A Father’s Gift
I am where I want to be because the East End is pockmarked with so many fresh water lakes and ponds, each with its own rhythm and personality. Fate. Serendipity. Whatever the forces, I was drawn to these relatively small bodies of water almost fifty years ago and settled here because they are the perfect antidote for the clamor of “progress.” After fishing one of these little known treasures, I was hooked.
It was 1968, Father’s Day when my love affair with these sweet water jewels began. My dad with my mother’s blessing, decided to give himself a long overdue present, a day—alone—far from man-made obstructions and the crush of suburbia. He planned to drive east from Merrick to Big Reed Pond in Montauk and fish from the shore. Not an easy trip then. My dad made it sound like he was making a pilgrimage to some uncharted promised land. Although he claimed he was inspired to go because of an article he read in the daily paper, I thought then, as I do now, that he was also motivated by some inner conflict which had been dogging him.
I can still see him in our driveway saying I should stay home and study for my upcoming Regents chemistry exam the next morning as he set his little spinning rod and a small bucket of leaf-covered night crawlers into the trunk of his car. Logically I knew what he said made sense, but I suspect it was really his way of softly telling me that I couldn’t go with him. To this day, I don’t know what he told my younger brother who was finished with his exams and, like me, loved to fish for snappers, fluke, and flounder which were plentiful in the salt water creeks a short bike ride from our house. Whatever my dad was coping with, he needed to go by himself so he did.
He never made it to Montauk that day. The trek east took so much longer than today and after almost two hours in the car, he was getting antsy. He wanted to fish. Luckily tucked inside his shirt pocket was the article which prompted his road trip. After a quick reread he discovered he was just down the road from Little Fresh Pond in Southampton. He spent the rest of his afternoon and early evening in its easy going company.
By the time he returned home that night, I was getting ready for bed. My whole family must have heard the telltale sound of his car door shut because we all converged in the foyer, then watched as he walked triumphantly straight into the kitchen and placed three beautiful bass in the sink. Moments later, he began gushing about his trip repeating, “It’ s a different world,” at least three times. The longer he spoke, the more obvious it became. He was different than when he left earlier in the day. The place cast a spell over him. He found his Walden Pond. Bear in mind that back then most of Little Fresh Pond’s treed shore front remained undiscovered and was dappled with only a few small non-distinct cabins.
Two days later, while basking in the after effects of his new found sanctuary, he bought a fourteen foot aluminum boat. Before dawn broke the following Sunday, my brother, father and I with no need of a divining rod anxiously headed for the curative waters of “Little Fresh.”
We caught a potpourri of fish that day: sunfish, catfish, and bass. Reflecting back, I was the city mouse and all day long was mesmerized by simple things: curious painted turtles, the baritone call of bullfrogs, red dragon flies that perched on our rods for so long you would have thought they were trained to do so. The sky was so dark that after sunset I thought there had to be more stars the farther east one went.
That night, halfway home, the sweet smell of cherry blend tobacco smoke woke me, my dad fighting sleep at the wheel, my brother sound asleep in the back. He awakened as we hit the outer reaches of concrete sprawl and patches of congestion. Hardly any discussion was necessary. We decided to fish Big Fresh Pond on the coming Sunday. Thereafter, we faithfully fished every Sunday through the summer and into the fall changing venues every week. At long last, we made it to the eastern tip of the Island and slid wide-eyed into the quiet presence of Big Reed.
Montauk. The word itself pulled at my dad until early fall. Pumpkins were still ripening on the vines. The weather was postcard perfect— warm enough for shorts, hardly any humidity and there was little wind. Other than three deer that ambled down to the water’s edge for a long undisturbed drink, we had the pond to ourselves. We spent the early morning and almost the entire afternoon nestled behind the dunes, hidden from civilization.
Somewhere around two o’clock, while gazing at the splendor of this wild place I murmured, “I can’t believe this is Long Island.” I continued repeating this mantra between bites of my bologna sandwich, then abruptly stopped because the looks I was getting made it clear that I was annoying. My meditative thought drifted in the ether until late in the day when my father in an affectionate tone barely above a whisper resurrected my words. Although he wasn’t trying to be funny, my brother and I assumed he was. We broke out in the kind of silly unchecked laughter that gets more rare the older one gets. As we enjoyed the ripple effect of the moment, unexpectedly we were told to pack up. Naturally we figured we crossed the line. My dad’s sternly delivered, “We have nearly a hundred miles ahead of us and you guys have school tomorrow,” convinced us we were in trouble. It was a ruse but we never suspected a thing.
Rather than heading directly back to Merrick as we always did after a long day on the water, we turned onto West Lake Drive. Before asking he told us, “It’s a surprise, I think you’ll both enjoy this.” He had done his homework. A short time later, we joined the festive migration flowing toward the smell of saltwater, the sound of crying herring gulls and the charter boats beginning to trickle into their berths. We spent the better part of two hours dockside, staying long enough to witness what was a hum of activity recede into a quiet calm.
When we left the wharf that evening, the wind came up from the northwest dropping the temperature and my spirits with it. Despite my best efforts as we headed for the car, a slight sense of sadness accompanied me just as it did the previous Sundays when those seminal trips drew to their inevitable close. These reluctant departures were the stepping stones for my secretly held plan to one day live on the East End.
In the spring of my senior year after passing my driver’s test, my brother and I bought our own small boat so we could fish more than just on Sundays. With my mom’s borrowed Buick, we always headed east with a pulsing sense of adventure. Because we were too foolish to accept the fact that there are back roads meant for four wheel drive only, no potentially magical place was off limits. Sure we were overly zealous and could easily have broken more than shock absorbers on that old clunker, but we were blessed, or so we thought, and had to be towed only once. And as I recall, the farmer who cheerfully rescued us had a sense of humor about our predicament, and a knowing facial expression suggesting he remembered doing something equally reckless when he was young. Since that evening almost a half century of summers have come and gone, yet it is easy for me to retrieve the sound of his tractor and the smell of the wet ground where we bogged down as if there have been no years. I find that comforting like the welcome feel of warm sweatshirt material on a chilly morning.
I rarely fish Little Fresh these days, but whenever I go by Fresh Pond Road and especially on Father’s Day, I am reminded of my dad’s accidental rendezvous with this little body of water. Though it was not what one could call a wild lake even then, its tranquil water and peaceful setting changed him. He pulled into our driveway late that night, an apostle for the East End, and I quickly entered the fold. In 1974 having become so smitten with everything “out east,” I bought a piece of vacant land on my favorite lake.
Though I am much older than my dad was that Sunday, I have not forgotten the gift he gave me. It started a journey that has lasted my lifetime, a gift that keeps on giving. Every day.