Thoughts of Christmases Past

My memories — some really good ones — were there, but the geography, the mansion’s global position, now belonged to the briny.
The surf was exceptionally good at Turtle Cove, just west of the Montauk Lighthouse, on Sunday. Russell Drumm

    Funny how thoughts cascade, one tumbling into another like stones down a bluff face. This one particular tumble began when Glenn Grothmann of Paulie’s Tackle fame mentioned that herring were being caught from the pier on Montauk’s Fort Pond Bay last week, lots of them.

    So, that Christmasy thought — pickled herring is a Christmas mainstay in some households — made me think of how Montauk’s old-timers recalled frost-fishing along the beach out in front of Montauk’s original downtown on Fort Pond Bay.

    Frost-fishing consisted of grabbing a pail and gathering whiting whose schools were so thick that a number of them would be beached as the tide dropped. They were flash frozen by the winter wind and then collected for smoking. Smoked whiting was, and is, another Christmas treat.

    This happy thought fell directly upon the season, how we tend to think about the past, our gains and losses during the year gone by. This time of year, the evening news presents the obligatory cascade of famous folks who have bit the dust between Decembers, and this made me take stock of location.

    I’d walked down the beach at Ditch Plain and was standing in front of the bluff where the old Reinstein estate sat until Peter Beard moved its windmill portion. The rest was razed in the face of inexorable erosion.

    Pieces of the grand house’s foundation continue to tumble to the beach. I lived in the house for a few summers in the late 1960s or early ’70s — I can be forgiven for not recalling the exact years — and realized, as I stood looking up at where I conceived the house had been, that I was wrong.

    If I wanted to find where the house had been I’d need to turn around facing the sea and gaze up into the empty sky. My memories — some really good ones — were there, but the geography, the mansion’s global position, now belonged to the briny.

    This thought led me to recall the library in the top of the windmill. The shelves were built by a ship0wright, angled to compensate for the windmill’s sloping walls so that despite the slope the books sat vertically upon them, a masterful job swallowed by Neptune.

    On Sunday, I visited Turtle Cove, the crescent beach just west of the Montauk Lighthouse. The surf was exceptionally good. One surfer had positioned himself in the lineup at the spot known as Alamo, a tricky takeoff immediately south of the Light where the tide features prominently during a big swell.

    Alamo got its name from the huge, battlement-like chunk of concrete that now lies at the foot of Turtle Hill, the Light’s promontory. I remember when it sat atop the hill. It was part of the Eastern Shield, the system of coastal fortifications and gun emplacements erected during World War II. 

    The Alamo has become part of the rock bulwark constructed to protect the Lighthouse from the sea, to hold back time, whose passage seems more evident in Montauk.

    It’s a physical thing. Even if we don’t take conscious note of it, it’s there. It sinks in. Maybe that’s why the hamlet’s community is close-knit. Erosion has a bright side if it helps us appreciate our days.

    I’m going to appreciate mine by going down to one of Montauk’s several tackle shops and buying a herring rig. Then to the town pier at the end of Navy Road where the old Navy Pier used to be — but that’s another story — where I will catch a mess of herring and pickle them to preserve the memory, all of them.