Should Newport go convention big time?

“The Breakers,’’ Newport’s most famous mansion: Big, but not big enough for a national convention.

“The Breakers,’’ Newport’s most famous mansion: Big, but not big enough for a national convention.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

In the summer, of course, Newport is packed, but not in the winter. As Bob Curley, writing in Newport Life, noted in an article about hotels in the City by the Sea: “Newport has a classic resort town problem: not enough hotel rooms in the high season — when hotel occupancy tops 90 percent — and not enough visitors to fill those rooms in the off-season, when occupancy drops to about 40 percent.’’

So some people have long pushed to have a really major (500 guestrooms and big meeting halls for plenary sessions, etc.) convention-center style hotel to draw major national and even international meetings, and so many more visitors, year round. (The Newport tourist season, has, it is true, been lengthening in recent years, in part because of the proliferation of events created at least in part to snare more tourists and other visitors year round.)

A convention center might make economic sense, but would most Newporters want a lot more people in the off-season?

Mr. Curley notes that Newport now has about 2,360 hotel rooms (though more are soon to come), while the subtropical old East Coast tourist cities of Savannah (with 10,000 rooms) and Charleston (with 13,000) have many more. But is tight little Newport set up to handle a huge increase, even if it can get it despite that little cold snap called winter? Maybe. It handled thousands of sailors back when it hosted the Navy’s destroyer fleet.

To read Mr. Curley’s article, please hit this link.

Larry Ellison High School?

Larry Ellison’s Beechwood estate, in Newport.

Larry Ellison’s Beechwood estate, in Newport.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in

Jim Gillis of the Newport Daily News created a bit of a flap in his Feb. 14 column, headlined “Spare Change: Here’s an idea for moneybags Larry Ellison’’. Mr. Gillis was responding to news that the Oracle mogul Ellison, ranked the fifth-richest person in America, with a fortune of over $62 billion, has bought a fourth estate in the City by the Sea, this one called Seacliff. His most important Newport property is the old Astor estate called Beechwood, on which he’s spent $100 million to turn it into an art museum.

Mr. Gillis suggests -- partly in jest? -- that a better use of Mr. Ellison’s money would be for him to spend $120 million to build a new high school to replace Newport’s aging Rogers High School. He writes:

“Heck, lots of multi-billionaires own mansions. How many build their own schools? Sure, the city would operate the place. All you need do is bankroll construction. Hey, maybe other local celebrity rich folk like Jay Leno and Judge Judy might chip in a few shekels.

“The high school has been named for William S. Rogers since before any of us were alive, predating the current location.

“We love tradition here. But for $120 million, I suppose Larry Ellison High School sounds pretty good.’’

To read Mr. Gillis’s column, please hit this link:

Well, Larry Ellison and other new and long-entrenched Newport celebrities do pay lots of property taxes. And, God bless ‘em, the three folks whom Mr. Gillis mentioned at least made made their own money rather than being the beneficiaries of inheritance (what the late, crude Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci called “the lucky sperm club’’). And they can spend their money any damn way they want.

But wouldn’t it be nice if more very rich people contributed to public services rather than seeming to want to wrap themselves more tightly in glamour and prestige by giving money to, say, already rich museums and private colleges?

For example, MarketWatch reported that “20 colleges {most of them elite private institutions} that received the most money in donations during the last fiscal year accounted for about 28% of the total $46.73 billion donated to universities during that period. They serve just 1.6% of the nation’s 19.9 million undergraduate students. That’s based on an analysis of the annual Voluntary Support for Education survey, published by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a membership association for professionals working in development, alumni relations and related fields for educational institutions.’’

Seaside social trauma

Bailey's Beach after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, with "Rejects' Beach'' in the foreground.

Bailey's Beach after Superstorm Sandy in 2012, with "Rejects' Beach'' in the foreground.

From Robert Whitcomb's "Digital Diary,'' in

U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democrat, and Democrats pride themselves on representing a wider range of ethnic and socio-economic groups than Republicans, who, whatever their populist rhetoric, in practice display a special affection for the rich. Democrats present themselves as particularly sensitive to the needs and aspirations of low-and-middle-income people and ethnic minorities.

The senator is gearing up for his re-election campaign in 2018.

So the senator may feel himself in a quandary about the all-white, all-rich Bailey’s Beach club, in Newport. (The official name is the Spouting Rock Beach Association.)

He has a  very close association with the club as a former member and through his wife’s continuing membership.  He has many friends there. Furthermore, the club is  very conveniently close to their Newport house.

Freedom of association is a wonderful thing and a cousin of the First Amendment, but for practical political reasons – i.e., “the optics’’ – Mr. Whitehouse, who is very much part of the old WASP aristocracy, will presumably face considerable political pressure to separate himself from such a symbol of exclusion as the campaign heats up. It’s his business of course. And his capacity to be agood senator would seem little affected one way or the other. But Bailey’s will come upnext year, though he’ll almost certainly be re-elected.

