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, February 18, 2012

Duncan Dobie Writes About:

“Fire Island Magic”
A Writer’s Recollection of a
Childhood in 1950s Saltaire
by Duncan Dobie

click to enlarge images
The Dobie House of the 1950s
My first recollections of being in Saltaire go back to the late 1940s when I was around 3 years old. My grandparents owned a cottage on a corner lot just west of Broadway not far from the ocean. From the back deck where the family spent a lot of time, I remember being able to see the dunes off in the distance and hear the wondrous roar of the surf just beyond. That soothing sound was implanted in my brain at an early age and has been special to me all my life. It put me to sleep many a night. It was also special to my grandmother. If she couldn’t be right on the ocean, she had to be close.
Fire Island was in my grandmother’s blood at an early age. Being extremely strong willed, she and my grandfather eloped and were married in Lonelyville in 1915. They were both 20 years old at the time. Shortly after they were married, they chose Saltaire as the place where they wanted to put down permanent roots.
The original Dobie cottage was located at the northwest corner of Marine Walk and Lighthouse Promenade. Long-time Saltairian Frank Mina remembers a beautiful white fence bordering the lot and a very ornate garden. I wouldn’t describe it as ornate. From a three-year-old’s perspective, it was more like an impenetrable jungle where tigers and bears might be hiding and where harmless black snakes and hognose snakes were frequently seen.
As a toddler, I loved to follow my grandmother around as she watered her plants and tended to her flowers and vegetables. Gardening was one of her great passions in life. She always had several large, homemade bird feeders out in the back yard that constantly attracted a variety of local birds.

Catching the Saltaire Bug at an Early Age

When I was barely two weeks old in early 1947, my parents were transferred from their native Long Island to Augusta, Georgia. They usually made a pilgrimage to Long Island every summer and spent a few weeks with my grandparents in Saltaire. As a boy, I had the fortune to spend time in Saltaire before I could walk.
The Dobie cottage was very “homey.” It was decorated with dozens of antiques and family heirlooms. My most vivid memory of my grandparents’ cottage is still etched in my mind as if it were yesterday. Over the fireplace mantle (my grandparents wouldn’t have owned a beach house without a fireplace) hung a Confederate cavalry saber and a Sharps’ carbine that had belonged to a one of my grandfather’s ancestors, a Confederate cavalry officer from North Carolina.
Hanging on one wall was an original Confederate battle flag that had also belonged to our Civil War ancestor. My grandfather was very proud of his southern heritage and the fact that he was also related to Civil War General J.E.B. Stuart. By the time I was about three, I had an insatiable fixation on those Civil War treasures. Every time I visited my grandparents I would ask my grandfather if I could hold the carbine and the saber. Both were taller than me. My grandfather told me that they would someday be passed down to me. Just before my grandparents sold the cottage and moved to their new dream home in the dunes a few years later, someone broke into the cottage one winter and stole all three items.

Part II: The Dobies Build Their Dream House

Making the Dream a Reality
Around 1950, my grandparents acquired a building lot in the dunes overlooking the ocean east of the Saltaire water tower. The house that would be built there would become the center of my grandparents’ universe – and mine. During those magical summers from 1953 through 1959, For nine months I plied my way through grammar school in Georgia, counting the days until I could return to Saltaire to spend the whole summer with my grandparents.
The house that would soon rise out of the sand offered a commanding view of the village of Saltaire, Clam Cove and the Great South Bay. On clear days, you could see all the way north to the mainland. We had a spectacular view of the Ocean to the south. The pink dream house stood like an oasis in a desert; no other houses were within a quarter of a mile. That was just the way my grandparents wanted it.
The black Saltaire water tower stood just behind the dunes a hundred yards west. It was a well-known landmark to the Dobie clan. If you were leaving Bayshore on the ferry, it was one of the first things you could see in Saltaire. When you arrived at the dock, knowing our house was next to the water tower seemed like an old friend was welcoming us home.
Both my grandparents shared a reverence for the beach, the ocean, and the pounding surf. My grandmother often told me that surf could be your best friend. But it could also be very unforgiving. My grandparents well knew that it could take their dream home in the blink of an eye. The natural wear and tear caused by the surf, sand and wind was also something to reckon with, not to mention the damage that a sudden storm could inflict. But their lives would have never been complete had they not taken the risk to build their dream house in that place, at that time, and they were fully prepared to face whatever risks might lay ahead.
The original cottage in the village was sold to two young men from New York whose last names were Adams and Parker. Robert Feustel remembers them living in my grandparents’ old house during the 1950s and being well liked in the community. I have no memory of them. Tragically, they were both killed in an apartment fire in New York City a number of years later.

