For the past 25 years or so, when people around Oak Bluffs hear Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” breezing down Seaview Avenue, it can only be one person — Wallace Bullock.
“You hear that music and you know he is coming, kind of like the ice cream man,” said Deidre Diodati, owner of The Capricorn House. “You peek your head over the edge and flag him down. If he can sit and talk with you, he will.”
But this summer, along Circuit Avenue, around Waban Park, or at Town Beach, it has been curiously silent.
Mr. Bullock, 57, a former Inkwell lifeguard known for biking along Island paths and swimming the entire length of the beach, now awaits a heart transplant in a New York City hospital.
“I’m shocked,” said Rory Moreis of Rapid Recovery Fire and Water Damage Restoration in Oak Bluffs. “I mean you always see Wally, running or biking along Beach Road. You would think anybody else, but not him.”
Diagnosed last fall with a congestive heart failure caused by amyloidosis, a rare condition that causes proteins to be deposited in organs, Mr. Bullock now sits, almost helplessly, on a waiting list for a heart transplant.
“When I came back from the Vineyard last year I suddenly started gaining a lot of water weight,” Mr. Bullock said from a hospital in Manhattan. “I started getting shortness of breath and feeling dizzy. People at my job had to call the rescue squad.”
After visiting two doctors, who sent him home with medication and vitamins, Mr. Bullock decided to check into Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was immediately admitted for more than a month with congestive heart failure. Because of his condition, he was forced to retire from teaching in the New York City school system. This is the first summer he has missed on the Vineyard in close to 15 years and one of only a handful he has missed since 1966.
Among the throngs of annual visitors to Oak Bluffs, Mr. Bullock’s absence has not gone unnoticed. “He’s always laughing, always smiling,” Roger Schilling, co-owner of C’est la Vie on Circuit Ave, said. “He is part of the Island. That’s why I’ve been saying this year, ‘Where is Wally?’”
Known for his booming voice, Mr. Bullock moves seamlessly among the locals, rather than in a separate summer circle.
“Wally has been a fixture here at the Ritz,” said Janet King, the evening bartender for almost 30 years. “He loves to come here and dance to Johnny Hoy and the Bluefish on Tuesday night. A lot of us were concerned this year because we haven’t seen him.”
The son of late Oak Bluffs summer residents Dr. Samuel Bullock and his wife, Gloria, Wallace Bullock grew up between Philadelphia and the Vineyard.
Contributing over the years to the arts on the Island, Mr. Bullock has worked on productions with the Vineyard Playhouse Company, the Island Theater Workshop, and the Nathan Mayhew Seminars. But he is best known, it seems, for a magnetic personality and a special value put on interpersonal relationships, sometimes rare between summer visitors and year-round residents.
“He always sits on the front steps to talk with us and always looks forward to talking to our son,” Jennifer Schilling of C’est la Vie said. “He always teases us, saying ‘Somebody’s gotta work around here!’ because we have to work our butts off, and he can go to the beach. It’s really funny.”
Ms. Schilling went on to say that Mr. Bullock’s energy reminds her that the Vineyard is as much about people as it is the place. “It is Wally’s spirit that we really miss,” she said. “He always has such a positive outlook. We really miss him, and knowing that he is missed, too, I’m sure would help.”
On the telephone from New York, Mr. Bullock responded. “This summer has been tough,” he said. “I miss the Vineyard immensely. I miss the biking, the swimming, the wind surfing, but most of all, my friends.”
Luke DeBettencourt, the owner of The Corner Store and a friend to Mr. Bullock for more than 20 years, echoed the sentiment heard up and down Cricuit Avenue: it’s Mr. Bullock’s emphasis on friendship, rather than business interaction, that comes first.
“He’s the nicest, most gentlest soul,” he said. “One of the kindest people I’ve ever met in my years here. If anyone were deserving of a new heart, it’s certainly Wally. I think maybe he used that one up with all the love he’s given out so far.”
Orlando Lee Rodriguez is a freelance writer who runs an online magazine called Latin Lingo. He lives in New York.