Out of State
Long Island’s East End and Topeka, Kansas could seemingly not be further apart. Under most circumstances, these two contrasting places would defy being linked together in the same sentence. Yet for me, they came to be oddly connected. The small school in Kansas that I attended classified us into two groups, those who were “residents” and everyone else who was from “out of state.” Perhaps, I fell into a third category, “way out of state,” with my distinctive Eastern accent, (which became increasingly evident) and as the only New Yorker in a mid-year start incoming class. I was a kind of curiosity in the Midwest, like the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum, which are inherently Greek in origin and belong to the Parthenon, but have been otherwise misplaced, and now remain in London, a long way from their point of origin, with everyone continuing to wonder, “How did this happen?”
Classes had started that year during a cold and bitter January, when hail the size of small golf balls would fall suddenly from the sky, sharply crackling against anything it struck, including your car’s windshield, and bitter unchecked winds would sweep through the open flat country of the Great Plains around us, with a penetrating cold unlike anything I had ever experienced growing up on Long Island. However, as the months passed, the long-awaited arrival of summer meant that I would be heading not only “back East” to Long Island, but also “out East,” to the sea, lighthouses, vineyards, and farm stands of the East End in what had become a treasured summer tradition in our family.
On the living room wall of our home in Babylon hangs a black and white photograph from the Forties. It is of our grandparents and their appearance evokes the fashion sensibility of leading actors and actresses from a classic film noir. The image forever captures them posed at Hither Hills in Montauk, leaning against a large boulder in the evening with the Atlantic Ocean at low tide as a backdrop. Years later they would continue their annual trip out East each summer, but now taking with them their grandchildren, and this would continue well into the late Nineties. We have continued this tradition each year, always heading out to the East End.
Greenport with its rich seaport past, nautical heritage, and location on the water was everyone’s favorite destination. Starting early in the morning from Babylon, we made our way East along Sunrise Highway, and then over to Sound Avenue on the North Fork. The landscape began to change, opening up with farm fields starting to emerge accompanied by the smell of freshly overturned earth, as a tractor worked out in a field of vegetables beside the two lane road. Neat lines of staked grapes in the vineyards came next and were a welcome relief to the over development and congestion of Western Suffolk. Stands of maple and oak seemed to separate one passing farm field from another, while also providing the occasional glimpse of a deer or wild pheasant. Each small farm stand that we passed (which we would always visit on the way back) sat situated at the end of a dirt parking field off of Sound Avenue and seemed to beckon that you take a time out. Oftentimes, there would be an ornamental wagon wheel out in front accompanied by baskets of fresh vegetables, fruits, and flowers in containers stacked neatly in organized rows out front. If it was a vineyard, there would be the added bonus of a tasting barn often located in the back. Our grandmother would always comment somewhere around Cutchogue, “We should buy out here one day.” Even Einstein had decided to become a resident on the North Fork, maybe we’d be next, I would think hopefully each summer.
Arriving at last in Greenport, we would sit at the same white plastic outdoor table each year alongside the pier celebrating another summer as a family. Lunch would be fried clam strips with tartar sauce, a cod filet, fresh mussels, or sometimes a crab sandwich served in red baskets lined with wax paper. Small boats and a couple of not so small yachts were always docked nearby. An Eighteenth Century tall-masted sailing ship sat docked in the water in Greenport one year, near the nautical supply stores. The old ship seemed to suggest the importance of remembering where we’ve from, as it served as a visual reminder of earlier times on the water.
The smell of salt on the cool breeze from the water coupled with the low rumbling of boats coming in or going out of the marina, slowly and cautiously, so as not to create a wake, provided for an atmosphere unique to our summer East End trips. Shelter Island was even visible from our table with its low hills and the forested landscape only occasionally broken by a home’s rolling green lawn, which seemed to reach from the top of a hill down to the water in some places. I suddenly realized that even travel by ferry from Orient Point to New London or from Greenport to Shelter Island to visit friends one summer day, as well as the postcard worthy views from the Sag Harbor-North Haven Bridge, were experiences that I had taken for granted having grown up here. In Kansas, this was just not possible.
I distinctly remember heading back along Sound Avenue for Western Suffolk one year after our family’s trip to Greenport. Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” could be distinctly heard playing as we pulled into a farm stand that we visited each year on our way home. I looked around and no, I wasn’t in Las Vegas, but rather still at a farm stand in Mattituck. The music was coming from a convertible parked at the farm stand in which a well-dressed man had turned up the volume while he sat waiting for someone. All I could think of is that it was a fitting conclusion to another summer out East, and I too had to say “thank you” for the wonderful memories.
On one particular summer day, before heading back to the Midwest again, I decided to instead follow Sunrise Highway out along the South Fork to Montauk. I fortunately arrived mid-day at Turtle Hill and the Montauk Lighthouse, just in time for one of the last tours to the top. After slowly making my way up what seemed like an endless flight of circular steps winding up through the octagonal, sandstone structure, I stepped out into the fresh sea breeze on the top observation deck.
The sea seemed limitless from here, as it stretched out in all directions toward the horizon. Looking down, I could even see Captain Kidd’s money ponds and the boulders piled high to stop erosion at what really was the end (or was it the beginning?) of the South Shore of Long Island. Growing up always within easy reach of the sea may have created a certain nautical sensibility and perspective that was different, and perhaps made me even more connected to the “out of state” label now assigned to me in Kansas. I looked out once more before getting ready to begin the climb down, but this time, back up island. Montauk’s lush greenery seemed to form a verdant perimeter that suddenly ended by abutting the endless stretches of white barrier beaches facing the Atlantic. It was all visible from here, and created a panorama that could not be experienced from down below.
The light behind me from the lighthouse suddenly flashed right on schedule according to its regular five second intervals. A great grandfather came to mind, who had been a lighthouse keeper long before lighthouses operated on electricity and without the aid of a keeper. I even thought that from here, I could almost see one of the beaches at Montauk where perhaps that photo that now hangs in our living room had been taken well over sixty years ago. There were inextricable links between Eastern Long Island and our family, and I was glad to be labeled as someone who was from “out of state.” Even if the beams from the lighthouse would not be physically visible to me this Fall while so far away in the Midwest, metaphorically I knew they would continue to shine every five seconds, until I was guided back once more to the East End.