A story about a place you've probably not seen and about a time that makes the whole scene seem unreal, but believe me, there was such a place and such a time … long ago.
by Harry Buschman
There is a finger of sand stretching westward from Queens County in New York called Rockaway Point. It is separated from the mainland by a body of water known as Jamaica Bay. It is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area and a four lane highway bridge connects it to Brooklyn.
When I was a child the only way you could get to Rockaway Point was by passenger ferry from Brooklyn.
Rockaway Point was a desolate place, unspoiled, a stopover to many species of birds en route to their summer homes in the north, or their winter homes in the south. If you walk its shores and hidden bayside coves today you would never dream the place was a playground for working people in the days of the Great Depression. You might also wonder how the stubby tree trunks protruding from the sand got there.
They are the last remains of the little bungalows that once stood on wooden piles before the great hurricane of 1938 swept them all away.
In the twenties and thirties there was no bridge, and the place was almost inaccessible. Life was pretty much the same as it had been when the Dutch discovered it 500 years ago. There were only two permanent installations. The major one was Fort Tilden, an abandoned Coast Artillery installation built to protect New York Harbor in World War I. You could look in and see solid concrete bunkers, disappearing guns and two story barracks. If you knew the places where the wire fence had been levered up or dug under, you could crawl under and roam around the fort all day. About two miles down the peninsula there was a coast guard life saving station. The men had very little to do and they spent their afternoons hassling girls on the beach. People who spent their summers there gave them a wide berth.
The rest of Rockaway Point consisted of unpainted wood shanties standing on cedar log piles. They were as basic as a sourdough’s shack in the Yukon. The only running water was a hand pump at the galvanized tin kitchen sink. There were no toilets. 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 mail, no electricity, no refrigeration and no gas for cooking. What little cooking got done, was done on a wood stove. Wood was cut, ferried across the bay and sold at exorbitant prices. Any serious cooking was done outdoors on the beach over a driftwood fire.
Why would anyone live there? No one did, but many people rented the shanties for a season in the summer. in spite of the hardships it was a delightful place to be if you loved the sea and worked in the heat of the city. The air was untainted and the sun shone down as bright and warm as it did in the Bahamas. The sands were white and the sea was unspoiled. You could eat whatever you could fish 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 primitive conditions they would not have endured if they stayed home.
Extended families developed a schedule of rotation for their kids, leaving them there for two or three weeks during their summer vacations. The sun and salt air brought the color back to their pasty cheeks and renewed old family ties. In the meantime the parents could go places without them… sort of like leaving your dog in a kennel.
Of course children 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 watched over by one adult, (usually an out of work or widowed aunt). On Friday evenings the parents sailed across the bay by ferry to join them for the weekend, carrying baskets of food and changes of clothing.
Every shanty bore a different name over its front door, “Windswept” for example, or maybe “Starfish.” They looked so much alike inside and out that when you went looking for yours the name was its only reliable identification.
Our shanty, or bungalow as our watch-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 on the wood range, the temperature could be downright combustible.
On Sunday evening the parents left for home and the children suddenly realized they were abandoned on a desert island with an old aunt they had never seen before. Sunday night and Monday morning were the hardest – for some kids it was a first separation from the family. 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 apprehension most children 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 confidence 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, a freshman in high school. He somehow managed to sneak a pack of contraceptives in his stylish imitation alligator valise and even though he never had reason to use one he made sure we all knew he had them available and how to wear them. 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. I vividly recall she wore a rubber bathing suit. They were very popular in Hollywood, all the Mack Sennett girls wore them, but not very practical in the Atlantic Ocean. Her 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 when it got wet, and what would it feel like. Her cousin Cora wore a black woolen one with legs halfway down her thighs, but Milly’s stopped at her crotch. 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 pistol shot.
There were five of us – all of us on the threshold of pubescence. Cora and Weaver were brother and sister, while 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 primitive environment.
We lived together, ate together, played games together and all of us 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 my harmonica, and Weaver played his 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 splintery wooden planks that led to the boardwalk and look at the stars. Stars so close and bright, that it seemed you could hear them sizzling up there if you listened closely.
In a loose pack, we would walk along the tide-line in the morning to see what had drifted in. The sand at the water’s edge 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 to the sun, it looked like diamond dust.
Along the top of the dunes the sand was soft, yielding, and difficult to walk in. 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. Reedy 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 there until there was no blood in us. They 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 look for us in the dark.
The sea was our life. It was with us every hour of every day. It was our bath tub and our playground … our constant companion. But every afternoon about three, high tide or low, the sea 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 out 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 laundry soap, she would march into the sea. When she reached the proper depth, (depending on wave activity and water temperature), 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 highway robber 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 deal to the five of us, and we all went over to Ignatz 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 to the bayside 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 serpentine 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 will never be sure; perhaps the provocation was natural combined with a mutual coming of age – and her rubber bathing suit.
“You’re going home this weekend, huh?” She asked me, twisting her hips.
“Guess so, my folks will be here 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 my 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. I remember 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 plenty so we walked back to the shanty through the tall grass, Milly and Cora leading the way this time … and talking quietly together.
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 barely remembered each other. A couple made it to City College, and a couple, in 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 was dead. I had already forgotten how to play the harmonica and without her rubber bathing suit, Milly’s magnetism had lost its mystery. Besides, Milly was the one who got married and married women rarely wore rubber bathing suits in those days. The time for such things had come and gone, we had put our innocence away for good and childhood 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 without warning 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 remembered Rockaway Point and all it meant to me … for the last time.