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Return to Jefferson Island
I stepped off of the helicopter as it hovered three or four feet off the ground. As soon as the door closed, the helicopter gained altitude and flew off back to the airport at Lincolntown Island.
I stared at the clearing that was once a helipad for the old army base; I say “once” because the ground was cracked with weeds growing out of them, rendering the so-called helipad unfit for landing a helicopter.
I walked through the deserted streets, the cement and gravel streets crumbling underneath my feet, brittle as though it hadn’t borne the burden of carrying a fully-grown human's weight for over half a century. The finely landscaped, suburban lawns that Jefferson Island had been known for — its neighbor, Lincolntown Island, was the “business island;” Clergy Island was a fine balance between the two — had given way to ivy and weeds growing out of each and every crack and crevice found, making the ruined helipad pale in comparison. Cars, parked in their driveways, were from the '30s and '40s, sitting like obedient dogs in their driveways, as if their owners were inside eating dinner or enjoying time with their children.
As I walked down the street, I crossed the grade-crossing for the train line that connected the farther parts of Jefferson Island to the ferry terminal that would carry passengers to the other two islands that became known as the “Atlantic Cluster” of islands that were under the jurisdiction of the United States. I remember, as a child, my friends and I would play on the tracks, and would quickly hide in a nearby ditch if we heard the familiar sound of a train speeding down the tracks. The overhead wires that powered the trains were rusty and, not too far down the tracks, had fallen over as the result of not being cared for.
I continued walking until I found the street that I was looking for: Barley Avenue. I made a left, and continued most of the way down the block. All of the houses, all of the lawns and patios and cars were familiar to me. As I approached the end of the street, which was a dead-end due to another train line passing perpendicular to the street, I stopped dead in my tracks and stared at the brown raised ranch house that I had once called home. I walked up the familiar front path to the front door, and pulled the old, rusty key out of my pocket. My hand was trembling, and I felt tears rolling down my cheeks as I stuck the key in lock of my front door. All of the thoughts, all of the feelings, all of the memories, came flooding back to me at once...
It was 1944, and America was at war with Germany. To all of us living in the Atlantic Cluster, the war was a good several thousand square miles away; we were not worried about the war coming to our placid group of islands that was mainly responsible for import/export and managed business between the United States and Europe.
The United States, of which we were of a protectorate, did not agree with us. To the Pentagon, we were not a peaceful, small group of islands that were composed of farmers and businessmen, but a prime candidate for an army base where planes could refuel between the U.S. and Europe. With the airplanes came the army base, with the army base came the navy, and with the navy came the sailors and soldiers. They took over our streets and made our lives miserable. The sailors would pick on the little kids, and the small—and friendly, a characteristic that many a police force in America lack—police force, of which my father was the chief, was powerless. My street had the misfortune of being conveniently close one of the dreaded bases. We could hear the pilots and sailors partying and enjoying themselves late into the night.
Along with the nuisance sailors and pilots and their partying came drills. Anywhere, anytime.
Sorry, it was more like everywhere and all the time: at school, at home, at church, when my friends and I were playing basketball in the street. It seemed like the people in charge of scheduling drills had excellent timing, making sure to set one off at the most inopportune moments. They also seemed especially keen on having a drill at three in the morning, when everyone on the island was asleep, except, of course, the sailors, who were, as usual, whoring around until all hours of the night.
We of Jefferson Island pride ourselves in being able to adjust. The storm of '39 came, and we adjusted. We rebuilt the houses that were damaged and stores and bought a new ferryboat after it went adrift because of the storm. And so, when the army came, we adjusted. We didn't like them, but we understood their purpose (I'm referring to the whole “protecting people” thing, not the getting drunk and partying every night), and we adjusted to their presence. We adjusted to the loud noises and the drills and the curfews.
One night, that all changed. I had just fallen asleep, and the familiar sirens went off. I knew what this was; I grabbed my shoes and ran to the basement of the house with my family and my sisters. We all stowed in the makeshift shelter until the all-clear was given.
But it never came. The shelter was as bomb-proof as we could make it, and so we couldn't get a radio signal, and no one was wearing a watch. What could have been five minutes felt like hours. We stayed there, with no lights and no ventilation. We were sweating; my father was worried that we would suffocate if we didn't leave soon.
When we finally allowed to leave, the sun was probably already rising- I couldn't tell from all of the smoke that had blanketed the Atlantic Cluster as far as the eye could see. The smell of gunpowder filled my nostrils, not the normal clear air that my delicate suburban lungs were accustomed to. People were running, soldiers were shouting, and houses were demolished. Child and adult alike were crying — children for their missing or dead parents; adults for their missing children or loved ones. That night, we had lost everything.
School was canceled, the trains were stored away in their yards, and the ferries that defined our lifestyle in the Atlantic Cluster were suspended. We were told that we weren't safe here anymore, that the attack the night before was only the beginning.
A week later, thirteen large ships came to take us off the islands. We took what we could, but nothing more. Our cars, our houses, and our life were among the things that we left behind. As we immigrated to New York, we adjusted again, all but forgetting the life that we had once led. No one but soldiers had set foot on our beloved islands since we had left sixty years ago...
But today, our life would return. More would come, and slowly, we would rebuild the shuttered islands that had been a home to so many innocent people, people who did not deserve to have so much happen to them so quickly.
I remembered the key in my hand, which I had been gripping so hard for so long that it had begun to hurt and slipped it back in my pocket. I had waited sixty-three years for this moment, but so had so many others. I could wait one more day.
As I turned back onto the main road, on my way back to the helipad, I stared at the sun, which had begun to show its face in between the gray clouds. From here, it shone differently, brighter, than it ever had before.
I glanced at my watch: one-thirty. If I didn't get back to the airfield soon, the helicopter would radio the base at Lincolntown, and there would be a search for me across the island.
I was surprised at how slowly I walked, at every detail that I remember just from walking down the street. That gutter was where I had thrown my little sister's barbie doll when she had kicked me in the balls and all of the other boys were laughing at me. There was the house of old Mrs. Wilkins; I can't count how many times she’d screamed at us to stop playing in front of her house. There was Avery's house, where we used to meet and spy on the girls next door as they splashed around in the pool.
As I approached the airfield, I saw the helicopter waiting for me. I knew I would be back tomorrow, but, for some reason, my feet were rooted in place and I couldn't move. I just turned around and around, taking in all of the sights. It had all remained the same, but I had changed immeasurably since the last time I was here. I was eleven when I left. Now, I have a married daughter, a surgical resident.
It had taken sixty-three years. Years and years of paperwork and court cases and appeals and meetings, but I had finally done it. I had finally, at long last, returned to my homeland, to the place that held so many memories.
I had come home.