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Essay

Back to old Cape Cod, where the melody lingers on

In the 1960s, the author and several relatives on their summer times on the beach at Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet. (Photo courtesy of Necee Regis) In the 1960s, the author and several relatives on their summer times on the beach at Lieutenant Island in Wellfleet.
By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2011

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In the 1960s, my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, great-aunts and -uncles, plus my mom, sisters, and grandmother, would all pile into cars and make the trip from the New York suburbs to the little town of Wellfleet. I still remember Uncle Vincent’s wood-paneled station wagon filled with suitcases and a gaggle of children.

A decade earlier, Patti Page had sung about the marvels of “Old Cape Cod,’’ and we knew all the words: “If you’re fond of sand dunes and salty air . . . ’’

What we loved about Wellfleet was its small-town charms: fishing boats moored at the pier, sailboats out on the bay, an intimate downtown with a grocery store, a penny candy shop, and art galleries. At the rustic restaurants, some with live entertainment, it didn’t matter if you trekked a little sand inside while ordering chowder, fried clams, or oysters on the half shell.

As kids, we were thrilled by the freedom a small town afforded. We ran wild on the beach, especially when the tide at the harbor receded to the horizon. We dug quahogs in muck that stuck to our feet, and climbed sand dunes that towered as tall as anything we had ever seen. On Wednesday nights, families gathered in the parking lot beside Town Hall for intergenerational square dancing, which was followed by soft-serve ice cream at the pier or at P.J.’s on the highway.

In Wellfleet, we swam in crystal-clear spring-fed ponds and learned to body surf in the steel-blue Atlantic on the outer beaches. At night, warmed by a bonfire, we huddled at the bay beneath blankets and the Milky Way, singing songs until the flames faded into glowing embers and our parents prodded us back to our pine-paneled cottages and into bed.

The next morning, we would get up and do it all over again.

This may sound like an idyllic reminiscence of childhood (and it is), but the special thing about Wellfleet is that much remains the same. Thanks to the creation of the Cape Cod National Seashore in 1961, over 60 percent of the beaches and woodlands remain undeveloped. Sure, the beaches are more crowded, and the penny candy store burned down, never to be rebuilt. And though the square dance has relocated from town to the pier, it still goes on like clockwork every Wednesday evening at 6:30.

Even the architecture is much the same, especially in the historic center and along the harbor on Mayo Beach where cottages have been lovingly restored. On Main Street, the 19th-century Congregational and Methodist churches sit almost side by side, their white clapboard exteriors reflecting the bright Cape light. The bell at the Congregational church still rings “ship’s time’’ at half-hour intervals, a system I proudly mastered as a child, and still recall.

And so, every summer, I pack my bathing suit and my memories and return to old Cape Cod. My cousins come, too, traveling from far-flung states for a week or two of bliss with their children, and sometimes their grandchildren in tow.

I try to be in Wellfleet for July Fourth. Each year, children from the elementary school choose a theme for the parade. Local businesses, including restaurants, the library, the historic society, the fish market, and the fire and police departments, decorate floats and strut their stuff.

Folks arrive early to claim a spot along the parade route, sometimes setting up folding chairs, or perching on grassy hillsides or lawns to enjoy the pre-parade of antique cars. When the fire engines sound their horns the real festivities begin. Costumed revelers on floats toss candy and beads to the flag-waving crowds. Each year Paul Suggs, a local artist, dons waterproof yellow overalls and wheels an enormous flag-bedecked sculpture of a steamer clam through the streets, in homage to an old timer, Joe Francis, who owned the now defunct Lobster Hut, and paraded this very bivalve long ago.

Another must-do on the calendar is a trip to the drive-in movie theater. Though the sound system has greatly improved, there remains the thrill of parking on the still-warm blacktop with a bucket of popcorn, and gazing to where the giant screen obliterates the stars. The youngest kids wear their pajamas and fall asleep before the second feature, while the older ones gallop to the playground and snack bar at intermission.

The gift of visiting Wellfleet, for me and my family, is the remarkable opportunity to relive our childhoods as new generations learn to square dance, eat oysters, and croon “There’s a Hole in the Bucket’’ while toasting marshmallows at a bonfire on the beach. It’s our own personal time warp. And yet, we can’t deny that we’re growing older, becoming the ages our parents were when they brought us here. As we gather to sing, I hear those voices - long gone - reverberate across time, mingling with the high, sweet notes of my great-nieces and -nephews.

If you visit, you will make memories, too.

Necee Regis can be reached at neceeregis@gmail.com.