Let me tell you a bit about my summer.
I worked and lived on Star Island, the second largest of the nine Isles of Shoals located seven miles off the coast of Portsmouth, NH. For twelve weeks I washed dishes eight hours a day (twelve on Saturdays), six days a week. As hard as this might be to believe, it made for the best summer of my life.
Star Island is used as a retreat center offering “rustic but adequate” accommodations for those looking to escape from the mainland for up to a week-long stay. The small island boasts around 20 buildings, the largest of which is the Oceanic Hotel, built in the 1870s, and a history which dates back to John Smith’s discovery of the Isles of Shoals in 1614. There is limited internet access and cell-phone service, family-style meals are served three times a day, and softball games are held every week. The island is host to week-long conferences which come and go every Saturday, in addition to a squall of day-trippers and personal retreaters.
Working on Star Island had been a dream of mine for years. Since the age of two, my family and I have spent one week every summer attending one of the conferences which come out to Star. Star Island soon became an important place for me, a retreat from the world and a second home for me and the friends who I only saw for one week every year. Just as the place became a second home, the people became an extended family. Star Island has a funny way of pulling people back to it. This is also true of the people who work there.
Star Island hosts conferences which can number up to 300 people. There is a constant staff of about 100 on Star Island, a group of people who call themselves the Pelicans. The Pelicans are broken up into crews, each one performing one of the necessary jobs on the island. The Kitchies cook the food, the Bakers bake bread and dessert, the “Waitrae” (a gender-neutral term of endearment for wait staff) serve the food, and the “Dishies” do the dishes. The “Snackies” serve food from the snack bar, the “Deskies” man the front desk in the hotel lobby, the “Chambabes” (we had an all-girl chamber crew this year until the end of the season) clean conferee rooms and do laundry, Conference Services and the Bellhops prepare conferee events and make things comfortable for those staying on the island. We also have a Deckhand who works on the M/V Perseverance, the vessel which shuttles supplies and people back and forth between Star Island and Portsmouth, and a Truck Crew who move trash and turn compost. The “Dockies” watch the dock, Carp crew does any wood-based maintenance needed, and Maintenance does everything from change lightbulbs to fix toilets to work on all the island’s heavy machinery. The Rounders fill in the gaps, where they can.
Of course, everyone’s job was a bit more complicated than what I’ve described in my overview, and often it was even more convoluted than what was let on in the job description. Room and board was free for Pelicans and volunteers which, in addition to the experiences we had on the island, more than made up for a low pay rate. I worked as a dishwasher, a “Dishie”, all summer. Working alongside me were Milo Carpenter, acting Dish supervisor, and Jordan Benson, a friend of mine from my childhood as a conferee. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew, and as a first-year, I couldn’t have hoped for a better job. Working Dish all summer gave me a strong work ethic and a high tolerance for a stressful workplace; the dish machine we had to work with, affectionately named Jackson, constantly broke. Part of the problem was on us, we had no idea how to work the machine at the outset of the season. By the end of the summer, though, I knew that machine from his circuitry to his plumbing. We worked 8 hours a day (close to 12 on Saturdays), six days a week.
I was on Star Island for twelve weeks. I had a few days between coming home from school in June and leaving for Star Island, and when I came home from the island I had a day and a half before I had to return to school. I gave up seeing my friends and family at home to do something I had wanted to do since I was a kid. To make things harder, the island has very limited internet and cell phone service. Even with the possibility of an internet connection, I went into a self-imposed media blackout and chose to ignore the fact that I had a Facebook account. When I could, I texted my parents and my sisters and even got a few phone calls in. I tried to get a few of my friends to come out to Portsmouth to visit me, but plans fell through. Though I had effectively gone off the grid, I tried to stay in touch as much as I could so that it wouldn’t be like I had just disappeared. Not having a computer and rarely using my phone let me be more in-tune with the moment.
I was able to see my parents a bit this summer. They came out for a week with my 13-year-old nephew, Derek, for the conference which we had attended since I was a toddler. Derek was baptized in the chapel on Star Island as a baby and had attended the conference last year as well, and I’m glad he’s feeling the same connection to the island that I did at his age. While my parents and my nephew were on the island, my sisters came out for a day trip with my niece and baby nephew. I wish I could have seen them more throughout the summer, but it meant the world to me that they came out, even if just for the day.
When you’re living and working with 100 other people behind-the-scenes on a tiny island where you’re not really supposed to be seen by the people paying to stay there, you’re bound to make some pretty close friends. That being said, as a first-year it can be difficult to integrate yourself into such a close-knit society as the Pelicans Since I was on a crew with only two other people as a first-year and since I arrived on the island a day after the party where each crew makes their introductions to the other crews, I found it took a little while to get to know people that well. After I stopped doing crossword puzzles during my off-time and started finding people to be around, though, it steadily became much easier to get to know people. As I would find by the end of the summer, I would consider a lot of these people lifelong friends.
Every week would bring something new for us Pelicans. We would host a “Pel Show” for each conference, which was essentially a talent show in which Pelicans would perform different acts. We had some amazing musicians this year, and even people who didn’t usually perform broke out of their shells (like me). We played softball against every conference on a field which I can only call non-regulation. A dirt road runs through the outfield, there’s a flagpole in right field and a graveyard in left field and the field itself is so uneven that a ground ball can pop up into the air at any time. It’s a special pastime on Star Island. Parties were thrown throughout the summer, each with a holiday theme and hosted by a different crew. There was never a dull moment on Star Island, unless you count the break between the breakfast shift and the lunch shift, affectionately dubbed “the waitrae naptime”.
I plan on going back next summer, if they’ll have me. It’s an excellent summer gig guaranteed to bring new experiences. The work is hard and the pay is low in comparison to other summer jobs, but for me and a lot of the other Pelicans, it’s not about the money. It’s about giving back to a place which means so much to us and being with some of the best people in the world. I can safely say that this past summer was the best summer of my life.