It wasn’t long ago that my old friend Kitty Monell came up to visit me in our old family blockhouse in Indian Field. “Daniel,” she said as she sat down on the living room couch, “we’ve gotten old.”
There was no denying it. Kitty and I had started to roam the hills of Indian Field when we were kids some 50 years ago. That was long before Suffolk County purchased the land, at the insistence of my mother, who saved the most beautiful place on Long Island and maybe the world from development. As bureaucrats will, county bigwigs have renamed the park several times: Indian Field County Park, Montauk County Park, Theodore Roosevelt County Park, and who knows what next? Hilda Lindley County Park wouldn’t be a bad idea, to honor the woman who saved it and much of Montauk from rapacious overdevelopment. County Legislator Jay Schneiderman has at least taken a first small step forward in that direction by officially naming my mother’s house the Hilda Lindley House.
Kitty and I had met as infants on the beach between Shagwong Point and Oyster Pond, when her parents landed in a boat and were surprised to see my parents on that then-deserted strand. The two young couples had been determined to ignore one another until they discovered that Kitty’s father and mine had gone to camp together in Shinnecock Hills many years before, and so they became friends.
As soon as we could walk, Kitty and I began roaming the hills of Indian Field. We were mostly left to our own devices, crisscrossing every inch of it, sometimes alone together, at others with a passel of kids on foot or horseback. Much of our time we devoted to fishing and gathering: dewberries and shadberries in June, wild blueberries in July, and fox grapes and beach plums in August and September. From Reed Pond, we’d catch white perch and largemouth bass; eels, bigger perch, and winter flounder came from Oyster Pond, buckets of blowfish from Lake Montauk, usually off Kitty’s father’s boat, the Surf Scoter, moored behind her family’s house.
My mother worked in the city to support us kids, coming out weekends, and Helen, our cook and maid, watched over us weekdays as a sort of surrogate mother. Coming from the South, Helen kept to a simple philosophy: Fruit was for pies and fish for frying. Fried fish and blueberry, blackberry, and apple pies were the staples of summer, breakfast through dinner. Sometimes her husband, Richard, would drive out from the city and add porgies to the menu after a day fishing with friends on Montauk party boats. Once when I was very small, he gave me some of his catch, and I placed them in our duck pond, not understanding that 1) they were saltwater fish and 2) they were dead. Richard and his friends just laughed, scooped them out with a crab net, and prepared them in a fish fry accompanied with copious amounts of Rheingold beer and 7 Crown whiskey for the adults.
When he needed extra cash, which was often, Richard would hunt snapping turtles down at Reed Pond, usually returning with a couple of turtles as big around as dinner platters. He’d lop off their heads and hang them upside down from our clothesline, later stuffing them into burlap sacks when they were sufficiently bled and throwing them in the trunk of his beat-up Chevy for the long drive west to the city, where he’d sell them to restaurants. These days, the practice may strike some as cruel, but Richard was one of the kindest of many kind adults I remember from my youth in Montauk. He couldn’t get a haircut in town, though, because he was black, and so he had to drive to Riverhead for that. He died barely into his 40s, of rheumatic fever, leaving Helen a young widow.
On those rare occasions when we weren’t picking berries, catching fish, or digging clams — steamers in Oyster Pond, Little Necks and cherrystones in Lake Montauk — Kitty and I would scout Indian Field for arrowheads and dead animals. Mice, voles, sparrows, and any other small, lifeless creatures we found were stuffed into empty Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes before we gave them a proper burial accompanied by lugubrious rites.
In hopes of soaking up some of our abundant youthful energy, my mother had bought us a trampoline, and most days a noisy bunch of kids — Monells, Carleys, Prados, Joyces, and whoever else was around — would be bouncing around on this contrivance, occasionally flying off it into the blackberry brambles nearby but somehow never cracking their heads open on the concrete U.S. Geodetic Survey marker set in the ground nearby like a small memento mori. Of all the trampoline acrobats, Kip, Kitty’s brother, was the most daring, executing elegant somersaults and back flips as he bounced higher and higher, practically pushing the mat to the grassy ground with his teenage energy each time he landed. He, too, died young, blowing his brains out with a shotgun at his parents’ house before he was 30. As a young man, he had become schizophrenic.
