By Alan S. Chartock | December 7, 2019

When I was a kid, my parents bought a shack on Fire Island. I was raised there until my teens ended. Then I spent a lot of time visiting my folks. Many of my friends to this day came from my time on Fire Island. In fact, much of what happened to me later in life can be traced back to those early days. My mother founded and directed the Ocean Beach Youth Group. Pretty impressive.

Of course, the Fire Island of today is hardly the beach I grew up in when the “daddy boat” that came in around six o’clock returned all the working stiffs to their families. I earned some pin money by “wagoning” — I would meet the boat and take people to their homes for anywhere between a quarter and a buck. I was small but I had some very prestigious clients, the most recognizable of whom was Marilyn Monroe who visited quite frequently. As it turns out, she came to visit the Strasberg family. Susan and Lee were among the most famous of that group. That was just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, most of the very famous literati and thespians moved on to other places like the Hamptons and, years later, to the Berkshires where I now live.

I did my tenth grade science project on the evolution and potential demise of the Island which started out as a spit (geography and geology, you know.) The point of all of this is that Fire Island played a very important part in my personal evolution. While my formative years there have long passed, what I did and learned there is basic to my character and personality. My colleagues on public radio have been known to groan every time I utter the worlds “Fire Island.”

As one might have predicted, Fire Island has had its problems. I remember living though hurricanes and fires that were incredibly dangerous, so close together were all the houses. Naturally, the place was a political hotbed. There were lefties and righties and in those in between. These blocks sometimes formed into cliques that often ended up holding lifetime grudges against one another, not unlike the Hatfields and McCoys.

Many of the kids of Fire Island grew up to be quite important and famous — college presidents, lots of professors, writers, and businesspeople but alas, the character of Fire Island changed. The Island (32 miles long) had various communities, one of which became quite famous for keeping “others” out. Another was comprised primarily of gays and lesbians.

As I predicated so many years ago in my science project, the Island is in grave danger. Each major storm brings with it real trouble. If Fire Island goes, the Great South Bay gets melded into the Atlantic Ocean. There are signs of real trouble along those lines so it is important to understand what Andrew Cuomo is doing to protect the Island. The Army Corps of Engineers did its best to rebuild the dunes by dredging sand from the bay side of the Island and depositing it on the ocean side, among other efforts.

Now Governor Cuomo has entered the picture by building artificial reefs made up of old bridges and ships and all kinds of other junk. Maybe that will work. I certainly hope so. On the other hand, we all know that people have challenged the rule of unintended consequences by dumping stuff in water for many years. The letters PCB come to mind. My question is whether we will eventually be sorry for these underwater junk piles. Surely lots of ships have sunk over the years. We don’t know about the resultant pollution but you never know. For his efforts, years from now Cuomo will either end up being recalled as a hero or maybe, something else.

Anyway, I do miss the old Fire Island.

Alan Chartock is professor emeritus at the State University of New York, publisher of the Legislative Gazette and president and CEO of the WAMC Northeast Public Radio Network. Readers can email him at [email protected].