CHAPTER 13. SUMMERS ON NANTUCKET
In the early 1960s I worked on Nantucket every summer for several years as a musician. Within a day or two after school closed for the summer vacation, my wife and kids and I would be on our way to my summer job, pulling a U-Haul trailer (or Yawl Hall as we Southerners say). After the long drive (about 700 miles), we were always glad to get to the place where we would spend the next seven or eight weeks.
Nantucket is an Indian name that means "far away land" and the place that bears that name is a beautiful, picturesque island, seven miles long and three miles across, lying about thirty-five miles off the coast of Massachusetts. You can get there only by steamer or by air.
Nantucket must truly have seemed to be a "far away land" to the Indians who, centuries ago, discovered the island. In such boats as they had, a trip to the island from the mainland where they lived must have been a strenuous, difficult and dangerous undertaking.
The summer weather in Nantucket is usually cooler than on the mainland. Once in a while you might see one or two days of really hot weather, but that's rare. Most days are pleasantly warm, but towards evening, you will need a sweater for outdoor activities. I never saw an air conditioner on the island, so that ought to tell you something.
In the evening, as long as the prevailing winds are from the ocean, you're in for a pleasantly cool night. But, let the wind shift so that it blows from the land and you're in trouble. The land breezes bring mosquitoes out of the swamps and low-lying areas. And the mosquitoes of Nantucket are an unusually ferocious, persistent, and hardy breed.
Sometimes in rainy weather for lack of something better to do, I would ride with the steamboat crew over to the mainland, getting back on the island just in time to go to work. On those occasions, I spent my time below decks in the crew's quarters in a bull session or watching the never-ending card games or sometimes I would get one of the crew to cut my hair.
Late in the summer just about Labor Day the fall storms begin to make their presence felt. When the Weather Service announces that a hurricane or severe storm is expected within a few days, a mad scramble to get off the island ensues. Everybody rushes down to the steamboat office and tries to reserve a space before the storm hits. But the steamers cannot begin to accommodate the great number of cars and people who want to leave and this results in a good number of people stranded on the island until normal weather conditions return.
A couple of summers when the storms were predicted, I chose to remain rather than to fight the mob down at the steam boat office. So I rode out the storms stranded on that tiny island. Believe me, there's something scary about those storms. One knows, of course, that over the years the island has withstood hundreds of such storms and yet in the back of one's mind is the question, will this one be the big one that will sweep this insignificant scrap of land out to sea or cause it to sink forever beneath the waves?
In spite of my trepidation, on a couple of occasions I went down to a cliff overhanging the beach to see first-hand the storm at its height. And what a sight assailed my eyes and ears! Row after row of monstrous waves smashed against the shore with stunning force. High velocity winds howled incessantly, driving spray, rain, and loose sand with such force that just a brief exposure will compel one to seek shelter. The clouds, torn, shredded and whipped by the wind, form constantly changing shapes and patterns so that no hint of blue sky can be seen. Wind-driven sheets of rain fall in torrents so that one must turn his back to the wind in order to breathe.
And then the next morning the sun is shining brightly. The waters are much calmer and peace once again prevails. Except for the damage to signs, buildings, etc. and the masses of seaweed thrown up on the shore, one would never suspect that a hurricane had so recently struck.
Most of the houses and other buildings in Nantucket are of frame construction sheathed with a type of shingle that looks like new wood when first applied, but which quickly weathers to a silvery gray color. This type of building is common all over New England, but on the mainland there is a greater use of brick and other types of exterior material, thus providing a greater variety of types of building than on Nantucket. I believe there is an ordinance requiring that all buildings on the island conform to this shingle style, giving housing on the island a uniform, rather pleasing appearance.
We lived in a nice apartment with three bedrooms, living room, a huge kitchen, and a bath. But in some ways it was the strangest house I ever saw. There was no sidewalk out front, so that when you stepped out of the front door, you were on the street. So, it paid to look carefully before stepping out; a car might just get you. A friend used to say that mine was the only house he ever heard of where you could get run over in your own kitchen!
Another peculiarity of that house was the electrical set-up. There was a large meter in the kitchen with a slot in which you were required to put quarters to pay for electricity. When the quarter was used up, a loud click would let you know that "Time's up! Deposit another quarter!" We were compelled to keep a supply of quarters on hand because, of course, the money would run out just when you needed current most, in the middle of ironing, or half-way through cooking breakfast. I have never seen such an arrangement before or since.
