A Dangerous Afternoon in the Rain on the Beach
Last Saturday morning at 10, I attended the Paws Across the Hamptons Event at Southampton High School, with 150 walkers and 200 dogs trotting down Narrow Lane to Wickapogue and beyond. I took a lot of video for our website for this event (“Walk the Walk, Bark the Bark”), and as we trotted purposefully along I narrated the event into my iPhone microphone, explaining that we were heading off to set a Guinness Book of World Records—around-the-world tour—to New York, Paris, Moscow and beyond. I was pretty proud of my narrative.
It had been sunny for this event, but afterward it began to cloud over. Showers were predicted for late in the day, but that was all right because I expected to be inside an old barn at Mulford Farm in East Hampton at 2 p.m. for a reading of a screenplay called “Nazis in the Hamptons.” In the meantime, I had three hours to kill. [expand]
I drove three miles out Meadow Lane to a spot I know almost at the end of that peninsula, where a sand road leads you out onto the beach. I often drive out onto the beach in my Tahoe for peace and quiet and to sit on a folding chair near the ocean and write stories for this paper on my laptop. Driving along, I marveled at some of the beautiful oceanfront mansions. Ordinarily, when I take the Tahoe out onto the beach, I check the tide table app on my cellphone to see if the tide is coming in—something you don’t want to get caught in—but I did not do that here. These mansions on Meadow look out across a broad ocean beach that is more than 100 yards wide.
I turned left onto Road G, which soon turns into the sand road, and I headed out. The sand was pretty soft. I shifted down into 4-wheel and headed right toward the Shinnecock Inlet. On the way, I waved to a fisherman by a yellow pickup and he waved back. There were fishing rods on his roof. There were fishing rods on my Tahoe. Mine are for show. I hate fishing.
You move slow in a 4-wheel on the beach. I called my wife to check in. She was busy with other stuff, particularly with shopping for a brunch we would be holding on Sunday at the house. After a while, we concluded it would be best if we took two cars to Mulford Farm and met up there.
I bumped along, making a big detour around about 200 seagulls standing in a big flock near the water looking out to sea at what seemed to me was absolutely nothing. Beyond them, in an isolated spot—I like to work alone—I turned the Tahoe to face the ocean and came to a halt. Then I got out of the car and looked around.
It was warm, but it was breezy. Also it had begun clouding over. I lugged a folding chair out of the back of the truck and with that and my computer bag strolled down toward the water, until I got to a sand cliff about two feet high made by the last high tide. Occasional waves slid up the beach to it, then fell back. If I set up my chair about five feet behind it, I’d see the sand start to slide down if there were a problem with the surf. I’d be writing there an hour and a half. It could happen.
But after just ten minutes there, I noticed another problem. The wind was picking up—an odd wind, east to west against the prevailings—and it was blowing the sand around my keyboard. It would be very stupid to continue to work here. So I took everything back to the car and now set up to write in the passenger’s seat with the window open. Almost like being out on the sand. Almost. I typed.
An hour and a half later, I finished up. It was a story about this Icelandic comedian who, as a lark, had run for mayor of the capital city Reykjavik.
“We formed our own party,” he told a crowd. “It’s the Best Party. If it wasn’t the Best Party it would be the Worst Party or the Bad Party. But it isn’t. You have nothing to fear with the Best Party.”
Early polls had him with 2% of the vote. But the crowds loved him. He won.
The cellphone rang. I had forgotten to turn off the ringer. It was Richard Lewin, a photographer for the newspaper. “Hadn’t spoken to you in quite some time,” he said. “Just wanted to chat.”
A sprinkle of rain was now tapping onto the windshield. Really glad now I was back in the car. I turned on the wipers. And I turned on the engine. I’d finished writing. It was time now to go.
Richard told me about a store in Montauk that is for sale. We talked about a concert at the Lighthouse. As we did, I slid the Tahoe into gear and slowly moved forward down toward the ocean. My intention was to turn left just before I got to the sand cliff and continue on parallel to the ocean toward home. I made the turn. And as I did, the car sank down and stopped. It was stuck in the sand. Richard was pattering along about something.
“Oh s–t,” I said.
“Gotta go,” I said. “Call you back later.”
“Something’s come up.”
The Tahoe was completely stuck. I have had this happen before. I’m a master at getting out of sand. I’ve been beach driving for 25 years. When stuck, you just rock it a bit forward, then back, then forward, then back, and it works its way out. I did that. It got me in deeper.
I sighed. I got out of the truck. The wheels were about halfway down. So I went to Plan B, which I sometimes have to do, which consists of taking out a shovel and digging the sand out from around the wheels.
Other than that one time at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett 20 years ago, I’ve never been stuck. I know all about how to do this.
The rain was coming down hard now. I dug and dug, was satisfied with the work after awhile, and then got into the car and began rocking it back and forth again. But then I knew this was for real. The engine was racing, and the wheels were spinning. It was sinking deeper. I looked out the car window to the running board. The running board was level with the sand. That meant the underside of the Tahoe was flat on the sand and the wheels were hopeless. My heart sank. There’d be no way of digging myself out of this.
Now I looked at the tide table. The tide would be high in two hours. Between now and then, the tide would continue to come in. Why the hell hadn’t I looked at the tide table?
I have, over the years, been to places where cars and trucks have been overwhelmed by the sea for one reason or another. It’s not pretty. I once saw a Dodge Ram bobbing along in the surf in Napeague. I took its picture. Boy, I thought, the owner of that Dodge must have been pretty stupid. This would never happen to me.
