Archive for March, 2010

Coatue Conch

Friday, March 12th, 2010

My pulse still quickens when I think about approaching a remote island or shore I’ve never set foot on before.  Long ago my friend Chris and I would take his dad’s boat across Common Flats to Monomoy, a bone of dunes and beaches stretching between Nantucket Sound and the Atlantic. We’d drop the anchor and swim ashore and cross the swales and mount a hillock, pausing to absorb the immensity of the ocean opening before us.  In those days, the wreck of the Pendleton angled out of the water toward the southern end of the island as if it had been thrown from the sky. The island also featured an abandoned lighthouse and a pervading sense of loneliness and spookiness. Then we’d head to the beach to body surf in the combers.  The closest I’ve come to re-experiencing that feeling lately was when we were on Nantucket two years ago and my son, wife, and I rented a Bristol skiff to cruise out to the Head of the Harbor. (Our daughter had chosen to shop in town instead.) The day was brilliantly sunny and hot and breezy. We buzzed to the shallows off Coatue, a briar-thin peninsula, its inner edge serrated with sandy points. We dropped the anchor between Five Fingered Point and Bass Point to take a swim. Only the roof peak of one weathered cottage appeared in the scrub down the beach. The dune grass waved in the wind. My wife and son choosing to stay aboard the skiff, I waded toward shore, the sand soft underfoot, the water warm and sparkling around my calves. Crisscrosses of squiggly sunlight played through the clear water. I spotted a conch shell on the shore. When I picked it up, the conch meat was still inside it, though a gull or another seabird had been working it loose and it slid out of the shell to plop into the water. At least it saved me the trouble of prying it out.  Standing on the shore in the ankle-deep water, the sun hot on my salt-stained back, my swimming trunks soaked but not cold, I got that pull to explore what was beyond the beach and the small grass-fringed bluff. Was a view of the neck of land and Nantucket Sound just a few steps away? Would I see an abandoned fort or the wreck of a pirate ship? What was waiting for me beyond?  Now the shell sits beside me on my table. At first its pungent, salty-and-sweet scent, emanating from its pinkish-orange cochlea, remained for weeks. As the scent thinned over time, I’d put the shell to my nose, and inhaling I would return to the ankle-deep water, the whisper of the wavelets, the magnetic effect of the unknown.

Target Ship

Friday, March 5th, 2010

Years ago military planes practiced nighttime bombing raids on the hulk of the James Longstreet, a decommissioned Liberty ship grounded a few miles off the beach in Cape Cod Bay. You could hear the concatenations from our house in Harwich, on the other side of the Cape. We knew it was “the target ship” even though it sounded like thunder, and sometimes my mom or sister and I would jump in the car and race over to Brewster to watch. During the day if you trained binoculars on it you could see right through the metal that was filigreed by explosions. It was a fixture in the bay for years, a part of the view across the water as long as I could remember.  At low tide it could become distorted, an immense mirage seemingly sitting high and dry on the tidal flats. The planes would sweep in on their bombing runs in single file, unseen in the night till they switched on their angled incandescent spot beams to locate the hulk. Then they’d switch off their lights and drop their payloads, which exploded with a spearing flash and a submarine bombination. Bombing practice became a kind of serious fireworks display, and the show went on for years. The last time I saw it my friend Chris and I raced over in my baby blue Chevy Impala—or was it my VW Fastback?— to watch the ship take another pounding.  Eventually the ship was reduced to smithereens, only fangs of shattered rust standing above the water. The bombing runs stopped, and the remaining steel of the ship was salvaged or taken by the sea. Now the seascape no longer features that haunted sight of a stranded ship, and the nights no longer resound with the thunder of pounding bombs, a sound both thrilling and chilling.