Growing Up on Chappy: By Ralph Harding II

Growing Up on Chappy
By Ralph Harding II

I don’t think there are too many people who can say that they have grown up on an island
within an island.  Actually, Chappaquiddick Island “cheppiaquidne” the Native American word meaning “separated island,” is a peninsula when the tide washes out the small strip of beach between Edgartown and Chappy.

As an Island native, people have teased and called me:  “Mr. Gilligan” “Mr. Turn Into A Pumpkin at Midnight,” the “On Time Ferry Closed at Midnight in the Summer,” and “11:15pm During the Winter Months”.

The Chappy ferry was and is still, an important part of small Island living. Everyone has to plan their activities and work schedules around its schedule. In essence, it has a lot of control over your coming and going. As a child I always wondered why my grandfather decided to settle on Chappy.  As an adult I have realized why. Because of its beauty, the serenity and the sense of community with the people who live there. There were lots of things to do and places to discover as a child. The beaches, discovering different paths in the woods, some of the best hunting and fishing around. I can remember catching my first blue fish off the Dyke Bridge…I’ll never forget it!

Growing up on Chappy was special. I learned to fish, hunt, grow vegetables, ride horses, bail hay, and drive a stick shift truck. My Grandfather, who worked at Pimpneymouse Farm for over 60 years, was a special person in my life and a huge influence. I would follow him around all day in the Summer. We would plant and cultivate vegetables, as well as harvest them. This was one of the most rewarding feelings I can recall while growing up there. My grandfather was a great gardener and we always had several gardens growing at the house at once. He also really loved fruit trees, especially peaches and plums. One year, my mom canned 72 quarts of peaches. There was nothing like having peach ice cream, and homemade biscuits in the middle of a quiet winter. He also had a couple of strawberry beds. One of my jobs was placing chicken wire around the strawberry bushes to prevent deer from eating our crop. They would show up every morning outside of our living room window. They were beautiful to look at, but we had to protect the strawberries! 

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One Winter the harbor in Edgartown froze over. The coast guard arrived and brought in an ice cutter to try and make a path between Chappy and Edgartown, so the ferry could continue service. But it was just too cold. The tide kept forcing the ice back in the harbor.  Since we couldn’t travel on the ferry, the next morning my mother and Islander Jerry Jeffers decided that the only way to get the kids to school was to drive on the beach to Edgartown. I remember thinking, “Why are we driving over the beach to get to school? Is it that really that bad?” I’ll never forget that, what a memorable experience.

The Summer of 1969 changed a lot on Chappy — especially when Ted Kennedy drove off the Dyke Bridge in late July, I was seven years old at the time. When Chappy became a tourist location, people were not just visiting for the beautiful beaches and sunsets, but instead were coming to get a piece of the bridge. Not long after, the bridge closed for repairs due to so many visitors taking pieces as souvenirs.

As I grew older and more observant, I had a lot of questions. On Thursdays in Edgartown all of the domestic help would be in the local grocery store doing their shopping.  One day I asked my mother why; and she explained that Thursday was Maid Day, meaning that was the day they were allowed to go into town and shop.  A few years later I helped my mother cater a women’s dinner party (my mother was a fantastic cook, known by everybody on Chappy for her Christmas morning Cod Fish Cakes and baked beans).  At this dinner party, all of the domestic help was African American. I had a chance to speak with a woman from Newark, New Jersey, who said she lived and traveled with the party-throwing family year-round, taking care of their children, cooking and cleaning. As I thought more about it, I often wondered what it must have been like, being on call twenty-four hours a day fulfilling other people’s needs and very few of your own.

Author, Ralph Harding II

Author, Ralph Harding II

Funny how life is cyclical.  I eventually attended college at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey.  Coincidentally, many of my friends who I have had the pleasure of meeting on the Island are also from the New York /New Jersey area. Certainly not an unusual presence on the Island. Just look at all of the license plates.

Life is journey, isn’t it?