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, December 20, 2008

Remembering Pete Kurachek

Editors note: As our readers know, October 12, 2008 saw the passing of "Uncle Pete" Kurachek, the Saltaire director of Recreation, 1954-1964, who left strong impressions on anyone growing up in the Village in those years. We asked people for comments, and got more than 10,000 words in reply. The stories below were already sent to the Kurachek family. Robin Wright starts from the beginning and Jim Connolly and Pam Thorp go from there. We will publish some more tributes in this space in the next few days. And of course, as always, your comments can be posted below.

From Tom Connolly:

In my lifetime I've spent 1,000 days in Saltaire. Of those, all but 100 had already passed by the time I reached age 21, and all but three had been expended before I reached age 45.

Three years ago, Jim, John and I flew to Utah and spent some time with "Little Pete" and his wife Mary at Pete's cabin in the mountains. It seemed as if we had said goodbye only a week earlier - rather than forty-plus years. Interestingly though, we spent most of our time talking about what we planned to do the next day, and very little time reminiscing.

Uncle Pete was not there, of course. He was elderly by then, and being cared for by Stephen and his family. I should have spoken with him then. It would have been so easy. But for some reason, I wasn't sure what to say. That feeling persists.

At his essence, Uncle Pete was a teacher. He taught us all Junior Lifesaving, taught us softball and basketball, and God help us - archery. In all that time, I cannot ever recall Uncle Pete telling me what to do. He must have of course - but I don't remember it. What I do remember was the twinkle in his eye when he explained my choices. After watching me field ground balls by dropping to one knee, he made the correction and observed, "Better to use your glove, than your face."
There were some things of course, that were deadly serious. All of us who spent time life guarding remember Uncle Pete coming up to us and asking, "How many people are in the water?" His warning that, "most drownings occur in two feet of water or less," has remained with me throughout my lifetime.

In a twist of irony, Uncle Pete was an authority figure, who shunned it. He taught but never lectured. He always prioritized. To this day I remember him saying, "The most important part of the double play is keeping the runner from taking third." I remember that, and I remember what he might have added - but elected not to.

Saltaire is a unique place, a place where children play rather than compete, a place where accomplishment takes a vacation, and expectations are nowhere to be found. From the moment one sets foot on the boat dock, the beauty of the sunset and the smell of the salt air transport residents and renters alike to "another place."
But unlike many on that endangered island, Uncle Pete knew our hearts, and took the time to touch our souls. Sometimes he did so euphemistically - "I think the boys are being swayed by her peaches and cream complexion.” Sometimes he did so with a look. But almost always, with a twinkle in his eye.

Tom Connolly
Jefferson, MA


Dear Uncle Pete—

I want to thank you so much for how well you taught me to swim. As recently as this past July in Tuscany, Italy, when I was doing laps of the sidestroke in the hotel pool, I still heard your voice in my head saying: "Take the fruit from the tree, put it in the other hand, and put it in the basket."

I was a pretty quiet and background-type swimming student. Even though I hated swimming through seaweed in the bay, I loved swimming and always attended my swimming lessons. I worked my way up the Red Cross swimming-test ranks. Then came my test for the big prize: certification for junior life saving. In order to get that prize, I would have to survive the really scary test: Jump off the dock and save Uncle Pete who would confidently try to drown me as if he were a panicked swimmer.

The stories about Uncle Pete's ferocity during the junior life-saving tests were legendary, and I was mighty anticipatory. The day of the test I watched several others go before me and then it was my turn. At the assigned moment, I took a deep breath and launched myself off the dock and began swimming warily toward a flailing Uncle Pete in the deep water. As I came within reach of his long, muscular arms, he grabbed me around the neck and pushed me under the water. In my innocent and instinctive effort to resurface, I kicked as hard as I could. And this struggling young girl kicking her 12-year-old legs to try to get above water quickly discovered that she had not kicked the water at all but rather that she had kicked Uncle Pete. Really hard. Right in the testicles. In that split-second, Uncle Pete stopped struggling and gasped in pain. Realizing what I had accidentally done, I seized my moment and pinned Uncle Pete in my toughest cross-chest carry and hauled him toward the shore for all I was worth. He barely moved but then recovered with ferocity. By that time I could touch ground and I just dragged this big man toward the shore.

