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Mon, 30 Apr 2007

Summer Vacation

Towards the end of the last ice age, the Wisconian glaciers that covered the northeastern part of North America began to slowly retreat back into the arctic regions from whence they had come, leaving at the point of their furthest reach southward terminal moraines of rocks and soil. As the glaciers retreated and melted, and the oceans rose, one of these moraines became isolated from the rest of the nearby land; we now know this area as Long Island, New York.

The eastern end of Long Island splits into two forks of land, separated by a chain of bays of various sizes. On the north side of the south fork, the town of Sag Harbor was established in 1707. Given its large and well-sheltered harbor, commercial activity in the town turned towards the sea. For the better part of two hundred years, whaling was the primary activity in Sag Harbor (the town even earned a mention in Herman Melville's Moby Dick).

But the whaling ships eventually disappeared, and Sag Harbor was left to live a fairly quiet existence out on the largely agricultural east end of the island. Even as a tourist destination, it was largely isolated from much of the hoopla and growth taking place in "The Hamptons" on the south (ocean) side of the south fork. Some of the locals even took to calling the town the "Un-Hampton", as its small-town rural lifestyle was in many ways antithetical to the rich-and-famous ways of the oceanside resort towns.

My grandparents lived in Nassau County, just past the New York City line, and, in the 1930s, they bought a summer house near the shore of Noyac Bay, in the village of Sag Harbor. Their family would spend their summers there, my grandfather temporarily staying overnight in the Lynbrook house if he had to go into work in Manhattan, my grandmother staying out in Sag Harbor with the children. And when my father married and started his own family, from as young an age as I can remember, we would all pack into the car and head out to Sag Harbor to spend at least a month out there with my grandparents.

While our family would typically spend the month of August there, preparations for our annual trek to Sag Harbor usually began several months before. Even before school let out in June, my mother would begin her vacation shopping: bathing suits, flip-flops, tee shirts, and shorts were always high on her list of acquisitions. Usually each year there would be some new beach toys for us kids, to replace things broken or outgrown -- one year, it was swim fins, masks, and snorkels; another, inflatable rafts and floats. One February, Mom found some especially good values on some high-quality rafts (rubberized cloth, not the usual plastic) and snapped them up, putting them "in a safe place" when she got home "so that nothing would happen to them"; unfortunately, when the time came to begin packing the car that year, they were so well put away that they could not be found. They finally resurfaced more than two years later, when my father was cleaning out a rather badly cluttered corner of the basement.

Finally, the anticipation having grown throughout June and July, it would be time to do the final packing, load up the car, and go. Mom packed the clothing and food, while Dad dealt with trying to fit everything (including us) into the car. Between my parents, my five siblings, and all our clothing, toys, and whatnot, figuring out how to squeeze all that into a single Ford LTD station wagon led Dad to invent increasingly tighter packing techniques, our gear ending up being packed into the car with what seemed like a density approaching that of wood. The kid or kids who wound up in the third seat in the rear of the car found themselves effectively isolated from the passengers in the two other seats by an impenetrable, soundproof, almost airtight wall made up of suitcases, bags, bicycles, pillows, teddy bears, and more; riding back there was almost like being in a limousine, except that you couldn't see ahead or to either side, and that there was almost no way to communicate with the driver when a fight ensued, or a bathroom stop was urgently needed.

We lived in the suburbs north of New York City, so getting out to Long Island usually meant a drive through the Bronx and Queens. Even though we would plan to leave on a day other than Friday or Saturday, even though our departure time was often 9:00 PM or later "to miss the traffic", and despite Dad having the radio tuned to the all-news station to get the traffic reports, it seemed like we would always wind up stuck in a traffic jam (sometimes several) once we crossed the city line. But finally, once over the bridge and through Queens, the traffic on the Long Island Expressway usually picked up speed, and the long haul down the length of the island would proceed at a faster pace. When we were young, the eastern parts of Long Island were not nearly as developed as they are now, and it wasn't long after passing Huntington in the western part of Suffolk County that the bright city lights faded out into the receding western sky behind us. There wasn't much to see except pine barrens and the occasional town, so my brothers and sisters were usually asleep by this point. But I was often too excited to sleep, watching out the windows instead, looking for landmarks that I had memorized from previous trips to try to approximate how much further we had to go: the drive-in movie theatre in Huntington, the "Caution - Radiation Area" signs hung every 50 feet along the miles of chain-link fence that marked the boundary of Brookhaven National Laboratory, the traffic circle in Riverhead, and The Big Duck poultry store not long afterwards (getting pretty close now), Southampton College, the Automotive Museum, then the final miles to my grandparents' house, turning into the driveway in the wee small hours of the morning, everyone carrying in only essentials of clothing and bedding, being careful not to make noise and wake Nana and Grandpa. Then straight into bed, asleep again moments after lying down.

