At one time, theShinnecockBay, thePeconicBay, Cold Spring Pond and the Ocean were all visible when standing at the top of the Shinnecock Hills. Even as late as in the 1960’s the views were incredible. I remember because that’s when my parents built our summer house on “the Hill.” I was ten and could see what seemed like “forever.”
Summer cottages started to spring up in the area. Each weekend during the good weather, my folks would cart me out fromQueens, tearing me away from any social activities that I might have been involved in. As a preteen, and only child, I wasn’t happy about their “summer home dream” on a dirt road, in such a desolate part of the universe.
After a while, a city policeman and his family started building a house near ours and, low and behold, they had two daughters. Both girls were close to my age. To an only child this was a gift. We became fast friends and bonded over our horrific fates of having to come out to theHamptons.
Money was tight so building a “summer home” was risky for a working class family coming from the city. Both families, therefore, relied on sweat equity. So “what to do?” was always on our lips since the folks’ sole focus was to work on finishing their houses. Inevitably, we were given the directive to “go do something…outside!” in order to get us out of their hair.
We were too young to drive so we still needed our parents as chauffeurs. Dune Road,PonquogueBeach, the Canal andMeschuttBeachwere all too far by foot.Southamptondid have a one-screen movie theater with matinees, however matinees only ran on rainy days. Down the hill wasShinnecockBay, a rocky beach with stinky, dead horseshoe crabs and jellyfish, which to us was “grody.” So exploring and berry picking was often our only choice.
This one particular weekend, sun high in the summer sky, Vivian’s older sister emerged from her bedroom in a swimsuit. She marched outside, snapped open a lawn chair and laid down in the middle of the front lawn. She was in a full-fledged teenaged snit about not being able to go to a real beach and, more importantly, being a world away from her new boyfriend. We invited her to come pick blueberries with us but she was more interested in sunning and sulking than hiking and picking. We sat next to her and relentlessly tried to change her mind.
In her quest to be left alone to continue her teenage pout, Vivian’s sister redirected our attention to the wind which was blowing briskly as it does up on “the Hill.” It made a strange howling sound which she said was a moan from the spirit that frequently visited the area. How she knew this, we didn’t ask. After all, she was now old enough to have a boyfriend and that gave her some credibility. She continued her attempt to scare us away, but Vivian and I, being preteens, were only frightened by ghost stories at night, when the absence of city lights made the nights pitch-dark and eerily silent… except for crickets. But this was daytime so we were brave. We finally gave up and went off with our berry-picking baskets.
We could pick pints and pints of fresh blueberries in no time at all. “The Hill” was covered with wild low-bush blueberries and a few blackberries. The story goes that, at one time, the coal-powered engines of the trains running through Shinnecock Hill would throw off sparks causing fires which cleared the hill of trees, shrubs and any structures that were in its path. The railroad claimed it was not the engines that caused the fires, but passengers tossing cigarettes from the train. After the rail system switched to diesel, miraculously the hills no longer burned and the area became attractive for building summer escapes from the city. This is probably why we had a view and blueberries which are known to thrive in the aftermath of fire.
One fine summer day, we took off in the opposite direction from the train tracks, which was usually my favorite direction of exploration. We walked down a dirt road looking for paths to go deeper into the briars to find new blueberry patches. Briar patches were the other type of foliage that loved Shinnecock Hill and still do. Briars would eat you alive so we wore long pants and tread carefully.