Swept Away By The Sea

Death was imminent, but we persevered

Land’s End, Bailey’s Island, Maine. Photos can’t do the sight justice. All photographs by Will Pennington.

Waves crash still against the granite rocks we clambered upon in those years when fear of death held no sway over us. Dangerously ignoring the power of the sea to crush, to sweep away, to erase our young lives in the curl of a wave, we laugh as we grip cliff-side fingerholds until the sea recedes and we lower our legs and toe another thin sliver of rock to the next toehold and the next and the next before lifting our legs again to keep from getting wet.

At the bottom of the Giant’s Stairs at Land’s End.

The chunk of granite kicked loose left Dan Wetherbee with four stitches in his scalp, but his sense of humor survived. The scar was insignificant, but the memory brings Dan — and Terry, Gene, Steve, Mike, and Dave — back all these years later. My, the memories we made in those cold winter days before our first deployment.

The ferocious “Storm of the Century” that ravaged the coast of Maine that winter in 1978 excited us beyond all measure. As soon as we could, we piled into Terry’s Thunderbird and raced to Bailey’s Island to witness up close the terrible power of nature. The gift shop that stood on pilings over the inlet was gone, its timbers and roof tiles washing in and out with the sea. The howling wind tore spume from the crests of waves as the mighty ocean rushed in and beat upon the granite cliffs in its millions-of-years old shaping of the shoreline.

Land’s End at Bailey’s Island, Maine. The gift shop stood to the left. Below the house are the granite cliffs we clambered on. They wrap around out of sight. Halfway Rock Lighthouse in the distance.

Later, after the storm became a memory and the sun shined bright again, we toted cases of beer, collected firewood, and walked out to Fox Island before the tide came in and cut off the narrow strip of land connecting island to mainland at Popham Beach. In the shelter of the rocks, in the waning daylight, we made a fire and drank our beer while listening to WBLM on Mike’s radio, roasting marshmallows, eating potato chips and pretzels, and making small talk that made the night a lazy, comfortable conversation. The crashing of waves in the background, the distant hum of passing P-3 Orions, the clanging of buoys and call of gulls cast a spell of magic over the evening.

My baby. P-3 Orion from Brunswick Naval Air Station.
The view to Popham Beach from Fox Island.

My own thoughts carry me away to meditate, to reflect as I gaze across the water. The hypnotic sound and motion of sea and wind, crashing wave and crying gull become a lyric in the song of the universe.

The earthly presence of the granite beneath me, the salt air and the pungent odor of decaying sea-wrack give way to the ethereality of thought and I wander among the swirling conversation of fifty-thousand years of human consciousness.

Distant, the cool wind whispers for attention as it lifts goosebumps along my arms. One moment I remark the lobster boat chugging by and the next I have crossed the threshold of subconscious that is called lost-in-thought by some, daydreaming by others, out-to-lunch by the unimaginative. My mind, loosed from its temporal bonds, soars weightless across dimensions of time and space.

Unguided, the primal inhabitant of my intellect steps out and journeys through the immeasurable reaches of my thoughts among those places where consanguineal connections remain, where tucked away are hopes and dreams, remnants of my dim and distant ancestors from the dawning of intelligence at some point lost to time.

I am they.

They reach to me as I gaze, softly breathing, at the vanishing point of awareness, the same as that part of me that reaches back hundreds of generations. In the marrow of my bones I feel a tug as from a familial thread connecting me to a past that calls for me to remember. Briefly our conversations mingle before light separates me from the dark that birthed me.

The moon kisses Fox Island twice a day breathing life into her then sucking it away with equal romance. Fox Island is fixed to Earth, immovable, yet twice daily ceases to exist although its ancient granite bones never disappear and seagulls are free to drop mussels upon those bones to loosen the nourishing morsels trapped within. When the island breathes again, the granite bones haven’t changed perceptibly and the seagulls carry on as they always have, unaware of the miracle below them.

The wind nudges me, or is it the echo of my people? I stir, remembering.

Fox Island, Top. Low tide causeway to Popham Beach, Bottom.

Some hours later, near midnight, the beer gone, the flaming marshmallows eaten, and the island explored, the tide recedes. We extinguish the fire, gather our belongings, and leave Fox Island. We walk across the damp sand, up the beach, cross the empty parking lot, cut around the gate that states “Park Closed Until Spring,” and pile into Terry’s T-Bird, talking and joking during the drive back to our Navy base.

We’ll return to Popham Beach and Fox Island again and again and again until one day, many, many years later, we will find no parking signs erected up and down the road and discover within our mature selves an unwillingness to risk a fine and we’ll drive on by, regretful of growing older and wiser.

Another view of the low tide causeway to Fox Island.

Thank you for joining me on this sentimental journey to my late teen years.

3 thoughts on “Swept Away By The Sea

    1. Haha! I was waiting for someone to ask! Seven on that trip. Not everyone had a car in those early days of our Navy careers. So we’d pack in like sardines just to get a ride off base. The tough drives were going to concerts in Portland, Augusta, and Boston. Whew – Lord help the guy who got sick….


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