Despite the lateness of our arrival, nobody slept late the next morning. It was time to say hello again to the grandparents, then to sit down in the now-crowded kitchen for breakfast. Afterwards the older kids would help Dad unload the car and help Mom unpack everything, because we knew we wouldn't be able to do anything before that happened, and we were all keen to get down to the beach.

Noyac Bay was the swimming spot of choice when we kids were young. The house was less than a quarter of a mile from the corner of the bay, so getting there was quick and easy. The beach itself was quite remarkable -- almost two miles long, curving in a gentle arc along the south side of the bay; its being located in the sleepy village of Sag Harbor meant (fortunately) that it was largely overlooked by the Hamptons folks, and thus rarely if ever crowded. The only thing I didn't like about it was that, being a sheltered bay with waves only about six inches high, the beach was not mostly soft sand, but was instead made up of a somewhat greater than normal percentage of pebbles, rocks, and shells, which made for some occasionally uncomfortable or even painful footing.

But for parents with young kids, the bay was perfect for swimming. The water was shallow even a good distance from shore, and, as mentioned, there was no surf of which to speak -- kind of like a two-mile-long, salt-water wading pool. Mom and Dad would swim with us for a while, then they usually would keep watch on us from the blanket and umbrella as we continued to splash and play. One of their important tasks in those pre-sunscreen days was to keep tabs on how long we had been out in the sun, calling us back in from the water to make sure we got covered up before too much damage was done, but, inevitably, having been slathered with "suntan lotion" which probably acted on our skin much like the touch of oil does in the bottom of a sauté pan, we would from time to time wind up sunburned to by the end of the afternoon.

When not swimming, we would often go on expeditions up and down the beach, pails in hand, searching for and collecting rocks, shells, and pieces of sea glass. The big prize was finding a large, intact conch or scallop shell, each relatively rare to start with, and even more rarely found in pristine condition. Once in a while one of us would find the shell of a horseshoe crab in the sand, it probably having come out of the water to mate and then was left high and dry by the outgoing tide, too far away to get back into the water before a seagull caught it.

Even when out exploring the beach, we kids were careful to listen in mid-afternoon for the bells of the Good Humor truck as it made its way down the beach. It stopped every couple of hundred yards or so to serve the throngs of kids who would run up to the road to meet it, each clutching a handful of quarters to buy that day's treat. My brothers and sisters gravitated to the gaudily-colored popsicle-type ices, while I would often save one day's change to add to on the next visit to the beach in order to buy a sundae or other more sophisticated (and more expensive) ice cream treat. Even though these late afternoon snacks played havoc with our appetites for dinner, my parents did not criticize, complain, or (worse) withhold the necessary funds -- this was our vacation, and why couldn't you goof around and eat ice cream at the beach on your vacation if you really wanted to?

On certain days when the tides were just right, I, my brother, my father, and my grandfather, would set up our rods and reels after supper and head back to the bay to fish during the descending sunset twilight. I enjoyed fishing, but was not particularly avid about it; I sometimes needed help with the various knots and tackle setups. But I was competent with the basics, and, most importantly, quickly learned enough to be able to cast my own line out to where the fish were without creating a "birds nest" of tangled line in the reel. Despite our best efforts, we rarely caught anything worth keeping on these evening trips to the bay: sea robins (perhaps one of the ugliest fish in the ocean) and pufferfish were generally our lot, although one night I did manage to catch a weakfish (good eating), and my father once managed to bring in a very small sand shark (about a foot long); the idea that sharks of any size were actually swimming in the bay within casting distance of where they went swimming frightened my two youngest brothers for quite some time.

Of course, you couldn't go swimming every day (as much as we tried), so we would pile into the car and head off into the village to play in Mashashimuet Park, which was well supplied with the usual swing sets, slides, and teeter-tottters. And across the street from the entrance to the park was Otter Pond, a small fresh-water pond whose main inhabitants (aside from the otters after whom it was named) were flocks of ducks and geese who nested there. Mom would save up the ends of bread loaves and leftover rolls and such, and, about once a week, we would swing across the street after a romp in the park and proceed to feed the ducks. Since we were not the only ones doing this, and because few animals will willingly pass up a chance for a free meal, the ducks would usually start to swim or fly over to that side of the pond as soon as they saw a car pull up and stop there; by the time we got out of the car and had walked down to the water, there were usually dozens of them waddling right up to us, noisily quacking and honking, demanding to be fed. We happily obliged them, slowly being worked backwards towards the street as they come out of the water and moved towards us. The youngest ones, though, generally did not come up on shore, but stayed in the water near their mothers, so we all learned to throw over the heads of the nearer ones to be sure of getting some bread out to the ducklings still in the water, a kind of subconscious kids' solidarity. We also learned that geese were generally nasty, aggressive things, much larger and more assertive than your average duck, and perfectly willing to take a nip out of your finger if you did not pay them sufficient attention.

