Thursday 27 Oct 2016

The Camp Grounds
AJ Robinson

That term has a certain connotation associated with it - campgrounds. Normally, it means a place where you pitch a tent or set up your camper. But, the campgrounds I grew up with was quite different from that. How different? The first time I saw a real campgrounds, I had no idea what it was.

Its full name is: The Martha's Vineyard Camp Meeting Association. It got its start back in the early 1800's when a church group started coming to Oak Bluffs every summer for just two weeks. When I heard about that, I thought it was silly. Who goes to the island for only two weeks? My father explained that there was no air conditioning, modern plumbing or waterworks back then, and most people had to work all the time. The concept of a paid vacation was an oxymoron in that era.

So, the group came to the island and built a meeting hall, which they called the Tabernacle. It still stands there today, and is the focal point of the Campgrounds, in more ways than one. It's a towering structure capped with a white peak and cross, two levels of roofs separated by a row of stained glass windows, and wrought iron supports holding everything above a concrete floor. This is the place where movies are shown, potluck suppers are held, community sings, church services, and so on.

The members would camp around the Tabernacle in actual tents. And so, each summer, they returned for the same retreat. Then, over time, the families started to add things to their individual campsites. They'd put down a wooden floor, add a lean-to, and so on. So, over time, small cottages began to essentially "grow" on the campsites. And, campsites being as small as they are, the cottages were quite small.

How small?

Sounds like the opening to an old joke, doesn't it? I suppose, at this point, I should say something witty like: they're so small you have to go outside to change your mind! Actually, that's not that far off. With many of them, they have no hallways, and the rooms are arranged behind each other. So, you come in the front door to the living room, walk through it to the dining room, and then the kitchen and laundry room are out back. Stairs are small and narrow. The old joke in the Campgrounds used to be that, if you ran out of sugar on your breakfast table, just lean out your window and tap on your neighbor's window to borrow some. Actually, it's no joke; some of the cottages are literally only two or three feet apart. I suppose nowadays, you could say: you don't need to install WiFi in your cottage; if someone in the block has it, everyone has it! It's said that the reason a cottage has an upstairs balcony with big double doors is because that's the only way to get the furniture in.

It's true. You'd never get a bed or dresser up one of those stairs.

As the Campgrounds has no central sewer, all the cottages have septic systems. This isn't a problem, as most of the cottages are strictly for summer use.

And then there's the gingerbread; all the cottages are adorned with it. Some of it looks like the knotted cloth of the old tents, some is what they call dragon's toothing, and then there's the fancy scrollwork on the porch posts; the figures carved in the eases and windowsills. Some people look at it and think of the gargoyles and other figures you see on old cathedrals and castles.

The thing is, growing up with that, my friends and I hardly took note of it. To us, these were just the cottages we spent the summer in. The porches were the decks of our battleships and space stations. Many of the cottages, as I said, were literally so close together that two people couldn't pass each other going between them!

Yeah, close. It's also said that there are few secrets in the Campgrounds. My friends and I also took to the roofs! It was not at all strange to see us climbing out a window to clambers up one of the sloping rooftops. It didn't help that my father had told me the story of Quasimodo and how he climbed across the top of Notre Dame Cathedral. So, off we'd go, doing our best Tarzan imitations as we jumped from roof to roof. How any of us survived to adulthood, I'll never know!

Many of the blocks are separated by nothing more than a narrow one-way road, and the cottages come right up to the edge of pavement. Yeah, no sidewalks here.

Today, the Campgrounds could never be built. The rules about homes being setback from property lines, and environmental concerns about all those septic systems, and the fire codes requiring houses to be far from each other all combine to make a place like this impossible.

Funny, it often seems that the more we move forward, the more we fall back. I can't help but feel sorry for future generations of children to not have the opportunity for simple care-free fun like my friends and I shared, all those summers ago.

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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