The Secret Wigwam of Chappaquiddick Island
Contributed by Bill Grote
on May 8th, 2003
The Secret Wigwam of Chappaquiddick
By Bill Grote
It was 1973, and Nixon was still president. It was before we found out he really was a crook. I had just graduated from San Francisco State College. Having worked my way through school, living on government food stamps, and the occasional odd job, I was ready and open to new adventures.
One sunny day, while balancing on seaweed at Ocean Beach looking at the Pacific, I met a girl from my art class at school, who spoke a strange language of wild blueberry bushes, Nor’easters, and an idyllic East Coast island life. Soon we were dating, spending more and more time together, until one day she up and moved back East to Massachusetts. I hunkered down in the foggy City, feeling optimistic about opportunities from my newly acquired journalism degree. Hoping for a big, important job at the San Francisco Chronicle.
I ended up selling Time Life books by phone, from a dingy building on Market Street. I hated to come to work. Especially, since most of the men working there tried to pinch my butt on the way to my desk.
One miserable day, after failing to sell a single book, and having my butt pinched once too often, I came home to find a letter. The letter included a plane ticket and a promise of a new career as a house painter on an all girl house painting crew on Martha’s Vineyard, a small island off the coast of Massachusetts.
After a sleepless red-eye flight to Boston, and a bus ride to Woods Hole, I got my first sight of the Vineyard from the Ferry. It looked unbelievable – like a fairy tale island. To my sleepy eyes, Vineyard Haven looked like Main Street. The Main Street I’d known and loved as a kid. The one at Disneyland. I’ll never forget the clean look of the wood shingled homes, illuminated by the light of the docks, and fireflies of summer flickering from the trees.
The all-girl painting crew accepted me, and I accepted doing the work that none of them wanted. I became the expert at scrapping and sanding peeling paint. I learned something college hadn’t taught me – to do well that which no one else wanted to do. At least no one pinched my butt, although I wouldn’t have minded it from this crew.
There were three girls on our painting crew: My girlfriend, and living partner, Laura, who had sent me the ticket and secured me this job. Laura was a long-haired wispy, artist type who liked to play the flute from tree tops. Laura had ability to laugh, and a hunger for the sensual that could only come from being the daughter of a pastor. Laura had the artist’s touch, so she puttied windows and did the delicate sash painting. She worked hard, but never took it too seriously. We made a good team.
Then there was Laura’s younger sister Margaret, a little less wispy than Laura. She had a more biting sense of humor. Usually it was biting another person – like me. I was the target “outsider” no one seemed to know. People from small New England towns aren’t known for their warmth to total strangers. To be accepted you must pass a series of personal tests and put-downs that take place over time – usually when you are at your weakest and less likely to defend yourself. But once accepted, you never seem to fall from grace. It took time, but I think I finally made it through Margaret’s gauntlet.
Margaret chain-smoked unfiltered Camels all day. She always painted trim, high up on a ladder, a cigarette in one hand, the paintbrush in the other. Margaret kept a secret boyfriend named Keith. He appeared to me as a cross between Arlo and Woody Guthrie. Keith always seemed to show up at night -- away from the prying eyes of relatives (of which this family had millions). By arriving after dusk, and avoiding the family dinners, Keith avoided running into the nosey aunts and uncles who always asked us “What are your plans?” They asked us this, while probing into us – with their eyes, looking for what we were hiding. As if we knew what our plans were then, and if we did know, as if we’d be stupid enough to share our plans with them and their over-flowing sense of warmth and acceptance. Sometimes, I envied Keith a lot.
The “boss” of the painting crew was Laura’s brother Dick. He didn’t paint – he just got the jobs. He was the salesman of our crew. He was the one who paid us. He knew lots of people, had a good reputation, and drank a lot – but never seemed to show the effects. Dick would always listen carefully, and explain carefully, slowly and methodically how to do things. When he got mad – which wasn’t very often, you’d know it because his face would turn bright red. But he would never seem to let his temper out of control. Sometimes you just had to wonder what he was really thinking, as he would never let us too close to most of his thoughts. But as a boss, he was straight and fair, and he taught me a lot about work ethics, and how to send wind-powered sailboats made out of 2 x 4’s into the Sound – before shooting them up with his ’22 rifle.
