From Away

Phil Crossman, philosopher of Carvers Harbor, observes Vinalhaven from his perch at Tidewater Motel

To his everlasting regret, Phil Crossman, 73, was not born on Vinalhaven. He admits that he arrived on the island when he was already four, in the company of his mother and father and one of his three brothers—the other two not yet having been born, thus avoiding the stain on their birthright. Crossman’s mother, however, was legitimate: she was born on Vinalhaven, as were Crossman’s grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents going all the way back to 1792, when James Roberts first sailed into Vinalhaven’s Old Harbor and settled on the island. Even so, certain neighbors of Crossman keep close track of island nativity, and he is often reminded of the subtle gradations that distinguish those who are “from here” from those who are “from away.”

Tall, lanky, and with owlish glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose, Crossman is referred to by islanders as “Crow,” a nickname he inherited as a teenager in reference to a similarly named six-foot-six stonecutter who staggered around under the effects of alcohol. That summer, Crossman had grown six inches and was equally unsteady in his new frame, so he also began to be called Crow.

Whether you recognize any avian features or not, it’s hard to miss Crossman on Vinalhaven. You might encounter him delivering or retrieving someone or something at the ferry landing. Or you might see him at the town dump, unloading construction debris from a building or repair project. You are certain to see him at a town meeting, where he is a selectman, or at civic meetings, land trust events, or island celebrations (he often performs as a singer in Phil ’n the Blanks). He may be at any of these places if he is not at his primary place of business, the Tidewater Motel in the middle of Vinalhaven’s “downstreet.”

Aside from his innumerable other interests, Crossman is a gifted storyteller and writer. As an author, he has artfully dissected the distinctions between island natives and other residents in his book Away Happens, a supremely wry and antic chronicle of island life. “There are only two places,” he writes. “Here, this island off the coast of Maine, and Away. Here, this place, is a small place and Away, everywhere else, is a big place, but make no mistake about it, Here is Here and Away is Not.”

For the past two decades, Crossman has contributed regular columns to Vinalhaven’s weekly publication of news and announcements, The Wind, which is published by volunteers who gather weekly in the basement of the Union Church. Crossman’s columns have also appeared in the regional newspaper The Working Waterfront, where he maintains a farflung and loyal readership. In fact, it was one of his Working Waterfront columns that landed him the publishing contract for Away Happens. An employee in the shipping department at the University Press of New England was reading a vintage Crossman piece during her lunch break and laughing audibly when an editor walked by and wanted to know what was so amusing. Crossman’s first book was born.

According to Crossman, his career as a writer began in high school when he enrolled in a class called Creative Nonfiction, which gave legitimacy to what, until then, had been no more than a penchant for “stretching the truth.” One of Crossman’s earliest published stories involves his dog, Yitzhak, who in real life had hopped aboard a pickup truck bound for the north end of the island, where the Ames brothers had a tree-cutting job and where Linnell Mather, a landscaper, also worked. Later that day, a bank manager frantically waved Crossman down in town and asked him if anyone had caught up with him yet. Crossman was sure someone in his family had died.

In fact, a large spruce tree had landed on Yitzhak, and the word was that it didn’t look good for him. While his wife arranged for an emergency Penobscot Island Air flight, Crossman headed to the scene of the accident to find Yitzhak swaddled in a blanket in Mather’s lap. Yitzhak recovered despite a rather substantial hole in his skull and went on to live some years before dying peacefully. But the incident somehow excited mysterious neurons in Crossman’s brain that connected his restless mind to fingers on a keyboard, and his incarnation as a town wit took over as he continued submitting his wry observations on island life to The Wind.

Crossman observes the behavior of his fellow islanders as obsessively as a myrmecologist studies an ant colony. “That’s the beauty of living here,” Crossman tells me during a visit with him at the Tidewater Motel. “There are so many interesting people doing funny things on the island, it’s easy to write stories.” Sometimes he makes up composite characters for his stories to protect the identities of some of the objects of his humor, but then, Crossman adds, “Some of them say, ‘Why didn’t you use my name? I could use the publicity.’”

One of the characters that Crossman wrote about in Away Happens who perhaps could use less publicity is Bait Dyer. Described as a tiny, wiry, and double-jointed young man, he acquired his nickname on the day of his high school graduation after accepting a bet from his classmates that he couldn’t get himself into a wooden lobster trap. Writes Crossman, “After removing the potheads and partition, he squirmed in through the door, and from the fetal position—he did that which no one before or since has ever done—he closed the trap door, thereby establishing himself in the annals of town lore.” Crossman goes on, “If it had ended there…but of course it didn’t.” Dyer’s companions hauled him through town in the back of a pickup truck, advertising a miraculous new bait that did not need to be kept fresh like herring. They then proceeded to row him out to a lobster boat, lift him and the trap aboard, and with 30 fathoms of rope and buoy tied on, head offshore. Bait Dyer, who never went on a lobster boat again, retreated to the island transfer station, where he became a junior attendant and equipment operator.

