Safari Nights In Quogue
Back in the Pleistocene of the early nineteen fifties and before the villages on the East End of Long Island closed their garbage dumps there existed a keen teenage sport; the nocturnal rat hunt. Weapons laws were so permissive as to allow my grandfather, who farmed corn in Westhampton Beach during the War, to give me a twenty-two pump gun for my twelfth birthday after a few suitable lessons on safety. My friends were also well equipped with shotguns and rifles and by the time one or two of us had drivers licenses enabling night time operation we would pile into their old cars and betake ourselves to the Quogue dump for the thrill of the kill. Now rat shooting was neither casual nor undisciplined. Two boys would bestride front fender headlights while others were afoot with weapons and flashlights. We crept slowly to the edge of the pit in darkness. At a signal the headlights and flashlights were all turned on. Like a boiling, volcanic cauldron the garbage pit seethed with rats, not just cute little dune rats either but large, long tailed Norway rats. Then it was fire at will and the blasting began. Doubtless Quogue’s one policeman heard the fusillades coming from the deep woods North of the Montauk Highway but he knew what was up and understood, having, probably, been a party to earlier, right of passage expeditions himself. After numerous rodents had been fired upon and a few dispatched, with the remaining population having either scampered away or burrowed deep into the mounded garbage, there was a celebration of the brave. We imagined ourselves to be like Ernest Hemmingway in Africa after a great hunt. That nobody would even touch any of the hornless trophies was immaterial. Weapons were unloaded, beer bottles were cracked open with church-keys and tale telling began. Did you see that big one on top of the cardboard box? Finally got him with my mother’s four ten.
Some of the lads suggested that it might even be more sporting to wade into the pit and smack the quarry with baseball bats instead of shooting them. There had been legends regarding such activities by hardy elders in days of yore. Hardier than us! Nobody wanted to put themselves in the way of a rat bite and the horror show that would follow should it happen. So we just kept plugging away beside the headlights.
Occasionally rats would leap over the pit rim right in front of the firing line. That got tricky because all of us had been trained never to swing upon one another or fire in each other’s direction should a rat run between us. If that happened they just escaped.
It wasn’t long before the more adventurous girls, wanting to be with the boys and after hearing great tales of the hunt, insisted upon coming along. One I remember to have been a crack shot with a twenty-two and she quickly gained respect for her prowess. Most, however, were content to hold flashlights and spot the prey, a considerable aid to the shooter who didn’t have to hold the light and try to aim at the same time. Probably the last shoot for all of us was when one of the prettiest girls was spotting for her boyfriend, later to become her husband. She was wearing a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts. Rats were scrambling and perhaps eight of us constituted the firing line with four firing and four spotting. An immense rat leapt over the pit rim in front of us and swiftly dashed between the bare legs of the spotter girl clad in Bermudas. The protracted scream that ensued stopped all the action that night and forever. While our girl was unharmed, that was IT for the girls, even the sharp shooter, and, by proxy, for the rest of us. Nocturnal activities quickly morphed back into beach parties with marshmallow roasting about a bon fire of driftwood, beer drinking and the singing of songs with harmonic lines like “Aura Lee. Aura Lee. Maid with golden hair.” Of course there were moonlight races in SS boats, night fishing expeditions along with flashlight crabbing, beach buggy driving and many other diversions but the days of the great nocturnal safaris and big game rodent hunts were over.
Many new worlds awaited discovery in which to experiment and develop character. I recall that night swimming in the ocean, if the shore break wasn’t too rough, became a favorite pastime as the great hunts passed into local legend.
Pieter Greeff P.O. Box 1526 Quogue, NY