A Pink Castle in the Dunes
For most of us, those experiences in life that we can truly look back on and call “sublime” are few and far between. They may only occur once or twice during the course of a lifetime. Or they may never occur at all. The only word I can think of to describe that amazing lot and the dream house that eventually grew out of those enchanting dunes is “sublime.” You had to be there in the 1950s to understand this, but living in a house built on that particular stretch of sand in that place and time was an awe-inspiring and spiritual experience. From the lot to the house to the way the house was furnished, the Dobie “castle” was something special. My grandparents designed every aspect of their dream house themselves and they did a superb job in every phase of the planning and construction.
Somewhat contemporary in style, the house was probably ahead of its time for the early 1950s. Being angled into the dunes gave it a very natural look, as if it had always been a part of the landscape. And despite its color, pink, my grandmother’s favorite color, it blended in with its natural surroundings well.
If you’ve ever been to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home on the Potomac River, and if you’ve ever experienced the incredible river view of the river from that house, you’ll know what I mean by “sublime.” Mt. Vernon offers a view of the Potomac River that is truly breathtaking, and George Washington was greatly impacted throughout his life by living there. He lived there as a very young boy, moved away and went back as an adult and rebuilt his old home because the location with its spectacular view had always been so awe-inspiring for him.
The Dobie house was nowhere close to the magnitude of Mt. Vernon. Nor did it compare in size or cost with some of the two-story, bay-front homes in Saltaire. Nonetheless, it was a castle to a young boy from rural Georgia like me. There was no better place on earth for a boy my age to call home during those endless summers between 1952 and 1959.
Construction began in the autumn of 1951. By the summer of 1952, the basic shell of the house was pretty well completed. Coming from rugged Scottish stock, my grandfather, Duncan A. Dobie Jr., was a skilled carpenter and handyman and he did much of the exterior and interior finish work himself – most of the paneling and trim, all of the painting and all of the flooring and tile work on the inside. He also built all of the outside porches, steps and walkways.
Much of the lumber used for the outside decking and walkways was found on the beach. He started with a large railed deck in the front of the house facing the ocean where the family spent a great deal of time. Eventually he added a railed walkway that went all the way around the house on both sides and connected to the back porch.
His carpentry skills were equal in every respect to the gardening skills possessed by my grandmother, and every project he worked on was a labor of love. He never cut corners and he was a perfectionist about the finished product. Throughout the 1950s, he continued to make improvements both inside and outside the house every year. He always used the best materials available and made sure that any building project was done the right way so that it would last. He was very proud of the work he did on his dream house.
The House That Grandpa Built
The constant assault on the house by the elements, mainly the wind, the salt air, and the harsh summer sun, snow, ice, and the cold winter winds, could reduce a new coat of paint to bare wood or a metal fixture to rust. Grandpa was constantly rebuilding decks and porches, replacing rusted-out metal components and making other repairs.
I vividly remember the excitement that my grandmother felt as the house was being constructed. During the off season Grandma sent my family a steady progression of photos to keep us abreast of the progress being made. I was only four or five years old at the time but I was well aware of the excitement that the new house had created.
During my first full summer in the new house at Saltaire in 1953, Grandpa was constantly at work doing odd jobs like laying linoleum tile or painting or building outside decks and boardwalks around the house. I spent a lot of time watching him work, holding certain tools for him and trying to help out.
When a job was completed, he would address my grandmother with a big grin and say, “Mommy, look at what little Dunc and I have just done.” In truth, I was always in his way but he never complained. He made me feel like I was an important part of every project.
By Saltaire standards (especially today’s standards), the house was very modest beach house. But to my grandparents, this house in the dunes was a lifelong, dream come true. Over the years, my grandmother told me many times how grateful she was and how blessed she felt to live in such a house. She thanked God every day for giving her the privilege of living in Saltaire. To a boy like me, the house was definitely the finest house in all of Saltaire! A larger-than-life castle in the dunes! There were more expensive homes in the village, but none quite as unique as the well known and much-talked-about pink Dobie house in the dunes!
As you ascended the long, hand-made wooden walkway up Pennant Walk from Ocean Walk toward the house, the roar of the surf got louder and louder. The back of the house peered down at you like an old friend beckoning you home after an extended absence. Most of the rooms were finished with plywood paneling. My bedroom faced the ocean, and I have fond memories of lying in bed many a night and listening to the soothing sound of the surf while watching for the beam of light from the lighthouse as it came through the window and across the ceiling at regular intervals all night long. That light never let me down.
Fire Island’s historic, one-of-a-kind lighthouse boasted just two bands of white and black – a white band at the base, then black, another band of white and finally a black band at the top. I always thought of it as a huge chess figure, a black and white bishop, standing guard in the dunes and protecting everything within its long reach.
The beckoning beam of light came through my bedroom window every 8 1/2 seconds. To a bone-tired, sunburned kid who smelled like fish and was usually covered in poison ivy, no better sleep-inducer ever existed than the roaring of the surf and the reassuring beacon from the lighthouse. Like so many other things on that magical island, it was a spiritual experience.
Home Sweet Home
The family room had a large brick fireplace against one wall and a large picture window that looked out over the deck to the dunes and the ocean. The walls were covered with oil paintings done by my grandmother of Disney characters, animals and presidents. Directly behind the fireplace was a large walk-in pantry closet. The family room led into a small breakfast room/eating area next to the pantry with large windows that afforded a fantastic view of the cove and the bay and the village below. The breakfast room led into my grandmother’s kitchen and it, too, had large windows that faced the cove and the bay.
Even during the middle of the summer we frequently used the fireplace on cold and rainy days and my grandfather loved to cook streaks over the open flames on weekends. I can still remember the sizzling meat and the unforgettable taste of those char-broiled steaks. He also had a popcorn cooker and he frequently popped popcorn over an open flame. We burned wood from an ever-abundant supply of scrap lumber and driftwood found on the beach. (Good lumber was always saved and used for some express building purpose such as the various walkways and only scrap lumber was burned in the fireplace.)
Thanks to the spirit and happiness that my grandparents soaked into it every day of their lives, that house had a heart and soul. It breathed life as surely as a living entity. From the large picture window that always offered a magnificent view of the ocean and from which we observed the tides, the weather and the abundant shore life all around us, to the beloved white-painted brick fireplace, to the brass ship’s clock that chimed a series of bells—two bells was one o’clock, four bells was two o’clock and so one in four-hour increments– to the colorful wool afghans that my grandmother made on the sprawling couch that I could wrap up in with a good book when a summer gale was blowing a few feet away outside on the front deck, to the poison ivy that I was forever doing battle with and on which my grandmother always put her special concoction of some mysterious potion that would make it dry up and stop itching – I was truly living in the land of Oz!
Our house in the dunes reminds me of a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “I don’t need a fancy chair; I just need a good chair to sit in.” And so it was with the beach house and my grandparents’ lifestyle: nothing fancy, but something so special and so ingrained with their personalities that it became much more than a simple beach house.
Beach life was very basic, and most of my toys were on the beach. My Saltaire summer wardrobe consisted of a pair of tennis shoes or sneakers, several bathing suits and eight or ten T-shirts. I seldom dressed up unless I was going to church with my grandmother in which case I’d wear a nice pair of slacks and a short-sleeved dress shirt. If I needed anything during the summer like a new bathing suit, we’d usually order it from one of the New York department stores out of a catalog. Knowing something was coming in the mail and checking at the post office in the village every day was a big event!
Occasionally I’d need a new fishing pole or some tackle to replace something that was broken or worn out and my grandfather was great about buying good quality gear. My list of store-bought summer gear included a baseball glove, a bat and a ball, a mask and a snorkel and flippers, and fishing tackle. That was all I needed. My grandparents provided me with a bike, and other than a few toy soldiers that I brought from home and played with in the dunes and on the beach, that pretty well summed up my small arsenal of belongings. I never wanted for anything else. I was the richest boy in the world!
Like today, most Saltaire residents kept wagons with their family names on them on the dock. Our large wooden wagon was painted bright pink to match the house. Since Grandpa routinely came in on the Friday afternoon “daddy boat” and left on Sunday afternoon to go to work in New York City, the well-known and slightly over-sized pink “Dobie” wagon saw considerable use.
Today my grandparents “dream” house is a distant dream. After many years of salt, wind and weather, I’m sure it was beginning to show the effects of age. When they retired and moved to Florida in 1960, my grandparents sold the house to well-known CBS News correspondent Charles Collingwood. It was fitting that such a unique person bought such a unique house.
Collingwood was definitely from that old school of TV pioneers. He landed on Omaha Beach in1944 with the first wave of Marines and accompanied them all the way to Berlin. Years later in 1962, Collinwood famously caused Robert Moses to stalk out of a meeting when Collingwood compared Moses’ plan to pave over Fire Island to Hitler’s march through the Rhineland.
I only hope that Collingwood and his family had as many good times in that house as the Dobie clan did during their seasons in the sun. Collingwood died in 1985.
Liz Claiborne bought the original Dobie property from the Collingwood estate in 1985. I am told that our house was torn down to make way for a much larger and more modern structure. Claiborne also bought a lot of property from the dunes where my grandparents’ house once stood all the way down to Lighthouse Promenade.
Liz Claiborne also donated quite a bit of money toward the restoration of Fire Island Light. My grandmother and I walked to and from the lighthouse nearly every morning on the beach, and we lived by its beam at night. I sure hope that members of the Claiborne family witnessed and cherished that endless beam of light in the darkness at night just as I had done many decades earlier as a boy. I like to think that those magical light beams that made their way into my bedroom at night had something to do with sparking Liz Claiborne’s interest in preserving such a historic landmark.

Part III: Was it All Just A Dream?

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep- while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?
--Edgar Allan Poe

Even though the old pink house and the water tower standing like a silent sentinel nearby, are gone forever, and even though it seems like my Fire Island days were some sort of hazy dream that might not have really happened at all, I still have those precious memories tucked away. I keep a few old photos to look at from time to time as a constant reminder that it really did happen. I guess it’s just as well. A good writer friend in Florida, Sid Morgan, who has written a book about growing up poor on a farm in southern Illinois, wrote a passage in his book that struck a real chord with me. “We all come from the soil,” he said. “We gain wisdom and then we go back to the soil.”
I like to think that the old house and everything it stood for went back to the soil, or in this case, back to the timeless sands of Saltaire. Sid also tempered his statement with an interesting question. “What happens to all of that wisdom that we as people have gained throughout the course of our lifetimes? Does it go back into the soil as well, only to be redistributed out again to a newer generation like a new crop of corn?” God I hope so. I hope that some eight year old boy with a big grin on his face is throwing a ball with six or seven of his best friends on Saltaire’s athletic field every summer, or walking on the beach under the glorious Saltaire sun with his grandmother like I did.
I like to think that such an important birthright is carried out by the direction of the Man upstairs. What a shame it would be if all of that glorious wisdom shared by all the good people – my precious grandparents; my boyhood friends at Saltaire; the legendary Captain Al Skinner who ferried the Fire Islander for so many years; everybody’s “Uncle Pete,” the great athletic director – and all of the old-time villagers down through the ages, what a shame if all that were lost forever.
I have to believe that it has to be redistributed, like a never ending source of energy, like the “Force” in Stars Wars. I have to believe that it is recaptured in each new generation. I have to believe that is the real beauty of human existence. Otherwise, there would be no reason to live on this earth. Lord only knows: all of that special wisdom that my grandparents and my best friends’ grandparents and parents brought to the world in Saltaire during the 1950s and shared with others desperately needs to be utilized and redistributed today. Just as Grandma used to say: “All good things must come to an end, but there will always be more good days ahead!”
My boyhood days at Saltaire ended over a half a century ago, but the impact of those glorious days living in the house that Grandpa and Grandma built will endure and continue to kindle the flame that keeps the spirit alive long after I am gone.
--Duncan Dobie
February, 2012

Middle Pic: Ruth Dobie, Saltaire's First Historian
The Author with father, @1957. The Father died when the son was 15.


Loving Long Island said...

Wow! What a great story. Sorry your dad passed away when you were so young...

Jeff Weinlandt said...

Great story...great time in our lives...Jeff Weinlandt