbed you?”
     “Well, yeah,” Sheila says sweetly, “I’ve heard it and some of our neighbors have too. We wondered what was going on.”
      Which leads me to the point of all this, and that is, first, thanks to Sheila for alerting me to the misery I have caused, and second, I apologize to her and to all those friends and neighbors who’ve had to listen to my stirring music making when perhaps they were experiencing another sort of morning, on which they had no reason to be stirred. I have forsaken the horn. From now on it is the cattle prod for me. I don’t think screams carry the way horns apparently do. 

Bernie Holzer – A sailor ends his long trick at the wheel

Bernie Holzer of West Tisbury, a Midwesterner who retired from a long oceangoing career as a merchant seaman to begin a 25-year second career as a purser and quartermaster aboard Steamship Authority vessels, died on August 10 in Boston. He was 80 years old.

Bernie was best known to Islanders and visitors who traveled on the ferries for his friendly, cheery personality at the beginning of each trip. He was the voice of the ferry line, reminding travelers that “there is no smoking on this vessel inside or out. That means you don’t smoke for 45 minutes,” that the travelers must “make sure you take all your belongings, and don’t leave anything behind, including your children.”

To his wide circle of devoted friends, made and cultivated over half a century, at first during years of visits between voyages on freighters and tankers, and later during his years as a permanent West Tisbury resident, he was a fixture in all of their lives, ever a cheerful, busy, dependable, first-to-pitch-in, gossipy, storytelling, heartwarming presence.

Bernie, who suffered with dementia, had fallen several days before his death, which was attributed by his family to the fall and the complications associated with dementia.

Bernie was born on September 4, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, to Bernard and Teresa Holzer. He grew up in Toledo and began his seafaring trade as a coal passer on lakers, the Great Lakes freighters that carry bulk cargoes in and out of the Midwest. It wasn’t his plan exactly, but his father saw a chance to improve Bernie’s fortunes and took it, as any father might. The career path for 18-year-olds in Toledo at the time was narrow and discouragingly steep, and Bernie didn’t mind that. He and his buddies, he often recalled, were having a lot of fun doing the things that city teenagers enjoyed. His dad persuaded Bernie to apply at the union hall where seamen waited for jobs. And, the day came when dad hunted Bernie down to say that he’d had a call from the union hall. There was a berth available if he wanted it. Bernie told his dad that, of course, he certainly did, but to get it he’d have to drive a couple of hours to meet the ship. Bernie, who had no car, said it was a shame but he had no way to get there. His dad said, I’ll drive you.

“Bernie went to sea in an age when sailors spliced wire as easily and frequently as tying a knot in a rope,” John Christensen of West Tisbury, Bernie’s friend and a deck officer aboard merchant ships, says. “Before the push button age of hydraulic cranes and machinery, which even now belong to another century, Bernie was ‘spotting’ booms over the cargo hatches, reeving a ‘yard and stay’ rig so that cargo could be plucked from the hold using a single steam winch and landed safely on deck.

“Though able-bodied seamen usually served as helmsman as it came their turn according on watch, when steering up rivers in Vietnam during the war [and with bombs lighting the sky around his ship, as Bernie described it], when grounding could be fatal, shipmasters often called for Bernie to steer out of turn, and for long ‘tricks’ at the wheel until they were safely through. Bernie was surely an unselfconscious master of his trade.”

At 23, Bernie joined the army and served a two-year stint in Germany. Afterwards, his maritime ambitions shifted from the Great Lakes to the world and most of its seaports. He rose in the ranks to able-bodied seaman, in charge of loading and unloading cargoes. Casablanca, Odessa, Piraeus, Naples, Rio, Recife, Durban, Togo, Abidjan, Monrovia, Dakar, Manila, Da Nang, Rotterdam, Cameroon, Panama, Haifa, Saigon, Borneo, Singapore, Midway, Taiwan, Cadiz, Lagos, Hamburg, Yokohama, and Tanjung Manis, Borneo were a few of the seaports he visited. He shipped out on the S/S Austral Patriot, S/S Gibbes Lykes, S/S African Dawn, S/S Flying Clipper, S/S Gulf Queen, S/S American Leader, S/S American Reliance, S/S African Sun, S/S Mormactrade, S/S Export Buyer, and a host of others. And he kept a log of all his voyages, the dates, destinations, sign on and sign off dates, and the shipping companies. He also took a sketchbook and, armed with two years of training at the Toledo Museum of Art, he drew and painted what he was familiar with and appreciated — boats, ships, and, later, historic 19th and 20th century Vineyard and Nantucket ferries. Seafaring and history combined in his art, for instance in his brilliantly colorful rendering of the attack on the USS Maine in Havana, on February 15, 1898.

