, Newburyport, MA

November 15, 2012

Our banner yet waves

As I See It Jack Garvey
Newburyport Daily News

---- — Seeing what Sandy and last week’s nor’easter did to Plum Island, I might start one of those betting pools picking dates for houses to fall into the Atlantic.

With late fall here, winter soon to hit and spring thaw from the White Mountains to follow, nearly 200 can play.

Eleven houses south of Bennett Hill are fully exposed by a re-flattened beach. Storms and full moons are all a high tide needs to reach the modest cliff of sand they now sit upon.

But this is Plum Island and what would pending doom be without unwitting comic relief? Two of those homes now sport “For Sale” signs.

And pay no attention to the yellow tape below.

The unwitting tragedy is Bennett Hill. On the island’s highest point, this modest two-story, yellow-with-brown-trim cottage has always been PI’s icon.

At the end of the only road from the mainland, it is the first striking image, the house everyone wants, the picture on most PI postcards, the focal point of every panoramic painting of PI’s shore.

For as long as all other cottages were just one step up from the beach, Bennett Hill needed an improvised ladder. When erosion began making claims, BH added a staircase to get to the ladder.

When recent storms claimed a house just north of it and shook the foundations of others — two of which are for sale, mind you — Bennett Hill added yet another flight.

Not sure if all that wood was washed away or removed before Sandy came knocking, but the illusion of added height plus the fact of decreased width makes Bennett Hill look like a Realtor’s version of “How many angels dance on the head of a pin?”

Fearing further erosion, BH apparently has no intention of restoring its own direct access to the beach. Instead, a wooden board is now nailed across the opening to the porch.

As if that’s not enough, the board warns us: “Keep off the Hill.”

Given the obvious impossibility of scaling something as high and nearly as steep as Fenway’s Green Monster with soft sand halfway up, that’s more than enough.

Still, something sits atop the board: A pair of American flags, the hand-held size that nobody cares to admit is manufactured in China and Korea by very low-paid people in factories that started cranking ’round the clock after 9/11 and haven’t much let up since.

This year China gained the added contract for Romney/Ryan hats and T-shirts — although the Obama/Biden campaign tapped Bayside in Rochester, N.Y., where everything is union made.

Bennett Hill’s flags are surely innocent, honest expressions, but the juxtaposition of Old Glory with “Keep Out” jars the memory of anyone who knows the neglected verses of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” including:

When I was walking

I saw a sign

And on that sign

It said ‘No Trespassing’

But on the other side

That sign said nothing!

THAT side was made for you and me!

Property rights have their place, but what if the place disappears?

Bennett Hill’s flags may soon fly in the face of legality following another storm or two: The public has a right of way between the low and high water marks on any shore.

With nearby Greenland melting and ocean temperatures rising (“fuel for tropical storms,” as scientists call it), that could be sooner rather than later.

But that’s another story. I’m much more interested in those flags.

For lawn signs, TV ads, glossy postcards and websites, the Stars and Stripes as a backdrop for indignant and menacing political messages is now the air we breathe.

Many defy language, logic and common sense. Most obvious is the insistence that a health care act based entirely on private companies for insurance can possibly, sanely be called “socialism.”

Since when does “patriotism” mean willful ignorance?

Standing before — or rather, below — Bennett Hill, one might think our flag is nothing more than an expression of denial.

However, a political tidal wave also landed — as if for Thanksgiving — reasserting patriotism as E pluribus unum, the idea that we are all in this together.

If you doubt that, I know of a couple oceanfront cottages you can buy at steep discounts.


Jack Garvey lives on Plum Island and can be reached at