By Edie and Steve Whitney
When we attend a conference that we haven’t been to for a few years, we are asked what we have been doing. We’ve been conferencing hopping. We’ve enjoyed new friendships and Star Island rhythms at Natural History, All Star I, International Affairs, Institute on Religion in an Age of Science, Star Gathering’s II, Life on a Star I & II, Pelican Reunion and Midweek Retreat. We’ve also been Pelicans and have served on the SIC board and the ISA board. We’d like to give you a flavor of the island as it flows through the season.
In May, when Steve arrives as an early season open-up Pelican, the grass is waist high. The seagulls have already arrived from the dumps of New Hampshire to fight over prime nesting sites. There are spring flowers. Have you ever wondered what color the lilac bush on the front walk is? The boat is an occasional thing. There is ample time for personal reflection in the spring as the half dozen or so of us worked from six in the morning until ten at night. I think about independence and solitude. The shutters are taken off the chapel. Another migration of birds and the regular season Pelicans arrive. The boat becomes a daily routine, just like the tides, and then the Conferees and Day Guests arrive.
Years ago a group of aged out YRUU conferees started a conference called the Young Adults Conference. Some of us tried to explain the folly of the conference name. The conferees aged again and they became the Liberal Religious Adults. Numbers dwindled and proving that age is relative they renamed themselves the Young Adults Conference again, although some are now in their 50s. The barn swallows establish their nests under the porch. The weather is cool, wet and foggy.
Natural History is a wonderful conference to attend. The speakers delve into timely environmental topics. You can still get hard shelled lobsters. The Natural History Conference doesn’t include children, but the conferees share the island with the teenagers in the YRUU conference. On Star Island the co-mingling of generations is an important part of who we are. The chapel bell calls Shoalers through the June fog.
All Star I arrives with the hottest weather of the summer. There are traditional Fourth of July games including watermelon seed spitting and speed sitting contests. Fourth of July fireworks are seen from miles away. The wild strawberries are ripe. Children form relationships that will last as their children return to All Star I to be with generations of All Star I conferees.
All Star II is striped bass season. Fishermen have time to reflect as they try for fish that are sadly fewer than thirty years ago when the mackerel schooled by the thousands. Small children take off their shoes and sit in the window sills of the chapel.
RE week is a working conference for current Religious Education directors. It is the most vocationally oriented conference. For years we wondered how we could get into that one. Now, we are told that “non RE directors” can apply. We’ll be there soon we hope!
International Affairs (IA) and Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) have two things in common. They have the best happy hours and the longest reading list. We won’t tell you about the secret Wednesday night poker game at International Affairs. The grass has started turning brown. The lanterns cast shadows of crosses on the chapel ceiling.
IRAS is two conferences in one; the incredibly intellectual folk who produce a paper by the end of each conference and those of us who share the rocking chairs with them. It has the busiest conference agenda of the season. The program begins before breakfast and goes well into the night. If you still have extra energy you can do the traditional Star Island stuff like bird walks too. We are sad at the thought of potentially loosing the IRAS conference, but we realize that a new conference has now presented itself as an opportunity for us. Change is part of the seasons of Star.
Star Gathering I and II welcome new people to their conferences. There is an old fashioned flavor to these weeks. Grace is said before meals. There is a hymn sing. Almost everyone goes to the daily morning and evening chapel services. The man who played an old fashioned instrument called a harmonium, which is made of glasses filled with water has passed away. People leave just as conferences do. Hand bells echo off the stone walls of the chapel.
When Life on a Star (LOAS) I & II arrive the ocean has warmed. The bluefish gather in schools. The community pressure is on to be a “Polar Bear”. By week’s end there are often a hundred conference polar bears in the water before breakfast. The cranberries are ripe. A hand reaches out to help another over the path to worship. The Pelicans begin to migrate again. The season begins to come to a close. The Pelican Reunion children return the marine lab creatures to the sea. They think about the jobs they want to do when they become Pelicans. The lilac is a dusty orange now as the Monarch butterflies cover it on their migratory route. The chapel has witnessed dedications, commitments and farewells to dear friends.
The weather is better now than it was in May, but it is more volatile. Hurricanes threaten. The chapel is a refuge in the big storms.
Someone picks the apples to make one Star Island apple pie. Conferences are shorter. The conference agenda of Midweek Retreat consists of chapel service and an invitation to Attitude Adjustment Hour “bring your own”. The experiences are no less personal and intense. The shutters quiet the chapel again.