Bernie found his way to the Vineyard after making the acquaintance of Lambert Knight of Vineyard Haven and sailing with Captain Knight in the West Indies. For Bernie, to make an acquaintance was to make a friend for the long haul. Visiting the Vineyard and the Knights, Bernie met Captain Robert Douglas, Shenandoah’s master. The two were close friends for nearly a half century until Bernie’s death.

In the early 1980s, Bernie bought land on a hilltop near a farm in West Tisbury and built a house. His property was near that of his friends — Ross Gannon, Matthew and Martha Stackpole, Bob and Peggy Schweir, Peter Anderson, plus this writer and his then wife, Joyce Spooner. He didn’t give up the sea immediately, but eventually the wanderlust diminished and, his seaman’s pedigree and seniority established, he joined the Steamship Authority. After navigating oceans over many decades, he began a long series of shorter passages between Vineyard Haven, Woods Hole, Hyannis, and Nantucket, work he retired from at age 72.

It wasn’t as if he’d come ashore, but his trading offshore voyages for alongshore trips surprised his friends. What astonished them was his marriage on December 28, 1987, at the Dukes County Courthouse in Edgartown to Simmy Denhart of Vineyard Haven, a schoolteacher in Tisbury. Bernie and Simmy met on a beach in the West Indies, and she admits that she wasn’t charmed at first, but ultimately, friendship and devotion were irresistible parts of Bernie’s essence. A few months after meeting, they were married.

Bernie’s small house was sparsely furnished. Simmy came with furniture, energy, and a sense of how a sailor’s cabin could become their home. They became a team, a team never without a project. They added on to the tiny house, added a studio for Bernie’s painting and a shop and a guest house, terraced gardens and stonework. They did the work together, often mentored by Ross Gannon, the boatbuilder. Bernie and Simmy were never bored. They traveled often, skied and sailed together, and read aloud to one another. A great reader of history and biography, as his sight dimmed, Bernie listened to books on tape, despite some hearing loss common to members of his family. Simmy sums up their years together this way, “It was a great ride.”

Until his fall, Bernie still went regularly to sea, although alongshore not deepwater. He went lobstering every Saturday with Bill Austin, Tom Reynolds, and John Christensen, in Bill’s boat. The four, friends for decades, got a few lobsters every time, although Bernie admits he doesn’t like to eat lobster. Rather, it was the friendship, not the lobster pots, he was tending.

In his seagoing days, when Bernie was between ships he made regular visits to all his friends. He’d fire up his motorcycle and cruise from one to another. He might stay for lunch. He’d hold the new babies, but when there was a hint of more profound entanglements, he’d say, “I got to go.” After years of shipping out from Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and elsewhere, when Bernie wanted a ship his seniority meant that the choice of berths was his. So, if he needed to clear out, nothing stood in his way. As excuses go, “I’m shipping out from New York the day after tomorrow” always did the trick.

But, along with her loving companionship, Simmy brought Bernie a family. Her son, Evan, his wife, Pip, who live in Portland, Oregon, have two children, Alex and Kate, to whom Bernie became grandfather, and over time he perfected his latent grandfatherly skills, so that instead of shipping out, Bernie pitched in.

And, he extended his friendly, watchful nature to children who traveled on the ferries on which he served, especially the Falmouth Academy students who traveled every weekday to Woods Hole and back. He teased them, pestered them to do their homework, kept track of their flirtations, and even made reports to parents when his oversight led him to worry about them. Sometimes, he kept the truth to himself if he judged it prudent to do so. The children called him Bernie or Uncle Bernie.

What you want in a shipmate is a lot like what you want in a friend. I have a photograph of my son Matthew, Bernie, and me, sailing in a fall gaff riggers’ race out of Vineyard Haven, which we won. The weather was snotty and dead ahead — we ought to have stayed home — the current against us on both legs, and Vineyard Sound came over the rail repeatedly on the windward stretch to soak us thoroughly. Bernie said it was a treat, just a damp day offshore.

