Mrs. S and the Ghosts of Korea
In the summer of 1957 my father rented a small two bedroom house in Hampton Bays. It was on a dirt road with no street lights at the south end of Rampasture Point an anvil shaped peninsula boarded by Shinnecock and Tiana bays with Smith Creek running along its eastern flank. After the war, George K, a builder from Mineola bought a parcel of pine forest and developed Mineola Court – a collection of a dozen or so small houses on either side of the dirt road. Ours was about one hundred yards from the stone steps built into a bluff that overlooked Tiana Bay. I was ten, my brother five and my youngest brother was three years away.
Back then the eighty-five mile trip from Manhattan would take over three hours. As soon as you left the midtown tunnel the traffic would come to a standstill. This could be for any number of reasons, an accident or vehicles overheating in the brutal summer weather but basically it was just the sheer volume and the funneling of cars from the BQE into the Expressway. People would leave their cars and walk to the rise in the road to check out the situation. Then suddenly, whatever the cause, the mass would begin a lava like movement and the journey would continue until 495 east ended at Vets highway which vectored south to Patchogue where you picked up Montauk highway for the last twenty seven miles. I was ten, my brother five and my youngest brother was three years away.
We arrived after dark, the moon light guiding my father from the driveway to the front door which was unlocked and pretty much remained unlocked for the duration of the summer; the only concession to security would be to latch the screen door shut. Entering there was a distinct odor, not altogether unpleasant, of mildewed old magazines mixed with a sweat mustiness produced from being sealed-up from early fall until Memorial Day. The light switch in the kitchen was located. The front door key and a beach pass were on the Formica dining room table. In those days, the beach pass came with the house not registered to any particular vehicle.
Off from the kitchen there were two bedrooms, a small bathroom with a shower and a screened-in back porch with a small table and couch. It was a nice place to have breakfast or read on a rainy summer afternoon. Bedding was supplied and folded on the king in the master bedroom and two small beds in the other. Although clean, the mustiness still clung to the fabric. During the first few days my mother aired out the house and bedding. The living room was finished with a roll top desk, a rocking chair and a small blue couch with blue cloth cushions. There was a small 16 inch television topped by rabbit ears. Only channel 8 was available, an ABC affiliate broadcast from across the Long Island Sound in Connecticut. The reception was inconsistent becoming noticeably better on a clear night. There was no phone or mail box. An emergency fall back system was worked out with my father’s friend who owned a house at the top of the road and had the luxury of telephone and postal services.
There were many children in the families that resided on the roads at the Southern end of Rampasture Point: original boomers, conceived shortly after their fathers returned from the War, and their younger siblings. Sixty years later I remain close with two of them. One was the my best man, and I am godfather to his second son. The families that spent the summer came from all the city counties as well as Westchester, Nassau, or as the locals refer to it, up-island.
The fathers, World War II veterans, which was just over a decade in the past. In fact my father had returned to Korea and served a year as a Major in an artillery battalion. These men would sooner wear a Davy Crockett faux coon skin hat than a baseball cap emblazoned with a World War II vet logo. They had moved past this honor and didn’t need to advertise their participation. Their duty completed, they returned home to stateside jobs they had left behind, insurance men, civil servants, builders, professionals, raised their families and moved forward with their lives. Of course the intensity of the war had leaked into the fabric of their DNA.
In the long days of early summer, after dinner, my father would walk down to the stone steps at the end of Mineola Court overlooking Tiana Bay. The steps went down about fifty feet to the bay’s shoreline. He would bring a glass of Dewar’s White Label and smoke a Corona Queen cigar as the sun set over the bay, his thoughts returning to the wars. Just before Labor Day, when it was pitch black by 8 pm, he would recline on a broken down chaise lounge with green and white woven plastic straps in the front yard, again with a glass of Dewar’s and the sweet smoke of the Corona Queen. During the immense silence under the thick belt of the Milky Way, the dead from his outfit in Korea would drift in a mist through the pines and pay their respects with silent gestures.
I think mainly motivated by curiosity rather any desire to go out on the town, my parents paid a visit to the Oliver Twist Inn or the OTI as it was called. It was close to the ocean with dancing and live bands with a notorious reputation as a wild place. I didn’t really need a babysitter but my brother was only five and somehow my parents hired Dave S., about 15 years old who lived one street over. Dave was tall, thin and quiet. There certainly was a whiff of the recently deceased James Dean: the cuffed jeans, the rolled up white tee shirt sleeves and the high pompadour. During that summer, he developed a deep crush on a rangy, big-boned blonde whose family was renting a white cottage with red shutters on Mineola Court. I don’t know if he ever made a move, but nothing ever came of it. Heartbroken, he would row across the bay, at that time an undeveloped pine forest pierced at intervals by narrow coves. We would see him chopping down pines, stripping the branches and using the axe, chopping the trunk into two or three uniform sections. As we watched, the strike was visible as it cut into the soft pine, but the sound was delayed sliding across the bay in the windless, silent morning. This went on for days. After he had assembled enough logs, he began to last them together with clothesline to construct a raft…a raft that was never launched. Later that summer we paddled across the bay on an air mattress to find the raft half-submerged in a swampy area that in the future would be known as Turtle Creek.
His younger brother, Steve, began using words like bourgeois and provincial in the early 60’s. I think he was even exposed to the movie Last Year at Marienbad…a very different hombre from Brother Dave. They lived on Port Elizabeth Drive, another dirt road running parallel to Mineola Court. Their house was decidedly upscale from the majority of the rentals, a large deck raised about a foot that looked like a dance floor, a breezeway connecting sections of the house, a large window overlooking the bay. Looking back it is their mother who lingers in memory in the era of post-war nuclear families, she was divorced along with her two young sons, and she was good-looking…not that our mothers weren’t good-looking. They were. But Mrs. S. projected a mysterious, erotic appeal. Think the girl from Ipanema a bit, but down the road. Tall, not real tall, but tall enough. Tan, trim…not quite lovely, but certainly interesting. I don’t remember ever talking to her or either seeing her up close. She would lounge on a hammock on the deck stretched in front of the breezeway. She wore a bikini, not a 50’s two-piece a la Esther Williams, but a real French bikini. When she got up, she slipped on sandals, not flip-flops. I would see men visit her and the sons. One was the actor Michael Rennie who would drive up in a sharp sports car. Then in 1962 they were gone, the house sold, never to be heard from. Now at night, I sit on the back deck of the house built by my wife’s father in 1951. We met on Ponquogue Beach on July 4, 1966, and we’ve been married almost 50 years. I am glad we are still in Hampton Bays, and as I listen to the Yankee game on a clear night when you can hear the live bands near the ocean, and the Big Dipper hangs low in the north sky, the sweet smoke of a Corona Queen enters the yard, and I think of my father and the ghosts of Korea.