We moved to Sammy’s Beach in East Hampton on Labor Day, Sept. 1, 1975. My 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son would start school two days later. Most of our belongings remained in our suburban New Jersey home and would have to be moved to our rented beach house.
This enormous chore took three separate trips. Our “big” move took place in early October, an event I’ll always recall as “Truckin’.” My brother, Tommy, then in his early 20s, offered his services, gratis, as chief mover; he and a group of his friends would bring all my larger furniture to East Hampton. I eagerly agreed to this. A few days prior to my September move, I had been hit head-on by a drunken driver in New Jersey, which totaled my big Pontiac sedan and hospitalized me with a concussion and possible internal injuries.
It took weeks to recuperate and to get over a fear of driving. But, in early October, I drove back to my old home to meet Tommy. He had rented an 18-foot-long Ryder truck in Queens, where he lived, and brought along six athletic friends, full of energy and ready to work. Swiftly, the guys disassembled furniture, tied up rugs, taped boxes of toys, clothing, dishes, and books; hoisted items large and small through doorways, up and down stairs, and packed them neatly inside the huge yellow van. I supervised, running to and from the house, giving orders — some accepted, some not.
“Leave it to us, Sis,” Tommy said once. “We know what we’re doing. We’re pros.” His friends smiled and continued working.
The upright piano was the first item to go into the truck. All seven guys lifted, slid, and rolled the shiny black piano onto the truck ramp, and as six of them pushed it up into the truck, the seventh played the keyboard, rocking back and forth and singing as he walked sideways. “Love, love will keep us together. . . .”
As we watched from the lawn, my kids and I were laughing, but I was hoping the piano wouldn’t crash before it made it safely inside the truck.
“Watch that table, you jackass,” I heard my brother tell one of his buddies when they next moved the dining room set. “That’s good stuff. High quality, man.”
“Don’t tell me what to do,” his friend said, giving Tommy a shove. “You ain’t paying me enough money!”
“Easy guys, this is heavy. . . .” Four of the group maneuvered my queen-sized mattress down the driveway and into the truck, where they draped it with heavy cloths I had found in the basement.
“Yeah, we don’t need no hernias,” was a reply.
All the furnishings except the upright piano and my dining room set were to go to my newly rented house. Those items were to be dropped off last, at a friend’s house in East Hampton Village, where I felt they’d be safer. The beach, after all, was a humid, wet place. Gardiner’s Bay was in the backyard, Three Mile Harbor across the paved road. After a stressful year — a marital separation, the car accident — I anticipated a tidal wave during the fall or winter.
Tommy, three of his friends, and the huge van eventually drove off toward the George Washington Bridge and Long Island. A short while later, I climbed into my own car — a brand-new silver Olds Cutlass Supreme, bought at Lester Motors right after Labor Day — to follow the van. With me, besides my children, were three more of Tommy’s friends.
The drive was uneventful, with a minimum of conversation. “You guys did a great job,” I said, as they nodded and looked around, trying to spot Tommy and the truck. “I can’t believe how everything went so smoothly.”
We reached East Hampton without once seeing the truck. “He must be driving that thing pretty darned fast,” I said to my passengers, who grinned and nudged each other. I know that before Tommy took off, he had ceremoniously held up two six-packs of beer that he took from a Styrofoam cooler.
Since there wasn’t much traffic, we made good time on the roads and made it to East Hampton Village in less than two hours. Turning left onto North Main Street from Montauk Highway, right before the Hook windmill, I drove under the Long Island Rail Road trestle. We were past the Cedar Street intersection, across from a gas station, when I saw it. That’s when we all saw it.
“Mommy, look!” My son climbed up onto the dashboard, pointing out the window, while my daughter tried to pull him back down.
A bizarre caravan was driving slowly toward us from the opposite direction: a police car, blinding lights on, one huge yellow van, then another police car. All six of us stared at the procession. Yes, that was my younger brother, in the truck that I rented, carrying my furniture. “Busted,” the Grateful Dead song went, “down on Bourbon Street . . . They just won’t let you be, oh no.”
We made a U-turn and followed the convoy up Cedar Street, along a long, tree-lined street, past many pedestrian stares, straight to the village police station on Newtown Lane, all the while speculating about what might have happened. Were they drunk? Was there an accident? I hoped and prayed that the police wouldn’t hassle Tommy for any petty bit of mischief. Accordingly, I eased myself into the role of dignified new resident of the community as I entered the police station.
“That’s my brother,” I said to the officers who stood near Tommy and his friends. “He’s a very good person.”
But it didn’t matter who I was or what I said. People who got busted defended themselves with strings of I-am-innocent words all the time. The police had heard it all. My brother, it turned out, had raced the truck through the railroad underpass without paying attention to its height. He never saw the caution sign which, I noticed the next day, was small and easily missed. Unknown to all of us at the time, many trucks had collided with that underpass over the years and would continue to do so.
