a complex and savage tale

IMAGINE YOU WERE RELATED to one of the most notorious Indian killers in American history. Now, imagine you were also related to some of those Indians. You can now begin to understand the traumatic baggage that comes with being an American.

In 1637, in the service of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Captain John Underhill led an attack, together with Mohegan Indians, on the Pequot fortified village near modern Mystic, Connecticut. They set fire to the village, killing any who attempted to flee. About 400 Pequots died in what came to be called the Mystic Massacre. But Captain Underhill’s soldier of fortune Indian killing was only just beginning. In the service of New Netherland, he slaughtered between 500 and 700 individuals thought to be of the Siwanoy and Wechquaesgeek groups of the Wappinger Confederacy. And in 1644, he cleared Fort Massapequa right here on Long Island, killing about 120 Indians. According to historical accounts, after the Natives were dead and stacked up, Underhill and his men sat down and ate their breakfast.

Underhill died in 1672. He has many thousands of descendants. One of them was Amelia Earhart. Another one of them is me. I only became aware of this connection by doing my family tree. And in doing my family tree, I became aware of another connection.

About a year ago, I went to visit my 95-year-old grandmother in the assisted living home. I asked her if we could swab her cheek. We were going to do a DNA test. “Come on, Mom, we can find out at last if you’re part Indian,” my father said to his Virginia-born and reared mother, who still speaks with a Tidewater drawl, even though she’s lived in New York for 70 years. “Well, I wouldn’t doubt that,” she said cackling. “And maybe you’re part African, too,” he added. This made her straighten up and her blue eyes widen. “Well,” she said, in her most Southern Belle kind of way, “I’d be very, very surprised.”

According to the data, Grandma has no African blood, or if she does, it is so small that it does not register a percentage point. But she does have Indian DNA — I’ve run the data through five admixture tools, and they report back results of between 1 and 2 percent. I’ve compared segments, sent it to a specialist. He pronounced the findings legit. This would mean that one of her ancestors, born in about 1750, if you do the mathematics, was a Native American.

“Which tribe?” everybody wants to know. The line of hers that is most likely Native goes back to a swampy area on the east side of the Chowan River in North Carolina. It at times was the home to at least three different displaced Native peoples — the Iroquoian Tuscarora and Meherrin, and the Algonquian-speaking Chowanoke. All of these tribes were shattered by disease and warfare, both with settlers and with each other, which made assimilation into the local European and African communities an avenue for personal survival. And one of these people, probably a woman, was my ancestor.

Before you start romanticizing a serene, peace-loving group of Pocahontases robbed of their land though, read more about the Tuscarora War, which raged from 1711 to 1715, and allowed, once the Tuscaroras were defeated, the further settlement of North Carolina. If you read the accounts, when the Tuscaroras rose up in Carolina, English settler women “were laid on their house floors and great stakes run through their bodies. Others big with child, the infants were ript out and hung upon trees.”

This is American history. It is ours and it is brutal.

Recently, my wife and I attended a film night at the library in Greenport, where we watched a documentary about Long Island’s Native Americans — with a special focus on the Shinnecock Nation. In fact, it was called Shinnecock. The filmmaker, Thomas Hoffman, mixed in some general North American Indian history, too, to put things in perspective — The Trail of Tears, The Battle of the Little Big Horn , Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement. A strong message was that of victimization — “Look at what we have endured, what has been done to us, we have been abused for centuries, and now you tell us to get over it?!”

This message confused me though. Who was I in this struggle? Was I the offspring of the perpetrator or the victim or of both? I think a lot of Americans from time to time ask themselves that same question.


THE WIND HITS HARDEST at night. It whistles. It jostles. It howls and grunts. Its sound is ferocious. In the mornings, you look weary eyed outside as the coffee maker makes its coffee, curious to see what the wind has carried away with it. It took me some time this morning to realize that the trampoline was not where it should be. It was perhaps a  hundred yards from its usual location. And then, while my back was turned, the wind pushed it over and into the fields. When I went to retrieve it, folding down the branches of the thorny bushes with my feat, I felt its metallic heaviness in my hands. I had to roll it on its side like a wheel, but then the wind was catching in it, blowing it even farther, like a ship’s sail. It was true work to move that trampoline back to its place. There was heaving and ho-ing. When I did reach the starting point, I noticed the neighbors aluminum trash can had blown into our sandbox, and that the lid of the sandbox had been flipped upside down in place.

