They Moved Robins Island
Hank Henze grew up, grew a family, and grew gracefully older on Peconic Bay. Approaching 89, we were able to bring him back for a visit one more summer. He still knew it, he still loved it, but something had changed. He got flustered and a little angry at times, saying, “They moved Robins Island.” We just didn’t get it. We knew his memory was going, but this made no sense to us. He wasn’t well enough to travel the next summer.
As a little tyke, Henry motored out with his family from Ridgewood, New Jersey to Mattituck with his Dad, Mom, four older siblings and baby sister. There may have been rumble seats. There was the beach, the bay, a small boat, endless things to do and places to explore.
As a boy, Henry was fascinated with airplanes. He went to MIT to study engineering and run cross-country, took a leave to enlist in the US Army Air Force, and became a flight mechanic. He served as crew chief for the B-29 “Shady Lady” launching and landing on Saipan in the South Pacific. While there, he built a sailing kayak out of flotsam and jetsam and assorted air base detritus, and happily sailed around until… I will let him tell you the story in his own words:
“I had crafted a small sailing kayak from scraps of wood left over from our barracks, fabric and dope used to repair damaged movable rudder and elevator tail fins, and fabric for a sail, as well as a movable outrigger with floats made from an orange crate, also covered with fabric. I sailed it several times, the last of which about midway to Tinian. One of my outriggers was taking on water slowly and as I prepared to tack back to Saipan I had realized I had a big shark circling me. I nearly held my breath as I returned to shore where the shark lost interest in me, probably heading toward the garbage dump off a point in the shore about 2 miles from where I beached. That was my last sail in service.”
Fortunately, he survived and retired his craft, or I would not be here to tell his story.
Hank met his sweetheart Ruth, then a student at Adelphi College, and they married. They moved to Oakdale in the Idle Hour neighborhood, down the street from the Vanderbilt Estate, where he worked at National Dairy, filing a patent or two on whipped cream dispensers. They rented a home while he built his house, by hand, from scratch – and a little help from his brother Rit, who drove in from New Jersey many weekends to help. Within several years, Grumman hired him and he got back to aircraft, this time in the design and development role.
Hank and Ruth rented a cottage near Aunt Edie and Uncle Jack’s house in ‘Hampton Grove’, just west of Shinnecock Canal one summer, and that is where I learned to swim as a young child in Peconic. I took to it like a fish to water: no surprises, a Pisces.
As a sailing enthusiast, one winter Hank bought a Penguin, and started frostbiting on Great South Bay. My sister Jan sailed with him one weekend, me the next, and then my little brother Dick. Jan remembers cold. I remember cold. Dick remembers wet from an accidental swamping during an ill-executed jibe in blustery conditions. Ruth promptly put an end to his frostbiting ambitions using family as crew, and he sold the boat.
In 1959, Hank and Ruth bought a little ‘salt box’ beach cottage on Peconic Bay in Shinnecock Hills, on a little spit of land in front of Cold Spring Pond. The same tongue-in-groove board served as the inside and the outside wall of the house. Over the years Hank added shingles and a 3-sided deck. My Swedish grandma Nanny joined us every summer, with her love of canasta, cookies, fishing, and flowers. Edie and Jack lived nearby and gave us Jack’s sailing dinghy, the GB. A canoe blew up one year, which we enjoyed until a few years later it blew away, smashed to smithereens on Cow Neck.
Hank bought a little fiberglass dinghy from Sears which was delivered by truck in a giant burlap bag, and an outboard engine. He christened it HoleSail, and it was a staple for fishing, clamming, scalloping in the fall, waterskiing, and joyriding. He soon added an AquaCat, which we rolled up and down beach, and then a second, so we could race together. I had my 15 minutes of fame when I capsized around sunset with a boyfriend and we spent the night of a crisp and windy Labor Day weekend sitting across from each other on the hulls, only to be rescued by fishermen in the morning. That was memorialized in A Night on Peconic Bay, my first article in Dan’s Papers.
Boats came and went, the cottage was expanded. The bay stayed the same: the canal to the left, the cliffs, Cow Neck and Robins Island to the right. Spouses and grandchildren began to arrive. Swimming, sailing, boating, skiing, bikes, tennis rackets, beach fires, parades, Carvel, fireworks, stars, and meteors in an evolving yet unchanging tableau. Named hurricanes and unnamed storms, sunrises and sunsets, lightning and rainbows.
Hank and Ruth came out each summer from Oakdale, and later, from Florida. When Ruth needed more care, they moved to assisted living in California, near Jan and Dick. When Ruth could no longer travel, Hank refused to leave her side. He missed a few years, but kept the place in his heart and his mind. Then, after Ruth passed, we brought him back for her Memorial. That trip gave him a second lease on life, as he resumed a modest version of the walking and swimming regimen that earlier earned my parents the nickname, the Vikings.
Approaching 89, we were able to bring him back for a visit one more summer. He still knew it, he still loved it, but something had changed. He got flustered and a little angry at times, saying, “They moved Robins Island.” We just didn’t get it. We knew his memory was going, but this made no sense to us. He wasn’t well enough to travel the next summer.
A year later, the mystery was solved. As we went out to scatter his ashes in his beloved Peconic Bay, we went to the places he knew and loved: the bay out front, off the canal, the cliffs, Cow Neck, Robins Island. Then we went across the bay to Mattituck. We got it. Robins Island was on the left. So it had moved, as his mind went back to a childhood of summers on the bay.