I have been to Bailey’s Beach and found the members I metthere cool,  cordial and quiet. But as a reminder of the fragility of all human institutions, an overly fragrant mass of seaweed covered much of the lower beach that day.

The vanity of human constructions

-- Photo by Charles Pinning

-- Photo by Charles Pinning

One of my father’s ways of showing his love for his family was to build things of quality and permanence, things that he had  had precious little of growing up.

The swing set in our backyard didn’t lift or shift, no matter how hard you swung, because my father built it himself out of iron pipe, sinking all four posts into the ground and encasing them in cement. He did the same to support the roof he built over the patio, and when he decided to erect a flagpole in the front yard, iron, steel and cement were materials of choice.

I don’t recall any discussion about putting in the flagpole, rather that it just started going up one day. Some of our neighbors had flagpole holders affixed on the front of their houses, but we were the only ones on our street with an actual flagpole in the front yard.

I felt embarrassed when I saw what my father was up to. Even as a 10-year old, I thought it over-the-top to have something that would be more at home in front of the White House than standing in front of our modest Cape Cod-style dwelling.

I do remember my father being very ingenious about how he engineered the project. He set the four-foot-high I-beam steel base in cement. He let me write my name with a twig in the cement. The next day he took his white-painted (carefully primed and then covered with three coats of enamel) steel pole with the gold ball on top—the thing had to have been 20 feet tall—and he attached it to the base, running two thick bolts through the base and pole, and then he hoisted the thing vertical with the block and tackle that you use to run up the flag, tightened the bolts, and voila!—we had Newport’s most imposing residential flagpole.

For awhile, the flag was run up and down daily, but that finally sputtered out because my father insisted that the rules of raising,  lowering and folding it be adhered to, and Good Lord, even though he was in the military, his wife and children weren’t.

My older brother was a Boy Scout and got into the whole flag bit for a while, but even he eventually tired of it. The whole thing humiliated me. I recognized that this was just too much of a display of patriotism. Wasn’t it enough to live in the United States and be a good citizen? Did you really have to have this huge flagpole in front of your house?

Nonetheless, the durability of the setup was not lost on me, like the swing set and the patio roof. I admired my father’s diligent workmanship, but unfortunately, it over-influenced my adult life.

Early in my first marriage, there was the badminton net I was going to put up on the front lawn of my in-law’s house. I went to the lumber yard and bought two really beefy wooden posts, big enough to support a heavy fence, and using a post-hole digger, sunk them into the front yard. When my mother-in-law set eyes upon them she rightly said that they had to come out.

Can you imagine? Preparing a badminton court that would survive all but an aerial bombing! And then there was the exterior door I salvaged off the street to put in the doorway to the study of my New York apartment. The thing weighed at least a hundred pounds. What was I thinking?

I recently drove back to Newport and pulled up in front of my boyhood home. The flagpole was gone, but damned if that I-beam base wasn’t still there. The current owners had a bird bath mounted on top of the base.

Feeling around the bottom of it, I pulled back some grass and found the cement and my etched name. My fingertips grazing lovingly over this ruin of ancient Newport revealed all that is ever permanent about the past -- the intent of what we build. (See photo above.)

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based writer.


North of the bugs?

"Pine Ledge'' (oil on lexan), by James Mullen, at Alpers Fine Art, Andover, Mass.

"Pine Ledge'' (oil on lexan), by James Mullen, at Alpers Fine Art, Andover, Mass.


Excerpted from Robert Whitcomb'sDec. 1 "Digital Diary'' column.

I stopped off at an old friend’s office in Newport, N.H., the other day for lunch.  Now retired as a CEO, he moved his company’s headquarters up there from Connecticut long ago. I asked my friend whether he had made any trips to the tropics lately and whether he’ll go south this winter. He has plenty of time and money to do so.

He said absolutely not: Travel is tiresome and he prefers to live far enough north to avoid tropical diseases and poisonous snakes. He has houses in Newport (N.H.) and Bar Harbor, Maine.

Some small solace to New Englanders fearing the onrushing winter – it’s healthier here?


Charles Pinning: Film avant garde in our Newport backyard

A recent ad for something called the Newport Outdoor Film Series reminded me that my childhood was not solely a medieval horror show of spankings and more subtle tortures. It was also imbued with moments of the avant garde. Film and children are eminently well-suited to taking a healthy whack at the status quo. Startling and immediate, both can leave us speechless.

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s my naval officer father was stationed on several ships in Newport. In the officer’s wardroom they screened movies, and before the film had to be returned he would sometimes bring it home and we’d have movie night in the backyard.

Neighbors were invited and we put out folding canvas chairs and chaise lounges, and some people brought their own. There was iced tea and Narragansett Beer and ginger ale and snacks.

