The Summer of 1945—The Man of the House

Written By: Peter W. Cuthbert

My story begins like a Horatio Alger novel. My grandfather, Percy Ticehurst Cuthbert (known as P.T.) was the son of immigrants from England.   When his father died in the Blizzard of ’88, P.T. had to drop out of school at the age of 12 to work and help support his family. He became an “office boy” at a hosiery brokerage firm and eventually became Vice-President. When refused a partnership, he formed his own company and made a fortune during the Roaring Twenties.

In 1924, while vacationing at the Tuthill Point House hotel in East Moriches, P.T. purchased a summer estate from Dr. Roy Duckworth, a well-known NYC Roentgenologist. Overlooking Moriches Bay, the large house had a deep-set porch across the entire front facing the long dock and sandy beach.  A second-story screened-in observation porch had an incredible view of the bay and Fire Island—including the looming stern of the ship-wrecked Franklin (1854). The driveway circled around the front through a porte cochere. Next to a large greenhouse was a barn with a horse stall, room for several automobiles, and an upstairs apartment for servants. A windmill provided water pressure. There was a red-clay tennis court, a corn patch, a small peach orchard, and a vegetable garden. With numerous flower beds as well as a grape arbor and several pear trees, it was a beautiful, complete summer place.  The only drawback was that from Brooklyn it took 3 hours driving on Merrick Road and Montauk Highway to reach what we called “the country,” and what is now called “The Gateway to the Hamptons.” And so we became Summer People.

Summer People on Moriches Bay, and well-to-do locals, belonged to the East Moriches Country Club, located where Cupsogue Beach is today. Members would motor or sail over to the Club’s dock to enjoy bathing and lunch. Judge Harold Medina from Westhampton would arrive on his 47’ yacht, Spindrift, and P.T. on his 48’ yacht, Mareth. Others arrived by boat or water taxis. When one of the recurring storms that would break through the barrier beach destroyed the Club in 1931, P.T. and other members purchased that property.

P.T.’s neighbor, Harry, Growtage, was well known in sailboat racing circles on LI and NYC. The original Moriches Yacht Club had its building on his property and races were held off his dock. Another neighbor was Reginald Blake, who in 1898 won back the Racing Cup from Britain for the Sailing Canoe.  As a member of the Westhampton Country Club (WCC), P.T. got involved in sailboat racing with the Westhampton Yacht Squadron (WYS), then part of the WCC. While he was Commodore of the WYS from 1930 to 1942, the North American Star Boat Championships were held there in 1936—in which Joe Kennedy, Jr. raced with his crew, younger brother John F. Kennedy.

In September, 1938, a powerful hurricane struck. Many people were killed and the WCC was used as a temporary morgue for 32 bodies. My grandmother Cuthbert, with my Aunt Ethel O’Brien and her baby Anne, were up in the observation porch and watched the water in the bay recede. When they saw a huge wave approaching the barrier beach, they fled. Half way up to Montauk Highway the surge caught up to them, flooded out the car and they had to walk in water up to their waists. They spent the night in the Bail-Stone Nursery house/shop, with the owner who had done work on P.T.’s estate. They were lucky survivors.

Bridges to the beach were wiped out and many houses disappeared, as did my father’s house on Moriches Bay. Estate’s like my grandfather’s were severely damaged, as were boats like the Mareth. There was no Flood Insurance or government financial aid to help anyone. There were 7 ocean break-throughs between Moriches and Quogue alone. It was decided to keep the Moriches and Shinnecock break-throughs official inlets.

Also destroyed was the WYS club-house of the WCC in Remsenburg. It was the height of the Depression and the WCC was bankrupt. They had to sell the yacht club property. In 1939 P.T. and four other yachtsmen formed a new corporation, the WYS, Ltd. “to promote sailing and yachting.” They bought property west of Shore Road and built a small club house. In the 60’s the Yacht Squadron bought the old Jagger family Cedar Point Hotel and had Ernie Davis float it down on barges to the new property.

WWII brought more changes. Summer homes had blackout shades, as did cars. Food and gas were rationed and there weren’t many pleasure boats on the bay. Sailboat racing disappeared. The war ended the Depression and former summer employees were either off to the war or fully employed at wartime jobs. We kids waved to German POW’s playing soccer during their breaks from working on local farms. Oil and debris from torpedoed ships washed up on beaches, and P-40 fighter planes began using the stern of the Franklin for target practice, firing right over P.T.’s estate.  In 1942 the U.S. Coast Guard Station was completed to replace the 3 little old stations that were destroyed in the ’38 hurricane at Moriches, Speonk and Potunk—the only buildings we used to see over on the barrier beach. When German saboteurs landed at Amagansett, we heard the sirens of the USCG boats racing out of the inlet the next morning. Soon, the Army Air Corps at Westhampton Air Base leased P.T.’s land on the barrier beach for target practice.

In 1944 my grandfather P.T. passed away suddenly. The war in Europe ended in May, and as the summer of ’45 approached, my mother informed me that I was to be the “Man of the House” at the summer estate. After their harrowing experience during the ’38 Hurricane, my grandmother Cuthbert, Aunt Ethyl and her seven-year-old daughter did not want to be alone again without a man present. My Uncle Bill, a Navy Lt., was on a ship taking Marines to the battle for Iwo Jima.  My brother Hank was on a destroyer headed for the battle of Okinawa, and my father was busy running the family business in NYC.  As a fifteen-year-old, I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be seeing friends back home in Hempstead all summer. But, I had been a Boy Scout Patrol Leader as well as a counselor at the BSA Camp Wauwepex in Manorville, and I felt up to the task.

I had a large bedroom and bathroom on the second floor with windows overlooking the bay. At night I could watch the beautiful glistening lights on the water from moonrises, and hear the shore birds screeching.  Mornings, I would be awakened early by the loud “put-put-put” of “Eel” Tuttle’s old boat engine as he made his rounds checking eel pots. Doosie, Uncle Bill’s black cocker spaniel, became my constant companion—except when I got in the rowboat to haul the seine net for bait, or to make my daily beach-combing expeditions for souvenirs still washing up from the war. I once found a Navy Talkers helmet from a blown up Mine Sweeper. I also collected brass shells, slugs and clips from the Air Corps’ daily target practice.

Each weekday morning, two GI’s from the Westhampton Air Base in their leased mahogany speedboat, would head over to the land leased from my grandfather and set up 4 huge targets. Then they would enter a sand-bagged bunker and call the Base to say they were ready. About 8:30am four Republic P-47’s would fly very low over the roof, firing at the targets. Each pilot’s bullets were dipped in different color paint for scoring purposes.  After each four-plane group finished shooting, the GI’s would count the hits for each pilot.  Then they would patch the holes and call the Base for the next flight. This went on all day long, and when the GI’s sped back to a boatyard in Hart’s Cove, I would row the half-mile to barrier beach and see what I could find. Upon returning with my “booty,” Doosie would be there waiting for me at the dock, wagging his tail.

As the summer of ’45 ended, the War with Japan also ended and Uncle Bill came home.  I was back next door with my parents and I was called over to see him.  He was in his usual chair with Doosie at his feet.  I shook my uncle’s hand and held out my paw to Doosie. He wagged his tail, but wouldn’t come to me. I was no longer “The Man of the House.”