From the Sept. 18, 1981 edition of the Vineyard Gazette by William A. Caldwell:

Shyness, it says here, is a disability that afflicts 40 per cent of the population where the scientist did his research. He is herewith invited to attend any town meeting on Martha’s Vineyard, where 0.00 per cent of the population is shy.

He is Philip G. Zimbardo, a social psychology professor at Stanford University, and he has written two books on the disease.

Now, it so happens that I’ve been doing a little research on shyness. I didn’t intend to, but that’s how it turned out. In lit’ry circles this sort of happy accident is known as serendipity.

I was looking for some historic parallel to the current crises down Katama way. People living close to the two bays, Katama and Mattakesett, are worried about their water supply and asking the town to do something. Such as persuade or compel the water company to extend its mains to the Katama community, or perhaps create a separate water district, or.... I wondered whether there might be a precedent for Edgartown’s intervening to do for a small minority what private enterprise couldn’t or wouldn’t do.

I found the precedent in Henry Beetle Hough’s Martha’s Vineyard Summer Resort, After 100 Years. Back in the 1870s a few entrepreneurs decided to do for South Beach and Katama what had been done for the countryside around Niagara Falls. Two grand hotels were built. Open land was divided into postage-stamp lots. All that was needed to make the shoreline hum was a railroad. That would haul the suc - that is to say, travelers the nine miles from the ferryboat landings to the shore, and the only problem was the financing. As matters turned out, the problem was that the railroad was a washout, just about literally, and the hotels failed, and for almost a century Katama land was a drug on the market, but in the beginning the question before the 1873 town meeting was whether the town would buy $15,000 worth of bonds to get things started. It was at this point that serendipity took over.

A Mr. Osborn introduced a resolution committing the town to by $15,000 worth of the railroad stock. Up rose Ichabod N. Luce. Murmuring and shuffling of feet. “I have a word to say, Mr. Moderator,” he said, “and I intend to say what I think and not talk to please the crowd who stamp and clap their hands on this floor.” Thereupon he introduced an amendment altering the language of the resolution by inserting the word “not” between “the town will” and “subscribe.”

The debate was every bit as tedious as this generation’s. The point is that it was loud and forthright. People rebuked each other for trying to be funny, misquoted each other, accused each other of orating under the influence, suspected ulterior motives, foretold doomsday of the proposition were/weren’t voted. “For aught I can see to the contrary,” cried the Old Editor of the Gazette, “the town will become a waste, a howling wilderness; rats and mud turtles will crawl over our streets and owls and bats sit in our high places.”

Well, the town voted itself into the railroad enterprise, and it duly laid an egg, but the point is that the participants in a Martha’s Vineyard town meeting were then, as they are now, about as shy as a road scraper.

It seems to be taken for granted that the language will be vehement. People don’t blink at hearing a fellow citizen denounced as a liar or swindler, and the only dialogue they remember vividly enough to discuss off the floor of the meeting tends to be merely raffish. One is told about the old gentleman who rose to object to an article’s proposing that the town raise and appropriate $2,000 or so to build a footbridge across some herring creek.

“Ridiculous,” he snorted. “Why Mr. Moderator, I can pee across that creek.”

Nobody gasped, but “You’re out of order,” said the moderator.

“I know it,” the citizen said, “and if I wasn’t I could pee twice that far.”

The most striking peculiarity of Vineyard dialogue, it seems to me, is not its boisterousness but the fact that it creates no hard feelings. You hear people say things to each other, in public meeting or at-home happy hour, that anywhere else would lead to a suit for slander, and you see them next morning on Main street clapping each other on the back and firming up a date to go fishing.

The Stanford professor who has been studying the phenomenon for the last 10 years thinks that shyness is a learned behavior. And, Dr. Zimbardo says, the opposite of bashfulness can be taught, even self-taught. How do you cope with people who intimidate you “You are going to have to be assertive,” he says. It’s quite a rigorous process.

Not for Vineyarders young and old. It must be that in Vineyard families the child learns, in ways that can’t be taught in classroom or correspondence course. Perhaps the creation of that environment, in which there’s no excuse for being timid, is the masterpiece of New England democracy. Now let’s get back to the brackish wells of Katama.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox