Summer heat. Bare feet. The two were synonymous to me as a young boy spending many glorious summers at our little cottage on the bay in Orient Village. As I approach my 68th year on this troubled orb, my oft-vexed brain now yearns for unfettered happier times in my life. For me that was the late 1950’s and 60’s, in what I now realize was my own personal Brigadoon… sans the kilts. The amazing thing about Orient is that much of it, at least visually, has remained unaltered over the years. I believe there is a town ordinance that protects the integrity of the village, as well it should.
Walking through the town is stepping back through history. Colonists and Indians hunted and farmed this fertile land and fished the bountiful waters. In my youth many of the families living here could trace their roots back to times when these states were not yet united. A tree which stood in 1776, where Route 25 and Young’s road meet, is still standing! If ever a tree deserved a hug, this survivor gets my vote… but gently, if you will. I can remember seeing active farms, fishermen and bay men gathering nets and harvesting plentiful shellfish. All this I observed, once upon a time.
Alas, I digress. As Holmes would say, “The game’s afoot,” and I write here about mine, back in the day. My anticipation of our arrival at the “Sand Box” (its hand-painted sign hung above the front porch) became evident to my dad as we drove past “Porky’s” restaurant in my father’s trusty VW beetle. Only minutes away now, he could not help noticing me struggling to loosen the cruel bindings (laces) of my sneakers to prepare my poor bound feet for a summer of naked glory and freedom.
I tossed the discarded sneakers into the back seat as we negotiated the turns of East Marion. Only moments now until my child’s eyes would behold the spectacular view my soul hungered to see. Exiting the tree-bound road we emerged out into open sky and water on all sides. To the left, Long Island Sound. On our right lay the marshlands, Orient Harbor, Orient Village, the long dock to the Orient Yacht Club, Long Beach, the lighthouse and Shelter Island. Fish nets were strung near the shore, and boats of various shapes and sizes adorned the bay. This breathtaking vista was and still is emblazoned across my mind, from a child of three to this very day!
So important was this “reveal” to me, that in later years I set it to music. Driving friends to my “HOLY GROUND” for the first time, I would time the opening of Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (used in the film 2001) in the car to declare triumphantly our emergence from route 25 to the grand scenic view of Orient.
Too much? I have often been accused of being overly dramatic. I prefer to think of myself as…cinematic. Back to the VW: Bare feet poised for reentry, I hit the ground running as Dad pulls up to our cottage. I then get a painful reminder that my civilized feet are not yet prepared for a primitive lifestyle. No worries. Before long they toughen up enough to trek boldly in to the challenges of the outback… the back roads of Orient, that is.
It should be noted here that my mother and father came to our retreat only on weekends. Mostly it was my dad, my mom avoided long car trips. Both of them worked full time in the city. Various aunts, uncles, cousins, my grandfather, and assorted visitors would come and go in the summer months. I alone remained to tell thee… okay, my Uncle Bill and me.
My uncle was a cool guy. He retired early (I have no memory of him working) and with help from the family he rented the “Sand Box” from June to September. He stayed for the duration. I arrived swiftly after public school let out and returned to the city, sadly, before the fall semester began. There we were, Uncle Bill and me. Both ready for the hardships of a summer beach house… no matter what cards we were dealt. Looking back, every hand was a winner. Those were some of the best times of my life!
Uncle Bill had two basic rules. 1) Respect my privacy. 2) Don’t get yourself killed. The privacy was easy. I was a pretty much a loner. Nature was both my playmate and my teacher. Merlin educating young Arthur using the classroom of the wild comes to mind… and I even have a sword of my own design, a story for future tales, that one. As for self-preservation, I am here to relate this to you, so I guess I survived. There were the usual stings, bites, bumps, cuts and abrasions that would befall a curious unrestricted lad, but those I kept to myself… respecting my uncle’s privacy rule. I was up early, awakened by the sounds of gulls, and a day of exploration lay before me. A quick breakfast and off I went often not returning until sunset. Upon my return, Uncle Bill would look me over. If I was intact, he would ask me what we should do for dinner. That often depended on my days activities. If these feet were made for walkin’… that’s just what they did… when I wasn’t in the water. I gathered what the bay offered, if I was clever enough to find it… and find it I did! I dug bushels of clams, hard shell and steamers. I netted blue claw crabs plus what fish I could catch, depending on what was running. Blues, snappers, porgies, flounders, bass and blow fish. At the end of Long Beach (the state park) stood the lighthouse, jutting up from a foundation of rocks. Though the swift currents were a challenge, I boated there with a local boy, and snatched three large lobsters hiding among the rocks. That cornucopia of seafood helped me “earn my keep” with my uncle, never knowing what goodies I would drag home. Man cannot live by seafood alone (really?) so I walked to the fields with empty jars and left money. In the “good old days” many farm stands worked on the honor system. Local growers left tins or jars for folks to pay for veggies. You know, like city supermarkets leave outside their stores… NOT! I would pick ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and potatoes. Some days I would find wild raspberries and bring home what I didn’t devour… a good three or four, at least.
By mid-summer my bare feet were ready for the Kalahari. I would have to settle for the sunbaked black tar route 25. Not wanting to “tax” my Uncle Bill with triviality, and running out of BB’s, I chose to hoof my way to the “Sportsman’s Cigar Store” on Main St. in Greenport to purchase more. Let me mention here that every country lad in those days had a BB gun… and yes, I still have both of my eyes! The hike to Greenport was 5 1/2 miles (each way) and I will swear, to this day, that when I returned from the “walk from Hell” and plunged my hot, burning, tar blackened feet into cool water… I heard an audible “HISS!”. But yes, I returned with the cherished BB’s!
This is but a taste of a City boy’s memories of spending golden summer days bathed in the magic of life on the East End of the North Fork of Long Island. I realize I have “barely” scratched the sandy surface of countless joyous youthful adventures, but fear not. My thoughts reside safely in my brain, behind a weathered old road sign that reads… ORIENT VILLAGE.
A “Foot”note, now if you please:
In my adult years I developed Diabetes. I am now forbidden to walk barefoot outside the safety of my home, for fear of injury.
It’s “A WONDERFUL LIFE”.