Ringing in the Fourth

From the Vineyard Gazette editions of July, 1983:

Church bells rang at midnight on the Fourth of July when Gratia Harrington was a little girl.

It was the Methodist Church in the village of Vineyard Haven that rang the bells, she remembers. She knows it wasn’t the Catholic Church, for those bells had a different tone. And it couldn’t have been the Episcopal Church, she says. “The Episcopalians weren’t that well organized in those days.”

“I was thinking, it would be a very nice thing if we still rang bells on the Fourth of July. I think our American liberties, our freedom, are still important.”

The Fourth of July was a festive time for her and her sisters. The night before the Fourth the young blades went out to climb on rooftops, move gates and overturn privies. The town selectmen finally decided to put an end to the mischief. “They took the worst offenders and appointed them as deputy policemen for the night before and furnished them with long staffs, too.”

“We girls had been dying to get out the night before the Fourth.” She and her sister sneaked out of the house and arrived at the Methodist Church in time for the ringing of the bells. That completed, the girls decided to stroll down Main street, and one of the newly appointed policemen, armed with his staff, thought the girls looked suspicious. A chase ensued, and the girls raced home.

But bright and early on the morning of the Fourth, she and her older sister were always at town hall, waiting for their permit to shoot off firecrackers.

“We would be the only girls there, of course. The rest were young boys, for the town selectmen didn’t require adults to have a permit. They would look at us more in pity than anything else.” Girls customarily didn’t shoot off fireworks. “We didn’t care though. We were absolutely independent.”

She and her sister and the young boys of the village spent the day exploding firecrackers in the fields and in the roads. The evening was the highlight of the holiday. “It was so hard waiting for it to get dark enough to begin the firework display.”

In the past week, Elizabeth Bryant became a grandmother, was re-elected tax collector, spoke out against American involvement in El Salvador, was named a justice of the peace by Gov. Michael Dukakis and went on several ambulance runs.

Those who know Mrs. Bryant won’t be surprised by that list, except maybe the justice of the peace part. Probably more than any other person in Chilmark, townspeople say, Mrs. Bryant can make the peace, but she is more often responsible for the fireworks.

“I don’t know if that’s fair,” Mrs. Bryant says. “It takes three people to make a decision in this town. Yeah, people do talk about Betty Ann and the power bloc. But it kind of makes me giggle, What power bloc? I’m in the town hall a lot, but that’s where I should be. I’m tax collector. I’m a selectman. I care deeply about the town and the people in it.”

Her range of friends and associates is wide. They include New York lawyers who summer in Chilmark, children from battered homes on the Island, Governor Dukakis and fishermen in Menemsha. “I try to commit myself to giving people an equal chance,” she says.

Leonard M. Greene likes to go fast. When time permits, he is working to make Courageous — at once the most successful and failed boat in America’s Cup history — the fastest boat in the world again.

In 1981 Mr. Greene, with David Vietor, also of Edgartown, bought Courageous, the 12-meter boat that won the Cup in 1974 and 1977, but failed to win the right to be the American entry in 1980.

A summer of trials await, but it now appears Courageous, home port Edgartown, flying the pennant of the Edgartown Yacht Club, has a shot at defending this country again in the world’s most celebrated sailboat race.

Details of the technology are top secret.

They involve instruments that measure the flow of water over rudder and keel, which has a novel adjustable flap. They all combine to improve efficiency. To Mr. Greene the new integrated instruments of racing have changed but not diminished the romanticism of racing.

George Searle, Edgartown police chief, stood on the corner of Main street and Summer street on a hot Independence Day afternoon, and looked around through mirrored sunglasses.

And then, to a couple of people standing on the street corner with him, he made this declaration:

“Anybody that wants to parade can parade. Anybody that wants to float can float. So everything seems to be under control.”

Indeed it was. It was the Fourth of July; the hottest part of the day was past, but the heat still shimmered off the streets.

The Vineyard summer was in full bloom.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner