Lately, I’ve noticed quite a few people in my Twitter stream or on Facebook or in fleshworld mouthing off about going to Montauk. I guess after City Locusts have finished destroying the Hamptons they’ve moved farther east to finish off the rest of the East End. But I can’t blame them. Montauk is a great place.
I should know. I was traipsing around Montauk back before Montauk was cool. Let me tell you something, ya little Johnny-come-latelies: My friends and I were climbing the Danger Bluffs of Montauk before you even knew the word existed.
And I’m not even from Long Island.
But I did go to college there, at the now defunct Long Island University: Southampton College. My second job after graduation was as managing editor of The Montauk Pioneer. Some may consider it the quirky younger cousin of Dan’s Papers, but the fact is Dan started The Montauk Pioneer first. So it’s more like Dan’s Papers’ whacky and increasingly shrinking grandpa. At The Pioneer, it was my job to do – well, to do everything, pretty much. I took photos, covered meetings, wrote articles, columns, restaurant reviews and fake news pieces. I helped with lay-out. I wrote for Dan’s as well.
I remember the specifics of almost none of this. I do remember the first week I started, the Fire of 95 was blazing through the pine barrens farther west on Long Island. I remember writing a fake news piece about an alien running around Montauk. I remember writing battling editorials with Dan about what should be done with Camp Hero (Dan: pro-development; Me: leave it alone) and, I think, over the proposal to split Montauk from East Hampton (Dan: for; Me: against). I could be wrong on those memories. The only really clear memory is this: Shortly before Christmas, I was out at the light house taking photos of the kids visiting Santa. I was rocking my “uniform” at the time – busted up jeans, thermal shirt and a green L.L. Bean outershirt, and an extremely dirty University of Miami hat. A woman asked me my name and I told her. “Oh,” she said. “I read your dad’s stuff in The Pioneer all the time. He’s hilarious and smart and, I can tell by his writing, very very handsome.”
Okay, I made up the last part. But I was very pleased with myself to let her know that she was reading nothing by my dad, but the wisdom of the 22-year-old standing in front of her.
But those aren’t my favorite memories about Montauk. To be honest, aside from Gurney’s Inn and The Montauk Manor, I don’t think I could name two businesses still existing in Montauk. I haven’t been there in years. Even then, I was living in Hampton Bays and driving out to Montauk was a huge pain in the ass. And forget hanging out in the bars. Aside from the ridiculous drive back, I always suspected a fresh-faced interloper like me would only end up getting his face pounded by a fisherperson. (A popular bumper sticker at the time read: “Too many tourists, not enough bullets.”)
For me, Montauk meant two things. Senior Dinners and Camp Hero. Senior Dinner was sort of like a prom for Southampton College. We all got dressed up and climbed on a bus or in a car and went out to a fancy place and got drunk and danced and in general made fools of ourselves. Because my college girlfriend was two years older than me and because early on I had enough credits to qualify as a senior, I went to a number of these. With the exception of one, all of them were at Gurney’s Inn in Montauk. (And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the exception turned out to be the worst of them, resulting in public shouting, tears, near-fist-fights and glassware flung into Peconic Bay, all courtesy of that same college girlfriend and me.)
Gurney’s was a magical place to most of us, the sort of resort none of us could really envision staying in because it was too pricey. Living in the Hamptons during the off season, we were well used to this. Many students lived off campus in dream palaces that charged reasonable rents during the winter, then charged ten times as much for the three months of the Long Island summer. Undoubtedly, the only reason we were able to afford Gurney’s for this dinner was because it was during the off season. But no matter, we loved it. We drank, we danced and, no matter how cold it might have been, we always ended up out on the beach shivering while we smoked cigarettes and other things that college kids are known to smoke.
Obviously, those journeying to Montauk now can’t recreate that experience unless they crash a prom (not advised) or go to a wedding at Gurney’s. But even then, a wedding reception isn’t the same. You’re an adult now, bitter about things, either worried you’re not married yet or worried that you’re married too soon. You’ve sort of resigned yourself to life as an adult. You’re no longer in that 20-year-old universe, where life stretches out before you in endless possibility and you’ve finally got just enough perspective on life to make teenage drama something really special and dangerous.
But what you can do is go to Camp Hero.
I read about all these people going out to Montauk and hitting the beach, walking around town, checking out the light house, bitching about lack of wi-fi (Really, people. Unplug). That’s cool and all, and I’ma let you finish, but you simply have to go to Camp Hero. Why? Because it’s creepy and cool and offers a bit of urban-military exploration you wouldn’t expect to find on the East End of Long Island.
