Featured Story

Island bookshelf: Crazy summers

Viewers of “CBS: Sunday Morning” over the last three decades, and readers of the New York Times before that, have come to know Bill Geist as an entertaining observer of idiosyncratic people and customs all across America. His latest work is a memoir of his teenage years working in a family-owned resort at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. 

The Arrowhead Lodge at the lake was owned by his Uncle Ed, a big man who liked Cadillacs, scotch and cigars. He ran the Lodge as his own kingdom, peopled by a cast of cooks, teenage summer workers and guests who came year after year, usually leaving with a rubber tomahawk and a souvenir ashtray.

Bill Geist’s son, Willie, a journalist on NBC and MSNBC television, has interviewed his father on the air about this memoir, which the son claims took 40 years to write. Bill Geist laughs at that, but in a recent interview with the Reporter, he re-traced the steps he needed to complete it. His last summer at the resort was 1968, and he went back to visit in 1977 and compile some notes. He returned again in 1987, and phoned a lot of the people he’d worked with to flesh out the recollections. “We had a reunion at Lake of the Ozarks two years ago in the fall,” he said. “About ten of us showed up. The Lodge was gone, torn down in 2007, but we had a lot of fun sharing the memories.”

It is terribly tempting to share some of the funny scenes in the book, but I won’t deprive the reader of those laugh-out-loud moments I enjoyed while reading it. Suffice it to say that any of us who can recall the jobs we worked as teenagers – even at some Island establishments – will recognize the messes involving food, dirty dishes, colleagues who got overserved and left the hapless crew to improvise and customers who somehow survived the chaos.

As a young man who spent his summers at the Lodge, with a larger-than-life uncle running the show, Bill Geist gained an appreciation of the human circus that he’s honed over the years to entertain us. His self-deprecating wit – usually describing himself as a skinny red-haired kid barely knowing how to cope with adolescence, girls, booze, etc. – is part of the pleasure of seeing this strange world through his eyes.

Mr. Geist became widely known as a raconteur of the off-beat and mildly bizarre in New York City when he was writing for the Times, so much so that people would phone him with tips that other reporters might fail to appreciate. “One fellow called to tell me that there was a car parked in front of a barber shop on the Upper West Side for several days. People in the neighborhood thought it was weird that no one had stolen it,” he said. “I went up there and talked to some kids on the street corner. Their theory was that it was a “plant,” put there by police to entrap some unsuspecting car thief. It had finally been there so long that the city didn’t know what to do with it. So they crushed it.”

Although he suggests that he only had time to finish this book once he retired from CBS, where he started in 1987, he has actually completed nine books, one with his son Willie, entitled “Good Talk, Dad…the Birds and the Bees and Other Conversations We Forgot to Have.” 

Since buying a house on the Island more than twenty years ago, he and his wife Jody have spent most of their summer weekends here and will probably have even more time to enjoy it now. “I guess I’ll be on a new schedule,” he said, “since I retired in September.” Jody is on the Board of Trustees of the Shelter Island Library and arranges guest speakers for its Friday Night Dialogues.

Their daughter Libby and her two sons, ages 5 and 6, spend a lot of time with them on the Island. Their son Willie has less time to visit because of his television work schedule. He will, however, be speaking at the Library’s Annual Book Luncheon on June 22 at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club, where he’ll introduce novelist Adriana Trigiani. 

“When we’re on the Island we hardly leave our own yard,” Bill Geist said. “We’ll hang out at the pool with the kids or take them down to Wades Beach.” Once they discovered the Island and bought a home here, they quickly learned to adapt to the Shelter Island state of mind. “You never utter the word ‘bridge,’” he said.