Back in the day, I’d heard, Brentwoodwas a roaring ‘20s resort for leisure and Speakeasies. With a child’s exaggerated perception, I imagined it the very hub of prohibition era nightlife, rivaling even Chicago with Betty Boop flappers, bootleggers, and cigar chomping gangsters living wildly while G-men were kept at bay by cover of 19th century gentlemen farmer mini-estates, 18th century shore manors, and distinguished Audubon Society patrons.
In the mid ‘60s it was still heavily wooded. Wild blackberries, fat mulberries, and nectar of honeysuckle were summer sustenance for brave explorers and treasure hunting pirates (also known as children). Weathered houses dressed with ornate balconies, carved columns, and well-heeled landscapes captured my affection, and I thought attics, alcoves, and window seats more American than apple pie. Even the dullness of the inevitable sump lots was tolerable so long as we had our excursions to the woods, the ocean, and the wonders of the orient. Have them, we did.
A stone’s throw east was Eden; characteristically and historically more New Englandthan New York, the eastern forks first settled by New Havencolonists in 1640. From Mattituck to Montauk, Southampton to Southold, here was colonial Americain her seafaring coastal glory and old English non-conformist heritage; a rootstock for later, not sooner, waves of grafts (as 17th century Quakers and others “unmeete to inhabit here” would agree). Hinged upon puritan foundations laid in the age ofPlymouth’s pilgrimage and richly layered in time, easternLong Island is in ambiance an island unto itself. From the posh latter day gates of the Hamptons to the quaint commons of Cutchogue, from market squares of pizzerias and delis to the oldest English framed houses in New York State; a perfect storm of old and new. A land of fishermen wharfs, fertile farms, and historic lighthouses; where humble potato fields are transformed into trendy vineyards and children collect seashells where once canoes carried quahog for wampum.
Among cherished memories are summer days spent at Horton’s Point climbing the coarse hemp ladder leading to the rocky shore below the lighthouse, the rope swaying perilously as our bare feet searched cautiously for the lower rung. The thrill of reaching the damp sand beneath the final jump, still alive, was heightened by the scattered quest for keeper seashells, curious rocks, and pieces of water-smoothed driftwood that had, in the imagination, splintered from old whaling boats or pirate ships offering clues to those with eyes keen enough to see such things as these. It was a great sensory adventure along the wild shore; to smell the sea greens tucked into nooks of slippery boulders and step upon tiny shells embedded like gems in the sand, to feel the intoxicating ocean’s mist on your face, to hear waves roll and crash against aged yet ageless stone sentinels while seabirds sailed above with haunting cries of caw and woe, to taste the sea salt in every breath. The cliffs harbored craggy bogs of tart crane berries awaiting their September burst, and sweet wild lilacs already fading. The upland climb was rewarded with king’s fare and the haughty sense that you truly owned the place (what with Barnabas Horton being your kin of kin, and all).
It was a childhood of island concoctions; a hint of bitter, a dose of reality, and a pint of spirit. An elixir steeped in history and spiced withLong Island’s distinctively rich eastern flavor. Museums of carriage houses, coopers, blacksmiths, and whalers; outings to Long Island Game Farm and the munchkinesque Lollipop Farm with child-sized trolleys; Riverhead for strawberry fields and roadside for sugar-baby melons and the world’s best pies; Montauk fishing by dawn and net clamming by bay; ancestral haunts of Southold’s Old Cemetery and the Old House at Cutchogue Village Green; sunning in the Hamptons and wading in the shadows of puritans who long ago gave up their ghosts; it was a childhood more enchanting for its changing rhythms of time within a timeless world than Rockwell’s idyllic portraits could ever be.
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