Photo by Howie Lisnoff
Dunes at Sand Hill Cove
A Kid’s New Summer Haircut
By Howie Lisnoff
A day in June in the late 1950s was almost like a birthday. My birthday, six months earlier, always had a frozen landscape and unpredictable weather. But getting a crew cut on the day school let out for the summer was just as exciting: a rite of passage. I’d sit patiently, seated in a red upholstered armchair looking out over the business district on Washington Street in the small town in Rhode Island where my family lived. My dad’s family clothing store was directly across the street from Harry’s Barber Shop. The shop was located adjacent to the Roman Catholic Church, Saint John’s, which served the large French Canadian population of the town who had come to Rhode Island seeking opportunity in the textile mills that lined the banks of the Pawtuxet River. Bill was my barber, as he had been for years, and in those days so long ago there was no such thing as making an appointment for a haircut. You just came and sat and waited your turn. Often seated in the barbershop was Buddy, a mentally challenged young man whose sister had her medical office just steps away on the other side of St. John’s.
Coming out into the sunlight of early summer with a brush cut was a great feeling. To a 10-year-old kid it was the gateway to freedom, perhaps summer camp, playing at hobbies and sandlot baseball, and doing whatever one wanted to do with few constraints. My first stop would be at the drugstore, also almost directly across the street near my dad’s store, where I would buy the season’s single tube of brush cut hair wax that would keep the spikes of the cut, the only longer hair on the front of my head, straight up and impervious to wind and rain.
These were ideal days for a kid. The economy was humming; there were plenty of jobs, and Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best in some small ways actually portrayed how this small piece of reality actually was. Afternoons, I’d walk the streets of my paper route and feel like a wealthy person each Saturday afternoon after I paid the paper’s supplier and was left with around $12, a fortune for a kid in those days. I could buy anything, gasoline-powered model airplanes (and Lionel Trains at Majestic Hardware) at either Robert’s Novelty or the Hobby Horse and all of the candy that could be consumed by a person at Shippee Avenue Superette every afternoon before dinner. Ernie, a very likeable employee of the family that ran the market, never seemed to tire of my daily pointing among the three or four shelves of the candy case located just inside the front door to the market, as I painstakingly determined how I would temporarily ruin by appetite and my teeth.
And now that a rite of passage had taken place there was the summer of boyhood. Just below our house on one of the hills that formed the Pawtuxet Valley was the nightly splendid display of the green-white flashing lights of fireflies that illuminated the expansive fields beside John Street. The vast expanse of land was owned by an older couple. Several years later, that land would be converted into inexpensive housing and would eliminate the gardens belonging to the house and the annual summer display of the fireflies put on for free from late May through July.
There was the open expanse of Payan Street Playground where my buddies and I would don the latest in holstered six-shooters and repeating rifles while we played cowboys and Indians decades before we would learn just what it meant to be politically correct. Sometimes our range of play would extend out to nearby Hall Street and the equally politically incorrect Indian Rocks made of granite veined with ivory quartz. Beyond the Indian Rocks past a hedge was Saint Joseph’s Cemetery that would hold the mystery of death, heightened when huge cumulus clouds would be fanned by breezes and form shapes that could easily be deciphered by any kid’s active imagination. It would be decades later when Ron Kovic portrayed similar scenes of play in Born On The Fourth Of July, that added the military aspect to 1950’s child’s play. I can’t remember a military piece to our play, but the availability of toy guns was certainly fueled from someplace. The sophistication of these toys led to buying rapid-fire machine guns and rifles that ejected plastic bullets. Then, cops and robbers was sometimes added to our repertoire of summer play.
Payan Street Playground had the most familiar sandlot baseball diamond that I knew where everyone played regardless of age or baseball skills. Sometimes playing with older ballplayers, who were much better and stronger had its disadvantages. I broke my nose there twice, once while pitching and another time losing a fast throw from the shortstop in the late afternoon sun. There were other ball fields around town, and the Little League field miles away, but this sandlot is the place where boyhood memories were cemented forever.
And there were the ponds and lakes and the ocean. I resisted learning how to swim at a local YMCA during lessons after school over the course of the regular school year because the instructor was a brute who had the habit of pulling hair backwards to “teach” students how to float.
I learned how to finally swim at 12 as if by magic. I was at the summer beach cottage of a friend’s grandmother in a neighboring town when I jumped off of a partially submerged rock where we were frolicking and began the rudimentary strokes necessary to staying afloat. Years later, from this simple beginning I would compete in triathlons.
But of all of these summer places, the ocean and particularly the beach at Sand Hill Cove (now Wheeler Beach) in Narragansett was the absolute best! My family spent a few weeks in a nearby vacation cottage if finances were good enough to splurge on such an outing. Most other summers, my mother would drive the 35 miles down to the open ocean and we’d spend the day playing in the summer sun. The ocean gave up its full fury because of the massive rock breakwaters and jetties that made this a perfect beach for young kids and families. The day would not be complete without the requisite egg salad made especially crunchy by the added wind-blown sand mixing into the sandwich.
At home, since my dad had to spend many hours a day at his clothing store, I was in charge of mowing the several terraced lawns on our property. I had a great rotary lawnmower, self-propelled, and I walked proudly behind guiding it over the leaves of grass that fell effortlessly.
These were some of the simple summer adventures of those times. We were protected from the political winds of the times in my small community. War was a decade away for my generation, and all of the social and political transformations that the 1960s would bring about were unknown to the boy walking with a sure step from the sidewalk’s curb out into the busy street and the innocence and simple natural beauty of summer with a great new haircut that perfectly fit the season. It felt and looked so cool and smooth, even if we didn’t exactly know what cool meant yet.