They guard the entrance to Oak Bluffs harbor, on Martha's Vineyard Island, and they've been there for more decades than I care to think about. Stretching out into the water, like the scaly back of some great sea serpent, they're a hodgepodge of massive boulders encrusted with seaweed and barnacles, and smelling of dead fish. Not the most appealing or safest of places, but we lived for the chance to climb and fish, and swim from them.
On the east side of the jetties was Town Beach, the public place to swim; and on the west, the private beach club of the well-to-do. No, not the rich folks like the Kennedys and their ilk - they had their compounds in Edgartown and on Chappaquiddick Island. It was just the play-place of the upper class. Us regular folk, we hung out at Town Beach. For us kids, it had the virtue of "ease of access" - we could walk to it from our cottages in the Campgrounds. So, that meant we went there a lot - sometimes twice a day!
One of the best things about Town Beach - aside from its convenient location - was its proximity to the entrance to the harbor, for a very special reason: the Queen. To us, the Queen had nothing to do with royalty, and everything to do with fun; it was the "Island Queen", the passenger ferry that brought people between Oak Bluffs and Falmouth. Every time she came into port, the captain would blast the horn to announce their arrival. For us kids, it was a "call to arms" - so to speak. It was a signal to every kid on the beach to grab their flippers, their "floatie," their inflatable raft or whatever they had, and get out into the water.
As the Queen made that turn into the harbor's entrance, her wake churned up the waters off of Town Beach, and that's when the fun began. Huge (well, from our point of view) waves came rolling into the beach, and we raced out into the water to ride them into shore again and again. I guess you could call it a "passive wave making machine"; a little side benefit for us island kids. Later, when the "Menemsha," and still later the "East Chop" began carrying passengers between Hyannis and Oak Bluffs, we had yet other boats to wait for.
And then there were the jetties themselves.
It took a bit of doing, climbing all the way out to the end, especially at high tide; it was then that a portion of the "path" was virtually submerged. Yet, over time, and with the help of an "old man" (oh, he must have been at least forty! Downright ancient as far as us eight-year-olds were concerned), we learned the safe way of maneuvering along the rocks. It was funny, certain boulders seemed to have just the right feature to assist us: a small notch for a little foot to fit in and push against, a wide flat area to jump to, and a prominent peek just pointy enough for tiny hands to grip.
Ah, but the best feature of all, the one that made all those trips to Town Beach really worthwhile, was the Jumping Platform. I don't know if it was fate, happenstance, or judicious planning on the part of the builders, but there was a nice, big flat block at just about the midpoint of the jetty. And, as if that wasn't enough, underwater - right next to it - was another stone that gently sloped up to the platform. Now, it didn't come up out of the water, but for little kids, it gave you just enough of a boost that you could easily climb up onto the platform. Then, we would jump off - again and again, and again! Hours and days and summers of fun were had; just simply leaping from that platform.
Right next to Jumping Platform was the special rock - the Diving Platform. It was the toughie. It was slightly slanted, and to reach open water you had to jump about three feet beyond it. That was because a series of boulders lay just beneath the water in front of it. To us little kids, that made it a "danger zone". Only the bravest of the brave, the coolest of the cool, and those who truly knew how to dive ever went off of that rock! It was quite the proud day for me when I "graduated" from Jumping to Diving Platform.
For many years, many kids played and jumped and dove from the jetty. But then, as with so much in our world today, something had to come along to spoil everything; someone got hurt. And, as we are an incredibly litigious society, the days of such fun and frolics had to come to an end; lest someone get hurt and sue the city. So, up went the sign on the end of the jetty: "NO DIVING", and a lifeguard was assigned to chase any child off who dared violate the edict implemented for their own safety.
Over the years, I visited Town Beach a few more times, but there was no fun to the place any more, no joy. Why come there when the place had nothing special to offer? Besides, it always was a bit of a stony beach anyway. And, the lifeguard didn't like us going out when the big waves were coming in - too dangerous, don't you know?
And then, just recently, I chanced to visit there once more; and I was pleasantly surprised to see that the sign was gone! Had common sense returned to the Island? I hoped that was the case; but secretly, I knew the truth - the new generations of kids had no memories or stories of jumping from the jetties. Such simple joys of childhood had long since been "breed" out of them. So, the sign was no longer needed.
If I'd had my swimsuit, I'd have given that old jetty one final send off. Perhaps that's for my next visit. Instead, I merely made my way out to the end, and stood upon that rocky promontory. I remembered fishing there with Reed, cutting up frozen squid for bait. Memories, images, and voices swirled around me like the waves about the stones. Making my way back, I paused at the platforms, and gave them a friendly pat.
As I continued on, I came to the toughest part of the path, and chance to meet two little fellows trying to navigate its treacherous course; they were right at the section that almost went under at high tide. I gave them a few pointers about where to step, and they continued on their way. I didn't have the heart to look them in the eye. I was concerned that maybe they weren't real; merely specters from the past.
After all, they did say, "Thank you, old man."
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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