July 2011

The Cape I Remember

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2011 / ,

Writer: Cynthia Buffinton Mason / Photographer:

A look back at summertime when the living was easy… on 1930s Cape Cod.

Anticipation! That was the feeling that took over when my parents mentioned “The Cape” to me as a child growing up outside of Boston in the 1930s. At the age of nine, in 1933, I wasn’t much involved with the planning and packing that went into my family’s preparation for a vacation beyond making sure that my bathing suit was in the suitcase. After our first trip to Waquoit, I was hooked. When I thought of sun, sand, and salt water, I visualized the Cape.

After years of renting in Waquoit, my Dad bought a piece of land on Little River on which he built a small cottage. From then on, most summer Fridays found us headed for the Cape (no highways then) and making good time until we hit the Canal. Sound familiar? In those early years, the Bourne Bridge was a drawbridge that had to be raised every time a large ship or one with a tall mast came through. Traffic would be backed up for miles and we would impatiently wait for the bridge to lower so we could pass.

1930s Cape Cod

Cynthia and her dad, who cultivated her love for Cape Cod after building a family cottage for vacations in Waquoit, look out onto the distance.

Before building the cottage, Dad had bought a boat that we moored in Little River. On one memorable trip, I was driving from Sharon as Dad dozed beside me, weary from his week at work. As we were going through Wareham, I slowed down at an intersection and to my astonishment saw the boat that we’d been towing sailing right by us. My startled scream woke up Dad and we were soon able to re-hitch the errant boat back up. We joked that the boat was even more anxious than we to get to the water, as we realized what would have been a disastrous situation had there been oncoming traffic was merely an inconvenience.

With a boat we could get out to the breakwater where Waquoit Bay emptied into Martha’s Vineyard Sound. Here was a pristine beach where we were in our own world with people on passing boats the only other humans for miles. We’d pitch a tent and spend idyllic weekends swimming in those warm, crystal clear waters, fishing off the jetty, playing with hermit crabs, rowing out to the sand bars to explore, taking an occasional boat trip along the coast as far as Cotuit and on really calm days, even venturing over to the Vineyard. We didn’t even have sleeping bags but slept on blankets spread out on the sand, wiggling around to make depressions to fit our bodies. A morning ritual was a dip before breakfast with only the terns and seagulls for companions.

1930s Cape Cod

Cynthia pulls her family boat to shore. They would often use this boat to sail out past Waquoit Bay and out to the Vineyard on camping trips.

Dad did all the cooking right out on the beach on a Coleman stove. Blueberries and strawberries purchased from roadside stands on our Friday trips down were a welcome addition to our meals that usually featured Prudence Corned Beef Hash and Dinty Moore’s Stew. Another gourmet addition to our diet was blue claw crabs that abounded in the rivers and ponds. We would balance ourselves precariously in the skiff and armed with a dip net, pole silently along until we spotted our wily prey and then make a wild lunge for it. Our success rate was about 25% but the few we caught were well worth the effort. I still prefer those succulent crabs to lobster!

My mother—a Massachusetts native and an old-fashioned lady who only wore dresses until the day she died at age 92—was not a camper and did not swim. She often chose not to accompany us on those Spartan trips. She was subject to motion sickness and claimed she could get seasick standing on the dock. After Dad built the cottage, she loved rocking on the porch and watching the boats go by. Always a great cook, our meals were far superior to our camping diet when she was around.

1930s Cape Cod

1930s Cape Cod

Above, Cynthia and a companion dangle their feet off the edge of the boat while preparing crabs to complete their camping dinner feast. Center, three young men get the boat ready for a journey out to sea.

My Uncle Carroll was a civil engineer with the Boston firm that designed and oversaw the construction of the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges. He and my Aunt Alice rented a house in Gray Gables so that he could be close to those projects. Invited down to spend time with my cousins, I was introduced to another part of the Cape. I have memories of playing tennis barefoot as I’d outgrown my sneakers. My friend Louise and I would arise at 6 a.m. in order to get court time. Uncle Carroll had rented a Cape Cod Knockabout in order to acquaint my cousins with sailing. On those excursions down Buzzards Bay, I got to tend the jib and felt very important. We’d sail over to Onset and down to Wing’s Neck, feeling like latter day explorers. To this day, sailing and tennis are two of my favorite leisure-time activities.

One of my young friends played the trumpet and when the New York to Boston boat went through the Canal at dusk, all lit up like a Christmas tree with people lined up on the deck waving to Cape Codders lined up along the shore for this favorite nightly show, Bill would stand out on a rocky promontory and blow taps. The New York boat’s skipper always tooted in reply.

Our swimming beach was at the mouth of the Canal and we learned to be very wary of the strong tidal flow. This stood us in good stead on one summer day when we saw the America’s Cup defender Rainbow tied up at the State Pier directly across from our beach.

It was en route to New York and had passed through the Canal just before the final span of the Sagamore Bridge was joined so it would not fit beneath once that was in place. Fascinated by the size and beauty of this magnificent classic J boat, we carefully checked the tide and swam across the Canal to look it over. We climbed up on to the pier and as no one seemed to be on board or around on the dock, we stepped on to the cambered deck, marveling at the size and height of its mast, constructed of pieced wood. Can you imagine getting that close to an America’s Cup defender today?

The Sagamore Bridge has always been my favorite. One early morning, Uncle Carroll took my cousins and me to watch the construction workers pour cement for the abutments. Tons of concrete, liquid enough to pour, cascading down into the coffers was a most impressive sight. When we went to pick up Uncle Carroll at the end of another day, we watched in wonder as the men tossed red-hot rivets in buckets for inserting into the steel beams, bygone craft for sure in today’s high-tech world. To this day, when we drive over the Bourne Bridge to visit my daughter and her family in Centerville, I always spot the plaque naming it the most beautiful bridge constructed in 1935 and feel proud.

After those years in Gray Gables in the 1930s, my Aunt Alice and Uncle Carroll had come to love the Cape and ultimately bought an old farm house with several acres on Stage Neck in Chatham. Through them, I became acquainted with another part of the Cape. Relatively unsettled and rural, it was a beautiful spot with land going down to Oyster River. From Chatham, we took a trip over to Nauset Beach, long before it became part of the National Seashore. We tramped across the dunes and feeling hot and sweaty, dashed into the surf. “Whoa! We yelled,” as we had discovered this water was icy cold, not warm and soothing like the South side of the Cape. That discovery didn’t keep us out of the water for long—the unaccustomed surf was very exhilarating.

1930s Cape Cod

A young Cynthia stands barefoot – as she often did- on a dock and poses with a furry friend for a picture.

Now, although living on the water near Mystic, Connecticut, I’m renewing my love for that sandy arm sticking out into the Atlantic. As I’ve been writing this, I’ve become interested in taking a sentimental journey to Waquoit, Gray Gables, Chatham, Provincetown, and all points in between. A new chapter has begun.

Author Cynthia Mason, who turned 88 in May, still swims like a fish in the Atlantic Ocean and plays a mean game of tennis at every opportunity. She is also Cape Cod Life Editor Susan Dewey’s mother—and her toughest editor.


Cynthia Buffinton Mason

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