The people who live on Nantucket, the black people, are a rather peculiar bunch. How else to describe people, many of whom are as black as anyone you ever saw, who are quick to disclaim any connection with American blacks? They call themselves "Portuguese," but in reality they are from the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. Around strangers they speak a mixture of Portuguese and Swahili. Their driver's licenses and other official documents describe them as Caucasian, but, as I used to tease them, "Brother, you can deceive yourself all you please, so long as you are on this island, but when you hit the mainland, you are in for a rude awakening."
These black "Portuguese" love the water and from the earliest ages they are in or on the water. Many of the adult males become seamen and a number of these seamen that I knew had traveled around the world more than once as merchant sailors.
As seamen, these people are fearless. At least to an old landlubber like myself, they seem to be utterly indifferent to the dangers of the open ocean. I remember one Sunday when Sid, one of the crew of the Island's steamboat, and a couple of his friends came over to Nantucket in a sixteen foot sailing boat from New Bedford, a distance of about fifty miles. They made it okay until they came within sight of Nantucket, at which point the wind died and they were becalmed for several hours until someone came along and gave them a tow. When I saw their tiny craft, I thought about all the deep water they had sailed over. I could only say to myself: "No way, Jose!"
As your steamer approaches Martha's Vineyard, in good weather you will see a bunch of these "Portuguese" youngsters sitting on piles in the water and, as the boat passes, they will wave and beg the passengers aboard ship to throw coins. And as the shower of coins rains down, they will dive off the piles and catch the coins before they sink to the bottom. Then they pop up to the surface holding the coins aloft. I imagine that many of these kids get a good part of their summer spending money in this manner.
These black Portuguese have at least one great asset to which they can lay claim: some of their women are among the most beautiful women I've seen anywhere. Beautiful brown skin, a head of curly locks, shapely bodies, beautiful eyes and a fetching smile characterize most of these charmers. And to see a bunch of these beauties on the beach is enough, as the old song goes, "to make a bulldog hug a hound!"
I often heard these "Portuguese" speak of a dish that they were very fond of, a dish called "jag." Having heard so much about this mysterious concoction, I could hardly wait to taste some. Well, one rainy day Sid came by my house. We sat around for a while talking and goofing off until about lunch time when Sid said "I believe I'll make a pot of jag." And off he went to the store to get the ingredients. "Oh, boy" I thought, "At last I'll get a chance to taste this dish about which I've heard so much -- the famous jag."
What a disappointment! Jag is nothing more than rice and lima beans cooked with a red sausage "linguica," which imparts its red color to the rice. Jag is filling, but its bland flavor leaves much to be desired, at least to my taste.
My job required me to work from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., six nights a week. The rest of the time, my family and I enjoyed a rich man's vacation. We went to the beach just about every day.
One of the chief attractions of the island is the fact that Nantucket is fringed with miles of unspoiled beaches. Unlike the Jersey, New York and Virginia beaches, there is no commercialization of the beach fronts at Nantucket. There are no great hotels facing the water, no glitzy gaudy signs, no billboards, no salt water taffy or hot dog stands intrude -- just miles and miles of clean, unspoiled beaches.
The variety of beaches at Nantucket offer beach conditions to suit any taste. There's Siasconset Beach near the country club where affluent swimmers and sun bathers congregate. For more plebeian tastes, there's Surfside, which, as its name implies, is especially attractive to surf-board aficionados. Then there's Children's Beach, where at low tide you can wade out for a considerable distance before the water comes up to your waist. (Even so, I remember one summer when a little girl drowned at that beach as her mother and a maid watched. They later explained that they had taken their eyes off her for just a minute and she disappeared. When they found her she had drowned. And that reminds me of the loss of two small children who fell overboard in the ocean from the back of a boat where they had been sitting unattended while the parents partied. The bodies were never recovered. People can do some stupid things!!) Next to Children's Beach is Public Beach, but over on the other side of the island is my favorite, Dionis Beach. I favored Dionis because it is on the side of the island facing the mainland, many miles away. The water on that side of the island was generally more peaceful, less turbulent than on the ocean side. There were at least two more beaches whose names I've forgotten, but I never went swimming from them anyway.
And then there were the beach parties, to which we went at least a couple of times a month. Some of those beach parties were memorable. One in particular stands out in my memory. During this party, a couple of ladies decided to go swimming although it was after 2 a.m. They disrobed partially and were soon paddling around near the shore inviting others to join them. A couple of drunken sailors from the Coast Guard station, one white, the other black, saw the ladies in the water, and decided that they were in trouble. Yelling to the swimmers, "Hang on! We'll save you!" they dove into the water, fully clothed and attempted to rescue the ladies who didn't want to be rescued.
