I have mixed feelings about going to the Agricultural Fair. This has nothing to do with the fair itself, which at 150-years-old has aged exceptionally well, maintaining its links to the past without a hint of mustiness. It is very much a thing of the present and this weekend I will bring my children to the fair many times.

My hesitation comes from memory, and I wonder if my son, Hardy, just turned seven, will notice as we walk through the gates, or maybe earlier in the car ride over, that his father has grown quiet or if he could look closer still, that his heart has begun to beat so much faster.

As a child spending summers at my grandparents’ cottage on Pennacook avenue in Oak Bluffs, I looked forward to the fair each August. Up-Island seemed so far away then. Perhaps this is why one summer, when my older brother, Jim, and I were 13 and 11 respectively and begged incessantly to be allowed to go to the fair by ourselves, my parents and grandparents eventually relented. Our mother drove us to West Tisbury and gave us explicit instructions; if we couldn’t find a ride back from someone we knew, we were to call home.

This was the summer of 1977 and then, as now, the Island is a friend to hitchhikers. Often during the summer while riding around with my grandfather, Bill Harding, we picked up hitchhikers, singles or groups of older kids, even adults sometimes. As a kid I spent a lot of time on the porch reading and inserting myself into the adventures of each new imaginary world. Hitchhikers and the sense of adventure they offered seemed to me the very embodiment of these books. Most times I moved to the backseat so they could sit next to my grandfather who liked to ask each new friend about their lives and what they enjoyed most about the Island.

At the end of our night at the fair, when the summer sky had turned dark and Jim and I had our fill of dart throwing, the tilt-a-whirl, and because he was now a teenager looking at, mostly, but sometimes talking to girls, we decided hitchhiking would be a much more dignified, not to mention exciting, way to arrive home.

Neither of us had hitchhiked before but it seemed easy enough. We stood at the exit of the fairgrounds and put our thumbs up. We were two young boys standing before a stream of cars forced to stop at the exit before turning onto the street. Almost instantly a man motioned for us to get in.

The man was headed to Edgartown, not Oak Bluffs, but because we were eager for the adventure to begin we chose to ride with him anyway. He seemed friendly and I assumed that upon reaching Edgartown he would decide to delay his plans and take us home. But he stuck to his schedule and dropped us off at the Triangle just outside of town.

Jim and I stood for awhile at the side of the road with our thumbs up, but what few cars we saw continued on without slowing down. After about 30 minutes we decided to jog, making it almost to the Big Bridge before stopping.

Thirty-four years have passed since that night and, I must admit, some of the details are now hazy. I am suddenly confused over whether it was a man or woman who gave us that first ride. And yet I can still see quite clearly my brother and me standing on the road at the edge of the beach. I wasn’t frightened, not yet at least, because I was with my big brother. Jim always knew what to do, or at least appeared to know, so I never had to feel afraid of anything. It is the path of so many younger siblings to act out in order to get attention from their parents. But I never saw any reason for this. The one whose attention I wanted most of all was my brother’s, and for this I never lacked.

Few cars passed us and those that did seemed to speed up when their headlights caught us out there alone on Beach Road. We discussed jogging again, but instead sat down where the sand met the road, leaning against each other, back-to-back, so we could watch the road from both directions. We would take a ride back to Edgartown even, where at least we could call home for a ride.

I was tired but also happy. In a few weeks the family would travel back to New Jersey. I would enter the seventh grade and Jim would start his first year of high school. His new beginning felt like an end to me, of sorts. I can still recall when he left for college and I cried myself to sleep every night for weeks, alone in our bedroom for the first time. Going to high school did not mean leaving me, not in the literal sense, but it still felt momentous. Jim had muscles now, hair on his top lip, and all the other visual signs that he was changing. But out there on the beach that night he was still all mine.

“I see lights,” Jim said. I turned around to look and saw a yellow light in the distance cutting away at the darkness. We stood, lifted our arms and put our thumbs up. With my other hand I shielded my eyes from the bright headlights as they came closer, and felt the rush of wind push me back as the car raced by. A wave of disappointment filled me but then, almost immediately, I heard the screech of tires. I turned and saw the back of the car fishtail before coming to a stop about 30 yards away.

I ran to the car, opened the back door and slid across the seat to make room for Jim. We had barely sat down and closed the door when the driver hit the accelerator and we skidded back onto the road.

There were three people up front and it didn’t take long for me to realize this was not going to be a ride like the ones my grandfather gave. The driver sat hunched over the wheel smoking a cigarette. A woman sat next to him and beside her sat a very tall man, his head almost touching the roof of the car, his hair hanging down past his shoulders.