Then the test was deemed over and we stood on the beach for the verdict, a dripping Uncle Pete and me. I guess I expected a tongue-lashing. Instead, Uncle Pete looked me right in the eye and said something like, "That was one smart move young lady. You pass." I was elated but also so embarrassed that I could barely utter a word of apology. Uncle Pete turned and limped back to the water to confront his next victim.

So, here 44 years later, I want to sincerely apologize to you Uncle Pete and assure you that I kicked you where I did purely by accident. I trust that you recovered and that I did not wound you for life. Thank you again for having run such a great summer day camp and swimming program. We are all better--and more athletic--people today for your involvement in our young lives.

With warmest regards,
Victoria/Vicki Baum Bjorklund
New York


Dear Kurachek Family,

I'm so sorry to hear about the passing of Uncle Pete. My sister, Patsy, had asked me to give a few remembrances - HOW CAN I FORGET THE WHISTLE!? It was ALWAYS there ready to rein in any wayward (wayward in multiple ways) kids. I don't think I've met a whistle since then, so his still rings in my ears. Perhaps that's why I've got a hearing loss. I remember he brought real sports to Saltaire. I mean real, real, real sports, not some casual fun, slightly competitive game. Didn't he start the gold vs. blue rivalry?

Oh, Uncle Pete sometimes scared me with the whistle ready to blast any mistake I made which was, as I recall, every few minutes. I'm sure it wasn't that frequently from my perspective now as a very wise and almost old adult, but it felt that way to me then when I was a very skinny 8 year old.

Uncle Pete was an iconic figure. He sure made an impression on all of us. I'm glad he lived so long and did so well. But that whistle. I expect now that if (and its a BIG if) I get to heaven I'll hear the whistle, turn around and see Uncle Pete smiling with that dang silver thing still in his mouth.

Sheila O’Shea Gibbens
Pena Blanca, N.M.

Robin Wright:

The year was 1954. My father, who was in charge of Parks and Recreation for Saltaire, hired Uncle Pete, and Pete in turn hired me as a counselor, Art Mol as head lifeguard, and Werner Ulricht, a German Exchange student from Fair Harbor, as assistant life guard.

The next summer, after Uncle Pete’s counseling, I became Art Mol’s Assistant lifeguard.

Pete Kurachek was a great football coach! I spent hours with him on the Saltaire field learning the hard way how to block and tackle. He liked to win.

Robin Wright
Woodside, CA

Jim Connolly remembers:

Thinking about Uncle Pete brings back a flood of memories far more vivid than last night’s dinner. Tom, John (Jayo) and I were enrolled in “class” the year Uncle Pete arrived. I remember the very first time I saw jim. He was putting down lime for the first and third base foul lines. It is as clear as yesterday.

It was also clear from the outset that he was in charge. He was Uncle Pete to us and Coach to his players in Pleasantville. I remember one time years later when I visited his family in Pleasantville and called him “Uncle Pete.” His players looked absolutely horrified.

I remember the Blue and Gold teams and the games we played all Summer long to see which team would win the most points at the end of the year. Somehow he always kept it close. And of course there was the coveted Cup which ensured good behavior. I think we should have a Cup for our grandchildren.

I remember swimming lessons at the Bay, particularly Junior Lifesaving. I never forgot what to do if a panic-stricken swimmer grabs hold of a would-be rescuer. Go down. They’ll let go. Then turn their hips, come up behind then, hit them with your forearm in the shoulder, grasp them by the chin and pull them back. I never worried about anyone else after “saving” Uncle Pete.

