Monday, July 28, 2014

Finding Bill Kelly

Finding Bill Kelly – July 28, 2001

Flashbacks and Memories of the Summer of ‘63
By Suzanne K.

Heading “down the shore” as they say in Philly, on a late July Monday, old ghosts haunted me. My good friend Gerry happily agreed to be my tour guide as she is Tinker Bell and is always up for adventure and fun.

Had not been inside a bar in Somers Point since the 60’s. Also last saw Ocean City in full season in the summer of ’71.

Was following the advice of my writing teacher to find old haunts from the early ’60s. "It’s tax deductable,"  he said, with more encouragement than I had hoped for.

Since I spent most of my leisure hours at the Point, our first stop was the Anchorage Tavern, where we found a busy restaurant and empty bar around 1 pm.

The bartender was very nice but too young for the memories I was looking for. But he told us, “You just missed the best person in town to talk to – Bill Kelly.”  

“Wow,” Gerry said, “I have his book ‘300 Years at the Point!’”

“You might find him at Gregory’s,” the bartender said, and off we went in search of Bill Kelly.

Gregory’s was the second stop on our list and driving up and seeing what looked like a flash back to the past sent waves of nostalgia flooding my senses. Cheep beer, romance and good times were always available at Gregory’s. It was always the first stop on the way to Tony Marts or Bay Shores or both. The evening often ended at the Dunes – Dune’s Till Dawn.

When I got off the bus in early April of ’63, I was 18 going on a hundred. By the time Memorial Day arrived and serious carding kept most under-age drinkers out of the Point, I was already a regular and no one carded me. I looked older and was glad, would like to think I look younger now. How time changes the way we want to be perceived!

Back in the early ‘60s the Point had a sophisticated style as college kids prevailed and cool was in. To my 18 year old eyes it was ever so special.

The lunch crowd at Gregory’s sat around an oval bar, most at the far end. It was an older crowd and exactly what I had hoped for.

Walking in bravely, I carried my Cannon Rebel camera and Gerry carried the notebook where the famous research notes would be collected. We were trying to look cool and professional, women to be taken seriously.

“Is Bill Kelly here?” I said in a loud and determined voice. Silence filled the room.

“Does anyone here know Bill Kelly?” I asked, and laughter brightened the room. The bartender said, 
“Everyone knows Bill Kelly.”

Quickly the smiles retreated. Felt like strangers who walk into the tavern at high noon in an old western not welcome and often shot.

I explained that I was writing a novel about the early ’60’s when I waitressed in Ocean City, and I heard he had written a book about the Point.

Smiles returned but silence remained. No one agreed to be interviewed. I gave the bartender my card with psychotherapist crossed off and “writer” written below. Put my cell number on the back, which I use only for emergencies, though this was beginning to feel like one.

Told the bartender to give the card to Bill Kelly as we would like to take him to dinner, if we should get so lucky!

We headed for the Point Diner, the third place on our list. It’s impossible to miss as you drive around the circle on your way to the bridge to Ocean City. If driving into your past was possible this was it.

Only thing missing was the bakery, the late night Soprano crowd and the guy who left me with a heart in a thousand pieces. The juke boxes in the booths brought flashbacks of “us” sitting there after a night of dancing and romantic young love, the kind you never forget. How easy it is to love a stranger!

Our next stop was the Ocean City Historical Society and the local library. We never got there that day. “One more stop at Gregory’s, you run in and if you are not out in five minutes I will park,” Gerry said.
Walked into the larger late lunch crowd of about 14, including a few stragglers from before, all over 40. Felt like I had entered a time warp.

Almost everyone smiled this time except for one guy in a Hawaiian shirt who looked like half of him should be in Key West. The baseball cap gave him a friendly boyish look even without the smile.

Asked if Mr. Kelly ever showed up?

Someone pointed to the part-local guy. Walked over and asked him if he was, in fact, Bill Kelly?

Serious mistrust clouded his face and I saw my card in front of him. Suddenly I panicked, thinking my ever so private cell number was being passed around the room.

Grabbed my card and started to leave with a few choice words trailing behind me. The bartender stopped me. “He really is the guy you’re looking for.”

Returned and put my card back. Bill almost smiled and said, “Your number is already on the bathroom wall.”
I had to laugh even if it was true. “

“Your card says psychotherapist?”

“Not anymore,” I said, being looked at in disbelief. I explained as fast as I could, figuring I had about one minute to reinvent myself. “My writing teacher Bill Kent from Penn sent me here to do research.”

Suddenly a smile, he had heard of him.

Gerry then walked in and my trip down Memory Lane started as Gerry furiously took notes.

Bill introduced us to the cast of characters. Bill said, “You need to talk to that guy over there, he was the head lifeguard on the 9th Street Beach in the early ‘60s.”

Looked across the bar to see a man who looked toned and God-like. Not only did he validate my memories, he misted over when I asked him if he knew a beautiful and voluptuous women who ended her nights sleeping on his beach in her blue jeans. There were so many witnesses to help me fill in some of my cloudy memories.

Skipping down Memory Lane an adorable man, who was somewhere between 16 and 40 brought in his catch of the day – a golf bag! This was Peter Pan who brought laughter to everyone, including some of the ghosts in the room, sealing this moment in time forever. I took a picture of him outside with the Gregory’s sign in the background. Got another of him inside with Tinker Bell.

Bill gave me his book and I have had time to read it! He may have only been 12 in ’63 but he was able to capture the spirit of those times more clearly than one who was there. Guess that is what makes him a great writer. He also gave me some other ideas that have been priceless to me. We invited him to dinner. It was his birthday! He invited us to join him and friends at the Bubba Mac Shack where Bubba was having a 50th birthday celebration along with Jerry Blavat, owner of Memories bar in Margate. Many remember Jerry mainly as a famous DJ from their past.

At Gregory’s we said goodbye to all and finally made the trip over the bridge to empty the car and return to Somers Point around 7. What a celebration and dance party! Bubba’s was rocking with “oldies” like me. Wondering if we would ever find Bill again, we asked the hostess and she directed us to the dance floor. 

There he was standing on the stairs overlooking the dance floor, relaxed and smiling among his friends. He looked happy to see us and introduced us to his many friends who never stopped coming over with birthday greetings. Fifties music prevailed and Gerry and I danced with each other, Bill and others. It really did not matter who you danced with! Taught Gerry the stroll as she is too young to remember it. What fun! Felt like the entire night was at trip into the Twilight Zone.

Lost him again, and wondered if we would ever find Bill Kelly again. We asked a women we had met earlier if she saw him. We are supposed to take him to dinner!

She laughed, “Honey this is a small town, everyone knew you and your friend were coming here tonight.”
Maybe my number is on the bathroom wall beside free dinner. Oh, well, who cares anyway?

Found him again, glad he wears that cap even though at one point he took it off and he is covering up some gorgeous hair. Ended up back at Gregory’s for a five star dinner. Did I ever eat dinner at Gregory’s in the ’60’s. No I don’t think so, would have remembered food this great!

People came and went all bringing birthday cheer and hugs and kisses. Some stayed. Clearly this was a man loved by many. We were not the only ones to feed him. He could barely finish all the food he ate before joining us at the bar.

Finally Bill signed his book for me and we left him with his friends. Not wanting to break the spell we left before the clock struck 12. Turned out to be a day I will always remember. Never knew research could be so much fun! Not only did we find Bill Kelly and my memories, we found a guy with a heart as big as the ocean and new memories a good as the old ones.

Yes, you can go back, and God bless bartenders everywhere!

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