Water Water Everywhere
If it's true that the earth is over 75% water, then Mastic Beach must of been 98%. And perhaps it's because we grew up there that water played such a big part in our lives.
Our father was a Navy "Sea Bee" in WWII, and after the war he tried to convince my Mom to move to the South Pacific island of Guam. His simple reason was "WE (Uncle Sam) left all this great construction equipment behind" He had this grandiose plan to go into business with some of his Navy buddies and I guess he thought they could make a killing building stuff on the islands. My mother wasn't convinced, but they would always say to me. "You were ALMOST born on Guam" Instead I became their 3rd and last child and was born in Brooklyn Hospital on Mothers Day in 1947. We lived in South Ozone Park, Queens for my first three years. Having a photographic memory, I can still recall a lot of images from South Ozone Park. The rain barrel in our backyard, the swamp land we would drive around to visit "Ghost Town" an abandoned town that would be demolished to build Idlewild (Kennedy) Airport. The bridges we would drive over to get to Rockaway Playland a condensed version of Coney Island. The water fountains in the park that you stepped on a pedal to get a drink.
My paternal grandparents ( The Josephs) had moved out of Brooklyn into a country cottage in what was then a summer resort community known as Mastic Beach. We would drive out the 60 miles east to see them in the summertime. This would be a major trip as the Southern State Parkway only went as far out as Bayshore. Then it was Sunrise Highway out to Oakdale and Montauk Highway a two lane road that passed through lots of small towns out to Mastic. Turn right at the fishing tackle store just past the Race Car On The Roof and head south on Mastic Road a few miles to the fork then take it either one to "The Beach". My grandparents lived at the end of McKinley Drive where it became known a Swamp Road, a dirt road that curved through the cattails and connected to Jefferson Drive that led directly to Beach 10. They were less than a half mile from the actual bay and you could smell salt water in the air. At low tide you smelled more than that.
Montauk Hwy, Mastic NY. The Tackle shop which has a big blue marlin for a sign is just east of the race car on the roof. You can't miss them. Take a right at the light and drive south
Yogi Berra Says " When You Get To The Fork In The Road ...Take It" Looking South on Mastic Road ...Both roads lead to Mastic Beach. Old Town to the left, New Town to the right.
Back in South Ozone Park things were going downhill, mostly crime wise. Butchie's bike was stolen, and our house was burglarised. Our folks decided to move to the country and started making frequent trips to look for a place. We started looking around the Patchogue area as that would be where our father would be transfering to. It turns out that a realtor in Sayville had his own personal home for sale. The location ....Mastic Beach on the corner of McKinley Drive and Elm Road about 300 feet away from my grandparents! We looked at it and we all loved it. I think it was the knotty pine living room, stone fireplace, stained glass windows, and balcony sleeping lofts that sold it to Gerry, Butchie and Me, but of course it wasn't our decision. My mom wasn't thrilled with the size of the kitchen or bathroom (It only had a shower) or the fact that she'd be moving so far from her parents, The Spooners of Jamacia, Queens and so close to her mother in law Julia Joseph. The relationship between mother and daughter in law in Everybody Loves Raymond is a love fest compared to what she had to put up with.
So in November 1950, a moving van pulls up to our city house, it's goodby to the neighbors, stay in touch, my mom was close with Elsie next door. They had the first TV on our block around '49. A huge box with a tiny round screen. I think I saw Milton Berle on it along with half of the folks on our block. The moving van pulled away and we piled into our black '41 Hudson and our yellow '40 Olds convertible and headed east into a new life in and on "The Beach" with water water everywhere.
There were a few pieces of furniture left in the house and one unusual object. A model canoe made of real tree bark and left on the fireplace mantle. I think it was the first canoe I ever saw. It wasn't long though before I saw another, ... diagonally across Elm Road in the woods, was what was left of a metal canoe. My grandfather told us a guy rowed it up Elm Road from the lagoon after a hurricane. My mother winced. The lagoon was about a 1/4 mile east of our house. It was partially bulk headed and the rest was individual docks. Though mostly empty in November, come next spring it would be our introduction to the world of boats!
Not only was there water all around us, it was right underneath us too. When we were there, probably the first summer, the Denning boys came over and said "Do you want to dig to China?" They then explained the old wives tale about digging down through the earth and coming out on the other side in China. Butch got Mom's hand spade and started right in behind our house near the hand pump. I don't think he got a foot down when he struck water.