Bernie is survived by his wife, Simmy, and her son, Evan, and daughter in law, Pip, their children, Alex and Kate, all of Portland, Oregon; two sisters, Joan Whidden of Roanoke, Virginia, and Bernadette Bolen of Toledo; and many nieces and nephews.

A gathering of friends and family will take place on Saturday, August 30, at 5 pm, at Gannon & Benjamin Marine Railway, in Vineyard Haven.

Note: Excerpts from a column I called At Large, published on July 18, 2012 in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, appear here and in an earlier blog post.

Home from the sea

By Doug Cabral

Note: I published this on July 18, 2012, in a column I called At Large, in The Martha’s Vineyard Times, which I owned and edited. Word spread today that Bernie has died.

The ports: Casablanca, Odessa, Piraeus, Naples, Rio, Recife, Durban, Togo, Abidjan, Monrovia, Dakar, Manila, Da Nang, Rotterdam, Cameroon, Panama, Haifa, Saigon, Borneo, Singapore, Midway, Taiwan, Cadiz, Lagos, Hamburg, Yokohama.

The ships: S/S Austral Patriot, S/S Gibbes Lykes, S/S African Dawn, S/S Flying Clipper, S/S Gulf Queen, S/S American Leader, S/S American Reliance, S/S African Sun, S/S Mormactrade, S/S Export Buyer.

Bernie Holzer of West Tisbury has sailed into and out of all these seaports, and many more, many times. He has sailed over oceans on these ships and many more over more than 60 years. Of course, he’s been many, many times to Vineyard Haven, Woods Hole, Hyannis and Nantucket, as purser on the Steamship Authority ferries. Bernie is an able seaman, retired from the sea and Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds.

His record of achievement, besides seeing the world from the decks of freighters and tankers, includes painting precise, faithfully rendered pictures of seagoing vessels – most of them historic Vineyard and Nantucket ferries – and gracing his wide circle of friends with his visits. His attentions to his friends were not scheduled, because who knew when he’d get paid off an oceangoing ship or when he’d go looking for the next one. But they were orderly, dependable, and delightful, every one – genuine pick-me-ups for the visited, genuine gifts each time.

When Bernie dropped in on the new mothers in his circle, he was cautious. A confirmed and devoted bachelor, he held out until Simeon (Simi) Denhart, a schoolteacher, tamed him after his oceangoing days ended and while he was working on the ferries. There never was a more devoted partnership.

In his seagoing days, Bernie dropped by for coffee break. He might stay for lunch. He’d hold the baby, but he drew the line at babysitting. “I got to go,” he’d say, if the air seemed pregnant with a possible request from the mom to look after baby while she made a short trip to the store. He had other stops to make on his friendly rounds. And, as excuses go, “I’m shipping out from New York the day after tomorrow” always did the trick. After years of shipping out, from Boston, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans, and elsewhere, when Bernie wanted a ship his seniority meant that the choice of berths was his, and his name went to the top of the board. So, if he needed to clear out, nothing stood in his way.

Bernie grew up in Toledo and began his lifelong trade on lakers, the Great Lakes freighters that carry bulk cargoes in and out of the Midwest. It wasn’t his plan exactly, but his father saw a chance to improve Bernie’s fortunes, and he took it, as any father might.

The career path for 16-year-olds in Toledo at the time was narrow and discouragingly steep, and Bernie didn’t mind that. He and his buddies, he will tell you, were having a lot of fun doing the things that city teenagers enjoyed. His dad persuaded Bernie to apply at the union hall where seamen waited for jobs. And, the day came when dad hunted Bernie down to say that he’d had a call from the union hall. There was a berth available if he wanted it. Bernie told his dad that, of course, he certainly did, but to get it he’d have to make a drive of a couple of hours to meet the ship. Bernie, who had no car, said it was a shame but he had no way to get there. His dad said, I’ll drive you.

