Montauk and Magic
It was the spring of 1947 and we had a new car, a shiny navy blue 1947 Ford V8 with gleaming chrome headlights and a shape that resembled a giant whale. Gone were the days of gas rationing and the large”A” sticker on front windshields. The open road was a dream come true and Sunday drivers began to fill the parkways around New York that had been empty during the war years. Our family joined the adventure and storied places became real.
Dad had a mischievous streak and delighted in surprising us with announcements on Sunday mornings, “How about a drive today?” The delicious excitement of trying to guess where we were headed that spring morning had never begun as early as 7am before so, as we piled into,the car together, we three kids whispered “Bear Mountain? Indian Point? Croton Falls? As we headed towards the Triborough Bridge from the Bronx, we knew we were wrong.
Soon the Southern State Parkway sign appeared and its fieldstone arches and tree lined roadway seemed magical in the early morning. The car radio was on but static interfered with Uncle Don and his comics. Having just learned about Guglielmo Marconi and radio waves as a fifth grader, I wondered why we couldn’t get a clear signal here. I’d learned that Marconi sent radio signals across the Atlantic. Dad’s answer was lost to the air unfortunately but he turned a wry smile my way and promised an explanation later on. Always having to sit in the middle seat ( because I was neither the youngest nor the oldest and age hierarchy and window seats were nonnegotiable) , I was forever looking for diversion and told to stop wiggling!
The leafy road came to its end and we turned left and began to drive on the Sunrise Highway, a name surely charming to a 10year old. WHERE were we going!! Three hours had passed and we were getting antsy. Would there be a Howard Johnson’s in the plan? Dad always liked a cup of coffee and the thoughts of an orange soda and a hot dog became the hopes of the backseat brigade. We passed through sleepy towns and presently the friendly orange and blue sign appeared. It was a quick stop to stretch our legs with hopes for hot dogs fulfilled and we were back on the road. Soon the air seemed different, farm fields appeared with the rich smell of spring grass, the road got narrower and the “highway” kind of whimpered to an end as the towns became smaller and farther apart. Another slight turn and we were on Route 27. Dad said it was called the Montauk Highway and the name sounded exotic. The excitement increased as we learned we headed to the ocean and the farthest east place on Long Island. The sky was more blue, the scents and soiunds were more alive and the idea of seeing a lighthouse that George Washington had built was intoxicating. A Sunday adventure beyond imagination!
Driving through places with strange names -Patchogue, Moriches, Quogue- added to the intrigue. And then we crossed the Shinnecock Canal and we could see the ocean in the distance to our right and a faraway land to the left. We’d never seen the ocean without a barrier, its wildness unblemished. It was the deepest blue with sun sparkles dancing on the waves. Its tangy salt smell wafted through the open windows. It was magic! The Jersey beaches we knew so well from summers past had boardwalks and fishing piers but this was different. It seemed endless and the tug to the senses opened a world of delight that entices me still today.
I don’t remember driving through Southampton or Easthampton, though the swans were surely there back then. My recollection is that of a dusty road with few houses but with sand dunes and beach grass waving us on. I just remember seeing the lighthouse suddenly appear on a rise above the ocean, taller and whiter and more dazzling in the noonday sun than anything a ten year old could have imagined. We parked the car and looked up to the glistening prisms of the gigantic light perched high above us, sunlight brighter than the light within it seemed. The wind was strong and gusty, the air clean and chilled and the sound of the ocean was thunderous as we approached the edge of the sandy mound where the lighthouse stood. There was a gray shingled cottage slightly lower down on a slope and we learned it was the lighthouse keepers cottage. The Coast Guard stood watch now and tended the light night and day. Their crisp navy blue uniforms lent a seriousness to the experience. There was a narrow path that wound down to the beach below so we three kids begged to touch the sand. With a smile and a caution, our family followed the path like a gaggle of geese, Dad in front and Mommy at the rear, goslings in between. Sunday shoes discarded, we dared to dip our toes and shivered with the adventure of being at the end of land and the beginning of forever.
With seashells collected and smooth round stones in our pockets, we climbed back up the hill under the shadow of the lighthouse and Dad told us that a Marconi wireless radio station had once been built on this spot and its radio waves had reached across the sea to Ireland! It no longer existed but he knew that it once had enabled ships to broadcast messages. There was nothing to block the radio waves and I imagined them bouncing off the sparkles as they crossed the Atlantic. This was much better than a classroom lesson. The answer to my early morning question hadn’t been forgotten. Dad knew everything!
The long drive back to the Bronx passed in a haze of a NY Giants baseball game, the Gene Autry Show and even Jack Benny on the radio. Maybe they were crossing the ocean even then and some kid in Ireland could hear them! We must have been tired and my parents quite weary after ten hours on the road but we’d had an adventure unlike anything before and I’d never forget it.
It’s many years hence now but the lure of the lighthouse has never dimmed. Wireless has a new meaning and radios are far different. My parents didn’t ever get a chance to return and we continued to visit New Jersey beaches in the summer because they were closer. But I never forgot the magic. Though forty years and more intervened before my husband and our children had a chance to own a little piece of heaven in Amagansett, the delight of living here now brings a joyful song to every day. The lighthouse is here and I can see it whenever it beckons, be it the fading sunset or the mornings first glow. I can feel its magic in the grey of a winter fog or the bright light of a summer day. It reaches across the years, across the endless tide of life well lived and I never cease to thrill when I view its black banded whiteness, its solid sureness on Turtle Hill. It’s the first place I bring visitors when they arrive. It’s the place of marvel and mystery to my grandchildren as much as it was to me.