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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 11 • July 16-22, 2009
now in our 39th season

Beach Parties Past

by Robert P. Barsanti

On the Fourth of July, the beaches of the island filled with all sorts of visitors.  The sun was out, the surf was high, and summer had finally appeared. At Nobadeer, Hundreds of partiers, born before the national debt was in the trillions and Iraq was a household word, drank lots of beer, listened to loud music, and danced lewdly.  Several nearby residents, hiding in their houses out of fear, reported that there was underage drinking going on.  If you throw in some arrests and a big tent, it could have been Figawi.   

In truth, no one was arrested at the party.  The partygoers patrolled the beach with trashbags after the excitement had passed, then put all of the trash in one, designated, area.  I haven’t read of any reports of vandalism, theft, or even hooliganism.  For those of us versed in parties at Nobadeer over the last thirty years, it seems tame and even, dare I say, quaint. 

Which is not to say I would have enjoyed looking out the picture window of my ocean bungalow to see a thousand or so kids drinking and dancing in my three million dollar view.  Nor would I have enjoyed the musical stylings of Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent rattling the Hummel figurines in the breakfront. But, I might have put my moral outrage into check for the day, waved to the patrolling policemen, got into the car, and driven a mile down the sand to a different beach.

Once, beach parties were the rule, and not the exception on island.  More than a hundred years ago, we would pile the tourists into the back of a wagon, drag them out to the beach for a “squantum” of lobsters, clams, and tall tales.  Abram Quary, one of the last Native Americans on the island, hosted many of them up in the harbor.  More famously, the island hosted its own Woodstock, the Madaquecham Jam, from 1970 up until the 1990s when the crowds, the morals, and the house prices could no longer support it.  While it was rolling, however, the Jam was a three-day epic of music, surf, and debauchery.  Like the Bosun’s Locker, Thirty Acres, and Preston’s, the Jam lives in the familiar fading memory of those who attended (or wished they did). Hendrix may not have played the Star Spangled Banner there, but I can find two or three old salts who will swear that he did.

Like Woodstock, the Madaquecham Jam has become a Yankee Arcadia; a beautiful permanent August where working guys and hippies, locals and tourists, black and white came together to share a beer.  As was said about Woodstock “It was about the music and it was about everything else, but it was more about us getting along." In addition to all of the good fellowship, there was probably underage drinking, loud music, and trash. Most of the large beach parties that have been on this island, be they at 40th pole, Great Point, or Nobadeer, have had all of those blessings, with the addition of car accidents.

Beach parties have faded into the mists of recent history.  It may be that, as a society, we have advanced so that events like the Jam are barbaric and criminal now.  We have pushed cigarette smoking to the margins of our culture, and it may be that beach parties deserve to also get pushed out to the sidewalk. No one wants to see drunk driving and its attendant fatalities.  Nor do we want to see the sort of destruction these parties can wreak upon the beaches.  Cisco, Nobadeer, and Surfside are free of floating beer cans and buried cigarette butts these days.

But it may also be, like the great herring runs of the past, the kids don’t come to Nantucket as they once did.  Over the last twenty years, we have squeezed them out of their environmental niche.  Their cheap housing now has granite counter tops, sub-zero refrigerators, and a four-digit weekly rent.  Their jobs went to foreign labor who can come earlier, stay later, and get paid less.  The bars and beaches are policed more vigorously, leaving them more likely to come for a vacation and leave on probation.  Just like the herring, they found the food scarce, the housing rare, and hooks are out for them. 

The time may have passed for a silly summer on Nantucket.  Forty years ago, the island and the national culture had a lot more patience for the tomfoolery and shenanigans of young people than it does now. The “Easy Rider”/”Blue Highways” search for self seemed like a worthwhile hunt. Many found themselves out here, armed with hammers, paintbrushes, or cocktail trays. Friends of mine, in their forties, went searching for themselves in other lands  They went to Australia for a year and playing lacrosse, or travelled to Las Vegas in a van, or backpacked across Europe.  In that earlier age, if you spent a year walking the Appalachian Trail or hiking around New Zealand, you weren’t screwing around, you were on a Visionquest. 

Graduates in the new millennium can’t afford to go on Walkabout.  They are looking at six-figure college loans, a frightening job market, and a binder full of Apocalypse.  They don’t go in search of America, they teach for it. When I talk to former students who have emerged from college, they are either pushing their way into careers, graduate schools, or doorways with petitions.  A summer of self-discovery while house cleaning or waitressing, doesn’t answer any of the inconvenient truths of the age.

As a result, the Malvolios of the island are pretty happy right now.  The Muse and the Chicken Box are half full on most summer nights.  Beach parties are as easy to find as the Tuckernuck Yoho.  Noise complaints are reserved for early morning lawn mowing and a loud coffee grinder.  The island is far more polite, civil, and sober than it was in the seventies. 

But many of those partiers who got their boogie on at the Madaquecham Jam came back out here for their honeymoons.  Then, when the kids were old enough, they rented a house on Newtown Road for a couple weeks.  When their ship came in, they bought out in Tom Nevers and became the people their friends warned them about.  Many current members of Westmoor, Sankaty, and Great Harbor have heard the chimes at midnight out on the south shore.  If we chase the partiers off of Nobadeer, they may never come back.
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