The ladies fought off the attempted rescue and ducked one of the would-be rescuers who was too drunk to defend himself. When he was released, he came to the surface swinging, and a fight between the two sailors and the two ladies broke out. Several of the witnesses jumped into the water and the scene quickly became a Pier 6 brawl. I suppose the cold water sobered those who were under the influence and the fight finally came to a halt with fortunately no one seriously hurt, and more miraculously, no one drowned.
As I started to leave a lady "J" called out to me, "Henry, if you're leaving, can I ride with you?" (She was visiting her parents who lived just down the street from me.)
"Sure J," I replied, "but you came with Sam. I don't want any trouble out of him. If it's okay with him, it's okay with me."
"Oh," she said, "Sam doesn't care what I do."
Wanting to be absolutely sure, I went over to Sam who was some distance away and told him that J wanted to ride with me. He shrugged and gave his okay and we left.
On the way home, J told me an incredible story. She said, "Sam doesn't care about me. He's after that young girl he's sitting near. But let me tell you what I did for that nigger. (All of the principles in this little drama were "Portuguese" and when they call one of their own a nigger, that is the worst name they can conceive.)
She continued: "I had an abortion yesterday for that guy and you see how he treats me today. But that's not the worst of it. I left my husband and am living in a cold water flat in New Bedford to be with Sam. I was married and lived in the Virgin islands. My husband was rich and I had everything. We had servants, we lived in a mansion, and I had the money to buy anything that I wanted. But I couldn't forget Sam. I broke my husband's heart when I left and he's begging me to come back. And here I am, broke and living in poverty and all because of Sam."
I listened only half-believing what I was hearing and I quickly dismissed J and her story from my mind. A few days later, however, I passed J's house and she was sitting on the lawn. I stopped and asked her if she had seen my wife who had taken our daughter for a walk. She hadn't seen my wife she said, but she invited me to come into the yard and take a seat, saying "Your wife will probably pass this way when she returns."
I entered the yard and took a seat. We began to talk about this and that. Suddenly remembering our conversation on the way to her house the other night, she exclaimed "Oh, I have something to show you." She entered the house and returned a second or two later bearing a large photo album. She opened the album and showed me a collection of photos of her former home in the Virgin Islands. The pictures bore out everything she had told me. The house could only be described as a mansion. There was a photo of the staff of five, three women dressed in servant's garb, black trousers, and shoes and wearing bow ties. There were photos of "J" and her husband on horse back at a garden party surrounded by a multitude of guests and there were other pictures of the family in all sorts of settings that confirmed that the family was indeed rich and privileged.
My reaction after seeing this indisputable confirmation of "J's" claims was to ask: "J, did you say that your husband wants you to come back to him, that he is willing to forgive everything if you will only come back? Then, there is only one thing for you to do. Catch the first thing smoking and go back to your husband."
I never saw J after that summer. But I have heard that she did return to the husband and the opulent lifestyle that she had abandoned.
I remember a Christmas party I attended one summer. Yes, that's right -- a Christmas party in the middle of the summer. The party was given by an artist, a New Yorker, who was working and living on Nantucket for the summer. His rationale for giving a party in the middle of July was that there were so many people on the island with whom he'd like to spend Christmas that there was nothing else for him to do except give a Christmas party and invite everybody.
The party was held in a ramshackle, abandoned house that had no running water or lights. Upon entering, you had to feel your way down a dark hallway, to a feeble light spilling out into the hallway from the only lighted room in the house. In that room, lighted by a couple of candles, there was a Christmas tree, decorated with socks, beer cans, and whatever other brightly-colored junk the decorators could find. There must have been fifty or sixty people jammed in that room. There were no chairs, so those who wanted to sit, sat on the floor.
Some of the guests sang Christmas carols, others attempted to dance and were constantly falling over the legs and feet of the sitters. There was a good bit of joking and horseplay and lots of laughter. Some of the party goers had brought enough beer to guarantee that anyone so inclined could indulge himself to his heart's content. The smell of "fried chicken" (a Nantucket euphemism for reefer or pot) was heavy on the air. The party continued until someone suggested going to the beach and that suggestion triggered a break-up of the party and a general exodus. I went home.
As the summer wore on, the cottage I lived in became a sort of gathering place for the "night people," that is, those diehards who were not ready to go home and to bed after everything had closed up for the night. As a rule, when I got off from work at one o'clock in the morning, the other fellows with whom I worked and I would go down to the Sandpiper, a restaurant on Main Street and get a sandwich and coffee. We usually hung around until the restaurant closed at three in the morning. Often, we would then go back to my house and play cards and goof off, sometimes until broad daylight.
