As an adult I became a devotee of the seashore "off season," fall and winter being the best times for a visit. A long drive to Brenton Point or Narragansett Pier on a chill day would be rewarded by a dearth of cars jockeying for parking spaces, jostling crowds on the sidewalk, and the roar of music pumped up in volume. It is during that "off season" possible to park the car and take a leisurely walk along the sea wall, perhaps climb down to the sand and rocks and hop among the seaweed pods, tidal pools cupped in stone hollows, and refuse shells, to cant the head upward to blue sky or, more often in the winter, sullen grey clouds, to stare out to sea and watch the foam of the surf hiss and splash against the shingle. And while it is best to dress warmly on those days, since the wind coming off the waves has an uncanny way of finding the one loose corner of one's coat or jacket and sending a whistling chill up your spine, the scent of the ocean, especially the sharp pungency of low tide, can't help but take you back...
I don't remember my first trip to the beach, but my mother told the tale with amusement and perhaps some pride that her fastidious housekeeping had rubbed off slightly on the two-year-old toddler who stepped for the first time barefoot on sand, curled her lip and complained, "Mommy! Dirty!" Fortunately this prejudice didn't keep us from those summer sojourns to South County still familiar to everyone in Rhode Island.
Beach mornings were early mornings, since back then we had to go to Mass before even thinking of getting on the road. Surely St. Mary's was populated at those early morning services by people in impeccable Sunday clothingheaven forbid you wore jeans or a sunsuit to church back in those still-formal early 60s daysthat covered bathing suits so that once home you could divest yourself of frock and suit, slip into shell or cotton shirt and shorts or seersucker trousers or a sunsuit, grab the cooler and the food, and get on the road. I remember our cooler, those wonderfully patterned cylindrical "Skotch Koolers" with a lid so tight Dad must tap on it with a small hammer to get it on and use the claw of that same hammer to get it off.
After all the rushing it was then time to join the queue with the hundreds of others heading in the same direction. There was no interstate to get you there sooner, and the roads were narrow with dirt verges leading off into trees as you finally left "civilization" (or East Greenwich, whichever came first). Especially in July and August, it was already smotheringly hot when you "hit the road" and air-conditioned cars were reserved for those who could afford to populate the private beaches with their changing rooms and showers. Each car in the queue was similar: usually Dad in a light cotton shirt driving, swearing at the "slowpokes" in front of him, Mom in a sleeveless flowered dress with a v-neck or perhaps a similar blouse with a light skirt or capri pants sitting next to him asking him not to talk that way in front of the children, and the children themselves in the back seat, like puppies squirming, exchanging retorts, or uttering that always familiar chant of "are we there yet?"
I was lucky in that respect, sitting solo in the backseat with no little brother to torment me, or older sister to pout because she wasn't allowed to go somewhere with her best friend. I sat behind Mom in the passenger seat (she never learned to drive after one too many encounters with the clutch of a manual transmission), free, in those seat beltless day, to prop myself up and look out the window as we crept down Tower Hill Road and finally to the outskirts of Scarborough or Sand Hill Cove (later given the pedestrian name of Roger Wheeler State Beach). Our original beach forays were to East Matunuck, but I barely remember them, save for the sight of what finally drove us away: the shapeless, frightening mass of protoplasm that was the jellyfish. Once the stingers outnumbered the swimmers, we were gone. Next we tried Scarborough, which in the 1960s became the hangout of the high school crowds and the surfers. Scarborough had smooth, high breakers that enchanted the lads (and occasional lasses) with the long polished boards, and also the swaggering boys and their giggling dates. Dad loved the surf, but the relentless blare of transistor radios and the overflowing hormones finally drove on to the family-oriented sands at the Cove.
Every Sunday became the same: no matter how early we left, we were always to the rear of the parking lot, left to tramp the sand-strewn gravel lot with baskets, beach chairs, the cooler, and towels. Back then smoking was still the norm, and you had to pick your way over cigarette-stub strewn sand to find a nice spot to plant yourself for the day. Next came the slathering of copious Coppertone over every bit of skin left exposedI fell in love with the scent at an early age and as an adult would dab some on as perfume. Finally Mom would settle on the chair to hold our placeshe couldn't swim anyway, and usually just waded out to her waist to get cooland watch Dad swim lengths out where it was deeper and me play at sea's edge, scooping up sand castles, or paddling in the surf. Despite cavorting puppylike in the white spray, I never learned to swim because I wouldn't put my head underwater. (Three years of swimming classes in junior high did no good; they wouldn't even teach you to float if you wouldn't put your head under.)
By junior high we had quit going to the beach anyway. The crowds aggravated Dad, Mom didn't care either way as long as we had a relaxing day together, and although I loved cooling off on a hot day, the aftermath of ocean swimming wasn't worth the trouble. You'd come out of the water coated in sand, and have to wipe, wipe, wipe your feet before you could even stick them in your sneakers, and even then they were still painful with grit. We didn't have the cash to use the bathing pavilions, so that meant a ride home in a wet swimsuit, with a horrible bath afterwards attempting to get sand out of every fold of your bodyfollowed by removing it from every corner of the bathtub with Ajax and a scrubby sponge. Ugh.