Elsewhere in the village of Sag Harbor itself, there were lots of interesting places to explore. The Whaling Museum was a great favorite with my family, and we would often find ourselves hanging out there on rainy days. Bleached white from years of exposure to the sun and blending in the with white paint of the building itself, it was easy not to notice that the front door you walked through was framed by a pair of whale jawbones. Chock full of artifacts collected over the village's long experience with whaling, it was one of those now-disappearing breed of museums dedicated to actually showing things without flashy audio-visual accompaniment. The museum building was originally the home of one of the wealthy owner of one of Sag Harbor's whaling fleets, so instead of large traipsing through galleries and cavernous spaces, one moved instead from one modestly-sized room to another, glass display cases lining the walls. Even the trinkets we kids bought in the gift shop reflected a simpler time, less encumbered with notions of political correctness or ecological mindedness (I still have the sperm whale tooth I bought there years ago, obviously long before the passage of the Endangered Species Act.)

Sag Harbor village proper was quiet, uncrowded, and unhurried. Even in the 1960s, when we were kids, there was only one bank, one movie theater, one hotel, a small grocery store, a hardware store, a five-and-dime, and the village offices. At the end of Main Street was Long Wharf and what is now the Marina, where the whaling ships of yesteryear once lined the docks. Clustered around Main Street among a warren of side streets were the houses that once belonged to the captains and their crews (an area now designated as the "Historical District", its houses now protected from being torn down or having the life remodeled out of them). The locals mostly just went about their business, tolerating "visitors" like us, although my grandparents and parents had been coming there for so long that they were pretty much accepted as quasi-residents. Not full of celebrities like the Hamptons, the village still harbored one or two notables of its own -- I will always remember seeing a vaguely familiar looking man muttering about the price of meat in the grocery store, and only later that day realizing that the hamburger man I had seen was John Steinbeck. As a kid, it seemed a little incongruous for a Pulitzer Prize winner to be buying his own groceries, but that was typical of the low-key, laid-back lifestyle there.

As we got older, went on to college, and then went our separate ways into the world, it became increasingly difficult for all of us to spend our summer vacations together as a family. Instead we would visit Sag harbor individually, but all of us tending to choose time during August, making it inevitable that two or three of us would wind up there at the same time, along with my parents, who would still spend much of that month (and as many other summer weekends as they could) there, and my grandparents, who by now flew back to their home in Florida by Labor Day weekend.

Sag Harbor grew and changed over the years as well. Still somewhat isolated from the development happening to the south, and lacking large swaths of farmland which could be easily converting into housing tracts, the village grew, but at a slow and measured pace. The last remnant of industry in town, a Bulova Watch factory, closed in the early 1980s, which forced the town to turn to tourism and the arts as its economic mainstays. The village turned into a kind of "SoHo East", empty shops being converted into artists studios. Day trippers from all over the East End of Long Island would come to view the galleries and buy the paintings and crafts the artists produced. At one point, there was even weekend passenger ferry service once a day between Sag Harbor and New London, Connecticut, bringing several hundred people onto the village streets each summer Saturday or Sunday. At least they didn't have their cars with them -- there were enough of those coming in for the same reasons from the rest of the East End. While not as bad as in the Hamptons themselves, traffic, especially on the weekends, became ever more congested and difficult to navigate; it was only because we had "grown up" there that we knew the side streets and back roads well enough to avoid the main roads whenever possible.

My grandparents eventually passed away, and the house at Noyac Bay was left to my father. As hard as he and my mother tried, they found they could not get out there as much as they would have liked to to keep the place up, so it fell to my brothers and sisters and me to help do so. We still managed to coordinate schedules to see to it that our paths crossed, usually one sibling and their family arriving on the Friday night of what was the last weekend for another sibling, who had been there the previous week or so.

My last stay at the Sag Harbor house was in August of 1992, and I remember that our last day there was August 17, not because I took any special note of that particular day (as sad as it was for me) but only because we checked the Weather Channel just before getting into the car to see if we would encounter any bad weather on the trip home, and I remember the forecaster announcing that the first tropical depression of the season, named Andrew, had just formed in the Atlantic.

My daughter was just two years old, and my son was not yet born (although I suspect he was conceived during that last stay, a wonderful farewell present). She remembers very little of the house, except for a large white marlin that my grandfather had caught decades before she (and I) were born, and which hung in the living room of the house; my father gave it to her when he sold the house later the next year.

Even though we could no longer stay in my grandparents house, whenever we can get away, I still take my family on day or overnight trips out to Sag Harbor, that wonderful place that I will always think of as perfect for kids to hang out and just be kids during long, languid summers, swimming, fishing, playing in the park, feeding the ducks, and actually learning a thing or two if you weren't careful.

Posted Apr 30, 2007 at 01:34 UTC, 3330 words,  [/richPermalink