Massachusetts and Long Island Vacation Smash Book Style

This week’s Documented Life Project prompt was to “add receipts, labels, business cards – smash book style!”  Since taking up art journaling as a creative hobby and especially since joining the DLP, the term “smash book” is something I had read in passing but I had not discerned the definition.  So the first step of the challenge was to figure out what the challenge actually required.  It turned out to be a pretty simple concept: recording events by adding scraps from your life to a page.

Having just returned from our five day vacation in Massachusetts and Long Island, there were pockets in my backpack stuffed with leaflets, cards and even napkins.  I, therefore, had my materials and it also felt like it would make sense to document with found scraps from a week when I had actually done some interesting things and for my journal to contain a page that documented our trip and experiences.

I already had a page in my journal that I had smeared with squelches of blue and red paint.  It was going to be the basis of a different page but then I changed my mind and that page was abandoned.  Now I could finally use it as the base for all my sticking.  The next stage in my planless-plan was to cut out little bits and pieces from the things I had collected over the course of the vacation: a photo of Montauk lighthouse and of a humpback whale breaching, a ticket from the New London to Long Island ferry, a scrap of a napkin from the hot dog stand on Coney Island and a business card from Friendly’s, and various logos and titles from leaflets of places we had visited.  I glued those down haphazardly, trying to “go with the flow” but actually making quite a mess in the process.  I rather think I should have put more thought and planning into the placement and composition.  That done the page was looking decidedly blah.  I decided that the fragmented elements needed to be unified and tied together somehow.  I tried adding some decorative tape to fill blank spaces.  That filled the gaps but did nothing to unify the page.  Think again.  So I got out my cheap tempera paints, which I actually rather like because they are globby and translucent, and stamped on some red, blue and white using the end of a cork, a milk bottle lid and the end of a wooden pencil.  Then – since one of the key things we had done was whale watching – I used a little whale stamp to shove a pod of inky blank whales across the page.  The whale stamp is actually one I have owned since I was at school (I used to use it to indicate which books belonged to me) so I was quite glad of the opportunity to use it once more.

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I am not sure “smash style” is really very me and certainly I don’t think I am very good at it.  I have seen lots of wonderfully creative responses to this week’s prompt but I personally felt my creativity was curbed by using found scraps.  I just couldn’t envisage the end point of my page, what it might look for, and without having something to aim for I was lost in how to approach the page.  The end result was, therefore, not very successful but nevertheless it is always good to try something new and at least now I have a page in my art journal that contains a visual record of our vacation.

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Great-Grandad’s Grave and Coney Island

For reasons I will probably commit to a future blog entry, my Great-Grandfather is buried in Calverton National Cemetery on Long Island.  In fact, the primary reason for building a stay on Long Island into our vacation was to visit his grave as it made sense to do so when my Mum (his granddaughter) was visiting America.  My last visit to Long Island was before I had uncovered the location of his final resting place so, therefore, the final day of our family vacation was committed to my first visit there.  Our travels had intersected quite a lot with Mr Pict’s family history but this was a day for my own family history.  Of course, it was historical in only the loosest definition since my Great-Grandfather died when I was ten.

A couple of summers ago, Mr Pict and two of our boys had spent more hours than expected in a cemetery in London searching for and eventually finding the grave of another of my Great-Grandad’s.  That cemetery had been vast but Calverton National Cemetery was on an even more massive scale.  To indicate how expansive it was, our sat nav app actually identified roads within the boundaries of the cemetery.  Using a map I had downloaded from the relevant website, we easily made our way to the correct section of the cemetery.  Then, using the clearly indicated grave numbers on each brass plaque, the boys ran off in search of their Great-Great-Grandad’s grave with our 8 year old successfully finding it in short order.  Although I did meet him once and have a very misty memory of him, I really know very little about my Great-Grandad.  He was estranged from his wife and daughters and was, therefore, never really part of our family.  To mix my metaphors, although he is clearly an important section in the trunk of my family tree, in terms of family history it is as if he is a little island off on his own, not especially intersecting with the other branches and buds, discovered but unexplored.  Frustratingly, because he is a recent ancestor, one who died within living memory, it is also difficult to access documents about him and begin to piece together the parts of his life.  He’s rather an enigma.  As I stood at his grave, three generations of his descendents gathered together, really the only emotion I felt was that sense of frustration that I did not know more about him, that I wish I had the anecdotes that would breathe some life into him.

