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On a Beach on Nantucket

(this story appears in Old Roads and Shadows, an eBook)

On a Beach on Nantucket

Remembering youth and love on the island of Nantucket


In the early summer of 1974 I was young and in love, enjoying a time of my life when, although I did not have Paris, I did have Nantucket.

At the time, I was living in a two-bedroom apartment above a bar in Manchester, Connecticut that I shared with my friend and roommate, Don Doughty. The community college we attended was on summer break and my girlfriend, Loretta, had recently left for Nantucket Island to live and work during the busy tourist season. Nantucket, located thirty miles off the southern coast of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, was a popular destination during the warm months of the year. She planned to meet several friends on the island and once gathered the group would find a suitable place to rent and share living expenses through the summer season, which began in mid-June.

Everything was going well for Loretta and her friends out on the island. They had rented a small bungalow in town and six people shared the cost of rent and utilities. Most had found jobs in restaurants or hotels for the hectic summer season. As for me, I was listless and bored in Manchester; time itself seemed to crawl while she was away.

Early one morning, my roommate agreed to drive me to the Nantucket ferry, which in those days departed from the southwestern tip of Cape Cod at Woods Hole in Massachusetts. I made roundtrip reservations by phone for the boat, called Loretta to let her know my schedule, threw some clothes in a large daypack, and was soon in the car and on my way to Cape Cod. In three days, I would return to the mainland on the ferry and hitchhike back to Manchester from Woods Hole.

The ride to the ferry took about three hours. I said goodbye to Don, bought my ticket, and mingled with the other travelers at the dock as we waited for the ferry to board, nervously anticipating my first voyage to the island. The ship would stop first at the town of Vineyard Haven on the island of Martha’s Vineyard and then continue on to Nantucket. The ferry was a large vessel that shuttled trucks, cargo, provisions, and passenger cars to and from the islands year round; the ferry had large loading doors at each end of the ship that allowed cars and trucks to enter at one end and drive out the other after docking. In addition to vehicles and cargo, the ship carried more than a 1000 passengers.

We boarded the ferry and set a course for Martha’s Vineyard, clearly visible ahead. After unloading passengers and cargo at Vineyard Haven, we started for Nantucket. At the halfway point, I could not see land from the open deck, but Nantucket soon came into view on the far horizon above the bow of the ship.

As we approached the island, the ferry began to slow in preparation for entering the harbor. Off to the right of the bow I saw Loretta and Steven Cooney standing on the shore of what I would later learn was Cliff Beach. I waved to them and they waved back, my heart racing at the sight of Rhetta standing out on the sand. They turned and sprinted from the shore to meet the boat when it docked. The ferry passed close to the Brant Point lighthouse and slowed to a crawl as the ship entered the harbor and made a hard right turn as it headed in towards the main landing.

The boat pulled slowly into its mooring at the downtown pier and the deck and wharf hands quickly secured the ship in place. The passengers spilled out of the ship through the large loading doors leading from the parking level of the boat and walked out onto the streets of Nantucket over a steel ramp that led from the vessel to the pavement. Rhetta came up to me through the crowd and we embraced, oblivious to the people that streamed by on either side of us, like a river flowing around the stanchions of a bridge.

I shook hands with Steven. He was on the island with his girlfriend, Mary Ellen Casey, and they were part of the group that shared the bungalow with Loretta. The three of us walked into town and stopped at the Brotherhood of Thieves, a small bar and restaurant, where we enjoyed a beer and a cup of the Brotherhood’s famous clam chowder.

After eating, we left the restaurant and strolled around the cobblestone streets of downtown Nantucket, then made our way to the small bungalow Loretta shared with her friends. Her roommates were either out working, or judiciously away to give us some privacy. As the day grew dark, we spread out some blankets and sleeping bags on the floor, and with a sweet urgency, shed our clothes, and made love.

Over the next two days, I had my first look at the island and numerous place names entered my vocabulary: Madaket, Cisco, Surfside, Siasconset, Wauwinet, Quaise, Quidnet, Polpis, Pocomo, Monomoy, and Sankaty Head. The Island had so much to see and appreciate, and my own cares and worries drifted away as I rejoiced in the intimate embraces of Loretta.

