By Allan W. Swank, 2008
Part 1 of Allan Swank’s Reminiscences appeared in MAINSHEET, Spring 2008. He was 16 years old in 1960 when he came to work with his brother at Miss Redfield’s Breakwater Hotel.
Woods Hole. Weird name, but then, really no stranger than town names anywhere else. I understood Woods Hole was the location of the Marine Biological Laboratory and that the MBL held world renown. I never took any tours or saw any of the inner workings of the Labs but I came to be constantly aware of the fact of the MBL’s presence. My first fascination with Woods Hole has stayed with me, well, till now, now that I think about it. For this teenager, Woods Hole presented a whole new world. Larry, having had former experience there, shared a couple of hints with me. “Never order a chocolate shake. You’ll get a glass of chocolate milk. To get a shake, order a frap“. With a chuckle, I thought, “OK “. Mocha, another new discovery, quickly became my favorite flavor coffee/chocolate. Other items, locally common but completely foreign to me, were the stuffed quahog (my thanks to Susan of the Woods Hole Historical Museum for reminding me of a bunch of forgotten details), and fried clams. The Cap’n Kidd served up the best around.
Life quickly settled into a daily routine for most of us. It would take more time than one summer for that to happen to me. Seemed like every minute was new and exciting. And it was not all work. I spent a lot of time on the beach. The ocean was compelling, mesmerizing, I could watch it for hours or scour the sand for little mementos, drift wood, sea shells, even seaweed grabbed my attention. After storms, the beach would be littered with seaweed and drift wood. Swimming in the salt surf was a magical journey. One day a yell of “Shark!” went up and everyone who was in the water scrambled out and turned to scan the water. Sure enough, soon somebody pointed and there we could see three creatures which I could believe were sharks. I wasn’t too impressed. I had seen carp as big as these fish. Then I heard somebody opine that they were “sand sharks”. I didn’t know the difference but, apparently, sand sharks were pretty commonly seen this far north, unlike the dreaded great white. Most of my free time was spent on the beach. One day while taking the sun, I overheard one of the older female hotel guests remark loud enough fur me to hear. Intentionally? (presumably after noting my naturally hairy physique), “I can’t stand a hairy man”, and she stomped away. Moments later I heard the “bird lady” remark to her companion, “apparently the woman has never known a man with hair on his chest”. I was so amused by all this, I had to get a look at who was speaking. There, a few feet away, was the “bird lady” and her friend, both skinny old ladies in one piece, 1900’s bathing suits, looking at me and smiling. I just smiled back. The “bird lady” was so called because she had a parrot or cockatiel or some kind of noisy bird in her Breakwater room. Not only was the bird noise complained about by other guests but also the fact that the “bird lady” would play her violin at all hours. Maybe she was making “music” to soothe the “savage beast”.
My daily routine was not very complicated but could and did get hectic at times. I was, for the first couple of weeks, stationed in the prep kitchen, a small room just off the dinning room. I manned the counter and saw to it that there was always plenty of fresh coffee and, for breakfast, buttered toast. For the other meals, I also had to slice bread, pour water and other beverages and, constantly, bus dishes the servers brought in from the dining room and fold napkins. As the waiters brought diners’ orders in, they usually called out how many coffees, beverages and toasts or breads they needed and I would fill the cups and glasses, butter the toast and see that the right amount of each got onto the correct server’s tray. Piece of cake. Until there were three servers working at one time, each continuing to take and bring in customer orders while the first orders were being filled. That’s where the ‘hectic’ came in.
After a couple of weeks, Archie White, showed up and took over his usual post in the prep kitchen which I had been doing. Archie was an older man and had worked the prep kitchen job at the Breakwater for a number of summers. Miss Redfield saved the spot for him and had let me know I would be given different duties when Archie arrived. One of Archie’s forearms had been mangled in a machine when he was a kid but was fully healed except that it was thinner than the other, a little stiff and scarred. He quipped to me one time that he just learned that a black man could, indeed, get a sunburn because he had and he was in some misery for a couple of days. I moved on to mowing, cleaning, trash patrol and assisting in the main kitchen, at least until yet another person showed up to assist Cook. Her name was Katie or, at least, that’s what she answered to. She was 30’s to 40-ish, and spoke little English. Both she and the head cook (can’t recall her name) spoke Portuguese but Cook spoke English perfectly and translated for Katie whenever needed. The day Katie arrived, I was near the kitchen somewhere. When she saw me, she gave a yelp, ran over to me and gave me a great big hug then she danced around babbling Portuguese. After the head cook sauntered over close enough to figure out what was going on, she laughed and explained that Katie swears I am her nephew whom she hasn’t seen in years. He must be thirty now. I was, of course, sixteen. Cook straightened her out. I think Katie was a little disappointed but she got over it and eventually, jovially, constantly joked with me through hand signs and pantomimes. She got a great kick out of teaching me enough of the seedier Portuguese phrases that would guarantee my getting into trouble if I ever repeated any of them. One expression I can recall I can only try to repeat here phonetically: tudu koosie sabe. After describing the character of the expression, I think I’ll leave the translation up to the imagination of the reader. I had occasion to meet her nephew a few weeks later and, while I wasn’t particularly impressed with the comparison, others swore we could be twins.
