There was a time, oh so many centuries ago, in the carefree days of my youth, when things weren't very expensive. At least that's how my friends and I saw things. A can of soda was a quarter, movies were a buck and a candy bar was under fifty cents. These were no mini-candies; no, these were the full-sized bars! The pinball games at the "Flying Horses" cost a quarter, and you got two games for that, five balls per game. They sure ain't like that these days, are they?
This sounds perfect, doesn't it?
Well, it wasn't; life was tough - at least that's how my friends and I saw it. There was the little matter of having the money. For many kids, they got an allowance. Not me; asking my dad for as little as a quarter got the standard lecture. You know it, the classic: "When I was your age..." and then he'd tell me about walking to school bare foot, through six feet of snow, uphill, both ways! Yeah, you know the story. I ask for money for a movie, and he tells me about chopping down an oak tree with his bare hands.
This is where coin diving down at the wharf came in. The Oaks Bluffs' steamship wharf was where the ferries from the mainland came in each day. It had one main slip, way out in the water, for the ferries that ran strictly between Wood's Hole and Martha's Vineyard. For kids, even teenagers, that was a bit too far to swim.
A little closer, there was the side section available for docking. This was where the ferries, which went from the mainland to the island and then out to "The Other Place" or what us islanders called the "Nantucket," docked. When one docked, not many people got off, as the ferry's main objective was Nantucket; mostly people and cars got on in order to make the journey from island to island.
This took a while, and this was where the coin diving came in. My friends and I would swim out to the ferry with our flippers and masks on. Treading water near the bow, we'd look up at the people on the ferry, and they'd toss coins in the water. We'd dive under and snag as many as we could find. Back then, the water was almost clear; so finding the coins was actually easy.
Some of the kids slipped the coins inside their masks, but I was never one for using that method. For one thing, all those coins clattering around in front of my face made it hard to see. For another, I was never good at slipping a coin in and keeping water out. Pushing a single coin in my mask resulted in - whoosh - a flooded mask, and then I couldn't see a thing. It was up to the surface to clear my mask, which cost me valuable seconds. With nickels, dimes, and the occasional quarter floating down all around me, every moment counted.
This led me to adopting the "Mouth Method." I would catch a coin as it fluttered toward the bottom or pluck it up out of the sand, and then just pop it in my mouth. Yes, I know, quite disgusting. After all, I didn't know where those coins had been! What if the person tossing that dime had just picked their nose or their pocket had been full of lint? I figured, hey, the salt water sterilizes the coin; how much hard could it cause me?
Once the ferry was fully loaded and ready to depart, the steamship crew would wave us off, and we'd swim for shore. Climbing up on the rocks of the beach, most of the others would slip off their masks and retrieve their horde. Me, I'd just sit down, spew out my haul, and start counting. This often elicited a few "Ewwww" and "Oh, gross" from some of my friends. On the plus side, I could be sure that no one would try to snatch any of my coins, at least until they were washed!
On a good day, we could each make a couple of bucks. As this particular ferry only came by once a day, and we weren't the only kids who wanted to coin dive, we had to make the money lasted as long as possible. A couple candy bars, a few rides on the "Flying Horses," some sodas and pinball games and maybe a movie or two, this is all we could hope to get.
Yet, back then, somehow that seemed like enough.