Home, Bittersweet Home

By Geoff Gehman

My 11-year-old self is sitting in a chair from Ebbets Field, drinking from a bottle of Pepsi, checking out the charms of the August 1969 Playboy Playmate. I stop staring into Debbie Hooper’s siren eyes when I hear a shout from John F. Murray Jr. — owner of this deck in Wainscott’s Westwoods, forever Brooklyn Dodger fan, supplier of Pepsis and Playboys to hemi-hormoned boys like me, my honorary uncle, and author of the new novel “The Devil Walks on Water,” my current number-one book. Jake knows I’m curious about writing for a living and he thinks it’s high time for a few tips, Ms. Hooper’s charms be damned.

Write what you know best, says Jake with the gentle growl that says he’s in a pretty good mood. Write what you want to read most. Make a difference. If you can’t make a difference, at least make a racket. And for !@#%&’s sake, don’t be a manic-depressive — writing is bipolar enough without being bipolar.

I thought a &%#@! hell of a lot about Jake’s commandments while I wrote “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons,” which SUNY Press released last summer. Guided by his advice, I made a racket about my first favorite era, 1967 to 1972, when I lived a block from Jake in Wainscott and found all my major passions — from writing to rock ’n’ roll, sexy cars to sexier women, Carl Yastrzemski to Truman Capote. Goaded by his spirit, I created a crazy-quilt, crazy-assed memoir: a Boomer coming-of-age tell-all; an elegy to my tribe, the South Fork’s comfortable middle class; a meditation on a special place at a special time teaching a kid to be special.

I wrote the book to discover why the East End became so special over such a short stretch. The whys came in every size of surprise. My love of nature, I realized, began in the Georgica Association, where I roamed mazes of meadows and slept under trees shaped by the ocean-whipped wind into witches’ fingers. My fascination with history started at Wainscott’s closed general store, a rusty, melancholy relic that buzzed like a beehive in its ’30s-’40s heyday. And my melancholy streak? Blame it on my unemployed, desperate father selling our house on Whitney Lane without my mother’s permission, ending my full-time time in my emotional home.

I wrote the book to honor the people who made the South Fork my emotional home. June and Harvey Morris treated me like a kid, an adult, and a king in their Penny Candy Shop in Water Mill, the East End’s sweetest pit stop for over 40 years. Generous and gracious, they let me wreck perfect rows of candy dots with my teeth, wave the dusty smoke off candy cigarettes, and celebrate every day as my birthday.

Mike Raffel was my baseball buddy, my rock ’n’ roll guru, my first best friend. He turned me, an outsider, into an insider the first day we met, teaching me the treats and tricks of Wainscott’s weedy, rocky, 38-steps-wide baseball field, the world’s only known rectangular diamond.

Jake Murray was my first writing teacher, my first sex coach, my first all-access adult. Charming and crazy, he helped me understand my crazy, charming dad, a fellow manic-depressive, alcoholic adman.

Each of these folks honored me in their way. Jake’s children thanked me for reminding them that their dad could bring out the best in kids even when he was near his worst. June thanked me by telling me the penny-candy chapter cheered her up, which helped her recover faster from a nasty infection. Mike thanked me during a reading in a bookstore by his home in Cambridge, N.Y. That Halloween night we broke out our old Huck Finn-and-Tom Sawyer act, recalling the days we played tennis by a deserted beach mansion to a tape of James Brown singing “Hot Pants” and “Sex Machine.”

I wrote the book to piece together my family’s fractured life on the South Fork, where we were happiest and unhappiest. For nearly 40 years my mother, Pat, has been my friend and hero; it took me nearly that many years to realize that she was my quiet caretaker in Wainscott. Her sacrifices gave my dad, Larry, the time to teach me to pitch, to sing barbershop harmony, to make the East End my kingdom. I pardoned him long ago for forcing me to leave Whitney Lane long before I was ready; it took me a book to know that he started the pilgrimage that the book ended.

I wrote the book to restore memories eroded or erased by divorce, alcoholism, and the neutralizing nature of a farming resort, where summers blur like watercolors. Now there’s a castle between covers where we can all remember Al Capone’s bullet-holed Pierce Silver Arrow at the Long Island Automotive Museum, Mark Donohue’s Camaro Z28 at the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, and Truman Capote’s cabin-cruiser Buick, which he drove recklessly on Saga­ponack’s dragstrips.

I wrote the book, finally, to get my largely secret life off my back. For decades I thought I was the only kid who idolized Capote and Carl Yastrzemski. Meeting other fans of this bizarre double-play team has been a thrilling relief. It’s made me feel more at home in my emotional home.

My comfort must be catchy, because longtime Wainscotteers keep asking me when I’m moving back. I tell them I couldn’t afford to live in my old kingdom even if I sold 100,000 copies of “Kingdom.” The only property I could afford is a plot in Wainscott Cemetery, where Jake Murray was laid to rest in June 1977, six months after he drowned intentionally in the East River. I’d be around the bend from my honorary, honorable uncle, which would be just jake with me.

Geoff Gehman, a journalist, lived two blocks from Sayre’s Path in Wainscott and lives two blocks from the Sayre Mansion Inn in Bethlehem, Pa. He will read from “The Kingdom of the Kid” on Aug. 17 at 3 p.m. at the Wainscott Chapel.