Lunatics Inc.

How Nutty Are We Vineyarders? – And How Nutty Have We Always Been?

I’m telling you, Lewis Carroll in his creation of looney-tunes Wonderland, had nothing on us.

Here’s a typical Island day in the life of my ex-hubby, comedy-writer Marty Nadler: He’s running for O.B. Planning Board back in 2000, driving east on the airport road, and he stops to pick up a hitch-hiking local character whom we’ll call Zoombah. Zoombah is a confused white guy with Rasta coils of dark blond hair. He speaks with the Jamaican accent he picked up in his high school in Columbus, Ohio.

“Oh, man!” cries Zoombah as he slides into the passenger seat of Marty’s beat-up Honda. “You’re my hero! Swing by my house, and I’ll prove it to you!”

Not many people would accept that challenge, but Nadler, crazy in his own way (which he’s channeled, fortunately for him, into a TV career), drives Zoombah to a winter rental near Oyster Pond. Marty shuts off his engine and follows the honky Rasta all the way into his bedroom where he stares, aghast and amazed at -- oh the horror!-- hanging directly over Zombah's bed -- !

-- Marty’s own political poster with his smiling face and the words, VOTE FOR MARTY NADLER FOR OAK BLUFFS ZONING BOARD.

Dead-pan as ever, Marty holds out his hand to shake Zoombah’s. “You’re now my official campaign manager.”

For years, until Zoombah was removed from the Island for too many out-breaks of public ruckus, Marty, upon encountering the man, in his tie-dyed shirts and feather head-gear, introduced him to people as his top political adviser. (Marty won the election, by the way; no telling to what degree Zoombah had helped or detracted from getting out the vote.)

There is something about our Island that cultivates creativity and lunacy in equal measure, often in the same people, probably because we all understand that the two are inextricably related. Anais Nin’s favorite psychoanalyst and side-kick in Paris, Dr. Otto Rank, firmly believed that every psychotic or neurotic was an “artist-manque,’” and therefore urged all his patients to pursue their artistic urges.

We seem to understand this: “Follow your bliss” can mean almost anything from, “Go ahead, set fire to your engineering degree from M.I.T. and open that jet-ski shop down on the docks” to “Yay for you: sew those quilts from five hundred strains of bird-dung! I’ll buy one! Uh, you will dry it out first?”

So, community acceptance and a continuing influx of goof-balls in all varieties, seems to be the key.

In 1838, a visiting scholar, Samuel Adams Devens, wrote in his journal, “The islanders are quick in their sensibilities, easily excited, and easily depressed . . . With this the climate has much to do, operating as it does, powerfully upon the nervous system. Other causes are the free use of strong sea and coffee.”

Well, theories abound, as ever.

Mostly we seem to get that we’re all a part of one big bad bonkers tribe.

In the old days, mental health – or lack of it – was measured in strong terms, and only a few hard-core madmen qualified. In 1855, the Massachusetts Commission on Lunacy detailed only 19 Vineyarders fit the bill. 19 out of a population of 4,789! That put the insane rate at 0.4! We know a stat this slim left out all the Islanders who never left their farms, or who washed their hands seventeen times a day with homemade witch hazel soap, or the retired sailor who set his clock to Tokyo time to honor his memory of a terrific and surprisingly inexpensive geisha.

It’s rather touching to see old records kept in the Boston State Archives (and thanks to Island historian Chris Baer for forwarding them to me) of the care and attention devoted to the few scattered Vineyard “Lunatics and Furiously Mad,” as you can see in this report from the Town of Tisbury in 1829 (you’ll note, as ever, that on old fact sheets, syntax was shot, punctuation spotty, and no one could spell worth a whole hill of benes):

“Damris Norton is been totally deranged for about forty years at times is malicious but is trustly. Watched by her brother and sister and is safe.”

“Polly Waldron is docile at other times quite infantory and chained, is boarded in a large family where there is strict attention by watching supported by the town.” 

“Shubael Cottle has been deranged two years shut up in a room part of the time other times at liberty but all times deranged.”

It’s just plain liberating to know that, nowadays, there are so many more ways to be loopy, and to even be appreciated for it, and to turn it into art and entertainment!

No one will blink if you announce that the Island is over-run by Irish gnomes, and that we need to build a bon-fire as big as the Burning Man, to keep the little buggers at bay.

You can live the life-of-Reilly of Johnny Seaview (now in assisted living on the Cape) who thumbed for rides with one hand, his chain saw in the other (he was a legitimate tree-trimmer, but not everyone inclined to pick up hitch-hikers knew that). He told riotous tales about his WWII days – working undercover with the Brits in Normandy, parachuting over Sicily during the battle for Palermo – and they were all true!) Plus, the women with whom he flirted (which was all of us), loved the way 5-foot one-inch Johnny Seaview approached with a swagger, thrusting a small bouquet of roses into the damsel's hands, with the assurance, “Freshly stolen!”

We feel free to say out loud whatever occurs to us on a whim, wear whatever comes to hand – an old Dick Tracy-style trench-coat, a purple polka dot scarf from the thrift store, bunny slippers for a walk to the post office. No one is nuttier than the next fruitcake, just as long as no one’s hurting anyone.

