Could everyone write one simple essay about something that once happened in Saltaire…that they saw or were a part of…and put it on one big website? Somebody should collect a lot of stories before we all forget. Otherwise it is like a line in “On The Beach” : The history of the war that now would never be written.” -(JO'H)

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Lord of the Fire Island Flies

by Denis O'Shea

In my day, part of the rite of passage for boys who had survived the ravages of Saltaire to reach the echelon of boys aged 10-14, was the treasured overnight to the Sunken Forest. I’m not certain in how many years this trip had been made before; I just know that when I first made the trip our group was not the first to do an overnight there. These photos were taken in early August 1963 as the gang that would make this voyage prepared to depart. I have no shots of our escapades on route or once there but these few serve to jog my memories and perhaps your own of what transpired.

Preflight briefing
(click photo to enlarge)

That’s Gen O’Shea, my mom, giving me a briefing on how to spot poisonous snakes and trip wires to Claymores on the forest floor. The Sunken Forest had a mysterious reputation, it was filled with bogs, skeletons, goblins (after dark) and word was that a “hermit” lived in the forest, a wicked little old man with a nasty temperament. The forest trails (there were no boardwalks in those days) were only to be trod in daylight and then only in groups for safety’s sake. We had heard of only a few who had made the trip and returned to tell their tales. Right behind my mother’s left had you’ll note a shed in the background pinned up next to that house (the O’Shea abode), where Billy Ervin kept his gas tanks and boating supplies. The first smell of a summer day in our house was a morning whiff of gasoline, I rather liked it actually.
Primal grimace
(click to enlarge)
Cathy MacAdam has just reminded me that monsters lurked in the Sunken Forest. I was doing my best to show her that I wasn’t scared.

Load em up
(click photo)

That’s Billy Ervin’s red skiff on the beach, Billy being the counselor of our troupe, provided the mode of transit to the forest. Uncle Pete in a white shirt is near the stern reviewing a military style checklist, me in front of him with the oilskin on and Alfie Lapp, wearing the ubiquitous green Lapp family T-shirt color (Mrs. Lapp used to dye them by the gross for her clan), is next to the hull. Lurking somewhere outside the gaze of Uncle Pete was Danny Weinlandt and (I seem to recall) Allen Aherne. Uncle Pete, you see, was not meant to make the trip. Instead Billy, the fine son of two of Saltaire’s leading citizens, Tom and Norma, was entrusted with our care. The plot thickens.

Capt'n Billy
(click photo)
We’re off. That’s Billy at the tiller of his trusty 18 HP Johnson Seahorse. I’m in the bow, Stevie MacManus is behind me on the starboard side, Robbie MacAdam on port and Alfie in the stern next to Billy. I’m not certain whose lap strake boat that is next to us. You’ll note the wind is out of the north northwest, a sign of clearing skies which paid off later that night but made the ride down rough once we got past the lee of West and East Islands. Billy was nice enough to slow the boat down at that point because I was getting beat up and about to get tossed out of the boat. Too bad Billy didn’t think of that himself later on.

After a wet ride we neared the Sunken Forest, we had a sense that it knew we were coming and it seemed a smirk spread across its broad face as we approached our fates. We gathered our gear and then began to trudge across the forest to the swale beyond the second dune where we would sleep. Being late afternoon there was no goblins out yet but there was plenty of talk of the hermit being just beyond the next bush. We survived our trek and gathered with the 15 – 20 boys who had the courage to come. Grabbed some grub, can’t remember if we had a fire or what we ate, and the evening settled into darkness. Then, to our surprise, Billy and his buddies announced that they had to go back to the boats to get something. “What, and leave us with that hermit out there,” we thought but we didn’t argue with them, they were teenagers, gods almost who could crush your spleen with one blow.

Our worry about the hermit kept us alert as we waited but Billy and crew did not return anytime soon. So we lay on our backs in our sleeping bags and then Mother Nature on that cool clear night put on a spectacular show. We had the luck to pick the night of the Perseids meteor shower. This is an annual event each August, usually around the 12th known sometimes for 30 + meteors per hour. Since that evening, the nights have never seemed as clear, there’s more haze in the sky and of course those awful sodium lights on the mainland that pollute the Saltaire sky view. But that night it was perfect and we watched with wonder as dozens and dozens of meteors streaked across the canvas of an ink black starry sky. I lost count at 60.

After several hours we began to hear strange shrieks from the forest like someone screaming. The hermit! He was on to us and we were defenseless. Then the screams turned to raucous laughter and we heard thrashing and cussing. No, it was not the hermit, it was Billy and his crew and they sounded like they were in a murderous mood. Something had happened or someone had crossed them. We pretended to sleep and hid in our bags hoping they wouldn’t trip over or crush us.

Years later while out on the bay fishing with Danny Weinlandt I found out what caused all the fuss that night. Billy, Dan and Alan had gone down to O.B. to Houser’s where the drinking age was about 15 (depending on your appearance) and they really tied one on. In the boat ride on the way back to the forest, with the wind still out of the north, a chop was bouncing them around. After one memorable wave, Danny turned around and Billy (who had been driving) was NOT IN THE BOAT!

He’d fallen out! At night! In the middle of the bay! With about 10 beers aboard! Somehow Dan and Allen (I think) located Billy and dragged him back into the boat and made their way back to their innocent charges. So it wasn’t hermits or goblins that made that overnight dangerous, it was the reckless, abandon of our youth. But fortunately they were lucky and when I heard the other side of this tale just a couple of years ago, it made that evening long ago that much more memorable.
(Originally posted 3 26 2008)


Anonymous said...

