Looking Back, Going East
By Diane Strecker
In 1959 my family came to summer in Montauk. I can honestly tell you, we came on a wing and a prayer. We lived on ten acres up island on the remnants of my grandparents commercial flower farm in the same old house they built when they immigrated from Germany in 1916. We gave little thought of ever summering on the any shore till my father thought to sell all but two of those acres to developers, buy a 35-foot travel trailer and a new Ford wagon. That one fateful exchange altered life, as I knew it.
The campground in Ditch Plains was a modest retreat filled with an odd mix of tents, trailers, old railroad cabooses turned rental cottages, and a tiny general store. We arrived just after dark. As I stepped from the car still half asleep, I was hit with a wall of wet fog and immediately tasted the salt air on my lips. There felt a thunder reverberating in my small chest as the waves crashed so loud in the distance we shouted over them as we settled in.
As my Dad hooked up to utilities and shouted orders my Mom was left to make sleeping arrangements and lead us to one of the three old wood bathhouses, to use the facilities and prepare for bed. I was appointed the top bunk that for many years I would share with my sister toe to toe. My three brothers crammed into the wider bed below. As we tucked in for the night I pressed my pillow hard against the screen of the jalousie window and fell asleep to the sounds and smells of the ocean. I molded to it. I was seven.
In the years that followed my bunk became my refuge. There my thoughts were clearer and my dreams more vivid. I felt more like the person I wanted to be. Each year when school resumed I’d have trouble sleeping for weeks, longing for my window the salt air and oceans song.
In Montauk all my dreads disappeared. It was more than fun; it afforded me a sense freedom and anonymity. Back home we stood out from the families now living in the carbon copy split-levels, sitting on my grandfather’s farmland. I resented and envied them at the same time. The contrast between their privileged life and our meager one was a daily reminder I gladly left behind. Going east became my saving grace. And so, I would literally live for summer.
Even before school let out each year, we’d travel out on weekends. We had everything packed and waiting when Dad pulled up. He was more than anxious to get out east and lived to make time. We took every imaginable route to speed the two-hour journey. Minutes after we arrived, he’d be walking toward “ the bowl” in full surfcasters regalia long before we’d finished unpacking the car.
The ride out was half the fun. I think I was 13 when I decided to narrate a weekly tour through the Hamptons. It drove my father crazy. I would start in Flanders at the Big Duck and go on for as long as he would allow, pointing out the windmills, landmarks and historic sites that he coincidentally brought to my attention over the years, while speaking in an English accent. By the time I got to “ We are now approaching the beautiful Palm in East Hampton in all of its flowering pink perfection “ he would flip around and yell, “ That’s enough.” From that point on we would drive east in silence. When we reached the Nappeague stretch I would begin to smell the ocean and feel the sand start to mix under the tires and let myself sense the east.
If I close my eyes, I am there. My father is shaking me awake at 5 am to watch the deer lick a salt block out on our lawn as my child eyes watch in wonder. Dry twigs crack under my thin rubber soles as I step along the narrow cliff-side path to the cove on a scorching mid summer day. Honeysuckle and beach roses permeate in the simmering air.