TENTING TONIGHT ON THE OLD CAMP GROUNDS; OR, VISITING THE HERMITAGE
by Hugh O'Brien
One thing every generation hates is being told by the older generation that they (the olders) had much more fun as kids than the current batch. We hated hearing it growing up. The younger group hates hearing it from us. Well, all I can say is, get used to it, because when it comes to adventures around Fire Island, things really were more fun back in the Stone Age than today — if only because we didn’t have all the regulations, all the distractions, which, along with global terrorism and higher ferry fares, plague the world today.
For many years, into the mid-60s, the day camp (“group” as many of us knew it then) would organize overnight camping trips to different spots around the island, for kids as young as 9 and 10, not just teens. (Kids attended camp in those days until they were about 17 or so, and only then became counselors; unlike today, when you have ten-year-old counselors taking care of the 12-year-olds.) Parents were definitely more blasé back then; it was like, okay, I’ll entrust my 9-year-old to be driven down in an open speedboat, gotten ashore, fed and kept safe by some wild teenagers I caught drinking and smoking on my back deck last night. Trips like this were run every summer, year in and year out, sometimes twice a season, and nary a camper was lost, stolen or molested. Which doesn’t mean the trips were uneventful.
It was in 1962 that my group, the 9s and 10s, got to make their first overnight camping voyage. (Uncle Pete drew the line at letting four-year-olds go.) Now the usual, and best, place to go was, of course, Sunken Forest. Those of you who never saw the Forest before 1966 cannot possibly imagine how cool this place was before the National Park Service came in to “preserve” it. There were no boardwalks, no nature trails, no restrooms or picnic tables, no signs describing the delicate flora you were trampling into extinction...nothing but a pristine, deep and dark underworld of below-sea-level growth, rough sand trials that sometimes led...nowhere, and the ubiquitous but somehow never quite seen bushbabies, the little furry creatures that were supposed to spring out of the shrubbery as you clumped along exploring the Forest’s hidden mysteries, scuttle across your feet, then vanish before you even realized what had happened, although you’d been warned you’d test positive for rabies after even a brief encounter with this Forest denizen.
Anyway, down we went, several groups of kids, my guess would be about 30 in all, relayed in the various motorboats requisitioned for the task, to be off-loaded along some desolate spot on the bay, a couple of feet from shore, no dock to aid our landing, just jump overboard, wade in, and hack your way through the growth till you emerged onto the open dune area bordering the southern part of the Forest, whither we would camp. And oh yes, all the usual promises from the boats’ pilots (who could not moor overnight) that “of course” they would return for us in the morning, of course we would never be forced to walk the four miles back to Saltaire, unless it’s a late night at the Inn and we’re all sleeping it off.... Well, ahem, we all understood the risks, even then.
Now one of the things we all knew about Fire Island in those days was that it was a haven for all manner of society’s rebels. Baymen lured unsuspecting winter boaters to their doom along the island’s frozen shores; school bus drivers ate cats for dinner every night; ax murderers routinely found employment as superintendents at the Lighthouse; and the remoter parts of the island were peopled by isolated gaggles of hermits. Disappointingly, perhaps, the Sunken Forest was, as we’d grown up hearing, home merely to one of the latter. But it must be said that he was not on our minds as we landed, set up our sleeping bags, lit campfires (something else they no longer permit us to do, the fiends), and prepared for the long night ahead.
I pause to note here that for the life of me I cannot remember exactly who my counselors — or at least the guys along on this trip — were. I can come up with some suspects but 46 years later Heaven forbid that I actually name one of them and wind up in a libel suit (to complement all the other suits on my plate) because Jeff or John or Mike or Jayo or whoever gets mad and says it wasn’t him. So I’ll leave it to the slightly older old hands who might recall such things to, in the words of Criswell, “punish the guilty and reward the innocent” and name names. The HUAC, not the Hugh, route. Suffice to say that there were, if I recall, three counselors left behind to mind us, plus a fourth who was visiting for a while but left late to go home.
