Accidental Heroes, a Reminiscence
When I was 4-1/2 the family moved from Pittsburgh to Yonkers, NY. At 5:30 am on the day after we moved in, our doorbell rang. Exhausted, my mother put on her robe and was greeted at the side door by a young boy.
“Can you come back later? Possibly after 8?” asked mother.
Roy did come back. He became my greatest childhood friend. We shared our growing years – grade school teachers, stickball and marbles, a baseball rivalry – he a Giants fan and I the Dodgers, – football and later, Little League and scouting.
When my dad came back from the war he took a starting sales job with Canada Dry. On summer Saturdays he towed a prototype vending machine on a trailer behind the family Chevy from one gas station to the next to interest their owners in an additional income stream while increasing ginger ale sales. The remainder of the time he spent fixing up our pre-war house. We couldn’t afford a vacation and a home too.
Roy’s father, in contrast, had an executive job as Superintendent of Yonkers General Hospital. He smoked a pipe and drove a Chrysler New Yorker. His free time was spent playing golf with doctors and surgeons. Roy and his Mom spent the summer in the Hamptons. His Dad visited on weekends.
When I was nine, Roy invited me to their summer place for a week; the first of many yearly visits. Their annual rental was a tiny cottage on one of the many inlets to Shinnecock Bay., not far from the Ponquogue Bridge, with great sunset views. It was chosen by Roy’s mom for its proximity to the water. At high tide she sometimes fished through the kitchen window while preparing a breakfast or the day’s catch. She loved the water, each year divining infallible clamming spots and always knew when the fish were biting and just the right bait to use. When in the Hamptons she was determined not to miss a minute.
In 1954 Hurricane Carol made a direct hit on Westhampton. Riding down Dune Road during my annual visit in late August we saw huge mansions that had been swept from their ocean lots, broken and lopsided in the middle of the bay. Somehow the Duryea rental on the other side of the bay survived with only minor flooding. Equally memorable that year, for his tenth birthday, Roy got a small, Boston Whaler and a 10 hp outboard all his own. It was docked right behind the house. He mowed grass for gas money. How thrilling the freedom! The whole bay was there to explore. The only parental restriction was to stay away from the ocean inlet. He couldn’t wait to show it off to me.
Very early the morning after my arrival we placed our towels, Coppertone lotion, the tackle box, bait-can and fishing poles, sandwiches and an extra can of gas in the boat and waved goodbye to mom as she left for her secret clamming spot. The engine sputtered to life and we were off on our adventure. The day was perfect. The wind, calm. The bay like glass. The breeze underway, welcomed. Not until the first day I drove my own cat had I matched the exhilaration.
We tried several promising spots but the fish had decided to sleep in. As the sun rose in the sky it got hotter and more humid. Roy decided to bag the fishing until later and take an adventurous excursion instead. He steered a course under the Ponquogue Bridge, past Canoe Place and through the Shinnecock Locks, enroute to the Peconic. The weekend before his mom had taken him to visit neighbors from back home who had also rented for the season. Their boys were several years older than us but they had a sister our age and I think Roy was smitten with her.
The boat trip was much longer than it had been by car. The Rothwell’s had a large house atop a huge sand cliff with a long stairway that led down to a dock. Tethered off-shore was a generous swimming platform with a 3 meter board and a metal water slide. The Rothwell boys buzzed us on our approach while water skiing behind a new Chris-Craft, waving in recognition. We docked and made maximum use of the swimming facilities. Later, the Rothwell boys set off bottle rockets from the top of the dunes. The time flew bye and all too soon it was time to leave to get back in time for dinner.
The sky had darkened and an easterly wind came up. The Peconic developed a serious chop. We were being beaten up. Roy had me move to the bow to improve the trim. I sat facing him, monitoring the increasing look of concern on his face. I thought it was the battering that concerned him. Behind me a serious squall was building. Minutes later we were into it and being soaked by the downpour. The wind driven rain stung my back and ran off the peak of my hat in a curtain. How was Roy holding his course?
He yelled something. Indistinct. It sounded like…” running out of gas”.
Suddenly, on the starboard, 30 degrees off the stern, to and behind Roy’s back … a flash of orange.
Again. But now further behind.
I pointed and yelled . When I realized he couldn’t hear me I got up, nearly capsizing us in the process. I managed to convey that we had to turn around. “There is something floating.” I yelled. He signaled wildly for me to sit down; I did. Reluctantly Roy came about and the battering subsided noticeably. I could hear him now. “We are off course, I can’t see the land in this weather, maybe it’s a channel marker, we’re nearly out of gas”, he said.
With the wind behind us we gained on the orange target quickly.
“Holy sh*t!” Roy stood up. I turned.
On the port side, not quite 20 yards ahead… a little blond-haired toddler – perhaps two years old – in an orange life preserver. She was crying uncontrollably. It took us several passes. Then, together, each grabbing a part of the life preserver, we managed to get her on-board. She was inconsolable, too upset to even tell us her name. I wrapped her in a towel and we headed back into the storm to what we hoped was the direction for home.
The squall subsided and the wind diminished. We covered perhaps a thousand yards before running out of gas at the mouth of the canal. We were met by a very relieved Bay Constable in his boat. Lifeguards, beachgoers and the girl’s parents were desperately, frantically searching Meschutt Beach. The Coast Guard had been mobilized and divers were enroute. He got on the radio and called off the search.
Buoyed by the life preserver and propelled by the easterly wind she had been blown beyond the roped perimeter.
We got some gas at the marina nearby and headed for home before Roy’s mom instigated a search of her own.
When Roy’s father came out the following weekend to take me home we told him of our adventure. He wrote it up and I remember seeing it in print in The Herald Statesman, our hometown paper.
We were accidental heroes.