Aug 272013

by Robin Harper

If you’ve lived on Martha’s Vineyard as a full-time resident long enough, you eventually get used to its Sybill-esque tendencies. You know that in the summer the population will swell 500%. You understand that in February there’s a pretty good chance you may have the movie theatre all to yourself, but in July you’re going to have to put in some serious sweat equity to see The Hangover: Part V. You’ve accepted that between Memorial Day and Labor Day you will start calling Oak Bluffs “Oaks Bluff” so the tourist who asks for directions will know what you’re talking about. To top it all off, ABC Family’s The Vineyard will try to convince you that we’re all drinking the Black Dog Kool-Aid while we engage in a Sharks vs the Jets routine with summer people.

Islanders are fairly adaptable – living all together with seven miles of water between us and the rest of America we have to be. But it’s also safe to say that many of us suffer from a form of identity-whiplash; every year watching our quiet little home on the sea become the Eastern Seaboard’s #1 destination for summer play.

I wholeheartedly admit that I join the annual island chorus exalting the arrival of September, bringing with it quiet streets, available parking spaces and once again more familiar faces than not.

But amidst the groans and hands clasped together praying for the autumnal equinox, I have to remind myself that some of my favorite moments took place during the twenty-seven summers I’ve spent here – moments that are uniquely Vineyard and for that I’ll always count myself lucky.

aquinnah-cliffs1. Bathing in the Aquinnah Cliffs clay pools
I must precipitate this with a reminder that the cliffs are ecologically protected and it is forbidden to climb the cliffs or touch the clay. (I was nine and didn’t know any better).

It was my family’s first summer on the island and we decided to check out Moshup’s Beach at the base of the Cliffs. As we walked far down the beach, my little self was somewhat intimidated by the increasing number of naked people. I watched as many of them climbed into the clay pools formed by the rainwater that had run down the side of the cliffs, and was astounded when my mother urged me to jump in and get dirty (this never happened before). Again and again I caked myself in clay from head to toe – the ocean my bath as I jumped in over and over to watch the water turn blood red around me.

jackie-kennedy-sunglasses2. Jackie-O sighting at the Katherine Cornell Theatre
When I was 14, my mother took me to see a performance of Fiddler on the Roof at the Katherine Cornell Theatre. After what seemed like never ending rounds of “Tradition” and “If I Were a Rich Man”, I was about to ask Mom if we could bail when intermission came. That’s when we spotted her at the refreshment table – Jackie-O in a long peasant skirt and a slouchy sweater with her namesake sunglasses on top of her head. My mother was of the generation that positively worshipped this woman, so I wasn’t surprised when she grabbed my arm, literally jumped and down like a little schoolgirl and whispered gleefully in my ear, “It’s Jackie Kennedy!! And she eats brownies!!”

algae3. Swimming in the phosphorescence at State Beach
Everyone has that summer – that one perfect summer when you’ve just left your parents house but real adult responsibility hasn’t kicked in yet, when everything’s free and easy and full of possibility. The summer of ‘96 was mine and it will always be marked by my first midnight swim with friends at Bend in the Road beach – where the water was filled with green sparkles and a full moon that promised 100 more hot summer nights.

jfk-jr4. Bumping into John-John
I was 19 and the company I was working for at the time had sent me to deliver a box of pamphlets to the airport. The box was pretty big and as I wrestled it up to the rental car counter I bumped into a man standing there filling out a form. I turned to say excuse me and saw a flash of perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect man. JFK Jr was looking back at me and said “No problem”. Two little words and color me a puddle. Unfortunately his wife was standing next to him so there was no chance for me to convince him that the open-mouthed girl with the flaming cheeks who had just knocked into him was the REAL woman of his dreams. Sigh. In case you were wondering… he smelled absolutely DELICIOUS.

fireworks_big5. Oak Bluffs Fireworks
Okay, this one is obvious. But damn, these fireworks are good. Like most mothers, I’m not the biggest fan of schlepping kids, snacks, blankets and chairs from the parking space I was able to find half a mile away to Ocean Park, but I’d do it every night of the summer if I could. Every year at the finale, I’m transformed into a child full of awe – small, insignificant but somehow part of a bigger picture. That’s worth every step, every jostle of the crowd, every minute stuck in traffic going home.

We’re now in that brief yet idyllic time, when most of the August people have gone home and we have the island back to ourselves to enjoy the last few gasps of summer. Take a beat before school starts and the cold sets in to take stock of your own island memories, then go out and make some more.