And so it went with white caps in the bays and sounds, and lunatic photographers on the beaches trying to image it up close without becoming tomorrow’s headline. There were fallen skeletal branches in the roads, and dry corn leaves blowing across the ways like tumbleweed. The cold gales bit into the bamboo groves, put the traffic lights to dance, tousled the hairs of the dead deer on the road sides. In the evening, I asked the East Marion shop seller if it was usually this windy out on the North Fork. She said that it is often this windy but that this year has been particularly windy. “It’s a narrow strip of land jutting out into the ocean,” she said, looking very serene and Novemberish and shrugging. “What can you do?”

south fork

THE SOUTH FORK is very close to the North Fork of Long Island. From Orient Beach State Park, you can look out over the moving waters and see its sands and trees, and sometimes you can see boats sailing along its coast. But one glimpse in the free, weekly Dan’s Papers will remind you of how very far away the South Fork is. Southampton resident Howard Stern is holding a birthday party. Amagansett’s Matthew Broderick is filming in New Mexico. East Hamptoner Alec Baldwin will be contributing money for a new children’s addition of the East Hampton Library. {And wouldn’t it be great if he had his own story hour?}

My fondness for Dan’s Papers‘ people column {“Montauk’s own Ralph Lauren …”} had given me the false impression that I operated within the same tier of existence as these notables, just because we happened to be within close physical proximity to each other. I even boasted about it as we drove north from Bridgehampton to the Children’s Museum of the East End. “Do you think they have a cafe there?” asked Epp. “OF COURSE!” I really did exclaim. “It’s the Children’s Museum of the East End! Don’t you think Paul McCartney needs access to a cappuccino when he takes his daughter there?!” “He has a young daughter?” “OF COURSE! Oh, man, you really need to read Dan’s Papers more often.”

The Children’s Museum of the East End is a fine place. Cozier and cheerier and more colorful than the Long Island Children’s Museum, with a touch of Stockholm’s Junibacken about it. I saw a pretty Shinnecock woman wearing feathers in her ears, and two Latin mamas speaking español, and a freckly lady calling out to her sons in a CNN-worthy American accent, “Giuseppe! Alessandro! Come here!” And yet Paul McCartney wasn’t there. Nor was his daughter. And there was no cafe serving frothy cappuccinos. Just some vending machines dispensing veggie sticks and organic milk.

first flakes

IT SNOWED A BIT yesterday. Or sleeted. Or rained. Or something in between all three. Beyond our window, November served up varieties of frosty precipitation. It was greeted in different ways by the cafe goers around me. Some people said that it was colder than usual for this time of year. Others said, “I love winter. Bring it on.” And Greenport grows more remote and northern with each strong gust of wind. The sidewalks, rife with pedestrians into October, are now still and vacant. At 8 AM, I was the only person on Main Street, until a police officer walked by and wished me a boisterous, “Good morning!” The daylight is more subdued now, as are the colors in the trees. In this shadowy atmosphere, even the colors of the facades of the many Greek Revival and Victorian homes have acquired a powdered, pastel-like consistency. I like it. I am not built for the north, not built for the cold, but it doesn’t drain me of moisture, doesn’t blind me with sun. I liked it last year when we woke up north of Helsinki and saw the white on the ground. It consoled you, relieved you, perked you up after those dreary late autumn trips to Ikea where the air seemed musty and thick with darkness. The cold is unrelenting, unforgiving, ruthless. And yet it is satisfying to the eyes and the fingers and the soul in some monastic, masochistic way.

letters home

MY DAUGHTERS are learning about soldiers in school. The most I have been able to get out of them is that they are brave and that they risk their lives. My own ambivalence toward war-related holidays — Memorial Day, Veterans Day — comes not from a lack of empathy for America’s soldiers, but a deeper, more personal conflict.

There are interlocking pieces of this jigsaw puzzle. One of them is certainly Vietnam. I remember hearing from somebody, as a child, “Never trust the government with your life.” I also remember watching a documentary called Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam. It was released in October 1987. There was one man, I remember, an amputee with a Purple Heart, who said, “I didn’t trade my leg for a medal.” Those were the Full Metal Jacket days. I was eight years old.

But here is the thing: a great many veterans have told me, as an adult, in private, that, “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” At a concert, I met a veteran from Afghanistan who told me of how they held up in some ruin with Taliban fighters all around him. He had scars on his legs from the bullets. And what did he say? “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” Another friend was in Vietnam, and when I asked him how he felt about it, he served me up the same exact line, “It was all a bunch of bullshit.” “Okay, then,” is all I could tell both men. “I’m still glad you got back in one piece.”

Which leads me back to the date, November 11, originally Armistice Day, the day the Great War, World War I, ended. Has any war been more discredited by its veterans than that war? From Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to Cummings’ The Enormous Room to Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk, the Great War is portrayed as mindless carnage waged by states with absurd politics. And when they wheeled Harry Patch, one the last survivors of that war, out to Passchendaele in 2007, he had this to say — “War is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings.”

