Can you go home again?
I first moved to Newport on May 19th, 1980 – the day after I resigned my commission in the U.S. Army – a fatuous, and ironically undisciplined twerp with magnificent ignorance. I'm moving back on September 4th, 2019 and I'm wondering if there's going to be a noticeable difference either in Newport or in myself all these years and miles later. Doubtful.
I'm not going to reminisce about the good old days, and they were good, and plenty, but I'll share two memories that have both kind of come full circle. I lived on Connection Street and sometimes when I'd walk home late at night there'd be a commotion at the Wellington Cafe, a lower Thames Street dive that had green corrugated fiberglass siding and a hangdog look. Usually during Fleet Week there'd be at least one bar fight that would spill out onto the sidewalk, between either two drunken sailors or a sailor and a townie. I'd just sidestep the crunch and blood and continue on my merry drunk way.
As a sidebar note, there was also a little bakery on Thames Street and if I was going home late enough they would have already started baking bread – the smell was heavenly and maddening at the same time – it reeked of warm, spermy dreams.
Anyway, fast forward forty years and I'm at a party in Salisbury, NC and one of my brother's friends comes in packing a piece. I ask him what's going on with that. He says he's always carried since he got into the habit when he was in the navy. I asked him where he was stationed and he said he was stationed in Newport most of the time. I asked him when and he said '74 - '82 or something like that.
I told him I was there at the same time and none of the snowflakes or Vineyard Vines bros who summer in Newport now believe me when I tell them that there were bar fights on Thames Street on a regular basis, and nobody flinched or called the cops. He started laughing. He told me that at formation on Sunday mornings at the base there'd be guys with black eyes and missing teeth and nobody could remember anything that happened. No, sir, I can't remember anything. True story.
I was the dockmaster at Williams & Manchester shipyard, and Dennis Connor and his crew had their America's Cup headquarters set up there. One of the cast of characters I got to know, and know well, thanks to his and his wife Jean's friendliness and kindness was Jack Sutphen. He had a steel sailboat called the Scorpion, and they became like surrogate parents to me. Jack was a mean sailor, and became, deservingly, Dennis's trusted right-hand man. They lost the cup for the first time ever when I was there in Newport in 1983, but went on to win it several times in the following years. Jack retired to San Diego about 15 years later.
I looked Jack up about 10 years ago, found his address, and sent him a note saying how much he and Jean meant to me, and hoped he was well. He sent me a hand-written letter back saying, yes, those were the days. Jean had died a few years earlier, and he was enjoying his retirement, sailing the small sailboats of his youth once again, with other old-timers trying to recapture the thrill of indiscretion.
He also sent me a copy of his book, and come to find out, he was a hockey player of all things, from Larchmont, NY. He and Jean had honeymooned on Cockenoe, a tiny island that's part of the Norwalk chain of islands, and the one that me and my kids and friends have camped out on many a times ourselves over the years. He writes in his book that they sailed there in his little 12' class sailboat with a case of beer and a tent. What else do you need?
Nothing. Stay tuned. Meantime, 5th Ward, gird your loins.