The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too
greedy, or too impatient. One should lie empty, open,
choiceless as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh
It’s not that we didn’t see it coming. We did. It’s just that it all seemed to roll around so fast. I don’t even know where the spring went, let alone the summer. I’ve heard that’s how it goes as you get older. I think I heard it right. And we talked about it, discussed our plans now and then, Janice and me.
“You know,” she said a few months ago as we were talking on the phone. “It’s your turn to drive down for Beach Week, right?” Yep, I said. We brought Wilm’s car last year. So this year we’re bringing my truck. “Great,” she said. “I’m working in Philly the week after and need to pick up my rental car at the airport that Sunday when you all drive back. I was wondering. Would it be too much trouble to drop me off there? It’s just a little detour, forty-five minutes or so.” Gaaaah, I thought. And I saw the vast and beautiful expanse of ocean and skies that is Beach Week. Obscured a bit, now, way up there in one corner, by a tiny, tiny little cloud. But a cloud nonetheless. Come on, Janice. You know how I hate cities and big airports. She talked on, quite blithely. “If you drop me off, I won’t have to take the flight from Norfolk to Philly. It’s such a pain, a short flight like that.” Uh, yeah, I can see that, I said, probably over-cheerfully. Of course it’s no problem. We’ll drop you off on the way back up home. And so it was settled. The thing is, I detest cities. And I detest their airports and traffic jams. But still. This was Janice. I’d drive her wherever she asked me to in my truck. We both knew that. So it really wasn’t a problem. But we also knew there would be a little grumping and grouching along the way, to get me to drive my truck into a big old evil city. And that’s how Beach Week came at me this year.
It’s a thing that’s approaching the status of tradition, I think. Beach Week. The core group has done it for years. Four years ago, Janice cajoled me into going. And it was fantastic. So I’m a regular now. It’s just assumed I’ll show up, even though I’m not the most sociable guy to have around. It works, because what Janice promised me was true from the start. You can do what you want, when you want. Which is nothing, if that’s what you want. And no one bothers you or nags you. And there’s still only one rule. No drama, from anyone. Not about anything. It’s a pretty good formula, is what it is.
The departure date arrived, and I headed over in my truck at the unearthly Sunday morning hour of seven o’clock to pick Wilm up. She was smiling and excited and packed to go. We piled all her stuff into the back with mine, jammed it full. Luggage, boxes of baked stuff, bags of tomatoes. Wow, I said. We’ll have Janice and her luggage on the way home, yet. Guess we’ll have to strap some of this luggage in the back of the truck. We’ll worry about that then, we agreed. This morning we’ll think only of the beach, not about coming back from it. And off we went, heading south into a warm and beautiful day. Light Sunday traffic, compared to Saturdays. It’s a scenic drive and all, you just can’t get up to speed much before stopping at the next light. But still, the miles flowed along. We crossed the bridge tunnel around one, and pulled into Kill Devil Hills a little after two o’clock. Janice and her friends Brian and Melanie were waiting for us at The Black Pelican, a local establishment of some repute. We got out and stretched and greeted each other, relaxed and ready for the week. After our traditional pre-arrival feast and a few drinks, we drove on south to Nag’s Head and the Beach House. Still the same old place, looked like. A little more battered, though. A lot of people had passed through and stayed here since last year. But it was still a fine spot to settle in for a week. After unloading and unpacking in our rooms, we assembled upstairs in the main living room. And we pulled open the great sliding doors and walked out on the deck and drank in the sounds and smells of the sea. It’s a beautiful thing, a place like that in a moment like that.
They trickled in a little later, the rest of the crowd. Familiar faces, and a few new ones, too. My nephew Steven and his girlfriend Evonda. Fred. Greg and Courtney. Blake (BJ) and Candace. We greeted each other boisterously. It’s pretty amazing, when you think of it. Most of these people would never cross my path, in the ordinary course of things. They live in other states, in other worlds. We know each other because we come here. And here is where we connect. All of us are just out there living our own lives, plugging along, doing what we do, going to work every day. Carefully scrimping and saving for this week. And setting aside precious time, too. It takes effort and it takes commitment, to take off for Beach Week every year. It just does.
