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Back to My Island, With the Obamas

By Julia Rappaport
Saturday, August 15, 2009

This month, author David Kinney wrote in The Post's Travel section, "Call me contrarian, but I can think of a lot of destinations I'd rather visit in late August than Martha's Vineyard."

Well, Mr. Kinney, call me contrarian, but there is no place I'd rather be.

Next weekend, I'll pack bathing suits, sunscreen, my press pass and a slew of reporter's notebooks and head to the Vineyard, a tight-knit community that's gearing up for the presidential visit. For 10 days, I'll follow President Obama, Michelle and the girls. Will this summer trip be like those the Clintons took in the 1990s? Will the Obamas lick ice cream cones on crowded Oak Bluffs streets, visit the West Tisbury Agricultural Fair and hit the cocktail party circuit?

Maybe. But maybe not.

I grew up on Martha's Vineyard, a 100-square-mile island about seven miles off Cape Cod. I lived there year-round and went to elementary school there. My home town instilled in me an understanding of community, a love of salt air and an appreciation for slurping up a plate of littlenecks caught just hours before.

The Vineyard is a magical community -- in August and the other months of the year. September is my personal favorite. The summer crowds thin, and the residents breathe a collective sigh of relief. (Recent data from the Martha's Vineyard Commission estimates the year-round population at about 15,000, but that swells to 75,000 on peak summer days with the influx of seasonal residents and day-trippers.) Early-fall days are golden, and they boast heaps of late-summer sweet corn and last-of-the-season tomatoes. Plus, the ocean is still warm enough for a swim after work.

In December, the island grows quiet. Like the sheep and cows on Vineyard farms, islanders hunker down, devouring books by their fireplaces, letting stews simmer on the stove and ending evenings early -- on "Vineyard time." In late winter, snow covers the sand on the beaches, and naked tree branches hang heavy over roads.

Not all is silent. Toward winter's end, in March, the Vineyard is home to a terrific film festival, which draws filmmakers and audiences from across the country. Community centers, coffee shops and dive bars host local musicians, and dance shoes come out to warm those chilly nights.

By the time April rolls around, the daffodils are poking their heads through the cracks in stone walls. The island begins to wake again. By July the days are long, and the whisper of sea breezes fills the air. The island bustles with vacationers and working college students. Summer is when life is busiest for the people who live there full-time. Seasonal industries account for the bulk of the island's economy. Landscapers, fishermen, restaurateurs -- all scramble to make most of a year's living in just three months.

And then there's August.

Yes, parking spots are nonexistent, the days are hot and it takes an hour to get anywhere. (This, I'm guessing, is what David Kinney dreads about the Vineyard in August.) But for me -- an island girl who now lives in Boston -- the thought of spending 10 days on the Vineyard this month sends shivers up my spine.

Not long after I graduated from college, I was hired by the Vineyard Gazette. For two years I covered small-town politics, wrote a regular column on farming and agriculture, and sat through more selectmen's meetings than I care to remember. It was the most charming job imaginable.

Now I am about to report on the first black president for a big-city daily. As far as I know, I will be the only reporter in the press pool who was actually raised on the Vineyard. The heat and crowds will not matter. This trip will be a thrill.

It will also be a moment of hope -- not just for me but for the Vineyard as well. Like working-class communities across the country, it has been hit hard by this year's double whammy of foul weather and a sluggish economy. Jobs are hard to come by, and the numbers at the local airport are off. In the tiny town of Chilmark, where the Obamas are to stay, the building inspector went an unprecedented five months this year without issuing a single-family building permit.

But when the Obamas come, the crowds will follow, infusing the local economy with much-needed vitality.

While I do love the laid-back charm of the Vineyard in September, I'll take my little slice of August island life. This visit, though not the quietest summer trip, will certainly be the most memorable.

The writer is assistant arts and lifestyle editor of the Boston Herald. Her e-mail address is julia.rappaport@gmail.com.

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