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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Visit to Steinbeck's Sag Harbor Spread

A Visit to Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor Spread
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Funny how inspiration strikes. For me, it occurred at a Westport, CT book sale in Spring 2003. I was browsing titles and tripped across “Travels with Charley” by John Steinbeck. The 1960 road trip saga – Steinbeck’s last look at America, with his dog Charley in tow – drove me to purchase a van, stock it with supplies and set off in September 2003 to follow in Steinbeck’s footsteps, using the tattered paperback as my atlas. The journey, through 35 states during 66 days over 17,000 miles of American road, would result in my own book titled “Chasing Charley”, which is on track to be published in 2011.

Sag Harbor Starting Line
It seemed appropriate to begin my adventure at Steinbeck’s property in Sag Harbor. So on a fine Saturday in July 2003, at the invitation of Steinbeck’s sister-in-law, Jean Boone, I set off from my Fairfield, CT home for the eastern Long Island cove-side residence. Jean had inherited the estate when Steinbeck’s widow (Jean’s sister) Elaine passed at age 88 that spring after a long illness. Jean now shared the property’s upkeep with her companion of three decades, Ray Downey.

With a large bottle of red wine and six of beer in hand, I motored to New London and, a little before two, drove up into the mouth of the Mary Ellen, for the 16-mile ferry crossing to Orient Point.

A sign welcomed me to “Long Island’s Wine Country” as I rolled from the ship, headed west along 25 toward Greenport where I would connect with the North Ferry to Shelter Island. The route was lined with vineyards attended by brown-skinned workers, and market stands displaying juicy cherries, fresh-picked flowers and other garden delights. I was sure these sights reminded Steinbeck of his birthplace -- Salinas, California.

The North Ferry was a much smaller vessel than the Mary Ellen, accommodating only 25 cars, and boarding was on a first come first serve basis. I rolled my truck aboard, set the brake, stood at the prow and, when we docked, followed winding 114 south across Shelter Island to the South Ferry for the voyage to Sag Harbor. What I briefly saw of the island was appealing — high hedgerows obscuring shingled homes and tennis courts, and tanned young couples, like one preppy pair in an old Army jeep, jetting about.

The South Ferry crossing was equally brief and soon I was in Sag Harbor. The houses and well-manicured properties in this area were also hedge hidden – privets mostly that Steinbeck would have admired for the privacy they afforded.
A lantern-bedecked bridge was the gateway to Sag Harbor Village, which, this day, was mobbed with sightseers. A clerk at a bookstore on the main guided me with directions to the Steinbeck home and, rising from hammocks strung between massive oaks shading the large backyard, Jean and Ray greeted me.

Situated on a horseshoe-shaped cove, the parcel’s main structures included a modest main house, smaller “bunkhouse” where Steinbeck’s two sons had lived, tool-filled “workshop,” small in-ground pool that John had built for Elaine, and pier. Just prior to John taking his cross-country journey, Hurricane Donna laid siege to Long Island and the little cove, submerging the pier under four feet of water and forcing him to emergency secure his 22-foot cabin cruiser, the Fayre Eleyne (named after his wife, of course).

Most remarkable to me was Steinbeck’s small “writing house” -- “Joyous Garde” as he had named it, at the point of the land overlooking the water. John would hole up here to write and read. Books were still perched on a high shelf inside, among them an identical copy to mine of “Travels with Charley.” Small stones that John had set in concrete at the foot of the entry spelled out “AROYNT,” translating to “Be Gone.”

The covefront was so tranquil that you could hear the oars of passing kayaks dip in the water, the rustle of the trees and the occasional ding of a bell that Steinbeck had strung up in an oak.

Ray trotted out a large bottle of Skyy vodka, which we enjoyed on the rocks with Carr’s crackers and Brie, while seated at an awning-sheltered table on a brick patio.

The sun dropped in the sky and bathed us in a pink light, gnats began to make themselves known and Jean kept the stories coming, speaking about Elaine now and how Steinbeck had lovingly remarked that her faults were “precious few.”

