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By JOHN HOWELL
I should have listened to Jack Clegg.
“You need to get your notebook, you have enough stories here to fill a couple of columns.”
But I hadn’t come armed with notebook to record the surprise 90th birthday party for Bill Riggs and the 60th party for his daughter-in-law Karen. Conditions were perfect at the Warwick Country Club. Evening shadows were lengthening. Boats were returning from a day on the bay and the setting sun set an orange glow to the evening.
Bill is easy to pick out of a crowd. He stands tall. He was midway between the porch and the bar engaged in conversation. Bill lost Barbara, his wife of nearly 60 years, in 2015. He since met Donna in Florida and they have married. She was dressed in a spring green dress. He wore a blazer and a dress shirt unbuttoned at the throat.
This was a free-flowing party hosted by Bill and Barbara’s children, Cyndi, Bill, Susan and Doug. Friends and family gathered in small groups with Donna navigating Bill between them. In many ways this was an introduction for her, and she was quick at placing people and how they interconnected.
I found a place opposite Jack and his wife Lillian. They were joined by Jack and Carole Henriques, Dave and Phyllis Stenhouse and Delores Haronian. They have been friends for as long as I can remember.
My introduction to how Neck homeowners work together came the year – however long ago that was – of the first Fourth of July parade. As I heard it, the Haronians, Riggs and Satmarys were at the Haronians’ when the idea of a parade was hatched. After all, if Bristol had a parade, well, then Warwick Neck should have one, too. The real inspiration was a 6-foot tall Statue of Liberty that Howard had acquired and all agreed would make for an ideal display in the back of a pickup.
Delores and Barbara got out fliers to the neighborhood. It took off from there. Kids decorated their bikes with patriotic pinwheels. Lawn tractors were decked with bunting. The Cleggs paraded their 47-star American flag. Bill Nixon installed loud speakers in his convertible to play patriotic marches. In the lead, Jack Henriques played the wounded revolutionary warrior with a bloodied bandage around his head, a rifle on his shoulder and a limp to his walk. Bill was dressed as Uncle Sam in a blue jacket with flowing tails and a top hat making all the taller on his bicycle. The parade was such a success that there were only a few spectators – the entire neighborhood was in the parade.
Bill loves sailing. He has divested himself of boats for the moment, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he still has the radio-controlled sailboat he raced in Florida. Even when out for a cruise, Bill was measuring his performance with other boats. He was subtle about it, adjusting the sails, altering course to cross tacks and then declaring, “we’re making trees on him,” a racer’s euphemism for sailing faster than the other boat. I was reminded of the story he told me of a solo sail in one of the larger boats he owned. He found himself on the same tack of an even larger boat that was well ahead of him. Bill tinkered with the sails to squeeze out their maximum performance, locked the wheel in place and went below. Slowly, Riggadoon, as he eventually named all his boats, caught the boat ahead. Bill watched the surprised expressions as this seemingly skipper-less vessel ghosted past.
In the mid-1980s, Bill bought an ungainly craft designed for comfortable cruising. It was a Choey Lee yacht made in Taiwan. She had teak decks and lots of bright work requiring painstaking sanding and multiple coats of varnish. Below decks was a living room. It even had a piano – Bill loves playing. Bill entered Riggadoon in the Block Island Race Week Regatta, a series of races that is the equivalent of a sailing Olympics for serious sailors. Boats from up and down the East Coast registered for race week, with many skippers spending thousands for new sails and to house their experienced crews on the island.
Bill was happy aboard with family and recruiting pickup crew. He called me, and after putting the Thursday edition of the Beacon to bed on Wednesday, I took the ferry to Block Island. It was a time before cell phones, but I had no problem finding Bill. The Choey Lee stood out from all the sleek craft in New Harbor.
Bill was registered in a division with a mix of boats with different handicapped ratings. How you finished a race was not based on the number of boats in front or behind you at the finish, but the time the course was sailed related to the distance. Bill had already chalked up a couple of wins by the time I arrived.
Under such circumstances many skippers would have been stressed, but not Bill. He made sure there was plenty of beer in the cooler along with our choice of sandwiches. We lathered up with sun screen as we motored out to the racecourse. We checked in with the race committee and watched for the signals for the start of our division. Then we were racing.
Bill not only won honors in the division but was an overall winner for the series. It was this story that made the front page of the Beacon. I described Bill’s achievement akin to driving a Mack Truck in the Indy 500 and winning. As a gag on Saturday night, Bill was presented the “Coveted Mack Truck Award,” a wooden plaque etched with the Mack Truck bulldog and a brief account of Bill’s victory. Doug snapped photos of his father wearing a broad grin.
Jack Clegg was right. There were enough stories for multiple columns. Carole Henriques kept us entertained and Delores’s accounts of family events had us laughing. Somehow, 90 didn’t seem all that daunting when packed with so many memories.
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