It Wasn’t a Sand Bar
When I say that I grew up in a bar, it is a slight exaggeration; but, not in the way you might think. My parents bought the Union Villa Hotel, Bar and Restaurant in December 1961, just after it closed for the season. In mid-March 1962 we moved to an apartment on the first floor of the hotel above the bar. We lived in that apartment until they sold the business in November of 1969. Dad tended the bar and mom ran the kitchen, making pizza, subs (grinders), spaghetti and meatballs and stuffed quahogs. (Pronounced Co-hogs). If I wanted to spend time with my parents, it had to be in the bar, so yes, I really did grow up in a bar, but it wasn’t just The Union Villa.
Long before they bought the Union Villa, my parents were avid social drinkers and it was one of the main social activities when my dad was arriving home from sea (Celebration), spending time in the community (everyday life) or getting ready to go back to sea (saying goodbye). When I was very young I obviously did not go along on those outings, but stayed with my grandmother, but as I got to be 6 or 7, some of my earliest memories are sitting in a booth in any given barroom, coloring, reading, playing with paper dolls, or for a brief time, trying to learn how to knit, while my parents sat at the bar visiting and drinking. They made the rounds and so did I. I could recite or sing most of the current beer commercials before I was 10.
Most of the bars no longer exist, although I remember where they were. There were three bars in Onset that were part of their regular stops, The Union Villa, The Glen Cove Hotel, which has been renovated and reopened. https://glencoveonsetbeach.com/ and Henderson’s Bar. I liked Henderson’s Bar too because it was right next to Lowell’s Drug Store and I could sometimes get permission to go there and get an ice cream cone to take back with me to Henderson’s. I watched in fascination as Mrs. Lowell turned the cone upside down and dipped it in chocolate jimmies, wondering how the ice cream managed to not fall in or off.
There was Nickerson’s on Route 28 , right next to the White Rabbit Restaurant (I think that is a gas station now) and the China Maid Restaurant and Bar, and a bar in Middleboro, a neighboring town. I think it was the Fireside Inn. I liked that place because they had vending machines in every booth, where it was possible to get a hand full of pistachio nuts for a nickel. The China Maid had table side juke boxes where you could turn the pages and play 3 songs for a quarter. I have more memories of being in the Restaurant at the China Maid than in the bar. Imagine, not all bars welcomed children! Dad was an Elk too, so a trip to the Elks was often, but not always, part of the regular circuit. When we went to the Elks, I had to sit in the lobby and was not allowed in the bar at all. While they didn’t always hit every stop on the circuit, it was seldom one stop and then home.
At some point in the late 1950’s all this bar hopping turned into research and “what if” conversations about buying a bar. They certainly had a lot of experience as customers, and a good supply of experienced bar owners who were willing to share their knowledge. I know they had conversations back and forth about which one of the bars they frequented might be available for purchase, but by 1961 had settled on The Union Villa. I have vague memories of mom spending time with the previous owner to learn how she made the pizzas, learning how to make the dough and sauce. This purchase was a dream for them because this was the business venture that allowed dad to retire from sea and be home all the time.
There were many times when the party came home. When we lived at the house in Point Independence, it was not unusual for dad to invite neighbors to stop in and have a drink, or two or three, and celebrate with him because he was home. After we had moved to the bar, there were some friends and customers who visited our apartment in the winter when the bar was closed. They knew they would get free beer in the off season and during the season that the bar was open, they were regular paying customers.
It may have been more of a semi-retirement, the first three years Jack and Maggie spent the off-season making improvements, getting rid of the old orange and green wooden booths, and putting in newer black and silver tables and booths, getting rid of antiquated equipment. I was especially glad about that. The apartment only had one bedroom so the first year I slept in the living room. I could hear that old beer cooler that was directly under where I slept, it was noisy. There were times I wondered if it was going to explode. They spent the off season working downstairs, making improvements during their first three years of ownership. They extended the bar by a few feet, creating a more private entrance from the bar into the kitchen. They paneled the barroom and pool room; paneling was all the rage in the 1960’s, and finished updates on the kitchen equipment. After that work was complete, dad returned to sea during the off seasons when when the bar was closed.
