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There is a long finger of sand stretching westward from Queens County in New
York called Rockaway Point. It is separated from Brooklyn by a body of water
called Jamaica Bay. It is connected to the mainland by a bridge and is a part
of the Gateway National Recreation Area. It is a desolate place, unspoiled and
a temporary home to many species of birds en route to their summer homes in
the north or winter homes in the south. If you walk its shores and hidden
bayside coves you would never dream this place was a playground for city people
the days of the Great Depression. You might wonder how the stubby little tree
trunks protruding from the sand got there. They are the last remains of the
little houses that stood on wooden piles before the great hurricane of 1938
carried everything away.
In the twenties and thirties the place was only accessible by boat and life
was pretty much the same as it had been when the Dutch discovered it 500 years
before. There were only two permanent installations then, The major one was
the abandoned Fort Tilden, a coast artillery installation built to protect New
York Harbor in World War I. You could look in and see solid concrete gun
emplacements, disappearing guns and two story barracks. If you knew the places
the fence had been levered up and sprung open, you could crawl under and roam
around in there all day. About two miles west of the fort there was a coast
guard life saving station. The men had very little to do and spent most of
their time watching girls on the beach, people who spent their summers there
them a wide berth.
The rest of Rockaway Point consisted of unpainted one story wood shanties
standing on cedar wood piles. They were as basic as a sourdough’s shack in the
Yukon. The only running water was a hand pump at the kitchen sink. There were no
toilets, only a primitive one hole outhouse which was emptied once a week
into Jamaica Bay by “The Honey Man,” an old Gypsy with a donkey cart. There was
no electricity, no light, no refrigeration and no gas for cooking. What little
cooking was done, was done on a wood stove - the wood was cut, ferried across
the bay and sold at exorbitant prices. Any serious cooking was done outdoors
over a driftwood fire.
Why would anyone live there? No one did, but you could rent one of these
shanties for $20 a season in the summer. in spite of the hardship it was a
delightful place to be if you loved the sea - but lived in the city. The air was
untainted and the sun shone down as bright as if you were in the Bahamas. The
sands were white and the sea was unspoiled. You could eat whatever you could
out of it; clams, oysters, cod and striped bass at every meal if you wanted.
The shanties, (and there’s no other name I can think of that fits them as well)
were filled to overflowing on weekends by families and friends of families
who gladly put up with the hardships they would not have endured if they stayed
in the city.
Extended families developed a system of rotation for their kids, leaving them
there for two or three weeks during the summer. The sun and salt air would
bring the color back to their pasty cheeks and renew old family ties. In the
meantime the parents could go somewhere without them ... sort of like leaving
your dog in a kennel.
Children, of course, loved it - it was as close to camping out as you could
get, and during the week every shack seemed to have a half dozen children with
one adult, (usually an out of work maiden aunt). On weekends the adults sailed
across the bay by ferry, carrying baskets of food and changes of clothing for
Every shanty bore a different name over its front door, “Windswept” for
example, or maybe “Starfish.” They looked so much alike that when you went
looking for yours the name was its only identification.
Our shanty, or bungalow as Aunt Rachel preferred to call it, consisted of a
kitchen at one end and a porch at the other. In between was a large unfinished
room in which everyone slept at night and sat in on rainy days. The heat was
unbearable during the day, and if Aunt Rachel decided to cook in the kitchen,
the temperature could be downright combustible.
On Sunday evening the parents would leave for home and the children would
suddenly realize they were alone on a desert island. Sunday night and Monday
morning were the hardest -- for some kids it was the first separation from
life. My cousins Cora and Weaver, (whose father rented the shack) had already
been there since the end of school, Milly, Belcher and I were strangers to
each other as well as the others, and with the natural reticence and
most boys feel for strangers, we played it as cool as we could - looking for
openings and weak points. But the two girls, Cora and Milly became soul mates
immediately and in whispered confidences they discussed the three boys. There
wasn’t much to choose between us, we were pimply, clumsy and mute.
We were all about the same age. Belcher was a year older and already a
freshman in high school. He somehow managed to sneak a pack of cigarettes in his
alligator leatherette valise and even though he never smoked one he made sure we
all knew he had them with him. He looked Cora and Milly over a few times and
decided they were too young for him. There were no girls in the shack to our
left and only one on the right - but she wore eyeglasses and walked with a limp.
My attention was centered on my cousin Milly, and to this day I vividly
recall her rubber bathing suit. They were very popular in Hollywood with the
Sennett crowd, but not very practical in the Atlantic Ocean. The suit was the
color of tanned skin with a blue rubber flower between her tiny breasts. I had
never seen a rubber bathing suit before and my imagination went wild. I
wondered how she got in and out of it, I wondered what would happen if it got
and what would it feel like. Her cousin, Cora wore a black woolen one with the
legs halfway down her thighs - while Milly’s was crotch high. There were
times when she’d insert her finger in the tightness of the leg and allow it to
snap back. The wet slapping sound of it was like a call to arms.
There were five of us - all of us in pre pubescence. Cora and Weaver were
brother and sister and Milly, Belcher and I were simply cousins. We were afraid
of each other for a while, afraid of our sex, yet drawn to each other and
confused by the strangeness of being abandoned in this strange environment.
We lived together, ate together, played games together and slept in the same
room. There was no radio or television to distract us and to keep the ship on
a steady course I played the harmonica, and Weaver played the ukulele.
“No one here can love or understand me,”
“All alone by the telephone.”