Frequently we’d ride horses around Indian Field, when space and time seemed endless. Kitty had a sleek bay named Pal; mine was a chubby hack named Tumbleweed, one small step short of the glue factory. Our friend Sandy Boomhower nicknamed him Stumblefoot. We might take the horses for a swim in the Sound or Reed Pond, or ride by Grace Foley’s, one of the few houses east of East Lake Drive in those days, where she’d invite us in and give us bologna sandwiches — the best I’d ever tasted. Other times, we’d take in the vistas from Prospect Hill, which we called Cactus Hill, then devoid of houses, or simply fly along the then-deserted dirt roads at a mad gallop.
That was difficult to induce in Tumbleweed. Most of the time, he knew no other pace than a slow and grudging walk, and if he felt especially inconvenienced, he’d simply stop, lie down, and roll around on his back like a flea-ridden dog, sending the rider sprawling. When dusk approached, however, he’d come to life, knowing it was feeding time at Deep Hollow Ranch, where he boarded. His ears would prick up, he’d let out a whinny or two, and I’d lean into his big body, wrap my arms around his neck, and hang on as best I could as he raced off to Deep Hollow for his evening’s ration of oats.
There were a bunch of cowpokes over there at the ranch — Rusty, Elbert, and Harvey among them, as I recall — and as cowpokes will, they felt it important to indulge in cowpoke high jinks and pranks, of which young red-haired Rusty often seemed to be the butt. The most memorable cowpoke of all was Phin Dickinson, who wore a Western shirt over a potbelly and a big ten-gallon hat. He liked to bark dire warnings at us as we rode out — “Watch out, kids, there’s cattle coming!” — or cast aspersions on someone’s equestrian abilities: “He rides like one of those damn motorcycle riders!” Adding to the drama were the skeet shooters practicing their shaky aim behind the ranch as we loped under cracking clay pigeons.
Cattle grazed freely across Indian Field in those days. Sometimes they’d get into our yard, disdaining the barbed wire fence but fleeing from our little dog, Sparky, who nipped at their heels. Occasionally we’d stage an impromptu rodeo, never staying on even the mildest cow for more than a few seconds.
On some of our ramblings, Kitty and I would run into Fanny Gardiner riding down a dirt road on horseback, always alone, it seemed. Her riding habit was all black, complementing her weathered face, which had the color and texture of beef jerky. Once as we walked down to Reed Pond for an afternoon’s fishing, we crossed paths with this woman and her horse. Glum and forbidding as a wraith, she told us to be on the lookout for a trail rider who’d fallen off his mount and was thought to be wandering the moors, potentially deranged due to his head wound. It was with great disappointment that Kitty and I didn’t come across this Montauk madman that day, though we looked for him.
There were other wanderers in Indian Field, then a remote and isolated backwater in a world of accelerating speed. Most prominent among these was an older man with a long gray beard and a bulbous belly whom we’d see ambling along the dirt roads when we were out collecting arrowheads or interring small animals. He always went shirtless, wearing only a bathing suit and sandals, but he never spoke to us. Indeed, we never ran into him directly; rather, we’d see him walking in the distance, but then he’d disappear, like some mysterious, shy, portly troll. Perhaps he lived in one of the hollows or thickets of sumac and sassafras, or maybe in one of the abandoned cars that people used to leave in the sandy stretch north of Reed Pond. In later years, others told me they’d also often seen the same man wandering Indian Field and assumed that he was squatting in what some called the Shagwong Hilton — a small cluster of abandoned cottages that once stood on a cliff overlooking Shagwong Point. Someone said he was a German.
The years have come and gone. Indian Field has changed, yet remained the same. I’m still eternally amazed and thankful that my mother saved it those many years ago from the jaws of misguided developers. As a boy, I had nightmares about honky-tonks and houses surrounding Reed Pond, lining the beach around Shagwong, and perched atop Squaw Hill. Thanks to my mother, Indian Field remains the beautiful place it has always been, and its treasures have been mostly protected so far. Only memories remain, but I like to think that Indian Field’s spirit and spirits remain too.
Daniel Lindley is a writer, editor, and college instructor who now lives in southwest Florida.