I suppose it’s only appropriate that on Labor Day weekend, I keep thinking of sunsets. I have seen some gorgeous ones in my lifetime in all sorts of settings, but if I had to choose my all-time favorite sunset it would have to be the one I watched when I was seven years old and spent a couple of nights at the beach with my grandparents.
Now, if you’re my age and come from the south shore of Long Island, a summer at the beach means taking the ferry over to Fire Island for the day, and an overnight probably means that you are staying at someone’s house, either out in the Hamptons or as part of whatever share you have on Fire Island or somewhere else. But Grandma and Grandpa Chopping were part of a different sort of beachgoing culture, one that doesn’t get as much attention as it used to back through the middle of the Twentieth Century. Instead of a beach house or time share, they owned a camper; specifically, a 1978 Shasta Camper, which they used to take every summer to the RV camp site at Smith Point County Park, which makes up the easternmost part of Fire Island.
Shasta, along with, say, Winnebago, is often associated with the RV and camping subculture that still exists and I’m sure that people who still hitch a trailer to their cars or drive their camper to a park would say is still going strong. After all, most national and state parks still have campsites and in my travels both up and down interstate highways on the eastern seaboard, I have seen my fair share of signs for campgrounds. Although, to be honest, I associate Shasta campers and trailers more with ephemera from the 1950s than with the 1980s of my childhood. I hear “trailer” or “camper” and I think of spage-age-looking silver trailers with check-pattern tablecloths on the fold-away table and a family of four very happy people using a campsite grill for that evening’s dinner. No, really, like something out of an old Dick & Jane book or an ad for the suburbs.
And for a while I think that it was. The Shasta brand is pretty well-recognized and if you do a search for the campers and trailers you see those classic models (which sometimes come in the red and aqua you might associate with that era. However, what my grandparents owned was manufactured after Shasta had been bought by a competitor, Coachman, in 1976 and it had less of the charm of the 1950s and more of the stifling interior design that you’d expect from the 1970s. The floor on the inside was a deep brown carpet and every single surface was some other shade of brown, right down to the wood-looking laminate that covered the particle board composite counter. Even the dashboard of the camper’s cab was a light mocha, as were the padded steps of the ladder that led up to the “Grandma’s Attic” where we could sleep. This, of course, was in addition to the harvest gold and rust orange stripes that ran across the side and the front of the camper, which itself had the same sort of utilitarian design that so many cars of the late 1970s and 1980s did. But it did take leaded gas (or “regular”), which I don’t think that many people born after 1990 are that familiar with because it’s been at least that many years since I saw a “regular” pump next to an “unleaded” pump at a gas station. But back then, when they pulled out of the side yard of their house near the foot of Foster Avenue, my grandfather would lumber the camper down to what was then an Amoco station on the corner of Foster and Montauk Highway and pull up to the yellow regular pump to make sure he had enough to make it all the way out to Smith Point.
It should be noted to those unfamiliar with Fire Island that Smith Point is one of only two beaches that can be reached by driving a car. The other, on the western end of the island, is Robert Moses State Park, which does allow for 4X4 beach access, but does not have a full-facility campground. Both beaches are also the terminus of the Fire Island National Seashore, which according to the National Parks Service’s Official Guide and Map, is the only federal wilderness area in New York State. Smith Point itself opened in 1959 and the RV campground is located to the left of the parking lot and the Fire Island Wilderness Visitor Center observation tower. Basically, it’s like any other campground where you can make a reservation, then drive up to your lot, park your camper, and hook it up to the water, electricity, and sewer outlets, although most of the time when we were staying with my grandparents, we used the bathroom facilities provided by the park, which had been recently built and made a great landmark for when we went out on the beach. Sometimes grandma and grandpa would go out with us, but most of the time they stayed in the tent that they’d set up outside of the camper door and we would be able to come and go to the beach or down to the boardwalk as we pleased.
