Throughout the early part of the 20th Century a fleet of side wheel steamers plied the waters of Boston harbor. The flotilla was reduced to one by a fire in 1919, but the Mayflower ran to Nantasket Beach until 1948. After its decommission its new owner hauled the white-hulled ship close to shore and opened the Showboat for business as a nightclub. An extension to the club’s parking lot landlocked the ship, which became an iconic greeting sight for thousands of family intent on spending a summer day on the long stand of sand, followed by a seafood dinner along Nantasket Avenue, and the amusement rides at Paragon Park.
My father gave a quarter to the first one of his six children to spot the Mayflower. ship.
He was a Mayflower descendant and we joked that the Pilgrims came over in the Showboat.
We never stopped there.
Nightclubs were for adults.
As a teenager the Surf Nantasket superseded the attractions of Paragon Park and every Saturday night we sped down Route 228 to dance to the Techniques, the Mods, the Chosen Few, and the main band the Rockin’ Ramrods, who scored a regional hit with BRIGHT LIGHTS BLUE SKIES and SHE LIED. Sometimes bigger groups like Steppenwolf and the Doors played special concerts for teenagers on the South Shore.
In the fall of 1969 I drove to the ballroom in a VW Beetle that I shared with my brother. He was in college and normally got first shot at the car, but Frunk chose Friday nights to date his girlfriend.
One evening I loaded the car with my sister, her friend, Chuckie Manzi, and a friend just back from Marine boot camp. We drank beers en route, since the Surf only served soft drinks. That evening we danced to the top hits spun by the DJ from WBZ and then watched the band, Shocking Pink. After the Surf closed, the five of us got back in the car for the ride home.
It was 11:30 and traffic was light on Route 228. I sped up to 50 around the curve by the roller coaster. The Mayflower was on the right. The parking lot was empty.
Passing the darkened ship I spotted oncoming headlights. Without any turn signal the big Olds crossed the four-lane state highway. I stamped on the brakes.
Time was radically accelerated by the force of the head-on collision whipping the VW into a spin.
Glass shattered in my face.
impact buckled my door and flung me onto the pavement. Car wheels rolled by my head and then the speed of the present returned to normal.
I sat up.
The steering wheel was in my hand.
The front of the VW had been crumpled by the accident. I ran to the door and peered inside. My sister, her friend, Chuckie, and the marine were cut by glass, but no one was badly injured.
I turned to the Olds. A disheveled woman sat behind the wheel. She was trying to start the engine. I walked over to the car and rapped on her window. She shouted at me to go away. Her voice sounded drunk and strangely mannish.
Several cars stopped to help us.
A young man pulled open the door of the Olds and took away the woman’s keys.
Rubberneckers stared out the window.
Sirens neared the scene of the crash.
“I need to go.” She wobbled after the young man in high heels. They were too small for her feet.
“You’re going nowhere.”
“But I’m late.” She was taller than the young man and me.
“There’s no one in the Showboat. It’s closed.”
“Oh.” Her voice was almost a baritone.
“So you almost killed us to meet someone who wasn’t there.” I had a temper.
“You’re all alive.” The young man pushed me away from the Olds. “That’s the important thing.”
“You’re right.” I looked back at my sister. She gave me a smile. We were alive. The ambulance took her and our friends to the South Shore hospital. The police drove us to the station. They wanted our statement.
“The woman drove into us head-on. No lights or nothing.”
“She said that you drove into her.” The officer was a veteran to teenage crashes on 228. Not a summer passed without a fatality on the road.
“That’s what another man said.”
“Can I go to hospital now?” I wasn’t saying anything more without a lawyer.
Everyone was okay, but later I told my father that there had been something strange about the woman.
“Like she was strange.”
“Like she could have been a man.”
“A woman that could have been a man.” My older brother laughed. “She must have been some kind of ugly.”
“I guess she was.”
Without a car the Surf was too far away from my hometown. That spring I graduated from high school and in the fall attended Boston College. In May my long-haired college friends and I visited Paragon Park for the seasonal opening. We rode the rides and saw the Techniques at the Surf. Both were fun on reefer. None of us went inside the SS Showboat and it burned down in 1979.
This year I searched for any information about the club on Google. There was just a few photos like the rest of my past, but I learned that the Showboat had been a tranny bar, which explained the Olds driver’s strangeness, but she might have just been a mannish woman. Boston was a Navy town back in those days and those Marine nurses were very masculine.
“Strange, but the truth is always strange, when we revived the old memories of things gone by.