Farther East: By the Numbers

Written By: Mike Harrington

I’ll never fully understand the ambition that drove my father to build a beach house in the Hamptons. Dad was just 39 in 1971 when he and mom bought the small lot (a sunken tangle of dune grass, bayberry bushes and beach plum) on Amagansett’s slender Napeague stretch—the very narrowest point of the biggest, longest, most populous Island in the contiguous United States—and he was already overextended.

By the spring of 1971, my parents had been married 15 years; they had five kids spaced eight years apart, a five-bedroom house in suburban Connecticut, two cars and two cats. I’d have figured any vacation dreams they harbored entailed flying away from liabilities—not constructing new ones. As it turned out, the house he built on the precarious Napeague isthmus (a sandbar really) did overextend my dad, who fell victim to inflationary double-digit adjustable-mortgage rates. My parents’ mortgage quickly went underwater; my dad ended up borrowing money from his Irish-immigrant parents to stay afloat.

My grandparents had both worked civil service jobs (my grandfather was a NYC Subway dispatcher) to steadily salt money away. They sweated through more than 20 summers in their Bronx apartment before buying their own Long Island summer place in the town of Mastic Beach, 60 miles east of New York City and 50 miles west of Amagansett. Their little white one-bathroom bungalow, initially without electricity, sat a mile from the town dock and another mile across Moriches Bay from Fire Island’s ocean beaches.

My older brother John and I spent summer weeks with Nana and Pop—often with a half-dozen other sunburned cousins visiting from the New York City area and from Ireland. We sometimes slept on army cots up in the stifling attic—the bleached, line-dried white sheets like sandpaper on our sunburns. Pop loved his American house: He dug an earthen cellar, built birdhouses and Adirondack chairs and planted a flagpole (teaching us flag flying and folding rules). Nana and my Aunt Mary (who lived with Uncle Timmy in a tinier cottage around the corner) tended big vegetable gardens—like they had at their family farm on southwest Ireland’s Beara Peninsula.

Nana and Pop’s careful thrift and sober work ethic fueled my dad’s restlessness and drive to expand his horizons beyond the small Bronx bedroom he shared with two brothers—and, later, farther east, beyond his parents’ cramped Mastic Beach summer cottage. My father moved from the Bronx in 1959, when he and mom bought a pretty brick and stone house in Franklin Square, just east of Queens on Long Island. In 1965, when our family outgrew that house, we moved on up—and farther east still—to the leafier, then semi-rural, North Stamford section of Stamford, Conn.

Owning a vacation beach house in the Hamptons (especially in the fishing villages of Amagansett and Montauk) was well within the reach of middleclass families in the 1970s. By the summer of 1972, the now-denuded and squared-off Napeague lot looked bare, flat and neutral-toned—like any new-construction site. By contrast, Fire Island remained unspoiled; and there was the adventure of getting to the barrier island—cruising across a mile-wide reach of Moriches Bay in Dixie, Pop’s speedboat. On squally days we’d sometimes fish for snappers (baby bluefish) with bamboo rods from the Mastic Beach town dock—first dragging for shiners (baitfish) with a small store-bought seine net complete with poles, weights and floats.

After contractors tore out the sandy lot’s beach scrub, and dug a shallow foundation, my parents began the long, contentious and expensive building process. My dad hired first one then another incompetent builder (the first absconding with subcontractor money) to assemble our house from a Lindal Cedar Homes kit. The house finally took proper shape, looking like a cross between a barn and an ark—with two decks and a prominent soffit overhang in front that made the roof ridge look like the prow of a ship against the sky.

My dad seethed as the adjustable-mortgage rates rose. He squeezed every construction dollar: We tiled floors (I made some costly errors), stained the exterior with Woodlife (a toxic preservative) and planted dune grass (roots two feet apart, as per law). Dad would snap at us for every mistake—and it was always easy to find one (particularly with me). My younger brother, Dave, was a construction prodigy; I was best at straightforward physical labor. At 13 I spent one long hot summer day digging a 50-foot-long trench, graded between 2.5- and 4-feet deep from the street to the house, for the water supply pipe.

