The Summer House
Having a second home in the Hamptons on Eastern Long Island is a sine qua non of social status and prestige. This area was historically a playground for the Blue Bloods of society who lived in fabulous mansions either on or near the ocean; similar in scale to the Gatsby mansions of Oyster Bay on Long island or those of Narragansett Rhode Island.
Local denizens made their living by farming, fishing, or servicing the estates and the whims or the needs of the mansion’s residents. In addition there was an annual flock of ancillary estate caretakers, day laborers and restaurant workers who came up from Florida or the Caribbean, following the same pathways and seasonal cycles of the itinerant migratory birds.
Principal crops here are strawberries, potatoes, corn, tomatoes and broccoli, and the area enjoys an extended growing season because of its proximity to the Gulf Stream, which runs about thirty miles off shore. This same proximity to warm currents created the conditions for a great industry in sport fishing and other summer recreational beach activities.
Theoretically, if Long Island jutted into the Atlantic Ocean with a little more tilt to the south, its East End would then be a subtropical paradise able to support the growth of palm trees similar to those on the Island of Penzance off the coast of England. This climate and the pristine serenity of the area eventually began to attract increasing numbers of the rich, the nouveau riche, the famous, the want to be famous, the want to see famous, and the ordinary blue and white collar journeyman who suddenly after World War II found himself with an extra dollar to spend.
Artists such as Jackson Pollock and William DeKooning began to arrive because they all found the sunlight to be subtly unique.
Although I grew up in the suburbs north of New York City and would occasionally mention to friends that my family had a place there, which usually engendered incredulous reactions or looks of jealous envy, the truth of the matter was that we were neither rich, nor like my father’s family thought of us, privileged snobs.
The real story of our summer-house is that of a post-depression dream and an opportunity that was shared by both my father as well as a number of commonly ordinary middle class people who decided simply that they would just forge ahead to proactively make their dreams come true. The dream my father had since he was a small boy, was to someday have a water front house in the country; and became an obsessive dream he was determined to fulfill.
Soon after starting his dental practice, he had a patient who learned there was water front property for sale on Eastern Long Island. He cajoled my father into taking a ride one day to look at some of it. In 1948 the one hundred ten mile trip was a disincentive driving ordeal that took about four hours, trekked out over primitive two or three lane highways, and through small towns replete with numerous niggling traffic lights.
The two men looked at side-by-side, half-acre parcels, which fronted the water on a small pond off the Shinnecock Bay, with each of them then buying a lot for twelve hundred dollars apiece. At that time there was only one other house on the strip of land surrounding the western part of the pond, which belonged to a retired machinist, a Norwegian, who lived there because he loved the sea and cherished the isolation. After the purchase my father said he would anxiously lie awake at night wondering how he was going to pay it off much less how he was going to build anything on it.
It was still proximate to the end of the war and he had somehow discovered that the Army was cutting up long barracks at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and then practically giving the pieces away as shells on which a house could be built. So he bought a piece of a barrack, had it transported to his lot, and plopped it on top of some cinder blocks, which served as the foundation. Basements would not be feasible because of the possibility of water intrusion from the pond, while cinder blocks insured a slim barrier against the possibility of tidal flooding.
Subsequently over the next fifteen years, principally on the weekends, he then proceeded to build a cottage around the shell, which he called his “tar paper shack,” occasionally with the help of some friend adept at plumbing or electrical wiring or adding in a few simple subcontracted jobs. It was actually habitable after the first several years.
At first, living there was the same as camping out, except there was a roof overhead instead of a tree canopy. The house had linoleum floors, which were ideal for easily sweeping out the sand tracked in during the day, and initially a hand pump atop a wellhead in the back yard supplied our fresh water. There was much celebration when the plumbing moved indoors and was then hooked up to an electric well pump, so that we no longer had to flush the toilets by dumping in a bucket of salt water hauled in from the bay.
We had an unreliable gas heater on the wall in the living room that often did not ignite, requiring numerous boxes of stick matches accompanied by equally numerous curses during the often-failed ignition process. The closets were piled high with quilts to be on standby for those cold or damp nights in the spring or fall or when that little heater just refused to do its job, and it would take weeks to rid the house and bedding of mothball scents when the place was first opened in March or April.
The house could not be used off-season because we could not afford the winterization process or the cost of year round heating, and after the pond intruded on the fresh water tables, tap water use was restricted to washing clothes, dishes or bathing. We then had to import bottled water for drinking. There was an icebox for food, which required frequent stops at the Icehouse in Hampton Bays to purchase the large blocks that went inside on the inside lower tray. The ice then slowly melted as it kept the food barely cool, while the water melt would periodically be thrown out into the back yard. Of course this meant that we never had ice cream for desert.
There was no telephone for communication or distraction and there was no television for mindless entertainment. And when we did finally get a small T.V. for the house, we could only get one channel, Number 8, which was broadcast from New Haven in Connecticut and usually was not even worth the effort due to frequent snowy interference.
Aside from the fact that Carl Yastrzemski was born and raised in Bridgehampton, it was this single New England television channel that created the local enclave of loyal Boston Red Sox fans that exists on the East End to this very day.
It was always uplifting when we turned the car into the yard on the first trip out in the Spring, get out in the knee high natural vegetation we called a lawn, run down to the beach, listen to the sea birds and then to smell the fresh salt air blowing off the water on a Southwest breeze. This was followed by the thrill of opening the house itself, only to be met by the first predictable scents of mildew and mothballs that had settled on the dormant crypt over winter. Like opening an ancient hidden Egyptian tomb, it was akin to discovering a new, foreign world.