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With a whole afternoon spare, we decided to head off to Coney Island since none of us had ever been there, not even Mr Pict.  As someone who is nerdy about the history of sideshows, I wish the title of this blog entry served to indicate that my Great-Grandfather had some connection to Coney Island but there is none.  The only connection is that we somehow reckoned it was appropriate to do something as solemn as visiting a grave in a Veterans’ Cemetery immediately followed by a trip to a boardwalk, beach and fun fair.  Such ying and yang is the stuff of life.

We managed to find a parking spot really close to the boardwalk so within minutes of arriving my children were running around and we were all having a relaxing stroll along the promenade.  We partook of some munchies from Nathan’s famous hot dog stand, people watched and the older boys buried the youngest Pict in the sand and then sculpted the resulting mound into the form of a mermaid.  Really, it wasn’t a merboy as they opted to give it boobies.  Kids!  I was very excited to be at Coney Island, not just because of the whole sideshow thing but also because of other episodes from history and popular culture.  Mr Pict and I knew that there used to be a massive elephant somewhere on Coney Island, an actual building that was shaped like an elephant.  Just because.  It had been a hotel, tourist attraction and brothel.  The architect must have been either a genius or a madman.  Mr Pict had it in his head that it still existed so he asked a brace of cops for directions.  You know that old adage that whenever you are lost you should always ask a police officer because they will know the answer?  Well not only did neither of these police officers have a clue as to its location but they had never even heard of it.  Mr Pict was puzzled.  I googled.  It had burned down in 1896.  No wonder the cops didn’t know anything about it: we were a bit late.  A more tragic tale of a Coney Island elephant, of course, relates to poor, sad, brutalised Topsy.  Topsy was a maltreated circus elephant who was condemned to death after killing her trainer.  So it was that in 1903, the inventor Thomas Edison, engineered the electrocution of the pitiful animal at Luna Park.  It was a spectator event and was filmed to be viewed by even more people.  I also knew of Coney Island from the cult 1979 movie ‘The Warriors’.  It’s one of my guilty pleasure movies so I am not going to argue that it is a stellar piece of film-making with weighty themes but if you have never seen it then I urge you to do so nevertheless.  It depicts a near future – so probably a 1990 that never was – in which tribal gangs defined by elaborate costumes are battling against each other in New York City.  When one gang, the Warriors, are accused of assassinating a kingpin, they must fight their way through the city streets and back to the safety of their home base, which happens to be Coney Island.  Seriously, I recommend it.

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Obviously the major attraction at Coney Island is the fairground rides so it would have been lax of me as a parent to not allow my kids to have a turn on a ride.  Our time was limited, as per the parking meter, so they were permitted to choose one ride each.  The 5 year old chose a little aeroplane ride, though he wanted to do something more adrenalin-fuelled, and the 8 year old chose a shooting gallery which resulted in him winning a penguin.  The 11 and 7 year olds, however, opted to do something more adventurous.  They chose a water flume ride.  At first it was all smiles but, as soon as the log boat climbed higher, the 7 year old began to look stricken and by the time the log hurtled down the watery slope and splash-landed at the bottom he was virtually hysterical.  Poor wee guy.

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And thus our family vacation literally did end with a splash.

Montauk, Long Island

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Having travelled up to Massachusetts via the edges of New York City and Connecticut, we decided – for several reasons – to change up our route back.  Thus, on Day 4 of our three-generational vacation, we headed to New London, Connecticut, to catch the ferry to Long Island.  This was actually replicating the same journey Mr Pict and I had made almost exactly thirteen years earlier as we concluded our road trip with a meander back to JFK airport.  Having been ushered onto an earlier ferry than the one we had booked for, we arrived on Long Island in early afternoon.  Our chosen destination for the afternoon was Montauk Point.  It was chosen by my boys and me.  Mr Pict and my parents just went along with it.  The boys wanted to go there because they are fans of the Percy Jackson series of novels by Rick Riordan and Montauk Point is the setting for a pivotal moment in establishing the central concept of the series.  Slight spoiler alert here but said scene also features a minotaur.  My kids love minotaurs.  So that is why Montauk was on their “must see” list.  As for me, I love American lighthouses.  I actually recognised a good few years ago that I could easily become obsessed with lighthouses, visiting, collecting, photographing them, and add that to my long list of nerdy passions.  However, I am successfully resisting the temptation of becoming a lighthouse geek and instead maintain a normal relationship with them.  However, when my kids suggested Montauk, I  was in full agreement with them because of the presence of the lighthouse.  All things in moderation.

