Memories of Montauk
In 1960 the Long Island Lighting Company was proposing to expand many of its services and operations eastward. My father, Jim Butler was a LILCO gas heating representative and interested in the proposition. “Let’s go!” he said to the family. Together with my mother Pat, my father put our 3 bedroom ranch style home in Lindenhurst on the market. We had only left Brooklyn four years earlier and the family had not yet gotten over the cultural shock of moving from the crowded, concrete, brick and stone urban environs of Sunset Park to the sprawling wooded suburbs of Long Island. Nonetheless our next destination was Montauk. My mother and father had favored Montauk for many years. They had owned a tiny white bungalow with a large wooden porch near the docks in the early fifties. The dwelling was a summer retreat and something of an investment on West Lake Drive across from the “landmark” West Lake Fishing Lodge. From the porch Pat and Jimmy could look out at Lake Montauk and observe all the activity the big harbor with access to the Long Island Sound provided. There were commercial fishing boats with their large woven nets strung across the long beams that extended out from the vessels during their frequent journeys out to sea scraping the ocean, top and bottom, in search of prey. The lake was also filled with big and small brightly painted private boats, fancy charter boats and the immensely popular open boats available to all anglers. Everybody in Montauk was in pursuit of the fish that the surrounding rich, prolific waters contained. As we packed up our things for the big move with only a slight bit of trepidation, the Butler children knew as my father explained “Montauk was the easterly most spit of land on Long Island’s south shore” but not much more. Later we would learn of its exotic beauty and deep rural character. With our car packed and a truck full of furniture we headed east. Montauk was surrounded by the enormous expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound with the hazy, unfocused Connecticut shoreline in the distance, and Gardiner’s Bay with its deep and choppy dark blue waters. On the open north and south shores of the peninsula, long, white, empty and sometimes rocky beaches looked out at aqua-green water. The frothy white caps caused by the ocean winds added immensely to the colorful visual scene. I can remember being almost breathless as we entered Montauk on a bright sunny afternoon motoring cautiously on the hilly “Old Montauk Highway” far above the roaring and pounding ocean off to our right. On our left, were 10 square miles of state owned rolling forest with its autumnal red, orange and dark pine foliage projected across the broad landscape. We moved to Montauk in late October 1961. Our new home, about a quarter of the size of the one in Lindenhurst, was an enlarged bungalow on Mulford Avenue in a subdivision called Soundview Estates. As the name implied, we were adjacent to the Long Island Sound. On our street there were seven or eight houses on large, long sandy lots – surrounded by sprawling fields salted with green and brown scrub oak and stunted pine trees. One day in early November in an unusually cold and blustery wind my father decided to take the family for a Saturday lunch at Salivar’s Bar and Grill on the harbor. The place, a bit dark had a big tavern and a narrow brightly lit diner attached through an arched doorway. Business was good, they had a full bar that day – one or two deep – mostly male customers. We all sat at a table while Jimmy ferried drinks back and forth between our seats and the bartender. Eventually a pretty waitress from the adjoining dining room appeared at the table. After taking our order she retreated back into the diner. The people at the bar were a boisterous bunch and I could sense my mother’s nervousness as we waited for our sandwiches. Just as our server was delivering our tray full of food a drunken fisherman punched a colleague right across the room and directly toward our table. We all clutched our drinks. The bulky man stumbled to the edge of the table as our waitress deftly avoided a collision with his tumbling frame. Raising her eyes briefly to the ceiling and forcing a smile she asked “Can I get you anything else?” My father just laughed as my mother sat stunned. Large and small light brown and dark brown, white tailed deer, some of which we confused with dogs at first, were everywhere. Later our playful walks through the woods and trails along the deserted beach would introduce the family to red foxes, wild rabbits, and the multicolored ring necked pheasants found in abundance throughout the golden grasses and meadows. The early winter was generally temperate but as the surrounding waters chilled, by late February the weather got somewhat harsh. With high winds off the waters, often blowing over 20 miles per hour and nighttime temperatures sometimes in the teens the environment mildly resembled one of Maine’s barren windswept islands. Unlike further north, Montauk had infrequent snow storms but cold, cloudy late winter days were commonplace and added to a general sense of isolation. On Mulford Avenue, we had only one other all-year-round neighbor. Bill Ingram was an average size gray haired, seventy-five-year-old retired sailor. His face was old and craggy, and his clubbed left hand and a long scar on his leg was evidence of the wounds he had suffered in World War I and II. Wounded at least twice, he had served on the water in both world wars and had risen to the position of chief engineer by the time of his retirement from the US Merchant Marine. Ingram’s life story made him popular in Montauk, and my family became attached to him almost immediately. Like some character in an old movie, he smoked a big pipe, told of his great adventures at sea, and drank beer with enormous zeal. As he recited his old stories he would close his eyes and put his head back trying to recall particular details stored in his amazing memory. Perhaps our most exciting moment came one Saturday afternoon on a bright summer day. With my father at the wheel and Jay and I in the car, we were headed home from confession at the Little Flower Catholic church. We were enjoying an open stretch of roadway in my father’s old Studebaker Silver Hawk. As we approached the Long Island Railroad station, there was a sharp curve to the right. Dad competently negotiated the turn, but suddenly a large red convertible coming from the opposite direction drifted into our lane. Jimmy jerked the wheel to the right, to avoid a head-on collision and left the paved portion of the road, driving onto the sandy shoulder next to a small drop-off. Visibly angry and startled he stopped the car to catch his breath and check on his kids. The driver of the big car, meanwhile, surprisingly made a U-turn and pulled up behind our coupe. A big husky, broad-shouldered man, perhaps 5’10” or so, came up to the driver’s side window to ask if everybody was okay. It was Jackie Gleason. “Humina, humina, humina,” my father said, breathlessly imitating the famous actor. Jimmy, staring at the big star, was otherwise speechless and deeply impressed. Gleason was a well-known entertainer and had a variety of television shows and movies to his credit. In the early 1960s, he was in his prime. Even I knew he was the famous entertainer. We watched him every week on television. A regular at the Montauk Manor, a local upscale hotel, he was often rumored to be in town. But this was the first time we had ever actually seen him. The next morning, Jackie Gleason made an appearance at the Little Flower, and everyone at Mass watched to see how much he placed in the collection basket. No one could tell for sure, but it was estimated to be several large bills. Afterward, Jackie recognized my father and spoke to him briefly again on the steps of the church as we left. Many of the parishioners’ jaws dropped open at the sight, and my mother was finally convinced that Dad and Gleason had indeed met before. In 1962, my mother had serious physical and emotional problems after the death of our premature brother, Robert Patrick. Born in mid-pregnancy and weighing about a pound and a half, the infant lived for only three days before dying at Southampton Hospital on July 13, 1962. Jimmy and Pat were devastated and their pain was palpable. In 1963 my mother and father dispatched me back to my grandmother in Brooklyn to attend a Catholic high school and only a year later the rest of the family returned to Lindenhurst to resume a less exciting existence.