It was a summer of transition, the beach communities of Fire Island reflecting more than sunlight on their hurricane-mottled sands. To the uninitiated, the island was still the infamous Cherry Grove -- a haven where hidden homosexuals, free of restraint, flamboyantly flaunted their preference in joyous relief. But Fire Island is a series of enclaves, each within a stone's throw of the other, weaving patterns and emitting nuances as separate and distinct as ancient tribes.

It was a political time, 1969. On the docks in Bayshore, where the ferries lined up to carry their city cargo that last leg of freedom, even the pigeons knew their place. The Point O'Woods ferry, freshly painted, its captain natty and polite, was will with proper Nixonian Episcopalians laden with hanging bags for the required jacket and tie, as they sailed to their fenced-in nirvana. The motly Fair Harbor boat with its battle-scarred navigator towed a McCarthu crew, replete with Adele Davis bibles, antitique baubles, bagels from Zabarhs and freshly styled natural hair.

It was the dawn of the end of a time-honored tradition -- women and children ensconced for the summer, the men arriving on daddy boats every Friday night, moving like shadows in and out of an alien, matriarchial society, wreaking havoc on established routines. Jammed on the dock, awaiting the boats, barefoot, their red wagons at the ready for a warrior's luggage, the mothers anticipated warm beds, and the children, presents.

Weekdays in Fair Harbor the women lay on the beach in clusters, speaking of fat, infidelity, Vitamin E -- and a new world. Gene McCarthy would be president. Children would foresake Mallomars for yogurt and poppy seeds. Bras would no longer confine naturally beautiful breasts beating passionately with visions of peace, Peter Max, recycled jeans and unbleached wheat. The women's movement buzzed tentatively over the shoreline, until it lit on this nest of honey that was Fair Harbor. Fires began to simmer; Kate Millet was to be Jeanne d'Arc. Thus armed, resolute, absolute, knowing the way, they felt a mixture of derision and compassion for those they'd leave behind.

On one side of Fair Harbor lies Saltaire, its expensive homes anchored in the same gritty sand, its manicured lawns unseen but felt, its women contained, its children unobtrusive. On the other side sits Lonelyville -- a small patch of sand dotted sparsly with houses of no particular origin, no particular design. In one of those houses there happens to live a man whose masterful, maniacal mayhem knows no boundaries. Mel Brooks came to Fair Harbor beach for a swim one day, and it was then they learned that good friends of his lived in their midst. The friends were in real estate. Their boxy house could not lay claim to the historic grandeur of the box next door, which had survived a sound dunking in the '30s and been retrived intact from the ocean's grasp -- nor were its owners part of the circle that defined Fair Harbor's state of grace. One night, Mr. and Mrs. Brooks came to call. No one saw them slip in, for there was a deck party at the other end of the block, where revelers in work shirts and saris drank Russian vodka and swallowed freshly dug clams. Children raced freely on and off the deck, gleaming bronze mini-gods caressed and chided by their sun-wizened parents. The adults, losing patience and sobriety along about 10, hustled them to sleep and got down to the serious business of steering the cosmos.

Fair Harbor is two blocks wide -- flanked by the ocean and the bay. As the party broke, most of them walked toward the mid-point on their way home. The air was still, the ocean silent, its waves exhausted. And then they heard it -- a swell of laughter, raucous, volatile, voluminous -- pouring through the windows of the real estate dealer's house. He's there. He's there! Of course! They sat across from the house in silence. Minutes passed. Five, or three, or more. And then it would come again -- rich, round, uncontrollable, hysterical. They sat, awaiting the next explosion -- until they were inexplicably caught up with it, their own laughter ringing out in the empty night.

They sat -- lawyers, ad men, brokers, doctors, doers, movers, shapers all, toes curled like knots in the sand, drawing pictures of envy.