All conferences have their own programs, activities, history and personality. Most shoalers only want to attend “their” conference since that’s “where our friends are”. We’ve discovered that all of the conferences offered on Star Island are more alike than different. They share the common threads of chapel services, music, intergenerational friendships, history, the closeness and beauty of nature, the opportunity for introspection and spiritual awareness. In our hearts Star Island is a church. We are all members of the congregation, welcome to be as active as we choose.
So come back to Star Island to watch the sandpipers as Celia did, to make friends that last generations, to nurture and ripen yourself from within, to take these parts and leave whole.
By Alec Lowry
I was a full season pelican in the years 1983–1985. During those years, Viking Cruises (which later became Isles of Shoals Steamship Company) had only one boat, the Viking Sun. The Viking Sun was a big boat and could easily accommodate a full conference and their luggage in one trip. However, the Viking Sun did not have a cargo hold, so the luggage was stacked on the lower deck.
When the Viking Sun was at the Star Island pier, and the usual change-over luggage line was in full swing, the Pelicans stacking the luggage in the trucks could not see how much luggage was still on the boat. Sometimes the stackers would call up the line, “How much more to come?” to help them figure out how they were going to do their stacking. Sometimes this led to bringing another truck out to the pier. The answering call, back down the line, would be something like: “quarter-done”, “halfway” or “three-quarters- done”. Eventually, the Pelican working on the boat would try to remember to make these calls just to be helpful to the stackers.
Back in those days, construction projects were much less common than they are now. It was unusual to have a “freight run” where all the Pelicans went down to the pier to unload construction material. On one such occasion, there was a huge amount of construction material and it was particularly heavy. At least 2 trucks were brought to the pier. As the puller picked up the last piece, he yelled, “Halfway!” and the call went down the line. The entire line almost fell over thinking they were only half done with this very heavy, very long line.
Eventually most, if not all, the Pelicans figured out the joke and it became the normal way of announcing the end of all luggage lines. Not too many tears later, Viking Cruises became ISSCO and the regular boat became the Thomas Laighton. The cargo hold on the Laighton was much easier to see from the pier, but the tradition of calling “halfway” to announce the end of the line survived.
I came back in 1993 for my last full season. At that time, the end of the line was still being announced by the call of “halfway”. I remember telling the above story a couple of times that summer but no one seemed to care very much where the tradition had come from. They were just glad the line was over. Since 1993, a tradition has built up that “halfway” is called only at the pier because there is still a second half to the line: taking the “payload” off the truck and storing it. This is a reasonable meaning for the call, because it also reminds Pels that there is still work to do, but it is not the original meaning.
A final footnote to this story that I cannot be sure about: I believe the original prankster to use “halfway!” at the end of a line was Roger Trudeau. It certainly is the kind of thing he would do.
The Laura Knoy show on April 6 featured an interview with Ann Beattie, president of the Isles of Shoals Historical and Research Association, and Andrea Melville, producer/director of An Island Kingdom, a documentary film about the Isles of Shoals. As usual, Ms. Knoy invited listeners to call with their questions and comments. A listener named Paul phoned the show and told the follow story:
My neighbor and I visited Star Island with a 4H Group. The neighbor sat down to play a piano in the hotel. One of the Pels approached the man and asked if he knew how to play and once assured was satisfied. As he turned to walk away my neighbor mentioned that it must be hard to keep the piano tuned in this island environment to which the Pel responded, “It’s not so bad because the fog horn on White Island blows middle C.”
Thanks go to Angela Matthews, Director of Development, for this item.
By Joe Pescatello
I will never, ever forget the first time that I landed on Star Island. That early September day was brilliant and warm and I was not going to work. Instead, I spent the morning traveling to senior centers in the seacoast volunteering as part of the United Way Day of Caring. My job was to help seniors board a bus that took us to the docks in Portsmouth. There, the Thomas Laighton waited to ferry us out to Star Island. Until that day, for me, the island was little more than a mirage shimmering on the horizon. This trip would make it so much more.
This was the first time in recent history that many of the elders had left their residences. The mood was festive with everyone enjoying the late-summer day away from our usual grind. Snacks were distributed—juice and coffee flowed. We motored into the Piscataqua River, the bridge went up and we were free!
Before we got out of the river, the captain’s voice interrupted our reverie coming over the loudspeakers in nonchalant tones. He received reports that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center in New York. He didn’t know much more than that but he promised to keep us informed. I don’t think anyone was too bothered. After all, it was just a ‘report’, whatever that meant. And no one knew what kind of plane was involved. For all we knew it was little Cessna that probably just bounced off the steel towers. The passengers’ holiday continued unperturbed.