The pigs head on top of the stake -

What a terrible fate to befall poor Jimmy Daly(a/k/a The Chocolate Pig). Know we know why we never saw "CP" after the early 60's - he was eaten by the senior boys on an overnight trip to Sunken Forest.

Anonymous said...

In that JOH spends countless(billable hours??) on this blog perhaps in his research he can access Library of Congress files and rediscover a work of fiction written many years ago - "The Sunken Forest" I had a copy, but in the intervening 50 odd years it disappeared - it is not entirely dissimalar to Denis' tale - included in it are drawings of Eddie Lipinsky's freight boat - The Souvenir and other Frank Braynard type illustrations. I think it may have been written in the late 40's early 50's

JOH said...

Very good point. The book called "The Sunken Forest" was authored by a person named "Prud-Hommeaux."Printing late 1940's- early 1950's. See citation below. I read it in the 1950's.

Several people have written to me and said they are urging their children to read because we accurately retrieve old Saltaire memories.

I would highly recommend "The Sunken Forest" because, although it is juvenile fiction, the physical descriptions of Fair Harbor Sunken Forest, and a building in POW is quite historically accurate.

I haven't seen the book in 30 years, but I recall the opening scene: It is something like "Last Boat out" and it describes the kid protagonists watching as the last ferry boat in the fall pulls out of Fair Harbor. They and their parents will be isolated for the winter. (I guess the story ignores Eddie Lipinski). The book also describes the kids seeing something weird looking out a window of a POW House. They bicycled down through POW to get to Sunken Forest. (No, Beaver, they are not trying to go to Cherry Grove). Good, accurate details of Fire Island in the off season. The book is a good read for people intersted in FI history.

It was written from a perspective of kids. It described two structures that kids loved that really existed in Sunken Forest in those days: A big old tree house, which really existed in the middle of the Forest, and an abandoned old two story house that was sunken in sand up to the second story.

I have seen "The Sunken Forest" on E Bay, never going for more than about $25. of so. You could probably have an antiquarian book dealer such as Bernard Titowsky at Austin Book Shop track a copy down for you.

Here is one on line listing:
Junior Literary Guild & Viking, 1949, 1st. library binding; n. Juvenile hardback. Our highest grade on circulating library books is Very Good. These books have been chosen with care: without library signs their condition would range from VG to NF. Discounted multiple purchases with no additional media mail shipping. Secure packing, international shipping. Search abe Keyword: oldchildrensbooks. ABE Heritage seller, since 1996. CONDITION: Very Good without jacket; ex-lib, some marks.

Offered for US$ 8.00 by: Columbia Basin Books - Book number: 3470
See more books from our catalog: Oldchildrensbooks New York

Finally, in the Jamaica flagship branch of the Queens Borough Public Library there is a non circulating copy of "The Sunken Forest" in their "Long Island Room."

If anyone has a copy of the book, leave a comment below.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim, glad you did the research on "The Sunken Forest" My recollection was that it is was published around 1947.I last remember seeing my copy of the book in an Eathan Allen desk in my childhood bedroom. In that you are the "blogmeister" it would be a nice gesture on your part to BUY the book for we blog susbscribers. You state that it is "juvenile fiction" In that most of us have not advanced past the juvenile(or possibly the infantile) stage it should make for engrossing reading. It would be nice too if someone would volunteer to read the book to Cosmo as a bedtime story.

cosmo said...

I think it's about time that Beaver started posting his comments under his own name instead of hiding behind "Anonymous."

Anonymous said...

Cosmo -

Both my brother and I are "technically challenged" and therefore unable to master the marvels of the Internet age. Noel asks Jim to post his responses via e-mail - I, being a bit more technically savvy than Noel - post under anonymous.

More importantly though, we are attempting to find a companion to read you "The Sunken Forest bed time story. We tried Eliot Spitzer's source but the phone number had been disconnected.

JOH said...

Let me ask you this, COSMO: does Eliot Spitzer to take his socks off when he is with YOU?

Anonymous said...

Denis was right on the engine Anyone that can name the manufacturer of Billy Ervins boat gets 10 Saltaire38Blog points towards future contests.

Hint - it wasn't Ducati - who built Tom Cruise's new 1098RR Superbike

JOH said...

They're not in Hicksville anymore

Anonymous said...


Richardinhingham said...

Great story and comments. I don't remember Billy's boat manufacturer, but I do note that no one has claimed the prize. I see our Mercury in the background of one of the pictures, looking brand new--which she was in 1963.

Love this story! Who knew that Denis was such an excellent writer!

Steve said...

I remember this trip and I've bored my kids with stories about it every time we go outside to see a meteor shower. I've never experienced a night so clear and dark and full of shooting stars as that one - I'm glad to see that someone else recalls it as vividly as I do.

I heard all the yelling that night, but I always just figured it was the "adults" (Billy and company) trying to scare us by pretending to be the hermit. Nice to hear the rest of the story after all these years.

Notice we all had "ie" on the ends of our names than - Dennie, Alfie, Robbie, Stevie. The four of us hung around together a lot that summer.

If I recall correctly, we built a fire on the beach that night and may have had a visit from an inquisitive law officer, but I could be mixing up my events. I also seem to recall that even though we were well supplied with lots of food, we lacked a can opener and a spatula, making food preparation a bit of a chore.

It hardly seems necessary to say that nothing like this could happen today - no one would have let a bunch of kids, supervised only by slightly older kids, go off for a night of camping on the beach. I guess we live in a safer world now but the one we grew up in was a lot of fun!

Steve McManus

Steve McManus said...

Once again, the Perseids don't measure up to that amazing night, and once again, I recall that fun trip and return to read this entry. All the best, everyone, and good night! Maybe tomorrow night will be clear.