Scarborough Beach

When life was a day at the beach

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 17, 2022. That’s me, far left, second row, with my cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

My family never went on summer vacations when I was a kid, at least not in the conventional sense.

Like many Rhode Islanders, we just went to the beach.

My grandfather owned a tidy red cottage with three bedrooms and one bath on Elizabeth Road in Narragansett to which his four daughters flocked with their children, all 13 of us. I was the second-youngest cousin.

On one hot July morning, my brothers, cousins, and I trekked three blocks to Scarborough Beach while our mothers made peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and Kool-Aid to bring for lunch. The painted white lines in Scarborough’s asphalt parking lot were cool tightropes beneath my bare feet, and the parched boardwalk was splinter-treacherous, although navigating it delivered a magnificent reward: the Atlantic Ocean.

There was one problem: no one was allowed in the water until our moms arrived. Mine had cautioned my brothers and me, more than once, that the dreaded undertow would pull us to our doom.

My older cousin Michael knew a good way to pass the time: skimboarding. At the shoreline, he hucked his waxed wooden disc in front of him as the water from a wave receded, chased after the skittering board and jumped on it with two feet, then glided effortlessly over the glistening shore, arms outstretched.

I did my utmost to mimic Michael’s carefree ride several times, but the board always skated out from under my feet, landing me backside-first on the shoreline mud and drawing whoops of laughter from my throng of brothers and cousins.

Less embarrassing was scouring the fine sand at Scarborough for money. My brother Rob, cousin Paulie, and I slowly walked up and down the beach, eyes searching for glints of silver. A nickel could get you a Hershey bar; a dime would buy you a Coke; and a quarter would be good for three games of pinball. We watched with envy as an old man in long pants waved his metal-detecting device over the sand and then bent down with a pail to sift for his payoff. “I want one of those gizmos for Christmas,” my brother said.

On this morning, the beach was stingy with its coins, but generous with cigarette butts and popsicle sticks. We immediately converted the sandy flotsam and jetsam into mini-catapults, pressing tan Marlboro or Winston filters against the top end of the half-dyed sticks while pushing our thumbs against the bottom to flick butts into the seaside breeze. We crouched in the sand below the boardwalk and took aim at unsuspecting passersby carrying beach chairs and umbrellas. (Our projectiles never hit their targets, which was surely a blessing – for us.)

At last, my mother and aunts arrived. Time to go in!

We dashed and splashed into the cool blue ocean, diving though the arc of a wave just before it crashed. Standing waist-high in the swirling sea, we saw a rising set of waves approach.

“Next one, next one!” a cousin shouted.

We rode the waves until our fingertips wrinkled, then ran up and laid our stomachs down on the hot sand. Shivers eventually quelled, we went back in, again and again.

At noontime, we sat at seafoam-green picnic tables on the boardwalk eating our peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, warm and gooey. Our mothers forbade us from going in the water right after lunch, saying we would get a cramp and drown. Unless, of course, the undertow got us first.

Rob, Paulie, and I went looking for our fortune in the sand again, waiting for a life-saving half-hour to pass.

Beatles had nothing on my band of brothers

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 15, 2021. Above, the author, far left, second row, with cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

Fifty-six years ago, on August 15, the Beatles bounded onto a ramshackle stage above second base at Shea Stadium and launched a new era. It was the first major stadium concert by a rock and roll band, with more than 55,000 attendees, mostly teeny boppers, screaming deliriously throughout the Fab Four’s 30-minute set. Of the spectacle, John Lennon would later say, “At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”

Closer to sea level here in Rhode Island, another seismic event took place on that day, noted by fewer people, but life-changing nevertheless, at least for me: my younger brother, James, was born.

I was 5 years old, so my memories of that summer are formed more by family lore and black-and-white photos than actual recall. In one snapshot, my mother is standing at the edge of the water at Scarborough Beach, very pregnant in a flower-print sundress. I suspect she was watching my older brother, Rob, and me ride waves with first cousins from the Pantalone side of our family. There were 12 of us then: Vinny and Ricky and Paulie and Michael and Lorri and Jeannie and Tommy and Steven and David and Anne and Rob and me, the youngest – but not for long.

Longer than my mother expected, though. A succession of hot, humid days arrived after her early-August due date, but not my brother-to-be.

