Bonfires on Squibnocket Beach
Deep in the coruscating heart of a hot winter's fire, I see fires on Squibnocket Beach on cool summer nights, 50 years ago. There were no open-fire laws then, and families, picnickers, or fishermen would often have a small driftwood campfire in the twilight.
Young adults' beach parties started after dark. About once a week in July and August, the word would spread among my friends that Squibnocket (or some other beach) was the spot to be that night. I may not be remembering it accurately, but it seems to me that with rare exceptions, no one hosted beach parties. They developed spontaneously. When conditions were propitious, teenagers and twenty-somethings, obeying a primitive flocking instinct, collected blankets, beverages, and guitars, and just showed up.
Early arrivals would collect driftwood while it was still light enough to see, and by ten o'clock, a huge fire would be blazing. There must have been more driftwood 50 years ago, because in my memory, collecting enough firewood was never a problem.
On the other hand, perhaps it is my recollecting that's the problem, making the fires bigger, hotter, and grander. In my memory bank, there is one clear image of Peter Colt Josephs standing on a long 12x12 timber across the middle of a fire pit three or four feet in diameter. As the flames lick at his bare toes, he tells a long story, possibly stolen from Rabelais but set, as I recall, in Egypt. If the story had a punch line, I don't remember it. The excitement was fearing (or hoping) that the timber would burn through and drop PJ into the fire.
The 1950s, beaches were not governed by open-container laws, and anyway what cops there were, were on call at home in the evenings. There was a fair amount of drinking, some of it underage, but my earliest friend up-Island, Steve Parker, had a '41 Ford coupe and didn't drink, which was a very good combination for me. However, others I sometimes rode with did drink, and later, when I had a driver's license, I was as foolish as they. The "designated driver" concept didn't exist. Only if someone were staggering drunk would his friends intervene to get him home safely. However, a girl sometimes took over her boyfriend's car, and friends followed and took her home from his house. There were few other cars out late at night up-Island, and the only collision I remember hearing about was with one of Jimmy Cagney's cows.
An accident could easily have been deadly, because cars had no seat belts. If they'd had them, we probably wouldn't have worn them, as they would have spoiled the whole point of bench seats, which was to be as close as possible for the motoring experience. With the standard-shift lever commonly on the steering column, the gentleman disengaged the clutch while the lady changed the gear.
A successful beach party often went long after midnight. Two friends who had summer jobs delivering milk before dawn for the dairy in Edgartown, would occasionally go to work directly from the party, perhaps with a young lady along for a ride in the milk truck. If I were with Steve Parker, who was very responsible, I was usually home at a reasonable hour. When I had my own car, not.
"What did you do at the beach party?" my parents would ask in the morning. It would not do to say that I had sipped an alcoholic beverage and taken as many liberties as some girl would allow. However, I could honestly report that we talked, sang songs, and sometimes went swimming - wholesome-sounding activities and all true. There was always talk, interesting talk, even intellectual talk. There was indeed sometimes a bit of late-night swimming, attire optional. The singing, much more common in those days than now, would begin wholesomely, but become increasingly bawdy as the evening progressed. My specialty was dirty limericks - I'd memorized scores of them, and by the time the party got around to limericks, no one seemed to care that I couldn't carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. I've since learned, after extensive research, that there are very few clean limericks worth remembering.
The iPod, the Walkman, even the boom box hadn't been invented yet. There was no way at all to carry recorded music to a beach party. Far from being a disadvantage, the lack of modern music technology got everyone involved with making music, and not just at beach parties.
There was a community sing at least once a week. Even a no-talent like me could (very quietly) be part of the culture that just a decade later produced Carly Simon and James, Kate, and Livingston Taylor. In the years before the Chilmark Community Center was built, sings were usually in someone's barn (Roger Baldwin's for example, or at Gudes or the Barnhouse compound on South Road). There was always a guitar or two, and maybe a banjo or a fiddle, and there were some marvelous voices. I remember Helen Baldwin and Jessie Benton singing harmony in high, pure voices, "Come roll me in your arms, love, and blow the candle out."
Community sings were multigenerational and the songs were mostly suitable for all audiences, usually the sorts of folk music that people such as the Kingston Trio and the Weavers were starting to make popular: "Green-backed Dollar," "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," "The Titanic," "The Golden Vanity," or "Wimoway." "Blow the Candle Out," was as risqué as it got. Limericks were not on the program.
Beach parties would often start with the same sorts of folk songs. Perhaps the crowd would work up to "Sweet Violets" and "Roll Me Over," innocent by today's standards. Someone would request Charlie Close's monologue about Adam and Eve, which he punctuated with guitar riffs. Beverages broke the ice of propriety, and the program would degenerate to bawdy limericks, "The Sexual Life of the Camel," the milder verses of "Barnacle Bill," or sometimes even "The Ball at Killiemuir." Aristophanes shows us that for at least 2,500 years, shocking language has been the most amusing activity a young person can engage in, especially if it rhymes, but if the party got to "The Ball at Killiemuir," it was time to bury the fire in the sand and go home.
While I am embarrassed to think how irresponsible, selfish, and foolish I was in those days 50 years ago, I am sadder still that they are gone forever. Despite my shortcomings, or maybe because of them, those memories burn as brightly as the bonfires on Squibnocket Beach.