My New Year’s resolution is to keep alive the tradition of telling and retelling family stories.
Over the years I’ve noticed that retelling stories is common in Irish families and Italian families. The teller is allowed a 2 percent embellishment with each telling, and nobody interrupts the storyteller. My husband’s family wasn’t like that, and they would cut me off whenever I repeated a story. Those Dutch fools never realized that tales keep loved ones alive.
My grandfather, Ervin Flynn, told many stories of his father’s time volunteering for the Fire Island Life Saving Service. William Flynn and others would build signal fires along the beach on moonless nights so ships wouldn’t run aground. But when it happened, they would row out, 12 men in a dory (a dory has a bow on each end so they can row forwards or backwards without being turned around) that could hold 20, to rescue the crew.
On one terrible night during an ice storm, they rowed out to save a crew of about 30 men. The ship had run aground and the crew had tied themselves to the rigging, waiting for rescue. They had been out there for hours before they were even spotted. The rescuers carried small axes to free men from clothing that had frozen to the ship, or ropes that entangled them. On this night, William could not free a man’s hand that had frozen solid to a metal cleat. The storm was getting worse, they tried everything to pry his hand free, or chop the cleat free and take it with them. But the dory was being slammed all around and finally my poor great grandfather had to take off the sailor’s hand to free him. He never forgave himself, even though the sailor did and they became friends of a sort. I retell that story because it teaches my children the virtue of helping others and how some choices are very, very difficult to make.
William Flynn was a noted ship carpenter and had a real expertise for building spiral staircases. One summer, with his crew and my grandfather, then 13 years old as an apprentice, he got the job of repairing the spiral stairs inside Montauk Lighthouse. Pop told how the seagulls surrounded them at lunch and grew bold enough to land on you and make a grab for your sandwich. One day, during lunch, the crew heard a big crash and jumped up to check it out. When they got back, all of the food was gone, nothing but shredded bits of wax paper everywhere. All the gulls were staggering and flopping around on the sand. That’s because they had drunk all the coffee, which naturally contained an ounce or two of whiskey. This was before ibuprofen—whiskey had a legitimate purpose. My grandfather got the job of staying with the drunken flying thieves until they sobered up and could fly away. And you thought your job was tough.
My Uncle Bill Colson, an artist from Sayville, got polio while serving in Korea. The rehab hospital was on a hill and the guys had wheelchair races into the parking lot. One day, there was a miscalculation and one of the guys crashed into the General’s car, destroying the side panel and his wheelchair in the process. Since his wheelchair was wrecked, the others sort of carried him back to the building. As luck would have it, the General was exiting as they were coming in. He made a big fuss about helping the guy with the busted wheelchair. My uncle said, “We all busted out laughing—we knew he was going to come back in after he saw his car and kill the sonofabitch.”
And the moral of the story is that you can always add more to a story. Next time, I’m adding ten more wheelchairs.
All the best, Sally Flynn