The Geography Lesson

The Geography Lesson

This is a story that goes way back—for me, anyway. It’s set in the 60s, when music was spiked with innocent innuendo and social upheaval was the headline of the day.

Freshly graduated from high school, my buddy and I were looking for something different to do that summer. Another buddy told us about a camp counseling job he had the summer before and invited us to join him. We did.

My buddy and I (I’ll call him Mike) were inseparable as camp counselors in the jumble of woods, trails and screaming kids we called home in the summer of ’69. For kids from a borough of New York City, the wilds of Dutchess County was quite a cultural change, even if it was for two months. We also had some high school adventures together, but that’s another story.

Mike and I had quite the time at camp. This was no ordinary Camp Cherokee. It was a camp for troubled kids who needed a break from the cacophony of the city and their daily lives, not to mention their immediate families. For Mike and me, it was a total departure from our usual summer job fare, which usually consisted of scrubbing floors at a five and dime, stacking shelves at a liquor store or fixing the pin sweeps at a bowling alley when the leagues had too much to drink, usually about 45 minutes into the 2nd game.

As it often happens at camp, love blooms from all angles of the enchanted forest and I started seeing one of the girl counselors, a couple of years my junior, but well beyond her years, mind you. Let’s call her Nancy.

Nancy and I became an item and it didn’t take long before we were the talk of the place. Unbeknownst to head-in-the-clouds-me, it seems I was dating someone very well known not only in our closed circles at camp but back home as well. Let’s just say I was the everyday average Joe from Jackson Heights who caught the eye of a very uptown Manhattan girl. Once I found out, it made absolutely no difference to me, except that my sneakers were just a few more inches off the ground as I walked my young charges from one appointed round to another. I was the envy of some of the guys, and it felt pretty good.

Sometime toward the end of camp, a family tragedy befell Nancy and she was summoned back home. Tearful and yet hopeful of seeing each other again, we hugged like two smitten teenagers hug, and parted ways. I was devastated.

As I waited for my summer responsibilities to come to an end at camp so I can once again fall into the arms of the lovely Nancy, I fell into a teenage depression (the kind they wrote songs about in the 50s) and didn’t do well hiding it. I got a lot of “hey, sorry, man; that’s a tough one” but only Mike came up with the temporary antidote to my quandary—an overnight drive to the East End of Long Island, where Nancy’s family had a summer home.

“Impossible” I said. There’s no way we can check out that evening regular time and be back for 7 AM breakfast with the kids. We got an OK to go from our supervisor but it came with a warning—be back for breakfast or don’t come back.

“Hey” Mike said, “no problem, man.”

And so we took off for a place I had never been to before—Long Island; let alone the East End of Long Island.

I had no driver’s license at the time (I forgot why but that’s probably a good thing) so Mike did all the driving. I settled in for the journey, totally oblivious to the number of hours it would take.

We left camp at about 6 that evening. Our final destination was about 200 miles away—not an insurmountable trek, especially back in the day when cruising at 85 mph was OK. Miles, however, do not take into consideration the amount of traffic in between.

Not being able to sleep the night before, I fell asleep somewhere between the Nassau border and Sunrise Highway, one of the gateways to the aforementioned East End. Mike nudged me to stay awake so I passed the time counting the signs and asking him where we were. Mike had some prior knowledge of Long Island and described to me how “all the rich folks” come out there every summer to party. “Don’t you read the papers, man?” A slap in the face to a daily New York Times reader.

We didn’t stop once and as we inched closer, things like malls, traffic, houses, even light poles started to disappear. All I saw was headlights and green signs marking exits and distances. This was another world, I thought. What the hell am I doing here? Where is this? We passed a sign measuring the miles to Montauk. To me, this was far, far from home in Queens.

Having gotten directions from Nancy the day before, I spotted the exit first. A place called East Hampton. We turned off and followed a dirt road for about a mile or so until we saw the road sign, the scheduled stop for the rendezvous.

Nancy and her dad were waiting for us. It must have been about 10 PM or so, but to me, the heavens opened up when I saw Nancy and we hugged each other. We followed them to their house, Mike asked to see the nearest couch for a nap and Nancy and I went to the beach. We sat on a lifeguard bench and looked out into the ocean. And yes, the moon was out too. A perfect night.

I’ve seen beaches before, but never in my life had I remembered a beach like the one I was at. It wasn’t the beach really that made the impression. It was something else. It was in the air.

If I was a vintner taking notes I would say “a hint of vanilla with a spearmint and grapefruit finish. Subtle tones leave a velvety feel.” Now, maybe there was also a hint of young love in that feeling of euphoria, but the memory—and the smell—stayed with me in whatever corner of the brain stores those kinds of things. It is the essence and feel of the East End, of being somewhere else even though you’re not. And it’s one I recall over and over again when I take the same ride today with the love of my life.

Nancy and I parted ways shortly after that summer interlude, but the experience was more than a lesson in young love. I not only knew where the East End was, I was able to taste it as well.

Oh, yeah–Mike and I made it back to breakfast in time that next morning, exhausted, triumphant and as traveled men usually are, a little wiser.