We used to call them the bumps in the early ‘70s, the hills and dips on old Montauk Highway that caused my sister and I to fly up out of the seats of my mother’s red Javelin convertible. We’d go for the day, asleep in the back seat, our thighs sweaty and stuck to the leather, until mom said, “We’re here, girls.” “Here” being where new and old Montauk Highway intersected well before we reached The Oceanside, The Shag-Wong, Olson’s Cabins on Navy Road. “Faster, Mommy!” we would shout, eager to feel the thrill of having to catch our breath, intoxicated by the mid-summer scent of beach plums, rose hips and the sweetness of the ocean air.
Lately, we were making the trip without my father. Actually, we were doing a lot of things without him. We left our house up-island at dawn, returning late, my father ready to carry us mostly asleep to our beds. I would wake to the muffled sound of voices raised in condemnation, recrimination. At daylight, I would climb out my window, pillow and Snoopy in hand and run away to the Greens’ house across the cul-de-sac. I sat on the curb hoping with all my might that Arnold or Muriel would find me and take me inside to do word search puzzles and feed me ham and melted cheese from a pot – a specialty of Muriel’s, comfort food fed to her by her Danish grandmother. Mom knew I was there and, ultimately, Arnold, smelling forever of pipe tobacco and wintergreen, would walk me home. “You’re so stupid,” my sister said to me later. “You aren’t running away if mom can see you. She thinks it’s cute – she takes pictures of you.” I made a mental note to run away to the Greens’ BACKyard next time.
It was early fall when mom packed the Javelin and announced that she and I were going to Montauk to live. My sister would stay with dad, she told me. Technically, she was my step-sister. Our parents married after they both lost their spouses young. “I’m just restless and need to do something,” she told me, us. Montauk, whose beauty was so familiar to us as day-trippers seemed like the perfect destination, I guess.
She had gotten a job as the assistant to a prominent, local hotel proprietor on Old Montauk Highway and we would be living at “Third House” – headquarters of the Deep Hollow Cattle Ranch where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders camped once upon a time. By the early 1970s, it was open to families who descended on the property looking to experience life on an authentic “dude ranch by the sea”, where they slept in paneled cedar-and hay-scented rooms adjacent to the cavernous lobby where men who were dressed like cowboys tended bar and did rope tricks before dinner.
That fall, however, it was just mom and me, sharing a room in the most habitable part of that majestic house; furnished with beds, a desk and adjoining a small bath. We watched black and white TV with few channels in the parlor room of the ranch and cooked our meals in the huge industrial kitchen while KC & The Sunshine Band, Donna Summer and America played on the radio. Mom liked to call it “disco kitchen” (even though “Ventura Highway” was pretty much as far from actual disco as a song could get). We ate our meals in the dining room: linguine with clam sauce, frittatas, and the occasional chicken parmigiana left over from the restaurant at the hotel where mom worked.
About a month after we settled in we started to get visitors. Mostly, they were curiosity seekers, eager to take a peek inside the main house and look at the Spanish-American-era photos and historic memorabilia. Some were nosy vacationers; some were celebrities who lived locally. Dick Cavett knocked on our door one morning to ask if he could see the old photos adorning the walls of the main room. A few days later, Paul Simon showed up on our doorstep for the same reason, as did members of the band Blood, Sweat and Tears; but mom said she didn’t think they were actual members of the band, only musicians that played with them on tour.
I started fifth grade in October at the Montauk Elementary School on a hill in Shepherd’s Neck. Shy, anxious, small for my age, I trembled every time I stood at the top of the long drive waiting for the bus to pick me up. We stopped at Camp Hero next, to pick up the Army brats who made friends readily and announced that they were moving, again, with just as much nonchalance. My best friend there was Anna. That Halloween we went door-to-door together on the base because it was where we could be assured the most candy in late October in 1975 Montauk. We went right after school — by 4:30 the darkness had enveloped the outskirts of town; the moon, jack-o-lanterns, and military-issue flashlights given to us by Anna’s father lighting our way. Shortly after, Anna moved, on to the next base and a new trick-or-treat partner.
By early November, the novelty of this new “adventure” was starting to grow thin. Aside from school, every interaction with kids my age had to be arranged, it seemed. I couldn’t just walk outside and into a game of kickball or double-dutch, for instance. I would wander the rooms of the ranch, imagining families laughing and run my hand over the leather seats in the dining room, where, only a few years earlier, children my age ate corn-on-the-cob and spumoni and drank Shirley Temples.
One weekend, mom’s boss, an older, nice enough man, ran a staff weekend at the ranch. The main thing I remember about that weekend was mom waking me up in the morning to tell me not to use the bathrooms – which is a real sucky way to wake up. The plumbing in the house could not handle the “volume” of the last two days and mom and a few maintenance men sent by the hotel were cleaning up shit all night. We packed up and went to the hotel for three nights and when we returned, we relocated to another part of the house until repairs could be made and the smell abated– windows always open; sending in blustery, ocean air and industrial-size fans running non-stop.
I went to school, mom to work. My grandparents visited when they could, whispering about grown-up stuff: “You need to go home and attend to your marriage”, “Girls her age need friends.” Sometimes, on a weekend I would go to their house in Lake Ronkonkoma. I loved the familiarity of it: the smell of fresh basil in the garden, the knitted blankets and down pillows on the spare bed, the candy drawer stocked with red shoestring licorice and chocolate-covered cherries. They lived near town and being able to walk to a store seemed like heaven.
Back on the ranch, I kept busy with an old horse that my mom had purchased cheap from a local. The stable on the property was still running and had found renewed business in vacationers wanting to ride by the ocean; guided by older teens who were looking to make money to buy surfboards and weed.
Frank Perdue was gray, brown and old and got his name from his original owner because he was “awkward” and preferred to be in the company of chickens. I led him around and even rode him once or twice, but he didn’t seem to like it much so I groomed him and kissed him and fed him apples and bragged to my unimpressed classmates about owning a horse. I did not, however, shovel his shit. Mom paid to board him and the stable hands were in charge of that, I guess. I remember how disapprovingly they looked at me when I left the stable each day; assuming, I suppose, that I was an entitled, spoiled kid from up-island who didn’t want to get her hands dirty but who begged for a horse until her mother acquiesced.
December brought cold, short days and long nights – the air so crisp it felt as though you were the first one breathing it. I knew my parents had been talking on the phone more and more and I braced myself for the shift I knew was coming. Sure enough, one frigid, bright morning I found myself waving goodbye to Frank Perdue with no sadness or regret – I knew he was in good (stable) hands and he was never mine forever anyway.
We headed west through town, past The Memory and White’s; the car loaded and heavier than when we started this journey. Mom continued on to New Montauk Highway. “No bumps today, ok?” she said. I closed my eyes and let those words sink in, not really knowing where the road would lead this time.