I enjoyed a piece of small-town Americana on Sept. 17, when I gave a talk at a luncheon meeting of the Bristol (R.I.) Rotary Club. Oh, for a renaissance of such civic organizations!
The club is part of Rotary International, which aims to bring mostly local business and professional leaders together to promote humanitarian service, boost ethics and encourage friendship and goodwill. The few dozen people at the meeting were thirtysomethings to eightysomethings; everybody seemed to have current or past professional or business connections.
I felt transported back to the Fifties. The meeting began with the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of the National Anthem (with an 89-year-old lady playing the piano) and a nondenominational prayer. After lunch, attendees sang some pre-rock songs. Then came my talk, about the Islamic State, and smart questions.
It would be hard to find a nicer and more engaged group. Participating in such organizations has tended to decline in America in the last few decades. That’s sad, because they do a lot of fine stuff for their localities and the nation, raising money to fight illnesses, promoting education (especially through scholarships), sprucing up parks and many other good causes. Their decline is of a piece with the general slide of civic life. It’s harder these days to get people to run for office, serve on local boards and join charitable drives.
Cynics like to make fun of such upbeat, boosterish organizations, but they address the need of a healthy democracy to have a wide variety of agile nongovernmental organizations serving the public.
Increased mobility, more dispersed families, shorter-term jobs, the distractions of life on the Internet and the general weakening of the middle class have tended to shrink the memberships of service organizations such as Rotary. Let’s hope that can be reversed. That these clubs generally eschew “virtual’’ meetings online in favor of frequent face-to-face encounters is a particular plus. In-person members often become real friends, and thus more likely to encourage themselves and their fellow members to follow through on good works.
Later, I walked around Bristol, and marveled at its antiquarian beauty.
The next day I had a meeting on a small (perhaps 32 feet long) sailboat usually moored off Stamford, Conn. We sailed west to off Greenwich, where we anchored near an island with a gazebo on it. It was late in the season, of course, and there were only a couple of other people there. The menacing Manhattan skyline was in the distance.
We went swimming, in remarkably warm water, and talked about a project in China while admiring the beauty of the day – a glory that seems to go on day after day in September and early October in New England. For a few weeks, we have a champagne climate, albeit tinctured with melancholy about what will follow soon enough. But then “the American Season’’ as it has been called, is both a poignant annual ending and an often boisterous beginning.
To the north could be seen the waterfront mansions of the hyper-rich in Greenwich, not that far from slums in Stamford. The “1 percent’’ is what Greenwich is most famous for, and even more so since Wall Street became so much more powerful and rich in the past few decades, via hedge funds, private-equity firms and investment banks. (That the huge California Public Employees’ Retirement System has decided to quit hedge funds might start a wave that could do some damage to a few of the owners of these houses.)
After we had been at anchor for a while, a young woman in our party said that she had to get back to New York pronto. So our skipper decided to sail the dinghy we had been towing all the way to Greenwich, from whose shores the young woman would make her way to the train station. She made the train, but the wind died and so our captain (a film director!) had to row most of the way back to the bigger boat, where we grew slightly anxious waiting.
Finally the wind came up a bit and we saw his red sail, in the sunset. “There’s John!,’’ we shouted, trying to restrain the sound of relief.
Then we slowly made our way back to Stamford through calm and bioluminescent waters; thank God for the inboard motor. I stayed that night in a cheap Stamford motel, some of whose illegal-alien workers might also be leaf blowers on the grounds of the Greenwich estates. There were cigarettes on the motel’s floors and its “breakfast’’ provided only Cremora for coffee. But perhaps that TV’s in the rooms showed very fuzzy images of athletic pornography to channel surfers was adequate recompense for many weary travelers.
Robert Whitcomb (email@example.com) is a Providence-based writer and editor who oversees this site.