Everybody has a story about the first time they came out to the Hamptons. Here’s mine. The subtitle to this story is “Teenage Brains.”
This occurred four weeks before I came Out East for the first time. I was 16 years old and living in a nice suburban house in Millburn, New Jersey with my younger sister and my parents. This was a half-century ago. My mom was a housewife. My dad was the salesman manager for a national pharmaceutical company. We’d been living there in that house since I was six months old.
Back then, in New Jersey, you had to be 17 years old to get a driver’s license. This particular Saturday night, one of my friends, who was 17, had gotten permission to use his father’s car, a two-year-old Chevy sedan. So five of us headed out in it, four 16-year-olds and a 17-year-old, heading north with no destination in mind except to drive around and have a good time.
A half hour later, we were downtown in the wealthy suburban town of Montclair, New Jersey. Only one of us had been there before. It was nine at night. People were walking around on Main Street. As we were driving down the street, one of the three kids in the back—I was in the back—discovered that just behind his head, sitting on a little shelf by the back window, was a toy luger. It was full-size, black, an exact replica and made of plastic. It was probably a toy played with by the driver’s younger brother.
“Hey,” this kid said, waving it around so we all could see it. “Let’s shoot somebody.” He aimed it out the side window into the dark. “Bang,” he said.
“I got a better idea,” the kid in the passenger seat up front said, turning around. “Why don’t we do THIS? We’ll drive right to the center of town, to the four corners. We’ll pull over, you, Paul, get out, and we’ll drive around the block. When we come by the second time, we all leap out, wave the gun around, grab you and shove you into the trunk and drive off.”
“That’s a GREAT idea!” the driver said.
I, sitting in the back, thought it was a great idea too, although there was something not quite right about it that I couldn’t exactly figure out. So we drive to the four corners, Paul gets out, and we drive around the block and come around and there he is, walking along in the crowd, minding his own business. We pull over in front of him, all pile out of the car and, shouting at him, grab him. He’s fighting us off, but we’ve got the gun that we’re waving around, and after a brief struggle we drag him over to the car, open the truck, shove him in and close it with a slam.
Then we drive off. We were all laughing and laughing inside the car, and I recall we burned rubber as the driver hit the gas and we headed out into traffic.
Ha ha ha ha ha.
At three o’clock the next morning, I was fast asleep in my bedroom upstairs when we all heard our dog bark at a knocking at the front door. My dad threw on his robe and went down. I followed, but stopped, crouching down at the top of the stairs, where I could see who it was. It was two policemen.
“You got a son named Dan Rattiner living here?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” my dad said.
“We need for you and him to come with us down to the police station in Montclair.”
Half an hour later, I was standing with my dad in front of the elevated desk in the lobby of the station, where a very serious-looking police lieutenant sat. Other police officers were all around. There were four other dads. And there were four other kids.
“Did you realize what you DID?” the lieutenant asked, banging his fist on the desk. “You created panic. You could have been killed. Did you know that? Waving a plastic gun around like that? Do you understand that?”
It had taken six hours to get us all rounded up. A passerby had memorized the license plate as we sped off. He’d called the police. The police traced the license plate back to the dad. They’d visited the dad and got to the 17-year-old son. This was probably around midnight. It then had taken another two hours to organize a hunt for the rest of us in our homes in Millburn from the names given (freely, fearlessly, or after prodding or torture) by the lead perp.
We stood there shivering. Our dads, some in their pajamas with jackets over them, looked really angry. What was going to happen?
“I don’t ever want to see you teenagers again in Montclair,” the Lieutenant said. “Dads? Take them home. Inflict whatever punishment you deem appropriate. We’re done here. This ever happens again, there will be charges.”
The police drove my father and me back to the house. In the backseat where the criminals sit, my dad just glared at me. We said nothing the whole trip back. But arriving at our house at 4:30 a.m., with the first traces of dawn just beginning to outline the maple trees that are everywhere in that town, my dad thanked the officer, closed the door behind us and, holding me by the scruff of the neck marched me up the front walk to the front door.
But on that walk, his anger wore off completely. He was barely keeping himself from laughing as we entered the house to the accompaniment of our dog barking.
“Don’t do it again,” he said. By the next day, the whole school and indeed the whole town seemed to know what it was we’d done to get ourselves taken to the Montclair Police Station in the middle of the night.
Two days later, at breakfast after my dad left for work, my mother told me and my sister that the family was going to move to Montauk. Both my sister and I would be coming along, of course. Dad had bought a drugstore.
“It’s going to happen in about three weeks,” mom said. “Dad’s tired of traveling all around the country. He was up in New Bedford, Massachusetts last week and he stayed overnight at the home of his customer, who owns a pharmacy there. Early the next morning they went out into the bay in the man’s boat fishing. Dad said he liked it. He wanted to fish. He wants to be his own boss. He’s bought a drugstore.”
It was a big deal moving out to Montauk. I’d never been there before. There was my dad’s new store, White’s Drug Store. There was a nice house we were moving into. There were motels and a beach. I liked it a lot.
But in the back of my mind, I knew the real reason that my parents dragged us out of Millburn, New Jersey. It was what I had done, the shame it caused the family, and all the townspeople talking about it all the time.
A little birdie in the back of my teenage brain said no, that could not possibly be true. But another part of it said, oh yes, it is.