A New Appreciation

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Childhood memories of growing up in Port

swimming

It’s true—as you look back on events in your life, you begin to appreciate the things that you once took for granted.

A newspaper article I read reported on the recent dedication of the Bay Walk along Shore Road. It was the culmination of 15 years of work by the community to develop a scenic walkway, where people could enjoy the beauty of Manhasset Bay.

My older brothers, Billy and Bobby, and I—and our father before us—grew up along Shore Road across from where the Bay Walk now meanders along the shoreline. Our family had lived in the area for more than 40 years. Early on, it was a mix of mostly commercial buildings with some houses tucked in here and there. I remember Augie’s Italian Restaurant, Dolly’s Luncheonette, the Lewis Oil Company, Gildos Restaurant, the Gulfway Marina, Ligeri’s Bar & Restaurant, Clifton’s Boat Yard, and our neighbors—the Sheridans, the Renos, the Murrays and one of the last local baymen, Mark Brown. It was a middle-class area with a million-dollar view of Manhasset Bay.

The bay was directly across from our small gray, two-story house, separated only by Shore Road—a lightly traveled, two-lane local street. I took its beauty and the pleasure it gave us for granted.

Sitting on the front porch of our house at 49 Shore Road in the 1950s and ’60s, we had so many beautiful sights to see. I remember hundreds of boats of all sizes and shapes—both power and sail—moored in the bay and docked at the many marinas. The slap, slap, slap of the halyards against the masts of the sailboats as they were rocked back and forth by the waves and wind was comforting and familiar.

Each day, the sun would descend into the horizon, slowly disappearing behind the silhouette of the distant New York City skyline. Conveyor belts supported by towering trestles poured sand from nearby sandbanks into barges that would follow lumbering tugboats out of the bay to Long Island Sound like a brood of ducklings following their mother.

On the far side of the bay was Great Neck, purported to be the model for the village of West Egg made famous in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby. And, when I redirected my gaze slightly, I could see Manhasset Isle and the building that was once the base for Pan American Airways giant Boeing 314 flying boat, the one that in the 1930s flew the first commercial transatlantic flight from Port Washington to Marseilles, France.

The beauty and history of the bay were lost on me then.

Manhasset Isle was also the staging area for the annual fireworks show. Every year on Independence Day, the Manhasset Bay Sportsmen’s Club would put on the event. It was a spectacular show with rockets shooting high into the air, exploding in red, green, blue and silver bursts. Each would light up the night sky and reveal the boats moored in the bay as well as the others that were anchored to see the spectacle. Spent shells from the exploded fireworks would wash up onto the shore for days after.

Manhasset Bay was our playground. In the summer, we would row our gray, 8-foot plywood rowboat to the many docks surrounding the bay. Guiding the boat from piling to piling, we would use nets on long handles to harvest blue claw crabs as they clung to the barnacle-encrusted poles that supported the dock. At night, my brothers and I would wade into the shallow water with crab nets and bushel baskets. A flashlight directed into the water revealed a bay bottom thickly slathered with hundreds of crabs that were easily scooped up and deposited in the baskets.

The shoreline across from our house was dotted with the remnants of pilings that had been installed decades earlier to support structures used in the boating and sand mining industries. Our favorite swimming area was an L-shaped section of old pilings we called The Bulkhead.

The shape formed a protected swimming area on one side, with the open bay on the other. From there, we could dive, jump, cannonball and be Mike Nelson—the scuba diving character played by Lloyd Bridges in the 1950s television series, Sea Hunt. Many times, we would put on our diving masks and fins, and stealthily swim underwater to a nearby dock. Silently, we would swim, submerged, from piling to piling, attaching “explosives” to each one, always careful not to disturb the surface water for fear of being detected by “the enemy.” We successfully blew up the dock hundreds of times over many summers.

A favorite game was called Tar Baby, named for the tar on the bulkhead, I think. The neighborhood boys would line up in a straight row on the bulkhead facing the swimming area. One boy would find a stick and swim out 10 feet from the bulkhead. When he reached that point, he would churn up the water to make it as choppy as possible. During this process, he would let go of the stick and eventually swim away from the area. It was the remaining boys’ job to spot the stick amid the agitated water then dive in to retrieve it. The first one to reach the stick would yell out, “Tar Baby.” The stick was usually hard to locate because it blended in with the churning, dark water and the sparkling sun reflecting off it.

Many times, two or more of us would see the stick at the same time. The resulting race to retrieve it could get very competitive, often involving the grabbing of legs, pulling of bathing suits and heads being pushed under the water. It was great fun.

My brothers taught me to swim in Manhasset Bay. Taught isn’t really the right word. One hot summer day, my mother came home and was talking with my brothers on the front porch. Looking across to the bay, she saw me swimming. “When did Peter learn to swim?” she asked. “Earlier today when we threw him off the bulkhead,” they replied. I learned to swim by immersion.

It was a great time in my life in a beautiful part of my hometown.

Our old house no longer stands at 49 Shore Road. It was replaced by a parking lot several years ago. Many other buildings are also gone or changed. But the beauty of Manhasset Bay endures—a beauty that was never consciously appreciated by me when I was a boy. I appreciate it now.

Read more childhood memories from Port.

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