My “Hamptons,” A Story of Loss and Love

Written By: Thomas W  McDermott

My “Hamptons,” A Story of Love and Loss By T.W. McDermott When I first heard someone talk about a Hampton, I was still too young to know how adults could use the secret language of summer places to register people socially. Each “Hampton” signified something or other about a friend or their family. For those headed to Southhampton, it was definitely a money and gin & tonics on the porch kind of thing. Westhampton evoked something simpler, people who like the beach and disliked longer drives. Quoge? What’s a Quogue? Back in the back 50s and early 60s, when I was growing up in Forest Hills, the locals who spent their summers on eastern Long Island never referred to a place called “The Hamptons.” Instead, they told friends they were going to particular places, East Hampton, Westhampton Beach. And, those friends didn’t go weak at the knees believing the lucky few might be hobnobbing with Hollywood or Wall Street. My earliest encounter with the area still connects me to feelings of loneliness and loss. My best friend, Kurt, spent the summer in a house close-by Rogers Beach Club in Westhampton. He lived in an apartment at one end of a long first floor hallway, and I at the other. He was my older almost brother by a mere 17 June days. Within a week after school closed, he was gone for the summer. _________________________________________ When I was six or seven, my own family still visited the farm where my maternal grandfather had lived as a boy, in Matawan, New Jersey. You want to get a universe away from Hamptons life? Try an old farmhouse with two small barns on Texas Road, up the hill from the railroad and the proverbial roosters who woke me early, circa 1955. And the saltwater pool where my mother drove us to go swimming bore little relation to Kurt’s Dune Road. There were no other kids around our “farm,” except my sisters, and they did not play ball or understand comic books; they had not mastered the art of hopping about while making galloping noises with your tongue and holding a broomstick horse between your legs. They had care about no clue how to Hopalong, Wild Bill, or the Lone Ranger. While Kurt was lazily walking 100 yards or so for an after-cereal ocean dip, I spent my Texas Road days with a gallop, lying in my pup tent upon pine needles, reading comics. Or, sometimes I played with my land turtles captured in the blackberry field where my sister and I squatted to you know what when the old house’s plumbing quit, a not infrequent occurrence. At summer’s end, when Kurt returned, I listened to his summer tales told in his raspy voice. Mostly we talked about Little League games he played. He convinced me that one boy had been born with three eyes and you could still see the scar in the middle of his forehead where it was removed. I still remember the boy’s name – Jay Beaton – Jay, if you’re reading this, true story or not, apologies for bringing it up. _____________________________________________________ After we had discontinued our farm trips after much lobbying by me and my older sister, we began spending the summer at the beach clubs of Atlantic Beach, at the extreme opposite end of Long Island from Westhampton. One year, Kurt and his family returned home mid-summer – his mother, Meg, had TB or maybe cancer. The year we turned 13, Kurt’s mother died, and I think he stopped going to Westhampton shortly after that. Maybe his heartbroken dad, a big man who wore small bow ties with his suit, simply couldn’t bare it. Nobody explained that kind of thing to kids then. But, a couple of years later when we were in high school, his aunt invited a few of his friends, including me, to stay at her rented house on Cox’s Curve Road in Westhampton. Driving on Montauk Highway with my own family these days, I cannot resist calling out some of the stations the way that conductor did on our teenage journey out east. I did it again with only my wife in the car recently. “Speeeooonk!” “Ronnnnkooonnkkaamaaaa!” Walt Whitman, eat your heart out. ____________________________________ There was a little croquet club in by Cox’s Curve when we were teens. But, we weren’t much interested in croquet after discovering that club members living there had teenage daughters; we became very interested in them. One day, we rented a small boat in Hampton Bays, a rowboat really with a small engine, and took it through the Shinnecock Canal. Quite an adventure, for city boys who knew nothing about boats or the difference between bay and ocean currents. I knew even less about the currents flowing through me whenever I saw a certain one of those girls, an Upper East Side private school heartthrob if there ever was one. I immediately fell overboard in love, and upon my return home would call her nearly every night from a pay phone, since I was too embarrassed to use our family phone. Her father conveyed long sigh over the phone line to my corrugated booth, from where I could hear him call her in from the croquet lawn to speak with me. The highlight of that first Hamptons’ trip, besides the girl, was seeing “Dr. No” at the cinema in town. After that, life pretty much became Before Ursula and After Ursula. I managed exactly two “dates” with my summer love, one during that same summer when she had “things to do in town,” and I give thanks to her for introducing me to the Met and for a memorable, for me, modest kiss. The other took place in the fall, a birthday celebration for her friend whose parents took me and another boy for dinner at the tony Embers restaurant. Before, during, and after dinner she spoke not a word to me, sitting there in my best DePinna madras jacket and knit tie. Some summers are not endless. ____________________________________________________ My other summer love had been tennis, discovered when I was eight with my first taste of the “Nationals,” the Open’s forerunner, that took place at West Side Tennis Club, whose entrance was 50 yards from my bedroom. After Wimbledon, a number of men’s and women’s satellite grass tournaments took place, including ones at Maidsone in East Hampton or Meadow Club in Southhampton. I especially remember reading about and imagining events at Meadow Club, a place that seemed geographically and socially beyond reach to me. I could imagine the girls of August, and the Triumphs and Morgans parked beside the tall privet hedges. The girls, of course, wore cotton summer dresses, perhaps with a bright cardigan or a Shetland tied around their tan shoulders. I imagined them having club sandwiches or consommé Madrilène for lunch on the porch, drinking Gin & Tonics by the bar in the evening with their parents or boyfriends. In September, after returning home to the city or Greenwich or Far Hills, they would come to the Nationals, and I would see them sitting on the West Side’s slate terrace, wandering the field courts, and sitting in the boxes. ______________________________________________________ In 1990, a year after beginning a new job, my boss invited my family to her house in Bridgehampton, on Pointe Mecox. Sadly, the year before, Kurt was tragically killed in an accident outside Candlestick Park near San Francisco. He and I had renewed our friendship shortly before the accident and, returning to the Hamptons still reminded me of him and his stories. Ro, my boss, and her husband, Charles, had just bought their second home in the area. The new one was truly spectacular, with open views across the inlet and out to the ocean. The kitchen was open and huge by my family’s standards and Ro had every inch of the refrigerator packed, and then some. My kids were immediately smitten with Ro and Charles, their house, and pool. This, at last, was the real Hamptons. Charles had a shop in town called Country Gear, which we loved to visit, and I also loved riding a bicycle over to the Sag Store. I am incapable now of visiting the East End without thinking about Kurt and those wonderful days with Ro, who died a few years ago, and Charles. ________________________________________________ In late June this year, my wife and I attended a wedding in Quogue. Once again, it was summer love at first sight: the seaside church, the little Q44 shop run by a friend, the Field Club on a clear, warm, dry summer day, an iced tea at the Country Market. I immediately decided to live there, although it wasn’t exactly clear how. Quogue seems a kind of un-Hampton. Hard to imagine Hillary, Spielberg, or The Donald venturing west of the canal. Quogue seems like the perfect summer solution. I’ve never heard anyone from Quogue say they were going to “The Hamptons.”