I don’t think you can really do that nowadays. I mean, I barely let my son out of my sight whenever we’re in public; then again, he is only four and I was about seven or eight when I spent those years with my grandparents. But still, it was the early 1980s and still the age when youthful exploration without the aid of parents was still something you just did. Usually, those times were when I was with my sister, but there were a few times that I was with my cousin Brian and since the two of us were the same age, it felt like we were truly going off on some sort of adventure.
Granted, the “adventure” that you can have at Smith Point isn’t exactly an Indiana Jones movie. We would spend most of our time walking the boardwalk/nature trail and then walking down the beach in the hopes that we would find “the end of Fire Island.” Or we would go into the observation deck of the Wilderness Center and spend at least a few minutes looking at the various shark jaws and dried horseshoe crabs they had on display.
In other words, the display cases at the visitor center seemed like the display cases at any other national park’s visitor center. Just replace the shark teeth with arrowheads and exhibits about dunes and erosion with something about canals and Colonial-era trade on the river. The visitor center (or “observation deck” as we called it) wasn’t the big attraction, anyway. Smith Point had a long boardwalk that was a nature trail through the sand dunes where you could take a look at whatever plants or wildlife were around. For the most part, you saw grass and flies, but every once in a while you’d spot some birds that weren’t the ubiquitous seagulls or a deer would make its way across your path. The boardwalk ran in both a loop back to the visitor’s center as well as straight out to the beach, where you would be deposited far away from the main lifeguard stand and would have to walk back along the shoreline.
At night, we’d sit under the tent next to the camper and eat whatever hamburgers or hot dogs my grandparents had grilled up and then would go inside to either sleep on the bed that was created by taking the leg out from under the “kitchen table,” or we could sleep in the “attic” above the driver’s seat. This was always a favorite of ours, although it is also where things turned into some classic little kids’ slumber party. Brian and I would talk so much that my grandfather would tell us to quite down or one of us was going to sleep on the other bed. Once, when we were reading my book, The Ewoks Join the Fight, my cousin was laughing so hard at Han Solo’s line, “Not bad for a little furball,” that he actually got sentenced to sleep down below.
We wouldn’t spend weeks or anything there; in fact, I think on average the number of nights that I slept over with Grandma and Grandpa Chopping was maybe two or three per season, right up until the summer were I was nine years old, because my grandfather would pass away that fall and then the trips to Smith Point stopped. The Shasta wound up being parked in the side yard of their house for the better part of a few years, and she would let us play in it whenever we got bored, as long as we didn’t try to use the toilet or damage anything. I think we even found washing the windows and vacuuming the camper’s floors to be a fun time–a way to play house and actually do something constructive. Then, after my great uncle Reggie took it for a while, my Uncle Roy put it up for sale and it was never seen from again, although I have had the opportunity to go back to Smith Point at least a couple of times since and was not surprised to find that the boardwalk, visitor’s center, and beach really haven’t changed.
I am sure the sunsets haven’t changed, either, at least on the surface, but I don’t think that even if I got my own camper and took my son to Smith Point to watch a sunset I could recapture what I remember about being at that beach when I was seven. Every night, in the early evening, after we had eaten dinner and before we were ushered off to bed, there really wasn’t much else for us to do except maybe play with some toys we had brought along or get a good game of Go Fish together because this was yet to be the era of the portable video game or camper-mounted satellite dish. I’m sure my grandfather had a radio that he tuned in to Yankees games, but for the most part we sat in the tent and they carried on as much of a conversation as was possible with a few grade school students while watching the sun set over the bay between Fire Island and Long Island’s south shore. It would start as a bright orange that seemed to get closer and closer and deeper and deeper in color until finally it was a deep red ball hanging just above the horizon, suspended for just long enough for you to realize how quiet and calm everything had gotten. Mere hours before, we were running up and down the beach and jumping into the water with every other frenzied kid, but at that moment even we, the youngest there, knew enough to be almost reverent.