Eventually we settled for going to the beach and walking about. A frequent location for this was Galilee, probably Rhode Island's largest fishing port. In the 1960s there was the quaint motel with the windmill there for lodging, with none of the condos that sprawl there today, plus crab shacks, little supermarkets with bells on rackety wooden screen doors for the summer vacationers, the rest rooms, and big fish markets lining the water. Our favorite was right next to the ferry slip for Block Island, and the place had all the charm of the black-and-white settings in old movies about the dockyards, with the mixed smell of low tide, diesel oil, hot cars, and fish, fish, fish. We'd stop in the bare-bones concrete-and-wood market to buy fresh fish, which revolted me. I ate fish, except for crabs and tuna, under duress every Friday, so every finned body was an enemy and the fishy eyes creeped me out.
Sometimes Dad would go fishing himself. We would take a "pic-a-nic baskit" (to quote Yogi Bear) and walk out onto the stone jetty with dozens of other fathers and sons (and the occasional daughter) doing the same thing, trailed by mothers and daughters in sun dresses and wide hats. Dad had a lovely wooden fishing pole with a Bakelite-handled reel especially made for sea fishing; the reel fascinated me when it spun backward with its peculiar whine. To this day I can't recall if he caught anythingexcept for a sun- and windburn, which, even with the Coppertone, seemed inevitable.
About once a month we would go on a picnic down at the grove near the old South County Museum, just outside of Wickford. If this brings to mind carefree sandwiches or a bucked of KFC under the trees, forget it. Picnics Italian-style back then were as complex as Sunday dinner over Grandpa's.
We originally started having Sunday picnics with the entire family on the two lots Papà and Dad owned at Ocean Ridge in Charlestown. Today Ocean Ridge is a year-round community with manicured lawns; back then it was primarily dotted with small summer cottages used between June and September and perhaps weekends in the spring and fall, checkered with empty lots, the lawns salt grass. A gravel road ran through it until it petered out at the dunes, and you walked the final few yards to the beach. The land was cheap back then, and the building standards very mildyou could build a tiny house there (one kitchen, one living room with sofa bed, one bath, one bedroom) for little money, no furnace needed.
Papà and my uncles had built a big long picnic table in the middle of the two lots, long rough wood boards bolted to gas piping which Grandpa got from his job at the gas company, and it stood a bit swaybacked in long beach grass most of the year. On summer Sundays, though, everyone would show up with a lawn mower for the uncles to quickly shear enoough of the lot to fit us all, and then the women moved in. Sandwiches? Not on your life! Hot platters of fragrant spaghetti, savory baked chicken, big bowls of vinegar-scented salad almost overwhelmed the brine seashore scentMom and the aunts had been up since 7 a.m. cooking the bounty. We kids would play or help set the table (did I mention there were real dishes and real silverware, too? only the napkins were paper) until it was time to eat. And then the aunts would sit and gab while the uncles crunched up the gravel road with the kids to the beach.
Papà eventually tired of having a lot and told Dad he wanted to sell. While Dad still dreamed of some type of cottage, he ran afoul of the zoning change which said the single lots were too small for proper houses and they must be sold in pairs. Dad couldn't afford to buy Papà's lot, so all of it was sold. Someone probably relievedly junked that cockeyed wood-and-pipe table we had so much fun at.
Maddeningly, Mom still continued to cook the full Italian dinner once we started having picnics on our own in the grove. Fruitlessly I lobbied for submarine sandwiches, Arbys (this back when Arbys still used real roast beef), or even homemade sandwiches in crispy-soft Italian bread. Apparently Mom and Dad thought if we didn't have one hot meal on Sunday we'd be vitamin deprived. So Mom continued to get up at 7 a.m, bake chicken, make a salad, send Dad for a loaf of Italian bread, and carry glass and china and silverware out to the wilds of South County, and then we'd have to schlepp it home and wash and dry it.
Another favorite haunt on Sundays was Point Judith. This dangerous spot of Rhode Island coastline has been guarded for years by a squat little lighthouse and power shed next to a building used by the Coast Guard. (The original wooden lighthouse was smashed to flinders in a gale in the 1800s.) We would park in the rough gravel triangle made by the restaurant (seafood, of course) on the slope and paint-testing station guarded by a chain-link fence and climb the driveway past the lighthouse and walk the length of the concrete wall. The shiny stones under the wall were always dotted with pieces of coal spilled from the colliers that skirted Point Judith's flanks. Then, our appetites freshened by sharp sea air, we would go the short distance to Aunt Carrie's, redolent of frying fish and their famous clam cakes, little golden blobs of deep-fried dough stuffed with clams. Dad and Mom swore by Rocky Point's clam cakes, but Aunt Carrie's, almost too hot to touch, sharply scented with ocean goodness, would do in a pinch.
