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Jun 16, 2008 2:09 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

First assignment

Jun 16, 2008 2:09 PM

I wrote for publication for the first time 38 years ago. In the summer of 1970, Dan Rattiner of Dan’s Papers fame gave me the job of writing a profile every week of Montauk charter boat captains. The series was called “The Montauk Boatmen” and it appeared in Dan’s Montauk edition, the Montauk Pioneer.

My real job was delivering Dan’s Papers from Orient to Riverhead and Montauk. I got to know the geographic ins and outs of the East End pretty well that summer. I also drove the “flats” to printers in Oceanside and Newark. When a tire on the van exploded because the load of papers I was carrying weighed far more than the tire’s limit, the van careened off into the center median of the Long Island Expressway and came to a stop. I had three dollars and an Esso card in my wallet. Luckily, a gas station a couple of miles up the service road accepted the card.

But I was really a writer, not a delivery man. I was going into my sophomore year in college. I had a girlfriend at the time who thought it was very sexy that I actually had to go interview people and then hunch over a typewriter, banging out words that would be read by thousands. Or hundreds, anyway. It was all good. I thought I had whatever Hemingway had and that I was on the road to proving my mettle. Hemingway drove an ambulance for the Red Cross. I drove a van for Dan.

It felt very cool to tell my girlfriend, “Hang on, will ya? I have to get this piece written.” This summer, the Montauk boatmen; next year, Pamplona. Anywhere but Vietnam. Unlike Hemingway, the last place I wanted to go was off to war, at least not that war.

My writer’s euphoria did not last long. I realized I was going to have a little problem writing about one charter captain after another, all summer long. Of course, each man was a character, with his own story and personality. But the basics, which were about as far as my kind of profile went, were all pretty similar. After I’d written three profiles about the pleasures and pains of the charter boat business, I had trouble getting the next one rolling. I couldn’t find a way to distinguish it from the others.

I don’t remember how I cured my writer’s block. I think I told Dan that the series was not sustainable. I guess he agreed. And that was the end of my career writing for pay until four years later, when I joined the staff of The Southampton Press as its one and only full-time staff reporter. I had been working in the city as a commercial travel agent, a job that the father of a subsequent girlfriend arranged for me in 1973 after my summer job working at East Hampton Airport had ended the previous Labor Day.

I had hated sitting at a desk in an office in the Lorillard Building on Third Avenue, making reservations and writing out airline tickets. I quit when summer came and went back to the airport and took back my old summer job. That was the end of that girlfriend.

I had no idea what I was going to do when summer came to an end. I was a line boy: I pumped gas and loaded bags and passengers into charter planes. I had a private license and spent all my money taking girls for rides in rented airplanes. My boss suggested that I run the business through the winter on a commission basis. In those days, winter in East Hampton was very, very quiet. I didn’t think such a job would keep me in the canned corned beef hash I lived on.

So when a friend who was interning at The Press told me the full-time reporter was leaving, I applied. I submitted my Montauk boatman profiles and a novel I had written at Exeter, where I went to high school. Prentice-Hall, where my uncle had a connection, almost published it, I liked to imagine and still like to recall. The publisher of The Press said it was “immature” but he’d take a chance on me—probably because he had gone to Exeter too. Or, more likely, he had no other candidates.

I took to the job like a fish to water, which surprised even me. I’d never even read the paper. Zoning boards? The Town Trustees? Police news? I ate it all up and spit it back out on yellow copy paper. I think it was the first time in my life I’d found a way to get close to a community, learn how it worked and, in a small way, win a place in it, even if only as a fascinated observer. And even if I lived far from Southampton Town, off in a converted chicken coop in Springs.

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Great piece, Peter. (this is Oliver writing) I had forgotten you went to Exeter, though I know we've discussed. Nice read all around. Thanks for sharing it.
By paulampeterson (9), Southampton on Jul 21, 15 11:56 AM
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