Heading East or: Napeague by Numbers

Written By: Michael J.  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 sandy lot tangled with dune grass and bayberry bushes 50 yards back from the ocean beach on Amagansett’s slender low-lying Napeague isthmus—and he was already overextended.

By that time 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 would have imagined any vacation dreams they harbored involved sailing away from liabilities—not building new ones.

They built their dream home on the very narrowest point (less than a half-mile wide) of the biggest, longest, most- populated island in the contiguous United States. By the time it was finally completed, the house built on the vulnerable stretch of sandy land had strained my family to a breaking point. Although my parents’ double-digit mortgage was fixed, Dad was forced to take out a series of adjustable home-improvement loans to pay subcontractors after the first homebuilder absconded. His dream-house investment underwater, Dad ended up borrowing money from his Irish-immigrant parents to stay afloat.

My grandparents had both worked civil service jobs, my grandfather as 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 tiny white cottage, initially without electricity, sat a mile from the town dock and another mile across Moriches Bay from Fire Island’s ocean beach.

My older brother John and I spent summer weeks with Nana and Pop, who also often shared their house with a half-dozen other sunburned cousins visiting from the New York City area and from Ireland. We’d sleep on army cots up in the stifling attic, with the bleached, line-dried white sheets like sandpaper on our sunburns. Mostly, our vacation meant the nearly daily adventure of cruising across the bay in Pop’s speedboat, Dixie, to spend the day at an undeveloped strip of Fire Island. Somedays we’d fish for snappers (baby bluefish) with bamboo rods from the town dock, after dragging for shiners (baitfish) with a small store-bought seine net.

A quiet man, Pop expressed himself through his American summer home: He dug an earthen cellar, built birdhouses and Adirondack chairs and planted a flagpole, teaching us flag flying and folding rules. Querulous and feisty, with a sharp-tongued brogue, Nana tended a big vegetable garden, like she had with her six sisters on their family farm in 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, beyond his parents’ family cramped summer cottage. My father moved from the Bronx in 1959, when he and mom bought a pretty brick and stone house in the town of Franklin Square, just east of Queens on Long Island. In 1965, when our family outgrew that house, we moved farther east still, to the leafier then-semirural North Stamford, Conn.

Owning a beach house in the East End was well within the reach of middleclass families in the early 1970s—especially in the fishing villages of Amagansett and Montauk. If everything had gone as planned, and my parents paid in cash, the house and land would’ve cost about $30,000.

In the spring of 1972, after contractors tore out the sandy lot’s scrub and dug a shallow foundation, my parents began the long, contentious and expensive building process. My dad hired first one and then another incompetent builder (the first one stealing 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 roof-ridge overhang that, from underneath, resembles the prow of a ship against the sky.

Dad seethed as the adjustable-loan rates rose. He squeezed every construction dollar. We tiled floors (with asbestos linoleum squares), stained the exterior (with Woodlife, a toxic wood preservative) and planted dune grass around the property (roots two feet apart, as per law). Dad snapped at us for every mistake—and they were easy to find, particularly with my tile cutting. My younger brother Dave was a construction prodigy; I was best at straightforward physical labor. At 14 I spent one long day digging a 50-foot-long trench, graded between 2 ½ – and 4-feet deep from the street to the house, for the water supply pipe.

Numbers often best tell the tale of thrifty, upwardly mobile families. My grandparents weren’t misers but rather scrimped and saved to buy big things—like houses and boats and education. My father, who rose through the ranks to become chief financial officer of AT&T, seemed to have charted his life course as forward progress in a likeminded way, a sort of dead reckoning. Seldom articulate with words, he was always eloquent with facts, figures and linear logic.

I better understood the importance of sensible spending to immigrant families when Dad inherited Pop’s journal, a basic accounting of daily weather and expenditures. Pop revealed his deepest inner emotions with his journal entries. Shakiness crept into Pop’s otherwise beautiful Irish parochial school penmanship when he wrote big numbers—especially if they mounted to bigger numbers. The wobbliest of Pop’s numbers was the $1,700 he paid in 1951 for Dixie, his used 1937 17-foot Chris-Craft Runabout. (I doubt my Nana ever knew the cost.) 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 beach house, Dad rented a small wooden skiff with an outboard to take us fishing in Gardiners Bay. Though he disliked everything about fish and fishing (and we caught only small sand sharks and spiny spider crabs that day), Dad loved sailing and got “the lay of the land,” a navigational sense for his planned sailboat. Dad was born to sail and, in fact, had majored in seafaring, 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, which is about four hundred yards behind my parents’ beach house as the seagull flies, but a three-mile drive over the rutted shell-strewn roads that wind around the salt marshes and freshwater ponds. Once supporting a thriving fish factory, the harbor was then mostly inhabited by local baymen’s flat-bottom skiffs. It 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, after thriving for 450 million years) patrolled the sandy bottom.

During construction my brother John and I, years before the dangers of tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease were well-known, walked straight back from the house to the harbor. We headed toward the two 300-foot-high Mackay radio towers (one of which still stands), tramping over dune grass, across the highway, through scrub and then squishy marsh.

Until only recently local Bonacker commercial fisherman trawled the ocean side the same way their ancestors had for hundreds of years: launching wooden dories in the surf, unfurling a mile-long haul-seine net in a big arc out beyond the breakers and then winching in their catch. The surfmen once built makeshift shanties close to the ocean beach (their permanent homes back on the safer bayside) until the Hurricane of 1938 blew waves across the Napeague isthmus, washing the shacks away and temporarily making Montauk an island.

My parents, worried about losing their hard-won dream house, paid dearly for flood insurance. My Mom still pays the premium, which has increased geometrically over the years. In 1972, the ocean beach measured about 50 yards from dune-top to surf. The Atlantic gradually eroded the beach 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 beach-front 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 restorative powers. My brother Dave recently bought the house next door, which sits on the neighborhood’s highest point, and so far he’s calculated against paying for flood insurance. Dad would probably approve.