At my grandfather’s red beach house in Narragansett, I imagine Mom’s cousin Gracie or Tina or Etta voicing impatience with mock annoyance and good-humored empathy: “Norma, where is this baby?” I can see one of Mom’s sisters – Gracie or Rita or Marie – shooing her away from the stove where Sunday gravy is burbling. “Go sit down,” one of them would have said. “I’ll make the macaroni.”

The world I remember as a 5-year-old is a never-ending parade of Italian relatives – an affectionate pinch of my cheek one day, a corrective “scoopalone” to the back of my head the next, all in the name of love.

Three blocks up from Scarborough, on Elizabeth and Sewell Roads, five cottages owned by family members stood within shouting distance of one another. Amid the mounting anticipation of my brother’s birth, I imagine Gracie or Tina calling out into the sunrise quiet while everyone is still in bed: “Norma, did you have that baby yet?”

“No!”

Finally, the day came. As the Beatles prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium, I envision my father helping my mother into their blue Plymouth Valiant and taking her to Lying-In Hospital. Rob and I likely stayed with one of our aunts at the beach. Maybe a black rotary phone rang. I imagine my Aunt Marie’s sweet smile as she gave us the news: “You guys have a baby brother!”

One scene is clear in my memory. Two or three days later, my dad drove Rob and me back from the beach to our double-decker on River Avenue in Providence to meet James for the first time. Rob dashed into the living room, raced past my mother who was sitting on the couch, and disappeared into our bedroom. Then he raced back out.

“Where is he?” Rob said, eyes wide with worry.

“Right here, Robert,” my mother said softly. She was cradling our new brother in her lap.

That night, Rob, James, and I lay asleep under the same roof for the first time. While the Fab Four would split up five years after their mountaintop moment at Shea, our band of three has been together ever since.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Confessions of a lifelong Beatlemaniac

As appeared in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 21, 2016.

I wasn’t one of the 73 million Americans who watched the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, two days before my fourth birthday. But soon enough, Beatlemania would sweep me up too.

Later that year, as my mother prepared our family’s traditional fish dinner on Christmas Eve, my older brother, Rob, and I sat on the living room floor listening to Meet The Beatles! on a portable record player. My grandfather, who lived upstairs in our Providence double-decker, walked in from the kitchen.

“Where’s the Christmas music?” he said, pointing his smoldering Dutch Masters cigar at the spinning vinyl.

“Papa,” Rob said. “It’s the Beatles!”

My brother shot me a knowing look. Listening to anything else — even “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve — was out of the question.

The following June, my mother gave each of us a crisp one-dollar bill at the start of our vacation in Narragansett.

“That’s for the whole week,” she said. “Make it last.”

Less than an hour later, Rob handed his dollar to the cashier at Adam’s variety store in exchange for 20 five-cent packs of Beatles cards. I stood at the counter, eyebrows raised.

The cards featured stylish black-and-white photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo, and facsimiles of their autographs. I was aghast at the instant evaporation of my brother’s allowance. But as we flipped through the images again and again, the payoff began to dawn on me. The cards reaffirmed what we had felt the first time we heard “I Want To Hold Your Hand”: the Beatles were cool and, by extension, so were we.

That afternoon, ignoring my frugality for a moment, I slid a dime into the jukebox on the boardwalk at Scarborough Beach and played the Fab Four’s latest chart-topper, “Ticket to Ride.”

Their hits kept coming: “Help!” in July; “Yesterday” in September; Rubber Soul in time for Christmas; and the remarkable Revolver eight months later.

And then, during the Summer of Love in 1967, my father brought home Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“Everyone’s talking about this,” he said, handing us the Beatles’ new LP.

The cover art, with its photomontage of famous people, was unlike anything we had ever seen. “A Day In The Life,” with its rising orchestral glissandos, was unlike anything we had ever heard. And I loved that the lyrics were printed on the back cover. As the music played, I sang along.

In late September, Time magazine arrived in the mail, and the Beatles were on the cover. The story inside hailed them as “messengers beyond rock ‘n’ roll.” I didn’t understand the references to Schubert and Cole Porter, but I soaked up every word.

By then, I wanted a Beatles “mop top,” but my parents insisted on a “regular boys’ haircut.” Waiting at Lanni’s barbershop one day, I was shocked by a front-page headline: “Paul McCartney fighting lip cancer!” I reported the grim news at home. My father, a resolute introvert, howled before enlightening me about the journalism standards at the National Enquirer. Rumors of Paul’s death two years later would find me less gullible.

