To Gardiners Bay

Written By: Fran Castan

As soon as I see Gardiners Bay from Barnes Landing Beach, I feel a familiar embrace. It’s as if the land curving east toward Montauk and west toward Accabonac were holding me in its ample arms. On the horizon, the distant shores of the North Fork and Connecticut offer a sense of containment, of shelter. This place has been my refuge for 50 years, since my first husband, Sam Castan, died in Vietnam.
When I say, first husband, you know immediately there will be another. What I want you to know is what my first husband meant to me before he was first, when he was the one and only. And Sam was the one and only, because I was only 16 when I met him. When he died at age 31, we had known each for eleven years and been married for eight. We hadn’t believed it was possible for anyone else to make us feel the way we did, because no one else ever had. We were kids. We’d whisper: “I could never live without you.”
Yet, abruptly, it was precisely what I had to do. I had to live without Sam. It was my responsibility, my job, to live on, especially for our 13-month-old daughter. But the truth, which is supposed to set us free, was ugly. I could barely lift my head to see outside my suffering.
One year earlier, Sam and I were drinking champagne and eating lobster on a JAL flight to Hong Kong. We were celebrating his becoming LOOK Magazine’s Southeast Asia Correspondent. To put an end to our long separations while he was reporting from Vietnam, he convinced his boss to move us overseas.
Of course I was worried. How could I not be? I had vivid memories of early November, 1963, when President Diem was assassinated. In those pre-cell-phone, pre-email days of the coaxial cable and telegram, it took more than 24 hours to confirm that Sam was okay.
While I was worrying, he was interviewing General Dinh, a principal player in the coup. That award-winning interview and a series of articles clinched Sam’s overseas assignment.
Together, we tamped down our fears and fantasized about living abroad. We looked forward to assignments in other cities when the days of war reporting were done. Like Virginia Woolf, we each believed, “My country is the world.”
So, off we went to assignment # 1: Hong Kong. We found a three-bedroom apartment with a balcony in a new high-rise overlooking Repulse Bay. Despite the off-putting name, the beach was among the most beautiful we’d ever seen. Above the corniche, except for the intrusion of a few high-rises like ours, were dozens of stucco and tile villas. Their gardens flowered in vibrant reds, pinks and fuchsias.
A short walk along the corniche led to the Repulse Bay Hotel. There, in a wicker chair, with our daughter asleep in her stroller, I sat on a veranda overlooking the water and ordered high tea. I was in a Technicolor movie. Far from my roots in Brooklyn, I’d become an ex-pat meeting similar folks from Australia, the U.K., New Zealand and Japan. I pinched myself in disbelief. This couldn’t be my life.
Among our compatriots living in the area with their wives and children were other journalists writing about Vietnam: Robert McCabe of Newsweek, Robert Shaplen of The New Yorker, and Seymour Topping of The New York Times. Though The Times was no longer Dave Halberstam’s regular beat, he visited us when he traveled through Hong Kong.
We lived “where it was happening,” even though “what was happening,” only an hour away, was horror itself. Into that horror, aboard a helicopter, Sam accompanied members of a platoon on Operation Crazy Horse. That day, May 21, 1966, my will to live was shattered by the bullet that killed my husband.
I was alive by all the usual measures. Heart, lungs, blood vessels – those “vitals” – were full of life. But I could not find my spirit or my soul. I was one of the strangers we pass on the street without recognizing the depths of their despair.
Back in New York, I remember walking along Lexington Avenue, catching the eye of a handsome, young man who smiled at me. I wished I were wearing a sign announcing my condition. It’s so embarrassing to say this today, but it was true. I envied one of the “regulars” who sat in front of Bloomingdale’s each day with the neatly-lettered word, “blind,” hanging from his neck. If I could wear a sign, I thought, there’d be no need to explain my disability. I may have looked alright; but more than not caring if I lived, I actually wanted to die.
Time is supposed to heal all wounds or, at least, provide merciful forgetting. I was not yet the beneficiary of time’s cauterizing qualities. I had not been healed and I had not forgotten. I was deeply depressed, probably a victim of PTSD, but no one spoke about these things then. Fortunately, after two years of merely existing, I began to venture forth.
Friends suggested we drive to Long Island’s East End. At first sight of Barnes Landing Beach, I immediately took off my sandals and walked eastward. At the sight of a pair of swans gliding into the scene from behind a jetty, I caught my breath in an audible gasp. The swans remained serene as a screeching gull chased a rival who refused to share the whelk in its beak. Sandpipers scuttled past like wind-up toys. A cormorant slipped underwater and didn’t surface for what seemed too long a time, only to rise at a surprising distance and calmly shake its head.
How could this beautiful beach, less than 100 miles from Brooklyn, my birthplace and home for the first 20 years of my life, have been so close, yet so far that I had never ventured here? At first sight, I rented a house on that very beach. During that summer of 1968, I began recovering from the bullet that killed my beloved.
As the world returned its beauty to me, in the form of Gardiners Bay, I returned to the world. The quiet beach and the soothing waters changed my life back into a living life, an alive, re-vivified, sentient life. It amazes me that place alone could provide such solace, but it did.
After a number of years, I was lucky enough to find a great love again, joy I didn’t think possible. In more than 40 years of marriage, Lew Zacks and I spent many days in contentment on Gardiners Bay.
For the first half of our life together, peace prevailed. But, in January 1991, fifteen years after the United States withdrew from Vietnam, Kuwait was invaded and The Gulf War began. I drove directly to Barnes Landing and threw myself onto the cold beach, as if I could burrow under a coverlet of sand. Instead of providing its usual comfort, the beauty of the scene served to highlight, by contrast, the inescapable suffering of those in the desert. Young men and women would inevitably die—on both sides of the conflict.
There are no winners in these situations. Certainly not the ones who die. Not the commanders who order troops into harm’s way. Not the soldiers who sustain life-altering injuries. Not those who watch their closest buddies get zipped into sacks and shipped home. And not the ones, like me, who know how it feels to receive the body bag.
I wept for all those who would lose, whether they were declared winners or not. I wept for them and for their families, whatever their countries. I wept until I was cried out.
And then I walked beside the bay, silently reciting my little peace anthem to the rhythm of the waves: “Sand. Sea. Sky. Three broad stripes of home. Tan. Marine. Cerulean. This tri-color, our flag, unfurled on every shore of our planet. Wavy banner of our unbound state, our true country, the world.”
When I returned home, Lew showed me his painting of the pair of Adirondack chairs facing the bay in front of his Gerard Drive studio. Because they are empty, the chairs invite the viewer to enter the painting, take a seat and enjoy the view.
Today, a quarter-century later, whenever I look at Lew’s painting of the chairs and feel myself entering that peaceful space, I take a seat in the chair on the right, my chair. From the chair on the left, Lew’s hand reaches out to hold mine, as always. Together, we look out at the bay and listen, even now, when he’s no longer living.