Discovering the past, his twin boys, while looking to the future
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Debris lines the road in Breezy point last week. Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
Denis O’Connell’s foundation shook last weekend, much like the homes he saw in Breezy Point, Queens.
No, it had nothing to do with the street scenes in the area he once knew as a kid, the piles of trash and the ruined furniture and the mattresses and the refrigerators and the chaos.
Shocking, sure, the worst case of flooding, from Hurricane Sandy, the peninsula had ever seen. But nothing like what O’Connell, there on a mission of mercy, found in the darkness, on the deck where he used to spend his summers.
Behind the abandoned house, still without power, with clothing draped over the railing and his niece and her family gone, O’Connell clicked on his flashlight and found a pair of photos, covered with sand and dirt, that forced him to his knees.
One picture showed Joseph, the other James, his twin boys posing for their first-grade photos 37 years ago. Joseph died from a brain tumor, one month shy of his eighth birthday, shortly after the picture was snapped. James was killed in a car accident 10 years later, on Interstate 93, a senior at Pinkerton Academy.
And from talking to O’Connell yesterday, his New York accent still strong on words like “water,” it’s fair to say the 71-year-old retired computer programmer died a little each time as well.
“I had no expectations to find anything like that,” said O’Connell, who collected items from strangers here and brought them to New York City. “I went up there with my flashlight to check it and I saw the plywood that was off the windows and I wanted to be able to see into the building. Then I started scanning around the porch and, lo and behold, after looking at a few things I spotted that one pile of pictures. It’s almost like a blessing and a curse at the same time.”
O’Connell brought the photos home, back to Concord, after traveling with a man he’d never met, Bill Cohen of Bow. Cohen, who recently lost his bid to serve on the county commission, saw a story O’Connell had written for the Monitor, asking for a “co-pilot” to drive with him to New York City and help victims of Sandy.
In the story, O’Connell told readers that he grew up in Breezy Point, a Queens neighborhood on the western edge of Rockaway, a peninsula southeast of Brooklyn. A look at a map shows the vulnerability of the region, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, to high winds and flooding.
O’Connell’s father bought the house as a summer home in 1946, at a time when the area’s beaches and bungalows had become a vacation hot spot.
There was flooding now and then. Nothing too bad, though.
“When we were kids, when we had a storm, we had contests to see who could guess in front of whose house would the ocean meet the bay,” O’Connell said. “Back then it was like inches of water. You knew the ocean is going to come down Reid Avenue and the bay is going to come up Reid Avenue, and some place they’re going to meet.”
O’Connell planted strong roots in Rockaway. His father was a sexton at the local church, and O’Connell and his uncle Hughie, a New York firefighter, did maintenance work there, too, when O’Connell was in high school.
Through the years, O’Connell served in the Marines, married, divorced and had five kids. He readily admits that, among his children, he was closest to the twins, letting them drive his car at the dump when they were little.
He moved to Derry with his family and settled in the Concord area in 1977, after separating from his first wife, the mother of his five children. By then, he’d already suffered heartache, in October of ’76.
That’s when Joseph, sick for nearly a year, died. O’Connell made sure his other children knew what was happening, through the entire process.
“With Joey, I could go to the kids and say that after he’s gone you can’t come to me and say if you had known, you could have spent more time with him,” O’Connell said. “They knew they were going to lose him in time.”
Not so with James, who was riding with his boss, delivering coal, when the car slammed into a logging truck parked in the breakdown lane, on I-93, near the Mall of New Hampshire. By then, in the summer of 1986, O’Connell had grown especially close to James, who was still living in Derry at the time, with his mother.
O’Connell had seen him the previous Sunday, when father and son rebuilt a six-cylinder engine and installed it into James’s Camaro. “He said to me that he had learned more that weekend helping me put that engine together than he did during a whole semester in shop class,” O’Connell said. “He never got to hear me fire that engine up.”
Meanwhile, the beach house stayed in the family, with O’Connell’s niece and family currently living there. O’Connell was content living in Concord, keeping to himself, volunteering and working on projects like maintaining the Appalachian Trail. He never grew as close to family members as he had with the twins.
Then, Sandy came ashore.
O’Connell watched the news, stories about his old neighborhood. He saw the church where he’d worked as a kid, St. Thomas More, holding a candlelight vigil. He recognized the monsignor and the stained-glass window in the background.
Those are my people, he thought.
That’s my church.
Then came O’Connell’s article in the Monitor, asking for supplies from the community. The response made this tough-talking New Yorker cry, and not just because of the $1,000 donated by a woman who insisted on anonymity.
“Every time I came back to the house there was more stuff on the porch,” O’Connell said. “I came back from renting the truck and here came this woman and I came down the steps to greet her and she hands me this opened and half-empty package of paper towels. She said that was all she could contribute, because she was unemployed.”
His 26-foot rental truck quickly filled up, with paper goods, cleaning fluids, water and, perhaps most importantly, manual can openers. “I never had grandiose ideas about this,” O’Connell said.
Once near Breezy Point, the trip turned into a nightmare. At one point, traffic failed to move for three hours. Police waived cars on, seemingly without a plan or a final destination in mind, somewhere to unload supplies.
“It looked like an end-of-the-world scene from a bad movie,” O’Connell said.
Once he and Cohen found some sense of order, once they received help unloading their truck, O’Connell turned to Cohen and said that one more stop was needed. O’Connell had heard from a cousin that the family homestead was “gone.”
What did gone mean? O’Connell wondered.
It was last Saturday night, late, when the two men arrived at 17 Reid Ave. That’s when O’Connell realized the house had made it through the storm relatively well, although it remained without power and unlivable. He later learned his niece had taken her kids to Brooklyn, to a relative of her husband’s.
He poked around for a while, noticing the photos on the deck floor, the ones that he said “blew him away.”
The twins are posed in separate photos, their hands out front, gently touching a wood frame of some sort, maybe a bench at school. Joseph, described by O’Connell as an introvert, is obviously uncomfortable, his eyes expressionless, the corners of his mouth pointing downward.
James, the extrovert, shows more fire, his lips pursed, his eyes penetrating.
The photos are on O’Connell’s dining room table. The other day he showed them to the mailman, telling him not to touch them. He might bring them downtown, have them cleaned professionally.
Or maybe not.
“I’m hesitant because the sand and dirt on both pictures helps show where they were and the time frame in which I found them,” O’Connell said. “I really don’t know what I’m going to do with them.
“I have no idea.”