I Grew Up in Sayville
Posted on August 14th, 2016
I grew up in Sayville.
Many of my happiest memories are like photos fallen from an album: the sound of the West Sayville Drum and Bugle Corps carrying across town while a truck sprayed our street with DDT. A rare trip to Flo’s and then Carvel, or maybe to the new McDonald’s in Brightwaters, when mom used to take us boys to feed the ducks. Sailing my sailfish everywhere. Sledding behind the car. Skating at Camp Edy. Driving to Shirley after church and staying in the water until it was time to come home. Walking home from school with David Pople. Croquet in the front yard. My happiest memories are snapshots of freedom, without any moral baggage. They are not accompanied by “lessons learned”.
Sayville also has its share of unpleasant memories: Being followed by a clerk whenever I went into Greeves. Mandatory dance classes at the Community Center. Librarians towering over me and telling me to stop talking. The kids who could afford time idling at Francis Sweet Shop. While others were going to football games, I was delivering newspapers — 140 customers at one point — or mowing lawns or pulling cigarette butts from flower beds on my hands and knees. Lugging milk crates up from the basement of the A&P. Working for 90 cents an hour as a busboy at Land’s End. Not being able to afford a Sayville jacket when I finally got my Varsity letter.
The public library may be the single biggest reason I never once thought I’d stay in Sayville when I graduated. The librarians weighed ten times what us little guys did. They were scary and focused on law and order rather than the joy of learning. But mostly, I’d read all the books that really interested me.
Scouts, church, school, and the community were nearly non-intersecting forces in my life. Each of these subcultures would form and dissolve at intervals: Tuesday nights for Troop 100, Sunday mornings for church, and the familiar weekday grinding of school. Scouts, school, and church were all intended to direct, shape, and educate me. They succeeded, though not always as they intended.
Church was probably the most sinister force in my early life. In church, I learned many things: That I live in the best country in the world. That Methodists are better than other Protestants, who are better than Catholics, who are better than Jews. If there are other religions, they don’t really count. That all singing in church is best done by moving the mouth but not letting any sound come out. That Catholics play a lot of bingo. That Catholic girls are hotter than Methodists (other boys shared this secret knowledge). That while it is important to honor my parents, there is nothing in the Bible that says parents should honor their kids. On the subject of being a good kid: it turns out that screwups are covered: no matter what you do, you are forgiven if you say you are sorry. I also learned that untrained volunteer Sunday school teachers could answer any question and that every answer is in the Bible, somewhere.
Except for one Sunday morning, as I reached puberty. I asked if dogs go to heaven. With absolute certainty, my Sunday School teacher told me the answer: No! That did it for me. If my perfect, sinless, forgiving dog wasn’t going to be there, then I had no interest in going either. My views on the value of heaven without dogs, or on whether dogs are less entitled to heaven than people, have not changed since then.
Sayville High left me unprepared for college, unprepared for life (though I did go to summer school for Driver’s Ed and typing, and that was worthwhile). In fact, I have trouble thinking of any important influence that Sayville High had on me. A biology teacher who worked two jobs, drank and smoked and had no evident interest in biology. An algebra teacher who drank and smoked and who once said to me, when I was at the high school for Citizenship in the Community merit badge, “Son. This is the men’s room. You want the boy’s room.”
Some teachers simply wasted our time. After four years of French, and the highest score in the state on the French Regents, I could not even buy a tank of gas in Montreal. But thanks to the miracle of the alphabet, I did get to sit behind Leslie Smith.
Maybe my biggest regret about high school is not what it did badly, but what it failed to do.
Kids were bussed, and the lunch room self-organized like neighborhoods. This allowed a thousand stratifications and fostered ignorance. Some kids came from homes of drinking and violence, and many smart kids came from homes where they were told that they were not suited for college, would never amount to anything. No guidance counselor ever protected or even guided. No authority ever shuffled the tables of bussed and non-bussed. Our destinies were decided before the first grade, by our parents’ occupations and the neighborhoods we lived in. We just didn’t know it.
Many high school teachers crushed the natural appeal of their subject matters and changed many career paths, but some seemed to care about their subject matter – Florence Pisano stands out – and one or two actually seemed to care about me – Mr. Curry in junior high biology, and Mr. Whiting in high school gym. Small things they did or said had an outsize influence on me.
But of all the positive influences, Walt Tucker stands as bright as the sun. Walt endured a troop of teenage boys and built it to one of the largest and most successful troops of its time. He always had time to listen, was always patient and wise. He could build a campfire, but never needed to, because he taught us how, and then taught us how to teach others.
Scouting was key in my moral development. Although it was even more wrapped in patriotism than church, I thought I should practice most of what it preached. I walked away believing I should be honest, trustworthy, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, brave, and clean – but not so much loyal, obedient or reverent.
Scouting helped validate my love of nature. Slogging down a trail taught me the value of dry socks and being prepared. Sitting at a campfire taught me about the breeze and its effects on smoke, and the value of planning. I learned the value of botanical identification from tying my new tent to trees using poison ivy vines. When I did not get Canoeing merit badge at camp because I had not brought a pencil to the final exam, and when I did get Pioneering merit badge after dropping out because the knots were too tough, I learned that life is not fair. And I learned that sometimes when a song was sung, it was ok for sound to come out of my mouth.
We the boys of Troop 100, marching on our way,
Living lives of noble purpose, in our work and play.
May we ever be respected, faithful, kind, and true.
May we always be remembered for the things we do.
I was an Eagle scout, of course, because my parents had both taught that work is good, fun is bad. My dad had graduated from high school in three years, and college in three years. In both, he graduated first in his class. I did not learn of these feats until after he was dead. He met my mom when both were working on the Manhattan Project. So I was good at anything requiring work, like putting my way through 9 years of college and bad at anything involving fun, like sports, dating, or hanging out. I nearly missed childhood completely. I’m making up for that now.
Walt seemed to know the names of all the stars in the sky, and names of all the countries on earth. Even the names of all of us. And so I learned to sing:
Wind in whispering pines,
Eagles soaring high,
Purple mountains rise,
Against an azure sky.
Philmont here’s to thee,
Out in God’s country tonight.
I sing it with my mouth open, and sound coming out. And then I always start to cry.
Thank you Walt, Mrs. Pisano, Mr. Curry, Mom and Dad, and the very Great South Bay, for turning me out.
Once I had a chance to talk to an old school friend that I tracked down working in a bank in Sayville. I asked her “Susan, why didn’t you ever leave?” She asked me an equally tough question: “David, why did you leave?”. I don’t know how such questions should be answered. I had never once thought of staying. But now, when I come back, I find myself thinking “What a lovely town this has become!” And I have discovered, through our reunions, that my best friends from high school and scouts, and those I never really knew, are all absolutely delightful. In the years since high school, the snapshot memories are probably less important than the current discoveries. I look forward to my next reunion with my new (and old) friends from Sayville. We come from all corners of the lunch room.