Weird Fire Island
A Collection of Local Curiosities
By Jeffrey Salzberger

Everyone on the Island is familiar with deer, erosion and other such recurring topics. But there is another side to Fire Island. A mysterious side, filled with oddities, myths, things forgotten and other tidbits which are, from an archival standpoint, curious, to say the least. What follows is essentially a list of things you might not have been aware of—or maybe you just forgot—or maybe you know, and I'm just being silly, or maybe they're best left forgotten. Some of them had residents sounding the tocsin while others had them staring in awe. So, without further ado, let's begin our journey into Fire Island folklore.

Animal Aberrations

June of 1993 was no ordinary year for raccoons. It was the summer they got out of hand. The headline read, “Rampaging Raccoons Terrorize OB Woman.” Dr. Allison Speillman walked into the backyard only to find a pack of howling raccoons on the move. They were coming from the west and Speillman said, “they seemed to be on a mission, going really fast. There was such a ferocity about them, I was afraid they might attack me.”

For a while during the '80s, there was an albino deer that terrorized the island's walks, generating bad luck with every hoof fall. Legend states that seeing a white deer is worse than breaking a mirror, leaving a hat on a bed, walking under a ladder and spotting a black cat combined. It's a miracle anyone survived.

Jellyfish are a pest, it's true, but at least twice since the Fire Island News opened its doors, there has been a scare regarding these gelatinous creatures. Residents have spotted what appeared to be box jellyfish, which can apparently cause agonizing pain or even death. They were not box jellies, indigenous to the Australian coast, but merely super-sized versions of our own jellyfish.

For awhile during 1994, fawns abandoned by their absentee deer parents were housed in the Ocean Beach jail, some of them fawned over by local law enforcement. Who doesn't love a dappled fawn, even if they are a nuisance as adults?

Speaking of deer, and the fact that they seem to be a problem for residents, this reporter refers you to the News police blotter from May of 1996, in which a deer was reported attacking a house on Ocean Breeze. It was a large buck, and it rammed its antlers repeatedly into the side of the house, causing a racket and instilling fear into residents. The house did not go over, but the incident begs the question, if you can hunt deer, can they hunt you?

In late June of 1964, a 29-year-old woman named Britt Sullivan jumped in the water at Coney Island with the intention of swimming to Europe. Sadly, when she reached Fire Island, her Coast Guard escorts reported that she was “menaced by a school of sharks,” and while they pulled her aboard one of their boats, she later got back in the water and then vanished.

Is there a bee keeper in the house? That was the question asked by then-Police Chief Ed Paradiso in July of 1994. There was a swarm of 30,000 bees in a tire swing at the children's playground in Ocean Beach. Chuck Doersam, a Point O' Woods resident who maintained two bee hives in Oakleyville, was called in to solve the dangerous problem. The News reported that Doersam's presence was appropriate considering he came “just across the border from WASPdom.”

False fossil alarm! Fleurette Cohen ran across what she thought was a Crossopterygii, a finned ancestor of man, on the beach. Expert Lou Hess disabused her of this notion, correctly identifying the strange chunk as a piece of wood heavily encrusted with barnacles and embedded with sea glass, but not before the entire community came out to view the thing. Miss Cohen responded after the large commotion, “anyway, it would make a great paperweight.”

Sidewalk Silliness

On Bay Walk, etched into the concrete, is the phrase “NIXON IS STILL GAY.” Despite countless questions, there is no explanation for the graffiti. It might not warrant a second look or any deeper explanation for that matter, except that when we at the paper attempted to photograph the sidewalk in question, cameras ceased to work and reporters suffered from horrible bouts of hiccups. Frankly, residents are entirely too tight lipped for it to be as innocuous as it seems. Perhaps Nixon's ghost is wandering the walks?

Kismet sidewalks are always a topic worth discussing. They help pass the time like iced tea and lemonade on an island porch. Why, you ask? They are “pretty horrendous,” and are “always a rich and compelling source for headlines, subheadlines and dazzling displays of punography,” ie. “Kracked in Kismet” or “Bumpy Ride for Kismet Parade.” It is recommended that when you walk the walk in Kismet, you “wear the proper shoes.” The sources of our quotes choose to remain on deep background.

Oddities from the Ocean

On August 3, 1957, an object that resembled a torpedo was found near Moriches Inlet. Navy munitions experts were called in and all the necessary alarms were sounded regarding unexploded ordnance. The object, which was 10 feet long and weighed 1,000 pounds, was later identified as a sonar device that had broken loose from its moorings. While it was completely benign, it certainly generated a lot of uneasy conversation.

