A Bench at Fort Hill

Written By: Bettina Zimny

It took a long time for Walter Zimny to arrive at Fort Hill Cemetery in Montauk. This is really a story to request some local intervention to make his journey complete.

Born in 1923 in the Bronx, Walter was a child of the Depression, son of immigrant parents. Early childhood had its highs and lows, but even as a young boy he made the best of it. Looking back, he made life sound like an adventure, even though his parents were struggling to hold on to their hard-earned home, businesses and family life during the difficult Depression era days. Walter thrived by focusing on the positive and unique aspects of life in the Bronx, never knowing or realizing that there wasn’t always enough to eat at the table, or that his older sister Anna got only the potatoes while as the only son, he received the meat and best food. His stories and memories were instead about exciting happenings near Yankee Stadium, his local gang of neighborhood friends, and their early adulthood days and adventures in NYC.

He told of the gang’s pooling of money to pay for enough gas to take an old jalopy full of boys from the neighborhood as far as a tank of gas could get them out and back towards the unknown East End of Long Island. Those early trips never quite got them as far as Montauk, but close enough to have them wondering about what could be found farther out. A first glimpse of a place to be explored on a next trip once a few more gallons of gas could be found. The start of his journey to Fort Hill.

And then came the WWII days, preoccupying and distracting those who would become the heroes of the Greatest Generation, and delaying that next trip to Montauk. Walter and his 18-year-old buddies from the Bronx enlisted in the military just in time to arrive in Normandy on Utah Beach in 1944. Coincidentally, they started their Army training at the Camp Upton Induction Center in Yaphank, now the Brookhaven National Lab, reminding them of their early attempts to travel farther out on the East End.

Photos and stories shared later in life only reflected the more human side of the war, making it seem a great adventure. Talk of wet socks, caring local French and Belgian families, foreign liquors, endless marching and unknown destinations were his war reflections in letters. But the reality of disturbing dreams tormented him during the first years back in the Bronx after his return. And only much later did the family learn of his involvement in battles and European campaigns. As he told the family when a group trip to see Normandy and the WWII monuments was suggested, “I’ve already walked across Europe”. He came back with the other WWII veterans, the Greatest Generation, ready to make a life and build a family.

Meeting Ruth, a young NYC working girl, began it all. Courtship in and around Rockefeller Center near her office, trips to relatives in the Adirondacks, big bands, dancing with the new gang of couples, a winter wedding, and the start of a family of his own were the focus of his life. Young children, night school, a growing professional career, and daily trips to remodel a new fixer-upper house in the suburbs consumed many days in the early 1950’s and 1960’s, covering over a decade of hard work and sacrifice. Then there was time for family vacations and adventures. Along came a chance to finally get back to discovering the East End, this time tied into a business trip to Brookhaven Lab. He was assigned to a nuclear research project at the same location that had once been his Army training ground, a place reminding him of the early East End road trips. This began what was to become a lifetime of summers in Montauk. At first there was family camping at Hither Hills with kites, bikes, beach fires, and gatherings with cousins and new friends. But all too soon, Walter was a widower with three young children all under 9-years old, losing Ruth to cancer at 42-years old.

Decades later everyone realized how much it all meant to have had those last golden days with both Walter and Ruth in Montauk. Walter eventually thought to retire there, finding a place along Old Montauk Highway not too far from the old campground. He was introduced to the local senior routines by a neighbor, Mary Fullerton, who had spent her entire life in Montauk. Favorite discoveries were the discount senior lunch program, free newspapers and local library programs. The frugal aspect of life was forever an important factor to a child of the Depression.

But always curious, active and adventure seeking, Walter still wasn’t ready to settle down even in his eighties. He helped each of his children establish their own homes (actually bringing a hammer & nails on his visits all over the country wherever they had settled). And he was even lucky enough to share in the joys of grandchildren and watch his children build their own careers.

And again, as with the Depression, WWII, loss of his wife, and single parenthood, one last tragedy managed to challenge Walter at 86 years-old. A fall and injury while helping paint his youngest son’s new house curtailed his active senior life. For over six long years, until he was 92, Walter was in a wheelchair and required nursing care. And even in this last stage of life, he made the experience feel like an adventure to his caregivers and family, managing an excursion complete with wheelchair, nursing aides, and an entourage of family to Montauk. No one could resist the sparkle in his startling blue eyes, his shiny silver hair, or his smile and attitude for adventure. He introduced his caregivers and new friends to the special places in Montauk and was a catalyst for their future visits.

Walter came to a peaceful end in his favorite chair with a smile on his face on August 29, 2015.

Walter’s family traveled on a sunny Montauk day for his funeral at Fort Hill Cemetery in Montauk. His burial was complete with a moving military salute, made even more special by the pristine, natural setting of the fields of Fort Hill. The next morning, his family found that all the leftover funeral flowers left mounded on the grave had been eaten down to the last couple of stems by the deer and rabbits who roam the cemetery at night. Fort Hill was the perfect resting place, not too quiet for Walter, full of all creatures great and small for company. It was a fitting ending to a vibrant life.

Much earlier in life Walter and his children had chosen Fort Hill in Montauk as the family cemetery. Montauk was the last place they had all been together and happy as a complete family with Ruth. In selecting the grave locations, Walter laid down to see how he liked the view. This was the day when Walter noted that it would be almost perfect if only Ruth (who had long ago been buried in her parent’s cemetery) could join him someday in Fort Hill. The closest to granting this wish so far, was to transfer a small square of grass from her grave to his in Fort Hill. Only the landscapers might notice that there is a square patch of grass that turns brown in the winter at the top right corner of the grave.

As a final wish, the family has asked the Town of East Hampton to allow for the donation and placement of a bench dedicated to Walter and Ruth near his new resting place. There is a perfect spot just along the hedgerow near two existing benches, one dedicated to a Walter G. Andersen and the other to Lucy Ketcham. Each likely with their own interesting stories of how they got to Fort Hill.

A bench in Fort Hill for Walter and Ruth would bring comforting closure to his long journey. So far, the approval for the donation and installation of a new bench is still pending.