Woog’s World: You can always come home again
Published 2:50 pm, Friday, September 2, 2016
Back in the day — the day when school started after Labor Day, and most people moved in or out of Westport during the summer, so kids would not have to change schools in the middle of the year — the Westport News published an annual “Welcome to Westport” supplement.
Jam-packed with advertising — the special section was as much a cash cow as a means of introducing new residents to the schools, churches and shops of our town — the supplement always led off with an interesting perspective piece. For decades now, Westporters have thought of their hometown as different from others. They’ve tried to convey its unique quality to newcomers, in whatever ways seem appropriate for the times.
In 1975, Sue Buffinton described what had happened nearly 20 years earlier, when her father was transferred from Providence, R.I., to New York. Her parents described Westport this way: “The schools are great, and everyone has a swimming pool.”
The town Buffinton moved to was filled, she recalled, with movie stars and “beautiful people.” It was where Paul Newman, Bette Davis and Linda Blair lived; where Gregory Peck filmed “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Beautiful and the Damned.”
Those names and titles dazzled her. But, Buffinton wrote, at heart, Westport was “just a great town to live in.” She’d leave it with regret, and return to it with relief saying, “I’m glad to be home.”
Buffinton noted her feelings for Westport changed as she grew. At 10, she loved Compo Beach in summer, Nash’s Pond skating in winter and “the spectacular fireworks on the 4th of July.”
She built dams to catch water bugs and turtles, enjoyed hot chocolate at Bill’s Smoke Shop (where the Westport Pizzeria is now), and got “a deluxe chocolate chip cookie for a nickel” at a bakery in the middle of town.
She thought Westport was a beautiful place. And, throughout her first year here, she did not swim once in a backyard swimming pool.
At 15, Buffinton said, she adopted the “cool, slick Seventeen Magazine sophistication that Westport teenagers are so good at perfecting.” She went to Saturday matinees at the Fine Arts Theater, where she looked at all the guys across the aisle. She alternated between being a Bedford Junior High School cheerleader and a “posed, little lady at the Junior Years charm course held at the Westport Woman’s Club.”
She walked for hours at Compo, struggling with “adolescent traumas,” and was “deathly afraid” of going to Staples High School. “It seemed very big and too, too sophisticated,” Buffinton wrote.
By the time she was a high school senior, she had spent hours discussing the “decadence and superficiality of Westport ... a sterile, stagnant and self-indulgent place” with her peers. Sitting at the Big Top hamburger shop (now McDonald’s), she’d sneer at suburban life. Many friends wore black armbands in opposition to the Vietnam War.
But, she admitted, everyone cried at the Candlelight Concert, walking in the traditional procession and singing the hallowed “Messiah.”
The first time she returned to Westport from college, she shocked herself by realizing “how much I loved the place.” Drinking hot chocolate at Bill’s Smoke Shop, she could no longer fight the feeling. Westport was her hometown.
Six years later — in 1975 — she struggled to express her feelings. “Sunsets over the marshes on Imperial Avenue, the sight of Nigel Cholmeley-Jones in his old blue Packard (at the Memorial Day parade), the roses that bloom each spring on the Sherwood Square fence, the seagulls that scream over Main Street” meant more to her than Paul Newman and swimming pools.
Reading them today, Buffinton’s words seem both dated and timeless. Westport is no longer filled with movie stars (Harvey Weinstein doesn’t count). The movie theaters — all five of them, at one point — are gone. So is Bill’s Smoke Shop, Big Top and junior high school cheerleaders (along with junior highs themselves).
But Compo Beach is still there. So is Nash’s Pond. Staples still intimidates newcomers, then becomes a comfortable place by senior year. There are more swimming pools than ever.
Buffinton’s story could be written by generations of young Westporters. With a few tweaks, it could appear in the 1980s, ’90s, 2000s or today. Westport has changed through the years, but as it does, it still provides a haven for old-timers and newcomers alike.
The title of Buffinton’s piece was cliche. Yet no matter how much this town changes, it’s true: “You can always come home again.”