On and on the music went, deep into the night. Eventually Aunt Rachel would
start to snore out on the porch and we would put our instruments away. We told
stories until we fell asleep one by one. Sometimes we’d go outside in our
nightclothes and sit in a row on the worn wooden planks that led to the
and look at the stars. Stars so close and bright, that it seemed you could
hear them if you listened closely.
In a loose pack, we would walk along the tideline in the morning to see what
had drifted in. The sand along the tideline was fine and closely packed. We
could walk along the water’s edge and not leave a mark to show we were there. It
was cool to the touch of our bare feet and if we looked at it in the right
light and the right angle with the sun, the sand looked like diamond dust. But
along the top of the dunes the sand was soft, yielding, and difficult to walk
on. In the middle of the day it was so hot we had to work our feet down into it
to keep them from getting burned. Gray green grass grew along the topmost
ridge of the dunes, it was home to the sandpipers during periods of high tide.
When the tide began to ebb, they’d be down in the wet sand plunging their long
sharp bills in the sand for shrimp, their spindly legs a blur as they kept one
step ahead of the incoming waves and one step behind them when they retreated.
Up in “the dunes,” as we called them lived the giant and insatiable green
flies - large as bumble bees. They would launch themselves at the tenderest
parts of our bodies and gorge themselves until there was no blood left in us.
would follow us back to the shanty at the end of the day and be the first
ones through the screen door when it opened. Once inside they would hide until
bedtime and find us in the dark.
The sea was our life. It was with us every hour of every day. It was our bath
tub, our playground and our constant companion. Every afternoon about three,
high tide or low, it belonged to Aunt Rachel. She would appear in a flowered
bathing suit with a long skirt, stockings and shoes carrying a large white
towel and a straw basket. She would pull a white rubber hat with a chin strap
of the basket and fasten it securely on her head. She would finally remove her
false teeth, wrap them in a handkerchief and put them in the basket. Then,
armed with a bar of yellow soap, she would march into the sea. When she reached
the depth she preferred, (depending on the wave height and the temperature of
the water) she commenced singing and lathering herself with the yellow soap. After ten minutes or so, her toilette complete, (and her teeth back in) we
would gather together to discuss dinner.
On the last day we decided on clam fritters.
Ignatz, (“The Armenian”) had the only convenience store on the point. He had
a large family and he looked for all the world like the trapper that Charlie
Chaplin shared a cabin with in “The Gold Rush.” He built his store on the bay
side of the Point and had his own dock near the ferry landing. He and his
large family brought food across Jamaica bay in a small boat and sold it for
monstrous prices in his store.
Everyone hated Ignatz, but there were times when you needed flour because the
dampness ruined yours or maybe you needed a potato or two. For such things
Ignatz was indispensable. On our last day at the Point Aunt Rachel promised to
make us clam fritters if we would dig for clams on the bay side at low tide
that afternoon. She gave us a quarter and told us to get a pound of white flour
over at Ignatz’s. It seemed like a good idea to the five of us, and we went
over to Ignatz immediately to get the flour.
From Ignatz’s store on the bayside we could tell the tide was low just as
Aunt Rachel said it would be. When we got back to the shanty we gathered up our
rakes and buckets and started off on the trail that wound between stands of
cattails and thorny juniper bushes. The boys led the way and the two girls
brought up the rear. We spread out when we got there with the understanding that
whoever hit it rich first would holler out and the rest of us would join him, or
her. I started off on my own but I noticed Milly tagging along behind me.
Before long we were both digging within an arm’s length of each other, she with
her toes, I with a shovel. She would twist her foot into the dark sand with a
swiveling movement of her hips and look up at the sky as though listening. It
was a provocative movement, but whether it was deliberate or not I can’t be
sure; perhaps the provocation was a natural thing - our mutual coming of age in
combination with her rubber bathing suit.
“You’re going home this weekend, huh?” She asked me, twisting her hips.
“Guess so, if my folks show up Sunday.”
“Oh, they’ll be here ... I’m staying another week.” She reached down and
came up with a clam. “Your mother is my father’s sister, did you know that?”
She put her clam in our bucket and the next thing I knew my arm was around
her waist, her rubber waist, and we were kissing ... hard.
I could feel trap doors opening inside me. My temperature rocketed and I was
suddenly short of breath. The bucket of clams fell to the sand and the two of
us pulled apart, frightened beyond words - afraid to look at each other. I
picked up my shovel and my bucket - there were nine clams inside.
“I think we got enough, Milly. Let’s see what luck the other guys had.”
They had a dozen or more and we thought that would be enough so we walked
back to the shanty through the tall grass, Milly and Cora leading the way.
Eight years flew by and the five of us grew up. From time to time we’d meet
at family gatherings for deaths, or births, or holidays - in time we could
barely remember each other. A couple of us made it to City College, and a few,
spite of the Great Depression got into the real world of earning a living. One
of us got married. But we were strangers now and the closeness and the
camaraderie of Rockaway Point were gone. I had already forgotten how to play the
harmonica and without her rubber bathing suit, Milly’s magnetism had lost its
drawing power. Besides, Milly was the one who married and married women rarely
wear rubber bathing suits. The time for such things had come and gone, our toys
were put away and childhood itself was a closed door.
But on September 21, 1938.
At 3:30 in the afternoon the barometer dropped to 27.94 inches, (a record I’m
told) and a hurricane came up from the south greater than any in recorded
history. The only thing left standing at Rockaway point was the coast artillery
battery at Fort Tilden. All the shanties, the Coast Guard station, Ignatz’s and
the boardwalk disappeared in winds of more than 170 mph and 50 foot waves
that roared across Rockaway Point.
On that day I think we all remembered again ... one last time.
©Harry Buschman 2005
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