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by Harry Buschman
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 known as Jamaica Bay and connected to the mainland of Brooklyn by a bridge and is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.
It is a desolate place, unspoiled, and a temporary stopover 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 in 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 bungalows that stood on wooden piles before the great hurricane of 1938 swept 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 bunkers, disappearing guns and two story barracks. If you knew the places where 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 gave them a wide berth.
The rest of Rockaway Point consisted of unpainted one story 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 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 mail, 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 many people rented 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 and worked in the city. The air was untainted and the sun shone down as bright and warm as it would 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 hardships they would not have endured if they stayed home.
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 extended 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 to join them, 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 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 left for home and the children suddenly realized they were alone on a desert island. Sunday night and Monday morning were the hardest -- for some kids it was their first separation from family 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 apprehension 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 contraceptives in his stylish imitation alligator valise and even though he never had reason put one on 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 Mack 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 wet, 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 small arms fire.
There were five of us – all of us in pre-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 new 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 boardwalk 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 to the sun, the sand looked like diamond dust. But 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 left 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 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 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 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 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 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 will never be sure; perhaps the provocation was a natural movement combined with our 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, 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 could barely remember each other. A couple of us made it to City College, and a few, 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 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 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 toys away for good 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 remembered Rockaway Point again... for the last time.
©Harry Buschman 2005
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.