Nobody turned around to welcome us or ask me questions about my life, not even when I told them we had been at the fair and were headed home to Oak Bluffs. Jim and I looked at each other and shrugged. I was disappointed but contented myself by looking out the window of this unfamiliar car, the moon illuminating Sengekontacket Pond, and breathing in the scent of the strangers up front.

It didn’t take long to reach Oak Bluffs, just a few minutes at the speed we were traveling, but already I had decided I didn’t want these people to know where I lived. When we reached Inkwell Beach I leaned forward and said, “This will be fine right here.”

clown cartoon
Roy Imhoff

No one spoke nor did the car slow down. I wondered if perhaps I had done it wrong, the way to let someone know you were ready to get out.

“We would like to get out now,” I said, being more explicit this time. “Right here is great.”

The car slowed down a bit as we entered town but picked up speed as we rounded the harbor. Every minute or so I asked again to be let out, my voice growing quieter and more timid with each request. Jim may have spoken too, but again time has erased some of the finer details of the evening. What remains, though, so vividly that my breath quickens even as I write this in the early morning hours in the safety of my basement, is the sense of fear I felt. This sort of thing happened in the movies or to people in some newspaper article so removed from my life as to be fictional. I prayed it was just some sort of joke, a Saturday night joyride made more fun by scaring the hell out of some young kids.

I moved closer to my brother until I was pressed up against his body, my hand in his. We drove toward Vineyard Haven, then turned back to Oak Bluffs, not the town now, but the more wooded area along County Road. We turned left onto Vineyard avenue, not that I knew the names of these streets then, but I recognized them, especially Vineyard avenue. Up ahead on the left was a graveyard, the same one some of our Island ancestors were buried in. Jim and I had explored the grounds many times on our bikes, checking out the old headstones and paying homage, in our way, to Hardings past.

I climbed into Jim’s lap, trying to take shelter in the curve of his body as I begged silently for the car not to turn into the graveyard.

The car took the turn hard, throwing me to the far side of the car. Near the entrance still stands a Jesus Christ statue. The driver circled it three times and the force continued to pin me up against the far door. Finally, the car straightened out and headed down one of the dirt roads that led deep into the woods.

Years later, Jim told me that from his vantage point he saw the tall man reach for the front door handle as if preparing to jump out and capture us. Perhaps they had some signal up front. In the backseat we had no time for such signals. My brother simply opened his own door and jumped. For a moment I found myself alone in the back seat, but quickly the tall man turned around and reached for me. I ducked down into the foot well, crawled to the open door and leaped into the night. When I hit the ground, I lost my footing and rolled in the dirt to the edge of the woods.

In the car I had tried to convince myself that this was just an elaborate joke to scare us and that eventually we would be let go frightened but unharmed. Over the years this has sometimes seemed like a plausible explanation except for one thing: After Jim and I jumped from the car, they tried to run us down.

When I stopped rolling and could stand I looked around, saw a light in the distance and ran for it. There was no path, just blind running. Branches scratched at me and once I tripped on a root or rock. I had no idea if I was being chased. I could hear the car swerving and skidding somewhere behind me on the dirt road but didn’t know if anyone had left the car and was on foot tracking me.

Eventually, the woods gave way to a small clearing and a house. People stood around a keg and looked startled as I burst forth screaming my brother’s name. “Jim,” I yelled over and over. “Jim, it’s a house.”

I heard noises coming from the woods and finally he appeared, running fast and not stopping until he hit a clothesline. He landed on his back and I ran to him and knelt down. A crowd quickly formed.

“What the hell is going on?” someone asked.

The coda to that night is that we knew some of the teenagers and twenty-somethings at that party. They were friends of our older cousins. A group of the young men ran to the graveyard. The car’s headlights continued to search through the night but then vanished before the men could reach them.

I drank my first real beer that night, not just sneaked sips from my father’s can, but a full blue plastic cup of the stuff handed to me by a man with friendly eyes who knelt down on one knee to offer me the cup. Later, Betsy Lucas, whose family once owned the Flying Horses and who, with my older cousin, would take me to see Animal House the next summer, drove us home. The people in that car were never found.

It took my brother and I two decades to finally speak about that night. But even then, as we tentatively compared notes, I never took the time to thank him for acting, something I was too scared to even consider. He opened the door giving us the possibility of escape. It is time to set the record straight.

Many thanks big brother. Many thanks.