Robbie Tibbets came to the Island from the small town in Maine where he grew up. He had been sitting on his favorite bar stool drinking Heineken some years ago, which is what he did all summer until harvest time when a news program flashed pictures of a state police helicopter landing in a five-acre field of pot not too far away.
It took a few minutes for Robbie to recognize that field as his and he was busted, the only saving grace being that he did not own the land and didn’t know who did. He just walked into the woods one day, cleared it, seeded her down and lived like a king on a bar stool throne for the next few years working a couple of weeks in the spring and a couple more in the fall. Finestkind of a life, but that was over now. Robbie got into his car, stopped at the bank for his money, then a gas station where he gassed up, bought a sixpack and a map and headed out, knowing it would just be a matter of time before someone put two and two together with the neighbors and came up with his name.
Once on the road, he studied the map for the most out-of-the-way place he could find in the shortest amount of time on the highway. He came up with Gosnold, our fine town. I’d like to tell you that this was unusual, but it’s actually just a variation on a theme. All the better for Robbie. People in glass houses don’t throw stones, as they say.
It was September, so a winter rental was pretty easy to find. Heatable was a little more difficult, but he found the newly renovated island style (paneling and electric heat) in Low Skate’s house on Broadway. Low, a summer person, was headed to Costa Rica for the winter. Low was a retired English professor, so every little bit of extra cash was welcome. And as an ultra-liberal ex-hippie, maybe not so ex, she didn’t ask many questions as long as Robbie was willing to pay her in full, which he did without hesitation. He laid low in the house for a month or so before running out of everything and venturing out a little at first to the store and then to the ferry for his cases of Heineken, the sight of which pretty quickly gained him a few friends. Soon Robbie was hanging out at the store smoking Camel nonfilters and drinking beer or Grand Marnier or Nescafe instant coffee and eating stale chips past their sell date with the rest of the refugees. The existence of washed-ashore five-gallon plastic pails of pot was the kicker, though, and in no uncertain terms served to give Robbie the feeling that God and destiny had indeed collaborated on his rescue. As with all of us who find this place in an act of some kind of desperation, a period of euphoria set in. It lasted just about as long as his money, and that would be about January.
There is an unwritten rule on this island which loosely summed up says that no one will give you any kind of work until you’ve endured an entire winter and come out the other side mentally intact. That’s the loosely interpreted part. There is, however, a way to make money if you have an address and are registered to vote, and that’s to dig quahaugs from a skiff with a bull rake. The pond is carpeted with quahaugs because nobody wants or needs to work that hard. Unless you’re a newbie and it’s January and you are out of money. Appropriately named, a bull rake is a steel basket about two feet wide with three-inch teeth on it to scrape the bottom at the end of a 20-foot telescoping aluminum pole. The idea is to row out into the pond, put your face and rail to the wind and pull that rake through the mud, eel grass and beer bottles with all your might, which if you’ve been sitting on your butt on a bar stool for a few years is probably barely enough. Then when the basket is full of mud, eel grass, beer bottles and hopefully clams, it’s pulled hand over hand and grunt over grunt back up to the skiff and dumped onto the culling board beside the digger. There the junk is separated from the shellfish, which are quickly put into saltwater soaked burlap bags to retard freezing. The ritual is repeated day after day for three to five hours a day. Expressions come to mind like “every muscle in my body is screaming,” or “I hurt in places I didn’t know I had,” even “Maybe prison isn’t such a bad thing after all.”
Few succeed in enduring this rite of passage, thus ending the idyllic, euphoric paradise of the loser and sending him back to the mainland on the ferry after very few days at sea in the teeth of the monster. But for the strong-willed, stubborn, never-say-die masochist who makes it through the first month, revenge is at hand.
The pond is surrounded by hills into which every house on the island is built and from where every eye is on the poor fool laboring in the dead of winter. People are loving it as their personal reality show. For Robbie, after a couple of weeks it was either get into it or quit. He got into it, stopped hurting and started to make some serious money. Worried townies started to show up at the ferry to see how much of their shellfish he was sending off-island. Day after day they watched him fill the boat and it drove them crazy. By the end of February there were five boats clamming and nobody speaking to Robbie, on or off the water. In March they were down to three and by the end of March back to one for about a week before they tried to beg Robbie off the water with at least three offers of work inside heated houses doing renovations usually slated for the last minute sometime in May.
After letting them stew and beg and drop over with Heineken and stale chips, Robbie chose to stay on the water and did so for the next three years. He had never felt so healthy, so strong, so in control of his life or so close to nature in all of its violence, power and beauty. He fell in love with the breathlessly silent late fall gray days broken only by the rush of air through the feathers of low-flying swans beginning the journey south. With the winter harbor seals dancing around the boat waiting for broken hard shells to fall to the bottom so they could dive down to get the meat as if it was a game they were playing. With the spring Canada geese coming to nest on the banks of the pond, eventually leading their fluffy little goslings, unafraid, out to eat the floating grasses that came up from the bottom in the rake. With summers when sailboats filled the pond sending him to seek refuge in Nashawena Harbor and to fish, where once again he could be alone with his thoughts, something he had never known in his young life and had become addicted to. The thing we all need most.
Once in a while Robbie gets a little chuckle from an ad in the paper Bull Rake For Sale. Excellent condition. Used once. Best Offer.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.