A Day atGilgoBeach
By Michael Grant
I’ll never forget the summer of 1955 because that’s the year my brother and I almost died.
“We’re going to Gilgo…”
That simple sentence always filled me with delight—and dread. Delight, because, as a ten-year-old boy living in a steamingNew York Citytenement, the thought of going to the beach out onLong Islandwhere I could escape the oppressive heat of the city and swim in theAtlantic Oceanwas truly exciting.
On the other hand, I dreaded going toGilgoBeachfor two reasons. First, I could never understand my mother’s insistence that we go to Gilgo, instead of the much closer and much nicerJonesBeachwith its alluring bathhouses and, best of all, concessions where you could get hotdogs and ice cream. GilgoBeachhad none of that. It didn’t even have people. Well, not many anyway. The second reason had to do with my pale, Irish-inherited complexion. My skin was so sensitive that my mother used to joke that I was capable of getting a severe sunburn standing under a full moon. She wasn’t far off the mark. Because of my affliction, the thought of getting fried at Gilgo (we had no umbrella, don’t ask) was not very appealing.
The entire family, consisting of my father, my mother, an older brother and two older sisters piled—squeezed is probably a better word—into our old 1936 Buick for the long trek out toLong Island. With our noses pressed to the windows we kids would always look longingly at the oasis that wasJonesBeachas my father made the left turn around the needle and headed east for the isolation of Gilgo.
From experience we kids knew that the ride back to the city would be pure torture. It was always the same—four cranky kids with sunburns and sand-encrusted bathing suits crammed into the back seat of the old Buick moaning and groaning and taking turns shouting: “don’t touch me” and “stay on your own side.” But that was all in the distant future. Right now, we were going to the beach. Life was good.
It was an especially windy day and there was no one on the beach except for a handful of fishermen ankle-deep in the surf casting their lures into the roiling ocean. My mother took one look at the waves crashing onto the shore and declared the ocean off limits to us kids.
With nothing else to do, my brother and I went exploring down the beach. A previous days’ storm had eroded the beach and left behind a neat fifteen-foot cliff of sand. My brother bet me that he could dig a deeper tunnel than I could. We grabbed a couple of clamshells and the race was on.
In no time at all he was on his belly and so far into his tunnel that only his feet were sticking out. I was sitting down and diligently tossing clamshells full of sand over my shoulder. Suddenly, the weight of ten feet of sand over our heads collapsed on top of us. I was completely buried in sand, but, fortunately, from my seated position I was able to thrust my head through the sand. My brother, on the other hand, was completely buried except for his feet. I screamed at the top of my lungs.
Within seconds the fishermen were there, frantically digging my brother out. With only my head above the sand, the weight of the sand on my chest was making it hard for me to breathe. After considerable effort, they managed to pull my brother out, coughing and crying and spitting sand. Then they started digging me out. But as quickly as they cleared away the sand, more slid down the cliff and reburied me. From lack of oxygen, I started to see black spots pin wheeling in front of me. And then, just when I thought I was going to pass out, I felt strong hands grab me and yank me free of the sand.
It was a very quiet ride home. As usual, we were all sunburned and our bathing suits were even more sand-encrusted than usual, but no one uttered a peep. It was never put into words, but in the silence of the car that day we were all thinking the same thing: What would have happened if there had been no fishermen there? And what would have happened if I had been buried so deep that I couldn’t get my head out to scream for help?