A recent New Yorker article (behind a pay wall, drat the luck) about the life, times, and uncertain fate of Governor’s Island offered this charming summary of the place’s history:
Benjamin Franklin’s nephew oversaw design of a fort. John Peter Zenger, the first American champion of freedom of the press, had, as a German immigrant, been quarantined here. Wilbur Wright took off and landed here for the first airplane flight over water in the U.S. The Smothers Brothers were born in the island’s hospital. Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit in 1988 in the Admiral’s House. The Burger King was the only one in America that served beer.
Governor’s Island would be 150 acres of prime Manhattan real estate if it weren’t cut off from the tip of that larger island by a significant stretch of open water. From 1966 until 2003, it was used as a base by the U.S Coast Guard, an organization with which I have more than a passing familiarity.
The first time I ever heard of the island was in 1995, while I was at the Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey-in boot camp, in other words. We were nearing graduation, and I was sitting through a class on how to fill out our “wish lists,” the form on which we would tell the Coast Guard where we hoped to be stationed next.
The instructor drew our attention to a section of the form where we could enter the two places where-even if the Guard couldn’t give us one of our first choices-we absolutely didn’t want to be stationed.
“I’m not telling you what to put there,” he said, “but I always put the same two places: headquarters, and Governor’s Island.”
I followed his advice. As it turned out, I didn’t get sent to headquarters or to Governor’s Island, but neither did I get my first choice, one of the 400-foot icebreakers that cleared the Northern Passage each year and then took a slow southerly ride home, calling in ports from Tokyo to McMurdo Station. Instead, I ended up on a 378-footer out of Seattle, which took me south to Samoa and north to the Arctic Circle. Close enough, and I have no complaints now.
But what if I had lived for a couple of years on an island off the tip of Manhattan? I’ve always been fascinated by New York City-what a way that would have been to experience the Big Apple. I’ve fantasized about it from time to time: looking out my barracks window at the lights of the greatest city on earth, racing to catch the last ferry back on a Saturday night, watching the ships go by. Since it’s a place that’s always been a trigger for my imagination, I’m kind of glad to hear that its fate is still al little unsettled.