The Breakers to a View
In the summer of 1976, I was nine and a half years old. The country’s bicentennial celebration had just taken place a few weeks earlier. It was a grand event with American flags flying, red white and blue bunting on trees, houses and buildings, and the sky was filled with bursting, colorful fireworks. Now it was August, the air was heavy, and I still remember how my Oscar the Grouch t-shirt was stuck to my tan little body. Even my toes were golden brown from sunny July days spent on the beach at the Ocean Club at Atlantic Beach. Everyone has some vivid memories from their childhood. Etched in my mind was our family vacation to Montauk, on the eastern tip of Long Island during that festive summer.
We all piled into the family’s red 1973 Country Squire station wagon brimming with towels, coolers, bags of food from Pathmark, a couple of big umbrellas, everything it seemed we needed for the week. “We’re going to Montauk!” my mother cried, obviously as excited as we were. “Yeah!” all of us shrieked. By all of us I mean my dad and mom, sisters Lia, Clare, and Sue, along with my brothers, Joe, Mark, and Matt. All nine of us (Steve and Diane weren’t born yet)! We were headed to Montauk Point, heaven on earth, our once a year trek to Paradise. Seat belts were never considered, and we fought to be the lucky one to stand on the “hump,” which was the bump on the floor directly behind the front seats. Looking back, it’s amazing we’re all still alive despite the fact that we often stood on it, not realizing the danger of becoming a potential child-missile if the car ever smashed into anything. We also never wore helmets, pads, or seatbelts. Oh, the good old days. On occasion when mom had to slam on the breaks, she instinctively threw out her right arm across whoever was sitting in the front passenger seat. That was good enough for us. We survived.
The drive east from Rockville Centre was filled with arguments, yells, and more often than not, a few tears. Paul McCartney and Wings sang “Silly Little Love Songs,” and “Play That Funky Music,” by Wild Cherry (the first album I ever bought) pulsed through the wagon’s AM radio. Life in a large family was a continuous domino of bullying, and the younger you were the more likely you were to be the target. Me, being fourth in line, gave and received my share. There were pushes and pinches, screams and tattling on each other for just an extra bit of attention. To escape the long car ride, I put my head partially out the window and listened to the wind roar past my ears and sounds from the outside, which were a relief compared to the sounds coming from within.
As we drove through Southampton, we looked eagerly to see the airplane which seemingly had “crashed” into a barn, the back half suspended and sticking out. “How did that get there?” we’d ask every time. We never found out, but one year on the drive out, it wasn’t there anymore. A McDonald’s stop for lunch was a must, where we were each given $2.00 and used it to eat like royalty.
After lunch we continued east on Route 27 through Watermill and past the Penny Candy Store, Bridgehampton and Bobby Vans, the East Hampton Bowling Alley and Town Pond, where children ran around its edges and swans floated carefree across its silky, dark surface. We rolled past the windmill, and finally to the old, white concrete highway of the Napeague Stretch. Almost there! The smell of burgers cooking, and fries being fried at the Lobster Roll with the huge neon “Lunch” sign, and at that moment it always seemed as if the temperature dropped 10 degrees, and calm washed over me. Old Montauk Highway, to us “The Bumpy Road,” veered off slightly to the right. Dad being a bit playful would hit the gas just before the apex of each hill and our stomachs rose and fell like we were on the Nunley’s roller coaster in Baldwin. We roared with delight.
A few miles east, we reached our destination, The Breakers Motel. Perched on a little hill just north of the highway, our white cottage with aqua trim welcomed us as it does for families still to this day, and we wasted no time changing into our bathing suits and cannonballing into the cold, blue pool.
The next day we crossed the old highway onto the scorching, sandy path to the ocean, where we stopped and plucked delicious, dark, purple berries off the bushes and ate handfuls of them until our bellies were full and our fingers and teeth were stained. Pure joy.
We drove north up Flamingo Road past the hulking and seemingly haunted Montauk Manor to Captain Kidd’s Path, where my dad had purchased a small plot on the water in 1969 for a sum that seemed like all the money in the world back then. We spent most of our days there skipping stones on the Long Island Sound, swimming, rock-collecting, eating Charles’s Chips and sandwiches, and playing in the hot, soft sand until it was in our ears, shorts and even our hair. Midday naps under the shady coolness of an umbrella were not required but often taken. Before going back to the Breakers, we would pile into the station wagon singing along with the radio “I Write the Songs” by Barry Manilow, as we stopped at the little bathroom across the street from Gosman’s dock, which still stands there and operates today.
Cool, breezy evenings were spent by the ocean, where we stood in one spot as the waves crashed in and out, covering our feet and sinking us into the sand, slowly inch by inch until we could see our feet no more. We swam out to dad on the sandbar and bodysurfed until the sky exploded with velvety, deep hues of pinks and oranges and blues in the western sky. Cotton candy clouds floated above the sea.
Dinner and a sundae at John’s Drive Inn literally put the cherry on top of an already remarkable day. I remember devouring my burger and vanilla shake and then sneaking off to stuff a straw into a concrete pylon, promising myself I’d come back to find it there the following year. I never did, yet I often wonder if it’s still there.
At the end of the glorious week, when it was time to head west back home, we all protested, begged, and moaned to stay for just one more day. Leaving Montauk was a pain that wouldn’t really subside for several weeks. I knew I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.
I’ve been blessed to be a teacher at the Montauk Public School for the past 20 years. The wonderful, old school built in 1929 in the Carl Fischer Tudor design has had several additions over the years, yet it still resembles the original structure, with its chocolate wooded façade, brown spires that reach to the Montauk sky, blended with cream colored stucco. “How in the world did I end up here?” My classroom, one of a few on the east side of the building, is said to host the best view of the town below. Out the five vertical windows, the encompassing, dark, ocean hosts ships of all sorts and sizes, and they dance slowly through and across the horizon. Old glory, fluttering proudly on the village green to the south as the north wind caresses its colors. The businesses: Pizza Village, where I toiled in front of a 550 degree oven making pizza on summer days in the mid-eighties and early nineties, the Tower fondly called the “White Elephant,” the Albatross Hotel with the white bird painted on the roof, and, of course, the Memory Motel, are still here.
At the end of every school day before leaving, I look out the windows on the same town I first fell in love with back in the 1970s. Life itself is change. It seems sometimes that change is taking place just a bit too rapidly here on the east end, especially in Montauk, and perhaps that’s not such a good thing. Montauk is certainly more crowded and busy than it was in those days, but the town, with its majestic dunes, enveloping ocean and beauty, still captures your soul, pulls you in and bathes you in a landscape that is too precious and sacred to adequately describe. You feel it. I just hope the nine year old with his head out the window in the family car on the way out to Montauk today, can still experience and appreciate the beautiful uniqueness of a town that has made such a positive imprint on my life. If he looks in the right places, I’m sure he can.