The house had a very small 1/2 basement on the west side of it. I think I was the only one who could stand up in it and that would stop in a few years. In it was the furnace, water pump and a thing called a sump pump. The sump pump would go off several times a day and water would geyser up from a pipe out on the west side. You didn't want to be near it when it went off. During hurricanes though we would usually lose power and it was useless. The basement would flood, the furnace would go out and it would take days to get the basement semi dry once again.
Pop had joined the MBFD (volunteer fire department) soon after we moved there and a couple of times they had to come with their pumper truck to unflood the basement. Another time they showed up at our house it was Mom who called. She was burning some fall leaves in the backyard when a gust of wind from the south east came up and the next thing you know the whole backyard is a blaze. She was pretty embarrassed and the neighbors white wooden fence almost burned up to boot. That night when Pop came home there was water water everywhere in a blackened back yard and some lively dinner talk.
I'm not sure, but I think my first encounter with the boats in Mastic Beach, may of been before we actually moved there.We would often take trips out to visit the grandparents and breathe that country salt air. I do remember clearly where it was and what I was doing. Believe it or don't (doesn't Ripley have a copyright on the word NOT?) I was behind the wheel of our '40 Olds convertible, top down, sun shining, driving east on the Riviera (fancy name for a small town road) heading towards Mike & Walter's Fishing Station which was located at the corner of The Riviera and Beaver Drives. DRIVING? IN AN OLDS CONVERTIBLE? WITH THE TOP DOWN? at the age of what THREE?.....yep, Butchie was in the back seat probably sulking 'cause I got to drive, I don't think Gerry was with us as she would of told my Mom. Mom wasn't with us, that's for sure because 1... the top would not be down (too drafty) and 2... I would not be driving. Grandpa was riding shotgun (nervously?) and the person who was having as big a time as me was Pop upon whose lap I was sitting on... He worked the gas, and brake, I steered, he was laughing and trying to keep me from driving into the bay. A splendid outing for sure.
We wheeled in to Mike & Walter's and met Bob the owner. I don't know what ever happened to Mike or Walter. (fell off the dock, sold out, a Betty Crocker figurehead? ) I just don't know because Bob owned the joint and he got it from a guy named John. Then Bob would sell it to the Longo's who we went to school with around 1960. But this was ten years earlier and Pop rented a rowboat from Bob and took us all out in the bay. I think that had to be the first time for me in a boat.
Pop had always talked about owning a boat someday, but someday never seemed to come for Butchie and Me. We would spend hours down at the lagoon for years just looking and dreaming at all the great boats there in the summertime. There must of been at least 75 or more lining both sides of the lagoon and even right out on the bay as there were private docks all along the Riviera. I still remember lots of them (The Melody, Half Fast, Barbra Ann) and the boat owners, (Pete Mezzapelle, George Henry, Bobby Neppel ) There were Chris Crafts, Penn Yann's Wheelers, Owens, Thompson's Old Town, every manufacturer imaginable and home builts too.
We came real close to boat ownership once around 1953 or so. Pop took me to see it on a Saturday morning. It was over in Section 5 (Mastic Beach was divided into sections as it was developed ) near Captain Andy's fishing station...Don't ask if Captain Andy still owned his place or not or for that matter if there was a Fred at Fred's Fishing station on the other side of the the small canal. They were out my section (we lived in 10). Anyway there was this old cabin boat there and it had a For Sale sign on it. All Pop had to do was convince my Mom that we needed it more than we needed a bit of remodeling on the house. A full bath and a decent size kitchen was her top priority.... Though we didn't get the little day cruiser and actual blueprints were drawn up for remodeling...It would be years before either one of them got what they wanted.
It seemed all our friends had boats. The Schulz's had a rowboat but they never seemed to use it till their Dad bought a motor, The Denning's had a 14 foot runabout with a 15 hp Evinrude, the Yodice's a Penn Yann 16 footer with a 30 horse Johnson. But we never got to go out in them. The Denning's were a large Irish family with lots of uncles who used it for fishing. The Yodices a very large Italian family , most of the time even the kids from those family's didn't get to ride. My sister was dating a guy named Dennis in high school whose father had a small rowboat in Pattersquash creek with a 7and 1/2 horse Elgin. We went out in that a few times, but it wouldn't hold all of us. Then they bought a larger inboard skiff but it was moored over in Center Moriches and we only went out in that once or twice. I do remember catching the biggest fluke of the day on a drop line off it.
