When I reflect upon my childhood, I am overwhelmed with wonder. I was so lucky to be raised by loving parents in our beautiful maritime community. I also think about how my dad being an oyster boat captain enriched my already wonderful life.
I was born on August 8, 1944 at Stirling Hospital in Greenport, Long Island, just minutes before midnight. My parents had lost two sons. The doctor remembered that the second baby, Gerald, had arrived on August 8 but only lived days. He wanted my birthday to be the same as my brother’s, and he succeeded. My parents were thrilled their “oysterette” had arrived, and eight has always been my lucky number.
We lived in the perfect house. Why? It was on Bay Avenue, which ended on the water with a dock where we swam and fished. I can still feel the excitement of wrestling an eel or tickling a swell-belly. An extra bonus was a hill in our spacious backyard. We enjoyed sledding in winter and played baseball almost all year.
What really made our home special was its widow’s peak, a top room with windows galore offering a vista of Peconic Bay where you could watch boats entering and leaving the harbor. It gave me an excellent view of my dad’s oyster boat, the McDonough, coming and going. What more could I want?
My dad, Captain Bill, worked for Lester and Toner Oyster Company for 26 years. Royal Toner, his boss, made us feel like his extended family. We were in paradise when we got to go to his animal-filled farm and pristine beach. It never dawned on me that he was a very rich man. He and his beautiful wife always made us feel welcome and really knew how to have fun.
The most awesome part of being an oysterette was our family traveling to Connecticut on the McDonough. We got to stay in the captain’s quarters. The standing joke was that my brother, Billy, was conceived on the McDonough in 1950. (Funny, I must have been in a deep sleep.) We went to Connecticut often because many oyster beds were there, and my dad’s men always treated me like a princess. They spoiled me rotten and even let me spray them with the powerful water hose.
I always looked forward to watching my dad shuck oysters in our old basement. His hands did fly! My brother and I never got tired of searching for pearls. I vividly remember the bat attack. Screams erupted when a black bat kept diving down and pulling his hair while he tried to open oysters. What a Halloween sight! A broom came to the rescue.
March 20, 1958, turned out to be a terrible day. After dinner, I started getting ready for the next day’s excitement. I was going to play my trombone in a New York State competition. My dad had to go check his boat because we were having a snowstorm. He gave me a big hug and told me he was very proud of me. A couple of hours later, there was a knock on the door. Odd, it was too late for visitors. There stood Dr. Kaplan on our front porch. He wanted to talk to my mom, the sick parent with chronic heart problems. Ironically, our doctor came to say, with affection, that my dad had died of coronary thrombosis behind the wheel of his car on the way to secure the McDonough. I was 13, and Billy had just turned seven. I did not want it to be true. I prayed, bargained and screamed, but nothing worked. My dad, the oyster boat captain, was not coming home. I would not be looking out the widow’s peak anymore.
That night, Sweets, the local shipyard at the end of our street, caught fire. Imagine the blaze fueled by paint, turpentine and wooden boats! All the beautiful homes on Bay Avenue were saved because of the thick blanket of snow. I still think Captain Bill watched from his new home and was thankful.
Billy grew to be more and more like his father everyday. The sea called to him, and he blossomed into a chip off the old block – a caring man who respected life. He became a boat mechanic. Many a day, Billy caught oysters and shucked them with lightening speed. He enjoyed boats and fishing until 2004. Stomach cancer was the killing culprit.
I am surrounded by an awesome legacy. Everyday, something reminds me of my link to oysters. Recently, my childhood friend Ed showed an interest in my dad’s genealogy. A model of Captain Bill’s boat, the McDonough, is upstairs in the East End Seaport Museum. Ed was intrigued.
I was encouraged to go through pictures and papers. Ed used the computer to find out fascinating family facts. My brother died not knowing he was William John III. Also, my grandfather was listed in the 1920 census as a laborer on an oyster boat. His draft registration stated that he was a dockhand for Greenport Oyster Company. Lester and Toner eventually bought Greenport Oyster Company. I then understood why my dad had worked at Lester and Toner. Amazing!
Even more closure and understanding was to follow. I found a Lester and Toner pay envelope in my mom’s memorabilia. Why did she save it? I held it wondering and then finally flipped up the flap that had Capt. Wm. on it. Now I knew the reason. It was dated March 20, 1958, my dad’s last paycheck and his last day with his oysterette. What a treasured keepsake! Thank you, Mom.