Then there was the boss’s wife Daryl. She was a brunette, she was the beauty of the crew, and her lack of a bra would drive me crazy on those hot, sultry summer Vineyard mornings of paint mixing, straining and stirring. She was also the straw boss. I felt damn lucky to be working for her, although she probably never thought of herself as boss. She was never bossy, no matter how anxious I was for her to ask me to do something.
After work we’d head back to Dick and Darryl’s for a few gin and tonics to prep us for a shower in the ice-cold unheated well-water. Water so cold you could actually feel your scalp shrink when it hit your head. No matter how cold, it was better than trying to bathe in the ocean – which always seem to leave your hair with extra “body”. After our shower to sobriety, we’d hike home across 2 x 8 planks through the swamp back to our place.
Our place was a tent in the middle of 80 acres of swamp and scrub brush. Neighbors included pheasants, deer, ticks, mosquitoes and snakes. This was 1973 in conservative New England. Boys didn’t live with girls without being married to them -- especially the preacher’s daughters. Nixon wasn’t a crook, and no one lived in a tent on Chappaquiddick. Tents weren’t allowed!
The tent in this case, was a mail order special courtesy of Sears and Roebuck. A sturdy aluminum frame held up the canvas roof and walls. It provided many a memorable night -- until the first summer lightening storm. That night, the comfortable foam rubber pad Laura and I had been sleeping on quickly turned into a cold wet sponge. Being from the West Coast and not accustomed to lightening storms, I imagined the aluminum support rods would attract lightening even better than Benjamin Franklin’s kite. The window flaps were closed tight to keep out the rain and humidity. Eating a big dinner of beans and onions that night proved to be a bad idea. It was bad enough awakening to a wet bed, but to find the air too putrid and damp to breathe made the night even more unbearable. Emerging from a wet, sleepless night, we vowed to take action before the next storm descended.
Studying habitats of Massachusetts Indians in the Edgartown library, I became inspired. We would live on our land like the Indians. We would be safe and dry in our own wigwam. And we would keep it a secret.
Wigwam construction was easy, even for someone who had never built much more than a kid’s fort. Locate sixteen Scrub Oak branches 12-feet in length. Use a stake and string as a compass to draw a circle eighteen feet across. Dig post holes to a depth of 2 feet, plant each Scrub Oak branch into a hole, and then fill the holes with dirt. Finally, tie each pole to the opposite pole with hemp twine. The frosting on the inverted cupcake was a skylight of clear plastic at the top, a window at the side, and a waterproofed parachute for the entire covering. What simplicity! How cool! Instant dome house!
Our bed was an old barn door on a 2 x 4 frame with the same old foam rubber pad (now dry) from the tent. We built a closet to hold our clothes, a bookshelf, and a desk with a kerosene lamp for writing. Our front door was fabric with a Scrub Oak log attached to the bottom to hold it securely in place, and discourage uninvited midnight visitors – like skunks and possums. The floor we covered Indian-style with a thick layer of pine needles.
Pine needles worked great, until we noticed that they were working their way into our bed along with deer ticks, and little spiders. So we put 20th century clear plastic over the needles. Plastic was noisy to walk over, but it kept the needles and bugs out of the bed. And we could watch a whole visible world of life teeming under our floor. It was like living in a science experiment. We witnessed several families of mice giving birth. One night, a real Nor’easter turned our floor into a swimming pool. Plastic holds water well -- better than we ever imagined.
About the time of this flood, we heard rumors that our secret wigwam had been spotted. Foster Silva, grand Marshall of Chappaquiddick Island in those days, mentioned off-handedly that he had heard “reports” from small plane pilots that there were tents on “Chappy” and that it might be something we’d want to “take care of”. The City Hall had recently passed an ordinance banning temporary living structures on private land and we were in violation of this ordinance.
So take care of it we did. Laura and I made the secret wigwam disappear with a camouflage tarp over the top. Suspended on a cable between two trees, the tarp helped divert rain as well as avoid the attention of flying eyes. And it gave us a porch cover to sit under and listen to the rain pattering on the poison ivy on summer Vineyard mornings. It also gave us the luxury of being able to prepare meals away from the communal kitchen we had established with the other family members of these acres.
