By Jennifer Hull
When I tell people that growing up, I spent summer vacations in the Hamptons, I’m pretty sure I know what they’re thinking. They’re envisioning Great Gatsby style “cottages,” catered parties, croquet on manicured lawns. They are most certainly not picturing the cottages we slept in at the Squaw Island Motel, with sticky strips of yellow fly paper dangling from the ceiling, bumpy mattresses, linoleum floors, small wooden window frames pushed open in hopes of a breeze, and the overriding scent of Off mosquito repellent. I can still see the road sign, with it’s tiki bar font and it’s image of a pretty, scantily clad Indian squaw, and below in smaller letters; VACANCY, AIR CONDITIONING, RESTAURANT, POOL.
We drove the hour to Southampton – North Sea to be exact, from East Setauket, the north shore town where we lived. My dad worked at the Shoreham nuclear power plant for LK Comstock as an electrical contractor. He took his summer vacation at the end of July every year. My parents, who met on Cooper’s Beach, rented a cottage for the five of us in the back of Squaw Island. We didn’t have air conditioning but my grandparents who drove out from Levittown to meet us there, and who stayed in one of the motel rooms, did. My sisters and I took turns spending the night in their room, which felt like the Four Seasons with its TV and sliding glass doors. My grandpa served ginger ale in plastic cups and slices of Entenmann’s golden fudge cake on paper plates while I watched a new game show called Wheel of Fortune with my grandma in my pink satin pajamas, relishing the decadent coolness of the room.
In the morning, my grandma would take my sisters and me out to breakfast in the small restaurant connected to the lobby. I would order cereal from a selection of Kellogg mini boxes, and a glass of grapefruit juice. Afterwards, my sisters and I would go swimming in the eye stinging saltwater pool, scrape our knees on its rough bottom, and admire the long legged, perfectly tan, teenage girl lifeguards who taught us how to dive off the board. We’d hit flat tennis balls on the cracked court with grass growing out of its seams. We’d make trips to the ice machine, follow the motel owner’s cats as they meandered around the property, and eat roast beef sandwiches and German potato salad from Otto’s Nord Sea Deli for lunch. We’d visit my grandparents’ room for saltwater taffy, and watch my dad drag his clamming rake across the sandbars that arose at low tide in the inlet near the cottages. Squaw Island was my idea of heaven.
When my dad first asked the motel owner for the best nearby spot to clam, he named several locations but never once mentioned the inlet that ran in from North Sea Harbor right behind the cottages, called Fish Cove. My dad started there and hit the jackpot. Digging his toes into the sand to find them, he filled burlap sacks with clams of every shape and size as his Irish skin burned red in spite of the Coppertone slathered on his back. I’d eat the clams straight from the sand “on the half shell” and let the briny, salty, soft wetness slide down my throat.
One afternoon, while my dad was clamming with a visiting family friend, Mr. Coe, a police boat approached them. My dad had made a trip into town earlier in the week for a clamming license, but grew worried that his license would not cover Mr. Coe’s share of the clams and dropped the heavy sack he was clutching into the shallow water. As it turned out, the license was good for up to two people. My dad is convinced, to this day, that it was the motel owner who tipped off the police in a futile effort to protect his undersea treasure. That evening, we celebrated our legal bounty with the Coe’s, who rented the cottage next door and cooked pots of clam chowder and pans of baked clams that we shared along with buttery cobs of farm stand corn at a picnic table dinner.
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