We watched ShaneGone With the Wind and other classics.  On the night I am about to describe it was going to be Around the World in 80 Days.

My father set up his big projector, swinging open the arms and snapping the take-up reel into place. Then he removed the film reel from the round metal canister, both reels as big as the steering wheel on our Pontiac station wagon, and snapped it onto the other arm. Then came the careful threading of the film between the rollers and onto the take-up reel.

The screen, its  surface pearlescent and surprisingly abrasive, was set up in front of our huge, globular Japanese cherry tree.

It was turning dark now, and the kids’ running around began to slow, the chatter of the adults grew softer and sound of the crickets in the field behind the cherry tree began to rise up.

My father’s voice: “All right everyone. The movie is about to begin!”

I sat down in my canvas chair. Connie Hayes, who lived next door and had one of Newport’s foremost Barbie doll collections, sat to my right, and to my left, Chrissie Blank, a bonnie little tomboy with bangs if ever there was. They were my best friends.

And suddenly it began, the mechanical clicking and flutter of the celluloid winding its way at 24 frames per second through the projector’s sprockets and the cone of light splitting the darkness, carrying the image to the screen, first the leader countdown flashing the numerals with a beep for each: 5…4…3…2…1...And then!

I’d never been out of the United States, and leaned forward to meet Victorian fussbudget Phileas Fogg and his exotic valet, Passepartout.  Beginning in London, they made the wager and readied themselves for their journey around the world, first stop Paris. Paris! Where they climbed into the basket of a colorful hot air balloon with streamers. Up they went, floating above the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. As they sailed over France, they crossed the Alps and Passepartout leaned over and scooped an armload of snow off a mountain peak.

It was at that moment, timing perfect, that a little gust of wind rose up and the screen blew over! Suddenly, there was Phileas Fogg and Passepartout in their hot air balloon sailing across our cherry tree, leaving behind the screen’s confines.

We sat transfixed, and in the half minute before my father was able to right the screen, nobody complained. We were being transported someplace we’d never been before, discovering by accident a new way of seeing.

Isn’t that just the way life is? By trying something just a little different, getting the film projector outside on a summer evening, the stage was set for a gust of wind to usher in a movie projected against a tree. And what could’ve been more perfect than the image to be a hot-air balloon in the sky?

Our faces were aglow and we were letting go, living the free life with Phileas Fogg and Passepartout. Living our cutting-edge life in little Newport many decades before the avant garde began projecting video against buildings and, yes, trees. There we were in the season that favors accidents, racing at the speed of light into the future.

Charles Pinning, of Providence, is a novelist and an occasional contributor to New England Diary.

Dark thoughts in a black tie

We went to a black-tie  fund-raising dinner  for a nonprofit (Trinity Rep) last night in Newport. It may be my last after having attended dozens of these events over the years.

Yet again, I ask myself: Why not ditch these interminable, loud and often pompous affairs and just send money to these fine  and always needy  nonprofit outfits? (And I'm more conscious of the  cost of going to these things these days because I no longer have a regular salaried job and because for 30 years I'd be, in effect, ordered to go to them by companies that employed me that would usually pay my tab.  Corporate PR.)

Last night was the usual claustrophobic march from cocktails to the much too long general remarks and then the introductions of the prize winners of the night, in this case  of some Pell Awards for the Arts. The introducers, as  typical at these things, talked too much about themselves as we sat in folding chairs in a wind-battered tent. But a couple of the prize winners (whom I think might consider us semi-personal friends -- why we attended) were admirably concise in their acceptance remarks.

I was again surprised by the four-letter words and other reflections of the growing crudeness of our society in the remarks of some of the speakers. Depressing. But seeing how much some people had aged since I last saw them elicited my zoological interest. It recalled Proust's description of the old men and women in the last part of In Search of Lost Time whom he had known when they were young and fresh.

Then  we went to the  usual skimpy catered meal, in which the  (very cheery) waiters seem to have been rigorously instructed to give diners the very minimum amount of wine. And then we were one night older....

-- Robert Whitcomb


Charles Pinning: Easter memories of Molly


 Statue of Rochambeau in  Newport.

When my father changed jobs, he and my mother moved hundreds of miles away. I was 15 and stayed behind, boarding at St. George’s School in Middletown, R.I., where I had been a day student.

I had a girlfriend a couple miles away, in  Newport, whom I would visit on weekends. We would walk along the harbor at King Park, near where she lived with her mother. Close by the water’s edge we often lingered around the statue of Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau, commander of the French forces so instrumental in helping the former colonists win the Revolutionary War.

“You are so lucky to have lived in Paris,” I told Molly. I had never been out of the U.S. before.

Molly had no immediate response, which was not unusual for her. In fact, it was something that I’d grown very much to like.

