by James Brush
Naragansett. Aquidneck. Conanicutt. Sakonnet. Quonsett. Just words, yet loaded with a rhythm and meaning nearly forgotten and replaced by the Spanish proper nouns of central Texas. These words decorate the maps of a sliver of America obscured, like a planet too close to some sun, by Massachusetts and Connecticut. That tiny scrap of land, two-thirds water, is Rhode Island.
Rhode Island is miniscule, especially by Texas standards. Driving into the Ocean State two summers ago, getting off 95 in Usequepaug, I realized how much my map had grown. It once seemed a long drive across the state, but within forty minutes, driving at Rhode Island’s tiny 35mph speed limit we reached the Jamestown Bridge, which spanned the Narragansett Bay from the mainland to Conanicutt Island.
The thing that struck me hardest was how foreign it all seemed after thirteen years roasting in the big sky heat of the Texas hill country. Quaint little New England farmhouses looking as if they had been set up to make it look more like New England gave way to small towns with used bookstores and refurbished bed-and-breakfasts. White churches with sharp steeples surrounded by headstones hundreds of years older than anything in Texas beckoned to have their pictures taken. Stone fences constructed from the words of Robert Frost marked off fields and lined the roadways that twisted endlessly through large trees beneath a little sky.
At any given stop we were asked, “all set?” by native employees. I used to say it too in my service sector days in Rhode Island, but it was gone now along with quahog, cabinet, bubbler and lav, replaced by y’all, which in Texas does not refer to a two-masted sailing vessel. Now it all just sounded weird. Those who I once considered my people seemed chilly, distant. Summer was still young and perhaps the guards of winter had not yet retreated from the collective soul. “They don’t seem mean,” Rachel observed, refuting the Texas-bred stereotype of the Yankee. “They just aren’t very friendly.”
Coming back after thirteen years forced me to think hard about my birthplace. For years, in Texas, I referred to Rhode Island (pronounced Rho Die-lan) as home. I yearned for its bitter, harsh winters and rejuvenating spring flowers that exploded in wild release to herald the return of birds. I longed for cool autumn evenings filled with the mystery of early dark and large moons hung low over October trees, the strange whisper of winter coming that blew around in piles of fallen leaves.
I was born there, and I went to high school there. It was my first taste of American life after six years spent on overseas naval bases. Driving through in June 2001, however, it didn’t feel like home anymore. I had become used to those Spanish nouns, the interminable yet oddly cleansing heat, wearing shorts in January, not owning more than one coat. I had become used to the ready smiles and open demeanor of Texans. I realized that I loved the wide sky, the rocky canyons, the cedar breaks of the hill country, and even the sight of limitless desert cleaved by that one thin line of highway racing away to Los Angeles or Louisiana with seemingly nothing in between.
We crossed thin Conanicutt Island in about five minutes, and coming around the bend, we saw the twin towers of the Newport Bridge. As the bridge came into view, everything changed because on the other side of this graceful suspension lay Aquidneck Island. We paid the two-dollar toll and started onto the bridge, up the slope, peering between the support cables as they raced past us.
Higher we climbed. I held my breath as the rush of familiar sights greeted me. The prim brick Naval War College Buildings of Coaster’s Harbor Island, the white hulls and billowing sails of countless boats dotting the harbors of Jamestown behind us and Newport ahead. Out on the Atlantic, cargo ships drifted ghostlike along the horizon. Dotting the cold blue water of Narragansett Bay far below, we spied boats—hundreds of them—drifting around the lesser islands: Goat, Gould, Prudence, Patience.
Between the spires, on the apex of the arc, we rolled down the windows to drink in the thrilling tang of the cool salt air of summer evening. We listened to the harsh cries of the gulls piercing the drone of our engine and the throbbing sound of the pylons breaking the automobile wind. I wonder if I have ever been so moved by beauty and excitement as when I crossed over the Newport Bridge with my wife next to me and thirteen years of Texas in my soul. I realized I had forgotten much: the tranquil beauty of the bay, the quiet summer nights on Newport’s cobblestone streets, the sound of waves breaking on rocky crags, and the distant buoy bells clanging in the nighttime breeze.
We descended the bridge into Newport, and I realized that this was no ordinary bridge. It was magical, a portal from the rest of the world to the strange sepia-toned photograph reality that goes by one simple word: home.
Texas is where I live, and Austin has a grip on my heart and soul as strong as the ones Newport and Portsmouth once had. I am a Texan and this is home now, but Newport is that special place that answers old yearnings for home, back then, back in the day, old school, hometown, this is where I grew up. I will go back and visit again. Rachel loved Newport at first sight, and I am now reminded of how breathtaking Rhode Island is in all of its tiny grandeur. I do hope, though, that I will always have that same sense of wonder as if seeing Heaven from afar whenever I next cross that bridge from here to a very special there.
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