When I was in the 5th grade, Butch brought home a new kid who had just entered his class (7th grade) one winters day. His name was Doug Percoco and though he had been a summer resident just one block east of our house, (the corner of Beaver Dr and Elm Rd) we had never crossed paths. It seems like they were becoming pretty good friends when he transferred out of Floyd to St. Johns. They stopped hanging around with each other, About a year or so later, it might not of even been the start of summer vacation, Butchie and me were walking along the west bulkhead of the lagoon when we came upon Doug. He was aboard a brand new Thompson mahogany lapstrake, skiff. Naturally we started talking, went aboard and the next thing you know he says, "You guys want to take a ride?" Well before we could answer, he's turning the key (electric start no less) and the 35 hp Johnson Golden Sea Horse coughs into action. Lines are cast off and out of the lagoon we go. He turns to the west and opens her up. Things were going great, you could smell the new varnish on the brightwork. It wasn't the sunniest of days, but things sure looked bright for the three of us. We were out about a 1/4 mile off of beach ten when the engine died. He cranked it till the battery went dead, but it would not refire. The current took us into the beach and who happens to be there but our sister Gerry. She went and got someone who had a boat to tow us back to the lagoon. The next time we went out on Doug's boat with a real crowd of his aunts, uncles, cousins etc. we did some night crabbing. Lot of fun and good memories. And the motor ran great.
Pops interest in boats never seemed to falter though Butchie and me had now discovered cars too. Mostly because of Gerry's boyfriend Dennis who was sort of a Hot Rodder. Though in Rod & Custom magazine he might be more of the latter. It didn't matter though, boats were cool, cars were cool, we were cool. But it seemed the closest Pop was getting us to the water, was the sea captain hats he would get us at the five and dime, or the fishing trips we would take on his vacation either out of Captain Andy's or Mike and Walter's.
We did a lot of fishing from the land too especially Butchie and me, usually with Larry and Dennis Schulz. Our two favorite spots were Beach 10 and The Point. The point was a patch of wetlands just to the west of Beach Ten and the east of Pattersquash Creek. We spent a whole lot of spring weekends and Easter breaks at both places fishing for flounders. In the summer it was Snapper season, a box of shiners at Mike & Walters was 15 cents. A Bamboo pole with a float and a hook and you were set. The lagoon docks were great places for snappers. The docks were also great for crabbing too, either with a net or crab trap. Butch was the serious fisherman, took his bait and tackle equipment very seriously, subscribed to fishing magazines etc. I was a lot more non chalant about it. Never learned to properly bait a hook, but still caught my share. Funny thing happened though. When I was in my twenties, I became a commercial shell fisherman for several years, with my own boat and everything. I did real well at it. Butch got interested in it as I was making a real decent living at it. He tried it, but never got the hang of it.
My fantasy with boats may of been stronger than Butchies, because I couldn't stay away from them or for that matter out of them. The lagoon was owned by the MBPOA ( Mastic Beach Property Owners Association) and there were signs posted everywhere. Private docks , boat owners only. They even employed their own patrolman Pete Phieffer to keep a watch on things. If he saw you on a boat, he'd stop and tell you nicely to get off of it. For some reason I rationalized in my mind that boats just outside the lagoon were not in his jurisdiction. There was this neat as pin little cabin boat tied up there and it never seemed to go anywhere. When I was around 8 or so I spent a lot of time on it and in it. You could get into the cabin through the forward anchor hatch. I never harmed anything, just pretended it was mine and would set sail in it often. The galley was real neat and stocked with pots and pans and a gas stove. The Dennings were always up for that kind of stuff too. One day we took our bikes over to Pattersquash Creek which was just about a 1/2 mile or so to the west of us. I had played there a few times on the Kiernan rowboat, fully confident if the cops came I could boast I know the owner. We were exploring along the shore which was mostly hidden from the road by cattails, when she came into view. She had to be at least a 40 footer, sedan cabin blue and white perhaps a Wheeler. She was beached and listing, port side still in the creek. We climbed aboard. The engine hatch was open and someone had broken open the cabin door. The cabin was partially flooded. It became our playground for about a week, till the owners showed up one weekend and tried to accuse us of doing all the damage. It seems it was stolen over a month before from up west around Lindenhurst and they were on the trail. They finally believed us that we found it that way.
Pop was always taking us to see boat events too. ice boat races, sail boat races, hydroplanes, the Whaling Museum, Orient Point Ferry etc. He also was big on boat movies especially WWII ones. One Sunday around '59 he took us out the Patchogue Royal for some excellent Chinese food, then down to the Patchogue River, where I saw a whole lot of commercial boats up close for the first time. Tugs, tong boats (shellfish), trawlers all kinds of neat looking boats with neat names. That afternoon we watched Gregory Peck and Charleton Heston battle it out on the silver screen in The Wreck Of The Mary Deare. I think from that point on I was really fascinated by commercial vessels.
