In the Summer of Maris and Mantle
A Bermuda high had parked over eastern Long Island producing a reliable stretch of clear, hot days. On the morning of the planned reconnaissance, as the sun rose over the Shinnecock Inlet burning off the dawn mist revealing the clean, rolling olive green swells entering the bay on the incoming tide, the weather looked sure to continue.
Two boats would be employed, fifteen foot runabouts with twenty five horsepower outboard motors, one a blue Evinrude, the other a green Johnson. They were moored in Tiana Bay about twenty yards from shore; a ball float was connected to a submerged cinder block, a chain from the float was attached to the front of the boat.
The suffocating tides, both brown and red, being decades away, marine life was abundant. Silver snapper blues jumped as they chased schools of shiners and killies that zigged and zagged with military precision in a futile attempt of evasion. Hard shell clams: cherry stones, little necks and chowders lay inches below the silty bottom. In the evening, if you stood on a dock and trained the beam of a flashlight on the surface, crabs their claws deep blue margined with light yellow would rise to the surface and easily be netted. In the fall, sweet bay scallops propelled themselves close to the shoreline while filtering the algae.
The recon crew consisted of five fourteen-year old boys. At zero hour three remained on the beach with two five gallon red gas cans while the other two waded out, sinking up to their ankles in the soft muddy bottom, unmoored the boats and towed them to the shoreline where the gas cans were placed on the board. The trip would require half a can out, half a can in, leaving no margin for error . The boats were pushed out until the outboard could be lowered without the propeller hitting bottom, preferably a clear spot so the prop wouldn’t foul in the eel grass. After the crews climbed aboard, three in one boat, two in the other, a hose, which would siphon the gas, was attached from the red can to the engine which was started manually by sharply pulling a wooden handle connected to a rope that would engage the propeller. Forward, reverse and speed were managed by a lever attached to a panel bolted to the starboard side; a steering wheel set the course. Rounding Rampasture Point the boats moved out of Tiana and into Shinnecock. Even though Tiana was smooth as glass once the point was crossed the prevailing south west wind would put some chop on Shinnecock. We turned east and ran parallel to dune road towards the Ponquogue Bridge, then a small drawbridge that provided access to the barrier beaches. The deep water channel was marked by buoys.
After moving under the bridge we turned north, following the channel past Commorant Point continuing to the Shinnecock canal which connects with the Great Peconic Bay. After passing through the locks, it was about another three hundred yards ending with a rock jetty before entering the open water of the Peconic.
At the mouth of the jetty, a few degrees off to the starboard, four miles away was the objective, Robin’s Island, magnetic, sinister and shimmering in sharp relief in the mid-morning haze.
This 450 acre, tear shaped island was strictly off limits to the public. Early in the seventeenth century, Charles I had deeded all of Long Island and its out islands to the Earl of Stirling. A century later Robin’s Island was purchased by the Wickham family and in 1789 it passed to Parker Wickham the grandson of the original buyer. Unfortunately for him the state confiscated the island because during the revolution the Wickham family had remained loyal to the King.
In 1992 descendants of Wickham family sued in Federal Court to regain possession alleging that the seizure was illegal. Judge Frank X Altimari, famous for ruling that subway panhandling was not protected by first amendment and could be regulated, dismissed the Wickham’s claim stating that you can’t sit on this beef for two centuries and expect a favorable remedy.
The perimeter of the island was patrolled by the mirror shaded, baseball capped, armed jeep man whose continuous surveillance was designed to deter trespassers.
30 yards in front of the west side of the island was a large submerged rock, the portion above the water rose close to seven feet with a fairly thick circumference, not large enough to conceal the boats from the jeep man, but a fine place to lay anchor. Regardless of the swell in the bay, the area around the rock was calm, the water clear, and the bottom sandy, perfect for a swim. After cooling off in the bay, we climbed back on the boats, dried off in the sun and waited. Soon the jeep passed on its clockwise patrol. From past experience we knew that it would be about an hour before it returned. After it disappeared around the curve of the island, we waited about ten minutes and then made our move.
The boats were lashed together and securely anchored. It was an easy swim to shore. One of the five wore a wetsuit top and carried a speargun. He did not have it cocked, the thick rubberband that stretched and notched to the end of the spear hung loose. What he thought he might need it for, I did not ask.
The beach was rocky, which would mask any foot prints, leaving no trace of our presence. Once past the narrow beach, you entered a swampy, humid, silent chamber. Weeping willows gave it a southern gothic feel. There were large stagnant pools, almost miniature lakes, covered with a slick electric green film. Water lilies drifted on the surface and even though windless, they twitched from the movement of the mud turtles that were abundant. The bright sun could barely penetrate the thick green canopy that shadowed the ponds that shimmered in the thick fetid air that stuck to your lungs.
I saw the reason why one of my buddies decided to wear the wetsuit top in such stifling conditions. He was walking slightly to my front and on his right shoulder blade was what I thought was a dining needle, it was a mosquito the size of some 1950’s B movie atomic mutation. Fortunately, he was flying solo and veered off into the swamp after an unsuccessful attempt to penetrate the wetsuit.
Leaving the swamp, you entered a meadow filled with wild flowers, beyond which was a large dirt field. A roof of a large house was visible just past the field. Suddenly a tractor which had been hidden by trees bordering the meadow, pulled onto the field and began to work it, moving away from us, towards the house. When it reached the edge of the field, it turned around and began to move straight at us. We were out in the open with no available cover. The tractor moved ten yards towards us, then stopped. The driver stood up; we were spotted.
The crew formed a controlled retreat; no running, bare foot, we had to move with care over the changing terrain. After reaching the beach, we swam back to the boats, weighed anchor and prepared to leave. Just before the engines were started, the jeep appeared and stopped directed by the rock. The jeep man did not get out or shout a warning or display a shot gun; he just sat there, unsmiling, staring at us as the sun reflected off the mirrors of his sunglasses. It was late in the afternoon, a thick fog began to blow in from the ocean, we sighted on the canal while the jetty was still visible and headed home.
That afternoon on the coast, at Candlestick Park, both Maris and Mantle had gone hitless in the 1961 all star game.