In the summer, when people go whizzing by in their golf carts, I watch them with envy. The carts are quiet, they take up less room when parked at the dock, they don’t use much gas (none at all if they’re electric), and they look like so much fun to drive. When our island car bites the dust, I would like to get a golf cart. Aren’t there too many cars and trucks on the islands already? But our islands are working communities whose main access to off-island goods and services is at our town docks. Lobster fishermen need trucks to transport gear to and from the docks where they bring their boats in. Caretakers and contractors receive supplies by boat and they too need a way to transport their goods. Like it or not, on Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry, island cars and trucks are a part of island life.

When I was a child in the late 1950s, our family would arrive in June for our allotted time to use the family house on the shore. We left our car in Southwest Harbor, where Elmer Spurling would pick us up by boat.  When we got to Islesford, Emerson Ham would meet us with his truck to carry my parents and our luggage to the house while my brother and I ran on ahead.  My grandparents arrived in the same manner in July, as well as my aunt, uncle and cousins in August. We did not have a car to use on the island and the family saw no need for one. There were not a lot cars on Islesford, so the ones that were around were memorable. The Merrills had an old “woody” station wagon, and so did the Sawtelles, though we all thought their car belonged to Kay and Paul Eaton, who drove it when they were on the island. It was known by some as the Moo Wagon because there was a cow painted on the side. Lawrence Beal had a ’53 Studebaker, Paul and Audrey Fisher had a dark green Model A Ford with a rumble seat, and Elmer Hadlock had two cars, one of them a Hupmobile. My sister-in-law Karen recalls Elmer using that car for island weddings. The vision of young brides emerging in a cloud of white from the shiny brown two-toned car is a classic. When my grandparents decided they needed an island car, I was full of preteen disdain for the dark blue Plymouth station wagon. I refused to ride in it for years.

The continuity of family vehicles is endearing to me now. I love knowing that, in the late 1930s, Hillis Bryant took my father and Jack Merrill with him to read electric meters on Great Cranberry, letting them drive his truck. I don’t know if it’s the same one, but the remains of a 1930 Chevy truck, once owned by Hillis, sit alongside a road that leads to the marsh on Islesford. I walked down that path a lot with our two-year-old sons. The truck cabin was still intact and they liked sitting in it, turning the steering wheel. Their name for the truck, “Bobo,” was one of their first words. Our sons were about to become teenagers when my father was nearing the end of his life. He was no longer able to drive, and he decided his Valiant sedan would be a good car for the Islesford family house. I will always remember the smile on Dad’s face when I noted that his grandsons would probably learn to drive in that island car.

On a small island it’s hard to put much mileage on a vehicle. The wear and tear on cars and trucks is on their bodies and parts more than their engines. The ingenuity that keeps island vehicles useable compensates well for their low cosmetic value. Door handles are one of the first things to go, and it is not unusual to see a driver roll down the window to open a door from the outside. Rusted out truck beds are replaced with sturdy wooden beds that will last longer and are more efficient for loading and unloading freight. Though island cars need to be registered, they don’t need to be inspected, which offers more leeway for creative customizing.

Late in the 1970s, my husband Bruce bought a 1968 International truck with a three-speed shift on the column, which soon broke. Bruce disconnected the linkage, cut a hole in the floor, and installed two copper pipes that came right up into the cab. One pipe worked as a lever for reverse, neutral, and first gear; the other worked for second, neutral, and third. That truck was fun to drive and rarely borrowed, as people were intimidated by the unfamiliarity of the shifter. It was still in good shape when the door fell off a few years later. Bruce made a new door out of plywood, with a Plexiglas window and a bungee cord to hold it shut.

Currently Bruce and I own two vehicles, which seems a bit unnecessary. Bruce has a truck, a gas guzzler, that he uses mostly to transport his fishing gear around. The rest of the time we use an old Ford Escort that was given to us by my mother when she stopped using it. The frame is broken and welded together, so we no longer drive it on bumpy roads. Both of the rear door handles broke off in the winter, when the doors were iced shut and we tried to open them by yanking up on the handles just a little harder. There is a leak in the gas tank if it is filled above half way. Moss grows on the roof and there are dents from parking lot collisions. I thought I was one step closer to living my golf cart dream when the car no longer started this spring. Bruce called Steve Palmer, who can fix just about anything, to take a look. There was a problem with the wiring in the column and it would cost a lot of money to take it all apart. Golf cart time…, yes? No. Steve was able to bypass the column and connect the wiring through the cigarette lighter. The Escort starts better than ever with the turn of a key and the push of a button. An island car lives on.

-Islesford, May 16, 2011