Woods Hole Bus Station

The bus station in Woods Hole, Mass. was built sometime in the late ‘70s. Several years ago Albert Pike told me he helped build it—and said it was the last regular, full-time job he ever had. He didn’t like full-time employment because it “made you a slave,” and you weren’t free to “go somewhere when you wanted to.”  He was a “free spirit,” who followed his heart, he explained.

 Albert hangs out in that part of town a lot during the warm months. There are several restaurants where he washes dishes when business gets heavy during the season and he does odd jobs for folks—painting, cleaning, yard work—all over town. Several people let him stay in sheds or garages that have been fixed up with a bunk or have an old couch he can sleep on. He’s been known to sleep in a cardboard box in back of the Steamship Authority office. Technically that’s illegal but the local cops look the other way.

During cold weather—late October through April—he goes, “somewhere,” else. When asked where he winters he gives everybody a different story—an old girlfriend in Boston, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Florida. The Florida story is possible because he usually has a tan when he shows up in April.

I’d gotten into town toward the end of the season that year and after I finished shooting the bus station and some other subjects, I asked around but no one was sure if he was still in town or not—you never know with Albert—after all he is a “free spirit.”

Everybody knows Albert. You can’t miss him riding around town on that special bike wearing his hat-of-the-week—a fedora, hardhat, cowboy hat, straw hat etc. People know he’s a bit of an odd duck—doesn’t have any friends—doesn’t talk much and when he does talk he sometimes says things that seem odd. He’s polite, fairly dependable and has a reputation for doing good work. But the main reason everybody around town knows him is because of what happened eight years ago.

A small contractor out of Providence was hired by the town that year to dig up and replace some old gas pipes in the Penrey Heights neighborhood on the south side of the town wharf.

Apparently a cut-off valve was damaged and gas leaked into the crawl space and cellar under a three-story Federalist-style home on Captain Blakely Street.

Albert was doing yard work there that day. There was an explosion—the entire west side of the house was blown out and a fire started. A family of four—a couple and their two kids—had been renting the house for the summer. At the time of the explosion the mother had been shopping, the father was killed instantly, the two kids—ages 8 and 6—were trapped inside.

No one saw him go in but several neighbors saw Albert come out cradling one kid in his arm and leading the other by the hand. One of the neighbors, an amateur photographer, got a great shot of him emerging like a ghost from the flames and smoke with the kids. It ran in the local paper a few days later—next to a picture of the dad.

The picture was an amazing shot—majestic and breath-taking in its unaffected symbolism—it got picked up by the Associated Press. Other than some smoke inhalation the kids were OK, Albert sustained extensive 3rd degree burns on both hands—probably from tearing down a flaming door.

The town wanted to honor him as a hero but Albert refused to cooperate—refused even an interview. He hid. When the media started pestering him he vanished for a few weeks. He hated attention. A collection was taken up to get Albert’s hands fixed—a hand surgeon and burn specialist in Boston donated their services. The surgeries were carried out in secrecy to accommodate Albert’s preferences. He has almost full use of his hands today.

Still—everybody wanted to reward him. An informal committee was formed to try to figure out something he would be comfortable with. One of the kids he saved suggested the town get him a new bike. The one he had been riding for years—that he stored in someone’s garage during the winter—was a piece of junk and too small.

The next spring when Albert returned from “somewhere”– sitting next to his old bike in the garage was a shiny new bike—the right size—with a picture of the 2 kids and a note from them that simply said, “Thank you Albert.” The owner of the garage, who had known Albert for many years, said it was the only time he’d ever seen Albert show any emotion. Albert sat on the ground next to the bike and cried for several minutes.

I never did get to see Albert that year. I went by the home where he leaves his bike in the off-season—it was there, covered by a sheet. I hope to get back next season—I really hope I can spend a few moments with him.

He can be hard to catch sometimes—you just never know with Albert—after all, he is very much a free spirit.

FacebookTwitterDeliciousGoogle GmailGoogle ReaderDiggShare

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge