Memories of A Lost Paradise
Once upon a time…Sorry for the cliché, but even more perturbing is that I was there at that time. Anyway, this is the saga of my memories of the East End, especially Montauk. Since infancy, my summers were spent on the south side of Lake Montauk. Into my adulthood and after having my own kids, I continued this tradition, though I no longer could (afford to) remain the entire summer as was possible growing up.
“Few will ever realize what we’ve lost”. I’ve begun my Local Environmental Science classes with this exclamation for years. Indeed, the Hamptons and Montauk have become a place where childhood dreams of paradise have slowly eroded. All that made me save the entire year in anticipation of the next summer is now rapidly dwindling away.
Let’s start with the earliest I can remember, the late ‘50’s. I was just approaching school age then. The drive from the city was (or seemed like) about 10 hours, including a mandatory stopover for lunch during such a long journey. There was no Expressway then (Even through the ensuing years, the Expressway was only built piecemeal, covering a mere part of the trip). Most of the excursion was routed over 27-A. Even the Sunrise was composed of small, intermittent stretches broken up by intersections and farmland. Where the Hampton Bays interchange now stands, there was a farm stand where my parents would always stop. My father would speak to the old man there in Polish for a few minutes and subsequently, our ’55 Dodge would be filled with what seemed like a year’s worth of vegetables.
The towns along the way were picturesque and quite empty. In East Hampton there was a Bohack supermarket which through many transitions, Citarella’s stands today. There was also an A&P. I’m not sure where the original one was, but I think it was somewhere on Main Street before moving to a new location off Newtown Lane (Don’t know what’s there now).
O.K. We now have our grubstake and supplies and are ready to move on to Montauk. I really don’t remember when they built the Rt. 27 extension. My father always went along Old Montauk Highway. There wasn’t much to the town. The only places to buy groceries were Ronnie’s and Herb’s Market. White’s operated in the building that is the liquor store today. The Post Office operated out of a window in the back, general delivery only. Vinnie’s Mobil and Martel’s were there, but stood alone. The structure that now houses the Montauk Market and some smoothie place was not built until the early ‘60’s, first as the new Post Office, then as Ping’s Chinese Restaurant, then IGA, (I think there was an appliance store there at one point) then the Farmer’s Market. Forget Plaza Sports, the present IGA, the buildings on the circle and most of the other boutiques, motels, shops and other entities present today. There was nothing there.
On to the docks. Montauk was still primarily a fishing village. Gosman’s was a simple dining car adjacent to a dirt parking lot. If you were going onto one of the boats to go fishing, you could stop at Tuma’s tackle (now a restaurant) to buy your hooks, bait or whatever else you would need. They later expanded to offer a line of cheap souvenirs, not much different than the high priced art offered for sale at the docks today (at least not when you’re 9 years old!).
Each year as the summer approached, I found it more and more difficult to endure the spring attack of Montauk Fever. As my birthday was in May, it was reasonably easy to con my parents into making a pre-summer sojourn, usually about a 4 day stay. Of course, once you’re in Montauk, you need to eat lobster. So off we went to get our lobster. Back in the ‘60’s, what is now the wholesale building was where Gosman’s had their retail business. Lobsters were quite big then. One lobster could feed a whole family with leftovers for salad the next day.
One year, on my 11th birthday, my father had stopped to talk to the man at Gosman’s who he had become acquainted with over the years. He told me to go look in the tanks and pick out the lobster that I wanted. This may not have been the best thing to tell a kid with little fear of marine life. The next glimpse my father caught of me was dragging a beast about as big as me down the aisle. He couldn’t back out then. The man at the market took it and weighed it (in absolute stunned amazement)… it weighed almost 29 pounds! Lucky for my father, the price back then was something like 35 cents a pound, so we could still afford our stay. Later that night, I heard my father speak in strange tongues as my prize would not fit into the lobster pot. To cook it, he had to borrow an axe and go out back to remove both claws so it could get into the kettle.
Besides the long awaited lobster, there were also many other delectable marine treats that were free for the taking. I learned how to dig clams with my feet by the time I was 7, and developed an insatiable appetite for the bivalves that I still have to this day. One year in the late ‘60’s, they were dredging a marsh at what was then Captain Bert’s in an attempt to build a marina. Fortunately for us kids (and also the environment) the idea foundered, but the muck that had been raised and subsequently settled on the south side of the lake gave rise to an ample population of soft shelled clams (known as “steamers”). We couldn’t find any quahogs that year, but the steamers were more than ample in supply. Mussels were also often found along the shoreline, as were oysters up to about the mid ‘60’s. Blue claw’s were another delicacy that filled the lake (and often brought yelps from waders stepping on them). Many afternoons were spent sitting on a rowboat with a crab trap, or simply walking around the tidal pools with a net. They weren’t subject to as much fishing pressure as they are today, so they were quite big. 3 or 4 made an adequate meal.
The lake abounded with fish. Rowing out just 50’ or so from shore you could catch flounder, eel, blowfish, snappers and others that I don’t even know what they are. As I got older, I often snorkeled and speared a few flounder. Silver-sided spearing were so abundant that they were also employed as food. A single pass with a seine would fill my father’s Wheeling Steel bucket, giving us several meals, some to share, and bait for larger fare. To give an idea of just how many of these little creatures were in the water, at night us kids would go down to the shoreline with a bright flashlight. Shining it across the surface of the water. thousands…tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of these tiny fish were jumping over every square inch of the water’s surface. They had to be bumping into each other!
Some days weren’t quite fit for being in the water, but there was still food to be had on land. Blackberries were all over Montauk, and picking them was a favorite pastime for kids and adults alike. What is now endless houses in the Ditch Plains area was endless blackberry bushes. Again, I could fill my father’s steel bucket in a couple of hours. We had berries with cream and sugar every morning. The surplus was gathered by my mother and made into jam which we consumed throughout the coming winter. In addition to the berries, abundant wild grapes, rose hips and beach plums were gathered and preserved throughout the summer and in our later fall trips.
People? There were times when I would not see anyone outside of our little group of bungalows for days. For most of the summer, the public beach at South Lake would have maybe 10 people on a crowded weekend. (Even later into the 70’s and 80’s the crowds were sparse). One of my favorite beaches to walk was along what is now the outer beach on East Lake. One day when I was about 12, I left my family and their friends where they were picnicking at Oyster Pond to walk toward Shagwong Point. I decided to lay down on a deserted stretch of beach to catch some rays. I was just about snoozing when I felt vibrations on the ground around me. Startled, I got up to find myself surrounded by cows! The Deep Hollow was a working cattle ranch at the time and kept a small herd. The cows had come down to lick the salt foam at the water’s edge. I don’t know how accurate the account is (as I read it in one of Dan’s Papers many years ago) but one year some cattle had allegedly gotten loose during the roundup, and had to be collected from various spots around town. The ranch was also host to several buffalo at a time when they were feared to be endangered. I still have some snapshots I took of them around ’63 or ’64.
Buying your dream summer home seemed pretty easy back then. My father told me that when he first got out of the army in ’47, someone wanted to sell him land on Eastlake for $200! By the ‘60’s the prices had skyrocketed and a new Macy’s home on Westlake would set you back about $17,000. (In all fairness, we do have to remember that someone making 15K back then was rather well off).
My childhood ambitions would have made me a Montauk resident today. Unfortunately, it seems that was many others’ ambitions too. It’s ironic that sometimes in our efforts to find a place where we can just get away from it all, we all seem to get away to the same place, creating just what we wanted to get away from. Even so, we did consider moving to Montauk about 15 years ago, when the last vestiges of affordability still survived. The deciding end to these plans came after 9-11. I am a civilian Coast Guard volunteer and was asked to come to station Montauk to be crew on a boat covering for those vessels diverted to the city. Leaving work in Riverhead at 3:00, I finally arrived in Montauk at a quarter to seven. This was repeated for several more days until I came to the conclusion that this was an undoable commute. As I said earlier, all the people getting away from it all brought it all with them.
Yes, few of those out on the East End today can really understand what was actually lost. While it’s still beautiful and I still love to go to Montauk where I can camp on the beach and fish, there is still the specter of the constant pressure to mow down and build up more and more. Each time, this takes another piece of what we come here for to begin with. It saddens me to no end to know that not only is that beautiful lake no longer a sustainable fishery, but too polluted to even swim in. Resident groups like Concerned Citizens do much to help curb some of the degradation, but unless everyone, including the developers, gets on the same page, I fear that all that magic that a young beach rat can never forget will be gone forever.