Tommy knew something was wrong but kept on driving, even after a loud, grating noise jarred the top of the truck. Half a mile farther along, now on Three Mile Harbor Road, he was wondering what to do next when the police showed up. A concerned citizen had alerted them. Now the police not only wanted to ticket Tommy for leaving the scene of the accident and hitting the trestle — an offense it turned out, that carried a mandated fine — but for not having a truck registration. The rental company had neglected to provide him with one.
“Open it up,” the cops had ordered when they caught up with Tommy.
Something was jamming the lock, however, and the rear door wouldn’t open. “I’m helping my sister move her furniture, Officer,” Tommy told one of them. “My friends and I didn’t notice anything wrong.” At the police station he called the rental agency, and someone assured the police that he had indeed rented the truck, even though there was no registration inside.
“Those are my possessions, and that is my brother,” I told anyone who would listen. “There’s nothing stolen, and nothing illegal.”
All of us were half-starved by this time. No one had eaten since the morning, and it was now past 5 p.m. I had brought along a large supply of cold cuts and breads and salads, thinking we would eat it down at Sammy’s Beach.
While calls were being made, I passed around some of the food. Those too weak to wait any longer, including my kids, helped themselves.
Finally, we were allowed to leave. My brother was ticketed, but at least he wasn’t arrested. Wearily, we got back into our vehicles and headed out of the village. The police told us a different route, one that bypassed the train trestle. And, as we drove, the winds churned up, the autumn leaves started tumbling down, and a gentle rain started to fall. Tommy followed my car. Through the rear view mirror we noticed that the metal roof of the rental truck was moving up and down. Strange.
It wasn’t until we arrived at the house and climbed up onto the high deck that any of us could determine what was wrong. Then we saw. The metal roof was exposed, shredded and torn like a sardine can along either side, and was flapping in the air like an enormous bird. It folded back into little silver waves, a sculpture gone amok. My older brother, Aly, had arrived from western Suffolk in a separate car with his son, intending to help unload the truck. “Wow,” he said, looking down. “What a mess!”
My furnishings, the possessions of an 11-year marriage, were now covered with leaves, exposed to the wind and rain. They were also jammed up against the rear door, threatening to fall out in one gigantic heap once the latch was freed.
As if to conspire against me, my possessions, and all of us, wet blowing wind whipped about the house. My moving crew cursed the weather, cursed the truck, and, undoubtedly, cursed me.
Finally, the latch was broken. I held my breath and tried not to cry at the sight of all the debris — broken pieces of furniture — crashing down into the sandy driveway. I’d have to replace or live without a lot of that . . . stuff.
I held tightly onto the railing for support because of the winds and the mayhem. Once before in my life, after the breakup of an early, brief marriage, I had to give up all the furniture. Now, 14 years later, it was happening again. The first time, I was young and impressionable enough to be emotionally attached to my belongings. It had devastated me to be separated from those possessions. In fact, it seemed more painful to lose the furnishings than it was to lose the husband. Later on, it was much easier deciding on a second husband than it was deciding on new furniture. I bought things slowly, things I could love, but not too much. The ephemeral nature of my life so far with “things” seemed to preclude attachment any more.
This was a wonderful and timely insight. By the time the winds died down and the wreckage was accounted for, I had tallied thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. There was a demolished queen-sized black, Oriental design headboard, a capsized triple dresser, broken desks, bent bed frames, and splintered shelving, among other casualties. Our unharmed piano and dining room set were hastily stored inside my new basement, to await the tides and tsunamis of winter. The bedroom set suffered the most damage, a fact I tried to accept philosophically.
My brother Tommy kissed me goodbye when all was stored away, looking sad and guilty, like a small boy who broke a whole lot of someone else’s toys.
“It’s okay, Tom,” I said, hugging him tight. “If you ever go into the trucking business, let me know. I’ll give you a reference.”
He didn’t laugh, not even a smile. We said goodbye to our brother Aly, then Tommy’s friends all piled into the truck, the cab and the wet rear section, covered with tarps I had stripped from some of the furniture. Tommy climbed back into the driver’s seat.
Tired but still excited by all the drama of the day, the children climbed back into our car. I would lead the truck back through the woods to the village, over railroad tracks rather than under them, and take my helpers to Montauk Highway, headed west.
We waved at the truck as it passed us, with Tommy giving a final honk of the horn, and turned around to go home — back to the beach where our wet and damaged possessions awaited us, and to our new life in East Hampton.
Eileen Obser of East Hampton has contributed many times to The Star. This is part of a memoir-in-progress. Another memoir, “Only You,” will be published in January.