Our community was wealthy with young ones in the ’60s. Everywhere you turned there was laughter, bikes, and ballgames. All those kids running around like a pack of wild Indians and not one had a lick of sense! We were blessed at that age, in that era, with mirthful, mischievous freedoms, reminding me of the days of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. “An adventure a day keeps the doldrums away,” Carleton Kelsey, who was an Amagansett historian, librarian, and teacher, would say after school or on Saturday mornings at his library, which was housed in a New England cape a hundred years old.
I loved the tiny, cosmopolitan reading house over which he kept vigil. He was like a caricature of old New Englanders as depicted in vintage films. His accent and affect were from a different place and time. He reminded me of Ethel Barrymore portraying an eccentric, New England spinster doling out wit and wisdom with a Cheshire cat grin. Her scene always ended with a close-up of the ragged, worn face, still pixie-like with amusement at her own humor and thought process. Carleton had that. He too was amused with his own obtuse thoughts and how often they confounded people around him!
I went to visit because Carleton knew all the secrets and where the “bodies were buried!” He knew about my family tree (from the mid 1600s), our history, and generations of exploits. Stories of a family filled with “drunks, nuts, and odd ducks,” were hurtful and embarrassing. Though often disturbing and hard to hear, I did see many being true. He shared numerous wonderful, colorful stories of my loved ones. I laughed and concurred with his observations.
Those tales were told with a nod to the absurd. I perceived no malice in the telling; rather, a childlike inability to censor. I seemed an “odd duck” and “ahead of my time” to Carleton. I was openly pleased with that.
Free-spirited and exuberant, my friends and I often ended in hot water for adventures born of curiosity and creativity. Our imaginations and intellects were unbridled due to the vastness and nature of our liberties. Miraculously, I had been left in the charge of a grandmother who loved and appreciated us as magical creatures. She took time to watch and listen. Understanding the nature of good old-fashioned mischief, she added to it a healthy dose of encouragement. Nonsense was welcome if it was absent of malice. It was the 1960s. Adults were behaving badly, after all, so our innocent plundering was usually met with a chuckle and a wink by authority.
Summers on the South Fork were uncharacteristically hot and arid during my childhood. The Gulf Stream, which vacillates east and west on its long journey north, had for some years clung closer to the east coast than usual. Due to the heat, school closed early this year. Boredom crept in and friskiness was on the rise.
Upon waking one Saturday, the sun shown already too powerfully, too early, and drew water from the earth as a fog, dense and steaming. Tommy, my affable and pleasant chum, and I left our houses before adults and siblings woke. We tiptoed out our back doors and set our courses for a day filled with activity and exploration. Separately, we traversed the tracks, a bed of ancient rotting railroad ties on which two parallel steel rails carried trains for over one hundred miles. They glistened from decades of polishing: the weight and friction of wheels under engines and cars not only smoothed the steel but flattened and polished copper pennies often left on the rails by us children. They became abstract works of art. The anticipation was dizzying when we heard the whistle from a mile away. It seemed a century until it eventually came into sight and slowly crawled into the station. The wheels halted, coming to rest on the coins. After the train pulled out, urchins scavenged wildly, scrambling to find their treasures. There was nothing neater than the medallions this formed. Some dads drilled holes in them so their kids could wear them and show off.
Tommy and I often hiked to the rickety one-lane bridge at Montauk Highway and Cranberry Hole Road in Amagansett. We used the rails as a superhighway, traveling from Amagansett to Montauk and East Hampton on a whim. Dodging and tripping despite the regularity of their placement, it was not unusual to fall onto the ties and shred one’s knees and hands on the jagged rocks below.
Periodically, we would happen upon a heavy spike among the debris. These spikes were considered cool, were esteemed and traded.
We sat in the shade and trash-talked everyone from local police to teachers, family, and friends. Even our reverend was not exempt. We expected several other “Intrepid Adventurers” (the name I had coined for our core group of active and creative oddballs) to join us. We waited quite a while. Maybe it was too early even for them.
Tommy and I were always first to arrive.
I loved that bridge. I loved the beauty of its derelict state. I fantasized I had built it. It appeared a lost sculpture, overgrown, discarded; pieced together with scraps. It stood for decades forlorn, a neglected ghost. It had been unsafe for years and would shake violently, thudding loudly as cars passed overhead. Vehicles approached blindly from opposing directions and halted at the base of its steep arch. The sharp incline it created and the fact that two cars could not pass at the same time made the bridge dangerous.
Approaching cars would begin blowing their horns and inch carefully up and forward. He who crested first would pass, and the other would back down and out of the way. It could take a while for this ritual to conclude.
We laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it all. We would crow at the top our lungs at this and with the passing of the trains. “Shhhhhhit,” we would bellow. We were delirious in our delight and fear, and sense of accomplishment. One would think we had climbed the Himalayas! I wonder now, how many people knew it was us there below?
Scurrying up, we entwined ourselves among pilings and girders. They had been covered with a tar-like substance, creosote. It reeked to the point of headache, left us covered from legs to cranium with clots of unpleasant, sticky resin ultimately finding a nesting place in my hair.
My grandmother would savagely scrub the black smears from me, brandishing a coarse rag and a jar of kerosene taken from the two giant drums out back of the house. Well-scolded and schooled about toxic creosote and the dangers at the bridge, she trusted we would have enough sense to stay away. The bridge drew us as though possessed. The neighborhood kids were constantly swinging there, goofing around, and chattering like so many animated monkeys. Dozens of adventures hatched there.
The train was passing, and due to the narrow width of the bridge we were within a few feet of the raging steel engine. Initially Tommy tried to pee on it but then panicked at the sight of horrified passengers zipping by in a comic silent film. Wetting his front he shouted, “F—- this” while bumbling with his crotch.
I was afraid to move in case the monstrous metal beast would tear a limb, or drag us under. Adrenaline rushes hit in waves. Rancid air assaulted as it passed. The wake forced our eyes closed and tugged on our clothes and hair. Cinders burned our skin and sucked breath from our lungs.
Those old diesel trains billowed massive plumes of acrid smoke from their stacks. Anxious laughs drew poison in and led to ferocious coughing fits. The train passed. It was quite some time before we climbed down, cursing a blue streak.
We were deeply shaken yet cocky, and would long tell proud tales of this adventure to other kids who would then clamor to become Intrepid Adventurers like us.
Michael Dickerson is a member of the Conklin clan, and grew up at the family homestead on Amagansett’s Main Street. Inspired, especially by his grandmother, to write stories of his family and childhood, he is working on a book-length collection.