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When LI was a visit to 'the country'

Infant Joe Gentile in 1952, held by his

Infant Joe Gentile in 1952, held by his mother, Frances, center, and flanked by relatives at the Melville bungalow that his Grandpa Tony, far right, transformed from a two-room house into an eight-room, two-story residence. Credit: Gentile Family Photo/Joe Gentile

Recently, I was looking at old black-and-white family photos, reminiscing about days gone by, remembering what life was like on Long Island before the Long Island Expressway. I have pictures of the Melville house on Reinhart Court where I was raised in the 1950s.

It started as a summer retreat for generations of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews, a place to get away from city life and out to "the country." Even the road that took us there was fittingly called Old Country Road, a dirt path surrounded by farms and wide open spaces.

On our property, which lacked indoor plumbing, we had an outhouse and well water. We also owned pigeon coops, rabbit hutches and a pig pen for Porky. And, of course, we had the requisite garden for flowers and vegetables, where my Grandpa Tony first introduced me to the art of growing tomatoes, peppers and zucchini. To this day, it’s a hobby I still love.

The detached garage was meticulously taken care of, with screen doors to keep out the bugs and let in the cool, summer breezes. It served as a dining room during the hot days. An especially fond memory is eating blue claw crabs caught by my grandfather in Wantagh canals. They graced a long table lined with old newspapers. My grandmother Alice and my mother, Frances, would boil them in a big pot, and we’d have a feast.

From the property, adjacent to McGovern Sod Farm, we could look across and see the 110 Drive-In’s giant screen. My brother, sister and several cousins would spend many days playing on the sod farm’s rich, green manicured fields. For a special treat, we’d stroll to Route 110 for ice cream at Carvel.

Those old snapshots show the house’s progression from a two-room summer bungalow to a two-story, eight-room home, thanks again to Grandpa Tony, a carpenter who turned it into a permanent home for my grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Sometimes we’d have as many as two dozen relatives with us. Later, I bought the house and raised my family there. My three sons enjoyed the same sod farm grass I played on when I was their age.

In the early ’90s, I moved into another house in Melville, but when I go back to visit, I notice the changes. Gone is the sod farm, the 110 Drive-In and Carvel. No more serene roads or the warmth of the sun reflecting off the rich grass. It’s all been replaced by rows of houses and commercial buildings.

But what will never be gone are my black-and-white photographs and precious memories of what Long Island was like long ago. A time when you could walk across soft pastures of lush grass, stroll to the ice cream shop, and drive on roads that had nothing but beautiful nature for miles and miles. Ah, the good old days.

Reader Joe Gentile lives in Melville.

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