Introduction

by Kathie Schneider

None of the people interviewed here woke up in the morning determined to make history. But they, and we, do so simply by being here, creating the layers that make a community’s story. The events can be big (a war, a fire) or small (an annual parade, a sailing race). These are the collective memories of Peaks Island and, to use an irresistible pun, they anchor us.

Individual memories are different, more like a film which can only fully be seen by its owner. When the 32 people interviewed here gathered their memories for us, it was a great gift of generosity and trust. It is also a ticket to view as closely as we ever can that film of their original experiences. When they speak of, say, a summer afternoon in 1952, they are back in that summer as a child, or a teenager or a young mother. They have done the work of holding memories for us. We have the easy pleasure of hearing them. And if we are lucky enough to be living on Peaks for the telling, we have the double pleasure of being where they were created.

So what are some of these stories? Many, such as blueberry picking and paddling on Sandy Beach, are still annual rituals for us. A few, such as riding the long-gone merry-go-round at Greenwood Gardens, are remotely antique. Others are once-in-a-lifetime stories, for instance, World War II as experienced on Peaks Island. More than half of the older recollections arise from the war, not surprising since much of the island became a military reservation during the war years. Some memories touch on universal events; one islander learned of Pearl Harbor on a neighbor’s radio in the kitchen of a Welch Street cottage. Another recalls gas rationing and black-out patrols. Other memories are unique to Peaks. Imagine Portland Harbor filled with military vessels — ships of the North Atlantic fleet at anchor off the Diamonds, Liberty ships and their destroyer escorts forming convoys to Europe. There is only one Liberty ship left now. Some in this book worked at the South Portland shipyard building them. Then there are the small personal memories, many humorous. One woman recalls being successfully rescued by a Coast Guard landing craft when her sail-boat went astray. Another had a friend who worked laying cement for Battery Steele. And what about that story everyone’s heard claiming that when the Battery’s gun was fired for the first and only time, it shattered windows island-wide? Well, one of our memoirists said that test shot didn’t do much of anything; it was the firing of the antiaircraft guns the next day that broke all the glass. What of the U-boat that allegedly stopped off at Feeney’s? A gentleman as a boy of six saw a captured submarine towed down Whitehead Pass. Was it the mystery visitor? A number of our speakers recalled happy times visiting the Army base as family friends of officers. But another of our islanders paid an involuntary call (to the Army base) after he and his family were found out for a forbidden stroll on the wrong side of the wire gate. Then there are the more ordinary times on Peaks, the school days and summer outings and dances that feel familiar yet not familiar at the same time. The summers were just as hot and the winters just as cold, but the ice man may have kept your food chilled and the snowy streets were rolled by horse teams instead of plowed by truck. The Clubhouse at TEIA is approaching its centennial and holds strong memories for many.  -Imagine foxtrotting with your dad in a gypsy costume sewn by your grandma, or joining other young parents at the dance in an impromptu midnight sail to Cliff for lobsters. Or piling into the car in your pajamas in the wee hours to see the backshore surf after a storm. Come winter there was sledding and skating and hockey. A rink was set up where the parking lot is now. Do you know that several forms of ball games, Peak’s style, were played here? One was called by its creators “hockey-soccer-beach ball” and another used a whittled bat, a tennis ball, and some unique rules. And then there is ice cream. Ice cream comes up a lot and the best seemed to be either from Webber’s or Harry File’s. We go downfront for a cone now, but think of sun on the face and ice cream on the tongue and those memories are not so different, even if some are more than half a century away.

We are in a place that has seen change but has not been erased by it. For as many buildings that have burned and docks that have washed away, we have many more that are in place. Perhaps this is the nature of an island, or perhaps we are simply lucky.  When you read these stories you can’t truly go back in time with the speakers, but you can listen as they relive their memories and that is the next best thing.