Jean also related how John would make things with his hands — whittling and gluing strange contraptions and devices like a mobile made from the skeleton of an old umbrella and bird figurines. She laughed about the holes John would dig in the yard for the purpose of baking locally harvested clams.

Jean mentioned a toast the author would always make when drinking — “Here’s to Ava Gardner.” As the story goes, Ava couldn’t make a meeting with the author and that very night, he met and had drinks at the Pine Inn in Carmel, CA, with Elaine.

I heard about the Steinbeck boys and how “Johnny” had died at the young age of 44 of a pulmonary aneurysm following an operation on a herniated disc and that Tom is writing screenplays and giving lectures in California.

I also learned that Steinbeck suffered from Transient Ischemic Attacks, essentially brain assaults that lasted minutes or hours -- an early sign of his developing arterial sclerosis from which he died at the age of 66 in December 1968.

A tour of the house ensued. In addition to paintings of seaside scenes by the likes of John Morris, collected shells and other bric-a-brac, all about were photos of family and celebrated friends. These included actors John Malkovich and Gary Sinise, with whom Elaine became acquainted. Sinise played Tom Joad in the 1991 TV adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath” and directed and co-starred in a 1992 film version of “Of Mice and Men,” along with Malkovich.

Many of these photos were contained to and covered almost every inch from floor to ceiling of the “Hall of Fame,” a narrow passage that connected the kitchen and master bedroom. There were even photos in the bathroom, including one of the famous poodle Charley.

When we moved inside to wicker couches in the glass-enclosed porch to escape wee biting beasties, conversation continued — about Steinbeck’s constant interest in the world around him, his retention of everything he read and of Cervantes’ novel “Don Quixote”, which was the author’s own inspiration for his cross-country quest.

As I listened to all the stories, I could feel John’s spirit in the room and became even more committed to fulfilling my voyage. I even imagined John, in khakis and Wellingtons, sitting in his big chair with a snifter of brandy in hand, eager for an update about the America he had once trod.

It was a fascinating and memorable visit to Steinbeck’s humble Sag Harbor haven… and so engaging that I missed the last ferry back to New London and had to make the longer land-based circle home!

For a more detailed overview of Lauterborn’s “Chasing Charley”, go to and key in the book title in the search window. 

Me and My Shadow

Me and My Shadow
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.

Fairfield, CT – Mother to three children. Girl Scout leader for 10 years. Girls soccer coach for 2 years. Constant chauffeur. Home camp supervisor. Always unselfishly doing for others. Now it’s her turn and her time and the road is her escape.

When Kathleen Silva Tempini, or simply “Kate”, which is what she prefers to be called, rode up and parked her Honda Shadow across from my lawn-based tag sale on a recent spring day, she turned heads and immediately attracted a gathering. Not only was her gleaming cruiser-style motorcycle a beauty, she was a beauty. At 55, slim and clad in stone-washed jeans, suede Mephisto boots and a fur-collared brown leather jacket, her red-highlighted mane of brown hair tumbled down to her shoulders when she removed her pink helmet and sea green eyes sparkled like the sun glinting off the surface of a Caribbean sea. This wasn’t a casual jaunt on a bike but a “look at me, I’m free” statement, though she would tell you that that was not intentional.

I had to know more about this unique individual as I knew there’d be a story to tell here. She agreed to divulge the details, meeting up with me several days later at a tranquil, marina-adjacent park spot on Fairfield’s oceanfront.

Earliest Inspiration
As we sat at a picnic table under a shady tree, Kate offered that she was born and raised in Monroe, CT, one of four girls in her family, a middle child with an identical twin. Her dad was a professional truck driver, mom was a homemaker.

“I always had the feeling that I could try anything at least once and cross gender boundaries. To that regard, Dad took us all fishing on Sunday mornings and clamming… he had us paint the house, help move furniture, gut and clean fish, take wiggly eels off a hook, horseback ride. So why not try a cheaper version of the horse?”

She started humbly at first. Dad had a “sit-down” lawnmower and Kate “ran it so much that it ran out of oil and cracked the block.” As punishment, her dad made her mow the yard with a push mower the rest of that summer. She had a go-kart, too, with a little motor. Monroe was very rural back in the 50s and 60s when she was growing up there, so there was a lot of room for riding around.

