When was that?
When were those good old days? Memory is unreliable. Data is what we need.
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles knows that at the end of 1990, there were 13,742 automobiles registered to owners in the seven Dukes County towns. We can reduce that number by perhaps 20 or so, to allow for Cuttyhunkers who like to drive up and down their hill, but most of the automobiles motored around the Vineyard. In 2002, the rolling stock had increased to about 25,000, an 82 percent increase. Figures for this year are not in yet.
By comparison, in 1990, there were 11,541 year-round residents of Martha's Vineyard. More cars than people. In 2000, we totaled 14,900 souls, a 30 percent jump over a decade. Impressive, but nevertheless, vehicles outran people by a wide margin.
We absolutely knew, in 1990, that there were too many of us and of course too many cars. We thought 1970 or thereabouts had been the good old days. Then there were only 6,034 Vineyarders, and even if we were all in our cars all day every day (which was impossible, because in those days nobody had cars that ran reliably) traffic was light. If, in 1970, all 6,000 of us had driven simultaneously to the Blinker light, we would have breezed right through the intersection, waving to friends as we went.
In those days, for instance, my ride was a 1949 Willys Jeep I bought from Justin Welch, the late former sergeant of the Tisbury police. A fire-engine-red beauty, she had a 1954 engine that didn't quite fit in the engine compartment, so a hole had been opened in the hood to accommodate the breather. But you can deduct one car from the total registered vehicles for the years 1970-1972 because my Jeep hardly ever ran, despite Binky's continuous efforts. There was no top, so you couldn't drive it in serious rain, the windshield would not stand up to its responsibilities, so the driver was continually pasted with flying insects. And the brakes took life at a maybe yes, maybe no pace. I tell you this just to make the point that statistics, even from the U.S. Census, cannot account for every anomalous member of the surveyed population.
A decade later, I was driving an ancient Dodge Power Wagon dump body whose steering wheel was only casually attached to the steering column. The absence of heavy traffic, plus fewer police officers, made it possible for me to get down into town and back to West Tisbury without serious mishap. But, even if I had registered that Dodge instead of using the farm plate, the size of the vehicle population relative to the total square footage of Vineyard roads appears in hindsight to have been about right.
And, it didn't matter anyhow, because in the summer of 1970, we were all furious about the traffic, and we thought that the Vineyard had lost its traffic-less charm. We reckoned that the end of the good old days occurred on July 18, 1969, when Sen. Edward Kennedy drove off the Dike Bridge and killed Mary Joe Kopechne. That's when we decided that the late 1950s and the 1960s, before Chappy got into the national headlines, had been the really good old days, and we realized that we had been mistaken when we thought we had had the good old days to ourselves.
In general, in the good old days, whenever they were, the summer population, including vacation homeowners, vacation renters, their visitors, hotel guests, short-term visitors, and kids sleeping on the beaches added up to six or eight times the year-round population. (That's a rule of thumb with little statistical backbone but, at the same time, it's not that far off.) In the 1970s, sleepers, as the kids were called, were perp-walked into Judge Flaksman's court every Friday and fined. There were so many of them, you could have added a census category if you wanted. The crime of sleeping has died off recently. The sleepers of the 1970s have grown up, made a million, and built big houses in Edgartown.
Anyway, the numbers mean that in 1970, the good old days, there were about 50,000 in residence on a typical August afternoon. So, we complained.
By the way, here's a quaint item from the census: in 1990, only 224, or 7.3 percent, of the houses occupied on the Vineyard were valued at $500,000 or more. Ninety-three percent were worth less than $500,000. Today, no one advertises a house for sale on the Vineyard for under a million. No matter what it's worth. But consider also that per capita income in the good old days, if the good old days were in 1970, was way less than $23,000. How good was that?
In August, 2007, all 120,000 of us, five at a time, will pile into cars and drive around. Of course, with four-wheel drive and SUVs, you can drive around on the beaches now, which expands the available square footage of driving area from what it was in the good old days of 1970, when people got stuck in the sand, even though you had a four-wheel-drive Willys, the whole point of which was to keep you from getting stuck. But, let it go.
Just to keep the record clean, in the bad, old days of a decade ago, we owned SUVs, real monsters, but we pruned our over-the-road equipment, and as is the case with ex-smokers, ex-drinkers, and Democrats, and email-happy Republicans, we go on a bit piously about the evils of big cars. Don't pay any attention.
Of course, one day soon, probably next year, 2006 will be the good old days. You'll find yourself saying, Remember when you could find a parking place on the Edgartown-Vineyard Haven Road. Remember when you could park the wrong way on the pavement beside the Bend in the Road Beach. Remember when it was fun shooting the curl at Five Corners. Remember when you could get in your Excalibur and just drive. How has everything gone so wrong?