A Perfect Beach Day

Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach – the most public of the Island’s sea-and-sand boxes – is a two-mile-long smile on the face of Martha’s Vineyard.

State Beach is easy. Easy to find. Easy to park. It’s easy to haul the cooler and the carload of beach chairs and windscreens and umbrellas and towels, and it’s easy (and required) to haul out the trash. There’s an easy, though sand-trapped, bike path for the hardy, and the easy-to-ride Vineyard Transit Authority bus. There’s no surf, so it’s easy to swim, and easy for you to let your toddler toddle right into the floppy water.

No quarter-million-dollar “key” is needed, but it would be worth it if it were. State Beach is the Greatest Show on Sand, an exploration of the human species and its love affair with salt water and sun. On an island stippled with “No Trespassing” signs and sheepish teens acting as beach bouncers for plutocrats, State Beach beams instead the signal: “You are welcome here.”

At State Beach you hear Portuguese, Spanish, Czech, and every variation of English. Maybe not the multi-cultural mishigas of Coney Island, but pretty darn good for the Vineyard. Families of every description calling out like auks in a breeding colony. Tribes of restless teenagers. Conglomerations of people happy to be clustered together in a chaotic half-moon of beach chairs, with novels and magazines lying beside them in the sand because they’d rather look at the faces of those around them that they see too rarely. Sleeping couples with limbs extended to touch the other, their skin magnetized. An old woman on a lone, wobbly, late-afternoon dip.

The connoisseur of body type will find the broadest spectrum on State Beach as well, from the freshest newborn to the senescent centenarian, and every conceivable waistband-width of the years in between. It’s not always a pretty sight, but it is human, not some fairyland of Botox and personally trained glutes.

In the calm, misty early morning come the spiritually and physically fit, runners and swimmers and beach-walkers and yoga-ists, performing their disciplines as the sun comes up over Cape Pogue. The odd metal-detector enthusiast exhumes bottle caps. A few dogs scuffle about.

Sometime after nine the first group of the daylongers, a sun-tolerant and sociable species, colonizes a prime spot, provisioned like British viceroys bivouacking in Punjab. The sun ascends and the beach fills. The signature ksshh of the day’s first Bud Light Lime being cracked, and the myriad scents of sunblock.

The peak is reached in the early afternoon, when the line of cars along the dune is nearly solid, and the water near shore is a stew of medium-rare humanity. The big bridge serves as focal point, the young and the indefinitely immature flinging themselves from the rail into the wince-cold waters. “It’s fine once you get used to it,” they say, a testimony to human adaptability, though not necessarily wisdom. They scramble out over the slippery rocks for another try, or for frozen lemonade as reward for bravery.

The inevitable tossing of Frisbee or football: A father and offspring, or a group of kids, often relegated to the shallow surf, hurl their object with unpracticed enthusiasm and unpredictable results. These games are interesting if only for the hazard they represent on a crowded beach. The end of the game typically comes when the first innocent is beaned. That weird paddle-ball game starts up between two lanky kids by the dunes – if they manage to volley four times in a row, call the Guinness book.

Floats for the lazy or insecure. Useless boogie boards. Skinny boys on skimboards: face-plants waiting to happen. Kayaks plying Sengekontacket Pond and jet skis out beyond the buoys; those on one wonder why anyone would want to pilot the other. Parasailing in the distance by the hazy silhouette of the Seaview. A biplane cruising about with a distant drone.

If the day is sufficiently breezy, kiteboarding daredevils skim across the waters of Sengekontacket or offshore, while the mothers on the beach retreat into brightly colored nylon beach windscreens. On a day with a stiff offshore breeze, a huge blow-up duck makes his wind-assisted break for Ireland; a would-be hero never getting within fifty swimming yards of the thing as a forlorn family watches it go.