No one ever force-fed me these messages, but my ears were open enough to hear them. But my family was also different. My predecessors had a cosmic predilection  to not find themselves in harm’s way. There was one war story that was handed down. The relative who hid in the cellar with the shotgun when the Virginia Home Guard came around to force him into the Confederate Army. This man was my grandmother’s grandmother’s father. The reason for this act of cowardice was because he didn’t own any slaves. He saw the Southern cause as the effort of the elite, slave-owning class to use poor, non-slave owning farmers like him to protect their interests and their status. And the lesson in that story to me, is that sometimes it takes courage to not be a soldier.

How I will explain this all to my girls, I will never know.

proud of you, lou

I WAS PROUD OF LOU REED. Some Jewish kid from Freeport redefines rock ‘n’ roll. A real, “What the?”  Because, believe me, Freeport, Long Island, isn’t the most rock ‘n’ roll place. None of Long Island is very rock ‘n’ roll. Rock ‘n’ roll came up from the south via the Mississippi, hit Chicago and then somehow meandered over to the industrial cities of Great Britain after the war, before it began expanding into the soulless suburbs of the country’s largest metropolis. And that’s where it entangled Lou Reed.

Later, it entangled me. I bought The Best of the Velvet Underground: Words and Music of Lou Reed on cassette when I was 15 years old. At first, I struggled to understand it. I had always loved psychedelia  and so expected the same kind of thing from a “Sixties Band.” But this was a different kind of sound, the sound of New York City. There were no rolling California hills and foggy harbors and fantastic trips here. There were dirty subways and old stone churches blackened with soot and generations of Bowery Bums.

In The Atlantic, they say that Lou Reed’s devil-may-care attitude  toward the music business and embrace of realism made him a godfather for our generation, that the torch was passed to us, or that we are all the sons of Lou. This is only partly accurate. Lou was but one of many inspirational thinkers who forged the way we see things. A few others I can rattle off in an instant include Mel Brooks, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor.

What tied them together? They were all social critics who made entertainment seem important, and whose disregard for social convention made their careers. Mel Brooks is a filmmaker. Carlin and Pryor were comedians. Lou Reed was a rock ‘n’ roll musician. Movies, comedy, music — it was supposed to be harmless stuff. And yet their fresh, candid perspectives bypassed the new politics and new gadgets and went straight into the veins and brains of young people. It stuck.

uncle frank’s last visit

UNCLE RICK CAME TO VISIT the other day. He retold the tale of Uncle Frank’s last visit. Uncle Frank’s real name was Francesco Petrellis. In America, he was known as Frank Peters. I’m not sure if he ever reconciled these two identities. Uncle Frank was born in San Giorgio Albanese, an old village overlooking the Ionian Sea in the hills of Calabria. He emigrated with his family —  including his younger sister, my grandfather’s mother Rose — to the New World in 1900. Old documents show him holding odd jobs and married to a woman of Hungarian extraction. They had no children. At some point, Uncle Frank moved to Florida. One day, though, in the early 1960s, there was a knock at my grandfather’s door. It was Uncle Frank! He had come to say that he was leaving. “And before he left, he gave my father a $500 bill,” Rick told me at our kitchen table. “Now, this was the Sixties, and a $500 bill was a lot — a lot — of money. I don’t know where he got it, but my guess is that he was on the run from the mob or something.”

My father’s cousin Nancy told me the same story. “I’ll never forget the day he showed up. And he was handing out money.”

After Uncle Frank left, nobody heard from him for some time, until word came that he had died in his birthplace. My grandmother still has the photograph of him laid out in his coffin with a bouquet of flowers on his chest. I’ve seen the photo. He looks at peace. When you turn it over, you can read that it was sent by a cousin named Cosimo Petrellis from Via La Croce, San Giorgio Albanese, Cosenza, Italy. It is dated June 1965.

hot chocolate at aldo’s

ALDO IS A SICILIAN who makes coffee. He has white curly hair and is known to all by his first name. He has a last name, too, but this is unpronounceable and unnecessary. There are nice wooden tables — square, round, and rectangular — in his coffee house in Greenport. From the back windows, one can sip his hot drink and look at the boats in the harbor.  People enter Aldo’s, people leave. Often they stay and have conversations. I listen to these conversations with interest. The women are usually complaining about something. If they are not, the men tease them by reminding them of the things they should be complaining about. The ladies behind the counter are from Guatemala. They are very friendly and make your coffee or tea or hot chocolate quickly. I have never heard them complain in English. In Aldo’s, one can hear Alan Lomax’s recordings of Italian folk music from his expeditions in the 1950s. This is the only place I have ever heard these songs outside of my own private music collection. Aldo and I must have similar taste. I usually order hot chocolate these days at Aldo’s while I work. How much coffee can one person really drink?