In the summer, I’d lie awake in my room long after everyone else had gone to sleep. My hands would be clasped behind my neck, one foot would cross the other, and both would be tucked under a pale blue afghan, folded at the edge of my canopy bed. I liked the windows open. I could hear the cricket’s rhythm, like tiny bed springs being pounced upon by tireless children. Slight puffs of a warm breeze made sounds like dancing taffeta prom gowns moving through the leaves of the crabapple tree outside my window.
When I was ten or eleven, one branch of this tree reached up like a prowler’s arm, smacked at my window and came at me with shadow fingers on my ceiling. My father had to cut that arm off to protect me, but each time that arm eventually grew back. When I was fourteen I told my dad to let it grow.
By the time the tree again reached my window, the branches had taken on a much friendlier personality. The leaves nestled up to my window and scratched at the screen like a kitten wanting to come in and curl up in the fluffiest part of the down quilt. It seemed that the shadows, once so scary, had transformed into billowing silk strips moving to the sound of the breeze in a ballet on the walls and ceiling.
I could hear the sounds of the creek in the back yard if I put the other noises into the background. The water sounds are the ones that could always bring a drowsy smile of contentment to my mind. I wanted to catch every movement: The cool water lapping against the bulkhead; The boat’s flap flapping as it rocked in the water; And then the drawn out whinging noise it made when it nudged against the pilings.
The snappers were about six or seven inches long by August, and every so often one threw itself up into the air and then landed on the water with a slap. I looked forward to the following day when I could walk down to the dock with my bamboo pole and a pail of killies and watch those silver-blue fish dart back and forth until one chomped on a killie and sank the bobber.
Occasionally, I’d hear a mallard’s whaaag, whaack, and I wondered how many of the half-grown ducklings were still alive. When they were newly hatched they were easy prey for the screeching and scavenging seagulls, but now they were just about strong enough to make it on their own. They weren’t so easily picked up.
When I was younger, my mother bought me four white ducks, Peking ducks, at one of duck farms in Riverhead. The farmer took me out to the six-week-old’s barn and I chased the scrawny little yellow balls of down until I caught them by the neck one by one as the entire flock scattered, cheep cheeping in a cacophony that brought a smile to my face but made me feel a bit guilty too. But I knew where the other ducks would end up and so I considered myself a young savior of sorts, keeping my new pets from the dinner table.
We placed Penny, Lucky, Whitey and Waddles into a cardboard box for the drive home, and I pet the frightened babies all the way there. I spent hours every day sitting on the cool grass with my avian amigos, feeding them not only the pellets the farmer had given us but also tiny bits of white bread I used to coax them into my lap so that I could smooth their cool, silky feathers. As they grew, their voices deepened and they made quite a racket whenever my Old English Sheepdog, Wally, would come over trying to lick their faces. I was never bored in those days.
I especially liked to lie awake on nights when it was very foggy, because every ten seconds or so there was a peaceful booop from the tower at the end of the jetty on the West side of the inlet. I knew that out the window towards the southeast the red light would be blinking to show the fishermen into port. The draggers were using the tower’s help to get them safely through the inlet into Shinnecock Bay without landing on the beach or the rocks. They were coming in with loads of fish and with a cloud of seagulls often circling above them, screeching as they do. I loved to close my eyes and picture this scene in my mind, just as I loved to imagine the other sights and sounds I knew were out there, in particular the ocean waves rolling toward the beach, then crashing into shore and then going back out to see like a breath.
Most of the time I’d doze off while listening to all of these sounds that I could and couldn’t hear, and picturing the scene behind each of these sounds. Sometimes I’d be awakened by surprise noises, like a crack of lightening and thunder followed by tiny tappings of rain on the roof and crabapple leaves, or the scratching of squirrel feet on a branch outside my window. I loved the feel of being awakened by these things so beautifully natural. I felt as if I were being cradled and lulled to sleep by mother nature herself.
It seems that now the sounds I hear are mostly mechanical: cars whirring by, the train whistle blowing before the train choo-choos down the track, and sirens occasionally sounding in the distance—police sirens, ambulance sirens and fire sirens occasionally bearing bad tidings. In the mornings I hear the muffler of a very rickety car as it arrives and then throws the newspaper to land with a thwap on the grass in front of our home. But the crickets are still here later in the summer and their chirping brings me back to my youth growing up on Well’s Creek in Hampton Bays. The crickets make me long for my youth and wish I could go back to replay my life, minus, of course, the parts I’d prefer never happened. The world is changing all the time and I only hope that the sounds I grew up with will remain here to be enjoyed by the people who in future times live in and visit the Hamptons.