You’ve probably seen at least part of Camp Hero. Depending on where you are in Montauk, it’s hard to miss the radar tower standing sentinel in the trees. All told, it’s 200 feet of concrete tower topped with a radar dish that’s 126 feet long, 38 feet tall and weighs some 40 tons. Not too shabby!
And it’s open to the public. Sort of.
Camp Hero is an abandoned military base, the remains of what was originally an Army Air Corp radar installation built during World War Two to protect America from invading Nazis. It was made to look like a New England fishing village on the off chance German bombers found their way across the Atlantic.
According to official reports, the base was used by one branch of the military or another (here are a few photos from the 1960s) until 1980 and then shut down, a victim of outdated technology and the bureaucratic squabbling between military branches. According to unofficial “reports”—sublimely ridiculous conspiracy theorizing in a series of books called “The Montauk Project”—the base was used as a top-secret installation where time-travel and extra-dimensional experimentation were conducted. The mad scientists who roamed the grounds of Camp Hero were responsible for the Philadelphia Experiment, in which an entire battleship was cloaked and instantaneously teleported hundreds of miles—with disastrous bone-melting results for many of the crew. The radar dish was used for mind control experiments on the citizens of Montauk, causing them to congregate in public at weird times. Like any good conspiracy, everyone was in on it—the Army, the local politicians, the Feds, the Free Masons, the guy who played Luke Skywalker in the original version of Star Wars. Even Martian Jesus.
Martian Jesus went back to Mars. The others didn’t go anywhere. They’re still here, toiling away in underground laboratories in a parallel dimension. So if you feel anything brush against you, it’s probably not your imagination.
And if those aren’t reasons to go exploring the base, well then, sir, you’re no friend of mine.
We went a number of times during college. This was before the Feds actually handed the place over to the state to do with what it wanted, so I guess we were technically trespassing. I have photos of some of these excursions, in particular one made with Shawn A. and Doug P. during spring break of 1993 or 1994. The two below were taken by Shawn, who was kind enough to send them along.
That day we climbed the cliffs of Montauk and walked our way over to the base, scaring ourselves and each other in the process. This isn’t hard to do when there are signs warning of bio hazards and radiation threats. I think we’d also read at least part of The Montauk Project at that point so we were half expecting Martian Jesus to jump out and … well, I don’t know what Martian Jesus would do. Save us? Convert us to Martian Christianity? My favorite part of that trip might have been when Shawn wrote a message for the future and stuck it in a film canister (remember those) then wedged the canister into the side of the cliffs to be dug out by some enterprising archaeologist years from now. The message? “Is checkers still illegal in the future?”
(Fun fact, if you Google me and Montauk, you’ll find an account of this trip I sent to a conspiracy site. They never updated with the following accounts.)
The radar tower is the main attraction, for folks like us and for conspiracy-theorizing electro-hippies picking up bits and pieces of equipment as if they’re going to build their own time machines out of cutting-edge 1940s technology. But do yourself a favor and check out any of the houses still standing.
One other night, a group of us lit out from the Tidewater AAA pub in Southampton at God knows what time and in God knows what condition. Was I the instigator? I don’t know. It might have been Mark M. I had a way of mouthing off and backing down. He had a way of stopping me from backing down – of making it sound like if we didn’t get a caravan of cars driving out to Montauk at 1 in the morning, we would die from the shame. Camp Hero in the day is creepy. Camp Hero at night is something else entirely. But the view from the top of that 200-foot tower was worth it.
Still, the creepiest trip I remember came in the winter of 1997/1998, when my friend Toby D. and I drove up from Louisiana to visit New York City and some of my old stomping grounds in the Hamptons. A group of us, including Doug W. and Erik Z. drove out during the day with one mission in mind. Finding and getting into the underground sections of the base. In this we succeeded. The giant bunkers of Camp Hero aren’t technically underground. Enormous concrete enclosures were built and then covered over with dirt. Whatever the case, they’re still caves and there’s something just damn scary about them. Black as pitch and filled with old military offices, invoices and other paperwork littering the floor, the drawers on those metal desks and filing cabinets half open as if the place was abandoned in a hurry. The reality of what caused the disarray can be gleaned from the “Class of ‘91” sort of tags spray-painted all of the place. And those same vandals are probably responsible for the hole in the wall that allowed us entry. We may have smoked something other than cigarettes before going in, which only heightened the sense of dread and paranoia.
And that, I believe, was the last time I was in Montauk. I have photos from some of these trips, but haven’t digitized any of them. Or if I have, I’ve forgotten where I put them.
I should remedy that. In the meantime, why don’t you give Camp Hero a shot? You may see some no-entry signs, but ignore those. It’s public land now. You own it. Kind of. The only things you have to worry about are poison ivy, deer ticks, Hanta virus and, possibly, Martian Jesus.