Robert E. Kinnecom quit drinking 50 years ago. Today, the 81-year-old Oak Bluffs resident is absolutely certain he is alive today because of it and the unlikely help of a few fairly famous Vineyarders.
“My grandfather was a drunk. He was a barber and lost everything he had,” Mr. Kinnecom said.
After reading a recent Gazette about Vineyard House recently, Mr. Kinnecom decided to speak publicly about his personal journey to sobriety.
Mr. Kinnecom and his wife of 60 years, Ernestine, run an embroidery business in their home off Wing Road. Through his colorful career, his hands, his sense of humor, and a rich collection of family and friends, he says, have kept him out of trouble.
For 27 years he and his wife delivered the Boston Globe to the Vineyard. Nearly every morning, before most were awake, the two arrived to meet the early morning boat in Oak Bluffs, loaded with papers. Before that and up until the 1980s, Mr. Kinnecom worked on the waterfront on boats at the Martha’s Vineyard shipyard and other places.
The big change in his life came when his family physician confronted him about a decade of heavy drinking that was causing him physical harm.
“I remember. Dr. Dave [Rappaport] calling me a drunk. I almost hit him. I didn’t, because he brought all of my kids into this world, all five of them,” Mr. Kinnecom said.
Mr. Kinnecom recalls replying to the Oak Bluffs doctor: “What do we do about it? You might be right.’”
He recalls that he began drinking when he went into the Coast Guard at 18. “Liquor was too easy to get back then,” he said. After the Coast Guard, he worked at the shipyard. He worked for Erford Burt, at Burt’s Boatyard. “I wish I had been more sober when I worked for Erford. He was a good man to work for,” Mr. Kinnecom said. He also worked for Albert Allen.
In that first year of sobriety, Mr. Kinnecom said he built the home he now lives in, and he and his wife had a son, their fifth child.
He joined Alcoholics Anonymous when it was a very young organization. “I remember there were eight men and one woman meeting in Edgartown. In AA, you usually have one sponsor. I had eight,” he said.
Mr. Kinnecom said that although he’s taken his share of criticism for being too open about his affiliation with the organization that helps many people stay sober, he was never ashamed. “Why would I want to be ashamed of coming out of an AA meeting?” he asks. Before joining AA, he says, “I can remember falling on my face at the Ritz and the PA Club.”
Many helped Mr. Kinnecom stay sober in those early years, though he admits that he slipped once in his first year.
He remembers two who helped him significantly: Katharine Cornell and James Cagney.
Ms. Cornell, the movie star who lived in Tisbury, was a key player. “She used to have me do odd jobs around her house. I cut the grass, scraped and sanded the paint. She had nothing to do with AA, but she believed in it. She would keep me busy from Friday night to Sunday night.”
Actor James Cagney took a personal interest as well, not just because he liked the work Mr. Kinnecom did on his boat, but also because of their friendship. “He kept me busy, too,” Mr. Kinnecom recalls. Mr. Cagney owned a 43-foot Chesapeake Bay Bugeye, a boat that was designed for oyster fishing but that had been custom-made for the actor. The boat was called Mary Ann.
“On the first summer I was sober, [Mr. Cagney] took all the alcohol off his boat, so I couldn’t get to it. And he had me paint that boat. He put a tea kettle inside with a jar of Sanka coffee. Then he told me, ‘If you want to drink, this is what you get.’”
Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. was also one of Mr. Kinnecom’s supporters. “He was great to me. We were great friends. He either had friends that were in AA or he knew something,” Mr. Kinnecom said. “I remember him saying to me: ‘If I catch you drinking, I’ll break your arm.’ He meant it. He was a tall man.”
During those rough early years of sobriety it wasn’t easy for those close to Mr. Kinnecom on the waterfront.
Mr. Kinnecom recalled one day particularly that marked him and earned him a reputation. “When I quit drinking I was nasty for three or four years,” Mr. Kinnecom said. “One day someone left a Danforth anchor next to a door, where I worked at the shipyard,” Mr. Kinnecom said. When he came in that morning, the anchor fell on his foot.
“I picked up that Danforth anchor and I threw it outside. It went through the wall of the rigger shop shed. And who was outside the door? Joe Allen,” Mr. Kinnecom said.
Joe Allen was Joseph Chase Allen, the waterfront columnist for the Vineyard Gazette. “That is why, from then on, when he wrote about me, he called me: “Captain Bob, the rigger with the nasty disposition.”
Mr. Kinnecom credits the late Peter Pinney of Chappaquiddick, who later owned Sweetened Water Farm in Edgartown, for being responsible for starting AA on the Vineyard. “He kept me sober,” Mr. Kinnecom said. “It is about relationships,” he said. With a tear rising in his eye, Mr. Kinnecom said deep friendships have arisen throughout his years of sobriety. It’s emotional, he says, often too difficult to talk about when he attends their meetings. “I’m too sentimental,” he said.
His days of working on other people’s boats ended after he had a heart attack in 1978. For eight days, he said, he was in the hospital in a coma.
After he got out, he and his wife started an embroidery business. “Ernestine ran a sweatshirt shop on Circuit avenue extension. I said to her, why don’t you sell something that is made on Martha’s Vineyard?” So, the two went into embroidery. They sew labels, insignias and letters on caps, dress shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.
For 25 years they have turned out all kinds of products for local interests. They do all the hats for the Martha’s Vineyard Rod and Gun Club; they just produced 72 hats for the club’s efforts to help Camp Jabberwocky.
The business has been prosperous for the couple and they’ve made lots of friends.
Mr. Kinnecom is proud that every year he still makes a dozen personal caps for Robert S. Douglas, captain of the topsail schooner Shenandoah.
When it comes to substance abuse, Mr. Kinnecom said quitting smoking 21 years ago was the hardest step he ever took. “I quit drinking and I quit smoking, cold turkey. I tell you, quitting smoking was the hardest. Ernestine quit a year before me.
“I loved my cigarettes. I smoked Pall Malls for years,” he said. Then he changed to filtered Camels. It took its toll.
Today, he suffers from emphysema and can no longer take even a short walk.
But to get by, he relies on his sense of humor.
“I haven’t had a jealous husband shoot at me in a long time,” Mr. Kinnecom said.
“I love my sobriety. I can go out at night and cause a little mischief, you know . . . and I’ll remember it the next day,” Mr. Kinnecom said.