During those few days, I asked Rhetta to marry me and she accepted. Joy was now evident in the world. We planned to have a simple wedding in August; we would wed in casual dress and exchange vows in the bird sanctuary on Nantucket. We called family and friends to share the good news. Everything was so beautifully simple and we felt ourselves swept away in the salad days of life.

After three days on the island, I returned to Woods Hole and hitchhiked back to my apartment in Manchester. Several return trips to Nantucket soon followed. I always felt elated just to set foot on the ferry; heading offshore for thirty miles provided immediate release from the day-to-day grind and took me to a place of adventure, far away from my mundane existence in Connecticut.

Loretta had secured a job cooking meals for an elderly woman, a Mrs. Everett, who lived upstairs in a fine old house close to downtown. Downstairs, two large and ornate silver pheasants with long tails sat on her unused dining room table. She kept telling Rhetta that she wanted to meet me, but she always deferred when I was actually at the house, telling Rhetta that she was too tired for introductions.

Because of Rhetta's job, we met many Portuguese workers who assisted the Everett family in caring for both her and her dwelling. These people were life-long islanders and Loretta and I were fortunate to become their friends. They invited us to birthdays and graduation parties, and we enjoyed our opportunity to share in their celebrations of life out on the island.

August arrived and we never did have that simple wedding in the bird sanctuary as planned; Rhetta’s mom morphed the celebration into a large production on the beach in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Friends from Nantucket came to Old Lyme to celebrate our wedding, and we nurtured our connections to the island as Loretta and I returned to Nantucket on numerous occasions over the years.

Rhetta had met and become friends with John Poor, whose family owned the fish market on the wharf downtown. For several years, when visiting the island, we stayed with the Poor's in a room above the market, spreading our sleeping bags out on the floor. On one trip, a lobsterman brought in a near 30-pound giant. I have a picture of John holding the lobster up for the camera. John purchased the behemoth and a group of John's friends chipped in to pay for the monster. We went out to the western shore southeast of Madaket one night, and in a secluded circular depression nestled in the sand and sea grass not far from the ocean, John boiled the great lobster in a garbage can over a fire. We added ears of corn and a bushel of clams into the can as well. We sat around the fire and feasted, protected from the wind, enjoying wine and beer from two large coolers carried into the dunes. It was an evening unlike any I had ever known.

One year, a close friend of ours named Mary Twormey, rented a room in a house near the beach on Quidnet Pond and invited us to spend a few days with her. The dwelling was quiet and private, and during the day when the house was empty, Loretta and I would spread a towel on the sand near the pond and make love on the beach under the summer sun.

Nantucket Island was a blue-blood destination during the prime tourist season and its population swelled in the sultry summer months. There were the places Jackie O used to visit, or where the Kennedy clan stayed, along with fine dining and lively bars to discover and enjoy. As we grew older our ways and means increased, and we availed ourselves of the enjoyment found at some of the nicer establishments on the island. Occasionally, when we were at a secluded stretch of beach, the girls would go topless. We were young and free, and if you were on Nantucket in the summer, you felt that you were definitely one of the beautiful people. Rampant everywhere about us was youth, abundance, beauty, and joy.

As the years went by, we made more trips to Nantucket in the winter. Several inns remained open year round, with our favorite being the Jared Coffin House. The cost of an out of season room was very reasonable and the inn had a warm and friendly bar. We often booked winter reservations and three or four couples would travel to the island together to enjoy a long weekend. A close friend’s daughter was conceived on one such visit to the island. During the day, we enjoyed the deserted and windswept beaches or explored the downtown area. At night, we savored a fine dinner and followed that with drinks by the fireside in the café.

Nevertheless, things change, and Loretta and I began to grow apart. In relationships, nothing is one-sided, but in looking back, I could now see where I had been selfish and insecure. I was unprepared and emotionally unavailable to support Loretta as she blossomed into a dynamic business leader. She was looking at starting her own company and I was floundering about in search of my own meaning and direction. At the time, I was more interested in exploring the White Mountains of New Hampshire than I was in business or school. In 1982, we were divorced.

Several years went by and I did not return to Nantucket until the spring of 1986, when I visited the island with two friends, Bob Dunfield and Mary Carroll. That May, we made reservations to spend two nights on the island. We boarded the ferry, which now left from Hyannis, in the early afternoon and departed Cape Cod for the long trip to Nantucket.

