Iced-in Nantucket: 'Oh, is it winter? We'd hardly noticed'

It was a brisk 14 degrees F., and a stiff wind was embossing another veneer of frost on the windows of the red brick post office. No matter. Malcolm Finlay didn't seem to notice. The Nantucket native, his plaid winter coat half-open, shuffled across the street in front of the post office, stopping only long enough to shift his khaki golf cap to the other side of his head.

"Oh, yes, I get cold once in awhile," he chucled when reminded of the prolonged chill gripping New England. "It's my ears. They're big; they feel it."

Residents of this ice-encrusted island off Cape Cod are shrugging off one of the coldest January in recent years the way Jack Benny would a dinner tab. If winter has come, it seems, someone forget to tell them here on Nantucket.

It's not that the 5,000 year-round residents have nothing to worry about. The nine-day cold snap, which has bluntly reminded New Englanders how vulnerable they are to the lash of Old Man Winter, has burst a few water pipes here, too.

And, as in other towns up and down the coast, the cold also has left two-feet-thick "rafts" of ice in the harbor, reducing traffic to and from the mainland to a trickle. The island's fishing trawlers remain solidly grounded in a moonscape of ice and slush.

Meanwhile, in the rest of Massachusetts, Gov. Edward J. King has declared an energy emergency because of a natural gas shortage. The governor has asked the federal government to send in gas from other regions.

Yet, all of that goes virtually unnoticed here. Ice and wind and cold are as much a part of the island residents' daily routine as is pulling on a pair of boots. The residents just chuckle about the energy problems "on the mainland."

Down at the post office, clerk Robert Michetti was busy parceling out the new Sears, Roebuck catalogs.

"People always think it's so isolated out here," he said with a furrowed look. "But if you've lived that way all your life, you don't worry about it."

Brian O'Neil, an unemployed waiter who was trudging up the street, evidently wasn't worried either.

"People on the mainland seem upset that we're so relaxed," he said, ice nodules forming on his close-cropped beard. "They seem to want to grag us and shake us up."

But for all the residents' aplomb, the deep freeze hasn't gone completely unnoticed. The ferry service that is supposed to shuttle people and supplies between the island and Woods Hole, on the mainland, twice a day has recently been hard put to make the voyage in less than 10 hours -- if at all. Normally the trip takes three hours.

On Monday and Tuesday it took the ferry more than 13 hours to make one leg of the trip, even with a US Coast Guard cutter leading the way. On Wednesday the ferry made it in a mere six hours, completing its first round-trip in several days. The ice, which extends all the way to the mainland, has broken up in recent days. But Coast Guard officials warn that a northerly wind could bunch the ice up between the pincers of this crab-shaped island -- and that's where the harbor is.

As more frequent ferry runs are made, they will help to restock the island's food stores, which earlier in the week were running short of milk and eggs; otherwise food has been plentiful.

The partial ice breakup also has helped avert a near-disastrous energy shortage. A barge carrying 425,000 gallons of fuel oil docked here Wednesday night. It was just in time.

"We were practically down to nothing" said a relieved Robert Caldwell, president of Harbor Fuel Oil Corporation. An estimated 85 percent of Nantucket residents heat with oil. The rest use either natural gas or wood.

The close call, however, didn't seem to raise many eyebrows here. Residents have simply used the nature- imposed exile to do what they like best -- enjoy the solitude.

Said a stout Sgt. Paul Smith of the Nantucket Police: "We've gone through this so many times we don't even think about it anymore. "

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