Happy As A Clam!
The adults living in the tightly knit New York City neighborhood in which I was raised had something in common numerically, with the old Ivory Soap commercials; ninety nine and forty four one hundredths percent did not fit neatly into the stereotypes which had been prescribed for them. Mrs. Monteleone acted like a Soprano, only once a week, when she traveled into Saint Patrick’s Cathedral to sing in the choir at Sunday Mass. Mr. Hayes did not stumble in a drunken stupor to or from the car that had been dispatched by Abe Stark’s Borough President’s Office to chauffer him. Rather, he had the driver meet him at a remote location so the neighbors wouldn’t think he was acting like a “big shot”. He strode home soberly day after day. Mr. and Mrs. Pearlstein who owned the grocery store which served as the center of my mother’s universe, were thought of more as community members and friends than merchants. The same could be said of both “Docs” in their respective pharmacies. Contrary to what books and movies might lead you to assume, based on his nationality, my father did not drink nor did he inflict any form of abuse upon his wife and five children. What he did do is work, often holding two jobs and occasionally a third. Like many men raising families in the fifties and sixties, he wasn’t what you might call, as Woody Allen would say, “one of life’s big enjoyers”. As most others, he took his responsibilities as the head of a household, seriously. There were however, three pastimes that brought him some degree of pleasure and The East End provided an opportunity to enjoy them like nowhere else.
What were these pursuits that brought the occasional smile to his otherwise serious countenance? They were the odd trinity of gardening, clamming, and golfing. He had grown up on the Brooklyn-Queens border with cement everywhere and no chance for a tree to grow – not even a Tree of Life. How and where did he develop an interest in gardening and the necessary knowledge to go along with it. He knew the names of most of Eastern Long Island’s flora and fauna, with particular interest in flowers, trees and birds. I remember watching with interest as he grafted a branch to an established peach tree. It actually took, and the tree yielded two different types of fruit!
Upon arriving in “the country” as we called it, and the East End was undeniably rural in the late fifties, my father would change into his gardening clothes after plucking them from a nail in the cellar where they hung in anticipation. The pairings were bizarre: stripped shirts with plaid shorts, madras shirts with hounds tooth pants and always the old pair of shoes with laces missing. Happily he raked away, dressed as though he had shot his couch, skinned it, and was now wearing its Naugahyde. As daring as his wardrobe was, his gardening style could only be described as conservative, growing just those vegetables, flowers, shrubs, trees and grasses that had stood the test of time and could tolerate necessary periods of neglect when he returned to the city for work.
In the summertime we lived within a short walk down a dirt road to a Peconic Bay creek that was loaded with clams, crabs, whelk and whatever other creatures you could possibly imagine. The thought that he needed a shell fishing license never occurred to him and he clammed for decades without ever encountering a Bay Constable, although that began to change toward the end of his clamming days. He clammed with his feet. When done in water up to the chin, I believe that Bonackers refer to this method as “hogging”. He loved clams in all shapes and sizes and he devoured them on the half-shell, baked, “casino
ed” and with linguini and white or red sauce. While clamming, if he threw one into the bucket and it cracked he would slurp the meat from its sandy shell right then and there. This reminds me that I may hold some sort of record for the apple falling farthest from the tree, as I could never eat a raw clam and had to leave the house whenever his favorite meal was being prepared because I couldn’t tolerate the smell of linguini with white clam sauce. Additionally, my father had served as a pilot during World War II and flown half way around the world, while a long distance phone call makes me nervous. As a member of the N.Y.F.D. he was referred to as one of the “Bravest”. To associate any form of the word brave with me, would be just plain wrong.
While we swam in the bay, he didn‘t enjoy sitting idly on the beach, so he clammed among us and would find immense chowder clams with his feet. Occasionally he would unearth whelk, which we referred to as Periwinkles. He told us that they were also called scungilli and that if he brought a few into the firehouse, one of the men could create an unusual and tasty meal. I’ve since heard horror stories of the odors created during the preparation of this concoction and still can’t understand how any one I share genetic material with could consume something like that.
With regard to his interest in golf, an almost unbelievable coincidence occurred. He befriended two brothers who each lived within a chip shot, and if there was one thing they enjoyed more that clamming it was golfing! Now my father had a clamming/ golfing posse! What were the odds? If you submitted these two divergent interests into Match.com, their computers would explode before a match was made. So, happily they swung away, intentionally hitting errant shots toward water hazards so they could participate in their two passions simultaneously, enjoying mollusks and Mulligans, bi-valves and bogeys.
Aside from the obvious reasons, he once told me that he enjoyed playing golf with these two brothers because they didn’t use offensive language. Can you imagine anyone, in this day and age, selecting golf buddies based on the infrequent use of f-bombs? One day I noticed that his golf wardrobe was beginning to look a bit drab and dated. I suggested that he replace it with a few of his gardening outfits so he wouldn’t stand out on the links.
His attraction to the game of golf was easy to understand. It offered him an opportunity for a walk in the woods and to be among the trees and birds he had developed an appreciation for. Indian Island in Riverhead was his favorite course and that attraction was also easy to understand – it was cheap! I suspect that he kept score honestly because it took him a few years to break a hundred and he was fairly athletic to begin with, having honed his eye-hand co-ordination skills earlier in life as a serious player of the city game of handball.
So there you have it, gardening, clamming and golfing, two brothers who eschewed profanity, a neighborhood filled with relatives and friends trying to do the right thing and a man who didn’t want to be seen getting into or out of a limousine. Cynics among us could dismiss the ideas I’ve presented here as the unsophisticated musings of an intellectual lightweight. They could, but they’d be wrong. As radio talk-show host, Barry Farber, used to to say: “I’m the world’s foremost authority” on what I’ve experienced. There is no denying it. These were the Wonder Years and that was the Greatest Generation. I even knew one of its members personally. I’m reminded of him yearly, in late spring, when gardens begin to flourish, creeks warm up enough to go clamming and the golf courses are at their greenest. I find myself in my own garden, looking down past my mismatched outfit, to notice that my old shoes don’t have any laces.