For kids who grew up around this much water and spent hours on it, it's amazing that we didn't drown. Though Gerry became a life guard in her teens and worked at Beach Ten and The Pattersquash Creek swimming hole. I didn't learn to swim till I was around 10 or 11 and never got that confident at it. As for Butch he never learned. He got scared at the Pattersquash Creek swimming hole when he was around 6 or 7 and never recovered. He joined the Navy in 1962, but they sent him home after a month or so because he could not swim. "They damn near drowned me several times, I'd go straight to the bottom and stay there. At first they thought I was faking"
I remember Dennis and Gerry taking Butchie and me several times to Fire Island by boat. Butch had no qualms about going into the ocean and riding the waves, but I did. I got caught once in the undertow and really thought I was going to drown... saw my brief life flash before me, before a stranger pulled me out.
The Pattersquash Swimming hole was on the west side of Pattersquash Creek. For us to get there we had to go into "big town" (our term) aka new town and turn south at the 5 corners. It was while over there one time that I first laid eyes on the " Little Chief ". It might of been around 1958 or so. A kid like me couldn't help but notice it. It's bow was up on the beach right near the swimming hole. The colors alone (bright yellow with red trim) would catch any ones eye, especially a kid like me. It was real small runabout with the steering wheel mounted in the rear cockpit and looked like the boats we saw race. And on the side near the bow was the Pontiac Car logo of an Indian Head along with the name. I looked it over good them went and got Butch, he said yeah that's mighty sharp, but seemed like he didn't want to look too much at boats, especially ones he thought he could never have.
When we were small Mom would take us to many different beaches and swimming holes by car (A lot of times in our 1929 Model A coupe with a rumble seat ) We'd go to Yaphank Lake, Mill Pond, Shirley Beach, Beach 5, 1 and 10. But when we got old enough to ride our bikes and be by ourselves, we kind of stuck with hanging out at Beach 10 or Beach 1, both a short distance from our house. So I think I only saw the Little Chief twice and I always got excited looking at it. But out of sight out of mind.....until one night in August of 1960. Pop came home from work and asked me " Guess What I Did Today?" He didn't wait for me to answer.... " I bought us a boat " WHHHHHHHAAAAAAOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWW REALLY...I HAD ALL KINDS OF VISIONS OF EVERY MAKE AND MODEL FLASH THROUGH MY HEAD. He could tell I was excited , I ran to him , hugged tight and wouldn't let go. This time it felt like he really meant it, he did say Bought (translation done deal) not I'm going to buy or I'm thinking of buying...no sir he said I BOUGHT US A BOAT!
I ran to find Butch, he took it a tad calmer than I did, but he too couldn't believe it. Neither could our Mom who wasn't consulted on the deal. But at suppertime it was all the talk. He wouldn't give us much details though , only telling us it was not a big boat (to Mom's relief) it was an outboard, yes we could go fishing in it. He said after supper we could drive over and see it, but he couldn't bring it home till Friday night. (translation payday). Mom elected to stay home so the three of us hopped in his 50 Ford F- 150 Stake Truck (like a pickup but with a flatbed and wood rails).
So we drive into town, turn left at the 5 corners
and head south on Bayview Drive. I think it was at Narcissus Rd
where he turned left and headed for the creek. It was one of the
very short roads that led to Pattersquash. Around the middle of
the block he stops and there sitting in a driveway up on saw horses
is the Little Chief with a For Sale sign on it.
OH MY GOD....it wasn't just a boat.....it was The Little Chief! Nine Feet and Ten inches of the coolest boat around at least in my eyes. The owner came out and talked with us. It had belonged to his son who was going away to college and he could tell it was being passed into very appreciative hands.
I think it was on a Weds. but it was tough to have to leave it that night, tougher to get to sleep, and the wait till Friday was like waiting for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving. Friday night came and lo and behold we loaded it on the truck and brought it home. Still had to wait till tomorrow to launch it. Dad got us a dock space and it turned out to be right on the Riviera just outside the mouth of the lagoon where I first drove the yellow Olds. I would soon be driving a yellow boat there.
Launch day came and we were eager to just take off to the wild blue yonder. Pop had other ideas...lots of lectures on boat safety etc. After all he was in both the Navy and Coast Guard Reserve. Then he wanted to take pictures of us in it...we just wanted to GO! and we are kind of scowling in them. but I'm so glad he insisted we take those few color slides that day or there would not be any photos to look at today.
There Are Lots Of Adventures To Come
Aboard The Little Chief, I Just Have ToWrite Them Down