Approaching 80, Bernie, trim and fit in his seagoing days, is slight now, his blond hair is white, and the tone of his voice cackles more than it did when he welcomed passengers aboard the old Islander. A great reader of history and biography, his sight has dimmed a bit, so he listens to books on tape, despite some hearing loss common to members of his family. His is still the familiar voice you once heard and never forgot, telling you that you couldn’t smoke (“For the next 45 minutes, you don’t smoke.”), that you couldn’t have a beer until the ferry left the dock so you’ll just have to wait, that your pets needed to be kept off the seats and out of the lunch counter area, and that, before you disembarked from the ferry in Vineyard Haven, you needed to be sure you had all your belongings, including the “rug rats” or “curtain climbers” you’d brought along. The passengers, most of them, smiled when they heard this.

He was also the purser who befriended the 7 am troop of Falmouth Academy students from the Vineyard on their way to Woods Hole and school. And, because he was friendly with most of their Island parents and nearly every other Vineyarder who traveled with him, he made time to shoot the breeze with many of them and keep the students’ parents up to date on whether the kids were doing their homework on the boat, or not. Sometimes, he kept the truth to himself if he judged it prudent to do so.

Bernie found his way to the Vineyard with the help of Lambert Knight, a mariner of some considerable accomplishment. He and Bernie met in the West Indies when Bernie shipped as crew on a small yacht. Sort of a seaman’s holiday. The two crossed paths and became fast friends. Later, at the Knight house in Vineyard Haven, Bernie never refused a meal made by Lambert’s wife, Sally, a celebrated cook whose specialties, including extraordinary chowders and soups, arrived at the newly opened Black Dog Tavern in 1972, in the passenger seat of Sally’s sporty little roadster, with the top down.

When he came ashore — or rather when he left the deep water life — Bernie and Allan Miller built a little house at the top of a hill in West Tisbury. Since Simi joined up, the place has grown and become less simple but handsomer. Bernie’s done a lot of work on the place himself, tutored by boatbuilder Ross Gannon, who lives nearby. Now, he tells me, when they’re doing woodwork, he and Simi share the job. She lines up the wood on the table saw, and when she runs it through, he helps guide it off the saw.

Bernie still goes to sea regularly, although it’s alongshore not deepwater. He goes lobstering every Saturday with Bill Austin, Tom Reynolds, and John Christensen, in Bill’s boat. The four, friends for decades, get a few lobsters every time, although Bernie admits he doesn’t like to eat lobster. What he likes are his friends, and he tends those friendships, even if lobster is involved.

What you want in a shipmate is a lot like what you want in a friend. On freighters, tankers, lakers, ferries, sailboats, Bernie is the perfect shipmate, cheery, helpful, standing his watch, never complaining. I have a photograph of my son Matthew, Bernie, and me, sailing in a fall gaff riggers’ race out of Vineyard Haven. The weather was snotty and dead ahead, the current against us on both legs, and Vineyard Sound came over the rail repeatedly on the windward stretch to soak us thoroughly. For Bernie, it was just another damp day offshore.

A good and decent man – Donald DeSorcy, builder, R.I.P.

The common thing to do these days is to celebrate the widely known and often celebrated. A very few of these deserve to be exalted. What is uncommon is to mark one’s neighbors for their plain, unpretentious intelligence, generosity, and square dealing. The builder, businessman, and landlord Donald DeSorcy, who died July 17, was one of these.
When my wife Molly and I bought The Martha’s Vineyard Times in 1991, we set out to move the business from what had been its headquarters since its founding in 1984 to more spacious and visible quarters. News reporting demands more protein, fewer calories, less cholesterol, and an atmosphere that is bland and diligent rather than spicy. The old Spaghetti Pot restaurant building off State Road, Tisbury, where we were, had a let’s-order-pizza aroma that impeached the standard newsroom smells of perspiration, printer’s ink, stale coffee, bourbon, and cigarette smoke. Donald had just the building we needed.
He took a flyer on a young couple with a young business whose future was uncertain. He remodeled the building to suit us, priced the vast space so that we could afford it, and let us alone to do our work. The newspaper has now dwelt in what feels like its one and only home for more than 20 years. Donald, reserved, genial and wry, stopped by from time to time to chat, while making the working man’s rounds of his company’s construction projects in his tiny red pickup, a stub of a cigar stuck in the side of his mouth, mostly unlit. He was always fun to see and talk to, charming in his effortlessly direct way, and always wise, helpful, and encouraging. Subtracting one Donald DeSorcy is regrettable. Adding more like him is what we ought to do.