We reached Portsmouth Harbor and the open ocean stretched out glimmering in the late morning sun. Soon the speakers crackled again and the captain’s voice sounded more measured now, as though he was working at keeping calm. Reports said that the crashed plane was a commercial passenger jet. Damage and casualties were unknown, but thought to be extensive. Details were still sketchy and he would update us as news became available. The passengers, of course, had no access to any mass media. Cell phone coverage was spotty and for all intents and purposes, our only source of news was the PA system.
The next announcement was short, deliberate and astounding—a second plane had crashed into the other WTC tower. The news was almost incomprehensible. In that moment many of us knew that war had been visited on our country. We knew that life had changed forever. We knew these things, but we were gently rolling over small waves toward an idyllic island on a balmy September morning.
I say “many of us knew” because a good number of the seniors didn’t seem to understand the events they were hearing about. Perhaps New York City was so far removed from their lives that the news didn’t pertain to them. And dementia had certainly taken its toll on some of the oldest. But the effect was surreal. The captain made one terrible announcement after another: “A plane has crashed into the Pentagon; another plane crashed in Pennsylvania”. And the person next to you might say something like, “Oh, dear. Now could you get me another cup of tea?”
The boat finally pulled up to the dock at Star Island and we disembarked. I stepped off the Laighton and looked around at quiet Gosport Harbor, the weathered Oceanic Hotel, the proud summer house and all the rest that makes up that place. Seagulls squawked, a bell-buoy rang, children played on a swinging tire. As cliché as it sounds, I felt instantly at home. There’s no other way to describe it.
Having never been there before, I wasn’t sure what was open to me and what was off limits. I was almost afraid to do anything at all for fear of disturbing the perfect peace. I walked around and found the white exterior stairs that lead to the third floor on the west side of the hotel. I don’t know how I missed it, but I didn’t see the sign warning people off of those stairs and I climbed to the top. Blue sky and ocean stretched in all directions. The constant but warm wind smelled of brine and seaweed. I sat in calm and peace unlike any I had known in my adult life. The mainland and its insanity were so very distant.
In what seemed like mere moments after our arrival, an announcement was made that the Laighton was ready to return to Portsmouth. I watched from on-high as my co-passengers filed to the dock and boarded the boat. I felt guilty knowing that I should have been helping but I had to stay a little longer. I thought seriously about letting the boat leave without me. What could happen? If another boat wasn’t heading in that day, surely there would be one tomorrow. And I didn’t think the island’s keepers would make me sleep out in the cold. But in the end, I descended those big, white stairs and headed back with the people I came with.
The world changed fundamentally for me that day in two ways: the terrorist attacks made our country a little less free, and I started a love affair with Star Island. Hopefully, our country will regain some of what we lost on that day. As for me, I’ve returned many times and I intend to continue this affair for as long as the Good Lord allows me to do so.
Since his first trip, Joe has returned to Star Island every year as a volunteer.
Joan M. Strickland Johnson
The sunrise off East Rock where as a youth I used to do my morning devotions at about 6 am. No human sounds….blue sky, golden sun, squawking gulls, splashing waves, gentle breeze, magnificent rocks. It all confirmed what I had always been taught: God is the Creator, there can be no doubt.
But the reverie is interrupted by the voices of humans shouting “hot water” and I know it’s time to think about breakfast. Old buildings, rickety tables and chairs, worn paint, untuned piano, wide veranda, flags, sundial, baseball field, summer house, old well, rocking chairs that need no one to set them going….These are the very human things on Star Island but they would not be as dear anywhere else.
It’s time for Chapel. The history buff in me looks at that wonderful little chapel, the woodwork, the stones, the sconces, the pews, lectern, platform, organ, windows and wildflower offerings placed in them. Then someone reads from the Bible: “Surely the Lord is in this place…..”, there can be no doubt.
I was raised by my grandmother and it was here in the Chapel that I received the news of her imminent death and that I should hurry home. What wonderful love, compassion and understanding surrounded me as my stay was cut short and I headed home. God worked through these people, there can be no doubt.
Classes? Most of them I can’t remember. Teachers? Some of their faces and names remain in my memory. Counselors? (One couple who gave me a home after my grandmother died, when I needed a lot of emotional support.) Musicians, singers, Pelicans, lobby store clerks, book and gift store attendants, baby sitters, daytime child care providers, and so many unseen others. The question has been raised : Is it Star Island or is it the people of Star Island? The people who come to Star Island are the people they would have been on the mainland. The people who leave Star Island are the people they will become on the mainland. Of course the people are important for they come to Star to seek spiritual connections and they leave with those connections made or reaffirmed. And without doubt, God is at work among them wherever they are.
