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!