Wild Roses, Slate and the Yearnings of a Swashbuckler A LETTER FROM RHODY

July 21, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH

From a hill on a turf farm not far from Newport, we contemplate the glory of Narragansett Bay sparkling in the distance. We are contemplating Little Rhody from a rock-rich, 90-acre turf farm which seems more suitable for mining arrowheads than for growing lawns to be sold at Hechinger's. Flattened, sharp-edged shale covers the ground as tightly as grass.

A football field away from our vantage point stand three houses, a defunct dairy barn and mounds of impenetrable wild rose. My good friend, the absentee farmer, says the roses were recommended to his father as suitable hedging by an agricultural agent. Now it rises and thickens like green ground fog cum thorns. Bulldozers and other heavy equipment are needed to remove it.

The ancestral plot strikes my friend, therefore, as slightly out of control. That seems to bother him. I am not so sure control is all it's cracked up to be. When it comes to defining ourselves in terms of land, we city dwellers are out of practice.

And he is even further dislocated, a visitor on his own land, a survivor of war, a world traveler. He has been away in the Persian Gulf, reporting the activities of Saddam Hussein and Norman Schwarzkopf. Then as always the farm had been much on his mind. One of the last swashbucklers, according to another friend, he remains a Rhode Islander. The state has a grip as fast as the wild rose. Even heavy equipment, though, is not up to the removal chore.

''When I was sitting there in Baghdad waiting to be bombed -- pretty sure I was going to die -- I kept asking myself: 'Why did I ever leave this place?' '' He asked himself again. He was always going to leave -- and, perhaps, to return.

This is not entirely a secret to him. The images of Rhody, as sweet as honeysuckle in the summer air, have power: the red-and-white-hulled day sailer, heeled over at the mouth of Patuxent Cove; Little Compton, a village nestled among tidal marshes and brackish inlets, a place you cannot get to or leave; the promontories of Block Island; the beaches of Moonstone, Misquamicut, Matunuck, Weekapaug and Quonchontaug and Horse Neck; the East Side of Providence where everyone lives ''off Hope,'' the interconnecting main street and state motto.

My friend had returned to cope with the roses and a squatterly tenant, a man who had arrived with delusions of grandeur or dishonorable intentions or both, a man who proposed to build a )) multi-million-dollar housing development, imagining that his vision for the land would be shared by its owner.

His ideas were closer to sacrilege. The swashbuckler listened, of course. He would feel even more noble and outraged if he knew the full extent of the fortune he was rejecting. The tenant eventually proved unable even to pay the rent. He then refused to leave. When finally evicted, he left evidence of criminal activity -- a theft ring specializing in high-priced automobiles. More delusions and illusions, perhaps.

In Little Rhody, beauty always seems to be butting up against extraordinary human behavior. This is a place:

* Where the native consumer is wary of buying merchandise which has not been stolen.

* Where a former chief justice of the state supreme court was a lawyer for alleged members of the mob.

* Where a wealthy Brahmin was elected to the U.S. Senate in perpetuity and where a house painter was elected to the House of Representatives (twice only!).

* Where a low number automobile license tag is a totem, passed along to heirs and assigns, signifying status, connections.

* Where, within the space of a single week recently, a Providence police lieutenant, the mayor of Pawtucket and a judge were indicted.

The lieutenant was charged with failing to incarcerate a prisoner involved in a murder case. The man died on the way to a sky-diving outing. A videotape of the prisoner and a policeman showed the policeman saying something about how the the criminal justice system had been very good to them both.

The mayor of Pawtucket was charged with directing city business to a state legislator in exchange for political campaign contributions. The legislator, oddly enough, was known to the rest of the world as a do-gooder. And, in fact, he blew the whistle. You have that kind of tension in Rhody, the rock shale spreading out adjacent the green grass.

The judge allegedly took loans from lawyers whose cases he might hear. This practice was thought to be a potential conflict of interest.

Once referred to regularly by newspapers as the headquarters of organized crime in New England, Rhody's residents have no image problem. Is it parochialism? Is it an inability to imagine anything else? Is it implicit understanding that nothing else satisfies quite as well? Pride and loyalty here, thrown up to the surface like rocks from the soil, easily overwhelm opprobrium and ridicule.

The zany stories are irrelevant to the absentee farmer-swashbuckler. He wants to build a house on the ancestral land. Notwithstanding his commitments in the wider world, he yields to a tidal force, a chromosomal nagging that foreordains. He denies and affirms the force. He is bound up in a grim and joyous struggle.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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