Chilmark, August 18. It’s almost midnight, and lights at the Snail Road house up the hill are still on. But the guests of honor are gone. The 24-hour Secret Service protection is gone. The Coast Guard cutter hovering offshore is gone. And the cement barriers closing off a half-mile stretch of South Road are gone.
The rainy Sunday night finish to the Obama family’s fourth Chilmark vacation during his presidency was a bit anti-climatic. We missed the motorcade departure and left for a late Beach Plum Inn dinner at 9 p.m., just as a DOT crane was hoisting the last cement block off the road. We never even got a hoped-for sighting of First Dog Bo.
By Monday morning, everything would be back to normal for those of us living inside the temporary security zone between Meeting House and Wootten Bassett Roads.
For nine days, our friends pitied us. Some naysayers portrayed the closing of one of Chilmark’s main arteries as a disaster. Others wished the president and first lady had chosen another place to vacation. But now that they are gone, the truth can finally be revealed: from our vantage point, it really wasn’t such a big deal.
The roadblocks gave citizens on this stretch of South Road and beyond a holiday from the speeding trucks and cars that make it a nightmare to walk or ride bikes here. Detours to Middle and North Roads meant that traffic both in and outside the security zone was exceptionally light. For a brief time, we had our road back.
A morning walk stretched into a four-mile pastoral frolic that provided a wistful sense of the South Road of yore. Heading peacefully up Abel’s Hill, down to the Allen Farm overlook and back, the main sounds were the whirring of passing bicycle wheels, birds singing, a rooster crowing and Fulling Mill Brook gurgling. (Memo to town of Chilmark: how about some speed patrols here? We guarantee you customers. And what about a bike and walking path along the road — an old but still relevant debate?)
The security team — Secret Service in dark glasses, golf shirts and khakis on detail from New Jersey to San Diego; state troopers and Chilmark police in their official uniforms — could not have been nicer. They worked as an efficient and friendly team attempting to move local cars in and out as quickly as possible.
Barriers and security vehicles blocked off both ends of the Obama zone. A bomb-sniffing Belgian Malinois or German shepherd inspected each entering car or truck. Agents peered inside tailgates and trunks. They were just doing their job: protecting the family of a president who has more threats than any of his predecessors at a time of heightened American security.
Yes, there were occasional annoying waits for the motorcades. Three major neighborhood parties posed their own challenges. But, by and large, the checkpoint process went off without a hitch.
The first Sunday, walking on Meeting House, Cris did have to give directions to Menemsha and Aquinnah to a few hapless tourists oblivious to the detour signs. “Does this have something to do with the president?” asked one father.
Stopping to chat with a Secret Service agent steering his golf cart back to the rented corner property serving as command central, she witnessed an irate elderly woman stop to berate him at great length. Bemoaning the temporary traffic spike on Middle Road, she questioned whether the Secret Service had the right to close a public road. Ever polite, he said, “Yes, ma’am we do,” citing chapter and verse of the federal law giving the agency the right to make necessary security decisions to protect our president. Even the president can’t second-guess the Secret Service. After she left, he quietly said: “Welcome to my world.”
There has been and will be legitimate second-guessing about the selection of this year’s presidential rental and the larger impact of closing South Road. We certainly appreciate the concerns of artisans and business people who may have had reduced revenues but are less sympathetic to Vineyarders and visitors who might have had to drive 10 minutes out of their way for a week (a down-Island traffic jam easily takes more time than that).
From a first family perspective, a knowledgeable source says that the president, first lady and daughters Malia and Sasha had an absolutely terrific time this year. We’re glad. It was a privilege to have them as short-term neighbors on an Island that is not a destination resort for them but rather a place they genuinely love, with old friends dating back to pre-presidential years.
Everyone needs an August getaway, especially the president. Neighborhood flags and homemade signs welcomed him to the Vineyard. And from their lovely Snail Road respite, the Obamas could enjoy the magical view of Chilmark Pond and the Atlantic, as well as the majestic American flag flying high over our front lawn.
Ben Heineman and Cristine Russell are 35-year seasonal residents of Chilmark.