  6 Responses to “The Real Vineyard: A Local’s Top Five Island Moments”

  1. Beautifully written. I didn’t know you wrote articles. Thanks for sending it. I will save it!

  2. #1. Absolutely the best moment was swimming with the phosphorescence at State Beach. It felt like being transported into a Disney cartoon with trails of glitter flowing from my fingers and outlining the shape of my hands and arms. I seriously recommend this to anyone after a hot summer!!!1
    #2. Being a 20-something, barely – and some not -clothed, covered with clay from a pool at Gay Head and having a cop ask for ID. My girlfriends and I looked left and behind, right and behind, and responded “nope”.
    #3. The smell of the ocean coming onto the Cape on rte 6, knowing that I am so close to a place that I would and could call home.
    #4. Dancing in Jabberwocky’s studio at night.
    #5. A sing along with friends around a fire on State Beach.

  3. Sister, here are mine:

    1. In my early 20’s, I bathed nude once in the clay pools after a big rain. I have a photo of myself with some mud on, standing in the ocean, draped with seaweed like a beauty queen’s sash. My body will never look that great again! …didn’t see a sign then. I spent many of my summer days off on that beach, but I will always remember that day when I was Miss Gay Head.

    2. Serving Jackie-O. My first summer working at the Wharf Restaurant (1988), after my sophomore year at BU, I served an elegant woman wearing large, bug-eye sunglasses and a scarf wrapped over her hair. I heard her voice and recognized it from the audios of her famous 1962 TV documentary tour of the White House. I turned around and the hostess grabbed my arm and said, be cool with Jackie-O, and told me to wait on her and her girlfriend. I was mesmerized by her ethereal voice. I wanted to call mom right then and there and tell her about it, but alas, no cell phones then. I mentally photographed every detail and memorized everything she said so I could repeat it to mom. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Mom looked and dressed like her when I was a little girl.

    3. Swimming under the swans. One night, after waiting tables at Mel’s Diner all day and then having dinner with Chris Alesch at Chesca’s in Edgartown, we went for a dip in the pool at the resort on South Beach, down the dirt road from the diner…we knew the managers there (called Winnetu now) gave them the “special treatment” at breakfast at Mel’s) and they invited us to come and use the pool whenever we wanted. Swimming around in that pool under the full moon, with the sound of the waves crashing on South Beach, I felt like a perfumed, privileged tourist on vacation instead of a dog-tired waitress, smelling of grilled hamburgers and fried eggs. In my reverie, we were startled by a gorgeous bevy of swans flying low overhead. They were so white and so graceful under the full moon. We drank a little wine and then fell asleep in the cushioned deck chairs, wrapped in our towels. Heaven on Earth in the simple things, always full of surprises. That can be Martha’s Vineyard.

    4. Who’s Billy Joel? If you were lucky to work at the Wharf Pub in the wintertime, back when they had an upright piano, you might have been treated to an impromptu tune by the Piano Man himself in the early 1980’s. That was before my time at the Wharf. One early summer evening, I was working the pub and my father had come in for a beer. I was trapped in the back seating section past the end of the bar serving up pub fare, while my dad was chatting up a guy sitting next to him on a stool. In-between us were throngs of people drinking and talking above each other so you couldn’t hear a damn thing except for desperate shouts of drink orders over the noise to the bartenders. I see my dad is talking with Billy Joel. I wave, I signal, I yell “Dad!”, all to no avail. After tending my tables, Billy is long gone and I grab my dad before he heads out the door. I ask him, “Did you know who you were talking to?” My dad says, “Oh the guy at the bar…yeah, he was a nice fellow…we had a great chat.” “That was Billy Joel!” My father honestly says, “Who’s Billy Joel?” That’s what’s great about the Vineyard. A big time celebrity can pop in for a brewski and have a nice conversation with someone who treats him like a regular Joe.

    5. Sunday breakfasts at Mel’s Diner. I worked there for 10 glorious summers. It was my Cheers, where everyone knew my name because I served their salt air hunger at an unique place that takes you back in time…where the experience made everything taste better. A little diner with an open air deck at the end of a grass strip airfield was home to a Waco biplane doing loop de loops and barrel rolls overhead all day long, and a host of vintage planes and their character and cocky pilots that came to visit her on Sunday mornings. The Lone Wolf was the best in his World War II trainer, buzzing the restaurant at a most likely illegal altitude, and then climbing bad ass sharply into the sky to the startled delight of children and their parents, with an after kick of excitedly uttered wow’s and clapping from the deck table audience. I waited for it every Sunday. That thrill. And some clear Sunday mornings, while the coffee was brewing, I’d hop into the open cockpit behind Mike on his warm-up run, and beg for a bigger loop and wave my arms while flying upside down, sucked to my seat by gift of inertia and defying gravity. That diner experience kept calling me back, season after season, the sweetest gig on the island.

  4. LOVE your writing, Robin!

  5. I really enjoyed reading about these glimpses from time past. More please.

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