And it was casual and relaxed, as always, that first evening. We had a whole week ahead. We loafed about, claiming our spots on the long dining table to set up our laptops. I seized the one end, like I always do. I didn’t figure to do much writing. But still, you set up, just in case. We talked of the things we had seen and done since last year. And watched the waves come crashing in. Looked a bit rough, for fishing. And we plotted our course for the next day. We’ll need to head out in the morning, to buy some tackle, we decided. I told them, Steven and Greg and BJ. I’ve never seen anyone catching a fish from shore. Not since we’ve been coming down here. Our goal this week is to make sure we don’t get skunked. Someone, at some point, will have to catch at least one fish. That’s just all there is to it. They all agreed. Hey, we were total beginners, when it came to surf fishing. None of us had ever done it before. It seemed a little intimidating, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned it on my last blog, And I told Steven. It’ll be pretty embarrassing, if I have to admit we didn’t catch a single fish.
And the next day, around late morning, we set out in my truck, Steven and me. It’s always a production, a mission like that. First, you have to figure out where you need to go. You have to check out at least two places. And make the best buy the market offers. First stop: Chahoon’s Market, a few blocks out. It’s been a staple for our Beach Week supplies, Cahoon’s. A dumpy little place that has just about anything you might need. Food, groceries, beer, bait, and yes, fishing tackle. We’d checked it out some last year. And we knew right where the rods were hanging on the low ceiling. Looks like cheap junk, I said. I only need it to last this week, though, so cheap is OK. Steven seemed horrified at such a comment. “No, no,” he said. “I’ll take the rods and reels home and clean them of all the salt water. We’ll use them again next year.” His father, Ray, is a builder and a master craftsman who loves and takes care of his tools. And Steven is most definitely his father’s son in that sense. Great, I said, backtracking. Of course we’ll need them next year. Let’s go check out the next place. The Cahoon’s people glanced at us a little suspiciously as we walked out without purchasing anything. They are friendly enough every year, but the place has all kinds of stern little signs hanging around. Want a free ride in a police car? That’s what’ll happen if you shoplift. Which I can’t blame them for. I’m sure they have many incidents of theft during the busy summer months. But still, I don’t like my senses assaulted like that. Not when I’m relaxing at the beach. I like a friendly place, not an uptight one.
We got back into Big Blue, and headed on up north on the main road. I’d seen the place the day before, coming in. And Steven had seen it, too. TJ’s Tackle Shop. It’s a chain down here, they tell me. We got there, and it was real busy for a Monday morning. Other “weekers” like us were stocking up. The parking lot was about filled out. I pulled off to the left into a little mall lot, and we parked and walked in. Nice place. A fishing place. They had everything you could ever imagine you’d need, for fishing the Outer Banks. And we looked around and poked around. Seemed like an expensive place until we found the discount rack. Rods and reels stocked with fishing line, dozens of them. Great prices, too. We hefted and held about a dozen different setups. I picked out a longer, sturdy rod. Bright blue, like my truck. Steven chose two shorter ones. All stocked with reels and line.
I picked up a few pointed PVC pipes. We’d seen it done on the beach, and figured we’d do it, too. Stick the pipe in the sand, straight up. Throw your bait into the water, then set your rod into the pipe. Then lean back in a lawn chair and sip beer and watch the fish catch themselves. In theory, that’s how it happens, anyway. We joined the short line at the counter with our gear. And there they sold us all we needed to go fishing, including our licenses. Except the bait. We stopped in at Cahoon’s on the way back and bought a small box of frozen squid and a dozen bloodworms. And we drove back to the beach house with our treasures. Everyone seemed very excited. We felt very brave. We’d venture out at five, that was the plan.
And we walked out, loaded with our stuff. Four of us. Me. Steven. BJ. And Greg. The tide was creeping in with every crashing wave. We set up a bit back, just inside the edge of the wet sand. Baited our hooks. We had dual hook setups, with heavy sinkers. And for the first time in my life, I cast my fishing line into the ocean from the shore. Surf fishing. That’s what they call it. I wouldn’t have known, except for friends mentioning it in conversation. It was kind of surreal, really. Make an offer to the sea. You have food that we can eat. Show me some of it. I’ve never seen any, not from a place like this.
And we nudged our lines along the bottom as the waves dragged them back in. Now and then we reeled in and recast. And we talked, right along. About ten minutes in, I felt the little tug on my line. I pulled back hard, then cranked the line in. And it came, up out of the sea water like a small ghost. A little flopping fish. I had caught a fish. Yo! I hollered to the others. And they all gathered around in wonder. The first fish from the sea, an ugly little thing of eight or nine inches. Looks like a sucker fish, I said. But still, everyone was excited and congratulated me. It was a big thing. We had done it. Done what we came for.
