Sunday, August 30, 2009


Traveling Back to Pine Bush


By Wayne Robins

I was listening to Christina Vitale hosting “The Group Harmony Alley” on WFDU (89.1 FM, Sundays 6-9 p.m.), which seemed like a sensible way to end a week dedicated to retracing footsteps from my past. Wednesday night and Thursday we were in Pine Bush, N.Y., up hard and once utterly remote against the Orange County/Ulster County border.

Pine Bush has a claim to interest above and beyond the fact that my grandparents had a summer house there in the 1950s. As far as I know, no East Coast locale has as strong a reputation as a UFO “hot spot.” While it’s not quite Roswell (New Mexico) East, there have been enough sightings to put it on the close encounters map.

I expected that driving into Pine Bush (pop. 1,539 in the 2000 U.S. census), everything would turn black and white, Martin Block and the Make Believe Ballroom would have Dinah Shore singing through static on an AM-only radio. When we got to our motel on Boniface Road—a commercial area on one side of Rte. 52 which at this point is known as Maple Avenue—we saw that this part of Pine Bush had evolved into a suburb, with townhomes, garden apartments, even a few ill-placed McMansions, not to mention strip malls. Our motel, the nicely refurbished Harvest Inn, was directly across the street from the Cup and Saucer Diner, one of the few places in town with both good food and the sense to take full advantage of Pine Bush’s claim to intergalactic iconography: We had both of our meals (dinner and breakfast) there, the other choices being mostly pizza, and pizza, and pizza, with a Chinese and a vegetarian thrown in for variation. One of the pizza joints was noted by the motel. “Joey Tomato’s: I think that’s Italian,” one of the motel employees said with a wry smile.

Looking at a map, I believe I had found my grandparents summer home, which they had sold quite nearly 50 years ago. This was on a relatively undisturbed tiny street dead-ending on the then, to us, unnamed stream which is now listed on maps as the Shawangunk Kill. Somewhat protected from development, Shawangunk Kill has been the subject of considerable study by ecologists from Bard College (one of the many schools I proudly attended) mater); it remains relatively unspoiled and is home to some rare species of both fish and vegetation.

It was purely coincidental that I had rediscovered this childhood idyll on August 27, the second anniversary of the death of my brother David. The airwaves, meanwhile, were full of tributes to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who had just died of brain cancer—as had my brother.

I was beginning to remember the appeal of Pine Bush to both earthlings and aliens, though frankly, I would have liked to have seen more of the latter and fewer of the former. You find the right piece of land and you’re as isolated as you can be from the uproar of daily life. Drive a few blocks, and you find they’ve paved paradise and put up 16 kinds of take out, dry cleaners, dollar stores and exiles who couldn’t afford suburbia anymore but wanted the replicant lifestyle. Among that population, there is always a percentage, small though it may be, that knows there has to be meaningful life elsewhere, and we do what we can to find it.

Meanwhile, in my own backyard while I’m grilling the swordfish bought today in Astoria—where I was born, and where my grandparents lived year round—I stumbled upon Christina Vitale’s doo-wop show. Christina was talking about the Five Royales. (The group which did the original version of “Dedicated to the One I Love” about five years before the Shirelles hit.)

Christina said something about the Five Royales finally getting some respect.
The Five Royales had their peak in 1954-1955, a summer I most likely spent in Pine Bush.

Perhaps something happened there last week after all.

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