The Sugar Shack – Part 2-The Drive East

The fun in that summer of ’89 began before we even got to the Shack. When I say “fun”, what I really mean is “torturous journey”. At the start of our trip, after I completed a fifteen hour driving shift, (Hey, I was young.) my mom took over.  My mom was born and raised in New York City. She has a very distinct accent and it is heightened by the fact that she cannot hear at all out of one ear, due to a fever she had as a young girl. Also, having grown up in NYC, she doesn’t have a lot of driving experience.  I must admit that even phonetically spelling the words as they sound when my mom speaks does not convey the true texture. You’ll have to use a little imagination and it helps if you’ve ever seen, “My Cousin Vinny”.

So, after taking over behind the wheel for me and about 15 minutes of driving she made the following comment in her thick, loud, Bronx accent :

“Ooh, da road and da sky look the same, I can’t tell da difference between dem. It awl looks gray deh. My eyes ah getting’ tie-ud”

“OK, mom, pull over. I’ll drive.”, I replied.

After relinquishing the wheel, she immediately went to sleep in the passenger’s seat. She awoke only after I had been stopped by the Oklahoma State Police Officer who was now asking me questions and looking into the car at my mother, who said from her fully reclined seat,

“Ooh, officah, I told him not to drive too fast. I only closed my eyes for a minute.”

A $98 dollar speeding ticket later, we were on our way, and mom was asleep again within minutes.

After that, the trip was somewhat uneventful. I had the opportunity to sleep while my cousin Anne Marie drove for awhile and we were making pretty good time (At least until we got into Missouri). After a rest stop and driver change, I was behind the wheel again. While driving through a severe thunderstorm that evening on I-44, the Sunbird went through a most unfortunate chain of events. First, the radio began to fade in and out. “OK, no big deal”, I thought, figuring that the station we were listening to was being interfered with by the storm. Shortly after that, however, the headlights began to flicker. Not good. 2 a.m., desolate stretch of highway in a Missouri thunderstorm. Not a good time for the headlights to go. Unfortunately, I had no final say in the matter, and the lights and the radio and the dashboard lights all  went out.

“Ooh, it must have been da storm. It knocked out da lights. Pull over deyah and we’ll have to wait for da sun to come up.”, my mom said, awakening in the passenger seat.

“Huh? Are you out of your mind?”, I replied.  It’s 2 a.m. in the middle of nowhere. We have no lights. 18 wheelers are barreling past us in a thunderstorm at about 85 mph and I don’t know if they can even see us!”

We had no choice, however. My mother was not going to take a chance on finding a motel that we would have to pay for. We slept in the car on the side of the road. I swear to this day that someone came and knocked on the window in the middle of the night. My mother didn’t hear it because she is completely deaf in one ear, and she sleeps on her good one. I just pretended I was asleep. As soon as the sun came up, we were gone. Five miles up the road we found a service station that replaced our wiring harness for $100 and we were back on the road. For the moment.
We made a stopover in Avon Lakes, Ohio to visit with my sister and brother-in-law.  But before we arrived, the Sunbird was getting cranky from being ridden so hard and it was beginning to overheat. We were only about 30 miles from Avon Lakes, so there was no chance we were going to stop. So, the quick fix was to turn on the heater in the car to vent some of the hot air away from the engine. Ah! hot and muggy on the outside, even hotter and muggier on the inside! It was a great time. It was worth it when we got to Avon Lakes, though. We slept in beds and had an excellent time at Cedar Point Amusement Park. We rode all the roller coasters in the park except for the Magnum because it was either under construction or repair. All I know is that I had a lot less stress and fear while riding those coasters than I had when my mom was driving.
When we left Ohio, I drove for another 12 hours before my mother took a driving shift going through the mountains somewhere in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember exactly where. All I remember before I fell asleep is reminding my mother to take exit number 19. When I awoke, I watched as we passed exit number 26. “OK”, I thought to myself, “we‘re almost to our exit.” Imagine my surprise when we reached the next exit sign and it was number 27!

“Mom, what’s going on? Why didn’t you take exit 19?”

“Ooh, theyah was all dese  big trucks, and I couldn’t get over theyah to the exit. Dey were passing me on da right theyah.”

“So you just kept driving? Where are we?”

”I don’t know. Someweyah  in da mountains. I can’t see with all dis rain. My eyes ah goin’ crazy here. I can’t see anything.”

Can’t see anything? While driving? That can’t be good.

“Pull over, mom. I’ll take it from here.”

After another 10 hours of driving, we finally arrived in Rhode Island. The very next day we began to prepare the Shack for the Memorial Day opening. It wasn’t easy.  My mom can be a tough boss.

Be sure to check back here for Part 3 – The Preparation to find out what it’s really like working for my mom.

The Sugar Shack-Part 1- A Brief History

A lot of people don’t know why I skipped my high school graduation in 1989, so now I’m going to tell them. It’s because instead of attending that monumental event,  I was driving cross-country with my mother and my 21 year-old cousin, Anne Marie, in my 1981 Pontiac Sunbird from Tucson, Arizona to Charlestown, Rhode Island so we could be there to open a beach concession stand in time for Memorial Day Weekend. We made the trip in 2.5 days of driving with a stopover in Ohio. If it had taken any longer, I don’t think we would’ve made it there at all.