And we settled down. I think we concentrated a little, but not too much. This was Beach Week. Sure, they had looked it up online, what we needed to do. And we talked to the locals about what bait was best. And you did what you had read to do, and used the bait they told you to use. It was about half serious, I guess. Do what you know, with no expectations. And anything that comes from the sea is just a blessing. Take that blessing when it comes. And don’t stress, if it doesn’t. That’s the mindset we had. Well, after that first fish, it was my mindset, anyway.
And that first afternoon was magical in a way I had not seen before at the beach. It was my most glorious day as a fisherman. I caught three more fish. Small ones, all of them. And the others caught one or two, here and there. Around seven, we gathered our gear, and the stringer with all those fish, and headed triumphantly back to the house. Food. We had brought back food to eat. Steven gutted and scaled our little catch. What meat was left was packed into a plastic bag and carefully placed into a freezer.
At the beach, we eat one formal meal a day. Dinner, or supper, if you’re from the Amish. The evening meal. That first night, we cleaned up and sat around swapping tales as the girls scurried about in the kitchen. Delicious smells drifted about. They were making breakfast for dinner. French toast, taters, maple syrup, coffee, orange juice, the whole works. It was a good and solid feast. Afterward, the men cleaned the table, and we settled in to watch Monday Night Football. The first day was closing down fast.
We joke about it sometimes, down there. After the first day, you might as well wave the week good-bye, because it’s just as good as gone. That’s how fast the time goes. But I didn’t feel that this year, so much. Maybe because I was more relaxed than I’ve ever been down there. Let each day come, I told the others. When it’s gone, it’s gone. And we did all the stuff we usually do. Hung out at the pool in the late morning sun, sipping large glasses of “pool drinks,” delicious light concoctions Janice and Wilm came up with. We putzed around, made a run here and there to the Wings outlets to stock up on half-price T shirts. On impulse, I bought a shark tooth necklace and wore it all week. It’ll be part of my beachwear from here on out. We made quick trips to the grocery store and to Cahoon’s for supplies. Early on, Janice and I made a run to find a place that sold suitable fudge. You have to have good fudge at Beach Week, which is the only place I even eat it all year. And everything was the same as it always was, except for two things.
Late every afternoon, around four or five, we headed out to fish the surf. And every day, I didn’t write. Didn’t worry about it at all. Other years, I was sitting, all stressed at my laptop, right through late afternoon into the evening. This year, instead of sitting there all stressed, I gathered my gear with the others, and we went to the beach instead. There, we fished in the sun. We fished under the clouds. We fished in the wind. It was a beautiful and calming thing. There’s simply no other way to put it.
Just because we’re in a dream world down there doesn’t mean I don’t keep up with what’s going on in the big bad world out there. Nah. I had my laptop, and I checked my favorite sites every day. Posted a pic or two on Facebook, now and then, too. The first fish made it. But back to the outside world. I was hugely gratified to see our Dear Leader, president Obama, get beaten back from starting his own little war in Syria. Not that I was watching, but his lame little excuse of a speech on Tuesday night was just delicious. It’s high time this country wakes up to the murderous scam that is war. No more. Not in Syria. Not in Iran. Not anywhere. Bring all troops home from everywhere, and beat their swords into plowshares. Smash the blood merchants instead. Send them back empty-handed to their evil lairs. I liked it a lot, the way it all went. And Putin, the Russian tyrant and thug, I actually respect him more and more these days. He gave asylum to one of the few true heroes of modern times, the whistleblower Edward Snowden. And now he stymied Obama’s dream of launching his very own little bloodthirsty war. If I believed in the state, I’d be embarrassed for my country, that it’s represented to the world by such an incompetent man-child with a messiah complex. But I don’t, so I’m not. It’s the natural progression of any state, to be led by corrupt, glib-tongued demagogues. If you think there’s a dime’s worth of difference between Bush and Obama, pull your head out of the sand and drop your strident partisanship for two seconds and listen. They’re both warmongers, beholden to the merchants of death. They both represent the evil that is the state. And the state will always devour innocent blood until it implodes on itself like the rotten bloated monstrosity it is. As this state is fixing to do, coming up right soon.