They were 51 when they bought the bar and it was tiring work on their feet, for long hours; but they were together, and that made all the difference. The night they opened the bar however, my mother ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery. Dad tended bar, there was nothing else he could do. I sat on a bench directly in front of the bar, but on the floor where dad could work and make sure I was alright. And yes, I was scared. I was 11 years old and it was noisy, and my mom wasn’t there. All this took place in April of 6th grade. It did not take very long for my parents to decide that maybe it would be better to send me to Catholic Boarding School, than have me be around the bar all the time. So that September, I went to Sacred Heart School in Kingston, from seventh grade to tenth grade; but I was always home on weekends and the summer, the busiest times in the bar.
The second year we were there, they made a doorway between our bathroom and the hotel room that had served as a linen closet, and that became my bedroom. Although it was the linen closet for the hotel, it was a full bedroom. At least my bed was no longer directly over antiquated equipment but my bedroom in general, was located above the juke box. Do you know what often happened when people were drinking a lot and were unhappy? They fed the juke box with quarters and played the same song over, and over again. Please don’t think less of me when I say, that is how I learned to dislike country music and some singers. I will not tell you the unkind things I thought and said about Johnny Cash when I was 14, but today in 2020, I love the sound of his voice.
I am not saying any of this for shock value or pity, it was just where and how I grew up. I was fortunate to have two parents who loved each other and worked together very well. Admittedly, there were drawbacks; our apartment was directly over the bar, the pool room and the kitchen. When it was time to say goodnight to my parents, they couldn’t just stop work to walk me “home.” I said goodnight to my mom in the kitchen and slipped behind the bar, just long enough to give my dad a kiss on the cheek, then walked upstairs by myself to the first floor of the hotel and let myself into our apartment. Sometimes that felt scary. There was a measure of freedom in that, however; I would sometimes read with a flashlight after my bedtime or stay up late watching television. One of them always came upstairs to check up me, but they didn’t come upstairs together to stay until the bar was closed and everything was cleaned up, which was close to 1:00 a.m. As a result, I watched the Tonight Show a lot when I was 12.
One of the biggest drawbacks for me, was being around so many people who had too much to drink. You cannot reason with a person who is drunk. You can’t always understand slurred words or slurred intentions. All these years later, I still remember what stale beer and cigarettes smelled like. I think that I had a lot more patience and understanding being around so many people that were drinking or had too much to drink when I was 15, than I might now.
In many ways I was limited in how helpful I could be, but I spent a lot of time folding pizza boxes, cutting 40-pound blocks of cheese and running it through the grinder and occasionally helping to make pizza dough. When it wasn’t busy, I could make pizzas. I could empty ash trays and liked helping people find places to sit when it was busy, but because I was under 21, way under 21, I could not touch a beer bottle or empty drink class. It was alright though, my parents had to work, and if I wanted to spend time with them, I had to do it there, downstairs. I never felt forced, however; but making myself useful was the best opportunity to have their company.
There were no family dinners. Mom would cook as good a meal as she could so that we didn’t live on pizza and spaghetti, but cooking a meal was one thing, eating together was impossible, so we ate in shifts, myself included. We did go to a local restaurant for breakfast together every morning before the bar opened. Mom had tried cooking breakfast that we could sit and eat together, but invariably a customer would lean over the booth where we were sitting and say, “Gee, Maggie, that looks good. Can you make one for me?”
There were no cell phones and we did not have any phone extensions so if my mom wanted my attention or wanted me to come downstairs for any reason she left the kitchen, went into the pool room, grabbed a pool stick, and you guessed it, she knocked three times on the ceiling if she wanted me. Long before the song made famous by Tony Orlando and Dawn. (“Knock Three Times” as written by Larry Russell Brown Larry Brown Lyrics © BMG Rights Management, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Spirit Music Group).
It was a different way to grow up, but for better or worse it was home. My parents worked hard, and their work provided a good living. Even more than that, it gave them the best opportunity to be together nine months of the year for those seven years. I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have traded it for the world.
Not holding back the tide,