Ah, afternoon free time. The chance once more to walk “out of town” and into the “wilderness” of Star Island. Almost instantly one can feel alone while walking and yet looking around one sees any number of other people walking alone or in two or three together. All seek that perfect place to sit, the perfect place to watch the coastline of America, the perfect place to watch the best surf, the perfect place to wave at cruise boat passengers as they move by, the perfect place. It doesn’t even matter if it rains, the people who really want to “get away” come prepared with appropriate gear so that it isn?t necessary to cancel even one day’s visit to the “wilderness”. And since, as has already been observed, God is the Creator, that He is also present, there can be no doubt.
Another meal, evening programs: plays, music, videos, slides, games, visiting, walking and a stop on the west side of the Oceanic porch to watch the sunset. No two ever alike. Each one appreciated for different reasons. Cameras click trying to capture it but it isn’t possible. And as the darkness begins to cover us, we can see the moon and the stars more brightly, more distinctly than we can on the mainland. And we can walk unafraid of any threatening in the dark. With so much beauty, so much color, so much variety, beyond a human?s talents, there can be no doubt that God the Creator has said “good bye sweet day” for us.
Night time. Evening chapel, lanterns wending up the hill to a place of quiet, and prayer. “With thee began, with thee will end the day” could not be more appropriate in this setting. And the quiet return walk to the veranda. Just how many hearts and lives have been changed by these walks, these services, we shall never know. I only know how it changed me. The girl who arrived on the Kiboko in 1950 and left a week later was not the same girl. She never was the same girl again. She returned each summer, 1951 through 1957, serving the rest of those years as a youth counselor. And she became a lay minister….
In 1990 that girl returned on the 40th anniversary of her first visit. Oh, she had taken day trips and rushed to her favorite spots on the island and bought an ice cream cone at the snack bar, before running back to the boat but it wasn’t the same. So this time she stayed overnight. How grateful she was that so much was exactly the same, but sad that quite a bit had changed. Most of the changes were caused by a society that was changing and the girl felt that the practices and values of 40 years ago that changed her life should be the same practices and values now. But she was in the minority.
Every spring while others make plans to spend time on Star Island each summer, I sit “land-locked” in the midwest unable to make those plans very often any more. But Star Island is so much a part of my body, heart and soul that the images of it, the feelings of it, the beauty of it, the sounds, smells and sights of it are burned into my being. In my mind I can replay a variety of days and feel content that nothing will ever separate me from “my” Star Island and all it has meant to me, all that was given to me there.
The last time I left the island I heard “you will come back, you will come back” and I know I always shall whether in person or in my heart, it is a place I can never, ever leave behind.
Joan M Strickland Johnson
Star Island Youth Conferences, 1950-1957
Adult Conferences, 1990, 1992
In 1951 Ms. Strickland won an essay contest to encourage youth to attend their conferences and won.
As an early 100th birthday gift to her, I would like to bring my mother to Star Island for a night or two; preferably two if I can afford it.
Mother’s mother’s grandmother is Eliza Caswell Locke Randall (or Locke Caswell Randall), whose slate gravestone is in the little cemetery off the path to the dock. Mother uses a walker, but it is a “rough country” one with large wheels, caliper brakes and a seat. She goes to tight quarters on my arm.
I would like to read myself into naps on the porch, visit the museum and the lab; she would knit or crochet on the porch, visit Celia Thaxter’s garden, to which I would take her (I’ve been hearing about Celia Thaxter since Mother had annual conversations with some Red Cross donations collector lady who came around to our Exeter home when I was little). We’ll probably go to the chapel if the path is navigable for her or for us.
There are family stories that Eliza’s husband, William Randall, was a White Island lighthouse keeper prior to Mr. Laighton. His brother, Benjamin Franklin Randall is said to have been lost at sea sometime before 1836 (Mother’s grandfather was named for him and took the name Waldron when he was taken ashore and given to his aunt in Rye to raise). I don’t know for sure, but someday I mean to find out.
However, this trip would be to give us both a Shoals experience. I’m sure Mother could manage the steps up to the hotel on my arm. She lives in her own Senior Citizen apartment and takes care of herself in every way.
So I’m asking how much would a room with twin beds on a lower sleeping floor cost and what other costs would be involved. For example, does the cost of a personal retreat include travel from Portsmouth? If not, how much will two round trips cost? I read in the FAQ that meals are included in the retreat price. Still true? What else do I need to know to carry this off successfully and happily?
Two months later, in August, Lois Kenick and her brother, Joseph Kenick, brought their mother, Pauline for two nights on Star Island. I found Pauline and Lois in the alcove just off the lobby on the day after their first night on the island. Pauline had been busy talking to many other guests who wanted to meet the woman who was over 100 and had ancestors buried on the island. The family had spent the morning touring the cemeteries and visiting the chapel and no one seemed the least bit tired.