Boots on Legs
“Nude is Rude and Cops Can’t Bare It” read the headline in the Southampton Press. The paper is spread out on the kitchen table and my mom titters as she reads it aloud. She yells over to my sister in another room, “you’re in the paper,” barely stifling a snicker. My sister was the one in the uniform, shiny black patent leather shoes, polyester shirt, baton and gun hanging at the hips, trudging across our broad sandy beaches. Her beat, if you could call it that, was the expanse of undeveloped dune west of Road D out on Meadow Lane. It was the 70s. Being able to go out amongst the dunes and be free with the sunlight, absent of crowds, had great appeal to some. However, the only thing that registered in my high school mind was the discovery that the word nude was being associated with beaches.
One of the hidden aspects of the East End is the number and variety of private locations. Part of this feature is due to an accident of geology. The glacial moraine that bulldozed land from New England dumped its load in the form of Long Island, thus creating an intricate network of bays and estuaries, and unusual rises like Holmes Hill in North Sea. Ever since the early days of commerce, there arose a concomitant desire to control the flow of goods, and thus earn a living doing so. Back in the 19th century, Sag Harbor was the hub of the commercial whaling trade, due to having an accessible and protected bay, and it made sense to invest in a straight line toll road from Sag Harbor to Bridgehampton to connect the business of whaling to the customers of New York City via the existing roadways that already linked New York to Southampton, Bridgehampton, and East Hampton.
It was a tough road to build. Due to our fertile soils, an assortment of opportunistic vines and thorn-bearing thickets made passage difficult. Typically, New England settlers going through the back country would wear high, thick, leather boots, and certainly the laborers on clearing that Sag Harbor turnpike had a pair. In a departure from the Europeans, where fur and leather garments were crafted to indicate social status and wealth, the New Englander’s pragmatic nature adopted the more workingman’s style of the natives, and found durable local hide brought high on the leg could provide protection against the elements and the land. Coincidentally, having plenty of space in those boots also meant one could hide something you do not want your fellows to know about, such as a knife, a gun, or a nice nip of Caribbean rum. Thus the word bootleg to indicate being able to transport the forbidden without being found.
In the thirteen years of the prohibition, starting 1920, Montauk was the bootlegging capital. But now the bootlegs were fishing vessels going to international waters 12 miles offshore to rendezvous with merchant ships from Canada, England, and Cuba under cover of darkness, and then dispersing the goods to the shores of Gin Beach, Shagwong, and Oyster Pond. You would think it ended with the prohibition, but not out east. Each generation has their bootleg.
I ask my sister what she does at the Southampton Town beaches, and she says she basically walks around and asks people to put their bathing suits back on. Many will do so in anticipation of seeing her uniform. My best friend Rick and I couldn’t take it anymore, hearing about all these nude beaches of the Hamptons and decided to verify on our own. It was a hot sunny Tuesday in July, the day we both have off from our summer jobs. We were both lucky to get gigs on the water. Rick was a mate on the sport fishing boats out of Hampton Bays, while I did the same for the New York Ocean Sciences Lab vessels at Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay. We know the dunes west of Road D well, as our group organized occasional weekend beach parties in the remotest sections where the tall dunes insulated us from civilization. There’s patches of poison ivy curling around the beach grass, and in the weeks after these events it’s easy to see who hooked up with who. One summer the parties that began as two kegs and a bunch of friends led to progressively larger events whereby it became a happening with a portable generator, a band, ten kegs of beer, and shocked police broaching the keg barricades at 3 A.M. to close us down.
We head out way past the Road D beach, almost to the county park at Shinnecock Inlet, but not so close as to be amongst the campers and surf casters. There’s a zephyr of a breeze and a delicate balance between the hot air above the sand and the cooler currents drifting in off the Atlantic. The ocean break is small, not enough for body surfing. All we see is white sand, blue sky, and a shimmering green-blue sea. These large expanses are punctuated by trawlers, sea gulls, or occasional beach combers.
We meander along, Rick describing his adventures bringing in game fish on light tackle, and both of us discussing girls that we wished were part of our lives but weren’t. While it is far from crowded, on the edge of my awareness it seems more bathers are looking for shells instead of splashing in the surf or collecting rays in the horizontal position. We pass a couple kicking the sea weed at the high tide line, intently starring down, and not even making eye contact with us. Rick says “any sign of those nude beaches?” with a laugh. There’s a guy our age following the high tide line carefully, sometimes quickly squatting down to fetch his treasure. “Maybe Tuesdays are days off for the nudes too,” I respond. A sea gull cries out. After a bit, I see a woman on all fours, carefully filtering something from the sand. ”Can you imagine all these tourists gathering up shells?” l say to Rick. He interrupts his story about a white marlin offshore at the canyon, where the depth of the sea reaches mountainous proportions, and notices the blond haired girl. I try hard to follow her eyes to see what she’s looking for. “That must be some shell” I tell Rick. I get closer and the girl looks up only when I address her, “what kind of shell are you looking for?” I can hear her inhale sharply, and by her gaze locked on our faces, tries to gauge our intent. There’s an awkward silence and we just stand, wondering what to do next. Without getting up, the girl holds up her hand, uncurls her fingers, and shows us her treasure. As she’s softly giving us a one word answer Rick and I drop to our knees, “marijuana.”
Rick and I often recalled that summer of our jobs on the water, the outlandish beach parties, and the day we found another treasure, provided by a nervous bootlegger most likely panicked by the night time approach of a blue lighted vessel.