I grew up on Onset, Massachusetts. We did not have a park or a playground in the section of town that I called home, Point Independence. We had something much better: the beach. Onset sticks out into Buzzards Bay, like chubby fingers on a child’s hand, spread out in the Bay so that each finger is surrounded by water on three sides. It is difficult to drive around Onset without catching glimpses of the Bay. My street ends at the water, ending about two feet above the beach sand. In the years since I left home the boat population has soared and what used to be Janes’ Yacht Yard (Now Safe Harbor and Onset Bay Yacht Sales) and the Point Independence Yacht Club have both grown in size. We used the Maple Street drop off as one way to get to the beach, at low tide that is; at high tide the water comes up to the drop off.
There is a lane directly down to the beach from our old house and that was always a better choice to get to the beach, otherwise one would have to walk a couple of blocks on the main street to get to a better access point for the beach. Yet, thanks to the finger effect of the shoreline, there is a lot of tourist friendly beach in Onset. The shore was so curvy, that it gave the impression that it had been laid out by a capricious artist, who carved and chiseled the shore, curving this way and that, at whim. The part of Onset Beach that we claimed, west of the Point Independence Yacht Club, was a low frills kind of beach. There were ropes with flotation devices to denote the swimming area, but no life guards or rafts, that I remember. Those were at the main beach in town that attracted the tourists who didn’t rent houses in Point Independence.
Having grown up near the inlet waters of Buzzards Bay and so close to the Cape Cod Canal, I have always had a fascination-fear relationship with water. Most of the bad storms that came our way were nor’easters, and they can be pretty bad. Plus the fact that we always lived close to the beach probably increased the fear factor. In Point Independence, the beach and thus the Bay were about two hundred yards down the lane. When we lived at the Union Villa, we were just across the street from the beach and the pier. For me at least, that proximity to big water made it that much more fearsome.
If you do not live in New England or the Northeast, you can learn more about Nor’easters from the National Weather Service. But let me share a picture. I arrived home in Onset on October 17th, the day after a Nor’easter had gone through the area. Actually, it lasted a little longer than a day. It was sunny but very windy when I blew into town. The water was only a little choppy, but it seemed like more than a typical high tide, and the water was an angry green. I had to take the picture from my car because the wind was strong enough I could not get my door open more than a few inches.
There were hurricanes that made it up to Massachusetts in the 1950’s (and certainly later too). One memorable Hurricane in the 1950’s one lifted up one of the snack bars in town off its moorings (Kenny’s Salt Water Taffy). There were booklets published with pictures of all the local storm damage. As young as I was, I still shiver when I think about the high water mark of those hurricanes. There was a beach front house that had a large privacy wall. It was the last house on the left on the lane at the beach. Walking past that wall and seeing the high water mark that was several feet above my head, in a place that normally the water didn’t even reach at high tide, gave me shivers for sure, as well as a healthy respect for water.
There was a dirt lane that went from the edge of our property all the way to beach front. It served as a kind of service road I suppose, and was a good path down to the beach. When I remember those storms, mom is still my hero. She had a knack for making it seem like everything was okay, or trying to make a game out of it, even if she was scared. The wind drove the rain sideways as it pelted our windows. We couldn’t help but wonder if the water would make it all the way up to our home. She moved the overstuffed chairs from the living room to the dining room to be closer to the heat and we sat at the table playing parcheesi and rummy and probably even fish. The storm windows were full length windows, with thick wooden frames and they latched over the regular windows somehow, and shook and rattled in the strong gales of the hurricane winds and shook our bones as well.
In June, July and August, the beach was a great place for sounds as well as sights. You could hear the voices from a hundred different conversations going on at once, blended in with the static from transistor radios. The voices of life guards calling through megaphones to kids fooling around on the rafts, were mixed in with the cries of circling seagulls. There were other sounds as well coming from the snack shack. You could hear the sizzle of hotdogs or hamburgers frying on the grill, the boiling sound of the oil, as baskets of French fries and onion rings were dunked into them. Then of course, there was the ca-ching, ca-ching of the cash register being rung up, and the occasional sound of coin wrappers being hit on the side of the register to break them open as the coins fell into their holders. Even today when I see a cashier do that, I think of an egg being cracked open and its contents spilled onto a hot griddle or frying pan.
Beaches are inviting places, even to the locals and when we went out to play during the summer, it was most often to play at the beach. We went to lay on the hot crystalline white sand, to dig in the water logged sand at low tide and try our hand at sand castles, not unlike the tourists.
We went to swim or wade in the water, dodging seaweed and crabs and the gasoline rainbows left by the motor boats and yachts. We even collected sea shells and carried sand pails. As a rule, the locals didn’t own or carry beach umbrellas, we sold them. We didn’t wear tee shirts that said “Cape Cod Massachusetts,” we were there for the duration. Not that we resented the tourists; that was how many families, including mine, earned a living. But in a sense, the tourists were fair-weather friends. When the warmth was gone, the wealth was too. Maybe that’s why we called them “summer people.”
It was in Onset that I first learned about the musical qualities of water. I remember the woosh-swish sound of the water, rising and falling on the beach, as though the bay were breathing. Although I moved away from there almost fifty years ago, it takes very little effort to recall the sound of the water climbing and falling up the gentle slope of our little beach. It is streams and creeks that are most noticeably musical. If you stand besisde a creek long enough, you can begin to discern the sound of notes and tones as the water rushes over various shapes and sizes of stones, rocks, boulders, sticks and fallen trees. The creek seems to sing as it passes by, the larger the rock, the deeper the tone: it is the music of the earth and sea.
My connection with water is undeniably sentimental and very much rooted in my childhood, but it is so much more. It is a connection with life itself that is both sensual and spiritual. I cannot drive by water without wanting to stop and admire it, whether it is a stream, lake or ocean, man made or natural. I want to know every stream I cross; I want to know the width of the stream, and the quality and depth of the water. I steal looks as I pass by, snatches of observations, to peer into the clear water and see the outline of every rock that lines its path. I don’t name the streams or call them mine, but I notice when they are low, when the huge rocks often covered with speeding water are dry and bleached looking. Sometimes the streams overflow their banks with café-au-lait colored water, moving at a clip that would suggest it was being chased by something much bigger, more fearsome than itself.
As a child I learned to ride in the car with one eye on the road and one eye on the canal or bay and that is the way I drive now. One eye on the road ahead, and one eye out for any body of water that does me the kindness of running parallel to the road on which I am traveling. Often, it is the Susquehanna River. Sometimes it is Sugar Creek, Towanda Creek or the Tioga River. I drive with a sense of longing, wanting to stop, to ponder and drink in the view, though I can’t drink the water. When the river and streams are overflowing, muddy and moving fast, that same fascination-fear pulls at me to stop and gaze. But I drive on as though some weight were holding my foot to the gas pedal. Though I seldom stop, I do not drive on without noticing or longing. In Psalm 42:7, the Psalmist wrote. “Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me.” Deep calls to deep, and so it is with me.