Point of View: A March Through Time

The color guard reaches the flagpole at the north end of Main Street during the 2017 Memorial Day Parade on Monday. Michael Heller photos

By Chris Chapin

Summer People is what we were called when we would come out to Sag Harbor after school let out in the 1960s. It may be hard to believe now, but 50 years ago this was a term of respect.

I accepted the label without protest, even though my mother had been born in Sag Harbor Village. To be fair, I was in 1967 one of a million wards of the New York City Public School System.

After Memorial Day in the city, I would spend time daydreaming about escaping to Sag Harbor. June in Manhattan was brutal. Walking home a mile from school felt like Death Valley days.

The day would come when our father would load us into the station wagon for the trip out to the country. Yes, half a century ago, this was the country. A three-hour car ride transported us solidly back to the 1950s. My hair, at a couple inches, was long enough to provoke derisive comment; all my 1967 contemporaries sported crew cuts.

That summer, the city and local radio stations were spinning from the same top 20 song lists; but local station WLNG leaned more heavily on the Beach Boys and on Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and less on the psychedelic and revolution stuff. The Sag Harbor locals most in tune then with the outside world were college students, and Pierson juniors and seniors.

Throughout most of the 1960s, we would stay in the flats on Elizabeth Street, which my uncle Tony Kulczycki had inherited from his mother, my grandmother. Summer 1967 would be our last there. We were in the corner unit, above what had been Kulczycki’s Superette, the family grocery, up until the previous year.

Upon arrival, I would begin my rapid transformation from pale city schoolboy to feral country child. My skin would tan; my hair would get sun bleached. Shoes were only for Sunday morning mass at Saint Andrew Roman Catholic Church, and easily could get lost during the week.

That summer I was finally freed to go wherever I wanted to go, without the territorial constraints of being confined to certain blocks. This was ironic because I had been running around the Far Upper West Side, a truly dangerous place, by myself since the age of seven. I was required to leave a note with my daily intended itinerary every morning though. The boundaries of my world were Havens Beach, Mashashimuet Park, and downstreet Sag Harbor; so more or less coterminous with the Village limits.

A few days after we had arrived that summer, my mother shooed me out the door one morning to send me downstreet. The Fourth of July parade would be starting on Main Street in half an hour. My plan for biking to Havens Beach to catch hermit crabs was shattered.
The parade featured fire engines, marching bands, some antique automobiles, and a bunch of other stuff that I forget. Half a century later, the marching uniformed veterans remain my clearest memory of that event.

First came the World War I contingent with their quaint inadequate soup-bowl helmets. They fought the Great War, as it had been referred to during the 1920s and 1930s, before it became unfortunately necessary to designate a World War I and a World War II.  These were the great uncles and grandfathers of the kids my age. You can see their names inscribed on a plaque on the big rock memorial at the intersection of Main Street and Jermain Avenue, by Otter Pond.

By today’s standards these men were not old; and most were still working. While the majority had been born in the twilight of the 19th Century, a handful had actually been born in the 20th Century, and served as 17-year-old doughboys. I wish that I had paid more focused attention, and that I had had a more clear concept of time, at the time. I was witnessing the last hurrah of the dinosaurs, but did not realize it.

Next came retired members of the World War II Armed Forces. The men and women who grew up during the Great Depression, and suffered through the war years, were profiled by author Tom Brokaw in “The Greatest Generation.” These servicemen were the fathers and uncles of my contemporaries.

Although my father had served, he remained stateside for the duration. In the 1920s, at the same age that I was that summer, nine years old, he fell 20 feet from an osage orange tree in Morningside Park, across the street from our building. The impact damaged his spine, keeping him out of combat — a left-handed gift from the universe.

In the cramped bedroom that we employed as the living room in our apartment in Manhattan, there was only one photograph, in a frame with a glass front. It always had been just part of the background. It depicted my mother’s brother Johnny Kulczycki, a handsome 20-year-old with a brilliant smile, in dress uniform in front of a big five-point star. A navigator in the Army Air Force, he never came back from the war. The same photograph is in the municipal building with those of all the other gold star sons of Sag Harbor.

As the World War II veterans passed in front of where I was standing near the corner of Washington Street, the reality of sadness and loss hit me. “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” must have been a knife in my mother’s heart. She had lost the sibling closest to her age, the one with whom she spent the most time, her friend.

Then came the Korean War group. By any measure, these were young men, most in their 30s. Many had older brothers in the parade who had fought in World War II. Again, these were the fathers and uncles of my contemporaries.

Finally came the Vietnam servicemen. These were the cousins and older brothers of my friends and acquaintances. While in other parts of the country they might have been encountering scorn and contempt, in the Sag Harbor of 1967 they were accorded full respect. They were kids, mostly in their 20s, but a few even in their teens, and some on active duty.

In the city, we lived a block from Columbia University. My route back from school every day took me up Broadway and across the central mall of the campus. Throughout the second half of the 1960s, I had a front row seat to the anti-war movement — marches, protests, demonstrations, occupations. It was interesting and exciting. However, the war was an abstraction for me. The college students were passionate about it, and with reason: The draft hung over their heads.

The Vietnam veterans and active duty service personnel walking down Main Street that Independence Day showed me the other side. They had been captured by the draft, most very reluctantly. In contrast with the others, their war had not yet been resolved. Some were on leave and would be called back to Indochina, perhaps never to return to the United States of America.

I walked home from that parade half a century ago more uncomfortably aware of what was going on outside of my cocoon than I had been a few hours before. Going to Sagg Main Beach that afternoon with my family brought a pleasant and welcome forgetfulness.