Nor’Easter Part I/Hampton Bays/Shinnecock

Written By: Carolyn Zenk

A Nor’easter had been blowing for a few days now. I could hear it at night. It rattled the house and wept angrily against the glass of my bedroom window; it scared me. I could feel the limits of the safety of our Hampton Bays home where I lived with my brother Marty. I got up in the middle of the night to take a good look at the storm. “Jumpy” my fierce green-eyed tiger-cat stirred silently and stretched long on the far corner of the foot of my bed.

I put on something warmer, went downstairs, and peered out the glass backdoor to see how my garden was doing. The twenty foot tall bamboo forest in our backyard, behind my garden, shuddered and swayed, green and yellow, under the weight of the rain and the breath of an angry wind. My Buddha statute watched faithfully over my small pond which, was overflowing. The yellow and gold marigolds held their own in the storm. The tomato plants clutched their red purses against their green thighs. I went back to bed marveling at Nature’s wrath and resilience. “All this wind should help the waves for surfing,” I thought to myself.

Morning light made no peace with the moody storm. She only gave sight to her cousin Night’s evening rants and damage. We’d lost some large tree branches from our sturdy oaks; old trees had gone down along the roads. Wires were hanging and swaying everywhere. My surfboards had blown about in the wind and were strewn across the back lawn.

Against my better judgment, I went down to the barrier beach to take a closer look at the storm. I threw on a raincoat, a baseball cap, and my leather hiking boots and jumped into my red Subaru. I figured the car’s high chassis would do well in the rising water along the streets and over the branches, which were littering Ponquogue Avenue.

I drove south down Ponquogue Avenue, made a left on Shinnecock Road, and another right, passed by Tully’s Seafood Market and Restaurant, and zipped by the Shinnecock Coast Guard Station, set at the northern foot of the Ponquogue Bridge.

I briefly pondered TWA flight 800’s fate. The Paris-bound flight had mysteriously blown up just minutes after departing JFK Airport on the night of July 17th, 1996, off the barrier island a few miles from the Moriches Inlet. The coastguard station had been used to collect parts of the plane to help solve the mystery-to no avail. Many local people swore that they had seen a missile heading toward the plane before it blew up and exploded into a thousand pieces, spewing seats, luggage, plane parts, and people in every direction. All 229 Souls were lost. The barrier island had been shut down while the military collected the dead, most of whom they had already found at sea among the flaming wreckage. The rescue workers had faithfully collected the personal luggage, photographs, and memorabilia of those who had perished for their loved ones who remained behind. Tragic.

Over the Ponquogue Bridge, I flew. Shinnecock Bay tossed its blue-gray watery locks about, like a girl. The Wind grazed its hand across the Bay’s watery back, leaving its waves to stand straight up, like a cowlick. I had an incredible view from the heights of this simply arched and elegant bridge. I could see the Shinnecock Fishing Fleet moored to the east with its multicolored boats tossing to and fro in the storm.

Below me lay the mussel beds, which I had fervently worked under a hot summer’s sun to help get me through college. I sold the shellfish to my brother-in-law, who owned a local fish shop in Hampton Bays. His wife, my sister Diana, used to shuck dozens upon dozens of the blue-eyed scallops; they were so plentiful in those days. East End scallops are the most delicious food you can possibly eat. They are sweet, white, tender morsels, which melt in your mouth. They are particularly delicious with a little white wine and garlic, lightly sauteed in butter, to keep them tender.

The mussel beds stretched below me in the blue-green shallows, on the southwest side of the bridge. I had spent many happy days picking the glossy blue- black creatures from their cool beds, separating abyssal threads from shells, and carefully placing them in a floating rubber tube with a net, which was neatly tied to my waist. I watched the tides carefully because if I got too greedy and stayed too long, it was difficult to swim back to shore with my potato sacks full of seafood booty.

From my high perch on Ponquogue Bridge, I could see the barrier island stretch for miles before me-east and west. “Beautiful”. I’d often driven along this stretch, which is the most beautiful in the Hamptons. There’s lots of open space, with golden dunes covered by tender green beach grass, rosy pink beach plum roses, and velvety Dusty Miller. The elegant long-legged White Egrets often feed gracefully in the shallows on the bay side. I’ve even had the pleasure of seeing a fluffy Snowy Owl out on the barrier beach.

Ponquogue Beach lay like an ivory pearl in front of me. I could see the pavilion. I watched the enormous waves streaming shoreward. Their proud white heads were thrown back, billowing manes of foam behind them. It was a majestic sight. Enormous mountains of water rushed toward the shore, only to be followed by more mountains of water. When I got down to the beach, I could tell that the Sea had traveled farther than usual to pay his watery visits to his Sea dune Mistress, leaving his treasures at her still-wet feet. There had clearly been a lot of kissing going on between Sea and Shore at the sandy edges of the dunes.

The waves at Ponquogue were not good for surfing, as I had hoped. It was too rough and disjointed. Beach breaks can only hold smaller waves on Long Island. When the storms are too big or too intense, a surfer finds herself battling bad rip currents, side sweeps, and thick white water, surging relentlessly toward shore. It’s hard to paddle through all the white-water mess to claim the prize-a ride on a watery steed. There’s been times when it was so rough that I couldn’t paddle out to the outer bar. I braved the surf anyway, only to be turned back again and again-breathless. The wind was still very intense. It looked like I’d have to wait it out for better weather, and better-shaped waves. “Montauk!” I thought. “The surf will break much better at Ditch Plains!”

Out on the open beach, some local tourists were marveling at the surging high surf and the bracing wind, which was whipping their clothing about them. They left their young son playing near the foot of the waves, which towered above him at least ten feet. “Bad idea,” I thought. The beach was completely wet. The boy was in danger.

Sure enough, a particularly gnarly wave pounded the shore right in front of him. I felt its thunder roll in the pit of my stomach. It splashed head-high, leaving a five foot wall of thick sea foam, which surged menacingly toward him. It swept him up in its mighty, swirling, white-water, sea arms. He could barely swim in the airy fluff. He lost his footing and was whisked straight up the steep slope of the beach toward the dunes. Mother Ocean began to pull her human plunder back to her sea bosom. The small boy was being sucked back into the angry sea. His parents watched his watery demise-mouths agape in horror.

I plunged into the cold surf, despite the fact I was wearing a pair of ankle-high construction boots, denim jeans, and a jacket. I managed to get a hold of the toddler’s soggy shirt as the seawater surged past me. The sea pulled hard on my legs. I stuffed the boy, who was quite small, under my arm, and marched deliberately toward his terrified parents-boots sloshing all the while- because I was soaked to the bone. “Here’s your boy!” I announced with exasperation. They gathered him up in warm loving arms. The boy shouted with glee and asked me, “Can we do that again?!”


[Note: See Part II/Nor’easter Montauk]