It was 1962, around the end of May and just after exams at URI, when I climbed aboard the Quonset and headed for Block Island.
While I was born and raised in Rhode Island and spent time at most of the South County beaches, it was my first trip to the island. A high school friend worked at the Vaill Hotel and Country Club the previous summer as the courtesy bus driver, picking up guests arriving on the ferry at Payne’s Dock and shuttling them to the Vaill and around the island. He was returning for his second year and explained that the Vaill needed bus boys and golf course caretakers for the summer, and I decided to give the golf course work a try.
Mr. Ritzinger picked us up at the dock in a 1960 Volkswagen bus and we were very soon at the Vaill. Upon gazing at the meadows with the 12 inch high grass, I whispered to my friend, “Where is the golf course?”
“You’re looking at it,” he replied.
After meeting Mrs. R., (Margaret, the family matriarch and hotel receptionist) and Helen (the bookkeeper) and having lunch, Mr. Ritzinger introduced me to the tractor and the large rotary mower. I had a quick training session and was then directed to mow everywhere there was 12 inch high grass. Off I went, still wondering “Where is the golf course?”
I was called in around 6 p.m., had a wonderful dinner prepared by Helen and visited the Vaill Beach for the first time.
The next morning, Mr. Ritzinger said that he was pleased with my efforts. We then took time walking the property and he showed me the layout of the golf course and explained that once the work was finished with the rotary mower, we would hook up the “gang mowers” for the finish cut, then utilize the walk-behind “greens mower.” I discovered there were actually greens with very fine grasses hidden under that 12 inch grass.
This was the beginning of June and I learned that guests would not arrive until July 1, so we had plenty of time to get the Vaill Hotel and Country Club in tip-top shape for the season.
Mr. Ritzinger left the island for a while and I continued to mow and trim while my friends opened the various buildings, cleaned, painted and organized the property. All the while we were treated to great meals by Mrs. R. and Helen.
After a couple of weeks, Mr. Ritzinger returned with new tee markers, pins and flags. He was happy to see that the greens had recently been mowed short with the greens mower, and we set about boring holes, setting cups, and installing the pins.
It was at that time that he told me to call him Uncle Lou.
His brother-in-law, Frank, arrived a few days later with all his golfing equipment and assorted goodies and set up his pro-shop and snack bar in the walkout basement in the south side of the Ark. We were in business, and Frank even let us use a set of his clubs to play a few rounds of golf in our spare time. The Garfields arrived on the island around the third week of June with their own motorized golf cart, which they stored in the Vaill Barn and used almost every day.
One day near the end of June we picked up three waitresses, two bus boys and the dishwasher at Payne’s Dock. On the next day the employees from Lynchburg, Virginia, arrived: Lucy (chef), Clara (laundress), Shirley and Betty (chambermaids), Winston and Sara (Lucy’s children) and Peaches (the babysitter). We were in full swing, and guests were having their own cocktail parties at Bayberry Cottage and even more people were playing golf.
The golf course was in great condition, and I had the mowing sequence of fairways and greens well organized so that I had free time to go to the beach and socialize. It was then that my friend decided to leave the island, leaving us in need of a bus driver. Uncle Lou asked me if I could handle that job as well as taking care of the course and I was anxious to give it a try. It meant $10 more a week plus tips.
There were daily trips to pick-up guests arriving on the Quonset at noon and on the New London boat around 1:15 p.m. There was another daily trip to drop off departing guests around 3:30 p.m. In addition, there was the Friday night “Daddy boat” and a trip to take guests to town at 8 p.m. if anyone wanted to see a movie. Also, I had to pick up freight that arrived every day on the Providence boat at Old Harbor. Uncle Lou couldn’t pay any additional for this, but said he would let me use the 1950 Dodge pick-up truck to take the help to beach parties. I knew where each night’s party was by getting the news at Payne’s Dock every day.
Tips provided plenty of spending money, and once in a while Helen would give me $3 to buy each of us a lobster salad sandwich at Dead Eye Dick’s.
So my first trip to the island lasted a full summer, a summer that abruptly ended on Labor Day, although I remained on the island with Uncle Lou for another week to shut down the entire facility.
I returned to work at the Vaill for another three summers, developing long-standing relationships with the family. My wife, Kathy, and I met during the summer of 1964 and were married in 1966. We returned to the island every year, sometimes for a couple of days and sometimes for a few weeks. We were fortunate to be able to purchase property around the corner from the Vaill in 1992 and it became our full-time home in 2008. Our three children have worked at various summer jobs on the island and enjoy spending time with us and the grandchildren as often as possible, during the summer months, of course!
I brought my golf clubs to the island but have only been able to use the putter at “take-a-putt or sit-your-butt,” which was actually the seventh green of the old course. I am working on a map of the golf course layout, and perhaps it can one day be on display at the Historical Society.