Since Miss Redfield hired me basically as a favor to my brother, I was kind of a fifth wheel to the hotel staff. Others were older, experienced and even returning employees, like Steve who returned this summer to run the front desk. The two waitresses, Karen and Wendy, who joined the team had served elsewhere and were older too, twenties. One day I overheard a patron complain to Miss Redfield that her table lamp had quit working. Miss Redfield promised to have it repaired and the lady left. I suggested that I take a look at it and if I couldn’t fix it, I would bring it to the office and on to the repair shop. I discovered that the knob was broken. I went to town with my brother‘s car, bought the part for a buck or so and replaced the defective lamp socket/switch assembly. The lamp worked. You’d have thought I was a magician from Miss Redfield’s response but I had done nothing new, for me. I loved to fix things and had done so from early childhood. I recall my mom scolding me for dismantling an alarm clock when I was about 6.
Admittedly, many things I disassembled never got reassembled but I did learn a few simple, basic things like repairing a defective lamp bulb socket. My status went up a notch. After that, I was requested to make numerous repairs to furniture, windows, lawn mower. The pinnacle occurred in the wee hours after I had been asleep for a while. Cook and Miss Redfield pounded my shack room door and excitedly, literally wringing their hands, described the fire shooting out of the big cook stove in the kitchen. Could I come right away? I finished dressing and accompanied them to the kitchen door where we stood observing the stove for a few minutes. All at once a flame about 6 ft. long shot out of the end of the range and repeated every few minutes. I was not an experienced gas man, had absolutely no idea what might be wrong or how it might be repaired. However, I knew that without gas, there could be no fire. I know the ladies were baffled when I turned and walked away from the apparent problem area but after I walked to the gas cylinders and shut off the valve, thus stopping the gas leak and flame, Miss Redfield was so relieved and impressed by my resourcefulness she couldn’t stop thanking me and singing my praises. No big deal, I just wanted to go back to sleep. Later that day, after the professional gas serviceman completed the repairs and also praised me for quickly doing the correct thing, Miss Redfield gave me a big raise in pay from, I think I started at $40.00/month (plus room and board, of course) to $65.00/month. Wow! I felt so rich, I made a trip to the bank (I think, right in Woods Hole) and opened a savings account. When I withdrew the savings to go back home, I had a choice of withdrawing the full amount and paying an early withdrawal penalty or leaving some minimal amount in to keep the account active. I left the required small amount there. I wonder if it’s still active and what it might be worth now.
Before leaving for the fish monger’s after every Saturday morning breakfast, I first filled our huge cast iron pot with water and put it on the fire. By the time I returned, it would be ready to receive the lobsters. Then, after cooking, Cook, Katie and I would clean them, being careful to remove the mud vein, and crack the claws. We did this just moments before guests started placing their dinner orders in the late Saturday afternoon. The three of us functioned as a well-drilled team, dishing the meal, placing the dishes on the dumb waiter and sending them up to the serving crew. Select individuals from Woods Hole, in addition to the hotel guests, were invited and joined our “family” for Breakwater’s Saturday lobster diner. What was left of the cooked lobster we stripped from the shell which Cook then prepared as lobster a la king for Sunday lunch.
Wendy, the older waitress with the most waiting experience, surprised me by her complaints against one particular guest. Seems this older woman constantly complained about the most minute things. She absolutely hated cucumbers and commanded Wendy to make certain there was never any hint of cucumber about her food. Wendy was almost doting over the woman who did tip her handsomely. She even changed tables a couple times after complaining that she could not abide the pervasive and persistent aroma of cucumbers that she seemed able to detect everywhere she sat in the dining room. After she departed the hotel, I learned that dear, sweet Wendy had seen to it that a sliced cucumber was placed in the poor woman’s drawer (which was obscured by a table cloth) of the table where the poor woman sat. And she moved the same plate of offending slices to each table the woman moved to to escape the smell. She had suffered the unpleasantness loudly but never knew the true source. Nor did I until I detected the odor myself and, while changing the table linens, discovered the plate of shriveling cucumber slices in the normally concealed drawer. That’s when the whole story came to light.