Who do I call? I had no idea. I was beginning to panic. I called the Southampton Village Police. They put me on hold. I didn’t want them to do that. But they did.
How long did I have? I looked out the passenger window. I was 10 feet from the sand cliff. And now I saw the sea was lapping at it, angrily, in the heavy wind and pouring rain.
“I have some names for you,” the police dispatcher said when she got back. “People with tow trucks who will get you out.”
“There’s not enough TIME!” I shouted.
“Just stay calm, sir.”
One was in Water Mill, the other in Hampton Bays. A machine answered at Water Mill and told me to call a pager number and leave my number, which I did. But they could be hours getting back to me. I called Hampton Bays. And they answered.
“Hello?” a woman said.
Out the window, I saw something very alarming. Just 20 feet in front of me, a wave had climbed up and over the sand wall and slid up the beach. Had I been 20 feet further along, that wave would have hit the side of my car.
“This is an emergency,” I said. “I’m on the beach and the tide is coming in. I’m down by the water’s edge. Help me.”
“Where are you sir?”
I told her. “How soon can you get somebody here?” I croaked.
“We have all the trucks out. I’ll make some calls. I’ll call you right back.”
“Have one of the trucks stop what they are doing and come here. Emergency. Emergency.”
“Just hang on, sir. I’ll call you right back.” And she was gone.
So this is how this happens, I thought. You take your mind off things. I was just making that turn, and then I had Richard on the phone. I got distracted. I wasn’t paying attention.
Then I thought, well, I’ll stay in the car as long as I can. I looked around. What did I not want to lose? I’ll take the laptop of course. As for the rest—it was surprising how much crap there was in the car and how little of it mattered to me—I didn’t care two cents.
Of course, there was the car. I’d paid $51,000 for it in 2008. The water would soon begin to come in. Saltwater. The car would start rocking from side to side. Oh my God.
The phone rang again. She had found someone. “He’ll be there in 20 minutes,” she said.
Another wave broke over the sand wall. It slid to within five feet of the car.
“No. Now. Right away.”
“He’s on his way. As we speak.”
“I haven’t got much time,” I shouted. My voice had gone high and squeaky.
“Just stay calm, sir.”
I need something else to do, I thought. To distract myself. I know, I’ll stick my AT&T thumb drive antenna into the laptop, get an internet signal and send my story into the office. So I did that. It took five minutes. Now what? Another wave had breached the sand wall. I called the tow service back.
“It’s me,” I said.
“They’re on the way sir. I told you.”
“It’s been 10 minutes.”
“I told you 20.”
And she hung up on me.
I thought—does my insurance cover this? I can’t imagine that it does. But maybe it does.
Ten more minutes went by. No truck. Then, at the 25-minute mark, there appeared at the back of the beach a pickup truck coming down from the sand road toward me. But halfway to me, it stopped. A door opened. A dog jumped out into the rain. Then, two men with cups of coffee and a 10 year old. This was not the tow company.
Nevertheless, I got out of my car and headed toward them waving my arms. And one of them, a man in a Yankee baseball cap, headed over toward me.
“I need HELP,” I said. He looked beyond me at my car. It was quite a sight.
We walked together back to it, leaving the others near his pickup.
“Hmmm,” he said. “You need a tow truck.”
“They’ll help you out.”
The man had a heavy accent.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Meadow Lane,” he said.
“No, before that.”
“Israel,” he said. “Say, this is nothing. They’ll get you out. I’m sure they’re on the way.”
Uh oh, I thought. My cellphone was in the ashtray. I had forgotten to take it with me.
“Uh, I have to get back in there,” I said. “Excuse me.” And I ran off.
“Anything we can do let me know,” the man from Israel shouted after me.
I climbed back into the car out of breath. There had been no call. I looked at my watch. It was 1:35 p.m. I called my wife.
“I’m not going to be able to make ‘Nazis in the Hamptons,’” I said. I told her what had happened. I told her I had called the tow truck. I told her Israelis were here. I told her the car was going to get taken off by the sea.
“Just think of something else,” my wife said. “Just calm down. It’s only a car. That’s all it is.”
“Okay,” I said.
The sea was breaking down the sand wall now. The Israelis were gone. There were now hailstones. And so, I just closed my eyes and decided to wait until the car began rocking.
I was startled awake. There was a florid looking man with a Mets baseball cap at my window. What is this with the baseball caps? Beyond this man were flashing lights. Thank God, I thought.
“Start up your car, and put it in neutral,” he said. “Then just look out at me and when I give you the signal, drop it into forward gear.”
He held up a heavy wire he had brought over from a winch on the front of his truck. There was a hook on the end. He wiped some hair off his forehead from below his cap. “Really lousy weather.” He found something to hook onto below my grill. Then he was gone, walking briskly back toward his tow truck.
Through the rainstorm about 100 yards beyond the tow truck, I saw a man standing in front of a black jeep waving his arms windmill fashion at the flashing lights. The guy in the Mets cap glanced up toward him. And then another wave came over the cliff and came right up to the Tahoe, where it stopped—with a foot to go.
Me first, I thought, then do him.
An hour later, I was home in my living room in front of the fire, just waking up from an hour’s sleep on the sofa. I thought about the day, and the extraordinary scrape I had just been in and I wondered if I had learned anything.
Couldn’t think of a thing.
That night, my wife brought me the program for “Nazis in the Hamptons.” And I played for her the video from the Dog Walk. You could barely hear any sound. I had not talked into the microphone properly. All my witty commentary had been for nothing.
And so, to bed. [/expand]