To go in or not to go in, that is the beach-going Hamlet’s dilemma. If so, how deep? And how quickly? Some would think of a trip to the beach without a daring run-and-dive as sacrilege, while others would rather be dragged into hot lava. Most fall in the middle, inching in as want and necessity arise. The ghosts of Chief Brody and the Kintner boy give pause. Swimming, not bobbing around in the waves like at South Beach, but real, goggles-on swimming along the row of buoys that separate you and your choppy stroke from the wilderness of ocean and the flotilla of unevenly piloted fiberglass sea beasts that lurk beyond. Lifeguards at Bend in the Road squint out over the neat rows of newly planted beach grass.

Just offshore, a committee of terns tirelessly dogfights over a sliver of silvery fish flapping in a lucky beak – kee-urr kee-urr kee-urr. Crabs are pursued by relentless children. Dead jellyfish are poked with sticks.

The sand, the other attraction, the perfect substance for an aspiring architect or undertaker. The sand castle, okay. But the sand burial? Who finds that fun? Maybe it’s a way for parents to lie there and sleep while still “playing” with the kids.

A nap may be in order. On your back with a hat over your face, or on your stomach with your sunglasses mashed into your temple, the nap is welcomed but the waking grogginess not so. A trickle of sweat rolls down your forehead.

The “beach read,” the lowest form of literary life, collects sand between its pages. Why Dickens and Voltaire are reserved for fireside winters but the beach permits an unabashed perusal of Danielle Steel and Us Weekly is a mystery. Perhaps there’s a belief that the brain does not work as well in warm weather. Be bold, bring Moby Dick.

Take a walk down the beach, right at the tide line, sidestepping the occasional slumped sand castle or oblivious tyke dragging a boogie board in or out. There are few seashells to speak of, save limpets, but you might find a pretty sea-shiny pebble. They dull when they dry, but are still nice on a windowsill. You never go as far as you think you might on a beach walk; the sand tugs at your feet.

By mid-afternoon the sharpest of the sun’s rays have been dulled, and the human load on the sand is beginning to lighten. Dakota needs a nap and Caitlyn really needs a bathroom. A real one. Now. Gin and tonics are waiting on the porch at the house and the grill isn’t going to start itself. A good spot on the sand becomes easier to find, though with towel imprints. Who or what was lying here? Did they bury anything nasty in the sand?

And the sunburns. Say what you will for the yummy tang of tanned skin, the sunburns on the otherwise fish-belly pale are glorious in the late afternoon light. Roasted noses and shoulders and backs of legs, the screaming outlines of clothes worn earlier. A sufferer will later post on Facebook: “Sunburns are stupid and so am I.” You may catch sight of full-body sun suits and legionnaires hats on some duo of wan toddlers.

As the colors of Sengie brighten in the later light, a quiet and startlingly rapid exodus. Quiet except for Tyler, who is literally kicking and screaming as his sandy, soggy bottom is being dragged off to the Suburban. The late afternoon at the beach is when the sense of passing time is most acute. A day at the beach – this day at this beach – is what many people who live on and visit Martha’s Vineyard look forward to all year. It is the Island’s raison d’être, and the end of a perfect beach day can bring a pang to anyone. That pang simply manifests itself most ragingly in little Tyler, who has yet to develop the emotional skills to process and subdue the angst we all feel as the sun dips toward the OB water tower. His howls fade only as the Suburban pulls away; Tyler will be asleep before Harthaven. Later, an impossible amount of sand will fall out of his bathing suit onto the bathroom floor, enough to make anyone cranky.

But this is also the Happy Hour, and those freshly released from daily toil arrive to take their turn enjoying the place. They park theirs trucks and within a minute a few well-earned beers are cracked, a discreet dog or two appears. Seagulls drift down as well, finding some newly vacated space to patrol for sandy leftovers; an unwary beach walker may return to find a brazen gull tugging at a zipper or rummaging through a tote bag. Guys are fishing from the bridges and jetties.

Now there’s a chill, maybe the wind has freshened. The skin has a tight feeling from dried sweat and seawater and the sun, and it is time to go. The still-warm sandy asphalt on bare feet and the whoosh of vehicles zipping by. The car is not too hot because you can leave the windows open if you don’t have anything worth pinching in plain sight. Bang your feet together a couple of times to minimize sandiness. Some people are anal about sand in their cars; don’t be one of those people. The Island car, held together with fading bumper stickers, is the thing: a vehicle just healthy enough to get you to the beach, just big enough to carry everyone and everything – no worries about sand or wet bathing suits or seeping bags of quahaugs.