The Beatles charted 27 number-one songs before breaking up in 1970. People are still listening today. After going live on Spotify last December 24, Beatles tunes were streamed more than 70 million times in just three days.

Years ago, I smiled the first time I heard my daughter singing along to John Lennon’s “In My Life” in her bedroom. Juliana was a fan too.

This past Christmas, I handed her a flat, square present topped with a big red bow.

“No way!” Julie said, after stripping away the wrapping paper.

She beamed at the framed album cover – the original Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that my father had given to Rob and me back in 1967.

“And there’s a bonus,” I said. “The record’s inside.”

“My friend has a turntable,” she said. “We can play it!”

Drop the needle, Julie. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Saying goodbye to the family beach house

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, July 19, 2015.

I spent my summers as a boy at Scarborough Beach in Narragansett, thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to get the country out of the Great Depression, and my Auntie Tina’s powers of persuasion.

The popularity of Fords and other automobiles prompted the paving of Point Judith Road in 1928, easing access to the shore. FDR’s Public Works Administration developed the beaches at Scarborough and Sand Hill Cove in the 1930s, accelerating the transformation of Point Judith Neck into a popular summer vacation spot. Modest cottages sprang up in increasing numbers.

As for Auntie Tina, her husband, Frankie, purchased a tiny house three blocks up from Scarborough in 1951, and she convinced her brother-in-law, sister, and uncle – my grandfather – to buy adjoining lots. (Technically, Tina was a first cousin once removed, but that translated into “Auntie” in my mother’s large, close-knit family.)

My grandfather built a three-bedroom cottage on Elizabeth Road in 1957, three years before I was born. It was a study in funky woods: vertically grooved plywood siding (known by its trade name, Texture 111) and knotty pine interior walls. The house, painted vibrant red with white trim, faced south, allowing sunlight to pour through its big picture window. Relatives and friends poured in, too – the front door was always open.

Going to Scarborough as a kid meant curling waves and salty skin, hot sand underfoot and frozen Charleston Chews in hand. Someone would invariably ask Uncle Harry if he was going to swim to League Rock, which juts out of the ocean almost a quarter mile off the shore.

“Water’s too cold,” my uncle would say, as if that were his only reason for deferring.

Lifeguard whistles turned my head often: Was someone being swept away by the perilous undertow that my mother and aunts warned me about? Crackly PA announcements sounded a common refrain: “Attention please, we have a little lost boy …”

Fortunately, I was never that lost boy. At the beach, I always had family close by.

When it rained, we played cards back at the house – rummy games on the porch for the kids, canasta in the kitchen for the adults. My cousin Anne usually won the penny pool, while Auntie Etta was forever ruing the cards she was dealt: “What rotten paper!”

On August 2, 1975, temperatures in Providence reached a record high of 104 degrees. My grandfather closed his baby clothes store on Federal Hill, and just about everyone in the family streamed to Elizabeth Road. At 10:00 that night, some of us were still down at the beach, soothed by the cool caresses of the ocean, like a great, moving well of ink beneath the hazy moonlight. Amid invisible splashes, I tried to block the opening scene of “Jaws,” the summer’s blockbuster movie, from my mind. It didn’t work.

The entire family came together again the following Sunday to celebrate my grandfather’s birthday. Papa stood in the backyard, smoking a cigar and smiling as the party swirled around him. I never asked, but I was pretty sure this is why he had built the cottage – to have a place at the beach where his children and grandchildren (and, someday, great and great-great grandchildren) could gather.

The house stayed in the family through 2014, when we lost the last of a line of legendary matriarchs, sweet Auntie Marie. A “For Sale” sign went up, and someone from New York bought the property in a blink.

This past June, I headed to Narragansett, and Scarborough, for the first time since the sale. When I turned the corner at Elizabeth Road, I gasped: the house’s familiar red paint was gone, covered now with grey vinyl siding.

My reaction surprised me, and then I chuckled. What had I expected – for the cottage to stand unchanged forever, like League Rock out in the swells off a beloved stretch of beach?

It will always be my grandfather’s house to me. Vinyl may have buried its grooved wooden siding, but it can’t obscure the memories I have of summers spent there.

What a blessing they were.

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