Our yard was a field of weeds that sat in stark contrast to the neurotic hybrid, high maintenance Bluegrass lawn we had at home, only leaving me unable to grasp the paradox of why this yard was perpetually left in its natural state, yet the other was not. On this little plot my father did not care what grew outside, which was in stark contrast to the frenzied obsession he had about picking crabgrass and chickweed out of the other lawn, a job that usually fell to me and my brother on springtime Saturday mornings. I often entertained the evil thought of asking my father why he did not want us to perfect this particular yard by weeding out its few isolated strands of normal grass, but I think the humor probably would have been lost on him.
He did have an obsession about keeping it cut however, which was also a job consigned to my brother or myself and no easy feat with a twelve-inch hand pushed power mower, especially on the first cut of the season. We had to check ourselves for dog ticks at the end of each mowing day, along with my mother’s predictable echoing threat if we failed to do so.
- If you all get Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and ruin your summer, it’s not my fault.
It was also esthetically unpleasant to have a small living arachnoid grape growing off your ear or some other delicate body parts; so check we did.
I suppose it was just dumb luck that no one ever did get sick or if so, like the ‘Montauk Knee’ of chronic Lyme disease arthritis, or some of the more exotic tick borne disease identified far in the future, these potential blights were simply never recognized for what they really were. We paid lip service to it all and survived despite the threat.
The road we lived on was primitive, undeveloped, and being a natural wild life habitat still sheltered a variety of animals including fox, rabbit, field mice, pheasant, quail, and bats, thus creating a small natural park behind the house, which was then itself fronted by a salt-water pond. This environment helped to foster a different way of life for a child than would have been the case in the otherwise well known civilized world of suburbia
The worst thing about having to go back to school again then was for the first time in months, being forced to put shoes on over my beach pebble toughened feet. By summer’s end in having somehow adopted to a certain freedom, they seriously resented and resisted being confined or squashed again inside little leather containers. During the summer I never even missed my classmates at home. I never even invited them out, because then I would have to keep them entertained and preoccupied as well as to risk ruining the hierarchy of my local friendships.
As more cottages were built, more children appeared, friends were easily made, and because we essentially lived outdoors, every one could see everything else that was going on in anybody else’s front or back yard. No family had any secrets to keep or to hide, because the children saw to it that their parents stayed informed about everyone else’s private business.
During the day I stayed outside, playing baseball, fishing, clamming, crabbing, or eventually learning how to run a motorboat as well as developing skills at sailing and water skiing. On rainy days we stayed inside where we built model airplanes, read books or played cards.
My brother and I had the front bedroom in the house, which faced the prevailing Southwest winds that because of the intense humidity blowing straight off the water caused everything in it to become constantly damp and mildewed. My mother called our room “The Swamp,” which was for us the lucky reason she never liked to go in it too often, thus keeping her out of our hair as well as out of our secret, private stuff. Because of living where we did, I learned a great deal, often by empirical observation, about the sea and its creatures, the life cycles of the ocean, the tides, weather changes, the moon and the stars, and to respect nature in a way I would not have been otherwise able to do.
Also despite the various fractious issues I had interacting with my father, being at the summerhouse set the stage for the rarely occasional times we actually had a chance to bond. Like the time he drove ninety miles an hour to get there, told me to sit in the back seat to look out the back window for cops, making me feel like we were two felonious gangsters out on the lam together.
Making it all the more conspiratorial he said:
- And don’t tell your mother I was speeding, either.
Or the time he let me drink beer with him when I was twelve as he was struggling to put a roof peak on the house. he would always say:
- Learn to drink at home and you’ll never have to go off and sneak it.Or the few times he played ball with me in the weedy lot or actually took the time to take me fishing.
It was at these times the only thing I prayed he would not do would be to ask for a “swig” of my soda, as I hated the idea of his or anybody else’s spit being in my drink. If he did swig it, I would pour the rest of it out while his back was turned.
- Hey give me another swig of that soda.
- It’s gone dad.
- You shouldn’t drink that that stuff so fast. You’ll get a stomach-ache.
Even though the outboard motor he bought was typically of his second hand penury and hardly ever reliably cranked over, I never really cared. Nor did the associated cursing at the unpredictable engine ever ruin my day, unless we had to remove it from the boat to bring it back to the repair shop in Flanders; again. Just like last week. But I didn’t care because when it did work it made up for the down-time
Most of all I have to thank him for essentially creating a private summer camp for the family, and although the friends or relatives at home were green with envy, I eventually came to realize that they too could have done the same thing my father did if they had not been so short sighted; or so lazy.
When the fifteen or twenty little cottages and bungalows finally sprouted up along the street, we became a small community of blue collared families living a blue-blooded dream in an isolated, insulated and idyllic environment way down by the deep blue sea.
My father eventually did winterize the house and moved into it permanently. He would occasionally get an unsolicited offer to buy it, but has always steadfastly refused, even when the price has escalated as high as seven figures. He is also never bitter about the fact that he would have been wealthy beyond belief if he had bought the entire block when he first started out. He would simply say:
- Everything is relative. I didn’t have the money at the time and I’m just lucky to have what I do have. Nobody knew about loans and leverage then either. We just paid as we went.
His sweat, blood, tears and dreams are alive in the walls of his little house, so not only do I have no doubt that he can ever be dislodged from it, but I also suppose that when he dies I will have to think seriously about burying him underneath it.
He always wanted, a place out in the country,
Where the birds sing, in the morning,
And the grass is emerald green.
A place where he could feel the mornin’ sunshine,
And sit out in the evenin’
Where the air is fresh and clean
(A House in the Country: George Jones)