Summer in a small town can be both a blessing and a curse. For some, it’s a tranquil getaway from the bustle and confusion of the business world. For others (sixteen-year-old boys in particular) it poses quite a problem. The sun may be shining, the summer breeze may be refreshingly cool, and school may no longer be harrowing one with work and worry, but the sixteen-year-old boy, when faced with two months of time to himself, is hard-pressed to put that time to good use – especially in a small town.
Me, I live in the hamlet of East Moriches, a quaint little area that hosts a few small businesses and is easily missed by busy city-dwellers eager to reach the sprawling luxury of the Hamptons. And, subsequently, opportunities to do something, anything, rarely produce themselves.
So one makes opportunities.
One fine, small town day when summer was just preparing to grace the island with its presence, a friend of mine and I went down to a small clearing in the woods that was linked by a trail to the northern shore of Moriches Bay. In East Moriches’ sister town, Center Moriches (which is, in fact, considerably larger than the former), we enacted a plan we had had up our sleeves for a long time.
One day, while sitting in chemistry class, my friend looked at me.
“Anthony,” he said, “Do you want to build a raft?”
Now to those who are fortunate enough to live in places where public venues abound and one can actually find something to occupy one’s time, this may not seem like much. But for those of us who are not so fortunate, an activity such as this is a welcome escape.
We set about first in our grand scheme looking for wood – anything that could serve as a surface large enough for two people to stand on. This, we knew, would not be enough – we’d need something a little more buoyant.
There is a good deal of Styrofoam and material of the like in the area in which we planned to build our raft, which proved rather useful. We carted a fair amount out of the woods (passers by thought we were being “environmentally conscious” – I suppose you could call it recycling) and set to work making it usable.
Armed with pocketknives, hammers, two pounds of galvanized steel nails, and pure teenage gumption we built our raft – a Styrofoam hull, hacked to fit and held in place by a series of old boards, and a four-by-eight foot plywood deck. A gentleman who walked by said it would never float. We were determined to prove him wrong.
Soon enough, however, we discovered we had built the raft roughly one hundred yards from the shore. In the woods. This was obviously not the brightest idea – I suppose teenage gumption has a tendency to overlook some necessary details.
First, we attempted carrying it. Both of us not being particularly stocky young men, we tried moving it at twenty-pace intervals. We barely even made it one hundred feet before we realized it couldn’t be done, at least not that way.
We had, luckily enough, found a PVC pipe by a small creek, which could function as a sort of wheel. We would place the pipe under the front end of the raft, push it the length of the vessel, then remove it, rinse, and repeat. We did this over and over again, braving briars, a treacherous fall off the trail and into the creek, and, at some points, getting run over by the raft itself until finally, after some time, we reached the shore.
When we did, it was glorious.
We pushed our vessel a few more feet until it was entirely in the water. The sun was reaching the conclusion of its daily journey, and glancing beams of light on our now bare backs were like congratulatory pats for a job well done. My friend cautiously stepped on, causing the raft to list to one side. It evened out, though, and I, too, boarded.
A couple walked by who had seen us earlier in the day, pushing our behemoth down the narrow trail. The woman laughed, handing us our paddles that we had brought along. The man offered a word of warning.
“Be careful boys. Hypothermia sets in quick. I don’t want to hear about you on News 12.”
Naturally, being sixteen-year-old boys, we scoffed. Unnerved, we set sail.
Once we had pushed off from the shore, we paddled along swiftly. Our shared amazement at what we had done was too great to express in more than a few words. My friend turned to me.
“Anthony,” he said, “We built a freaking raft.”
We paddled out, half letting the current take us, half propelling ourselves. We skirted the shore until we had traveled almost the length of the whole beach. The evening was now even closer to surrendering to dusk, and as we gazed westward we glimpsed the sun setting over Moriches Bay, pink tufts of cloud suspended in a vanilla sky.
At one point – and I’m not sure who decided this, myself, my friend, or the sea – it was time to head to shore. We paddled in and pushed the raft up the beach and underneath a warped, wind-blown tree, leaving it at the mercy of others who would no doubt pass it by in the days to come. Earlier, we had decided upon a name for our ship, based off the various difficulties and unexpected trials we encountered while constructing and transporting her: Shit Happens. This, we would soon find, was an even more fitting title than we had intended. About two weeks later we returned to the beach to set out upon the high seas once more. As was expected, our ship had been vandalized. After some simpler-than-expected repairs, we headed out again – only this time with makeshift paddles made of planks (we both had forgotten to bring real ones).
On this particular day the winds were high – as were the swells. On top of this, the tide was going out, and the bay was a churning stew of bad boating conditions. We soon discovered that the “paddles” we had were of no use, so we decided to just drift a while.
After about fifteen minutes, though, we had difficulty seeing the point where we had started. We weren’t even going past the same beach anymore; the strip of sand had ended and we were now drifting past private residencies. We were roughly a quarter mile out and, upon attempting to paddle towards the shore, found the current to just be too strong.
We were drifting out into the middle of the bay without cellphones or any way of controlling our direction. On a conglomeration of wood and Styrofoam, no less.
Once again, my friend turned to me.
“Anthony,” he said, “I think we need to abandon ship.”
Gravely, I nodded. “Abandon ship or abandon hope.” So we dropped our paddles on the deck and, with sorrow in our hearts and a touch of fear in our bones, jumped into the none-too-pleasant water.
The cold, we knew, very well could have killed us, so we swam as fast as we could – until we realized we could walk. Fortunately for us, Moriches Bay, even a quarter of a mile out, isn’t very deep. So, side by side and holding on to each other so as to not get knocked over by a particularly nasty swell, we waded to shore.
Upon reaching land, we were greeted by two fishermen, one of whom, with a heavy accent, asked if we wanted back whatever we had abandoned in the bay. We told him we didn’t, that it wasn’t much more than a few old pieces of wood and Styrofoam nailed together. We didn’t tell him that it was really more to us – how could he understand? For us, the floating piece of flotsam we had left in the bay was far more than that. It was a grand adventure.
While walking down the rocky beach, barefoot and thoroughly soaked, we turned around and caught one last glimpse of the Shit Happens drifting towards Cupsogue Beach. In our hearts, we hope that it is still there, marooned on the beach, waiting for our return.
But in our heads, we know that it most likely is not.
Most small town boys, when hard-pressed to find something worth doing, will give in and not do anything. I like to think that, as I stated before, if an opportunity does not present itself, one needs to make one, and that is what we did. But the raft was more than an opportunity – it was an escape, a chance to stray from the daily grind of small town life without really leaving the small town.
And escapes like that are what I believe small towns are for.