The New York Times reported in December of 1960 that discarded Long Island Christmas trees were being sought by year-round island resident Douglas Brewster. His intention was to pile the trees on top of the dunes here on Fire Island in order to stop storm damage and erosion. The previous year, with the cooperation of local government, 10,000 trees had been brought over. Brewster hoped to double the number in 1960. They were transported via a festive, forest-looking scow across the Great South Bay and deposited in troubled areas.

While there was not much happiness on Fire Island in January, 1961, after the big storm, something else made its presence felt besides Bob Moses. In the Fire Island Pines, a 19th-century shipwreck was exposed by shifting sand. Old timers believed the beached boat to be either the schooner John B. Manning, which was grounded in February of 1895, or the Homer D. Alverson, which ran aground in March of 1899. Only the hull remained, but it was a reminder, along with the storm, of how violent and dangerous the ocean can be.

Strange Sports

Tricycle races were set up by local lifeguards in July of 1959 to combat boredom on a weekday evening. The prize was $2 and all finalists received a new comic book from famous photog and island resident Richard Avedon. The debate of the day was chain drive vs. direct front wheel pedaling on the contestant's tricycles, and which was faster.

Water-skiing was all the rage in 1958, so much so in fact, that two Australians made New York, and specifically Fire Island, the longest stay on their year-long water-skiing tour. They commented that besides us having great beaches, Fire Islanders were “bloody hospitable.”

Overall Oddball and Strange Ordinances

In September of 1892, New York State decided to house people who may have contracted cholera in the Surf Hotel, which they had recently purchased. Islanders boarded boats and headed to the hotel's location with the intention of burning it to the ground. They also wanted to stop the debarkation of any of the possibly diseased passengers. It all ended OK. Nothing was burned, no one died, no one landed, and to tell you the truth, nobody even had cholera on the boat.

In the early days at Dunewood, placed in the bay, there was a slightly smaller mock up of a pirate ship built for children to swashbuckle on. It carried on the island tradition of piracy. Men are still spotted from time to time with metal detectors and shovels, quietly digging holes on the beach, looking for lost treasure.

On an English map of New York from the 18th century, Fire Island appeared as the Beach of Sand and Stones.

If you think village ordinances are bad in Ocean Beach these days, you can look at the clipping from 1958 we provided above to see how draconian it used to be. Besides the infractions shown here, you could be charged for wearing an indecent bathing suit, for not wearing a shirt and throwing out an unwrapped bottle, whatever that means.

There was quite the uproar when “One Ocean View” arrived this summer, but did you know that a Japanese production company filmed in Ocean Beach during July of 1993? There were three people wandering around with cameras and a microphone. Their intention was to draw Japanese tourists to Fire Island. Their presence was barely noticed amongst the revelry.

In a letter to the editor of the News on August 13, 1959, Edward L. Kingsley, of Kingsley International Pictures, reprimanded Mayor Arthur Silsdorf for unilaterally banning the film Lady Chatterley’s Lover from the community theater. The ban went against a Supreme Court ruling that struck down censorship in New York. Kingsley’s intention with this polemic was to draw our reader’s attention to the “arbitrary action on the part of the Mayor.”

On June 1, 1990, election day in Ocean Beach, Peter Fazio, then a bartender at C.J.s, and OB resident Abraham Horowitz allegedly threw a coffin belonging to Lee Pokoik’s Alligator discoteque into the ferry basin. The coffin contained a blow-up doll wearing a Nazi uniform and made to look like former Mayor and then-OB Trustee, Arthur Silsdorf. A Soviet flag covered the coffin, and a sign on the casket said it would be opened at the election’s close. Guess that wasn’t to be.

Land of the Lost

There are lost communities on Fire Island. They were condemned by the Federal Government and taken over by the National Seashore. One was called Talisman. East of Fire Island Pines and west of Watch Hill, and it was an “international jet set playground” according to the News. It only lasted from its conception in the late ‘50s until its condemnation in 1963. The beach at that location still bears the name Talisman, conjuring jet set spirits of times past. Near Watch Hill existed a small community named Bayberry Dunes. It lasted from 1963 until the end of the 1976 season. Most structures faced destruction shortly thereafter. What comprised Bayberry Dunes is now a part of the Watch Hill complex. Some say you can see phantom residents of the lost hamlet wandering the beach on a calm day. Skunk Hollow and Deep Creek are two other areas that are now part of Watch HIll and the wilderness area. There were as many as 30 houses in this area, and the so-called squatters fought eviction in the grand tradition of Fire Island activism. Upon talking to Mr. Rant, a longtime resident of the area, he said “we were told we could live our lifetimes here. Unfortunately, we didn’t get it in writing.”

Ghosts of the past are as good a place as any to close out the season. As your archivist and historian, I hope you enjoyed these slices of the strange and interesting. Stay well, and have a good off season. Over and out.