New Year’s Eve is for amateur drinkers. My wife Kyle and I prefer to cocoon at home and wait for the car accidents to be towed away and the DUI drivers to clear their cells on New Year’s Day. We had talked about going to Middle Bass for a quick overnight but our cottage doesn’t get warm in 24 hours. Exposed flesh, say feet on the floor, would look like Ralphies friend Flick’s tongue stuck to a frozen flagpole in the movie The Christmas Story. It is hard to walk barefoot on chilly floors and all the Put-in-Bay Hotels & Resorts
In talking to Cliff Fulton about the pending ice on the cell phone he invited us to come to Put-in-Bay and stay with him and Christy at the Ontko/ Fulton compound (it is like the Kennedy Compound in Hyannisport but lacks the helicopter pad, riding stables, and toothy Kennedy grins). There was a New Years Eve party at the Put-in-Bay Town Hall. The promise of a fresh egg breakfast from their chickens made the offer irresistible. Middle Bass used to have a Town Hall New Years Eve party. Interest and enrollment waned and it was canceled. Chris Zietler and the crew at Walleye’s took over the mantel but attendance thinned over the years to the point where the party was funded by Chris and anonymous donors to cover the significant cost of putting on the event. Unfortunately, there were no parties on MBI this year.
Kyle and I often admired the bright lights, the band music heard over the water at night and the cabaret of Put-in-Bay nightlife. Like kids excited about prom, we were going to the “Big Island” for a New Years Eve party. What to wear? Kyle has a sixth sense about these things and mapped out a shiny thing for herself that had the proper amount of cling and warmth. I wanted to wear my 1950’s Pendleton smoking jacket (black lapels, Campbell dress plaid) and a machete. There is no better way to clear a brush pile or dance floor. Kyle nixed the machete and we settled on a black turtleneck and black pants (and the smoking jacket!). Black is slimming!
Upon arrival, Kyle and Christy settled by the fireplace and nested. I immediately poached Cliffs four-wheeler and went beach glass hunting leaving the hens cackling by the fire. Cliff was flying in later from the mainland. It was bitterly cold and I was reminded of a story Jessie Greene Cook (Jessie’s Beach Glass) told me. Her favorite piece of beach glass was found in the dead of winter on Put-in-Bay. She was climbing over some ice shoves after a strong wind had blown them ashore. The beach had been torn up and there laying on the ice was a piece of rare yellow glass shaped like an archetype female form (curvy, hourglass-shaped). Jessie crafted this special piece of beach glass into a gold and sterling setting. She calls this pendant her Yellow Goddess.
I found one piece of beach glass. It was deep blue and silver dollar sized. A real treasure! Winter beach glass is special like Christmas in
July! I scampered back to the Fulton/ Ontko compound to the warming properties of a Thirsty Dog Christmas Ale, and a roaring fire. The hens were still cackling and were nibbling on snacks. Cliff had arrived and was very proud of the new bar Christy and
Meredith had made for him in the living room for Christmas. We immediately put the bar to use!
We went to Tippers for dinner. We met Jeff and Kendra Koehler and we exchanged hugs. Per Kyle, “Jeff is a champion hugger!”
Put-in-Bay is lucky to have a full-time restaurant. It is difficult to run a restaurant in the winter on an island. As Lucius McKelvey told me when he was setting up the Rattlesnake Island Club, every napkin and swizzle stick has to be brought across the ice. The Niese’s butcher their own meat, have large freezers, and inventory plenty of swizzle sticks. Cliff and I had meat. Red meat.
Jake Market brought the Town Hall Dance Back to life. As an event, it was dormant for a while. The Hall was decorated like a movie set. It was originally built as an opera hall. What better place for a dance? Christy took us backstage and showed us the brick wall of fame where generations of Put-In-Bay kids had signed the brick wall after high school drama productions were performed. It was like a time capsule. If a sense of belonging could be embodied in human form it would be Christy and South Bass. In a rootless society, to see the generational depth her family possesses is a rare thing.
Historically, islanders were extremely isolated in the winter. There was a duality to their friendships. There were the “islanders” and then there were the “summer people”. Friendships grew deep in isolation among the locals. Unfortunately, isolation can take a disagreement between two people (or two family’s) and blow it up to epic proportions (the stuff of Greek tragedy). It wasn’t all roses. The Town Hall dance gave people a chance to reconcile and connect (or in some cases take the dispute to a new level…). Today the internet, cell phones with no long distance charges, Facebook, and Twitter allow connectivity on a massive scale. These items would seem like witchcraft to the island pioneers. The isolation of the past is gone. The line between “Island local” and “summer person” is blurred. There is a lot of crossovers.
On the islands, technology brought Islanders together as early as the 1890s. Phones were put in between Put-in-Bay and Middle Bass Island by early island residents Valentine Doller and Count William Rehberg. But they could never have imagined the technology to come. During their first interisland call, Rehberg and Doller started their conversation in English and about half was through drifted into German (their native tongue). Rehberg stopped their conversation and said, “Isn’t this amazing?” Doller responded, “That you are and I are talking and that you are on Middle Bass and I am on Put in Bay?” “No” responded Rehberg, “That this device works in German and English!” They used the telephone to wish each other “Happy New Year” for many years.
The highlight of New Year’s Eve at the Town Hall was the balloon drop at midnight. I kissed my bride and then we joined Christy and Cliff in popping the fallen balloons. The dance floor looked like it was full of little Godzilla’s stomping on buses in downtown Tokyo. The Fulton/ Ontko’s and Meredith Engel are superb hosts. The fresh eggs served on New Year’s Day were delicious. To our friends on Middle Bass, “Happy New Years Eve!” To our friends on Put-in-Bay, thanks for taking in “party orphans”!