As we approached the island, I could not help but remember my first trip, and I could see the ghosts of Steven and Loretta standing on Cliff Beach in 1974, waving to me on the ferry as the ship approached Brant Point. Loretta was now living in Connecticut where she had built a successful advertising business. Steven was deceased, his death occurring sometime around 1980. Steven and several friends had left a café in the early morning hours near Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. A car struck him as he stepped off the curb into the street. The driver stopped a short distance away and then continued into the night; he was never apprehended. Standing at the railing of the ferry on that day in 1986, I felt engulfed by an ineffable sadness and, at that moment, felt I had made a terrible mistake in coming on this trip, that I should not have come back to this island at all.

Later, I would realize nothing could have been further from the truth.

The ferry docked at the wharf and the small off-season crowd disembarked. The three of us walked to our hotel and secured our rooms. In the evening, we enjoyed a fine dinner and later had drinks in the café. We quickly made friends with the bartender, Elaine, who enjoyed us as much as we enjoyed her. Yet we were tired after our many hours of traveling and we retired to our rooms at an early hour.

The next day broke warm and sunny. Rain was on the way, but we rented mopeds and set out to tour the island. We headed out by Cliffside and then rode west to Madaket. Later, we drove east and crossed the entire island; we motored into Siasconset where we enjoyed the ocean view by the lighthouse at Sankaty Head. We continued on our tour around the island by riding through Quidnet and Quaise and finally returned to the town of Nantucket proper where we arrived just ahead of the rain. Everywhere we went old ghosts and memories were there to greet me.

That evening, the three of us enjoyed a fine dinner and returned to the café where Elaine greeted us with a laugh and a round of cognacs. I savored two snifters of brandy as I sat close by the fire and rejoiced in the presence of friends and the fine ambiance of the café. When it was time for bed, I took my parka and walked out into the rain for a bit of fresh air. The streets were empty yet old island ghosts drew me on. I walked into town to stand where the wet cobblestones glistened under the gaslights. The rain was steady.

A taxi pulled up beside me at the curb and the driver asked if I needed a lift. I thought for a second, then opened the door and climbed in.

“Where to?” he asked.

“Take me to Cliff Beach,” I said. We departed the center of town and drove for a few minutes until we reached a dark parking area on the right side of the road where the taxi pulled over and stopped.

“It’s right out there,” he said, pointing beyond the rain-spattered windows into the flat darkness of the night.

I got out of the cab, stepped over a log barrier, and walked out on to the dark beach in the rain. I could see a few lights streaking along the ocean near the harbor entrance. I walked across the expanse of sand and stopped where the beach sloped down to the edge of the surf. Standing on the beach alone, I realized how lucky I was to have enjoyed this wonderful life. I had experienced a myriad of profound personal moments on this island and my heart was full because of them. There was sadness, yes, and some of that was my doing. Yet, I remembered how alive I felt on that first trip in 1974, how excited I was at seeing Rhetta and Steven standing somewhere on this beach waving to me, waiting for the ferry to arrive. I saw Rhetta naked in the golden candlelight of her bungalow on that first night in Nantucket, and I felt once again the current of joy that surged through my being at the sight of her. I remembered how beautiful she looked in the sunlight of those youthful days when we frolicked at the beach. Other images came to mind and I thought about the many special moments the two of us had shared on this island with so many of our friends.

I loved Loretta and in my heart, I always wanted the best for her. I looked out beyond the surf to the blackness of the storm and spoke a few words into the enduring darkness, and made my final peace with Loretta and myself. After several minutes alone on the shore, I walked back to the waiting cab and soon found myself back at the hotel.

Now, many years later, I live in California. Hardly anyone I know has any knowledge or appreciation for what the island of Nantucket is actually like, or of the history, that surrounds it. Loretta remarried long ago and is doing well, as far as I can ascertain. My old roommate and steadfast friend, Don Doughty, passed away several years ago in San Diego. Old connections to the past are broken and whittled away, and the past itself seems ever more distant.

This evening in Los Angeles, I recall my 1986 visit when I returned to Nantucket Island and made peace with myself. I remember that solitary walk in the rain across Cliff Beach late on a Nantucket night so long ago, and the words I spoke alone in the enduring darkness of the storm. The old thoughts and memories that came to me out on the sand in 1986 come back to me here in California tonight, and I remain forever grateful.