Fire Island Uncles: Swoon 58
Summer (weekend) days as a kid on Fire Island went kind of like this… wake up, inspect bug bites received during the night, walk past dad sipping coffee and smoking (covered in paint or dirt from morning chores), find mom in the kitchen cutting fresh fruit or making pancakes, get ready for the beach (redoing ones pigtails using fingers as a comb and grabbing a towel that did not smell). Sunscreen, HA! Bathing suits were either already on (having slept in them) or damp (having left them in the outdoor shower). Getting it on meant squeezing into a moist, tight, sausage casing…so gross. Then off to the beach to build stuff, swim, watch dad play volleyball, play backgammon, listen to the ladies gossip, and collect shells and rocks.
Watching volleyball was a learning experience. Only men were allowed to play until the 80s. Some wore speedos, little ones with curly hair coming out the top. Others wore old man bathing suits (speedo material but they came up to their belly buttons and went below their butts, think Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan). Then there were the cool players, they wore denim or corduroy cutoffs, my dad was one of them, that made me proud. These volleyball games were super competitive. You had to commit, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 3pm…all summer. There were A players and B players. There was an end of summer tournament with trophies (awards like “The Mouth” and “Best Spiker”). My dad once received “The Mouth” award (for most foul language on the court). Swoon. There were fights, grown men screaming obscenities, pointing fingers, and when it got really bad… there was quiet. Quiet was the scariest reaction to a bad call. My dad was a super hothead. He was an amazing athlete, but kinda little. When he fought with someone he would walk UNDER the net and point his index finger in the face of a 6 foot 4 giant (in a grandpa bathing suit) and get all in their business. It was awesome. I learned every single curse word by the time I was 10. I also learned how to mix Gatorade from a powder with hose water from a house on the dunes…which I then served like a little beach stewardess to players during breaks. It was the 70s, women still had their place.
My Uncle Jack was not my uncle, but he was part of my life from the moment I showed up at Fire Island, days after being born. He was handsome, and hip…he had white denim cutoffs too. Uncle Jack played volleyball but also liked to hang out with us kids. He would check in between games, seeing what we had built or buying us an ice cream from the snack bar (fun fact: Ocean Bay Park once had a snack bar up on the dunes, super fun fact: Ocean Bay Park once had dunes). He would offer us compensation for finding completely white rocks for his garden. When not at the beach he was always holding a can of Budweizer, always, he had a brilliant smile, and he giggled when he spoke…like everything made him happy.
At FI we had many men in our lives like Uncle Jack but for some reason he was the only one we called uncle. We had Russ, Charlie, Herman, Bill, Nick, Gene…men that we spent crazy amounts of time with because that was how it was back then. Life did not revolve around the kids, the kids were just along for the life. When dad played volleyball we were at the beach. When couples came over for cocktails, we all hung out on the deck. When there was a party, we went too…watching Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, Bob Newhart, and Carol Burnett and playing Spit in the host’s guest room. My favorite house had Marimekko curtains and a big tv with actual reception.
I learned a lot being around adults. I knew who was cheating on who, I knew who could not have kids, who had cancer, who lost their job, who liked scotch, who served cheap alcohol. Adults would talk about everything, right in front of us, like we did not understand what language they were speaking. I loved it. There was a CIA agent (or so the rumor was), a police detective (a stereotypical achtung kind of gentleman), a mafia guy (or so the rumor was, he did come after my dad with a baseball bat once…my guess is the rumor was a truth), a teacher (who never gave the time of day to us), and a former Olympic wrestling coach (with a cauliflower ear). Side swoon: In my differential dressing phase he gave me a pair of wrestling boots which I wore with ripped tights, a dyed men’s Oxford shirt, and a beret). There was the couple who always made sure they were invited to dinner somewhere so they didn’t need to cook and another couple made up of a guy and his mistress of 30 years (he had a very understanding wife). One couple had a pool and an air hockey table, they let us swim at their house any time we wanted…she had frosted hair and was mighty glamorous. She was always holding a cocktail in one hand and had a cigarette in the other, wearing patterned maxi dress with a plunging neckline. She had perfect boobs which I assumed were hers until the time Mom and I were making her a homemade Wonder Woman costume (a necessity at the beach). She was in a red Danskin leotard lying on our kitchen floor, as we glued designs and applied the glitter, I noticed that her boobs were both extremely hard and continued to point straight up, like Barbie. Like I said, I learned a lot by being around adults. We lived a movie.
I was thinking about Uncle Jack this morning… thus this random view into my childhood. I paid for white rocks, so I can paint them. I paid for the same kind of rocks someone used to pay me to collect as a little girl. Life is crazy. Life is insane. Life is what it is… and I am very grateful this tedious life is sparking memories of people like my Uncle Jack, and the rest of the Fire Island crew. What an amazing time to grow up. Swoon.