The House in Springs Has Vanished
“Is that it?” I said, slowing down on Three Mile Harbor Road to glance at the street veering off towards the water. It was short and cramped; a dead end choked with foliage.
I answered my own question.
“That’s not it,” I grumbled, as my wife nodded, turning the pages of a Hagstrom on her lap. “Well, let’s just keep going then,” she said patiently.
The street in Springs that I remembered was longer, wider and with views as expansive and full of promise as my life was at that point. And at the end of that street was a house; undistinguished by today’s standards, but pre-eminent in my memories of long-ago.
It was 1970 and I was a 15-year-old kid living in Valley Stream in western Nassau County, close enough to Queens that you could practically toss a Spaldeen across the border. That summer, something magical happened to me (No, not that; serious dating was still a couple years in my future).
I was invited by my friend Willy’s family to spend the weekend at their new vacation home in Springs. There, and in subsequent visits, I experienced idyllic summer moments of the kind that fill nostalgic movies about pizzas in Mystic and literary memoirs about long walks on old Cape Cod. Mine were far briefer, and yet 45 years later, they’re still as soothing as the turquoise swirl of Gardiners Bay.
Except that there’s a problem: I’ve gotten lost on my stroll down Memory Lane. At the tail end of a weekend getaway to Montauk, my wife has agreed to assist me on the search for the house. Yet, try as I may—driving up and down Three Mile Harbor Road—I just can’t seem to find the location that figured so briefly yet profoundly into my life.
The House in Springs has disappeared.
I first went looking for the house with a girlfriend back in the early 1980s. She enjoyed the back-story, but got bored with the search. I returned years later, while in East Hampton for a newspaper assignment about a reunion of a beloved, but now-defunct summer camp. The alumni managed to find their old campground but I couldn’t find the house. Still again I tried after running the Hamptons Marathon. I couldn’t find it that day either, but I was delirious from oxygen debt, so that could have been a factor.
Now, on a brilliant July morning in 2015, I am back; on a 60th birthday-year quest to find the house once and for all.
About this house: If you’re envisioning some shingled, character-laden Georgian or Victorian, replete with its own ghosts, forget it. The House in Springs really wasn’t anything special. In fact, it looked a bit like the split levels of our Nassau County neighborhood, except that there was a wooden staircase that ran up the side, a second story deck, and wooden floors and rugs that always seemed to have sand on them.
Yet, such a thing as a summer home was unusual in our neighborhood. I suspect Willy’s dad had sunk much of his middle class money into it. And the location…so exotic! Living where we did, anything east of Jones Beach felt like Terra Incognita. The East End of Long Island? Was there an East End? I’d never really stopped to consider that.
There was, and I saw it for the first time 45 years ago. I can still smell the clean, salt-tanged scent of ocean-scoured wood; can still hear the foghorn in the harbor that mournfully bellowed its deep bass notes through the night. During the day, Willy and I played baseball in the flats, hitting line drives that skipped over clumps of salt grass. We went fishing, and once, he caught a skate; an ugly fish that groaned as he reeled it in, a death rattle so horrifying to me that I never picked up a rod and reel again. We sat on the bluffs of Three Mile Harbor, watching boats chug into the nearby marina, leaving a wake of water that rippled onto the shore. And one memorable night, as we lay on our backs on those same bluffs looking up at the stars, we both noticed a pinprick of light, high overhead zigzagging its way across the sky. It was too distant for a plane; no satellite or planet moved that way. What was it? I still don’t know, but to this day, if anyone asks me if I believe in UFOs, I give a conditional response. “Probably not, but let me tell you what I once saw out in the Hamptons…”
We also worked. While this might be considered a breach of 21st century parenting etiquette, Willy’s family saw no problem enlisting their son’s friend to help weed, mow, sweep the decks, haul boxes to and fro. Back home, requests to perform even the least-onerous chores were met with sour, teenage indignation, but here I did it willingly and, to my surprise, happily.
The services rendered must have been satisfactory, because I was invited back several times over the following two summers. After I headed off to college in 1973, I saw Willy only sporadically and the House in Springs entered the realm of myth.
I remember the precious days there. I remember Willy’s wizened and sweet Italian grandmother making us dinner (the first time I may have had pasta). I remember meeting a long-haired friend of Willy’s older sister who claimed to have been at Woodstock the previous summer (to a budding counter-culturalist, it was like meeting Neil Armstrong). I remember hearing my first Randy Newman record (“that’s not rock and roll….but I like it!”); I remember eating fried clams at a nearby restaurant…
The restaurant! Suddenly, this bubbled out of long term memory. Yes, it was up the street from the House on Springs, on the corner of the main road, Three Mile Harbor Road, where I was now driving.
“Look for a restaurant!” I practically shouted to my wife.
“It’s the Hamptons,” she said dryly. “There are a lot of them.”
But soon, we saw it: on the corner of a street leading towards the Harbor. No doubt it had changed names and owners many times since 1970, but this had to be it. I screeched on the breaks and turned off. Down a windy, tree lined street we drove. “Yes,” I said excitedly. “I think I remember this.”
My wife said nothing. I don’t think she wanted to get my hopes up.
We hit the end, the bay glimmering in the distance. In front of us was a stucco McMansion with an ostentatious stone gate. If it had been an igloo it couldn’t have been less consistent with the picture I had in my mind.
“This isn’t it,” I said dejectedly.
“Unless they sold it, and the new owner tore it down and rebuilt it,” my wife offered.
I shook my head wearily. Certainly that was a possibility. More likely, what has been torn down and reconstructed is my memory. At some point, the humble House in Springs became the hallowed House of My Imagination; an image of the idyllic summer youth I had never quite experienced, but managed to taste, fleetingly, here.
At this point, the easiest thing would be to track down Willy through Facebook and get the facts. But perhaps I don’t really want to know. Perhaps the House in Springs exists Brigadoon-like in my mind for a reason: A tantalizing chimera from the past, receding steadily into the horizon as I get older, like the sunsets over Gardiners Bay.
Then again, maybe I’ll just go try and find it again in five years.