An Island Specialty
Two big events occurred in the 1960s that would weigh heavily on Island culture. The first was that a lot of Greatest Generation-ers and their kids, la boomers, began to come here in the summer. The second was that, thanks to the general freak out and back-to-nature quality of the social revolution taking place, a lotta lotta lotta us went barefoot. All the time. From the minute we hopped out of bed in the morning (or, er, at 2 in the afternoon), and plied on our jeans, fringe vest and love beds, till the moment we crashed amid guttering candles, with a cauldron of peyote tea still simmering on the stove, and under the poster of the Electric Prune.
First, you’re probably disbelieving about the GG demographic ever going barefoot. Certainly my parents didn’t do it, and probably yours didn’t either (outside of the shower and whenever they had sex, but we don’t allow ourselves to think about that). But here’s the thing: On Martha’s Vineyard, certain of our most famous GG-ers made it clear that the first thing they did when they arrived at their summer houses was to kick off their docksiders, and go squidge their toes in the sand.
I’m talking, of course, about Art, Bill and Mike as in Buchwald, Styron and Wallace, all good buddies, all of whom lived in Vineyard Haven, and all of whom set the style for lazy summer days of tennis, a spot of writing, and barefoot walks on the beach.
Now Art, Bill, and Mike may have been the only men in their generation in America who were willing to talk about taking off shoes and socks and actually walking around without them. But for those of us coming of age in the 60s (and the lucky ones who arrived in the care-free paradise of Martha’s Vineyard at the same time; I must admit, I didn’t get here until 1976, but then the 60s didn’t truly end until 1980, am I right?), we were the new enfants sauvages of bare feet.
We received our training in our formative years. Here’s how we developed tender young feet capable of marching over Miami sun-burnt beaches or leaping tall buildings at a single bound: First, after school let out, and shoes came off, we learned by trial and error that the first week was essentially torture, but torture that one was obliged, by some unspoken code, to endure: You walked barefoot over twigs and pebbles and cracks in the sidewalk and every step hurt like the dickens. Here we were, frail young 2nd and 3rd graders hobbling along like Grandpappy Amos, trying to tamp down the “eeks” “ows” and “ouches” for fear the parents would overhear and force us to wear – (oh heaven’s-to-Betsy NO!) shoes!
But for the most part, our moms and dads allowed us to run barefoot, those gentle-hearted GG-ers, and we did! All summer long!
I don’t personally recall how often my mom forced me into a bathtub, but I do retain a vivid image of my exquisitely callused feet getting as black as over-toasted marshmallows on a stick over the campfire. (Funny story: One night I climbed into the opposite side of my sister’s bed because I thought Injun Joe was lurking in the closet. Come morning, my right big toe, resting beside my sister’s pillow, was white on an otherwise sooty-black foot. The only thing we could figure out was that my sis, a habitual thumb-sucker even in her sleep, must have worked over my toe during the night.)
In any event, in those pastoral suburban days back in the 1950s, after a week of tender-footedness, a child’s foot developed a texture like rawhide set out in the sun in a mixture of Elmer’s Glue and formaldehyde. And then you were set. Set for the summer and set for the 60s when young people wore flowers in their hair and nothing on their footsies.
So Greatest Generationals who happened also to be famous writers, and hippies by the thousands traveling to Martha’s Vineyard, found a warm welcome for free-range feet.
I do believe Island retailers – the majority of them off-the-grid counter culturists themselves; why else would they be here?! – were late to tumble to the what-the-hell? attitude of merchants on the mainland who were busy tacking up NO BARE FEET signs. But eventually they caught on, and gradually hippies grew up and accepted jobs in the banking industries and bought Beemers and put on shoes (not necessarily in that order).
But I’ll betcha we still have, on this Island, the highest per capita of people who throw off their footgear any chance they get, and who prime themselves, indefatigably, in the summer, to work up that rawhide on heels and toes.
Or, as John Updike said about his long-ago Island vacations (On The Vineyard, Anchor Books, 1980), “I go barefoot there in recollection . . . the sandy rough planks of Dutchers Dock, the hot sidewalks of Oak Bluffs, followed by the wall-to-wall carpeting of the liquor store . . . the hurtful little pebbles of Menemsha Beach and the also hurtful but half-buried rocks of Squibnocket; the prickly weeds, virtual cacti, that grew in a certain lawn near Chilmark Pond . . . “ and he goes on and on in a single sentence, as only Updike can, but doesn’t it make you want to do it again? Bring it back again?
The Summer of Love! Flowers in your hair and bare feet and whatever else you remember fondly from that long ago time (within reason.)