If you want to find Basil Welch, just pull into his Chilmark driveway and follow the signs.

Pass the one on the right that says Caution: Old Hunter Crossing, tacked to the tree on the edge of the yard.

Stay left of the working outhouse with the crescent moon cutout and the signs that read Turnips and, below that, Selectmen's Meeting Room.

Make your way past the flock of turkeys and find the Squirrel's Nest Diner sign hanging outside the front door. It's right there, next to the Moosehead Beer sign and across the yard from the chicken coop.

Once inside, shuffle through the kitchen and into the living room where, taped to the wall, you will find a piece of paper that says, "I hunt, not to kill, but rather to not have played golf." Chances are you will find Basil Welch there, reclining in his chair and enjoying the warmth of a strong afternoon sun or a roaring wood stove.

 

Chances are he will be wearing his trademark red suspenders and red baseball cap, long black hair flowing down his neck, a gold earring in his left ear, an easy smile on his face and a winter afternoon's worth of stories to share.

This is 82-year old Basil Welch - not exactly your typical octogenarian.

"My father said I was the first hippie ever," he says, running his hand through his hair. "But the truth is, I let my hair grow for other reasons. I didn't object when it cost 50 cents to get a haircut. But after it went to 75 cents, I thought ‘no need for that.'"

With that, he lets out a wide smile.

"I'm part Scotsman, and I have a little bit of Maine in me, which means I'm tighter than bark on a tree."

You can find Mr. Welch at home a lot these days, content to spend his afternoons carving wood sculptures and duck decoys with his longtime companion, Coco Adams. He might be waxing reminiscent about his 32 years working for the telephone company, installing and repairing service across the Island. Or about his youth spent working at the old SBS store on Main street in Vineyard Haven and, later, driving supplies for the Air Force. He might be talking about the old days, when as a boy he could walk clear across the Vineyard without any No Trespassing signs to stop him.

Or if the weather is nice and his arthritic knees are not bothering him too much, he might be out cruising on his four-wheeler, heading toward the Menemsha Brickyard.

Mr. Welch likes to look back, to retell old stories and relive past memories. His home is evidence of that.

"I'm a collector of most everything, unfortunately," he says. "I should have a house four times as big as this tar paper shack."

Indeed, Mr. Welch's home is a small museum of sorts. His collection includes hundreds of his own wood carvings, reams of books and thousands of vintage photographs of the Vineyard. The guest room overflows with sculptures, novelties and trinkets of all sizes. Dozens of photo albums line the walls.

Photo

"You can't bring back yesterday," he says. "I think that's why I like these old photos. I don't like to let go."

He is particularly proud of his wood carvings, which range from miniature caricatures of farm animals to life-sized ducks. One of his favorites is a lone skunk face to face with three dogs.

"I'm not sure what to call this one," he says. "Are the dogs cornering the skunk or has the skunk cornered them?"

Around the Island, Mr. Welch is known as the telephone man with the red hat and the red suspenders. He says the suspenders are less a fashion statement than a necessity

"Climbing poles with a heavy tool belt is a recipe for disaster," he says with a laugh. "There were several times my pants fell down while I was up on a pole. Can you imagine how hard it is trying to shake off your trousers while hanging on to a pole 30 feet up just so you can free your legs to get down?"

He has worn them faithfully for more than 40 years.

"I'm not climbing any poles anymore, but I don't want to scare anybody," he says. "Somehow, I just don't look good naked anymore."

In Chilmark, Mr. Welch also has gained notoriety for his writing. In 1985 he took over as the town cemetery superintendent ("I was bored with retirement," he says), and for 15 years he wrote the cemetery commission report for the annual town report. His accounts were humorous, homespun and folksy, ranging from satirical to poetic. In short, a far cry from the usual formal prose associated with bureaucracy.

"Nothing exciting has happened, but nothing usually does," he wrote in 1994. "People continue to drop in, some for a quick visit and some unfortunately long-term."

"Lots are available but are in the new part," he wrote in 1989. "There are two burial and four burial lots. They are nonbuildable and do not have a water view. Don't be in a hurry to use one."

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"There's only so much one can say about a cemetery," he mused in 1997. "It's a grave situation. People are dying to get in there."

And always he ended with the sendoff, "All is quiet on Abel's Hill."

But however humorous he tried to make them, not everyone was enamored with his observations.

"One year, Dr. [John] Wallace, who was a cemetery commissioner, came up to me in a pretty foul mood and said my reports weren't factual enough," he says. "And he was serious about it. So the next year, I gave him the facts."

The report read: "In Abel's Hill cemetery there are: 775 gray, granite and marble stones, 680 white stones, 415 natural field stones, 16 pink stones, one red marble stone, one gray bench, one pink bench and three metal grave markers for a total of 1896 grave markers. And that's a fact!"

"I never heard another word from Dr. Wallace," he says.

Mr. Welch stopped writing the report in 2001, when the cemetery commission decided to take responsibility for it. But for fans of his writing there is good news: Mr. Welch will be back this year for a return engagement. He has not lost any of his sense of humor or his sense of history. And as always you can bet on his final words.

To that, he now adds another favorite saying: "Better over the hill than under it," he declares.