Napeague of Summers Past
As autumn light infiltrates the sky with the promise of the Perseid meteor showers and then September, my heart returns to memories of summers gone by and their rites of passage. Until we bought property in Amagansett (two lots for $3000 in 1961) our family each year went to a different summer colony for my father’s August vacation.
Dune Road on Westhampton Beach was our destination in 1960, the 400 block, where three houses perched on stilts perpendicular to the ocean. We arrived with our new summer clothes, striped cotton and hooded tees, crisp and clean, freshly folded, just waiting to be deposited by our patient mom in drawers smelling of salt and sea. The neighbors to the north (early groupers – and advertising types) threw a “fink” party, with signs announcing “fink” and “fink party” everywhere – slang at the time for “uncool.” Our babysitter Iris tried to explain it to us but we just thought they were jerks.
And then finally in the summer of 1964 the house we had built – an A-Frame on Napeague – was complete. That season begged for rebirth following the shocking death of President Kennedy. The Beatles’ February landing in New York with their unique sound, new beat and quartet of moppet hair and happy hopeful faces answered the plea. They brought joy – in their melodies and in their lyrics. Motown jived with “Can’t Help Myself” (the Four Tops) and the Beach Boys’ simple harmonies – especially “Surfer Girl” infiltrated restaurants and bars, beaches and parties.
My Dad, a Madison Avenue ad man, had seen an A-Frame in Penn Station during his winter commute – they were touted as great ski houses, because the snow slid down the sides of the “A” with sublime ease. Dad saw it though, as the perfect beach house – he Christened ours “The Duner’s Club.”
April 14, 1964 was our first day “out.” The temperature was unusually high, about 80 degrees. Imagine our surprise when we ran into the ocean and then ran right out again, having discovered that warm air does not warm water make. The force of the ocean current had carved deep valleys in the sand, creating small streams which divided the shore. These rivulets toasted in the sun and we enjoyed them until the ocean warmed up later in the season.
We settled into Amagansett for the summer. A unique assortment of fellow residents inhabited our little colony. Warren Fitzsimmons, like my dad was an ad exec, and they shared lots of cocktails on his wrap-around oceanview deck. Bob Diercks, noted photographer for LOOK Magazine and friendly with Judy Garland, claimed to own the original hourglass from “The Wizard of Oz.” We were especially drawn to the young towhead caretaker of the White Sands Motel, Lee Nelson. Lee’s dad was Jimmy Nelson, the famed ventriloquist and Lee a promising singer himself. Under Lee’s bright tutelage (at 16 he was considerably older than us Kohnkens) we enjoyed our summer home and surroundings. We played shuffleboard in the rain and bounced on pogo sticks. When Lee tried to tell a dirty joke Susie, then 9 turned to Geordie, age 7, and whispered, “I’ll memorize this, and when we’re older we’ll understand.” Despite his occasional prurient bent Lee joined our family often for dinner and outings and my parents grew fond of him of him.
Daddy was raised poor in the Bronx and was like a kid himself, loving his easy access to the beach, the offbeat fishing village of Montauk and the wonderful local seafood restaurants – especially the Napeague Inn. And Gordon’’s in Amagansett. Many nights I was left in charge when our parents went out to dinner. There was no TV and certainly no internet. We didn’t even have a telephone for years. Fine by us.
Mornings Daddy would rise, light a Kool, quickly down his Carnation Instant Breakfast, grab us kids and run to the beach.
Mommy professed to more adult interests and rarely swam. She only liked the beach when the weather was so hot she couldn’t stand it. And then she would walk daintily to the edge of the water and let the waves lap at her legs. She was very fair – blonde hair and lashes, and she had to be careful in the sun. She preferred to read and she could be found, on those lazy summer days curled up on the couch perusing a good book, smoke swirling around her Marilyn smile and a cup of coffee on the end table. “Be a good girl,” she’d say to me – a familiar litany – “and get me another cup of coffee with a little milk and a ½ teaspoon of sugar.” Before her stretched the panorama of the sky, the silver dunes, and the ocean beyond where, out of sight, her family frolicked.
For Independence Day Dad had gone down to Chinatown, known for its rich store of fireworks. We waited until the sun set when Dad and Lee climbed the dunes (illegal then) to shower our little tic-tac-toe colony with sparklers and flares and bright colorful starbursts in the sky. In the 60’s the night sky was coal black. All you could see was a carpet of stars.
After a day spent riding the waves in the sun and salty sea we headed home. Dad, cigarette dangling from his lips, would light the deckside barbecue, cooking sauce-soaked burgers, hot dogs, baked beans with onions and corn on the cob. Susie and I helped our mother set the picnic table with paper plates and cups, forks, spoons, salads, mustard and ketchup – and then fervently hoped it wouldn’t all blow away – it was always windy on Napeague. When we left for the beach after dinner Daddy was listening to Erroll Garner and Percy Faith, Mommy comfortably ensconced on the chaise with her Family Circle.
Evenings we gathered around a bonfire on the sand singing the songs Lee taught us – “Mariah” (Way out here, they have a name, for rain and wind and fire, the rain is Tess, the fire’s Jove and they call the wind Mariah) and the recently released “Blowin’ in the Wind,” awakening us to the troubled civil rights climate. When Lee sang alone, his clear true voice rang out and the booming surf played backup. Lingering until the embers glowed their last, we’d breathe in the salty sea air and feel the darkness falling over the Island like a coverlet. On clear nights the full moon reflected off the sea like a silver ribbon running straight to shore.
In the summer of 1964 what is now a part of Edward Albee’s property was a “for teens only” night club called the Cola Copa. On Friday evenings Dad drove us into Montauk with Lee and we wandered up and down Montauk’s hilly streets until the place finally emerged in the night. The building was rumored to have been Carl Fisher’s barn. We had real doubts when Daddy drove off, that he’d find us again.
Inside was dark. Planked wooden plank floors supported crowds of kids with girls in “Bye Bye Birdie” blouses, culottes and Keds and boys in chinos and shorts, gold watches glinting in the dim light. We drank Coke or 7-Up. The stereo spewed out the current chart-toppers. There was “Ferry Cross the Mersey” by the Dave Clark Five, “Baby Love” from the Supremes and the Marvalettes sang “Too Many Fish in the Sea.”
England was all the rage that summer –the Beatles were from Liverpool, Jean Shrimpton graced the May cover of Glamour magazine in pink and white checked gingham. The confluence of the Mersey beat, Motown and the Beach Boys emerged to wash away old wounds. At the Old Post Office Cinema in East Hampton – then the only local movie house – Alec Guinness was featured in “The Ladykillers.” We saw “Some Like it Hot” there, and later the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night.”
Back in our A-Frame on Napeague we never did spot neighbor Gwen Verdon, just off her Broadway run in Damn Yankees but I did meet her yet-uncelebrated husband Bob Fosse when his German Shepherd threatened my fox terrier. They made their home in the huge weatherbeaten farmhouse at the extreme southeast corner of the colony – whispered to cost a cool $100,000 in comparison to the $10,000 we paid for our A-Frame.
At the end of summer, lunching at Sam’s in East Hampton my neighbor on a bar stool was James Whitmore who had just appeared at the John Drew Theatre in “A Thousand Clowns.” “Pass the ketchup,” he asked.
We always knew when we were within reach of our beloved summer place when we saw, for miles before we reached them, the twin radio towers in Promised Land. At night, my sister and I would lie in our room, kept awake by the blinking red strobes across the highway. At the time they seemed a nuisance – now I just appreciate this wonderful foundation in life, a home in the Hamptons.