By Annette Hinkle
Once August hits and summer traffic reaches critical mass on the East End, it can be difficult to recall the pastoral pleasures this area once evoked.
We’re talking about quiet streets in the early twilight hours when the only sounds came from crickets, parents in the kitchen doing dishes (by hand) and the laughter of neighborhood kids catching lightning bugs, playing flashlight tag or, if they were a little older and savvier, stealing kisses in the woods.
But Geoff Gehman remembers those days well. He was a year-round kid out here during those crucial kid ages of 8 to 13 and for him, those six years on Whitney Lane in Wainscott may have been short, but they were magical.
We all have times that stay special throughout our lives. For Gehman, it was 1967 to 1972 which were the “wonder years” in so many ways. An era of great change, transformative experiences and the first taste of freedom — all these years later, it has remained a time firmly entrenched as his life’s defining experience. So much so that Gehman was inspired to write “The Kingdom of the Kid” a memoir looking back at what it was like to grow up in the “long lost Hamptons.”
Anyone who’s been in the area for a decent amount of time will appreciate Gehman’s book which is chock full of detailed reminiscences about life on the East End and revisits some of the storied locations and institutions (mostly long gone) that were an integral part of life in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Here are memories and stories not only about extinct icons like the Bridgehampton Race Circuit, the Hamptons Drive-In and the Long Island Automotive Museum, but also intimate tales of a perfect childhood spent exploring woods, beaches and quiet lanes where kids ruled — and there was always someone to hang out with (and get into a little trouble with).
Gehman also spent a great deal of time in Sag Harbor during his youth. An avid whale nut from the age of 8, he was particularly fascinated by the Whaling Museum.
“What was special about Sag Harbor then is that it wasn’t special,” explains Gehman. “It was a real regular town. It wasn’t crowded at all. Long Beach was a safe place and you could go to Paradise for breakfast and see lots of salty guys.”
Gehman, who lives in eastern Pennsylvania now, notes his recollections, as intricate as they are, are just that — he kept no journals or diaries to use as source material for his book, but was able to recall with clarity the details of life back then simply because it left such a big impression.
“When you were a kid out there at the time, you had total freedom to go anywhere,” he says. “It was a much slower pace of life. On your bike or walking you noticed everything. The landscape is so clear out there. The wide open panorama improved the vision and powers of concentration.”
There was also a certain neighbor-to-neighbor way of socializing that doesn’t exist much out here anymore. But it did in this place at that time. Regardless of income level, simple pleasures trumped massive lifestyles, even in oceanfront communities like Wainscott where Gehman and his family were welcome visitors to the Georgica Association, then a collection of residents who, despite great wealth, preferred to espouse down-to-earth values.
In addition to his own memories, Gehman also interviewed a lot of old friends (including his best friend Mike Raffel) as well as “old timers” like June Morris who owned the Penny Candy Shop in Water Mill to round out the history behind many of those stories.
“It was a collective memory project,” says Gehman. “I vowed I would talk to adults who were adults when I was a kid.”
Luckily, he started when he did. Eight of the people he interviewed for the book have since passed away.
But like old timers and all idyllic times — be they Camelot or the Roman Empire — all things must one day come to an end. In Gehman’s case, the end of the perfect childhood came in the form of his parents’ disintegrating marriage, money troubles and an alcoholic and depressed father who sold the Wainscott house without even asking his mother.
“The portrait of my dad in the book was as a charming, crazy loose cannon, life of the party kind of guy,” says Gehman. “At 12 or 13 I knew their marriage was on the skids. I also knew about his mental illness. It was around then that he needed to get electro-shock therapy.”
But ironically, because Gehman was so painfully and abruptly cut off from his kid paradise on the East End, the era has forever sealed itself as a center of nostalgia in his heart.
“If Dad hadn’t sold the house without Mom’s permission, I would’ve graduated from East Hampton High School and would not have written this book,” notes Gehman reflectively,
Gehman’s father died in October 2001, and he notes that “Kingdom of the Kid” is more than just a book designed to preserve his own personal memories.
“One of the reasons I had to write it was to pay tribute to my parents for making life as normal as it could be,” he adds. “It wasn’t just freedom, it was a paradise for a kid — playing in the neighborhood, roaming the beaches, discovering nature for the first time. They kept my sister, Meg, and I away from the worst habits. When you’re out there, it’s easy to forget your struggles and just roam.”
“We have a lot of painful memories from that era. But by far, I had the best time out there,” he says. “I had to remind my sister and mother how delicious those times were and how we were most a family there. They are over the moon about the book — it’s been a lovely form of family therapy.”
Gehman notes another motivating factor for writing the book has been the focus on the East End’s rich and famous residents in magazines in recent decades.
“I began reading all these stories in New York Magazine and Vanity Fair about ‘The Hamptons,’” says Gehman. “All they did was talk about Seinfeld buying Billy Joel’s mansion on Further Lane and tearing it down.”
“I wanted to counter that and remind folks how remarkably beautiful the place is and how remarkable the people are who care about the place.”
“Because of the book, I’m inspiring others who were out there at the time, and finding friends,” he adds. “I feel rooted again.”
Gehman will speak about “The Kingdom of the Kid: Growing Up in the Long-Lost Hamptons” this Saturday, August 10 at 2 p.m. at Mulford Farm Museum, 10 James Lane, East Hampton. Later that evening, Gehman (and his sister, Meg) will take part in the East Hampton Library’s Authors Night from 5 to 7:30 p.m. which will be held at the Gardiner Farm, 36 James Lane, East Hampton. Copies of books will be available for signing at both events and Gehman hopes some long-lost friends will stop by and say “Hello!”