First Bike
Kate’s first bike was a 1972 Honda CT90, purchased used from a woman in 1978, when Kate was 23. This model was a tough, inexpensive and reliable single-cylinder Trail cycle that, notably, the Hondells immortalized in a 1964 song called “Little Honda”, written by Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. The song referred to the cycle as “a groovy little motorbike.” As Kate explains, “It was popular, and marketed to attract couples… all-purpose.” Indeed, tens of millions were sold since they were introduced in 1959.

She fondly remembers, in particular, the summer of 1980 when, as a student on break from Johnson and Wales University, she took the bike out to Block Island. Its 2-speed torque, small size and easy handling allowed her to ride on the sand and go watercress picking, fishing and beaching… or just cruise in the dunes.

Kate held on to the bike, shipping it from place to place, through married life and children, and still has it in her garage. She had a mechanic service it, got it running again and taught both of her daughters – Laura, 18, a senior at Roger Ludlowe High School, and Holly, 16, a sophomore at the same school – to ride as well as one of her daughter’s boyfriends. “C’mon, Joe. Don’t be a p---sy!”, she said to the lad when he expressed that he was a little afraid of trying it. He overcame his fear and now he’s welcome to just come over and take the bike out at will.

A Re-Awakening
“When my son [Bryan, now 19 and an extreme snowboarder living out in Lake Tahoe, CA], who at the time was a junior in high school, said, ‘You care too much about the family and not about yourself,’ I reinvented myself.” Within a few months, she redid her resume and landed a job as an ultrasound technician with a local fertility practice. The latter related to a degree she had earned as a Registered Diagnostic Medical Sonographer. Kate loves the position – “The first heartbeat… unbelievable… I can’t imagine being any happier or more fulfilled… except when I’m riding.”

After raising three kids over the past 20 years (the last 16 of which have been spent in the Fairfield Beach Area), juggling a full daily schedule as a result of having an absentee husband busy with work commitments, running a day camp (“Camp Tempini”) out of her home, serving as a Girl Scout leader, coaching girls soccer and shuttling her son to paintball competitions and BMX biking facilities, she realized her own sense of self had gotten lost in the mix.

“When Bryan left for college two years ago, I felt somewhat abandoned. I never thought about who I was or what I liked. I unselfishly thought about the kids. I got the old bike running and started riding everywhere, doing errands, etc.” But this was not enough.

“I decided I needed to get a bigger bike… like I wanted to go further, not just around town, and needed something more reliable,” she concluded. “My little bike would crap out when I put the headlight on. I started looking for a small cruiser-style bike.”

Bike II
 “I looked on eBay and found a 250cc Honda Rebel that belonged to a little old man in Pennsylvania. It was pearl white. I’ve always been loyal to brands and wanted another Honda… and I knew local instruction classes were conducted on Honda Rebels, so I figured it would be reliable,” reasoned Kate.

“I rented a truck from Enterprise, motored to this little trailer park in Altoona, PA and paid $3,000 cash to the seller,” she said. And though it was apparent that the man’s health was in decline, “he rode that bike right up the wooden ramp into the truck with a last hurrah!” remembered Kate, an amused grin spreading across her face.

The upgrade meant she would need to get a license, which she described as a “hard” process. “Practicing maneuvers, panic stops and serpentines down at the marina in Fairfield proved to be a great training ground. I obtained my permit and prepared for the test. On test day, I steeled myself and rode rather shakily on 95 down to Norwalk. Believing body language accounts for a lot, I tried to look tough but was terrified. All the riders gathered. Talk about intimidating… I was one woman amongst 21 men. Somewhere in the middle of the group, I was called. My raw fear took over, I stalled the bike, could not repeat any of my previously mastered skills on the course and subsequently failed.”