There is some coincidence in the fact that we took my ’81 Sunbird to drive back, since that was the last year that my family had run the place. That crew didn’t really include me working the fryer or the grill, although I did have more than my share of canned Lipton Iced Tea and Countrytime Lemonade. Because I was only 10, I didn’t have a lot of cooking duty.  However, upon my return in ’89, I had quite a lot of cooking duty  and a majority of that came in the form of double and triple bacon cheeseburgers and french-fries  I would make for myself during slow times.  The place I’m referring to was called the Sugar Shack, and it was a small, run-down building, with a couple of freezers and a refrigerator, all from the 1960’s.  Its linoleum flooring had pulled away from the concrete beneath it in many places, and the windows where customers placed their orders were small, and somewhat low to the ground. They slid open from side to side, and you would have to stick your head almost all the way out of the window to take a customer’s order. So if you were a customer over 5 feet tall, you’d pretty much have to do a squat to be seen face to face by the order taker inside. The cooking facilities consisted of a double fry-o-later and a small grill. My mom also made very efficient use of one of the first microwaves ever built, and a two-quart crock pot.

The Sugar Shack was built near Shelter Cove, which had about 35 dock slips available at the time. You could have referred to the whole setup as a “mini-marina”. There once was a bait shop and a fuel pump available. Some enterprising owners turned the bait shop into a kayak rental shop in the early 90‘s and the gas pump was taken out in 1993 (it didn’t work even back in 1981). At the very end of the property, around the opposite side of the cove, where the land juts out into the salt pond like a small peninsula, there is a building that used to be a dive shop. I don’t think it is used for anything anymore. One time my dad’s friends came up from New York for a weekend visit and one of them referred to the cove as “the lagoon”. As in “Hey! let’s go swimming in the lagoon!”. Come to think of it, that same guy also referred to clamcakes as “clam-balls”, and one night after coming home from a night of partying at the bars and dance clubs in Misquamicut, he went to sleep on our dog’s bed under the stairs at our house.

Back when we ran it, you could rent the Shack for the season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) for a set fee. We had to pay for the utilities and our stock, but anything we made above that was ours to keep. Also, we even got a piece of the parking fee. The fee of $2 and we would have to split that 50-50 with the owners of the property if we collected it. If the owner’s collected it, we got nothing, so my mother always made sure that one of us was out there to collect when the cars pulled in. On numerous occasions, when people slipped through because we were too busy cooking and working the window in the Shack, my mother would either send me or my cousin to go chase the people down to the beach. Sometimes she would do it herself. Hey, a buck is a buck, right?

The place is a much more modern and upgraded facility now, and it isn’t even called the Sugar Shack anymore (it’s called Johnny Angel’s Clam Shack now). It’s a great destination, yet I don’t think it has the same charm. I know I have a tendency of romanticizing the past places and events of my life, but even then, in the middle of this great adventure after leaving high school and before my short-lived career in a typewriter repair shop, I knew the times I was spending working at the Shack and the friends I made there, were something that should not (and could not) be forgotten. The thing about memories is that once you make them, you want to share them with others.

One of the most memorable things we used to do down by the Shack involved hitching rides to the beach in a somewhat unconventional way. The Shack is located on about an acre of land right next to a little bridge that separates Greenhill Pond and Ninigret Pond and leads to Charlestown Beach. Before that bridge was re-engineered and rebuilt, there was not enough room for cars to cross it from opposite directions at the same time. This forced drivers to alternate crossing the bridge by stopping and deferring to the driver coming from the other direction.  This situation not only provided some excellent entertainment for us, but it also gave us guys a chance to score big points with the ladies. There is a state campground at the end of the Charlestown Beach road called the Breachway, and campers would drive or tow their RV up the beach road to camp right there next to the ocean. Sometimes while the drivers of the RV’s traveling to the campsite would be stopped waiting for their turn to cross the bridge, we would jump on the ladders on the back of the RV and “hitch” a ride about 400 yards up to the beach. It had a very high “cool factor” even if it wasn’t super practical. To get off the RV ladder we would have to wait for the driver to slow down at the point where the beach road turned at about 75 degrees to the right. Timing was critical. When the driver would slow down to turn at the bend in the road, there was about a three-second window of opportunity to jump from the ladder relatively safely. However, if you were too chicken to jump from the moving vehicle at that point, one of two things was going to happen: You were either going to end up taking a header and rolling in the dirt at about 15 miles per hour once the vehicle began to accelerate, or you were going to ride all the way to the breachway, about a mile down the road. Coming back from this trip to the breachway was commonly referred to as “the walk of shame”. Although, there was often a fair amount shame involved even if you did have the stones to jump off when the driver accelerated. The beach road is not soft, (it’s hard-packed sand and rocks) and several guys ended up with a pair of cut-off jean shorts that let‘s just say “exposed areas of the body that didn‘t normally see a lot of sunlight”.

Come Back Soon and I’ll tell you a little more about the cross-country drive we took (speeding tickets, missed exits, road blindness, burned-out electrical systems and sleeping by the side of the highway). You don’t want to miss this!