MARTHA'S VINEYARD is, above all, an island, and to the 8000 small-town folk who live there year round, it is The Island. Seven miles of open sea separate the scenic mass of rubble deposited by Ice Age glaciers from the mainland and its ravages--a distance too short to protect against commercialism, but long enough so that many might think the Island is miraculously immune. The Vineyard stands on its own, it seems, and the assured independence most Islanders assert was reflected in a famous headline a few years ago, when poor weather scuttled the regular ferry sailings. "Sound Fogged In," observed the Vineyard Gazette, "Mainland Cut Off."
The fogged-in ports shouldn't have mattered to any of the Gazette's readers, because who in good sense would want to leave the Island? The Vineyard has everything--fresh seafood, clean air, unspoiled beaches, and such interesting people. There are year-round celebrities, like James Taylor, Carly Simon, and James Cagney, but these keep a lower profile than the brash intruders like Frank Sinatra--who arrives annually in yachts 100 feet long and longer. And there are intellectuals to provide some sophistication, ranging from Doris Kearns to Ewart Guinier '33, from Rev. Harvey Cox to Roger Baldwin '05.
If you want to see for yourself, the Chappaquiddick Bridge still stands, though splintered by souvenir hunters. And if Society is your society, there's a staid yacht club, host to 51 regattas so far and an appropriate number of regatta balls.
All of these--the famous, the tourists who want to know where Senator Kennedy was really heading, the well-bred rich who would buy hospitality--they are all quietly resented and despised by the year round Islanders. They mar simple beauty. They crowd the roads. They are invaders from the outside world, and the enemy is anyone who got off the ferry after you did.
The Islanders do their best to pretend the "summer ginks" do not exist, or that they are at least only peripheral to real Vineyard life--the delicate small town give-and-take at which people who live on an island are expert. Of course the Islanders couldn't live without off-Island money, and the island's main business is construction of homes for off-Islanders. But this only deepens the resentment, and the determination to glory in insularity.
THE ADVANTAGES of retaining small-town life are convincing. There's the exhilaration of knowing all your neighbors, and almost everything about them. Conversations are comfortably redundant--little new happens, and when something does, everyone knows. Men who leave for work at the same time each day find it unremarkable that they inevitably pass the same men at the same places each morning.
There's no escape from the Island or the routine, and that's what makes Vineyard life perilous. Rational means-and-ends decisions are impossible because there are no ends. If one person offends another, they rarely "never speak again." It simply can't be avoided. They are trapped on the Island.
Laws are undermined by an unwritten Island etiquette that lends itself to long-term co-existence, an existence that excludes off-Islanders. Aliens are not wise to the shallowness of water over there or the good fishing over here. Islanders know, and wouldn't be foolish enough to ground their boats, pick up poison ivy, or try to fillet an eel for supper.
So when an Islander is accused of committing a brutal crime--one was charged with a homosexual assault last winter that resulted in serious injuries--Islanders are incredulous. They refused to believe the tidbits that trickled from the police, and they attacked publication of the testimony as they watched one of their own embarrassed. They couldn't believe an Islander would do such things, and even if he had, the intrusion of the off-Island system of justice seemed unwarranted. It should have been worked out among neighbors. They are all friends there, and that makes things different.
There are other small towns and islands where life is as intense and personal as on the Vineyard, and the delightful, dangerous sensation of security in uniqueness is not unique to the Island. There are closed circles everywhere, whose members govern more with mercy than justice, and not out of evil intent. Compassion is easier, and often unavoidable on an island where everyone knows everyone.
PERHAPS A RESTORATION of insular compassion in American life is possible. If Vietnamese were recognized as people, just plain folks, bombing them would have been harder. The same generosity that produced the Nixon pardon might be extended to less well-known criminals. Blacks entering Boston schools might be recognized as not just "black." There is surprisingly low racial consciousness on Martha's Vineyard.
But this is probably too much to ask, to view people as persons. There are too many of them, and they move too quickly and erratically.
Recognizing that there are no islands might be enough, and worth the disillusionment, however. It might force the realization that special rules do not govern American behavior, that American soldiers are capable of war crimes, that if justice was applied equally, many American policies would be judged criminal. The Chilean democratic process might be as sacred as the Constitution. Water between lands might seem less definitive.
On the Vineyard, the protection provided by Nantucket Sound seems less significant each year. More and more people come for the first time to the Island who do not know what is and isn't done there. Islanders are making less of an effort to tell them. They are putting up signs and passing town by-laws instead.
Enforcement of strict zoning laws has tightened at the expense of some individuality. Islanders have always prided themselves on their fierce stubbornness, but not on naivete. "Look at the things happening on the rest of the Cape," one Islander recently mourned. "Horrible developments. The saddest thing is it could happen here, too. Before you know it, this place could be like New Jersey."