Numbers often best tell the tale of thrifty, bean-counting families. My grandparents weren’t the miserly type, but rather the kind that scrimps and saves to buy big things—like houses and boats and college education. My father, who rose through the ranks to become chief financial officer of AT&T, charted his life course as forward progress by vigilant reckoning. Seldom articulate with words, he was always eloquent with facts, figures and linear logic.

I better understood the significance of sensible spending to immigrant families when dad inherited Pop’s journal—a basic accounting of weather and expenditures. Not a loquacious man (except when angry), Pop showed emotion in his journal—not in words but in numbers. Shakiness would creep into Pop’s otherwise beautiful Irish parochial school handwriting when he wrote big numbers—especially if they mounted to bigger numbers. The wobbliest of Pop’s numbers was the $1700 he paid for Dixie, his used 1937 17-foot Chris-Craft Runabout. (I doubt my Nana ever knew it cost $1700.) Another shaky number was the $47 monthly mortgage payment (which Nana definitely knew about) to pay the $4,200 purchase price on the house.

About halfway through construction of his house, dad rented a small wooden skiff with an outboard to take us fishing in Gardiners Bay. Dad disliked fish and fishing (and we caught only small gray sand sharks and spiny spider crabs that day), but he loved boats and sailing; so he got “the lay of the land”—that is, a navigational sense for his planned sailboat. Dad was born to be a sailor and, in a sense, had majored in sailing—graduating first in his class from Fort Schuyler, the New York Maritime Academy in the Bronx, and later holding a Coast Guard captain’s license.

In the early 1980s, dad moored the lone sailboat, a 26-foot sloop, in Napeague Harbor. Also called Lazy Point and Promised Land, Napeague Harbor is about four hundred yards behind my parents’ beach house as the seagull flies, but a three-mile drive over the rough shell-strewn roads that wind around the salt marshes and freshwater ponds. Inhabited then by just a few local baymen’s flat-bottom skiffs, the harbor teemed with life: Schools of quicksilver baitfish stirred the pellucid beach-stone shallows; clouds of krill floated in deeper water; helmet-shaped horseshoe crabs (now endangered) patrolled the sandy bottom.

The Napeague peninsula was once a main source for New York’s Fulton Fish market. On the ocean side, Bonacker surfmen fished—until recently—the same way their forefathers had hundreds of years before: launching wooden dories in the surf, unfurling a mile-long haul-seine net in a big arc beyond the breakers and then winching in their catch. The surfmen once built shanties in my parents’ neighborhood—until the Hurricane of 1938 blew waves across the Napeague isthmus, washing their makeshift shacks away and temporarily making Montauk an island. (My dad, then seven, rode out that hurricane at Aunt Mary and Uncle Timmy’s Mastic Beach house.) The seine-haulers slept in shanties to get a jump-start in the morning. Their permanent houses were back on the bayside—through the generations they had learned not to live near the ocean.

My parents paid a premium for flood insurance, which increased geometrically over the years and which my mom still pays. They worried about hurricane waves washing their house into Gardiners Bay. In 1972, Napeague’s ocean beach measured about 50 yards from dune-top to surf. The ocean gradually eroded that width in half by 2012—when Hurricane Sandy hit. My dad died in August 2011. And so he missed Sandy, which breached the dunes, damaged the White Sands Resort, but left his house, still 50 yards behind the dunes, completely unscathed—without even a power disruption.

I now live in suburban Kansas, a half-mile west of the Kansas City, Mo., state line. I headed west from Midtown Manhattan in the 1990s to keep my editor job, but the publishing company went south and my magazine folded. My wife and I visit my mom every summer, and each trip east I gain a deeper appreciation of Napeague’s fragile splendor and the ocean beach’s restorative power. My brother Dave recently bought the house next door, at a price my father could only have dreamed of in 1972. Dave’s house sits on the neighborhood’s highest point, and so far he’s calculated against paying the pricey flood insurance. Dad would probably approve.