Ricky Vanderhoop died last week. Ricky was an auto mechanic who restored my 1963 Falcon. He did a magnificent job, always taking great pride in his work. Over the years I’d bring the car in for this and that and gradually got to know him as he began to feel like an old friend. He came from generations of Wampanoag leaders here on the Vineyard. He had many friends and was a beloved husband, father and grandfather.
Ricky loved life and, in particular, hot rods, antique cars and the Beach Boys. I’d occasionally run into him at his parents’ restaurant, The Aquinnah Shop, and we’d hang and talk. His cancer had become more noticeable over the years as he lost his hair and started to look older and more beaten down. I’d been told that as a younger man he was a gorgeous human being, a sweetheart as well as a rascal, and one of the stalwarts of the famous Gay Head drag race scenes at Hughie Taylor’s. He and Buddy Vanderhoop were an inseparable pair, especially so after Rickie’s illness got bad.
Any time I called or came to his shop with my old car, he gave me the time of day as if I was his one special customer. When I’d ask how he was doing he’d grumble and say, “Don’t ask. It sucks. Damn meds are killing me worse than the friggin’ cancer.” I realized it was better to say, “Hey, great to see you.” Sometimes I’d say, “Hey, you’re looking pretty good,” and he’d reply, “Well I feel like crap.” Then he’d give me that sweet smile and say, “Though I’d rather feel like crap than be pushing up daisies.”
Last Friday was Ricky’s funeral. I cannot begin to convey what an experience that was. We’d been informed that there would be a procession of antique cars and hot rods afterwards and all were invited to join in. I gave my ’63 Falcon convertible a cleaning and drove with my wife up to Aquinnah and met up with some other friends.
The Gay Head Community Baptist Church is a tiny chapel along a dirt road on a hillside. Off in the distance is the ocean. The church holds maybe 50, 60 folks. When we got there the church was already full and there were at least a couple of hundred or so mourners surrounding the church. The day was sunny and beautiful. Autumn colors were surrounding stone walls and one could feel the whispers of the ancestors among the ancient hills. Along the dirt road was an endless stream of antique cars, hot rods, jalopy pick-up trucks and motorcycles. The Wampanoag Black Rock drummers drummed and chanted as Jason Baird, the tribal Medicine Man, lit smoke brushes at the entrance to the church. Then there was silence. From inside the church we could hear the hymn, Amazing Grace. Everyone joined in. More silence, then prayers and the ancient hymn, Fly Fly Away.
When I die, Hallelujah, Bye and Bye I’ll Fly Away.
I looked around the church at this crowd of lovely folks — Native Americans, old hippies, farmers, fishermen, carpenters, artists and poets, little children, babies in arms, kids, town officials, Island celebrities — a community grieving and celebrating the life of a beloved Island guy. On that sunny, lovely fall day, I felt so profoundly blessed to be part of this community and to relish in its abundance.
The service was over and we were told, “Follow the car in front of you.”
I’d thought there would be a short procession to the cemetery — well not quite. Following an Aquinnah police car, the hearse led a procession of antique cars and hot rods and an assortment of unique vehicles for Ricky’s Last Ride. We drove onto State Road and then down Lobsterville Road, perhaps 30 or 40 vehicles in all, down to the end point at the Menemsha harbor where all the cars made a U-turn and went back up Lighthouse Road. At one point there was a stretch where some of the hot rods burned rubber and then hit breakneck speed, just briefly. Finally up the hill past the shops at the Cliffs with horns blaring and people waving, “Goodbye Ricky.” Turning back onto State Road the procession wound up at Rose Meadow Road and the ancient Gay Head cemetery, where some of the ancestors and forbearers of the Wampanaog tribe are buried.
At the cemetery, the Medicine Man lit the smoke sticks and the drummers drummed and chanted as he directed the crowd to turn towards the south to allow the ancestor spirits to fly in and take Ricky away.
Sig Van Raan lives in West Tisbury.