[Click any image to enlarge. This article first appeared in the Westport News under the title: “Come Back to the Beach Chubby Lane, Chubby Lane!” and also appears on www.westporters.com]
By Linda Clifford (class of ’64)… It’s summer again and I went down to Compo Beach the other day for the first time this season. On my way, I was picturing the pavilion or “Chubby Lane’s,” as we called it, but I couldn’t remember whether it was still there. It was one of those “Twilight Zone” moments, like when you’re driving to the store, lost in thought. You look around and suddenly can’t remember where you are! I live only a few minutes from the beach, and visit it fairly frequently, but for the life of me, I just couldn’t remember. Had it been torn down these many years? Was it just so firmly etched on my memory that I couldn’t picture the beach without it?
I was lucky enough to land a job at the pavilion during my high school summers. These positions were highly sought after and involved waiting on trade selling popcorn, hot dogs and “frozos”, a popular frozen milkshake concoction. The proprietor, Chubby Lane, was not in the least fat and very neat—always dressed in a crisp pale blue oxford shirt and navy Bermuda shorts. He floated about like a Maitre D, filling in where needed, smiling and talking with everyone. Even strangers were treated like old friends. A young man called “Swiftie” was installed behind the open-flame grill. I never saw him when he wasn’t dripping wet—dark hair parted by rivulets of perspiration, red face and soaking T shirt, flipping burgers with one hand, guzzling iced tea with the other and popping salt tablets in between.
It seemed there was always a line for chili-dogs and burgers and “frozos”. And for those who couldn’t be moved from their beach blankets, there was the “walkie-talkie” girl; a pretty blond in shorts, carrying a big balloon. She took orders up and down the beach and “radio-d” them back to the pavilion where they would be made up then delivered by an energetic young “runner”. My favorite duty was the ice cream bar. It was in a little alcove off the main pavilion with a window to the outside where people could buy popsicles and cones and frozen milky ways. When it was slow, I could sit up on the freezer and look out over the colorful crowd to the hazy blue sky and water, and dream about who I might see at the “Fandango Dance” that night. These teen-age dances were held at Longshore and were the hottest ticket in town. Imagine a sultry summer night, the rumbling rock n’ roll of Bo Diddley (he did a live show there one year), or slow dancing under the sky to Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk”, then maybe stealing a kiss in the shadows. Ah, what memories…
Growing up in Westport, summer was the beach. I can remember my mother walking me to Greens Farms beach in a big perambulator and playing endlessly in the shallows, making “rooms” in the rocks and serving up seaweed “spaghetti.” How good it felt to swim in the clean, cold water till your lips were blue and your fingers puckered, then to lie on the hot sand and feel the sun dry the salt water off your skin.
In later years we would walk the shoreline from Compo beach, along Old Mill and Compo Cove to Sherwood Island, then wade or swim (depending on the tide) across the creek to Burying Hill beach, then around Frost Point to Southport beach. There was so much life in the water back then. Prehistoric-looking Horseshoe crabs were abundant, as were sand sharks which you’d see mostly at low tide, hugging the sandy bottom for camouflage. They were only about a foot long, but looked just like sharks and had plenty of sharp teeth, so you didn’t want to step on them. There were hermit and fiddler crabs, and star-fish and once I even found a sea horse. The days were long then.
Evenings had their own summer magic: cartwheels and stoop tag on the lawn or “hide and seek” with the neighborhood kids. “Ready or not, here I come!” It was thrilling to hide in the dark, holding your breath so as not to make a sound while the “it” kid passed by so close you could touch him. Then you’d make a dash for “home”. “Olly, Olly oxen free!”
When it got too dark to navigate the landscape, you could sit on the porch and watch fire flies, or tell ghost stories in the safety of a darkened bedroom and drift off to sleep thinking about the next day of swimming and sun.
I was immersed in these summer memories as I rounded the corner to Compo beach. In my mind’s eye I saw the little gray pavilion standing by the entrance, with cars pulled up in front and its screen doors swinging open for hungry beachers. I drove closer and looked ahead eagerly. But alas, it was gone.
I suppose I must have known it wasn’t there anymore, but my mind just can’t seem to see it that way. It’s like a camera with the film already exposed. The image is there, and that’s all I see. Memories are like that: like old photos or home movies you can step into whenever you need to get away form the rush and noise of “now.” When you need to escape the pressures and problems of today, you can visit a simpler, more tranquil time. You can remember.
So maybe tomorrow I’ll go down to Old Mill Beach and see if Kenny Montgomery’s store and Cafe de la Plage are still there.
November 13, 2005