Molly had long dark hair, long legs, freckles and was partial to miniskirts. She had almond-shaped, hazel eyes that she outlined in mascara that gave her a deep and pensive look, but her sudden, toothy Irish smile could transform her whole face into bright sunshine.

Our time together always flew by. We wrote each other love letters and poems and sent them via U.S. Mail, so quaint by today’s standards.

“My parents split up when we came back here from Paris,” she said.

“I know,” I replied, and squeezed her hand.

On a Saturday in February, I went over to her house for dinner. Her mother, brother and sister were there. Vietnamese skirmishes and body counts were on the television news, as they were every night. I vowed that I would never go.

“Why, that would be unpatriotic,” said her mother. The year was 1967, and many adults in the United States still felt that way.

“But look at them getting shot at!” I said, gesturing to the TV. “Why would I want to get killed for nothing?”

“I would hardly call it for nothing,” said her brother.

“Really?” I asked. “Then could you please tell me why Americans are getting killed there?”

“Have you ever heard of communism?” said Molly’s sister.

“Yes. And do you think if a teeny, faraway country like Vietnam becomes communist it’s going to hurt us?”

“Could you please stop?” Molly asked me.

“What? Stop using my brain?”

“No. Start.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“When are you planning on getting a haircut?” asked her mother beneath her helmet of perfectly coiffed hair.

“No time soon,” I replied sullenly.

Easter was almost upon us but Molly mentioned nothing about it. I assumed that I’d be joining her family for dinner and brought it up.

“That won’t be happening,” she said.


“You’re persona non grata. My family doesn’t like you.”

“Because of last week?” I asked

“You were angry and upsetting.”

“I wasn’t angry. I was passionate! There is a difference!”

“And they saw us arguing.”

“We weren’t arguing. We had a few words. Doesn’t everyone do that from time to time?”

“Not in front of other people.”

“Am I to be crucified for it? How do you feel about not spending Easter together?” Molly lowered her eyes and shrugged.


On Easter Sunday, I didn’t want to be seen alone around school, so I walked to half-town and bought a blueberry muffin and walked the rest of the way into Newport, winding up at the statue of the Comte de Rochambeau.

Unwrapping my muffin I saw something in the water. It was a white seal looking at me with dark, glossy eyes that were curious and compassionate. I started crying, missing my family and Molly.

The seal watched me and I heard in my head my mother’s voice: “Don’t be mad at Molly. She’s in an awkward position. It’s Easter, and I want you to be happy. Why not write a story about this? You’ll feel better.”

I grumbled and finished my muffin. Even at 15 I was a bit of a curmudgeon. Now, decades later, I’ve finally written the story and I do feel better. Somewhat. And I do still like a muffin, and thinking about Molly.

Charles Pinning is a Providence-based novelist who still procrastinates but plans on getting better.

Charles Pinning: 'When what you want comes to you'


"Hope'' (oil and gold leaf on panel), by ELLEN GRANTER, at Alpers Fine Art, Andover, Mass.

I was devastated! I’d given Lisa Goodrich a Valentine’s Day card and a box of chocolates, and she could barely say thank you before shoving them into her book bag and hurrying off to her mother’s waiting Cadillac.

I walked home from school and must have looked as dejected as I felt, for as I approached our house, Anna Pasch, who lived next door, came out of hers and asked me what was wrong.


“That’s not true,” she said.

“I gave a Valentine’s Day card to this girl in my class and she just put it in her book bag and walked away.”

Anna slung her arm around my shoulders. “C’mon inside and have some banana bread.”

Halfway through my second slice, Anna got it out of me that it was Lisa Goodrich and that I’d also given her a box of chocolates.

“Oh, boy,” sighed Anna.

I made a wounded animal sound.

“Will you do me a favor? asked Anna. “Will you be my Valentine?”

My older brother was slapping English Leather on his face in preparation for his Valentine’s night out with his girlfriend.

“I’m taking Sally to the Pier,” he said. The Pier was a fancy restaurant on the harbor in downtown Newport.

“I’m going to the White Horse Tavern,” I said.

“Yeah, sure.”

“Anna’s taking me.”

My brother stopped. “What is it with you two, anyway?”

“I—” but before I could say anything he cut me off.

“Anna Pasch is the most gorgeous creature in Newport, possibly the entire United States. I’ve asked her out. Everybody has asked her out, and my fourteen year old brother is the only person she’ll go out with. I’ve asked you this before and I am asking you again: What do you two do together?”


“That’s impossible! Two people cannot do nothing together! Did you tell Mom and Dad?”

“Not yet.”

“They’ll let you go. They love her. You’ve never been to the White Horse.”


“Well, you better start getting ready. It’s very fancy.”

“As fancy as The Pier?”


“Can I borrow one of your ties?”


