Buffalo Springfield

Fri, 07/01/2022 - 10:45am

The Fourth of July has always been the first real holiday of summer. Memorial Day opened the door when I was growing up, but our lives went quickly back to school and places around us gradually opened up for the season.
More than anything, I remember going to the Old Harbor Dock, Payne’s New Harbor Dock and the Champlin Yacht Station to look at the boats — the marina at Job’s Hill, now the Boat Basin, hadn’t been built.
The Town Dock, next to Ballard’s, could get the rowdiest early and it was usually first on the tour of town. We’d marvel at the big cabin cruisers at Champlin’s and count the vessels rafted out at Payne’s and often run into a handful of people my father had known since childhood, summer kids since they were young but with deep island roots, and
they’d all check in with Frank Payne, another old friend.
It truly was not much different at Payne’s, which we then called the New Harbor Dock, than it was most Friday nights of summer, when we went to meet the Pt. Judith boat, which landed there until 1965.
There was sometimes a bonfire on the Narragansett Beach, and some fireworks off boats, and surely some organization or another had some sort of event but fundamentally there were just not that many people here, a few boarding houses were clinging to life, the “good” hotels were on the edge of genteel poverty while the rest were in varying states of despair. Summer seemed so busy in comparison to winter but in retrospect it was hardly at all, the most stunning thing about old photographs of the New Harbor is the lack of moored and anchored boats.
We had a few small forty-eight starred flags my mother had found somewhere that we stuck in the flower beds Memorial Day and Flag Day and July Fourth, not that anyone could see them but we could and that was all that mattered. Probably our aunt in town, the one we visited many summer evenings, made some fancy cake or holiday treat. There were no parades to speak of, just a busier than usual weekend.
Then came the summer of 1961, the anniversary of the European settlement of Block Island. A committee was formed and all manner of celebratory events were well-planned, beginning with the lighting of an electrified wooden cake at midnight as the new year started. A letter was received from the White House, from President Dwight D. Eisenhower, congratulating the town and noting:
“Over the past three centuries, there have been many changes in the daily life and economy of Block Island. But the tradition of individual enterprise and neighborly cooperation continues to provide the basic strength of your community.”
I think at first it was 1961 and we could have been Any Small-town USA but he also had good researchers before people drowned in the “information” readily available on the internet, and he’d been here fishing.
One of the more memorable events of the summer was a parade, probably one of the most photographed happenings of the year, one that over time I came to think was on July 4. Memory is a tricky thing, strengthened by a collective recollection of what fun it had been.
I wrote about it, about Searles Ball and his Buffalo Springfield Steam Roller, either bringing up the rear or having their very own parade, and everyone who talked to me had some long-cherished memory of that day in the summer of 1961, when everyone was still working together.
Much later I found a calendar of events for 1961, with a Band Concert at the State Beach on July 2, and an Incandescent Event July 8 at the same location, but nothing on July 4, nothing at all. The Float Parade was in mid-August.
It had to be wrong, I reasoned, the calendar was printed early in the year, I knew some events had been added, surely the parade had been rescheduled.
Then I found a wrap-up published in the fall, and there was the Parade, in August.
I’d been wrong about the fireworks, too, but I had not invested so much time recounting and never thought to check their date. They had to have been on the Fourth, there was a red, white and blue flag on a wooden frame on the beach. The committee probably got a much better price for July 8.
In my defense I was only in elementary school...
There were bands in that 1661 parade, the hotels had floats, but I remember, primarily, the Steam Roller. I had had a sort of front row seat, as my dad consulted with Russ Champlin, an engineer who lived over in Connecticut. It was the first I’d ever heard of coke, soft coal, which they seemed to think would work best.
My mother muttered that they were going to blow themselves up, a fear totally without foundation. They fixed things back then, men like Searles and my dad and countless others, with what they had at hand, and to the best of my knowledge never actually blew anything up.
And they did not that summer day, although whenever I think of it it’s a wonder they didn’t burn the town down. After the parade had come and gone, the Circus is Coming to Town buzz continued. Even with Russ on board they were having trouble keeping the firebox going, and reports of progress drifted along the street in those days long before cell phones. Progress kept stalling, although for years my mother questioned the convenience of it happening in front of the Kittens.
Then the Steam Roller rolled through town. I can see it still, coming around the tinderbox National, sparks flying from its stack, steam billowing, Searles happy as could be at the helm. The police told him he needed a flagman, as if no one would notice a steam roller coming, so my father was dispatched to walk ahead with a red flag.
That year we had two Fourth of July parades.