Most of our later forays to the shore became monthly trips to Newport. Dad was adverse to paying the toll over the Jamestown Bridge and the new Newport Bridge, so we would go north. Occasionally we would travel via Fall River, Massacusetts, first, so we could visit the cool depths of Ste. Anne's Church and Mom could have Masses said for her parents and her brother. A grey, impressive replica of the same church in Quebec, with two towers visible from the Braga Bridge south of the city, Ste. Anne's served the initially French and then Portuguese Catholics of this old whaling and then industrial city. The upper church was a glory of columns and arches, scented with warm candles and sweet incense, with little niches at the rear, lit with multicolor from the stained glass windows.
Usually, however, we'd drive through route 136, through Warren and Bristol, crossing the Mount Hope Bridge (only a dime). We'd come into Newport past the church where John and Jacqueline Kennedy were married and usually tarry for a few moments downtown. After Newberry's closed in Providence, the only one readily available was on Thames Street in Newport, and Mom would pick up her favorite lipstick there. Until it closed Newberry's was a throwback to earlier days, deep canvas awnings overhanging the big display windows on sunny days, the interior cooled with fans, the glass-and-wood display cases worn by the touch of thousands of hands in dozens of years. Newport in the sixties was still an old town of tall grim structures that used to serve as shipping warehouses; urban renewal slashed the grey canyons and the pallid downtown to create the Brick Walk Marketplace and Bowen's Wharf shops. Once this transformation had taken place, we would hunt up a parking space and visit the various shops there: a place that sold mounted advertisements culled from old Lifes and Looks and the Saturday Evening Post, The Book Bay, a bakery, and even the Newport Branch of my beloved E.L. Freeman, the stationers.
There were other pleasant parts to the visit. Once done with the shops, we would thread through narrow Thames Street and turn right to pass the harbor and the monument to General Rochambeau, who helped the colonists during the Revolutionary War. Then we would head toward Ocean Drive via Fort Adams. Dad was trained briefly at Fort Adams during World War II, and was sad that it had fallen into disrepair. (He'd be happy to know it has been restored and tours are now available.) Once a year, they did open it up, on Father's Day, when they had Army Day. Military vehicles would be brought on the big parade ground in the interior of the fort and there would be exhibits of first aid and rapelling from helicopters. From Fort Adams we would pass Hammersmith Farm, the summer home of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and the legendary "Swiss Village," a little gathering of miniature homes which were, sadly, on private landI still craned my neck to peer over the vine-covered stone walls to spy the roofs of the little buildings.
And on the way home we always took a turn past the private beaches and the big homes that led the way to Bellevue Avenue and another era, for Bellevue was the location of the famous Newport mansions, playground for the super-rich in the Gilded Age. These monumental brick and stone and marble structures were used for ten weeks of the summer only, the site of extravagant balls and parties, from people who would go home in September to New York and Boston, leaving the homes mute through the fall and winter.
In between was paradise, a spit of land thrust out into the cold water of Narragansett Bay. Even today, one afternoon of a New England vacation must be spared for Brenton Point. If there is a heaven on earth, one of its spots is certainly here.
Years earlier Brenton Point held the big stone house of the Budlong family, but it was abandoned in the 1920s and not salvaged, finally destroyed by fire in the early 1960s. Left was the stone gatehouse, the old stable, the remains of a rose garden, and the bottom half of a windmill. The state bought it for parkland, and the WPA built a retaining wall so that the land on which Ocean Drive stood did not erode into the sea. In the 1960s it was wilder than it is today, the parking lot across the road badly paved and gravel spattered, edged by wild pink and white roses and brambles dappled with berries, rabbits' noses occasionally peeking from their depths, the gatehouse closed and barred, the stables already suffering from the exploits of vandals. (I loved wandering in the old stable before it was fenced against intruders, with no way to hold back its other enemy, the weather, for the structure was something out of Black Beauty: the tower, the wide inner drive for the carriages to be driven in so the horses could be unharnessed out of the wet, the loose boxes and stalls with their oat bins, the concrete steps up to the haymow, the areaway out back where the horses could be washed down and exercised or treated.)
It was a place for relaxation, for exploration, for dreams. A dozen steps down the big concrete stairway brought you from the earthly world to the liquid one. The shingle was scattered with rocks washed in by the endless tide, wrapped in seaweed, scattered with the empty clam shells left by the sea birds. Black outcrops of shale, clearly showing the layers of years, held tidal pools of straggling plants, tiny fish, and snails. Standing on those rocks, a child could be anything: a great explorer looking out to sea, a children's book heroine looking for buried treasure, one of the Bobbsey Twins spending time at Ocean Cliff, a lighthouse-keeper's child grown up wild on a speck of rock out at sea, the Beebe children on Assateague searching for ponies, a ship's captain's daughter looking out to sea for some sign of the sails of her father's ship, Jim Hawkins or Velvet Brown. Never mind the view surely ruined those dreams, for the occasional sailboat was often overwhelmed by tankers and barges, especially on cloudy days.
Eventually, of course, the sun would lower, and it was time for supper and home. It was back to the rear seat of the car and the road home, over Mount Hope, down Metacom Avenue through Bristol and a return to civilization. But some part of you was still left at the edge of the rocks, standing tall, windblown, eyes squinted against the glinting water, hair streaming out behind or lashing your face, salt spray on your cheeks, forever taking in the wild song of the sea.
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