Anna and I sat at a round table in front of the fireplace in the barroom. I wore my blue blazer, plaid bell bottoms and loafers. I took a tie of my brothers anyway. He had so many he wouldn’t even notice, if I put it back just right.

Anna looked like a movie star. Sixteen years old and over six feet tall, her effect was always impressive. Add to that her sapphire-blue eyes and bright blonde hair, perfect complexion and Wonder Woman body and basically everyone in view was dropping dead.

Anna’s uncle was a manager at the White Horse, hence the table in front of the fireplace and the immediate tendering of two flute glasses of French ginger ale.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart,” Anna toasted, and after our first sip she kissed me. Her lipstick smelled like roses, made somehow more red and fragrant by the snow falling outside the windows, the candlelight and burning wood.

“Charlie, Lisa Goodrich will waste your time and break your heart. Her family came over on the Mayflower, and they think all that crap is actually important. She is cute but she’s conventional. Lisa will always be about Lisa.

“You are intense and you are smart. And you are sensitive. If you try to please Lisa Goodrich, your edge will dull. Did she wiggle her tail for you?”

Stifling a laugh, I aspirated ginger ale out my nose.

“A female does that to attract and then sort out the possibilities and you’ve been rejected. Consider yourself lucky. She’ll eventually settle on Barclay Belmont, or someone like him. You, as a male, are wired to fight for her and try to control her, even though actual life has surpassed the slow steps of biological evolution.”

“Wow.” I said wow a lot when I was around Anna.

“My love, you don’t win something by conquering it. You win when what you want comes to you.”

Before we got out of Anna’s yellow Mustang convertible, we kissed. Anna and I had a way of getting lost in our kisses. We could let one kiss just go on and on, breathing in out of each other. Our lips had fit together perfectly from the start.

She took my hand. “Here. Feel my heart. Can you feel it beating?”

“Wow.” I’d never felt anything like that before.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart. All we have to do is be ourselves and the world is ours. It will be easy for us, if you let it.”

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel, “Irreplaceable.”




Charles Pinning: A scary story and then a sad one

They scared trick-or-treaters by enacting horrifying scenes in the foyer of their old Victorian house in Newport. There was Mrs. Mesto (not her real name), draped across a table with her arm chopped off, a bloody ax on the floor, or Mr. Mesto swinging from a noose.

I took piano lessons from Mrs. Mesto, and Mr. Mesto worked at a shoe store on Broadway, but they inhabited other skins on Halloween, convincingly portraying vampires and ax murderers, mummies and zombies. Every year it was something gruesomely different, and we couldn’t wait to get to their house, grab our candy from a table inside the door and run off the porch screaming!

The Mestos were older than my parents and didn’t have any children. Mr. Mesto was slender and of average height, the kind of man whom you might call pleasant-looking, but without any memorable characteristics. He would fit me for school shoes every year, measuring my foot in the metal frame with a sliding scale that I doubt is used anymore.

I took piano lessons from Mrs. Mesto, twice weekly walking up the hill to their house. She was pleasant-looking also, black hair beginning to be laced with gray that she wore pulled back in a bun, a trim figure, a clear complexion. Her nose was very straight. Most notable were her hands, which I had ample opportunity to observe at each lesson. Her fingers were delicate and touched each key with a mesmerizing stroking motion. My attention was often diverted from the lesson to her hands, and she would nudge me awake with her shoulder.

The days approaching Halloween were warm and damp, rich with the fragrance of decomposing leaves on the still-warm earth. The Mestos hired a man to rake the big yellow leaves from their side yard that fell, big as pie plates, from a towering Norway maple. He did odd jobs, including going from house to house in the summer, a stone sharpening wheel leather-strapped on his back to sharpen knives and scissors.

The evening of Halloween, I went out early because the year before I’d missed out on some good candy. At the Mestos’ I climbed the porch alone. The front door was ajar and I pushed it open. Mr. Mesto was dressed in a top hat and tails and Mrs. Mesto was a ballerina. She was bleeding from the mouth and Mr. Mesto took both her hands in his and squeezed them. Mrs. Mesto began screaming at the same time the bones cracked.

I grabbed my candy and flew off the porch!

When I met up with friends later and compared candy, I asked what the Mestos were supposed to be, and they said the Mestos’ house was dark and they weren’t giving out anything.

The next week, my mother told me Mrs. Mesto had to go away to take care of her mother, who was old and lived in Maine. She signed me up with another teacher, but I didn’t like her and quit taking lessons.

I glimpsed Mr. Mesto once or twice after Halloween, but then I didn’t see him again. The next time I went to get shoes, he wasn’t there and somebody new fitted me.

The side yard to the Mestos’ house went uncut and the leaves didn’t get raked anymore. The paint began peeling and rainwater ran over the gutters. It was always dark at night. Nobody lived there that I could tell.

It was vacant for years. I went up on the porch once and peered through a parlor window. All the furnishings were there, including the piano where I’d learned with Mrs. Mesto, but everything was dusty.