As I have confided before, in advance of any vacation, I construct a spreadsheet that outlines the pertinent details for all of the places we might possibly visit as part of our travels.  For one holiday, in Rome, I even constructed a colour coordinated map and key.  I had, therefore, undertaken quite a lot of research for this trip.  Montauk Lighthouse, however, was my first ever failing as a travel researcher.  Apparently I had misunderstood the rules regarding access to the site: I had thought that the lighthouse could be accessed for free and that there was a fee only for entering the museum and ascending the tower; the reality was, however, that we had to pay the entry fee to even get to the base of the lighthouse building.  Sigh.  Fee paid, we entered the site.

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Though perhaps not the most picturesque American lighthouse I have ever seen, Montauk Point Light is nevertheless one of the most historically significant.  Set as it is at the easternmost point in the state, it was New York’s first lighthouse and one of the oldest active lighthouses in the country.  Construction of the lighthouse was authorised by George Washington in 1792, when America was still in its infancy.  It was also the first ever public works project in America.  Of course, it now little resembles the original lighthouse since height has been added to the tower and other additions and modifications made.  It also ceased to be manned by civilian keepers when the Second World War led to it coming under the responsibility first of the Navy and then of the Coastguard.

We began our visit with the ascent up the 137 iron stairs to see the actual light.  For someone who has vertigo and a moderate case of claustrophobia, this ascent presented quite the challenge.  As per instructions, whenever we encountered someone descending, we had to step to the right and let them pass.  As you will know, the right hand side of a spiral staircase is the thin end of the wedge.  Thus, we had to balance our weight on our tip toes and pads of our feet.  I don’t know about anyone else but I also had my fingers locked onto the tread of the steps and my right arm wrapped around the central stair column.  I am not entirely sure why I pushed myself to do it since it was a foggy day which precluded me obtaining any decent photographic views from the top.  Once inside the platform area, we were instructed to climb another short flight of steps in order to view the actual lamp.  Once upon a time, this had been a lamp burning whale oil but it had gone through several evolutions since then and the boys were amazed to learn just how small the lightbulb is that generates the light nowadays.

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Views not seen, we rapidly descended and were back on solid ground.  My parents and I decided to have a quick look in the museum while Mr Pict supervised the boys playing outdoors.  The museum was like travelling through a time warp.  One end had probably not been updated since my childhood, with labels generated by an old ribbon typewriter and a mannequin representing one of the lighthouse keepers.  However, the rooms in the other section of the museum were completely contemporary and well-designed.  As well as displays outlining the history of the lighthouse and its various keepers, there were also displays about the local tribes, the Montaukett and the Naragansetts.  There was also information about the slave ship ‘Amistad’, an episode in history that was symbolic to the Abolitionist movement.  The ‘Amistad’ connection was because the fugitive slaves who had taken control of the ship made landfall at Montauk, having been deceived into thinking they had reached the African shore.  There, they were discovered by a US Revenue and Customs ship and were taken into custody.  This then precipitated the celebrated trial which concluded with the deliberation that the slaves should be set free and returned to their homeland.  Since I am never one to not mention a Family History connection even in passing, I shall add the detail that John Quincy Adams represented the slaves when their case came before the Supreme Court.  Both the Adams Presidents and Mr Pict and our sons are all descended from John Alden and Priscilla Mullins of ‘The Mayflower’ which makes them distant cousins.

The boys needed some time to wander, roam and be generally feral so we headed down to the shore beneath the lighthouse.  There they scrambled around among the rocks, searching in rock pools for sea-dwelling beasties, held crabs and studied interesting rocks.  My oldest, who is Minecraft obsessed, set himself the challenge of finding rocks that resembled all of the different rocks that feature in the Minecraft universe.

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Long Island is a difficult place to find dinner on a budget.  As we traveled from Montauk Point towards our hotel, we stopped off several times in search of some nosh.  There were dining options galore but nothing that represented good value, even among the ones we could enter with four grubby kids.  Eventually we plumped for a diner which appeared like manna in the wilderness on the roadside and devoured the food we ordered as if we were wolves after a lean winter.  Finally replete, it was just a short journey to our hotel.  Our beds for the evening were in a Ramada.  We had adjoining rooms with a door between them which was ideal for the kids who could wander between grandparents and parents until bedtime.  The mattress was much too firm for my liking but at least there was no fire alarm to contend with.