So there we were, 30 or so of us, as the night grew deeper, the stars shone brightly in a cloudless black sky, the fires died out and we settled down to our sleeping bags. But the counselors, taking seriously their charge to watch over us, made sure to inform, and gently warn, us about the Sunken Forest hermit. We were told, firmly but calmly, that the hermit did indeed make his hut somewhere near to our camp, just below the dune sloping into some untrodden part of the Forest, that he had undoubtedly seen the fires flickering in the distance during the evening, and that he would most likely walk up to our campsite once the fires were out and the talking had stopped. We were told we should think of ourselves as his guests in a sense, that we were intruding upon his privacy, that he didn’t want anything from us and wouldn’t bother us, and that, if he did indeed come to look us over, we should just ignore him and let him leave in peace.
The counselor then withdrew to the counselors’ private corner, around a small sand bluff, while we snuggled into our bags. Terry Cunningham was next to me; I think Morgan Bentley was nearby also, and I’ll leave it to the others I remember to comment on their presence and recollections. We all briefly discussed the situation; we took the counselor’s admonition very seriously, with concerns about the hermit’s plight uppermost in our minds, and soon quieted down to sleep. We were in a wide open area, a sort of mini-valley ringed by dunes and smaller bluffs. The silence was absolute; the talking and whispering had ceased; only the muffled sounds of the waves breaking on the beach were heard amidst the isolated stillness of the night.
Suddenly, something made me look up. There, across the field of populated sleeping bags, dimly framed against the backdrop of the Forest, was a solitary figure, a long white shroud draped from his head down past his waist, standing stock still as he took in the sight of all these intruders upon his domain. “Terry!” I exclaimed in a desperate stage-gasp, hitting Terry on the arm (or maybe it was his head). “Terry! It’s the hermit!” Terry looked up and, good Catholic boy that he was, said “Oh my God!” (hey, that was pretty bad in those days), and just then sections of other kids strewn about the area awoke and gasped and shouted. One kid, I didn’t know for certain who it was even then, who lay nearest the hermit, slept through most of the tumult until finally jostled into consciousness by a neighbor — at which point he attempted unsuccessfully to run for safety in his sleeping bag — no mean feat for bagged-up feet. And as shock and surprise swept through the farthest reaches of the camp, the hermit slowly turned and, calmly and deliberately, walked back through a small gap in the brush into his lair, all of us too stunned and frightened to do more than react — and call the counselors for help.
Well, quickly enough, one of them responded, running back up from the left of where the hermit had retired into the Forest, asking what was going on. Upon being met by a chorus of kids yelling, “It’s the hermit! He was here!”, we were reprimanded quite sternly for our behavior by the counselor. “I told you he probably saw the fires and would come up for a look,” he said crossly. “You should just keep quiet leave him alone.” After a few further, muttered, most un-Catholic phrases, we were left with the reproof, “Now go to sleep!” as he departed to rejoin his fellow superiors. But we knew he’d been right to be mad at us. “Yeah, we should have just left him alone,” someone said. “He was only up here to see what was going on,” said another. “Poor old guy! I feel sorry for him!” was the most agreed-upon sentiment in the aftermath. And so, suitably chastised by both our counselors and our consciences, we settled back into our sleeping bags for a subdued night’s sleep.
Until, maybe ten minutes later, those of us on the distant fringes of the group heard another commotion, louder than the first, and plainly more aggressive in its tone. Terry and I and the others looked up to see the hermit, once again gazing out over us from the same spot; but this time, a few of the bolder, braver, and decidedly less gullible among the older kids rose up from their bags and gave chase, even as the hermit turned, rather more rapidly than before, and attempted to stalk off before he could be caught. Too late — the first gang of kids was upon him in moments, charging him, grabbing him, tearing off his shroud and finding...the counselor who’d supposedly left earlier in the evening. (And this is where the perils of a failed memory are most annoying — I can’t recall which of this evil quadrumvirate of counselors was chosen to act the part of “the hermit”.) But he was damn good at it, exposed only by his inability to exit the stage at the top of his game, instead of attempting a repeat performance.
