The Shamrock and other memories

Thu, 11/26/2020 - 6:00pm

It was a sunny day in late June 1970, and the new and freshly painted ferry plowed and lumbered into a light southerly swell. I was heading to Block Island for the first time since 1960 and my childhood buddy Tim and I were going to check this place out, and he’d help me schlep my gear up to the place I’d nailed down for the summer. Tim would stay a couple of days and then head west to California. The M/V Manitou had just been commissioned and was the new boat on the Point Judith to Block Island run. She was a game-changer for the island; primarily because she could carry trucks, which would create growth.

While looking toward a summer of working for my college tuition and learning about this place — with 22-year old eyes — which was about 14 miles from my parent’s little summer shack near the Point Judith lighthouse, I felt like this was going to be a summer of some unique experiences. This would be a completely new place to see and explore.

The word around the campfire from some college guys I knew was that it seemed like a pretty good place to work, meet girls, surf, and raise some hell — standard stuff. A guy in my journalism class — the late Charley McGowan — said, “My surfing friend Eddy McGovern is running a bar out there. Maybe we can score some work.” That was good and solid intel for a possible job. (McGovern went out there to surf in May of that year, and was running low on cash. He needed a dodge and ended up working at the Block Island Inn for short money. It was owned by the late Nick “Captain Nick” DePetrillo. Subsequently, McGovern never left the island. The Block Island Inn was a careworn, tattered, old school and no frills saloon.)

A week before the move, I’d scored a job at Ballard’s, and also a place to live up on High Street on Continental Pond. John Littlefield’s grandmother Eva Grimes rented me a converted bathroom in her home for 25 scoots a week. It was a small but very practical place to hang my hat and keep my guitar, clothes, surfboard and Schwinn Varsity bike, which was my primary transportation.

Tim and I humped my gear up High Street, and after moving in and squaring up with Eva we took off to ride over to New Harbor. It was quiet, and what struck us was the old architecture. The mansard roofs of the homes and hotels made us feel we’d been blasted back into another century. In many ways, we were. The old bu i ld i ngs on Water Street were beat, and in need of work and serious repair. The buildings ghosted their salad days from the tourist booms and busts that were well behind them and work was needed in and outside these old and very still buildings. I fell in love with the vibe of this place as it screamed history, while Tim and I scouted the roads around Old Harbor proper. I had the same vibe on Martha’s Vineyard in ’69 when Tim and I raised some hell out there, too. These island townships bustled at one time and a feeling of nostalgia grabbed us hard.

The only saloons open at that time were the old Block Island Inn and Smuggler’s Cove. Other businesses were powering up for the season. My gig at Ballard’s began with shoveling the sand out of the dining room, which found its way into the building from easterly winter gales. The Oar, Smuggler’s, and Payne’s Dock were getting ready for the 4th of July. New kids were arriving daily from all over the country for their summer gigs. The Eureka Hotel was filling up with summer help. The drill this summer for young working kids was: lodging, work, and socializing in a prodigious manner. Everyone I met that summer had a story and many creative peccadilloes; lots of young artists and musicians were out there. It became a fun summer.

A few years later, with college now behind me, I ended up working for Interstate Navigation as a deckhand on the M/V Manitou and the M/V Quonset. (My book The Monkey’s Fist talks in more detail about that time and subsequent summers.) Regarding the old buildings of that period, I did some exploring inside some of them. For example, roaming around The Manisses was like being in the “The Shining,” by Stephen King. Moreover, on days that we had a few hours to burn before heading back to Point Judith, I’d wander up to an old hotel called the Shamrock. It was across from Ernie’s on a hill overlooking the ocean. It was owned by a bright, adventurous and enterprising guy — the late Ned Phillips Sr. — who acquired this old hotel along with property on Water Street. The barber shop became the The Glass Onion. His daughter Julie ran the place and it was a locus for young kids, and the buying of trendy and hip clothing that Ned had procured in Mexico. Patchouli oil and incense wafted in the air. The days I visited the Shamrock were eerie as I rummaged around the rooms filled with detritus of a bygone era: old trunks, books, beds, and armoires. The hotel was in disrepair and evoked the halcyon days of the late 1800s. The place had a spooky feel as I looked out an east facing window in a top floor room and heard the wind whisper and whistle. This memory is still in an active file in my aging baby-boomer head. This was a simpler time on Block Island. The 70s passed and a new age of prosperity ensued on the island.

These memories are what I’m grateful for.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Ferry Dock Scribbler, Cindy, Sailor, and Maddox.