It's Always an Illuminating Experience: A Grand Night of Glowing Lanterns

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By C.K. WOLFSON

You come back every year because the charm of the spectacle is so complete; because you and the more than 10,000 people gently milling around you, in slow motion and awestruck, are reliably transformed into small town neighbors; and because homeowners invite passing strangers to sit on their porches. You come because for 135 years, Illumination Night has been a quintessential Island summer event - and because it is a moment of innocence that recalls a simpler world.

Wednesday night Trinity Park was dressed in twirling blue, green and pink glow sticks, and bulging with people for whom every year is the first time all over again - shoulders bumping, reunions, strollers, picnics at every step. The Tabernacle was filled to overflow, people finding perches and floor space and rimming the Tabernacle's circumference three deep.

Bob Cleasby, red carnation, red pants, stood in the spotlight behind lush arrangements of lilies, snapdragons, sunflowers and baby's breath, conducting the sing along, arms waving, his entire body swaying in time - For Me and My Gal; In the Good Old Summer Time; East Side, West Side - and everybody sang the patriotic melodies and old time favorites with gusto.

The crowd cheered for 86-year-old Raymond Young, a former professional classical pianist who announced his retirement after 11 years of accompanying the Wednesday sing-alongs. "A wonderful experience," he commented. A cottager since 1969, he added, "It just gives you a feeling of belonging."

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Cottages with names like Absolute Heaven, Haven Cottage and Respite were festooned with scores of all manner of paper parasols, lanterns, stencil-cut luminaries and gardens in full regalia.

"Have you eaten?" Suzanne Avery asked. The Avery family, in a smiling reunion of more than a dozen members, was finishing dinner, but paused to invite passersby inside to view their 160-year-old lacquered wood and paper Japanese lantern. Her husband Dick explained their house used to belong to Rev. Mosley, and the family has been convening there for close to 50 years.

Next door, Wayne and Suzanne Berger's house was being tended by friends and family in their absence, with instructions, said a laughing Eddie Berger, "not to nail anything, and to try and be nice."

John and Nancy Goldthwait's house ("It used to belong to the Amazeens") held close to 40 for their traditional dinner party - "Happy to feed you."

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Assistant Oak Bluffs fire chief James Moreis Sr. stood next to Engine 523, happily surrounded by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, greeting strollers. Firefighter/paramedic John Shannon and firefighter Asa Vought were handling the briskly selling T-shirts whose sales help pay for Friday's fireworks display.

On the porch of the Camp Meeting Association, Bob Faulkenberg, in his traditional "Vicious Fishes" pink and blue pants and a flashing LED earring, along with a group of busy volunteers, was being confronted by a swarm of shoppers.

And people sang - young and old, at the top of their voices. When the Saints Go Marching In. They mimed the missing lyrics to the Swiss Army song and John Brown's Body. They sang a fill-in-the-name Happy Birthday, and then made Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore sound like a love song.

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The Vineyard Haven Band, in crisp white and navy, under William Eriksen's direction, perfected their program, skilled enough to appear as if they were enjoying the occasion as much as those watching. Trombonist Bill Aitken flirted with his grandchildren from the stage, and knee-high children held hands as they tiptoed to the edge of the stage for closer looks.

Russell Dagnall, president of the Camp Meeting Association, introduced the night's honorees, Jim and Louise Hansen, cottagers for close to 40 years, who ran the Junior Camp Meeting, and have had a long involvement with various Camp Ground committees. They are selling the cottage, which they bought in 1962, and moving to Vermont.

Mrs. Hansen spoke of "taking the next step," and "welcoming new experiences," adding, "Memories of this place will sustain us forever." After paying tribute to his wife of close to 60 years, and reminiscing a bit, Mr. Hansen said, "This has been a wonderful part of our lives."

They lit the candle in the lantern that Peter Dawley, in his last year as grounds superintendent, slowly carried down the aisle, and hung as a signal to illuminate the Camp Grounds. After a brief hesitation, thousands of paper lanterns cast dots of multicolored light from the roofs, balconies and porches.

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The band played on, marches, show tunes and finally Stars and Stripes Forever, as the Camp Ground promenade began.

Peter Bannon, a publisher from Illinois, standing on his walk in front of Bannon Haven, watched the throngs of people pass, ready to greet and talk to anyone interested. "It's one of the most incredible nights of the year," he exclaimed. He and his wife, Amy, bought the cottage three years ago from Mrs. Maitland, and decorated it with the lanterns that were included.

You could buy a glass of lemonade for 25 cents from the stand the Roberts and Carey children set up along a side street. Members of Vineyard Sound offered an impromptu concert, and from his porch Michael Mitchell conducted a rousing game of Camp Ground Trivia with the crowd that gathered: How many cottages have been moved off campus? What was the Crystal Palace? Where was the first Love Fest, San Francisco or Oak Bluffs?

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It was 10:30 before the crowd began thinning out. Enough time to have slowly circled the streets, talked to strangers and meet people you knew, to watch babies and toddlers react to the display of tangible magic, and pledge to return again, for the first time, next year.