One night in the midst of a card game, someone remarked, "Boy, I'm hungry!" "Me too!" chimed another voice, and several others realized that they were ready to eat. The upshot was that we decided to fix a pot of spaghetti. Just about then, an Indian cab driver, seeing the lights, came in and asked what we were doing. When we told him, he said, "You guys don't know how to make spaghetti. Let me make it for you."
So he went over to the stove and peering into the pot he said "You guys don't even know how to tell when the spaghetti is ready." And reaching into the pot with a fork, he fished out a single strand of spaghetti and throwing it against the refrigerator, he said, "If it sticks, then it's ready to eat. If it doesn't stick, then it needs to cook a little longer."
You know something? He was right. Since that time, I have followed his culinary advice whenever I cook spaghetti.
MONDAY NIGHTS AND DOMESTICS
On Monday nights, my night off, I would promise my wife that we would go to the movies at the one movie theater on the island. But in the six or seven summers we spent on the island, I believe we saw not more than one or two movies. The reason was that each week we would be invited to a dinner, or a cookout, or a beach picnic or some other function. Sometimes our hosts were natives of the island, but most of our invitations came from people who worked in service in some of the fine homes on the island.
In some of these fine homes, the domestics were for the most part a friendly, generous bunch from all over the country. I learned a new respect for their "profession" when, after talking to some of them, I began to realize that many of them were better fixed, financially, than many who worked in more "respectable" positions.
One fellow I remember vividly was an ex-school teacher who had come north from North Carolina to take his uncle's job for the summer when the uncle was incapacitated by illness. The uncle died and the teacher continued to hold down what had been the uncle's job. He said, "After I had been on the job for about a year, I managed to persuade my wife to give up her teaching job and join me in domestic work and my employer gave her a job as housekeeper. She has never regretted the decision. We all live in a garage apartment, which goes with my job. Our clothes are provided by my employer, and the food we eat comes from the kitchen of the employer's home. I have a two year old Buick with hardly any miles on it, and I use one of the cars on the estate for getting around. We are well paid. We both earn better salaries than we did as teachers and the employers pay all our taxes. We don't have anything to spend money on, so we save, and invest in real estate. I can tell you, I'll never go back to teaching! "
When I left New England at the end of the last summer I worked there, I felt a great impatience to get back to Virginia. Somehow I knew that my adventures in that part of the world were over and that in future summers, I would seek employment closer to home.
Virginia never looked better or more attractive and I felt a great anxiety to get home. My family had come up to visit and had spent a week with me, but they had already returned to Lynchburg, so I had that long trip to make alone. As I drove homeward, the long weary miles seemed to creep by with agonizing slowness. South from Massachusetts, through Rhode Island and Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and, finally and at long last, Virginia. Boy, was I glad to be home!
I revisited Nantucket a couple of years ago and found the island pretty much as I had left it more than twenty years before. There seemed to be few physical changes in the appearance of things. But I learned that there were some changes that were subtle and less noticeable, not immediately discernible.
The first of these changes was brought to my attention on the night of my arrival. In the waiting room at the steam boat landing, the friends with whom I was traveling and I had about a thirty minute wait for a taxi. There were three black women who had come over on the boat with us and I had first noticed them on the way over. They were large, robust women, big boned, and strong looking, and there was some indefinable strangeness about them.
I kept staring at them until my friend asked me if I was trying to find a girl friend among them. Of course, I denied any such intention, but admitted that there was something out of the ordinary abut them and I was just trying to put my finger on what it was that made them so noticeably different.
"Those women are Haitians," he replied. "There are lots of them on the island in the summer time nowadays." He continued, "You remember when we used to work on the island, most of the domestics were Negroes. All that has changed now. Haitians have taken almost all of those jobs. They are pleasantly agreeable, dependable and hard-working, and they accept direction. They work long hours for less wages. They are a hard-working, very thrifty race of people. Haitian Blacks have almost completely replaced the Negroes who used to hold jobs as cooks, maids, chauffeurs, gardeners, house keepers, etc." This was a surprising, not altogether welcome bit of information, because I remembered with affection some of the domestics I had known in past years.
Another major difference had to do with economics. At the time of my visit, Nantucket was feeling the pinch of economic uncertainty as did the nation as a whole. If anything, the economic problems were somewhat more acute on the island than in most other places. Nantucket's lone industry, its sole source of income, was tourism and any shakiness in the economy was reflected in a drop in tourist activity which resulted in a reduction in tourist revenue, and the scaling-back or closing of businesses that catered to the tourist trade. And this, of course, had a trickle-down effect on the general economy of the island.
But otherwise, the island of Nantucket was as beautiful as ever.
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