That’s a bit of a rant, to come from Beach Week. Can’t help it, because that’s what I was thinking down there as this stuff unfolded. There’s one more, then I’ll let it go. Our Wednesday at the beach was 9/11. And it was spread all over the world, the great mawkish tributes, the sap and tears. I’m not knocking anyone who does that, if they actually knew someone or lost someone on that day. It would be tough. But most of us didn’t. It’s time to move on, and not make that day one more tribute to the glory of the state. We are far less safe now than when those planes hit those towers. 9-11 was a tyrant’s dream, and Bush wasted no time in gobbling up most of the basic rights any human should have. The state now plays us against each other, as was clear on that day this year. The Million Muslim March got a permit to march in Washington. The two million bikers were refused a permit to march. And they converged anyway, which I supported. Not to stand against the Muslims. I’m sad about that conflict, how Muslims are demonized into farce, almost. It’s so overdone in this country, so craftily fed, but so clear to see. I have no problem with any group marching in Washington at any time. The problem is, these groups spat with each other, instead of recognizing the real enemy, Washington, D.C., and the vast tyrannical state apparatus it operates and controls. It just sickens me, the whole thing. We are far less safe than we were twelve years ago. And far, far less free.
And that’s it, for the rants. The days blended into each other, as they always do. On Tuesday night, Fred and Greg unlimbered their guitars, and we sang. Well, they sang, and we helped along a bit here and there. Good old country tunes. A few hymns. And a ballad or two. And we feasted every evening. The meals just got better and better. Steaks one night. Shrimp boil the next Then came grilled chicken. And hand rolled corn tacos. All washed down with draughts of wine and beer and whiskey. After dinner, people played card games or board games, or just sat around, talking.
And we refined our fishing methods, too, as the week passed. Tried the synthetic bloodworm bait, which actually worked better than the real worms. We rigged new hooks, added a heavy sinker on windy days. It’s like we were connected to our fishing rods, like they were an extension of ourselves. We stood, half mesmerized by the waves, but not. Tense, to feel the slightest tug on the hook from the smallest fish. And yet, relaxed at the same time. It’s a strange thing, to feel that. I’ve never felt those opposing emotions quite like I’ve felt them by the sea.
After that glorious first day, my luck took a dive. Didn’t catch a thing for a day or two, except for one large Blue Crab. He caught himself, as he latched his claw on my bait and refused to let go as I hauled him in. We gathered around and admired him. Angry little sucker, is what he was. After discussing the various pros and cons of adding the crab to our supper pot, I released him back into his home. I caught a few more really small fish on Thursday, I think it was. Might have been Friday. Fish so small we should have cut them up for bait. But we kept them all, and we cleaned them all. Big fish fry coming up on the last day, we figured. The others fared far better than I did. Greg and Steven hauled the fish in by the half-dozen, seemed like. But they were all pretty small, none more than nine or ten inches long.
And then Saturday came. The last day is always a mopey day. Everyone just kind of walks around like zombies, because it’s the last day. The end is near. It didn’t bug me much this time, though. It had been a good week. I was ready to head back home and back to regular life. After that long drive back up on Sunday. Which is one reason I hope we never do Sunday to Sunday again. Well, we will if we have to. But still, Saturdays are so much better, even though the roads are clogged. Because if you get back home on a Saturday, you got one day to rest up and get ready for the week. Get home all tired out on a Sunday evening, and there’s not a whole lot of time between you and Monday morning.
On Saturday afternoon, Greg and Steven decided to give it one more go at fishing. I passed. It was Saturday afternoon, which means there’s some great college football on TV. I’ll just stay here, I told them. Vedge out and watch me some good football. OK. They shrugged. And off they went. And they were gone for hours. I glanced out over the deck a few times, and they both stood there in the waves. Solid, fishing rods on high alert. And I thought, good luck with all that. Around four, someone hollered from down by the pool. Excitedly. I dragged myself from the couch and walked out to the deck. Looked down. And there stood Greg, beaming, holding up the biggest fish I’ve seen anywhere in a long time. A monster, compared to what we’d been catching. I rushed down. What in the world? The thing must have weighed at least five pounds, but that’s just a guess. We measured the fish from head to tail fins. More than twenty-four inches. Greg told me all about how he caught the fish. Good grief, I said. Now that’s worth catching, right there. Later, he and Steven butchered the thing, and found a little fish inside the big one, a little fish about the size of those we’d been catching. That night, for dinner, we ate the monster fish, and a bunch of the small ones, too. The girls whipped up some sort of breading from corn meal, and fried them right up. All of it was just delicious.
