The Memory Rock of Montauk Point
By Ken Giovanelli
There was a keen sense of history in the air that summer of 1976. On the steamy, sunny morning of Sunday, July 4, a billowing flotilla of tall ships sailed gracefully up the Hudson River for the Bicentennial celebration in New York. A week before that memorable day, a newspaper article chronicled the one-hundredth anniversary of Custer’s ill-fated Last Stand at the Little Bighorn in Montana. By mid-August, Jimmy Carter and Gerry Ford emerged as presidential candidates. Two hundred years. One hundred years. This very summer. American history seemed to telescope into a national moment where past and present were vibrantly alive. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, memories were afoot.
At least it seemed that way to an impressionable 24-year old suburban kid from Nassau County, two years out of college, full of dreams and literary aspirations. That summer I was between jobs, nurturing my soul with Kerouac and Whitman, and planning a solo cross-country train trip in the fall. Like Jack and Walt, I wanted to record my own history within the context of the vast American continent. I was an idealistic, young historian ripe for a memory quest. But before the Amtrak sojourn even began, I discovered a lasting memory, literally at my feet, on the end of Long Island.
On the last Sunday in August, I visited Montauk Point for the first time. Even though I lived on Long Island most of my life, I had never ventured to the East End. But, I was dating a young woman whose family kept a small summer home in Center Moriches, and one beautiful Sunday afternoon Janis and I took off for the 60-mile trip to Montauk.
After all these years, memory fades. I recall nothing about our drive through the Hamptons that day except the surprise of seeing the nondescript Memory Motel sitting matter-of-factly on the south side of Main Street in Montauk. The Rolling Stones had just released their album Black and Blue, and the melancholy ballad “Memory Motel” was getting decent airtime that summer. Only later would I read the Stones had stayed at Truman Capote’s compound on the Montauk bluffs the year before and named the song after the unassuming motel at the center of town.
A few miles past the motel, Janis and I parked at the Point and trekked down the sandy path to the north shore beach. We poked among the cobble stones and wet boulders, eventually making our way to the firm dirt path below the lighthouse. The view was exquisite, wild, exhilarating! Just a few yards below, the Atlantic frothed and pounded the rocks, bathing us in a cool spray. I remembered: Whitman stood here! In his poem From Montauk Point old Walt wrote that he, too, once perched below the lighthouse “as on some mighty eagle’s beak,” marveling at “that inbound urge and urge of waves / seeking the shores forever.”
On our walk back along the north beach, I absentmindedly scanned the rocks and stones, picking up one or two, tossing them back, until one particular rock caught my attention. Intrigued, I pulled the rock from a shallow tide pool and held it, glistening black with water. Unlike the thousands of surrounding sea stones and pebbles which were generally rounded, the two-pound rock I had just retrieved was elongated and triangular-shaped. Lying upon my open right hand, the rock almost perfectly fit the contour of my outstretched palm—3-1/2 inches wide at its base and six inches long, tapering down to a rounded point half an inch wide. My first thought: this rock is too symmetrical to have been smoothed by the sea—it was shaped by a human hand. It seemed too large for an arrowhead; perhaps it had been the head of a club? Even more curious were faint markings I discerned on the “front” side of the rock. A few letters? A date? Runes, perhaps?
My next thought bolted down out of the Montauk blue: this rock might have been crafted and left behind by the Vikings! Had I accidentally stumbled upon an artifact proving that a Viking longship once made a pit stop on Montauk Point a thousand summers ago?
At that moment, the “rock” became The Rock.
Over the next few weeks, I pondered and mused upon the Rock from different angles, under various lights. I showed it to a few friends and family members. They were non-committal. Regardless of the lack of consensus, the Rock was burning a proverbial hole in my dreamer’s pocket. So, with the ghosts of Kerouac and Whitman whispering over my shoulder, I did what any amateur historian would do: I rode the bus and subway from my home in New Hyde Park to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan, seeking a geology department which could provide a definitive answer—and catapult me from anonymity to the front page of every newspaper in the world in 72-point type:
VIKINGS VISITED NEW YORK! Thousand-Year-Old Artifact Discovered By Long Islander on Montauk Point
Memory can be a fickle companion. You’d think such a pivotal day would be emblazoned in my memory, but it’s not. All I recall is walking down a dim corridor of the Museum to an office staffed by two geologists. I carefully removed the Rock from my knapsack and entrusted it to them. They quietly studied it for a few moments. “Interesting shape, isn’t it?” I asked, a bit breathless. “And, those marks—they could be carvings…”
I have a vague memory of the two geologists smirking—or, was it chuckling?
“This is ordinary schist,” one of the geologists said. “There are a thousand rocks like this one right across the street in Central Park.”
The other geologist added with a laugh, “You can toss it over the wall at the Park when you leave.”
Feeling a bit chagrined, I took my precious cargo and walked out of the Museum. I crossed Central Park West and strolled a few blocks north along the low stone wall of Central Park toward the 81st Street subway stop. I did not toss the Rock over the wall.
Janis and I married a year later. Even though she had been an eyewitness to the Rock’s discovery, she never gave it much credence. That’s okay—marriages can survive on much less. We drove out to Montauk once or twice over the years, but it wasn’t until our daughter was five in the mid-1990s that we took a family beach vacation at one of the sun-bleached oceanfront resorts a few blocks south of the town circle and two long blocks east of the Memory Motel. It was the beginning of several annual vacations to Montauk.
Each summer, I renewed my romance with the ocean’s allure and beauty, her many moods and mysteries. Our daughter inherited this love, as well as the story of the Rock. And, each vacation, when we made our pilgrimage to the Point, I found that I was 24 again, scanning the beach for another stone, just one, that might look different than all the rest. But, I’ve never seen one like it again. For 37 years now, I’ve been the Unknown Keeper of the Rock, burning a small inner vigil lamp to its existence through five job changes and seven relocations across three states.
Over the years, I’ve come to reverence how the ocean evokes mystery, transcendence and memory. I can’t explain it; I simply surrender to it. Whoever first named that beat little motor court Memory Motel got it right. It’s all about memory. You stand at the edge of the ocean’s timeless beauty, whether in bright sun, pastel twilight or deep night, and a strange familiarity wells up within you. Time and memory telescope into the present moment. You see your daughter at five skipping gleefully through the foam, and then, she’s twenty-three, gazing serenely at a Montauk moonrise. Or, you stand at the Point as a young man of twenty-four, pick up another sea-stone, and you’re middle-aged at sixty-one.
Of course, everything changes. But once the moment or season passes, what remains? The afternoon in the sun? The Rock? The ocean’s” inbound urge and urge of waves / seeking the shore forever”? Somehow, beauty and memory remain, long after our Montauk summers end.
And, what is one hundred years when you are surrounded by such beauty? For I treasure one last thought, a “pre-memory” if you will. On a distant afternoon in the summer of 2076, as America celebrates the Tri-centennial, my precious daughter will gingerly walk down the sandy path to the beach at Montauk Point as an eighty-six year-old, breathe in the salt air for her father, say a prayer in his memory, and, fulfilling a vow he once asked of her, she’ll toss the Rock over a long-forgotten wall, back into the Atlantic.