Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction 2017 Winner: “The East End Rocks” by Thomas Fox

Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction 2017 Winner: “The East End Rocks” by Thomas Fox

After nearly 40 summers in Mattituck, my parents have finally paved the driveway.

Until now, we’d always parked on nothing more than spare pavers surrounded by pebbles. Thousands of pounds of pebbles, as I know deep in my bones. Despite living within walking distance of Peconic Bay, my dad would often schlep me, my sister, and our visiting friends to the Sound, where he would take advantage of the abundant free stones and child labor. We would go with empty buckets, enjoy a day at the beach, and return with our heavy-laden car hunkering low like a guilty puppy. Growing year by year, layer by layer, the driveway was solid and unassuming—just like the North Fork itself. 

Four decades ago, it felt like an unbounded place. We would turn off Route 105 onto the Main Road, passing through a succession of towns blurring into each other alongside a seemingly endless string of trees roughly pruned into doughnuts to accommodate wires, like a parade of arboreal “OK” gestures.

I’d measure the distance to our house through landmarks: The Snack Bar, with its retro neon sign, and then the Cider Mill. Cliff’s Elbow Room in Jamesport followed three minutes later by Cliff’s Elbow Too just off stage left in the hamlet of Laurel. The railroad overpass spray painted to announce HOOTERVILLE and, of course, Magic Fountain.

On our block, scrub trees suggested the borders of properties that otherwise spilled into each other, and the verge crept onto the curbless street. Sand dusted every crack and crevice, inside and out, like granular spackle. 

Our permanent address may have been in central Nassau, but the East End was home.

The North Fork my sons have enjoyed over the past decade reminds me of how I saw the South Fork at their ages: irrigated, manicured, neatly parceled into farmland and lively downtowns, old bungalows and tony cul-de-sacs, paddocks and chiropractors’ offices. It almost feels like I’ve witnessed evolution. Indeed, a large sign now stands where we used to turn onto the Main Road: “Welcome to Long Island Wine Country.” 

The beverage of note in my first summers in Mattituck was milk. My sister and I used to buy it at a refrigerated vending machine near the corner. It was the height of convenience, a brave new world.

Now my sons could buy half-soy lattes with as little effort if I let them.

Which, of course, I don’t, any more than my parents would have let a preteen me order a coffee. Some things don’t change. On the North Fork, such things include day lilies’ deep orange bursts and roadside chicory’s electric blue, both burning like fireworks all summer long, and the elusive glow of comb jellies in the bay at night. 

And things that do change out here remain linked to the past. You can hardly drive from one place to another without driving roads once marking the borders of colonial homesteads, or the even older Indian trails over which they were laid.

My parents remember the changing ownership of restaurants like biblical genealogies: O’Mally’s, heir to Ross’ North Fork—which had the most delicious oysters in garlic and Pernod—begat by Raymond’s Restaurant. Mom and Dad remember Sandy, Floyd, and Gloria less as hurricanes than as unruly guests who consumed all of our refrigerated goods and made a shambles of the outdoor furniture.

Not that my parents are backward-looking. After all, they just paved the driveway.

However strong my family’s love of the North Fork, our connection to the East End began two generations earlier on the South Fork. 

A few years ago I confirmed the family lore about my great grandmother by scouring the internet with the few details passed down to me: “Anna O’Grady” AND Southampton AND 1930 AND fire. The magic of the Boolean search found me a New York Times headline stacked like a Napoleon:

L.H. TYNG HOME BURNS; MAID DIES IN FLAMES
Financier, Wife and Three of Six Southampton Guests Hurt in Early Morning Fire.
HOSTS LEAP FROM A ROOF
Mr. and Mrs. Casey Green, Felled by Smoke, Saved—Mrs. W.A. Bartlett also in Hospital.

My great-grandmother had appeared in the Times!

Unfortunately, she was the maid.

Other contemporary articles confirmed the basic details. I tried to summon some righteous, almost Marxist indignation at the Tyngs and their cronies, about whom the Times account provides almost a cartoonish level of ammunition. For example, Mr. and Mrs. Tyng, they of the roof leaping, “were shaken and bruised in landing, and Mr. Tyng also wrenched his leg.” 

Not a wrenched leg! Poor Dr. Van Wagenen was not just shaken, but “badly shaken.” 

Oh, and a maid died in flames. 

Meanwhile, “State police were detailed to guard the smouldering ruins pending the possible salvaging of jewelry and silverware,” amid, as it were, my great-grandmother’s ashes. 

Nice.

But the fact is I never knew my great-grandmother, nor did my mother. My grandmother barely did; she had been squirreled away at a convent school when her mother died. My sympathy for Anna is not very much greater than for the poor, really quite rich Tyngs. Their house burned to the ground, killing their maid, injuring their friends, and forcing them to literally jump for their lives to escape the flames. That night must have haunted them for the rest of their lives—which wouldn’t be long for Mrs. Tyng. She died less than three years later.

I don’t begrudge them the silverware. 

Plus, if I’m honest, the combination of a “financier” and the Gilded Age setting makes me imagine Mr. Tyng in top hat and spats, recounting the fire to Andrew Mellon over a snifter of brandy: “Let’s just say it put the hot in my toddy, old chap. And the wrenched leg has made a dickens of my short game!”

The Tyngs moved on, continuing their philanthropic work and rebuilding “The Shallows” as the modernist masterpiece it is today. In their Houses of the Hamptons, Gary Lawrance and Anne Surchin describe the exterior as “a study in punctuated rectilinearity.” Five other maids survived, as did the Tyngs’ butler, John M. Finlay, who received a Carnegie Hero medal for bravely saving Mr. Green and attempting to rescue Anna.

My orphaned grandmother hopped among relations in Queens before marrying my policeman grandfather and starting a solidly blue collar life in an unnamed house in Nassau—setting the stage for my parents’ more whitely-collared life, which eventually included a summer house in Mattituck.

One that I’m now proud to say includes a paved driveway.

I’ll never know quite what life was like for Anna or the Tyngs. My family, like most, falls somewhere between their stations in life. Nor can I know what the East End will look like for my own great grandchildren, should I have them. But I imagine that she will still be rich in land and sea, a destination for families of all stripes, and—for those who love her across the generations—a neverending project.

It’s been a privilege to help carry her stones.

Dan's Literary Prize 2017 Winner for Non-Fiction Thomas Fox

Dan’s Literary Prize 2017 Winner for Non-Fiction Thomas Fox

“The The East End Rocks” by Thomas Fox won the Grand Prize in the 2017 Dan’s Papers Literary Prize for Nonfiction. Read all about the Gala Awards Ceremony at Guild Hall and Dan’s Literary Festival here.

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