And this, too, is an Island specialty. We’re pretty darn nice to each other, as only true aficionados of the truly daft can truly be. Here’s another account of people of Martha’s Vineyard, this one written by voyager J. Hector St. John deCrevecoeur, on a visit here in 1782:

“All was peace here, and a general decency prevailed throughout.”

And this guy could spell!

We Islanders know what’s important.

Now where did I put my favorite borsalino hat? Marty used to have one. So did Zoombah!


David Whitmon October 08, 2012 at 10:46 AM
I LOVE IT! Why be normal is what I always say........(-;
Michael West October 08, 2012 at 11:28 AM
Let's hear it for the nutty Island noughats who make life on this rock that much sweeter! Johnny Perry is one of the great ones, and if there is a Vineyard Hall of Fame for Island Characters, he would be a charter member. Loretta Balla, too.
David Whitmon October 08, 2012 at 11:46 AM
Loretta? As in red haired Loretta at the Sea View with the plastic baseball bat? She would be the Queen of us all.
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 01:10 PM
You guys! One of these days I need to write about the old Seaview bar! Only stopped in there for a drink once . . . very quaint!
Cynthia Bloomquist October 08, 2012 at 01:15 PM
When asked if I'd rather be normal or weird, the answer was easy. Maybe we should ask everyone considering moving here? Great piece, Holly.
Jessica Harris October 08, 2012 at 01:52 PM
Crazy? Islanders? No. I just left the Rock for the winter. Now, that's crazy!!! Have a grabd winter all !!
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Before writing this article, I re-read psychiatrist Milton Mazer's wonderful book about Island mental health, People And Predicaments. He was asked to open up a clinic here in 1961 when it was determined that lots of Vineyarders could use some therapeutic care (the clinic morphed into Community Services.) He makes clear where our extra stress comes from and, frankly, not much has changed in the intervening years, except that it's great we have more shrinks among us!
Shelley Christiansen October 08, 2012 at 01:54 PM
Note that most of the crazies and near-crazies are washashores. The natives and near-natives have most of their marbles ....
Lawrence Green October 08, 2012 at 01:55 PM
Great piece, thanks
Jessica Harris October 08, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Grabd=GRAND 1/2 hr getting cat into crate 6 1/2 hour extra boat wait because of canceled ferry 5 hours in car back to NYC very very aromatic feline Missing y'all already
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 02:08 PM
Bummer, Jessica! So sorry we missed each other this trip, except for a few sidewalk bump-ins! @Shelley, that's food for thought, but just off the top of my head, here are some native high-rollers, personality-wise: Craig Kingsbury, Jerri Debettencourt, Lillian Norton (Madame Nordica, opera singer, of VH), and William Barry Owen, born in VH, invented the Victrola, lived in London but sent his laundry home to be washed New England style (and to show off). These are just a few who seemingly set the tone for washashore eccentrics to feel comfy here.
Mathea Morais (Editor) October 08, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Does anyone remember Steve, the trash guy who tried to bring recycling to the Island in the late 80s? He was a big believer in the Harmonic Conversions and was often called Steve Heavyosity. He was also prone to making folks sing "Don't Worry Be Happy." He was one of my favorite Island crazies and I often wonder where he's gone.
Michael West October 08, 2012 at 05:42 PM
You know, Holly, this is Mental Health Awareness Week. Did you plan this? Are you on their payroll?
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 06:22 PM
Mathea, how did I miss that one? And what about the guy who used to bicycle up Wing Rd. with his cat on his shoulder? Big cat, too! And then there are the artistically talented and lovingly out-going who we miss so much, such as Maynard Silva and Michael Wilde!
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 06:23 PM
I didn't know it was Mental Health Awareness Week! That's what my Edgartown buddy, author SQuire Russnell calls a "God wink".
David Whitmon October 08, 2012 at 06:41 PM
HA! The guy with the cat on his shoulder, I use to think that it was a dead and stuffed cat. That is until the day he walked into Cycle Works and took that cat and put it on the floor and it started to walk around. Last year I saw him a number of times on the bike path in the state forest with his bike and cat.
Holly Nadler October 08, 2012 at 06:55 PM
I'm so glad the bicycling-with-cat guy is still with us on the island, at least as of last year!
Cynthia Mascott October 09, 2012 at 12:33 AM
True brilliance
Susanna J. Sturgis October 09, 2012 at 01:37 AM
Craig Kingsbury was a native?? Don't think so.
Michael West October 09, 2012 at 11:59 AM
I think Craig Kingsbury falls into the category of near-native that Shelly suggested above. He was one of a kind. Here's a great snapshot in the SF Chronicle of the late great Craig Kingsbury. http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Craig-Kingsbury-fisherman-Jaws-actor-2798959.php
Holly Nadler October 09, 2012 at 12:58 PM
Susanna, Craig Kingsbury grew up in Trenton, NJ so, while he's not technically an Island native, he came here as a young man and raised hell ever since. I believe he left enough of a stamp to be considered, if not a native, then an Island icon. As I described him in Vineyard Confidential (Down East Books): "He was Spanky and the Gang all rolled into one deranged hooligan."


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