Now we could prepare something other than the “wigwam special” -- powdered milk, instant protein, instant coffee, and Ovaltine mixed with well water. With a Coleman stove and the light of kerosene lanterns, we could prepare dinners of freshly-gathered mussels, newly-dug clams, fresh caught fish, blueberries, and vegetables from our swamp-irrigated garden. We were in hog heaven. We were officially at the start of the “salad period” of our 1970’s Chappaquiddick wigwam culture. It was the high point of my stay on Chappaquiddick, before things started to unwind.
Soon we added a wood floor to the Wigwam. This put an end to our science experiments with the transparent floor, but ushered in the post-modern phase of our life in the forest. We even built a nearby latrine. A fancy hole in the ground with a lift-up seat from the junk yard, complete with a bucket of lye. You’d throw in a shovel full as a dry flush. It wasn’t real fancy but it beat running off to our favorite view point with a shovel and roll of toilet paper when the urge struck. With the help of friends and a case of beer, we dug a primitive well and capped it with a crank-operated pump. We had our own water supply. Life became easier.
Laura soon began to engage me in helping her build her dream house, digging the foundation only a few feet from the wigwam. I resisted, fearing the change, and knowing that the house would be hers alone, since I lacked the emotional maturity to accept that she would have the authority to call the shots.
We hacked out a curving driveway with machetes on a particularly hot August afternoon. Placing curves at just the right intervals and avoiding the “special” trees, those which she had developed a personal relationship with. I cut one of these trees down by mistake, and she made me feel like I had murdered a close friend.
Building her house was even more troublesome for us. We tried for days to lay out the foundation posts in an absolutely perfect square – using nothing more precise than batter boards and a string line. But the resulting 1/8-inch of imperfection became a wedge into our relationship. Or maybe it brought out a major difference in our lives. She seemed to quest for the unobtainable perfection. The perfection that her proper New England family had instilled in her. It was perfection foreign to me and that I felt incapable of. She made me feel guilty. After all, I was the one who had cut down her tree. I started to rebel. Rebel at the perfection, at the strong family influence that pervaded our every decision, at being the West Coast Outsider, and always being told how “We don’t do things like that ‘round heah”.
My rebellion was simmering. Dripping out like little beads of sweat over the summer. I found a co-conspirator in Laura’s adopted-brother Mike who was suffering from the same affliction. It wasn’t long before he and I had spray-painted bright flames on the fenders of my old Plymouth pickup truck. I admit we got a little carried away with the pin stripping. Especially pin stripping “Raunchy” on the door, poking fun at the locals who had their names on the doors of their pickups in gallant stoic gothic letters. I craved recognition. I craved fun. I couldn’t let myself be swallowed up in the serious mediocrity of Island life. I just wasn’t that mature.
Eventually, Laura finished her house without my help. It’s not a mansion, but it’s cute. A two-story Cape Cod dream home, built with her two hands and the help of friends. It has a great view of Cape Pouge. It’s a whole lot better than the wigwam I built. And it still stands as a tribute to her strength and determination, and the ability to live her dream.
Snow and summer rains eventually removed all traces of the wigwam. Human elements washed away our togetherness after that idyllic time in the woods. After seeing Nixon’s farewell speech from an Edgartown barstool, I moved back to California. Laura soon followed, but the differences that had been born between us had grown with time. Eventually, we broke apart and married different people. She’s now a ranger at a local beach, and I’m working at the same job I landed on my return from Chappaquiddick. Laura refused to be a Godmother of my son. She seemed to harbor a lot of anger and resentment. Life seems more complicated now. I think the simplicity of our lives disappeared with the simplicity of the wigwam.
Yet, now 30 years later, when I’ve had an especially bad day at the office or an argument with my wife, or my son, my mind starts to hear spring fog horns and swamp loons. I slip back into a simple life in the Scrub Oak forest. To the smell of the rain on freshly fallen poison ivy leaves. Back to the wigwam. The secret wigwam of Chappaquiddick.