The Tabernacle is a big old round building that sits- literally and figuratively- at the center of the Campgrounds, in Oak Bluffs, on Martha's Vineyard Island. Cement floor, benches and chairs face a small stage. Massive wrought-iron columns support a huge, three-tiered roof, topped by a lighted cross.
Oh, and there are far too many pigeons in the rafters. Yet, the place has withstood the test of time. It's well over a hundred and fifty years old.
A long time ago, the Campgrounds were just that - a place to pitch a tent and camp. About a hundred and fifty years ago, a church group began coming to the island as a summer retreat. They built the Tabernacle, and the members camped around it. Then, slowly, over the years, they built little gingerbread cottages. And thus "The Campgrounds" was born.
The sand pit, the valley, was our carefree, unorganized play place. The Tabernacle, well, it was the "sings," potluck suppers, movies, concerts, the art festival and even the occasional circus! And when it wasn't in use, it was another playground. We'd run and jump and climb over the seats.
We played tag, and climbed the wrought-iron columns. We fell, scrapping our knees countless times. There was never thought to sue anyone either.
How any of us survived our childhood, I'll never know. We played Frisbee tag and freeze tag and kickball, and more games than I can remember around that old place. For those of you, who are the Internet Generation, those are the "true" games of childhood, not the mindless Xbox and Playstation garbage so many waste their time on.
Every Wednesday night was a sing. Baskets of the little song booklets were everywhere, but most people brought their own. That despite the fact that the booklets had a note right on the back saying "not" to remove them from the Tabernacle! No one much cared about that. We'd sit there and the emcee would strike up the band and lead us in a wonderful evening of old-fashion songs. Some of them, God, they were the hokiest on Earth: "In the Good Old Summertime," "Tommy Tinker," "I'm in the Swiss Navy" and countless others.
Every sing ended with the same tune: "Sing Your Way Home." How well I remember walking down the aisle singing those words, as I fought back the yawns.
At one very special sing, my brother Greg and his son Nick, then about four, got up and sang "Puff the Magic Dragon." That was a very special night, the memory of which I cherish deeply. I still have a picture of them sitting there, stuck in the pages of the old family photo album.
Then there were the potluck suppers. Oh, how heavenly were the potluck suppers! Bowls and platters and plates piled high with all kinds of food. My friends and I, we ate rather lightly, at least for the main course. We saved our appetites for the best part: the desserts! There were cakes, dozens of batches of brownies, and more kinds of cookies than I could count.
We pigged out to the nth degree!
The Art Festival was the absolute pinnacle of the summer. It was the event me and my friends waited for, every year. First, there was the adult festival. Our neighbor, Mr. Loeback, spent weeks out on his back porch, painting away. Oh, the times I spent sitting there, watching him work on another masterpiece. Those memories burn bright in my mind. I always loved seeing his finished works hanging at the festival. He won his fair share of blue ribbons. Chicken wire was strung all around the Tabernacle and the art hung there, grouped by category: oils, watercolors, photos and so forth.
The next day was the Children's Festival. My friend, Dailis, and I always entered our drawings. His were far and away the best I'd ever seen. I used to wish mine were even half as good as his. Yet, my dinosaur drawings and string art were fairly well-received. I even got a yellow ribbon one year.
I no longer spend summers on the island. The demands of life, work and family make even the occasional visit difficult. Yet, when I do visit, I always make a point of going to the Tabernacle.
The Tabernacle remains the one, true unchanging fixture of the Campgrounds. I stroll down the aisles and hear the echoes of the past. Songs, smells and images flutter about me, even as I still hear those annoying pigeons, and those memories bring smiles to my face, as does the sight of youngsters playing their own games. That, I think, is the greatest joy of all: seeing the merging of old and new; the same old Tabernacle, a new generation of children. In a way, the Tabernacle is symbolic of all my old haunts of the island: the names and the faces of the players change, even some of the places grow and develop, yet the island-its feel, its look, its flavor and spirit-that remains. It remains to inspire, delight and entertain this generation, the next and countless others to come.
Click here for more by AJ Robinson.
Combining the gimlet-eye, of Philip Roth, with the precisive mind of Lionel Trilling, AJ Robinson writes about what goes bump in the mind, of 21st century adults. Raised in Boston, with summers on Martha's Vineyard, AJ now lives in Florida. Most of the time he writes, but sometimes he works at Disney World to renew his fantasies and get a few dollars more. AJ writes, with insight and passion, about his family and his dog. His liberal, note the small "l," sensibilities often lead to bouts of righteous indignation, well focused and true.
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