Years later, I brought the subject up to my mother. “Whatever happened?” I asked.

“Such a sad story,” said my mother. “Mr. Mesto accused her of having an affair with Neddy Sullivan, you remember: he used to come around and sharpen knives and scissors in the summer. But that was impossible.”

“What do you mean it was impossible?”

“I went to school with Neddy’s sister, and he was wounded in the war and came back, well, you know, he couldn’t make love anymore.”

“So, whatever happened to Mrs. Mesto?”

“Nobody knows what happened to either of them. They just moved away.”

“How sad,” I said.

“Yes. Very sad,” said my mother. “She was a lovely person. And she had the most beautiful hands. I always thought that if she hadn’t left, you never would’ve quit the piano.”

“That’s quite possible,” I mused, also remembering Mrs. Mesto’s hands and fingers, as I did far more often than one might consider natural. But then, I had good reason.

Charles Pinning, a writer and photographer, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”

Charles Pinning: In '63, encountering a music legend to be

  Deep in the summer of 1963, my world consisted of two things: baseball and cars. I lived in Newport. When I was 11 years old and wasn’t playing for my Little League team, I’d wend my way up to Vernon Playground, often stopping at my friend Buddy’s house to snag him. After several hours playing pick-up ball under the blazing sun, we’d backtrack down Bliss Road and head into Koozy’s (Kuznit’s), our neighborhood corner store, for sodas and packs of baseball cards with bubble gum. If the Newport Folk or Jazz Festival was on, we’d head up to Broadway to watch the cars rolling into town. Between the Newport Hospital Nursing School and Rhode Island Avenue, there was a stone wall that rose up six feet above the sidewalk, shaded by two enormous beech trees. Buddy and I climbed the steps to the front lawn of the house and planted ourselves on the wall, our legs dangling over so we could get a good view of the cars coming down Broadway into downtown Newport. “Porsche,” intoned Buddy, making the first identification. The idea was to see how early you could tell what kind of car it was coming. “Jag, XK 120,” I jumped in. “Sting Ray ... Sunbeam Alpine.” “Healey 3000 ... Citroën.” Because of the music festivals in Newport, you got a sudden influx of foreign cars, filled with kool kats, hep cats, berets, long hair, depending on whether it was the Jazz or Folk Festival. We first spied the big-finned Cadillac as it passed DeCotis’s Barbershop, steam billowing out from under the hood, and it pulled over right below us. It had New York plates and the driver, a solid, middle-age man with glasses, stepped out and popped the hood. A skinny, college-age guy with curly hair that was almost fluffed up into a pompadour got out of the backseat. He looked up at us and then leaned against the wall, watching the steam rise out of the engine compartment. The man in front of the hood called to us: “You boys know where there’s a service station?” “Yep. You just passed a Mobil station up there,” I said pointing. “Right before that barbershop.” The man told the skinny guy that he was going up there. The skinny guy said, “OK. I’ll wait here.” Then a woman, about the skinny guy’s age, with long dark hair, got out of the back of the car. She looked up at us and said, “Hi.” She had pretty eyes and a nice smile. The skinny guy looked up at Buddy and said, “Kid, can I have a sip of your soda. I’m dying a thirst.” Buddy hesitated then said OK, and handed down the bottle of RC. The guy took a couple of  good slugs and handed it back. “That was good,” he said. “Thanks.” The woman looked at me with her big brown eyes, so I handed her my bottle and she took a swig. The skinny guy took out a pack of cigarettes and asked us if we wanted one. We glanced at each other and said, sure. The skinny guy shook the pack and out popped  a couple of Lucky Strikes. Buddy took a drag and started coughing. I held my smoke in my cheeks. The skinny guy went to the car and pulled a guitar case out of the backseat. He and the woman came up and sat down next to us on the wall. “You guys like folk music?” he asked. “It’s OK” I said. “But I prefer rock ’n’ roll.” “No kidding? Electric guitar?” he asked, and looked hard at me with his blue eyes as if he was actually thinking about what I’d said. Then he began playing a song. His guitar playing was good, but his voice was just terrible! Buddy and I looked at each other as he screeched, “The answer my friend, is blowin’ in the wind, the answer is blowin’ in the wind .... ” But when the woman chimed in, she had a voice like an angel, high and pure. Then he played “This Land is Your Land,” and we had fun singing that together. When the older guy got back with a jug of water for the radiator, the skinny guy put his guitar away and thanked us for sharing our sodas. So did the woman and she got back in the car. Before the skinny guy got in, he turned to us. “Hey, what are your names?” he asked. I told him, “I’m Chuck and that’s Buddy.” “Well, OK, Chuck and Buddy. I’m Bob, and I guess that’s about it. Good luck.” With a blast of the Caddy’s horn they pulled away and Buddy and I went back to our car spotting, making jokes about what a horrible singer Bob was. Of course, our estimation of him was destined to change over the next few years. Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.” While he is a fiction writer, he insists that the above story is true.

