Cape Cod summer

Sunday 23 October 2016 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Swallows depart from Capistrano

Riddle me this, dear readers. Where is summer never “summer”? The answer is on Cape Cod. Between Memorial Day and Columbus Day we are busy entertaining our guests and serving our summer visitors. There’s little time for us to lounge about the beach sipping tall, frosty glasses of gin and tonic or savoring lobster stew by restaurant windows overlooking the sea. 

It may be autumn in the rest of New England but here we call it “Cape Cod summer.”

On the Columbus Day weekend, we stood on the overpasses (as we always do) and cheerfully waved the summer visitors good-bye. There are still a few summer people around but after Thanksgiving they will all be gone — like the swallows of Capistrano.

Now at last we have some free time to enjoy our own summer before the dreary Cape Cod winter sets in. The water temperature at the beaches hovers around 70 degrees and refreshing breezes blow through our open windows. The scorching heat and unbearable humidity levels have passed.

It’s the best time of the year on Cape Cod, but please don’t tell anyone. 

Did you know that the concept of a family beach vacation is relatively recent? As far back as Roman times aristocrats summered in their villas by the sea and lolled by the fountains in their courtyard gardens but it wasn’t until the 18th century that summer resort towns began to develop for the recreation and health of the uber-wealthy. The sea breeze and saltwater was considered a cure for whatever ailed you. The British aristocracy, including Queen Victoria herself, was very fond of “sea-bathing.” At the beach Her Majesty was finally amused.

Even though beach attire covered a person from head to toe (from a bathing cap to beach shoes), it was nevertheless considered shockingly inappropriate in those days for a woman to be seen in a bathing suit by a member of the opposite sex. Areas of the beach were segregated by gender. Heaven forbid that someone should catch a glimpse of Queen Victoria in a bathing suit. Enough said. 

To further ensure proper modesty, portable “bathing machines” were dragged down to the water’s edge. These were tent-like structures with two entrances — cabanas on wheels, one might say. Once a woman had changed from elaborate street wear into her all-enveloping bathing suit, she would run as quickly as possible out the back door, down a few steps, and into the sea. One would never think of sprawling on a beach blanket. That would be very naughty. 

Bathing machines had virtually gone extinct by the “Roaring 20s.” “Flappers” had absolutely no interest in them. This comes as no surprise to me. 

In 1945, bikini swimwear was first introduced on the French Riviera (not on Bikini Atoll, which was radioactive). Bikinis caused an uproar but times had changed. Now one French Riviera town has banned burkas. Times have changed again.

In the mid-19th century, the working class, transported by the railroad, began to arrive at the spas. Factories in the cities would close for two weeks in July so that the machinery could be serviced. The off-duty factory workers would head for the beach. After the trains came the trolleys and after the trolleys came the automobiles — with ever increasing numbers of vacationers. By the early 20th century, a worldwide summer resort industry was off and running.

How well I remember my father’s work place, the Continental Screw Factory, closing for summer vacation. We would all jump into the beach wagon, with its fake wood side panels and rusted out floor boards, and head to Sconticut Neck Beach. There we would spend the day at the cottage of Joe Harrington, a New Bedford police officer and friend of the family. My mother would wear her fashionable one-piece skirted bathing suit and rubber bathing cap. We never went to Cape Cod.

Patti Page released her easy-listening song, “Old Cape Cod” in 1957 as a 45-single. Never mind that it was the flip side of another song. Never mind that Patti Page had, at the time, not even set foot on Cape Cod. The record sold a million copies. 

The first recording I ever owned was a song by Patti Page. The vinyl disk was bright yellow. It was “The Doggy in the Window.” It sold twice as many copies as “Old Cape Cod.” Being seven years old at the time, I played the record until it wore out and dreamed of having a dog of my own. This dream eventually came true in spades. 

The chamber of commerce honored Patti Page by naming a street in her honor. Patti Page Way leads appropriately to the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. This was a stoke of genius. Patti Page put Cape Cod on the summer resort map.

Our Cape Cod summer won’t last much longer. I’m going right out to the back porch this minute and listen to Patti Page songs on iTunes. Summer on Cape Cod doesn’t get much better than that.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.


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