S. O. B.
by Rameshwar Das
Bill King, June Beckwith and I clambered over concrete drainage rings, dropped like anAlice-in-Wonderlandplayset in the ocean dunes of Napeague. The rings were the septic system underlying a condo development calledWindwardShores. We opposed its construction but we were too late. The heavy equipment had gotten there ahead of us.
Bill had glued a straight pin into a blob of epoxy on the back of a jingle shell on which he’d hand-lettered “S.O.B.,” emblems of our nascent environmental group, Save Our Beaches. We were the founding and, as it turned out, only members. We had aspirations.
Bill King, a sculptor whose works often echo his own long thin frame, has made everything from giant aluminum stick figures at airports to whimsical caricatures carved from cedar shingles. I had been living inIndiafor a couple of years, but was once more doing photography. June Beckwith was a bit of an iconoclast. The three of us had gotten together to protest rampant new development threateningEast Hampton’s landscape.
My interest in beaches and environmental issues was personal. A summer kid from birth, my grandmother told me I spent my first summer squalling up and downAtlantic Avenuein Amagansett (probably wishing Mom didn’t take Dr. Spock so seriously).
In 1949, after being lured toEast Hamptonby friends, my grandparents bought a turn-of-the-century summer cottage on a hill overlooking Barnes Landing on Gardiner’s Bay, between Louse Point and the Devon Yacht Club. A quarter-mile path led through scrub oak and cedars to the beach. There were no houses in between. My folks bought a bare-wood cabin down the hill so we three kids wouldn’t overwhelm the grandparents. From the day after school let out until it started up after Labor Day we happily inhabited the summer beach.
A dirt road ran from Barnes Landing to Louse Point past ahigh pointcalled Spy Glass Hill where the bay bluff, Accabonac Cliff, was a hundred feet high. As kids, we would run down that giant sand hill in great sliding leaps. At the bottom our ecstatic momentum dissipated on a sandy beach two hundred feet wide.
In the early 60’s a subdivision began going up around us. Lots were90’wide and you needed three of them to build a house, which still added up to less than a quarter acre. Soon there were several roads and tens of houses between us and the beach.
One of the new roads, Waters Edge, had houses built along the bluff we used to run down. When the subdivision was laid out in the late 50’s, zoning was still new inEast Hampton. Setbacks and erosion rates were not yet in the vocabulary. As might have been expected, the great bluff continued to slump down to the beach as it had ever since it was deposited by the glacier. The edge crept closer to the houses perched on Waters Edge and the new homeowners grew anxious. What did they expect with an address like Waters Edge?
To stabilize the bluff they built creosote-soaked bulkheads at the base with timber groins going out into the bay. When a winter nor’easter would roll in across the long fetch of Gardiner’s Bay the whitecaps smacked into the bulkhead and reflected back with renewed force, washing the fine quartz sand back out with it. Within a decade the pristine bay beach beneath the cliff, there as long as anyone could remember, was gone. Beach walks to Louse Point became an obstacle course. The magical beach of my childhood was lost. Later, traprock boulders were trucked in fromNew Jerseyto reinforce the base and keep the bulkheads from failing. Those massive black rocks will be there long after I’m gone.
The Napeague Stretch whereWindwardShoresis located consists of several miles of sand dunes and scrub, a geological afterthought formed by the littoral drift of sand from the pile of glacial till to the east in Montauk. Eventually it closed a stretch of open water to connect Montauk with Amagansett. Napeague’s beauty is elemental, wind-blown dunes, hidden cranberry bogs, waves of beach grass, bayberry, shadbush and beach plum blooming white in spring, all framing spectacular seascapes. Most of it is only a couple of feet above sea level. Both the 1938 Hurricane and Hurricane Carol in 1954 over-washed Napeague. In ’38 it was submerged for a week, leaving Montauk an island.