by Chip Dahlke
In the summer of 1971 I spent some time on Cape Cod wandering the streets of Hyannis, Massachusetts. It was a different time back then. We really were a divided country. Nixon, Vietnam, the Civil Rights struggle- no wonder we all needed summer vacations. Weekly tourists who had budgeted for their vacations had to mix with the penniless, disreputable long hairs. The folks with summer homes tried to ignore everyone but themselves, and the locals I’m sure looked on both groups with dismay. Cape Cod itself just absorbed us all in. Who we were didn’t matter much to the salt water and sand dunes.
There was a church on Main Street in Hyannis. I remember it to be Baptist. I don’t know much about Baptists except they’re always trying to half drown themselves wherever there is water waist deep. I’m told that Baptism is done for adults when they become believers. None of this holy water on an infant’s forehead stuff. I’m sure I’m wrong, but I always thought that you were baptized as a baby because if anything happened you wouldn’t spend eternity stuck in an elevator between heaven and hell. What I know about religious concepts is about what I know about the inner workings of the government of China- in other words, not much.
The church was right in the middle of the downtown strip. The souvenir shops, bars, motels, and a miniature golf course crowded around it. There was a Howard Johnson’s almost next door to it. Next to Hojos was a candy shop that sold salt water taffy to the tourists. At least that’s how I remember it. On Friday nights Howard Johnson’s had an all you could eat fish fry for $4.99. I ate a lot of breaded fish that summer. I don’t remember having any taffy.
In the basement of the Baptist church was a coffeehouse called “The Cave”. I was the unpaid assistant manager. Inhabitants of the counterculture gathered there at night. Mixed in a recipe of coffee, reefer, cigarettes, snuck in beer and wine, patchouli, and sweat, the groupings of hippies, hitchhikers, runaways, and other fringe elements of society ate donated popcorn and snacks and listened to what free entertainment was on stage for the night.
My favorite muse was a girl named Melissa. She played piano and guitar and sang beautiful Joni Mitchell songs. Melissa supported herself with any money gathered from an old top hat we passed around. When she basked in the glow of our tiny spotlight she looked and sounded like an angel.
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels…
A number of Cave patrons were just passing through town. Many were on their way to the more exotic destinations of Truro or P-Town, but had only made it to Hyannis before night fell. They needed a place to crash, so it was my job at the end of each set to get up on the makeshift stage and ask if anyone had a place for these travelers to sleep. A bed was a luxury, a space on a floor was dry. A back porch would do. No one had the money for a motel or tourist cabin. All they wanted was to get out of the dampness of the Cape night air. If we couldn’t find someone a place for the night, I told them they could roll out a sleeping bag in the little cemetery behind the church or find their way upstairs to a hard pew. A few of them did.
The Kennedy’s had lots of money and lived in their compound in Hyannis Port. Once I saw Rose Kennedy getting dropped off by a black car to attend mass at St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Hyannis. A two day storm was moving through and Rose had a light coat and hat on. A bald black man held an umbrella over her head as she entered the church and I thought, “There’s goes a woman who has buried three sons and she still has her faith.” I wondered if she kept it all there under her hat.
After mass, I’m sure she was picked up and driven to her big white house. I imagine she entered her house and removed her coat and hat. Maybe someone would bring her tea and she’d sit alone by a window watching it rain.
As far as I could tell, everyone on the Cape loved Rose Kennedy. Democrats, Republicans, rich people, poor people- they all loved Rose. She should have been made a saint. She probably had a hundred miracles, all of them revolving around the fact that she hadn’t murdered her husband Joe for all his foolishness.
When it rained, all the tourists were driven from the beaches. With time on their hands many found the address of the Kennedy Compound and would slowly drive by hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous family. With rolled down windows and rain drizzling in on the faces of the children, the Mom would whisper, “That’s where the Kennedys live. They’re very rich. John Kennedy grew up there. You’re too young to remember, but, he was our President. He was murdered in Texas. He gave his life for our country.”
I wonder if Rose Kennedy looked out her window to see them driving by or if she simply stared out to sea and wished it would stop raining so her grandchildren could go outside and play.
Later as the rainy day turned to rainy night, the Cave filled with that marvelous generation of Aquarius. And just as Melissa finished her last set, I rose like every other night to ask who had a bed for the travelers just passing through.
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.
Chip Dahlke writes real good, for free and is a member of the church.