July 4th, 1961
I am a tubby, towheaded, seven-year-old girl perched on the edge of a wooden float on Great Peconic Bay. The float belongs to the Tower, Aunt Helen and Uncle Tom’s camp. It is near Shinnecock Canal. We are spending the whole afternoon here. All the siblings, cousins and friends dive off the float’s wooden platform, swim back to the ladder, climb up and dive back in; a conveyance of kids.
Today, my uncle John and Daddy are judging everyone’s dives. They stand chest deep in the water wiggling their toes into the sandy bottom searching for clams. Daddy pulls the inner tube basket for today’s “crustaceous harvest” as he calls it. It is my turn to dive. I poise for push off. My toes grasp the edge of the float. My arms raise, but what’s this? My cousin Phil shoots past and leaps. Tucking his knees into his chest, he wraps his arms around his shins and hits the water. A giant splash sprays me. “Excellent! A perfect 10!” Uncle John announces.
You can’t see The Tower from the bay, even though it is very tall. It’s too far back near the road. My grandfather likes to tell us how his friend, William Bishop, wondered if he could to see the ocean and the bay at the same time from his land near the canal. This notion tumbled around in William’s head for a long time. He would have to build something very tall, a tower of sorts. Then, in 1938 a huge hurricane pushed a lot of trees over, enough to build a tower. One cloudless day, when the three story project was complete, he climbed up and looked north to see the Great Peconic. Turning south, he stood up on his tip toes, but there was no ocean, just Shinnecock hills. That question answered, WIlliam made the tower his family camp.
Now it is my turn to dive. I launch, entering the water sleek, and straight. I pop up eager for a score of ten like Phil got. “Eight!” yells Uncle John. “You had a splash. Keep your legs and feet together.” I swim over to Daddy who just located a clam with his big toe. Down I go to the sandy bottom, grab a huge one and deliver it to him.
“A perfect ten” he declares, tossing it in the basket.
Until I was four years old, everyone spent July 4th at my family’s camp, Whalebone, out in Noyac. Then, my grandmother died and my grandfather sold it. I am too young to remember Whalebone, but I know it pretty well because Daddy and Uncle John tell fun stories about being kids there. They used to move out of our home on North Main Street in Southampton and move to Whalebone for the whole summer. “We closed up the house, lock stock and barrel,” Daddy explains. When he takes us kids on walks in the woods to Split Rock or Camps Pond in North Sea, he tells us “I used to walk through these woods to my summer job in the village and ate hundreds of huckleberries the whole way.” Uncle Tom and Aunt Helen don’t live out at the Tower all summer. He has to take care of the farm in Southampton. But, they come here whenever they can.
“Lunch!” calls Uncle Tom from the top of the bluff. “Everyone up to the Tower!” We climb the creaky old stairs and stop at the top to look at the empty float and the Canal before heading up the path to the pine grove. I inhale the sweet earthy aroma of the pine needle carpet. Grandparents nap on homemade hammocks stretched between the trees. Two big tables are covered with a feast; baked beans, homemade bread, potato salad, rolls and brownies. Uncle Tom has a grill full of hot dogs near the Tower door.
After lunch, the adults lounge around on blankets. Everyone has to wait for a whole hour before swimming or we might drown. Phil, my friend Sally and I climb the narrow ladders to the top floor of The Tower. We take turns looking out the tiny window at the canal. “I see a cabin cruiser” I tell them. Phil tells us he sees a whale. “That’s not true” says Sally.
Sally’s family has a camp called Shicconic right next to the Tower. Her grandfather, Jesse Halsey, was a minister. His church was throwing out a bunch of old doors so he took them and built their camp. Last week, Sally’s mom let us take the rowboat out by ourselves. Rowing is very hard so we floated around mostly. Her village house is two doors from us on North Main Street. Our families have known each other for a few hundred years.
Phil and I are back in the pine grove. We climb a tree and sit, dangling our legs over the adults. Some of the older kids let us play tag. They keep tagging us and we can’t catch them back. We give up.
“Can we go swimming, yet?”
“No.’ it’s only been thirty minutes.” The adults haven’t moved. We kick some sand with our toes.
We spot an open jar of dill pickles On the picnic table. “Take a sip” dares Phil. I do and dare him back. We take turns chugging the sharp liquid, giggling. We are punch drunk on pickle juice. Phil and I empty the jar, daring each other with every swig. “When can we go back in?” we demand, this time.
Uncle John looks serious. “Have you been drinking pickle juice? Yes? Well then, you have to wait another hour” Phil and I freeze. My face gets hot. I start to cry. Then all the grown-ups laugh. “Just kidding. You can go now. We will be right behind you.” We charge down the path to the bluff.
Uncle John is in his nineties and visiting Southampton. I am fifty and we are going out to Whalebone, our old family camp. My Dad has passed away. John is the only one left with memories of camp and I feel a certain urgency to hear more about it. Whalebone is still owned by the family who bought it in 1959, but they have it on the market, eager to sell.
We turn down Whalebone Road. The old thick woodlands have become a neighborhood with manicured lawns and large homes. There, though, still on the bay stands Whalebone Camp. Uncle John looks out at the water and begins talking. Story after story of that lifetime ago spill from him.
When he was twelve, he dared his younger brother, my dad, to row to the North Fork and back. My Dad accomplished the daring feat. As a teenager in the early 1930’s, John relished walking way out into the bay carrying only a knife and bottle of ketchup. There, he dug clams and ate them on the spot. One September day, the Presbyterian Church ladies met at the camp, and then got stuck overnight while the Great Hurricane of 1938 blew through. I tape everything on a cassette recorder to share with cousins.
By 2004 bay front land is valuable. Old family camps are bought and demolished. I realize all traces of their stories could disappear with Uncle John’s generation. I decide to gather the information.
Word of my project spreads. Bennets, Bishops, Corwins, Duryeas, Godbees, Halseys, Herricks, Howells, Hallocks and Hildreths share guestbooks, pictures and stories dating from the late 1800’s until the present. One day, visiting Camp Wybenet at West Neck in Southampton, I come across a photo taken in 1904, over a hundred years ago. I am drawn to the way the photographer caught eight young teenagers, animated, instead of stock still as were most early images. Here they are; laughing around a table, heads tilted and thrown back in gaiety. I imagine the joke and hear the laughter.
Then, my eyes widen. In the center of the group I recognize my grandfather, John and his second wife, Alma. They are just seventeen years old and would marry decades later in their seventies. They lean into each other, such youthful faces, the best of friends. When the shutter clicked and the flash went off little did they know, in that instant, what their future held. This image epitomized camp life: fun, friends, innocence, family, freedom, simplicity.
July 4th, 1961, The Tower
Phil and I are back on the float beneath The Tower on the Great Peconic. I dive into the bay again. Tiny bubbles from my nose stream by as I skim under water. I burst through the surface. What? No one saw it? A perfect ten!