[This essay appeared in the “Boston Harbors” column of the April 2000 issue of artsMedia, an arts magazine which has since ceased publication. All photos are from Google images.]
If approach is all, then getting to Castle Island is a modest exercise in pure pleasure — even on a fickle April morning, when the wind and the rain have joined hands in a conspiracy of grey. The departure point is the Broadway stop on the Red Line, the vernacular bustle of languages and skin color against the marble-like whiteness of this wonderful T-station. Up the escalator to the street level, the #9 bus connects Broadway Street to the terminus — that configuration of land and water, fortification and flux which is Castle Island. It is a determined ride over rolling terrain, past dutifully but tastefully maintained houses and neighborhoods, toward the glow in the distance. Off and on, the sun is an apparition through the grayness, and the colorful, crowded display on either side of the street fleets by in a dizzying dance of shade and light.
There is a moment, a split second, to all approach when a change of some sort— a sudden reshuffle — occurs, when the point of destination toward which all energies have been harnessed reveals itself. This moment can be magisterial and awe-inspiring. I am thinking of the moment when the ancient Nabatean town of Petra suddenly reveals itself in all its glory and mystery through the seemingly endless, narrow ridge. Or it can be almost imperceptible as is the case this morning at City Point, the easternmost tip of South Boston. The water is suddenly there in the distance, at first a mere speck and then as a bluish grey mass where mallards and dogs are having the time of their life, joggers are running on the boardwalk, two children and their mother are flying a red and yellow kite on the grassy knoll surrounding Fort Independence nearby , and star-struck pedestrians are simply wandering around.
From the bus-stop, it is a short downward walk to the water, Marine Park to the left, the way to Castle Island itself to the right, the urban landscape behind. Ahead, a large statue of Admiral David Farragut, the naval war hero, looking out to the sea. And beyond him, the water itself, restless and turbulent. A cold easterly wind is here, turning the waves upward and inward. In the summer, though, this place is packed with people. “They call it Boston’s refrigerator,” says a native of South Boston who has been living here for 78 years.”The best place to be. You won’t find a single parking spot on any of the streets, and Marine Park is packed, especially on the weekends,” he adds.
The old man from South Boston is full of information, some of which are mentioned in the brochure which the Official Greeter of Fort Independence, which will not open to the public until Memorial Day, hands out to the visitors: In 1665, Captain Davenport, the island commander, was killed by a lightening which missed a powder magazine by only a few feet. In 1827, Edgar Allen Poe, under the name of Perry, served on Castle Island for five months; his story “The Cask of Amontillado” is said to have been influenced by the 1817 legendary duel of Lts. Massie and Drane. A wooden bridge was built on the island in 1892, replaced by an eastern causeway in 1925, and an automobile road in 1932. There are also memorials of the Spanish-American War, the Korean War. The most striking, though, is the bust of firefighter Robert Green whose shockingly world-weary gaze belies the heroism for which he is honored here.
The moment of approach invariably involves a leap of the imagination where direction and focus suddenly turn against themselves. Distraction — that generous consoler against which we have waged such single-minded wars in our classrooms and factories, that invaluable asset which we have banished from our corporate mazes and political rallies and sites of learning — takes over. Distraction bridges opposites—what we came for and what we may encounter, what we anticipated and what we may receive, what we planned and what may transpire when we arrive.
The sun has broken through. For a long, long moment, it seems as though all the demons and heroes, the battles and skirmishes, the eight forts which have have been built on Castle Island and the lives which have been lost in the course of 360 years of US history and its wars, the array of armaments and military technology have suddenly re-emerged from the depths, from this meeting-place of flux and fortification.
All along, the delusion is that approach will lead to arrival, but arrival is always from some place unknown. From the sea.~~Taline Voskeritchian