Another of Crossman’s favorite stories, which he sheepishly admits is a bit of a composite, involves the “Oopsman,” who delivers packages on Vinalhaven for UPS. The Oopsman is well known for delivering as many packages as possible during the morning ferry run to people who happen to be onboard to save him the time and effort of driving all over the island. On one particular day, he had a package for a lobsterman who was known to have a heavy foot after he climbed into his truck at the end of a day of fishing, “booking it” for town. The new deputy sheriff on the island had carefully laid a radar trap for the lobstermen by secreting himself under a lilac bush along the route the lobsterman would be taking. With the last ferry leaving soon, the Oopsman took the opportunity to save time by delivering the lobsterman’s package to the deputy sheriff under the lilac bush, asking him to give it to the miscreant when he caught him speeding. A short while later, the lobsterman drove serenely up to the lilac bush, leaned his head down, and politely asked the sheriff for his package.

In addition to his talents as a writerphilosopher and local politician, and in between various other occupations including carpenter, one-time hardware store owner, wine merchant, and motel owner, Crossman also ran a restaurant on Vinalhaven. “It lasted 90 days,” Crossman tells me matter-of-factly. He decided to call his restaurant the Crow’s Nest, named modestly after himself. “When I first discussed the restaurant idea with Elaine,” recalls Crossman, referring to his longsuffering wife, “she said, ‘Let’s get one thing clear—I’m not having anything to do with it.’ And by the end of it she was down there washing dishes with me at midnight.”

Partway into their one and only season, Crossman opened the Crow’s Nest for Sunday brunches. This effort lasted three Sundays. Crossman had hired an eccentric local artist who had cooked professionally earlier in his life and brought in all of his expensive copper cookware. “He had wonderful, exotic recipes, and the first Sunday the line spilled out the door and into the street,” Crossman recalls. The waitstaff took the orders and put them on clips in the kitchen for the chef, Crossman continues, still highly amused several decades later. The chef would take a random slip to prepare a dish, not in the order in which it had been received but according to what the artist wanted to cook next. “I was the short-order cook, so my omelets became dry and hard under the heat lamp,” says Crossman, “while the chef did his thing. By the third week all seven waitstaff threatened to quit.”

Because Crossman obsessively observes everything happening on Vinalhaven from his vantage point at the Tidewater Motel, perhaps it is not surprising that he took the lead on raising funds to protect the historic character of the downtown section of Carvers Harbor. Crossman was instrumental in the formation of the nonprofit Historic Downstreet, which raised over $150,000 to renovate the island’s original fire station and restore the Reuben Carver fire engine from 1906. This success helped inspire the community to save other historic buildings downtown.

As part of the historic preservation effort, Crossman met with Robert Indiana regarding the future of the towering four-story former Odd Fellows hall, which the artist renovated almost 40 years ago, shortly after moving to the island. Crossman made an appointment to go see Indiana, who had become reclusive. Indiana waited for Crossman upstairs in the building’s largest room, which at one time was the ceremonial center of the Odd Fellows’ complex rituals.

Indiana offered Crossman a seat on the couch. Sitting next to Crossman was an enormous black mechanical dog. Indiana began by asking Crossman why he was not raising money to help him restore his historic Odd Fellows building. Crossman responded by describing the time 30 years ago when island hoodlums broke a window on the front of the historic building. Seeing the damage on his way to work, Crossman retrieved a ladder, took out the window frame, brought it back to his shop, replaced the glass, repaired the frame, and reinstalled it. Suddenly the dog reached out its paw and placed it on Crossman’s lap. Unnerved but undaunted Crossman pressed on and was astounded when Indiana told him he’d watched the whole repair process, although he had never mentioned it or thanked Crossman. When Crossman finally expressed some angst at the continual interruptions from the dog, Indiana said, “For Christ sake, Phil, pet the dog,” whereupon the dog turned to Crossman and whimpered. Recalling the surreal encounter, Crossman says, “A reclusive artist’s talking mechanical dog in the Odd Fellows hall—you could not make this stuff up.”

We climb into the cab of Crossman’s truck for a ride around the harbor. Every bend and every passing vehicle sparks another tale from the obsessive storyteller. Crossing the Lanes Island Bridge brings to mind the time Crossman broke his arm as a boy living in a nearby house. Crossman’s father, Bud, sped his son down to Dr. Ralph Earle’s office in town, located in a large open room above a small market on Main Street. The doctor’s assistant was at one end of the room and Dr. Earle was at the other. As soon as Crossman and his father came in, Dr. Earle began striding across the room, then stopped to whisper something in his assistant’s ear. Then he came over to Crossman and, seeing the very bad break, took Crossman’s forearm in his two hands, one on either side of the break, and with one swift turn snapped the broken bones back in place. Almost as soon as the doctor had set the bones, his assistant arrived with an ice cream cone from the market down below for the 12-year-old patient.

While we wait for the ferry, I ask Crossman about the unforgettable cover of his book, Away Happens. It is a photograph of a late-middle-aged man standing back-to on the shore of Carvers Harbor wearing nothing but a life jacket while waving to a departing ferry. Crossman swears that it is not him on the cover, and I do not suggest he prove it.