We weren’t sure that we were ever going live this one down. It was the biggest scandal in island history or at least for a month or two. We still call it Clamscam. The island is always looking for some sort of a healing event and that year was so bad that the annual I’m Sorry That I Called You a Jerk on Broadway in July in Front of Twenty-five Tourists But I Was Stressed Out dinner wasn’t going to quite do it this time. It all started the fall before when half the town decided that the other half did not deserve the right to vote, and according to Massachusetts law, each challenge had to be put through a judicial process. It took many months, $125,000 in legal fees, 684 cases of beer and a hell of a lot of fighting to clear it up, if you can call it that. In the end the only name that was removed from the voting list was Uncle Milty Jameson, who has been dead since 1974. (It might be interesting to note here that the vote tally at town meeting, even this past year, has always been numbered to include Uncle Milty, and may well in the future for all we know.)
So that following June when Radcliff Robbins came up with the idea for an all-island clambake complete with lobsters and live music, just about everybody went for it. The bake would take place on the first Friday night in August and tickets would be $12. Simple enough. To add to the drama, Radcliff asked that he be allowed to announce the bake at all three denominational Sunday services at the Congregational Church where he also announced that 25 per cent of proceeds would go to the church fund for a new roof. Incentive for sure. (This was also momentous in the fact that it was the first time that Radcliff had ever set foot inside the church.) Now the bake had reached mega all-island, all-healing status and everybody was pretty excited. There was plenty of speculation of course. Will the Rankins show up if the Bunkers do? Should we ban political debate? Should we ban conversation completely? Isn’t it wonderful that Raddy is making such an effort?
Radcliff was born and raised on the island and spent his years in the island school as the only student. From about third grade on he began describing himself as a drug dealer and a pimp “in hard times” while not being really sure what a pimp was. The closest thing to meaningful work that Radcliff has ever been accused of was scouring the beaches every morning looking for bales of pot that had been thrown overboard by the “dope boats” with the Coast Guard in hot pursuit. Every once in awhile you could smell the telltale dust bunny and dog-hair-laden joint that some Grebe college kid was smoking, most remembered for its signature post-high migraine. Radcliff and his dog, Tugboat, (who had the disgusting habit of sneaking up on tourists and goosing them just to hear them scream) broke the bales out onto his living room floor to dry, which is the only time the rug ever got cleaned. Lots of fun for Tug, though.
Well, the last anybody saw of Radcliff was on that first Friday morning in August at about 5 a.m. down at the dock with a duffle bag over his shoulder jumping into a waiting cigarette boat which stealthily roared out the channel with all the money. The only other thing we heard about him that day was that some barfly from the mainland came on the ferry to claim Dotty’s mail jeep which he had won in a raffle held by Radcliff at the National Club in New Bedford. Dotty is the postmistress and our only hope when we get sick or hurt, and Radcliff’s mother and her jeep only ran in reverse because it had about a million miles on it when the government gave it to her but she loved the look of it in the driveway anyway and had no intention of letting it go anywhere. Which it didn’t, but the barfly did, on the very next boat out. Tail between his legs no doubt.
It was quite a scramble but the clambake did go on as announced and the town did come together as hoped. The Lord works in mysterious ways. There was no choice. Somebody had to bail out the church. Dickie donated lobsters, A.P. and Bung dug some clams and 14 variations on the mac and cheese theme showed up, including deep fried (yum). A huge pile of Rice Krispie treats appeared, and though in the interest of peace no alcohol or vegetables were allowed, there were lots of trips to behind the beach rose bushes for vegetables. Kippy Ryan came with his boom box and a single Queen tape which played over and over in my head for a month. There was plenty of conversation to go around but none about politics or who should or should not vote or who was a bigger jerk than whom. Raddie got it all, his 15 minutes of fame and then some. Well earned, it was a beautiful thing.
Stories filter back to the island about Radcliff. We have no idea if they’re true or not and it didn’t really matter once he became some kind of folk hero to the young and aspiring.
My favorite is the one about him being stopped in Mattapoisett wearing scuba goggles instead of a windshield during a blizzard in his 1983 Caddy. The trooper did not have a sense of humor and arrested him on the spot. It was eight degrees out and snowing and blowing and he had to deal with a lunatic and a huge hound dog freezing to death in the back seat.
I’d like to think there is a profound lesson here, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is. I think instead of trying to extract some great piece of wisdom from all this I should be more concerned with the fact that this perfectly true, perfectly outrageous story seems perfectly normal to me.
Well, there is one thing. Never turn your back on Tug.
Will Monast and his wife Leslei live in West Tisbury. They washed ashore after spending 25 years on Cuttyhunk raising four children, but that’s another story.