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In 1955, at the age of nineteen, I arrived on Nantucket for what I thought was the first time, accompanied by my college girlfriend and two other Haverford/Bryn Mawr couples. All six of us rented a three-room apartment over a bicycle shop (which still stands) for the summer. Those of us who needed them got jobs fairly quickly, because even in those days Nantucket in summer relied on imported labor. We'd come on a whim, the way kids used to do in the Eisenhower years, confident that we'd survive one way or another. My girlfriend got a job as the hostess of a small restaurant, I played the piano at the Whaler's Lounge in the basement of a ramshackle wooden hotel run by the Manchester family (where now stands the Jared Coffin House, a brick nineteenth-century building, still a hotel, pricey, with nothing ramshackle about it). One of the guys boned up on the small island's history from sources provided by a touring outfit and met the morning ferry every day to hawk the day-trippers into sightseeing rides in his little bus. A couple of the girls waited tables in a seafood joint. We survived, and had fun, walking the miles of empty beaches on our off time, swimming, having cookouts. We didn't use the apartment for anything but sleep, so jammed in were we those hot nights. Busy kids.
Nantucket is an island, roughly thirty miles out to sea, and its shape is important for several reasons. It has been described as a crescent moon by one writer, but to me it looks like some fantasized elf's slipper--Madaket Harbor a worn-away toe, Surfside the sole, Siasconset the heel, Wauwinet the top of the heel, with a strip running up higher to Coskata, the long strip down Coatue, where the slipper's laces would tie, and then, even higher above Coskata, the final decorative tassel of Great Point.
The island itself is about fourteen miles long, and averages out at perhaps four miles wide, except for the long eastern shore, less than half of which is habitable. The sandy beach just north of Siasconset (or 'Sconset, as it is called by islanders) is the easternmost edge of the United States. The familiar Mercator Projection to be seen in every schoolroom makes it look like Maine sticks out farther, but that is no more than an effect of flattening three dimensions into two. On a globe Nantucket beats Maine by between two and three degrees.
As you look at a map of Nantucket, notice the small points of Coatue jutting into Nantucket Harbor. (They are named First Point, Second Point, Third Point, Five Fingered Point, Bass Point, and Wyers Point.) Nantucket Harbor is in fact a series of basins, spilling sequentially one into the other as the tide rises or falls. The circular movement of the water within the basins cutting and shaping the thin, grassy strip into the configurations revealed on the map.
The harbor is five miles long, and is of special interest to marine scientists and geographers because its basin arrangement, and the way the water moves in circles within it, are unique in the world. I have personally explored every part of the harbor with a series (over thirty-five years) of small boats, and bear witness to its beauty. The sudden, slightly exotic atmosphere of Coskata at the head of the harbor, inaccessible except by water, usually deserted, except in August, with its glades, hills, long ponds, and dunes, is especially alluring. Any one of the points, as you return, is worth exploring. You can swim in the shallows, fish for bass or bluefish in deeper waters, or simply cruise along in the sun.
Despite its great area one is never out of sight of land in the harbor, which is reassuring to the inexperienced sailor. If a fog bank...