The beach at sundown has a vacated feel. Many things get left behind: towels and socks and flip-flops and buckets. Photographers point cameras around to capture the rich hues and shadows. A plein air painter packs up shop.

At home there’s a warm outdoor shower and a sweatshirt. You think about the funny thing that happened and reminisce about two hours ago. That moment was the best of the year.

Back at State Beach, the night shift comes on. Maybe there’s a rowdy gathering with a fire of some sort, or maybe just a blanket and lovebirds with a bottle of wine. Probably there are both. State Beach accommodates all. The stars and the clouds. Cape Pogue Light winking white every six seconds.

The advantages of State Beach last all year. In an astonishing display of nature’s inventiveness, the colors of the sky and water are different every single day, and differ many times within each day.

On a winter day, with a light snow slashing sideways and low gray clouds looming just over the leaping steel water, drive up Beach Road. Over the roar of the car’s heater and the buffeting winds, if you can say, “I want to live here,” then you should live here, as nuts as that is. Picnic in the car on a sunny fall day, or take a sand-blasted walk in spring, or simply just drive by. But watch and see and enjoy. And wait for these warm days in summer when State Beach throws its arms open and collects the good people of the Vineyard in its curving embrace.

The Man Behind the Beach

He was the son of immigrants who came over from the Azores in the late 1800s. He graduated from Oak Bluffs High School and worked his way through Suffolk Law School in Boston, washing cars and serving as a hotel steward. There was little in his earliest years – save a determination to work doggedly at whatever he did – to suggest how much influence Joseph Augustus Sylvia would later have here on the Island of his birth.

But it’s fair to argue that in the twentieth century, few men had more influence than Joseph Sylvia. He claimed that he never made a political speech on his own behalf during the whole of his political career, so well did he know the Islanders whom he served and so well did they know him. He was elected to the state house of representatives in 1936 (in those days, Martha’s Vineyard had its own legislator there) and served without interruption until his retirement as its senior member thirty years later.

The list of what he achieved for the Vineyard during his tenure looks remarkable in an era of pervasive political savagery and gridlock. His old-school Republican theory was that it was perfectly fine for the commonwealth to fund Island projects – even lavishly, if necessary – so long as the Vineyard retained control of whatever was being built or saved. He co-sponsored legislation that established the Steamship Authority, secured county control of what is now Martha’s Vineyard Airport, financed and built the bulkhead and walkway around Oak Bluffs harbor, established a permanent state police barracks and force, and funded what was once a busy lobster hatchery on Lagoon Pond in Oak Bluffs.

But the thing for which he is literally memorialized is the purchase and preservation of the long, curving beach between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown. In 1941, sensing how private and entrepreneurial interests might one day covet, close off, or despoil the beach, he filed a bill to have the state buy it but let the county run it. “The first consideration is to leave this beach and this entire drive in identically the same state that it now is,” Sylvia said at a hearing. “By that I mean that it shall not be changed in landscape or in any other way.”

It took fourteen years to secure the whole of the beach, from Edgartown to the little bridge in Oak Bluffs – now one of the largest, most open, accessible, and popular beaches on the Island. It was formally named after him in 1968, only a few months before his death at the age of seventy-six.

Asked late in his career how he managed to win so many terms in office without giving a single speech on his own behalf, especially on an increasingly Democratic Island, Joseph Sylvia told an interviewer that, among other things, he ran a lot of errands for the voters back home. “It’s quite difficult for the folks down my way to get to Boston, and I do a lot of leg work for ’em,” said Sylvia as he roamed the aisles of a hardware store in the Back Bay. “I’ll take this sink, cabinet, and plunger – and a few other things – back to Oak Bluffs with me on Friday.”

In 1956, a year before the hardware store interview, a Democrat named Maurice Healey challenged Sylvia for his house seat. When the votes were added up, the incumbent’s brand of constituent service had helped Sylvia defeat his opponent by a ratio of thirteen to one.