The seemingly endless fuselage of the station wagon held row after row of sticky vinyl bench seats, and whatever passed for safety belts back then were squashed well in the bowels of the hulk. Its flanks were faux-grained wood framed in chrome trim that seemed to shimmer in the June sun while the beast sat idling on the tree-lined street in Bay Ridge. My young, boisterous aunts and I were about to leave the gritty streets for the country roads of Shelter Island. And I, now five and old enough to take a vacation from my tree-stripped street in Bensonhurst, squeezed between two ebullient girls. With some bribes I would secure a window seat later.
Up front sat Annie, mother’s helper, Jamaican, larger than life to me and dressed as if she’d stepped off a Sam Wood sound stage. My grandmother, the Big Kahuna, was behind the wheel. My grandfather, severely outnumbered during the long winter, stayed behind to run his business and catch his breath. The BK didn’t have that luxury, but she wasn’t fazed. After all, the woman bore nine babies and raised seven daughters single-handedly (Annie only came along after my seventh aunt, Rosemarie, was born.) And now she was about to repeat the seasonal tradition that had begun more than 20 years before that day. Windows down, V-8 roaring like a T-Rex, drinks and snacks distributed (because who was going to actually wait for soda and chips?) we pulled from the curb and headed for the Belt Parkway. That was more than 40 years ago. I’m not going to pretend my memory is stellar. What shreds I have managed to scrape from my dingy storeroom are more collage than lineal or chronological. Childhood was a blur, shadows and currents, sights and smells, some chemical combination sparked by an external catalyst and producing a long ago felt feeling. That is youth, what’s left of it, set against fleeting backdrops on the disk in a Viewfinder. I click the button and see chalk grids on the pebbly concrete, click again and see a child feeding goats at Staten Island Zoo, once more and there are the chestnuts in the grass I collect like treasure in front of the Haven’s House where people not so fascinated by tree nuts examine exhibits from Shelter Island’s past, more than 250 years of it from white people’s point of view. There is not much there about Pogatticut and his clan of aboriginals, though moral arguments weren’t on the radar of a kid looking for chestnuts in the grass.
To see the planes around JFK I had to slither over two rows of seats whispering pleas for silence from my aunts lest the BK catch wind of my endeavor to nest among the suitcases in the way back and drink in the vista afforded by that huge plate of glass. The jets were the first real attraction. Leaving Queens and entering Nassau wasn’t thrilling, but a can of soda and some licorice eliminated any threat of drowsiness. And that’s about where my aunts would begin their games, and, because competitiveness breeds egotism, the arguments would soon ensue.
In the country (we city kids called it that), there was plenty of space to get away from the bickering. I ran away once, down the old hill to the sand and rocks lining the causeway road to Big Ram Island. Across the bay in Orient little boys just like me were being soothed by the blue expanse to our east, intrigued by the darting speed boats, lulled by the lazy sailboats. The occasional drone of a Cessna would momentarily swallow the resonating hum of boat engines, all of these very muffled and polite, casting a mesmerizing soundtrack to the summer sky and sea.
But I could not find lasting refuge in the wagon, spacious as it was. Not even in the way back after it had been invaded by teenage girls searching for makeup, a different colored tube top, rubber bands to hold hair, whatever, before they lobbied for the BK to pull off at the Manorville exit so we could indulge in Grace’s hot dogs. From there it would be a frenzied shopping excursion at Woolco in Riverhead to stock up on any essentials the BK may have missed in scouring the retail stores on 86th Street.
I am mixing memories here. It was Papa, my grandfather, who was forced to pull off “an exit before Riverhead, for Christ’s sake!” to satisfy his daughters’ hankerings for Grace’s hot dogs. Hubie’s Hamburgers in Hauppauge was more grandma’s speed because it was on the way from the Northern State Parkway to Route 25, which she took the rest of the way out east. And it is that road which holds one of my most vivid memories of the drive out – mailboxes. It was a country road rife with working models of the region’s rich agricultural heritage. No vineyards, yet, just hundreds of acres of potatoes and cauliflower and corn. Barnyard animals milled about in paddocks and overall-wearing men on tractors hauled trailers overflowing with spuds. Giant spoked wheels connected by long pipes slowly roamed the rows of the bigger fields, seeming very out-of-place, ridiculous. An old windmill would draw the scene back to the past, putting it all in proper perspective. But nothing made the road more country than the mailboxes. Every house had one, whether the owner’s field was five acres or five hundred.
No rural delivery on Shelter Island presented only rocks and trees on which to hang a house number or a family’s name. But it also elevated the post offices (yes, there are two on little Shelter Island) to gathering places that rivaled local watering holes like the Dory or the Harbor Inn. Summer met year-round here at the post office, again, every season, mostly the same faces and relationships. And a new family would appear, friends of so and sos, and be introduced, and “we need someone to build us a deck, and cut our lawn and where do we get fresh fish and who’s got the best corn?” Then, a woman holding a baby would walk by and so and so would say hi and ask after the family and if Mr. Local would like to give “our friends who just bought a summer place over in Silver Beach” a call to discuss some work they needed done and “would you have time to come over and help me clean my place? Raccoons got in over the winter and made a terrible mess.” And that was why we called it the country, because an inconsiderate wild animal could thoroughly ruin your first weekend of the summer and you would need a local’s help to set it all right.
They came quickly, sometimes in bunches, sometimes obscured by weeds so you wouldn’t see them until you were almost past. And it would have been impossible to count anything if I hadn’t a window seat, procured by a slick bribe of RC cola. Potato fields provided brief respite between the batteries of houses. Long dirt roads vanishing under thick oak groves seemed to spawn bouquets of boxes. I sat facing north, no oncoming traffic to contend with, and would no sooner notice the boxes dwindling when the Great Whale would appear, its mottled proboscis angling toward the Southold shore. It was as alive as anything else despite it being rock, and I would argue its biological existence all the way to the ferry.
We rode through quaint enough Greenport and to the line where we waited to embark on the penultimate leg of our journey. The Friday of a summer holiday weekend spawned segmented serpentine lines of automobiles packed with irrepressible kids and catatonic parents, paralyzed by two and half hours of bottled preadolescent exuberance shaken like soda pop by every expansion joint on the expressway or pothole on 25. For those poor souls enduring family road trips prior to the technology age, salvation was but a ferry ride away. They would spill out on the deck of the old barge (new back then), smiling, stretching, waving to the boaters, drinking in the openness of air and sea, rediscovering the verdant slopes and sand cliffs of White Hill and the great manses of Dering Harbor. In the distance to the west one could see the endless white fence lining Crescent Beach and even make out the umbrellas at Charlie’s snack bar where they would soon be eating burgers and fries while the kids played in the gentle surf of the sound.
I smelled salt and air, watched the green water breed foam as the wash gurgled against the pilings in the ferry slip. The gate opened and the ramp was lowered and the ferryman waved us off. Not much had changed; the way to Ram Island was as it had been the year before. And the mailboxes were behind us now, waiting to be counted.