Chilmark fifty years ago was a different place. Well, of course it was. There weren’t so many people. There weren’t so many summer people. And there weren’t so many people who lived there year-round. Islanders, we called them.
In those days, the summer people came for longer. Kids from the end of school in early June to the beginning of school in mid-September. Families came from Boston and New York on the train, right to Woods Hole. The train stopped about where the bus shelter is today at the front of the parking lot in Woods Hole. You might have stored a car on-Island over the winter. A trunk of summer clothes came by railway express. Oscar Flanders would fetch it from the depot in Vineyard Haven and bring it up-Island in his rattling old truck. You might have rented a house for the summer from Oscar’s wife, Hope, or played baseball on Sunday with their sons David and Dick, and in those days it took little kids and girls to make up two full teams.
Summer people and Islanders in Chilmark, you knew one another, by sight and by name: Percy, Harriet, Spencer, Everett, Buddy, Jane, Fran, Virginia, Liz, Barbara, Conrad, Sammy, Peter, Stephen and so on.
And their lives intertwined. A bunch would go together to Mrs. Greeder’s tiny Quonset hut diner in Gay Head where the brownies and chocolate chip cookies were without equal, or down North Road to Jenkinson’s little diner for a cup of coffee and a story from the old man (today just the rusting old Mobil gas pump remains.) There was no community center, no organized play.
As you got older, you might work at the fish market or the gas station or even on one of the many swordfishing boats that filled the harbor on summer evenings. Old Bill Smith had the road concession for Chilmark, and his gang of teenage boys — horsing the heavy metal scraper along Tea Lane and Tabor House Road, digging out the drainage ditches, pumping some killing potion on roadside poison ivy — his gang of teen age boys was a mix of summer kids and Islanders . You worked together and you played together. Buddy Mayhew had a car; he’d take a bunch to the candlepin lanes in Oak Bluffs, or to the movies. Daytimes he drove the ice truck. Electricity came later.
A determined group of young summer people and Islanders formed a society, I’ve forgotten what it was called, something about the preservation of wine, women and song. In more than one winter, its reunion was held at the Allerton hotel in Manhattan. The Allerton’s bar was called The Menemsha Bar. Its back wall had a large mural of what purported to be Menemsha harbor, boats and all. The barman could hit a switch and thunder boomed, lightning flashed, and real water would drip down in front of the mural. And soon enough it would clear, clouds lifted, and you could hear the seagulls cry. We made the barman hit the switch over and over again.
At what we called The Tavern — the Cornerway now — there were square dances every week. Marshall Carrol, Curly as he was known, was the caller. Old and young went to the square dances, summer people and Islanders, digging for the oyster, diving for the clam, and swinging their partners around again. A couple of times a year there was a formal dance with a live band — for sure on the Fourth of July and on Labor Day. Again, there were old couples and young couples, and the last dance, with the baleful trumpet’s skirl ghosting out onto the road and into the night woods of Windy Gates, was a slow dance, real slow.
The Labor Day Dance was the punctuating event of the summer for the younger set, Islanders and summer people alike, who were shortly to be separated by the call to go back to school. Afterwards there would be a beach party at Squibnocket and maybe a furtively exchanged bottle of rum, and in the early morning, dawn just breaking, an unsteady remnant would make their way to the Shafers’ house above the Pond for breakfast and to greet the new day. Another summer done, finished in a state of intoxication. The whole summer was an intoxication, a romance with an impossible idea, that it might just go on like that forever.
That romance was interrupted because at the end of the summer we fell back to being our two cultures, the summer kids and the Islanders , and one left and the other stayed. But not always. Some romances didn’t end with Labor Day. Fran and David got together and still are. And so did Virginia and Everett. And yesterday Virginia Poole was laid to rest at Abel’s Hill. Among the hundreds who mourned the death of that lovely and vibrant woman were a few who had danced at the Tavern with her and caught the sunrise from the Shafer house on Labor Day morning, who knew her as a girl and saw her become a loving wife and mother. To the end she never lost that bright-eyed way, that infectious laugh, that eager interest in other people and ideas. Chilmark fifty years ago was a different place; it’s a different place today without her.
Peter McGhee lives in Menemsha and Cambridge.