One other neat thing about the camping trips to SF was that they could only ferry you back in batches — there were never enough boats, or volunteers, for everyone to be picked up at once. So some of us got to spend an extra hour or two in the place next morning, and, best of all — unsupervised!!! Sure, what trouble could a bunch of ten-year-olds get into all alone, armed with nothing but lots of leftover tinned food and several packs of matches? Campfire Two: The Sequel. The more adventuresome among us (i.e., everyone) set up another fire, this time on the beach, and after shoving in enough wood to ignite the sand, began the arduous process of determining which canned goods would be disposed of in the flames — unopened, of course. Call it a breakfast grenade. A food would be selected, the can tossed into the fire, and a dozen or more kids would be seen scurrying for the shelter of hastily improvised shell-holes nearby. We dove behind the plowed-up sand barriers, waiting...waiting for the slow heating of the contents, the growing pressure as they reached the boiling point, the straining of the metal can as it fought a losing battle to contain its contents...until...the explosion! Baked beans? Blooey! Beef stew? Blaat! An inspiring sight. Pressure-cooked delicacies hurtling upward into the skies, arcing over the beaches in their orange, red or brown glory. This was the beginning of the space age, you know, and we were all enthralled by the notion of sending man-made objects into the heavens, if only for a short moment. It was great — no counselors trying to act like adults, no adults trying to act like counselors, no one to remind you of starving Africans who would have loved that cream of celery soup, no Park Service or police to tell you to quit it, douse that fire, wait’ll we haul you before your parents in handcuffs. Another lost childhood activity you can’t do anymore, what with so many “rules” and “regulations” and “patrols” and people worrying about “child safety” and “setting fire” to “houses” and “dune grass”. (I’ve been inspired by McCain’s use of air-quotes.) Though I still like to hope that sometime, some day-tripper to Sailor’s Haven, out digging up the beach with his kids, will strike an object with his plastic shovel and think he’s stumbled upon a lost ravioli mine.
There were many such adventures down at the Forest, but alas, it all came to a sudden, shocking end late one afternoon in the summer of 1966, when the usual horde of us whizzed down the bay our donated open speedboats for another camping trip. Charlie Lapp Jr. was our counselor then, that I remember. We anchored at the usual spot along the coast, and several of us immediately saw an unexpected and disturbing object on shore: a boardwalk. Huh? We began unloading the boats and landing our supplies when out of the trees what should arrive but a sightseeing tour led by a uniformed — and, I might add, uninformed — Park Ranger. He halted his group of turistas and officiously, and very nastily, demanded of Charlie who we were and what we were doing there. Poor Charlie tried to explain about the camp-out, but the young (and therefore all the more officious) ranger cut him off, reciting specific regulations — by number — that we were either violating, or needed to obey before we could hope to disembark on what was now Federally-managed land. The stranglehold of Fire Island by the NPS, begun after the National Seashore Act of 1964, had reached its grasping tentacles into Sunken Forest and eviscerated its naturalness — its sunkenforestness — the very thing FINS was supposed to nurture and protect. (Oh, you mean there are other examples?)
Crestfallen, and really yelled at by a full-of-himself, arrogant guy who, for someone wearing a green and gray ensemble, shouldn’t criticize anybody anywhere about anything, we re-loaded the boats and made our way back home — at a much slower pace, all of us understanding right then that the world had just changed, a lot and forever, and that we were to be the last people ever to know and enjoy the bliss of such overnight campouts in the eeriest, neatest place on Fire Island. Only our parents, who had planned an evening without us, were more upset at our sudden reappearance.
Our sleeping bags were never used again. Soon, the NPS and Suffolk County had rounded up all the murderers and hermits and one-eyed cat-eating locals and shipped them off to the mainland, where they mostly ended up on the Islip Town Council. Untold generations of mystery and lore, gathered and preserved through the ages, were brought to an abrupt and premature close. And the simple joys of spending one night living next to nature, an isolated group huddled under the stars, beset, like primitive man, on all sides by unknowable dangers lurking in the dark, were gone. Gone — like a puff of smoke...or a flaming can of fire-launched chili.