Otis Pike died last week. He was one of two men of our generation who had important landmarks named after them on the East End in their lifetime and who therefore lived to see the day and bask in its glory.
I sometimes imagined them, around 2000, sitting across from each other in a coffee shop somewhere, talking about their good fortune. They were two of a kind.
The other one was Francis Gabreski. Gabreski had the airport in Westhampton named after him in 1991. Here’s a little about Gabreski.
Francis Gabreski was a World War II flying ace. He, at one time during the war, shot down more German aircraft, 28 in all, than any other American pilot. Gabreski’s scores were against German Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs over France and Germany. His plane was a P-47 Thunderbolt. When the smoke cleared at the end of the war, however, three other American pilots had shot down more enemy planes, all fighting against the Japanese. During the Korean War, Gabreski rejoined the Air Force and shot down six Soviet MIGs over Korea to add to his total.
Gabreski was the son of Polish immigrants. He flew over France and Germany shooting down planes, and, in 1944, on what was to have been his last mission—he was a hero wanted at home to make speeches—he flew too close to the ground, clipped the propeller and was forced to make a crash landing in a field. He spent the rest of the war, a year, in a German prison camp.
After the war he became, briefly, the president of the Long Island Railroad. Otherwise he lived uneventfully in Dix Hills, until that day in 1991 when Suffolk County named the giant airport after him.
Otis Pike was the congressman from this district for nearly 20 years, from 1961 to 1979, and was so popular that he would have been elected for more terms if he hadn’t decided to retire (at age 58) to pursue a career as a syndicated newspaper columnist.
He was born and raised in Riverhead, was a U.S. Marine dive-bomber and night fighter pilot during the Second World War, and then after the war went to Princeton for his undergraduate work and then to Columbia Law School. He was admitted to the bar in 1949.
Pike was a Democratic congressman, the only Democratic high official in Suffolk County in those years. He once said he lived surrounded by water on three sides and by Republicans on the fourth. He was a handsome man, a smart man, and he was famous for wearing a bowtie at work every day.
Pike headed up the House Select Committee on Intelligence during the 1970s, and his committee produced a scathing report about American intelligence that was so critical, Congress voted that it never be made public unless the President could declare it free of classified information. (It was released anyway, by CBS News reporter Daniel Schorr, who leaked the report to The Village Voice). The report said that the FBI and the CIA were spying on regular American citizens and were run with so much inefficiency and waste that if an enemy was intending to attack America, they wouldn’t know about it until after it happened. As an example of waste, he held up a metal rod in Congress that cost $25 because it was built with “precision shafting,” quipping that taxpayers got what they paid for.
According to The New York Times, which wrote an obituary about his passing, he once famously made a speech in Congress denouncing a bill that would pay $14 million to various generals and admirals for “flight pay” who did nothing but sit on their butts, supervising the actual pilots. He made this speech while extending his arms as wings and running up and down the aisles in the House, trying to take off. The bill was defeated.
Around 1995, just a few years after Gabreski was honored with the Westhampton airport, Pike received the honor of having an inlet named after him.
Pike’s Inlet was 300 yards wide, halfway between the Shinnecock Inlet and the Moriches Inlet. It had been created when a jetty program had gone awry and the ocean was as a result able to rise up and cross the dunes and spill into the bay. It seemed to be a permanent inlet.
But it wasn’t. Four years after its creation, the Army Corps of Engineers came in and drove steel sheets into the bottom of the inlet and added hydraulic fill to bring the surface level 9 feet above sea level. And Pike’s Inlet disappeared forever.
Nevertheless, I can still imagine the two of them, perhaps sitting at the old Patio in Westhampton Beach in 2000, swapping stories over coffee and complimenting each other on their good fortune.
Otis G. Pike died last week in Florida at the age of 92. Francis Gabreski preceded him, passing on in 2002 in a hospital in Huntington, at the age of 83.