And the cry rings out, “A.P. did it!” I think he’d be tickled. It’s an honor bestowed on each and every one of us on our way down to the cemetery. A.P. built most of the houses on the island. For 40 years he was the town builder, mason, plumber, architect, electrician and building inspector. Since his death he has become solely responsible for every single piece of bad building ever perpetrated on this rock. He has singlehandedly absolved every one of us of our sins. He is a saint, the patron saint of scapegoats. We can now walk with our heads held high once again, knowing that if one of our little gems is discovered we can always attribute it to the time we hired A.P. to help out for a day or two. It goes something like this:
“Hi, Bud. What’s up?”
“Well, you know that deck you built for me a few years ago?”
“Sure do. What about it?”
“I’ve noticed a little rot where it attaches to the house. I don’t think it was flashed very well.”
“Oh, I see,” I reply, eyes downcast and in obvious pain. “You know, Bud, I hired A.P. to flash that deck. Boy, we sure miss him around here. Don’t you, Bud?”
“Yeah, the place just isn’t the same without A.P.” Wishing he’d never opened his mouth.
“What were you saying about your deck, Bud?”
“Oh nothing, you have a good day.”
This place in history does not come without some just cause. I can vividly recall his upper gums headed north while his false teeth headed south, a visible symptom of a severe stutter that overcame him whenever confronted with one of his many blunders. While A.P. was shrinking with age, his false teeth were not. It was hard to keep your mind on the conversation while that cartoon was playing out. Making matters worse, before A.P. had all his teeth yanked out because he was sick of taking care of them, one of his front teeth was broken in half. On the first day back to the island with his new choppers, A.P. fell , his teeth popped out and that very same front tooth broke in half. And so it stayed. Anytime I got into an argument with him, that tooth caught my eye and robbed my thunder.
A.P. was also a selectman for 30 years. He was old school; whatever the issue, there had to be two sides and he didn’t care which side he was on as long as it was the other side. I once bumped into A.P. twice in one day and argued the same issue with two different people. The first time I could hear him yelling and stomping and stuttering and stooping to grab that first syllable by the tail before it got away, arguing that the town had to get with the times and start thinking about future generations It was time for us to start thinking about recycling, “by the Jesus.” Three hours later he had to be dragged away from a near fist fight with some vacationing environmentalist who asked him why the island didn’t have a recycling program. “This island is too damned small to worry about bringing its beer cans back as tin foil, besides, if we had fewer Grebes hanging around here we’d have a lot less trash to worry about,” A.P. said.
Grebes are sea birds. They are fat, slow and not very smart, and have no known purpose on this earth (to us anyway). Grebe is also the name given to anyone who does not live and work on the island 365 days a year, or have a written excuse for missing a few days. A.P. Dunham would compromise the reputation of his mother to insure his place on the other side of any argument that any Grebe was willing to wage.
A.P. was quite a piece of work, no doubt, but there were things he knew that made him special. He knew the people of this island are different, that they have to be allowed their own way of doing things and at their own speed. He employed anyone who needed work; most of the time it was the only work to be had and he never asked more than people could give. If Bung Ward refused to show up before 10 a.m., after Wheel of Fortune, 12 cups of coffee and a pack of Camels, that’s just the way it was. If Wally Meechum needed six weeks to wire a house that might take a normal electrician one, well, that’s just how long it took. Somewhere along the line he decided that these houses were not simply his to build, but the island’s.
The isolation of the island gives a man the opportunity come up with some pretty wrong information. To establish yourself as a credible expert, you must then be ready to defend that information to the death. I remember the winter that Bung, after watching an episode of This Old House, decided he was an electrician and would take over for Wally when he and Lu went to Florida for a week or two. (Warm, free trailer. Why not? They drove nonstop with 16 sandwiches and a gallon of coffee which probably got them to Connecticut. Twenty three and one half hours on the road. They hated Florida, too many old people which were referred to as “them.” Lu and Wally were in their mid-70s).
Anyway Bung started wiring the new house that A.P. was building, and after a couple of days A.P. realized that Bung did not know what the hell he was doing. Of course a fight broke out and it was a pretty clean fight, no mention of mothers or IQ levels, stuff like that. A.P was screaming about completed circuits and balanced loads while Bung was screaming about something from outer space — lots of coffee and a short fuse. When it seemed like it was slowing down a bit, I would interject an “I don’t think that’s right A.P,” or “Are you sure about that Bung?” Just to keep it going — a fine art around here. Suddenly A.P. looked out the window and said, “Look at that tide! Let’s go clamming.” So we did.
The electrical argument was never mentioned again, but every night for a month after that a light burned late on the job. There was A.P., hunched over this outlet or that. It was part of his job and firing Bung was not an option. A.P. knew how to balance the needs of fanatically independent individuals in an extremely dependent society. He knew that contrariness, dissension and argumentativeness are basic, if sometimes crude ways that people have of maintaining their identities.
First-time visitors to the island are often struck by the simple beauty of an old New England fishing village and the apparent simplicity of a society with 25 people. Nothing could be further from the truth. All of society’s problems are here, condensed. As in a family, we cannot choose those with whom we have to deal every day. Everyone on this island becomes a large part of our lives, and therefore is in a position to know more about us than we might care to have known. As a result, we build images that are intended to insulate, and to some degree, isolate. Sometimes we even act like the modern version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Sometimes it’s a three-ring circus, other times it’s a cartoon.
There are some who thought Adelphus Peckham was not a very bright man, and I admit that the sight of him stuttering up a storm in heated argument did not help, but A.P. knew something that no amount of education or money could provide. He knew that people, above all else, have to be respected.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.