Charles Pinning: Looking for independence on Independence Day

We found the prodigious piece of driftwood on the shore, bleached bone white and tumbled smooth, once a stout tree of more than 6 feet, now our proud possession.“We can burn it at the Fourth of July fireworks party,” said Jessie. Jessie lived in Little Compton, R.I., and I lived in Newport, 45 minutes away, and we had just completed the ninth grade. We’d known each other since the fifth grade, when Jessie started taking the bus into Newport to attend the same grade school as I did, St. Michael’s. She was quiet and shy and my height. She had long, dark hair and hazel eyes, and when she opened her mouth she always said something worth listening to, in my opinion. Even my sarcastic older brother gave her the thumbs up. “Still waters run deep,” he said knowingly. She was the only girl I’d ever kissed on the lips, with intent, and she had been my girlfriend ever since. My mother approved of Jessie, which was rare, because my mother didn’t approve of any girls, especially Irish girls who lived in the Fifth Ward. She thought the Irish were big boozers. Back then, the Fifth Ward in Newport was a poor section of town and my mother felt superior, even though she was the daughter of Portuguese immigrants and had grown up on a farm. Jessie was half-Irish, but she didn’t live in the Fifth Ward and her family was old and prominent in Rhode Island. To visit Jessie, I took the bus to Portsmouth and got off before it veered toward the Mount Hope Bridge and Bristol. Her mother picked me up, Jessie waving from the passenger seat of their blue and white Ford station wagon. The three of us packed in tight on the bench seat listened to the radio that was hopefully playing a good song (Beatles, Rolling Stones, etc.), and sang along with it. Way out on West Main Road in Little Compton, we stopped at Walker’s vegetable stand for some fresh-picked strawberries and then continued out to Jessie’s big shingled house on Sakonnet Point. On Sunday, we went to church together, but it was Episcopalian and not nearly as repressive as going to a Catholic church. On the Fourth, we played catch on the broad front lawn in front of Jessie’s house, then we bicycled down along the edge of Round Pond ringed with grasses and cattails, and up the narrow road between the honeysuckle and wild roses and rosa rugosa, coasting down the packed gravel hill to Tappen’s Beach. We checked to make sure our log was okay, then we walked down to Warren’s Point where we went behind our favorite rock and made out for a while. As usual, I started coughing. “Your Catholic guilt cough” said Jessie. “Do you think you’re going to Hell when we finally have sex?” “Probably,” I laughed. “Unless we’re married.” “I really hope you don’t believe that,” she said. I smiled, as if to say of course I didn’t. But the truth was that my brain was a tangle of my parents’ fears and the thought control-power madness of the Catholic Church, corkscrewed into me from early childhood. After dunking, we gathered smaller sticks and pieces of driftwood to put under the log, which we encircled with big stones. We climbed up on a lifeguard stand and the light turned rosy on Jessie’s face. We held hands and our hands glowed. I kissed her hand upon which she wore a ring that matched mine. A flotilla of brown ducks bobbed in the light surf near the shore. Some of them were just ducklings the size of little rubber ducks. “Are they trying to make a beachhead?” I asked. “Or do you think they are feeding? Or training the babies?” “Look at the little one that’s behind. Here comes the mama to bring it back in line,” said Jess. Families began showing up and some of our friends. Picnic food and drinks were put out on folding tables and barbecues were set up. We lit the fire under the log. I wished my parents were here, but the truth was, it would be less fun. My father couldn’t relax. He was forever critical of too much noise and running around and people not doing things correctly, and my mother wanted to know where I was all the time. Honestly, Jessie’s parents didn’t ride herd on her at all. They just let her be. Our driftwood log burned impressively, snapping and sparkling and we stood with others, silhouettes in the wavering orange light of its flames. In the shorelit darkness, we drifted up into the dunes. Lying down we looked up at a skyful of stars. I wondered if God was watching us, when suddenly there was a long hissing whistle followed by a loud boom! Red and then white and then blue fireworks began exploding and lighting up the sky. I felt Jessie’s hand. “Happy Independence Day,” she whispered.

Charles Pinning, an occasional contributor, is the author of the Rhode Island-based novel “Irreplaceable.”

Charles Pinning: A separate peace in Newport


An enemy ambush had separated me from my battalion and I was alone in the field. Crouching in the tall grass, I took a long pull from my canteen and wiped my lips. The noon sun was beating down and I would have to handle my water carefully. I squeezed some dirt and smeared it on my face for camouflage.

A big, orange monarch opened and closed its wings only a foot away. Running to my position, I’d flown past blackberry bushes that had ripped my pants. My goal was to reach the ocean where, hopefully, I would find a landing craft to get me the hell out of here.