And the next morning we all packed up. Cleaned what we were obligated to, which wasn’t much. Throw the towels into the wash room. And bag all the trash. The rental company takes care of all the rest. By shortly after nine, it was done. We gathered in the kitchen for a few quick group pics. Hugged good-bye and headed out. My truck was the last vehicle to leave. We strapped much of our luggage on the back behind the cab, in the open. And then we headed out, Janice riding shotgun and Wilm in the back seat. By now, they were claiming the litle detour to the Philly airport would take a mere thirty-seven minutes, according to MapQuest. I smiled, and didn’t buy it for a second. And we rolled out of the Outer Banks into a clear and beautiful Sunday morning.
We headed north, but things went south pretty much from the start. I needed gas, so after we’d crossed the bridge and meandered down the four-lane highway toward Virginia Beach, I looked for a station. And there, in a small town, was a sign. Gas. I pulled in before looking. The place was packed out, not a pump was free. We escaped as fast as I could maneuver out of there, which wasn’t very fast. Hmm. A few minutes lost. The second station came up ten miles or so down the road. It wasn’t crowded, but it was a dump. The gas pump wouldn’t take my credit card. Janice and Wilm disappeared inside to get coffee, but rushed right back out. The coffee pot had mold on it, they claimed. We left. Strike two. The third one was charm, sort of. The gas pumps worked beautifully, and one was open. The girls went inside and got coffee and breakfast sandwiches for all. Ahh. Much better. We hit the road and settled in.
It was a long day, and a long drive. All I wanted to do was get back to my home. We skirted around Dover, through a hundred clogging lights. Then on through, finally, out on Rt. 13, a free, four-lane bypass. The road was absolutely stacked with trucks and horse trailers and cars and Harleys. Right out in the middle of nowhere, the traffic slowed to a crawl several times for no reason that we could see. Every man and his woman and his dog and his horse were out on this beautiful Sunday afternoon, looked like. We fought our way north and finally connected to I-95. Now, a hop and skip over to the airport, and we’d be home free. Along that stretch, Janice pulled out her cell phone to check the NFL scores. And she glanced at me in mild panic. There’s a game in Philly. They’re playing the Chargers. It’s almost four. The game will be over before we get to the airport. There will be traffic, lots and lots of traffic. I didn’t even sigh. There was nothing to sigh about. It was all just par for the course, when I approach any big city.
Shortly before five, we pulled into the National car rental lot, where Janice had her reservation. The place was jammed with people, of course, but somehow I nudged my truck through to the back where her car was. We all got out, I unloaded her luggage, we hugged quick good-byes, and then Wilm and I took off on I-95 South. The traffic was heavy, but fairly benign. That is, until we pulled off onto Rt. 322 West. Right there, we ran into a football game traffic jam. Two miles long. I didn’t even sigh, at least not much. After creeping along and finally breaking free, we made good time. I walked into my own home shortly before 6:30. Unloaded my stuff. Unpacked what I needed right then. And then, completely strung out, I sat down to watch me some football. I had made it home from Beach Week, evil big city airport and all. And it felt pretty good.
And what wisdom did I gain from standing out there by the sea for hours on end for five days straight? Last year, a grizzled old fisherman stood on that sand, leaning into the winds. He spoke words that I heard, words that made sense to me. This year, I was that guy, a few times. Standing, facing the winds, nursing my line and bait along in the waters, when there was pretty much no chance that I would catch a thing. And I mulled things over a lot, standing there. Just thought of stuff, how it is in life. And somehow, I latched onto one tiny little sliver of new truth. One small new revelation.
It felt incredibly free, down at the beach, to not have any writing deadline to meet. Even a self-imposed deadline like the one for this blog. I’ve been posting pretty steadily right at every two weeks for a few years now. And I realized I want that freedom in my life, the freedom not to post on any schedule. A lot of writers, I think, stretch themselves too thin and burn out, trying to meet the expectations of their readers. And trying to stay consciously relevant, somehow. I don’t want to be such a writer. And I won’t be such a writer. I will be silent when I feel like being silent. And I will speak when I have something to say.
I don’t figure it’s that big a deal, one way or the other. I’ll still write. Just on my own terms, my own schedule. I’ll probably post about every two weeks, because that’s how I’m used to producing. And I’ll always post on a Friday evening, because that’s my time to speak when I choose to do so. But now and then, when I don’t feel like it, or if it doesn’t come, I won’t. If I lose some of you, that’s just how it’ll have to be. Check back every once in a while, if you feel so led. Or subscribe and get notified when I post. Or don’t. Do whatever works for you. Which is exactly what I intend to do for me, when it comes to writing. Whatever works.
Such is the insight that came from the sea this year.Share