Geoff Gehman's Long-Lost Hamptons

More than a memoir
Geoff Gehman in front of Wainscott’s old general store Morgan McGivern

   Geoff Gehman has a question for you. When was the last time you rode a bike through Wainscott without a giant S.U.V. over your shoulder?
    “I don’t remember being tailed by a car one time,” he said, thinking back to his happy childhood in the hamlet. As the years in question were 1967 to 1972, ideally his prepubescent backside would have been astride a lengthy banana seat, his grip high on a chopper-style set of handlebars as he bombed down the hill heading east from Town Line Road, heedlessly through the Wainscott Hollow Road intersection, to his left the tiny Wainscott School, where his sister, Meg, raised a ruckus in the fourth grade and was made to contemplate her behavior from the inside of a wastepaper basket, then, out the school’s back windows, the profound commentary of the cemetery, and on into the lindens and maples along the main drag of a place so bucolic it makes Sagaponack look like a metropolis.
    Biking was on the writer’s mind this July day because he was leading a guest on a tour — two wheels having turned into a rented Nissan Versa’s four — of his old haunts as detailed in his new book, “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons,” from Excelsior Editions. It opens with a blow-by-blow of his usual 4.3-mile bike route from his family’s four-bedroom, two-bath house on Whitney Lane, over to the end of Town Line Road to take in some avant-garde Norman Jaffe architecture (“a house seemingly built by masons from outer space”), and back through the Georgica Association, its dense thickets “where I fell in love with nature.” Or maybe its speed bumps were just kinda fun.
    Mr. Gehman lives in Pennsylvania now, where he was an arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown for many years, but was in town to give a few readings, and there will be more of them, on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the East Hampton Historical Society’s Mulford Farm, for one, and that same day from 5 on he’ll be at Authors Night, the East Hampton Library’s vast book fair and fund-raiser. Can’t make those? He’ll be back at the library on Sept. 7 at 2 p.m.
    His appearances tend to turn into reunions and gabfests. Mr. Gehman is an engaging raconteur, easily charming his way past a Georgica Association guard with a touch of the shoulder and a flash of a book cover (“That’s me and my sister!”). At one point in the book he compares his adventures with his best friend, Mike Raffel, to those of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and he retains an all-American boyishness, reddish of hair, bucked of tooth, skinny as a dirt farmer.
    “Even with folks who have no connection here, the book takes them back,” Mr. Gehman said. “We all have had beach experiences; everybody has had a six-year period of formation.”
    Early on, he describes camping out with a friend in a “Where the Wild Things Are” haven, “a grove of Shad trees sculpted by the wind into gnarly, giant witch fingers. . . . We ate peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and read comic books by flashlight. We felt completely, blissfully independent, even though his parents were only a stone’s throw away. We were lulled to sleep by the crashing waves, which the dunes muted to a hushed roar.” Almost 50 years later, he still wondered at the freedom.
    Particularly for those born during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, the cultural touchstones in “The Kingdom of the Kid” are nearly complete and uncannily accurate, from Hot Wheels and Corgi toy cars to shaggy hair and plaid flannel shirts to the “Sister Mary Elephant” routine off the Cheech & Chong comedy album “Big Bambu.”
    “For me, the years ’67 to ’72 were the years when I got every single passion in my life — baseball, nature, fast cars, rock ’n’ roll, sex, drive-ins.”
    The book is more than a memoir, though, as Mr. Gehman turns those passions into chapters that explore essentially everything that was good about the South Fork but is gone. There’s Henry Austin Clark Jr.’s Long Island Automotive Museum in an oversized Quonset hut in Southampton, former home to Al Capone’s 1933 Pierce Silver Arrow, riddled with bullet holes. The old Water Mill Penny Candy Shop and its counters of heavy glass. The Hamptons Drive-In in Bridgehampton, with its goofy double features, scratchy window speakers, and vintage intermission reels touting concessions — endless Cokes floating by onscreen and animated hot dogs that, smiling, flipped themselves into spread and waiting buns. And of course the distant whine of the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, now an exclusive golf course.
    All are recalled with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm, for sure, but all are also fleshed out with research befitting a project 20 years in the making. (Plenty of locals don’t know, for instance, that the old Wainscott train station sits on the farm field side of a Sagaponack dune, now the residence of some lucky renter.) To say nothing of interviews with figures as varied as the racing legend Mario Andretti and the Sagaponacker Tinka Topping, who was a close friend of Truman Capote, one of Mr. Gehman’s literary heroes.
    He wouldn’t want us to sign off without a tip of the cap to another one, this newspaper’s own Jack Graves, whose stylish and witty news coverage inspired Mr. Gehman to enter the field. It was a good run — he was at The Morning Call until 2009, when a corporate takeover cost him his job. From his point of view, he got out just in time, just as writers were being asked to make slipshod videos of what they were trying to write about, interfering with what Mr. Geh­man called his “gentleman journalism.”
    And then came all that free time to write a book.