The Place WHere the Ground Shaketh Underfoot

Written By: Pieter  Greeff

In the rosy dawn I awakened to consider the uniqueness of the name Quogue. A place name in the Algonquian tongue, Quogue today designates a village set amid an array of Hamptons. Westhampton, Westhampton Beach, Hampton Bays, Southampton, East Hampton, Bridgehampton which are the neighboring anglo-variants, popular for summer recreation away from the hard commerce of Manhattan. The name itself, Quogue, entails an odd individuality amid such hamptonian iterations. Unlike Res Ipsa Loquitur, wherein lawyers suppose that the thing bespeaks itself, Quogue, in a duality that many hunter-gatherer words possess, holds considerable room for interpretive speculation. The more seemingly obvious translation allies with a New England area Narragansett noun, qua-haug, for hard clam. Shellfish were prolific as evidenced by Native kitchen middens. The presence of clam diggers, oystermen, lap-straked skows, long handled double rakes and old sandy roads reinforced with the broken shells of mollusks, all heaped credence upon a meaning allied with food, shining bays, the hardy life of once prolific fisher folk providing raw, bivalve sustenance amid the summer fun. Then there is the other meaning of Quogue, an anglo-colonial interpretation of the Shinnecock dialect meaning the place that shaketh underfoot. Herein lies a deeper inference referring to local topography, as in quagmire. It was a place of waving dune grass and salt-marsh swale, stands of reeds and rich, black earthen bog lying before the bays where clams were dug. While inland there were deciduous forests that were eventually cut away to build New York City and replaced by scrub oak and white pine regularly burned off by a coal burning rail-road, at the margin the land was a bog; Quogue. During the post Civil War period, the boarding house era thrived and soon melded into the construction of large manors after the turn of the twentieth century. The land was planted with imposing specimen trees and hedges to diffuse the visual sweep of meadow to bay and barrier beach beyond. Into this came myself, now an ancient witness, before the ’38 hurricane and the greater breaking storm of World War Two. Quogue was certainly a seasonal summer resort but there were many old line working families in residence, some since the seventeenth century. Occasionally could be found an ancient cottage of a slightly orange-yellow hew from having been long ago repeatedly painted with mud to supposedly keep the mosquitoes away in summer. Others were banked up on the outside with harvested seaweed for winter insulation which, come spring, was turned into the garden. In winter the bays froze solid and anyone wanting to move a house would have it dragged on wooden skids behind a team of oxen. Over on the dunes in East Quogue a round, brick storage silo with only a shingled roof showing was dug deep into the sand. It served as a frozen fish locker in its day and was packed with blocks of ice cut from Tiana Bay. Between the ice blocks were layers of salt hay from the marsh. It’s remnant was there in the nineteen forties for adventurous boys to play in. During the war, amid rationing, beach patrols and black-out window shades most everyone able to do so rode bikes in order to save precious gasoline coupons. Since meat coupons were also required many people engaged in fishing, clamming and crabbing beyond mere recreation. In winter, eeling on the ice was popular and whole families would spear for them hoping to take home half a garbage pail or so for smoking. Smoked eel was a great Long Island delicacy and could even be brought up to New York for sale. So, in reflection, many vignettes come to mind from those times during and after the war, one of which has me smiling every time I think of it. In nineteen fifty our small village of Quogue had but one policeman, Ross Federico. Everybody knew him and he knew everybody. In his uniform with sidearm and black leather puttees, he was the manifestation of civil order, instantly ready to help anyone in need, solve any problem that he happened upon. I was fifteen in nineteen fifty and with my friend Robbie Post had been swimming at the Quogue Beach Club of a midweek, midsummer, late afternoon. After several hours of riding waves on air-filled rubber mats we finally got out of the water and shed our wet bathing suites, tossing them into the back of Robbie’s dad’s old pickup. Wrapped in the club’s white towels we were fixing to drive down the Dune Road to my house where we’d left our clothes. Maybe Robbie would stay for supper for there were still a lot of blowfish that we’d caught the day before in our ice box. “Hey Robbie”, I asked, “can I drive?” “Sure”, he replied and got in the passenger side. I slid behind the wheel, made ignition, clutched and got the floor shift into first. As we rumbled down an empty Dune Road a small dot appeared in the side mirror. It grew in size until it hove along side. It was Ross in his black police car. Using a thumb signal Ross indicated that I should pull over. I did and so did he behind us. Ross walked over to the truck and said, “get out, Pieter.” So, barefoot and in a white towel about my waist, I did. Standing before me with his hands on his hips Ross said, “Pieter, I know you do not have a junior license. How old are you?” “Fifteen”, I replied trying to be respectful although I could feel Robbie smirking behind me. “I thought so”, concluded Ross. About that moment the towel inexplicably loosened and fell to the asphalt leaving me standing there buck naked. Ross looked me up and down slowly as if I was an odd biological specimen. By now Robbie, still sitting in the cab, was doubled over, laughing so hard he almost choked. “Now pee-duh”,said Ross ever so deliberately, “put on the towel, get back in the truck and don’t let me ever see you driving around here again without a license.” “Yes sir”, I replied respectfully. Then I re-wrapped the beach towel around my waist, climbed back into the truck and drove away without a license. Robbie was nearly catatonic, silently shaking with laughter. I was shaking with embarrassment. So although there are broken clam shells dropped by seagulls all over the roads I then concluded that Quogue had to mean the place where the ground shaketh underfoot.