I checked my compass and looked up at the sky. In a house at the edge of the field, a woman was hanging laundry on a clothes line. A cherry tree in the yard had lost most of its pink blossoms. There was a small shed in the yard and a sandbox. I squinted back into the field, scanning the tall grass for any movement that might signal the enemy.

I pondered when to make my move.

The woman hanging clothes looked out across the field and I lowered myself. There was no telling whose side she was on. One couldn’t be too careful in these parts.

A funny sound came from a stand of trees and I flattened myself to the ground. Footsteps, many footsteps. I unholstered my .45 and lay still as a corpse. They passed by, without seeing me, not more than 10 feet away.

When I raised myself again to look around, a girl in a red blouse was standing in the yard next to the one where the lady had been hanging clothes. She waved to me. I signaled her to stay quiet and as she retreated into her house I lowered myself back into the grass.

I reached down and touched my leg where the blackberry bush had ripped my pants. When I brought my hand up there was some blood on it. This was not good. The enemy had dogs and the smell of blood would only make me more easily discovered. I fingered the leather handle of my trench knife. I would have to kill the dog first, quickly, with the knife in its throat and then shoot the handler with my .45. That would be loud and, I hoped, unnecessary.

The thing to do now was inch forward on my belly. Slow work, but I would remain invisible as well as be able to spot any mine trip wires.

Suddenly a plane came in low and strafed the field. I drew my helmet down over my head and gritted my teeth as the ground around me jumped up like popcorn, then it was gone. The butterfly opened its wings again on the blade of grass and I took another pull from my canteen and wiped my lips. The water, what was left of it, was warm but I was grateful for it.

From my breast pocket, I withdrew a letter from my wife, Pamela. She said all was well at home and that everyone prayed for me all the time. God, my leg hurt from the blackberry bushes. It was possible a thorn was embedded. I was susceptible to such things, having had blood poisoning twice from thorns.

I missed Pamela. I missed our walks in the neighborhood and I missed riding our bikes together. If I ever got out of this hellhole alive, I’d tell her every day how much I loved her paintings. She’d painted the side of our Pontiac station wagon: flames streaming down the sides from the front wheels.

Now, she was in our house in Newport, probably having lunch. A sandwich. Probably turkey and cheese, her favorite. God, I was getting hungry! And my leg hurt. What if I did have blood poisoning again? And stuck in this hellhole!

Back home, my team might have a baseball game tonight. I played in the Sunset League, an adult league. We played down at Cardines Field just off the bay. Pamela came to all of my games. She brought snacks. After the game, we’d sit in the stands eating celery and peanut butter. She had freckles. God, I loved her freckles. She didn’t like her freckles.

I was probably going to have to make a break for it. Between the blood poisoning in my leg and my hunger, I had to get out of this hellhole!

Slowly, I rose to my knees. I adjusted my helmet strap, checked everything hanging off my equipment belt and made a run for it. I zigzagged through the high grass to make myself a harder target, was almost there when I was hit by machine gun fire. I dove down, knowing I’d have to crawl the rest of the way if I had any hope of making it alive.

But as I dove into the grass, a stiff piece hit me in the eye.


I dropped my rifle and ran toward the backyard. My mother came running out and immediately saw the stalk of grass sticking out of my eye. She threw me in the station wagon and we drove straight to Dr. Grimes’s house, where he’d just sat down for Sunday lunch with his wife and 12 kids.

He brought me into his office at the front of the house and removed the stalk. I was going to live. I was going to be fine. He put a pirate’s patch over my eye.

At home, my mother made me take a bath and then daubed Merthiolate on my scratched leg and put me to bed. She ferried up a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup.

Pamela, who’d heard me screaming earlier, came over and sat on my bed. She brought her sketch pad and drew while I thumbed through a Mad magazine. I thought about how pretty she looked in her red blouse. Suddenly, she crawled up and kissed me on the cheek.

“I don’t want you playing war anymore,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you.”

I sighed. After a rough start, it had become a perfect summer’s day.

 Charles Pinning is  a Providence-based writer and the author of the New England-based novel "Irreplaceable'', about, among other thing, the art world.


Mrs. Pell's traditionalist exit


Beautiful funeral service for Nuala Pell today at Trinity Church in Newport today. Dignified but not stuffy. Emotional but not unctuous.  The Episcopal service's cadence was soothing. There was just one eulogy, by her son Christopher Thomas Hartford Pell,  and that low-key, though he had to stop and collect himself several times. So much history there, too. I sat next to the pew where Washington and QE II sat.
 And even the controversial park next to church designed by Maya Lin did not feel at all controversial on the beautiful morning.
And as usual with funerals of old people (Mrs. Pell got to 89), the atmosphere inside and outside the church was not grim. Her death was treated as a graceful exit after a full life.