It seemed a simple enough query, sent out into cyberspace via the B.I. Bulletin Board and Facebook (yes, sadly, I am on Facebook) with little expectation of much response. Who remembered the playground equipment at the former State Beach?
There came a flood of photographs and memories, as many as could be included in a piece run in last week’s issue of the paper. The fascination was wide, contrary to my long-held belief that it was far more exotic to island kids than summer folk. One woman recalls the wonder of that long ago moment walking down the sand, away from her family’s usual spot, and stumbling upon the theretofore unknown playground.
Swings were not uncommon. There was a set at the school with a slide, I think, that was removed the year before I entered first grade, and seesaws. Our swings at home were made by my dad and, like so many then, wooden, with rope run through holes drilled in boards and attached to itself in seamless splicing.
So, it was not the swings at the beach that grabbed my imagination, although looking at photos I wonder that they did not by their size alone. Only one image of the whole playground array came my way, with a solitary set of monkey bars, although a friend and I are both sure there were at least two. The slide I remember for a summer neighbor landing on a piece of glass or metal at its base and having to have her foot bandaged.
The merry-go-round, most visible in the complete photo by its shadow on the sand, is the centerpiece memory, even for those — or especially for those — like myself who rarely got to State Beach.
The State Beach was a place we passed every day on the way to the market and Post Office; I remember only its redwood newness in 1954, and the familiar gray car of the manager, our neighbor, parked across the street everyday.
The only year I was there for more than an isolated day was when my dad was among the crew that worked on a house newly purchased by a Connecticut family; he took me out to meet their daughter, who was my age.
There was a different world on the seaward side of the by-then green building. The girl had older sisters and knew the names of all the lifeguards and the guys who manned the concession stand. We could get treats with the little bit of money we had; it was where I discovered frozen Milky Ways and grilled hot dogs — boiled was the norm in our house.
That was the first, really the only, summer I dared venture into the pavilion. My curiosity, come from looking down on the roofless building from a plane, was quickly sated. Oddly, I recall no other longing to go there: it was for Summer People with Money to spend on changing rooms. Quite the discovery it was that the whole of the facility was not those locked spaces; there were cold water showers and hand driers which we hit and hit and hit drying our hair until the lady attendant chased us out, reinforcing my reservations.
“You know better” — I heard “and I mean you, Martha Ball!” — likely meant the driers were not toys, not that I knew better than to trod where only Summer Feet belonged.
I remember the boardwalk, extending from the porch out over the sand, but have absolutely no recollection of the playground equipment that summer. By most estimates it would have been there still and for several years after, although its time of disappearance ranges over twenty years according to people who worked at the beach.
The question of when did it disappear eventually morphs into the realization it didn’t. Over time, fewer pieces reappeared in the spring until none remained. It was an epiphany triggered by a mental image of red and white lifeguard chairs being barely visible in their winter home, behind the state garage on the corner of the Twin Maples complex, compounded by a winter memory of the empty beach, an inhospitable place run with lines and lines of snow fencing.
It was only then that I realized most memories sent my way were from summer kids, many with long family ties and continued connections to Block Island, but without that annual winter beach memory.
We, my brother and mother and I, did go to the beach but not where we couldn’t walk. My earliest memories involve crossing our field, then cut every year for hay, and the barnyard of the old farm next door. There was a shallow duck pond, an opaque green, and fowl, guinea hens and horrid white geese, always angry at trespass, and Canadas, not so common then, with their black velvet necks and elegant soft coloring. The cows were in their summer pasture up the road but sheep grazed the hillside; once a summer shearing would take place, fleeces would pile up and naked sheep would bound away, not sure whether to be indignant or elated.
We went well after lunch and left at four when the Providence boat, the old Nelseco II, sailed past, when my father would soon be home from work and we could take the truck and go get groceries and the mail.
We are all surprised to look at old pictures and see how empty the beach was; not all of the cottages on the Mansion Road had been built, the Minister’s Lot and Sheep’s Meadow were still open fields. There was no public access: it wasn’t until the year the State Beach turned to rock that people even thought of going all the way down the Neck, beyond Scotch, following the still-private lower road, below the still-standing Mansion.
The big building burned soon thereafter; among all the theories about the Mansion fire I have never heard the simplest: someone just wanted unhindered beach access. Another mystery solved!