That could have been the end of it, but Kate returned to the DMV. “One of the nicest employees there returned my paperwork and gave me a huge dose of empathy. She said, ‘Honey, those boys just ate you up alive. You come back in two weeks and try again.’ So, through tears and thoughts of resignation, I rescheduled a repeat test… and passed! The rest is history. Now I feel like Pippi Longstocking flying in the breeze and nearly always sing to myself while riding.” Smiling, she adds, “My daughter did not always like me showing up at Field Hockey practice on my bike, so I keep it low key when I need to. But inside I am on Broadway singing my heart out, riding and steering the bike like a good cutting horse.”

Kate held onto the bike for about a year and a half then sold it to a 19-year-old woman, last fall. “I felt I’d outgrown it, and had begun to entertain the thought of joining a motorcycle group. I knew I would need more than 250cc’s to keep up.”

Out of the Shadows  
“This spring, the weather has been so nice. I got the little Honda out, but just had a yearning for a bigger bike. I knew I wanted another cruiser, another Honda. I went on eBay again and found a Honda Shadow at a Honda dealer in Hicksville, Long Island,” Kate related. Specifically, the bike is a 2007 Honda Shadow VTX Deluxe 600cc, “a stepping stone” Kate says from her last bike and a good fit for her 5’7” build.

About retrieving the bike, she explained, “I drove in my husband’s truck to the dealer, brought the bike back to J and R’s (an auto repair shop on the Post Road in Fairfield) and backed up to the lift.” John and Ronnie (the proprietors) wheeled the bike out (the bike weighs 600 pounds) and supported it as the lift lowered.

“I left my husband’s truck right there, got on the bike and rode it home… no plate, no nothing, I was so excited. I was hooting and hollering (inside) like I was in my own parade!” she gushed, then added, “It’s got a fat-ass back tire, that makes me feel good.”

New Beginnings
A friend recognized the purchase by gifting her a silver “Guardian Bell”, with the engraving “Lady Rider” on it, which now hangs from the front area of her bike. Legend has it that Evil Road Spirits have been latching themselves on to motorcycles for as long as there have been bikes on the road, and are thought to be responsible for mechanical problems and bad luck on a journey. The theory is that, by attaching a small bell onto your bike, the spirits will become trapped inside the bell. There, the constant ringing drives them insane, making them lose their grip and fall to the ground. Apparently the bell is twice as powerful when given by a friend or loved one to the rider, as in Kate’s case.

Kate has also purchased a pink helmet. “I wanted to look like a woman. Once, at Okemo Mountain when I was on a chair lift with a helmet and goggles on, I was mistaken for a man by a ski patrolman who was speaking in a gruff, inappropriate way for mixed company. As I got off the lift, he nudged me and said, ‘Have a good day buddy.’ When I said thanks in my obviously female voice, he became embarrassed and apologized.”

She also plans to buy a windshield and might ride with an iPod. As to clothing, she is “horrified by Harley gear,” favoring equestrian-style riding chaps, her leather jacket and boots with “no square tip”. In cooler weather, she sports a “neck gator”, a fitted neck cuff made of polar fleece patterned with musical notes that relate to her interest in singing Broadway show tunes. “I grew up playing guitar with my sisters and singing whatever my father called upon us to perform… usually ‘The Sound of Music’.”

A Woman in the Wind 
“I was pumping gas recently and someone told me about a women’s motorcycle club that meets in Bethel,” Kate noted. The person was referring to the Nutmeg Chapter of a national organization called “Women in the Wind”. “I looked them up and felt I’d find fellowship, with nobody rushing you. I would like to stop at garage sales and antique shops. Each chapter has its own flavor. I just joined. There are seven or eight women in the group. They are very open, affirming to new members, and accept any age, background and riding ability.” She laughs then, thinking about one fellow member, “She’s a hairstylist and has a purple bike. She’s ultra-feminine.”

“I can call one of them up when I get out of work at noon and say, ‘let’s go riding’. I like the solitude, the smell of the lilacs, that briny smell by the sea.”

This is a woman set loose. “I’m planning my first long-distance ride, to Poughkeepsie (NY), with the group. In mid-July, we’ll go up for the Summer Nationals (a “Women in the Wind” meet to which all U.S. chapters are invited). Then, who knows from there!”

Like a line from the Al Jolson tune “Me and My Shadow”, for Kate, life going forward “is gonna be we-wow-whee for my shadow and me!”