I remember when I was a Counselor and lost my high school ring in the Field. Uncle Pete had the entire class line up along the fence and walk to the other end. And they found it. I can’t remember what I did with it after that.

Peter Jr. got me into a lot of trouble. Just before a hurricane, maybe Hurricane Carol, Pete and I took our sailboat, the Wahoo, out for a sail. We were flying and got back safely. My mother let me hear about that. She also had some comments the night we sailed to Bay Shore and stayed over at Ronnie Swedborg’s. I imagine Uncle Pete heard about that too.

Then of course there were the Church bells and the hole for the Beach Taxi. Luckily we all took a vow of silence.

The most vivid memories were the softball games. Uncle Pete taught us how to play the game and we practiced all the time. First it was the Men against the Boys. After a while we beat them. And then we always beat them.

And we always beat Ocean Beach. They were twice our size but they never realized it was a team game. Mike Fitzgerald was our sometimes catcher. Ronnie Swedborg pitched - which really made a big difference. Jayo played third. Pete played short or caught. Tom played second and I was on first. Kenny O’Hare played left. Bobby McGinn played center. Bobby had a gun and threw it on a rope. And Carbery O’Shea played right. We had a very good umpire.

One day when we were killing Ocean Beach again, their pitcher Bill Dickie threw at me a couple of times and then whipped one in overhand. You called the game and then asked me quietly what I was going to do. I went after Bill and invited him to show me what he had. He thought about it for a second or two and decided to shake hands. I was really surprised at that because he was much bigger. But then I noticed that Jayo had brought along a bat. Good thinking, Jayo.

We had our share and more of fun in the sun at Saltaire notwithstanding the occasional mosquito and poison ivy patch. We always traveled in a pack that often included brothers and sisters. We knew early on that Steven was very bright. And May Lou was a sweetheart. And Michael was a daredevil. And Mrs. Kurachek was a great Mom. I was excited to see Pete Jr. start up his butter and egg business and compete with old man Severe, when he began rationing milk.

I apologize for running on a bit but it all seems like yesterday to me. Uncle Pete was such a strong influence on so many lives, not least my own.

Jim Connolly, aka James
Dover, MA

Pam Thorp:


I heard of the passing of Uncle Pete with great sadness. He played a major role in my childhood, and as is so common in childhood, something so valuable and dear is often taken for granted.

My memories of Uncle Pete are countless; here are just a few:
Uncle Pete teaching me to float by taking a leaf and floating it on the greeny-grey surface of the bay. “Everything that is living floats,” he told me. I can’t tell you how many times those words have re-played, and in all sorts of situations in life where I was afraid that I would ‘sink’.

I hated swimming lessons. I was a skinny little girl and would become shivering and blue-lipped quite quickly in the water. One day I was determined to avoid the dreaded lesson, and sat cross-legged and aloof on my towel fiddling with the sand. My mother could do nothing to coax or cajole me into that water. Uncle Pete assessed the situation and gently sat himself down on the sand next to me. I don’t know what he said or did, but I ended up digging up the bathing cap I had buried (the one I “forgot”), and braving the waters. Something in his voice, tough but very tender, got to me. I still hate swimming laps to this day but I’m one heck of a strong swimmer!

I loved looking at Uncle Pete. It wasn’t a crush thing he just inspired a feeling of well-being. The image of Uncle Pete in his red swim trunks, t-shirt, signature whistle, deep tan and zinc-white nose is indelible in my memory network as is the sound of his voice that always pushed me to do my best.

I will really miss you in the world Uncle Pete. I send my love, respect and appreciation out to you, wherever you may be at this time. I’ll bet you are floating out there somewhere, as any spirit so wonderfully alive could never, ever sink.

Sent with my most heartfelt condolences to the family of Uncle Pete: Peter, MaryLou, and Steven.

Pamela Thorp
New York City

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