Life in the Summer Shack
As a kid growing up in Kingston I loved the summer time and I had the best of both worlds. Weekdays were spent at my grandmother’s rambling 18-room Victorian house on Grove Street and weekends were spent in a tiny two-room shack on Duxbury beach.
To call the shack primitive would have been an understatement. It had originally been constructed in the 1890s as a salt water shanty and sat out on the marsh, supported by an array of wood pilings to keep it above most storm tides. Around 1930 the shack was moved about a half-mile to slightly higher ground.
It measured about 15 feet by 20 feet and above the first floor was a second floor loft accessible by a set of open wooden stairs. That was it. No closets, no electricity, no running water. It was just a shingled box with rattling windows. I loved it, and in my eyes it was a summer palace!
Lighting was provided by several sets of kerosene hurricane lanterns and a flashlight. Refrigeration was supplied by a wooden ice-box. One 50 lb. block of ice would last up to three days in the summer. The bottom level served as a kitchen, parlor, and bedroom and the upstairs loft was sleeping quarters for kids and visiting adults.
When nature called, we had a choice. We could trek 50 yards to an old two-seater outhouse or use the chamber pot. Water was secured from an open water tap about 30 yards in the other direction. Cooking was done on a propane stove about the size of a large postage stamp.
I slept in the loft on a canvas army cot my uncle had brought home from the First World War. The loft had one small window at each end and at night, as the wind blew across the marsh, it would sing in the wire mesh of the storm screens. If the breeze stiffened to anything over 20 MPH the gentle song of the wind would rise to a steady howling sound which was especially loud under the eves. As a youngster, I found the music of the wind to be comforting and mysterious, all at the same time.
The “ceiling” of the loft was nothing more than the underside of the roof. As a kid I would sometimes lie awake in bed and read the markings and labels of the old wooden boxes, cranberry flats, and shipping containers my great-grandfather had scrounged to construct the roof. It was the ultimate in recycling.
Without radio or television, evening entertainment was limited. My grandmother and I played about a zillion games of rummy and for a change of pace we would have fly catching competitions. Here is how the game worked:
Houseflies like to sleep at night, and in the shack their favorite napping place was hanging upside down from the rafters and floorboards that was the first floor’s ceiling. We would fill a coffee cup about half full with warm water and soap suds. When we spotted a sleeping fly we would “sneak-up” on it and gently place the cup under the fly and slowly raise it toward the ceiling. Just about the time the rim of the cup would settle in around the fly, the warmth of the water would wake it up and he would take off – right into the cup, the soap suds trapped the fly, and the soap in the water reduced the surface tension and the fly would sink to the bottom of the cup and drown.
My grandmother and I used to keep score just for the fun of it. The most flies we ever caught in a night were 178.
We would often get up just as the sun was rising and go beach combing, especially after a storm. Sometimes, if the sea had been rough the night before, we would find the beach at dead low tide was littered with sea clams. We would gather them up, sometimes in bushel baskets and my grandmother would make clam chowder.
Other times we would hike about 3/4 of a mile to the clam flats by Powder Point Bridge and dig-up buckets of steamers for the evening meal. And in that little shack, we ate like royalty.
Every Saturday and Sunday night we had lobster dinners with steamers, corn on the cob, watermelon, and French Vanilla Ice-cream
For me, my childhood summers were pretty much a ‘free-range’ affair. From about the age of seven, the rules were simple and few: Stay out of trouble and be back home by suppertime.
Fifty years ago, kids were pretty self-sufficient when it came to entertainment and keeping amused. I can remember doing 1,001 things but I can not remember ever being bored. Aside from helping my grandmother park cars at the Bradford Parking Lot on Duxbury Beach, I spent my days exploring, building sandcastles, and flying box-kites.
I remember one day along the side of the road I found a 1,000 yard spool of 20 lb. test nylon fishing line. I brought it back to the shack, constructed a bright red box-kite, and set it aloft. I was thrilled as I watched it soar into a brilliant blue cloudless summer sky.
After about twenty minutes of flying I had let out about half the line and the kite was a tiny speck almost lost in a field of blue. After 45 minutes of playing out the line I was at the end of the spool and the kite was nowhere to be seen. What had been a tiny speck against the blue was now an invisible mote lost in the heavens. Even searching the sky with a powerful set of binoculars did not reveal the kite’s location.
After about an hour of flying an invisible kite I began to feel a bit foolish. People would stop and stare and then ask what was I doing, where was my kite? They could only see what I could see, a long thin line of kite “string” disappearing into the summer sky. As the afternoon wore on, I shuddered at the thought of rewinding more than a half mile of kite line and decided it was time to let my kite “live free”. I found a large soda bottle, filled it three-fourths full with water, leaving enough air space for buoyancy, tied the end of the kite string to the bottle and marched down to the beach.
The wind was blowing out to sea and as I dropped the bottle into the water, it took off like a shot. What a sight to see! A quart bottle of Coke skipping and splashing across Massachusetts Bay, headed in the direction of Provincetown on the Cape. I watched until the bottle was lost in the distance and its wake merged with the waves. As far as I know, the kite is still traveling with the west-wind.
Today nothing remains of the shack except memories and the photos below. The shack was demolished to make way for a new development. Check out the photos below.