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The Shipwreck Rose: Gold Dust

Wed, 06/26/2024 - 18:07
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What do pessimists find on the beach? Not much. (A red Solo cup, a broken beach chair, a discarded doggie doo-doo bag. Only the worst stuff.) If you have a negative mental outlook — in regard to the prospect of tripping upon treasure — you won’t be habitually looking down to scour the sand with your eyes, and therefore you won’t find anything good. That is my version of life advice, my corny fable: It’s the incorrigible optimist who finds the pirate gold.

I’ve always walked the beach fully, wholeheartedly expecting the treasure of Captain Kidd. Why not? It’s out there. I’ve read “The Pirate Hunter” by Richard Zacks. Also, I had it on good authority from my redheaded father, when I was 3 or 4, that Captain Kidd left interesting things behind when he departed Gardiner’s Island in 1699 — headed for his final bow on Execution Dock at Wapping — and my father had it on good authority from his grandfather, Capt. E.J. Edwards, who knew Gardiner’s Bay better than anyone, and E.J. had it on good authority from his father, Capt. Josh Edwards, and so on straight back to 1699, so there you go. There is — at least, and in my opinion — a cornelian ring out there, wish-washing back and forth in the lull and tide of saltwater time, or a silver bar from Madagascar, somewhere within sight of that familiar but forbidden island, so close and yet so far. “Rubies small and great” was the phrase on the manifest compiled on July 25, 1699. Bags of gold bars, bags of gold dust.

Just as the outline of the seagull against the sun is almost never, to my astigmatic eyes, a seagull but always a harrier hawk, or possibly even a falcon, so is a beach stone almost never just a beach stone. Habitually my astigmatic eyes rake the sand for the rare natural gemstone. It’s never just milky-orange chalcedony, it’s always crystalline rose quartz. It’s never just rose quartz, it’s obviously an amethyst! This is delulu, to borrow the kids’ wonderfully singsong slang, but it’s only the delulu treasure hunter who actually finds the amethyst or the gold, eventually. The pessimist gives up or never tries.

The word “loot” retains a magic allure.

The most spectacular piece of loot ever found on the beach by a member of my family was a human hand. You read that right. My aunt Mary once found someone’s hand on the beach. I mean, she found the bones of someone’s hand, the metacarpals and proximal phalanges, with some of the distal phalanges, the fingertip-bones, missing. Just the bones, striped white and perfectly clean. It could have possibly, actually been the bones from the flipper of a dolphin or porpoise, but I really don’t think so.

We were out on one of the regular rambles we used to take — back before full tick-fear and tick-loathing set in — and walked up upon the hand by the water line. We couldn’t just leave it there. This was before cellphones. A gull might carry it away if we left it on the shore, so my aunt Mary folded the hand into a piece of paper towel (that had been wrapped around a plum for our modest beach picnic) and tucked the hand into her purse, and then we continued our walk, and when we were done with the walk, the hand went into the trunk of her Buick, and we drove with the hand in the trunk of the Buick back to Promised Land, her boutique on Newtown Lane. Then she picked up the phone and called the police.

The police found all of this very concerning. They came to the shop and questioned my aunt Mary for a long time. “Like they thought I was a murderer who had saved a souvenir,” she said, smoking her Gitanes as she sat on a stool behind the glass-case jewelry counter, among her racks of bohemian batiks from Bali and jewel-tone string bikinis.

The best thing I personally ever found on the beach in my life — not in terms of intrinsic value but in terms of the emotional “wow!” factor — was an egg-shaped plastic toy car, the size of a real egg, when I was 6 and we were on our big family trip to Great Britain. My family didn’t take a lot of vacations, because newspaper families never get days off. We were in a seaside hotel. The shore was rocky, hardly a beach at all. There was fog. The British people didn’t eat the skins of their potatoes. There was a one-armed-bandit slot machine in the barroom of the ferry over. The egg-shaped plastic toy car was green with yellow wheels. It seemed a fantastic treasure. I’m sure it’s here in this house, somewhere, possibly in the closet of my childhood bedroom upstairs (its engine revving and wheels turning as I talk it back to life). Actually, now that I  think of it, it’s almost certainly in the cowhide-covered wooden trunk that, being a somewhat eccentric child, I bought at an antiques fair at Mulford Farm when I was 12 to keep my secrets and treasures in.

The memory of the exciting egg-shaped plastic car reminds me of how grandparents in books and movies used to always insist that the navel orange in the toe of their Christmas stocking thrilled them with shivers of excitement and delight. It did? Really? How much more, in this material world of 2024, is required for children’s delight. My own children at 6 or 7 would have kicked the egg-shaped plastic car with the toe of their Adidas and walked on.

We are approaching the peak week of all the year for beach treasure: the days just after the Fourth of July. I’ve always loved the promise of leftover fireworks on the beach, the cheap jetsam of a bottle rocket dropped accidentally in the drunken dark . . . or, at least — and to me a consolation much more delightful than a navel orange — the leftover paper packaging of the fireworks, which was spectacular, a form of folk art that — as I write this I realize — may not be familiar to younger readers. I urge young readers to look it up. Red tissue-paper packets with labels featuring phantasmagoric images of bats and rockets, boxing gloves and black cats, volcanoes and sailor girls and shooting stars and spacemen.

The Surfrider Foundation calls July 5 the “dirtiest beach day of the year,” and I know they are right. “After the Independence Day celebrations close, all the firework smoke has faded, and friends and family have made their way home, America’s treasured beaches are often left covered in trash,” Surfrider says, inviting us to go down to the sand on July 5 to pick up the dirty diapers, the Topo Chico hard-seltzer cans, the Michelob Ultra bottles, the pessimist’s morning-after harvest. Okay, Surfrider Foundation, okay. You are right.

We were a filthy bunch in the 1970s. Fourth of July was a huge, big deal on Gardiner’s Bay in that decade, with dueling parties at Devon Yacht Club and George Plimpton’s beach house in the dunes next door, and dueling fireworks displays. We held a gigantic gathering of 100 or 200 friends, ourselves, on our beach directly opposite Gardiner’s Island, perhaps half a mile across the water from Cartwright Shoal, with Devon and Plimpton to the left, to the west, and the abandoned fish factory at Promised Land to the east. A dance band would play at the yacht club, and the music would carry over the water. At the height of the festivities, just as the sun sank behind the Bell Estate and just before the first chrysanthemum bang and fusillade, our crowd would all shout as loudly as we could, together, and get the crowd at Devon and the Plimptons’ to shout back in call and response. Hundreds of people screaming at each other, unintelligibly, hilariously, across the bay. Shouting so loud as to rouse Captain Kidd’s ghost.

Mind you, it does occur to me — more than half a century since I was instructed by my father to scan the beach assiduously and with hope in my heart for Kidd’s treasure — that my father didn’t really believe we would find gold dust but was attempting to lure me with the possibility of pirate loot because he had an ulterior parental motive: getting me to agree to go for a trot on the beach instead of sulking indoors with a Fudgsicle and a “Betty and Veronica” comic book. In any case, my father’s pirate ruse worked. Perhaps all too well. I’m still looking. Only yesterday I found some special silvery jingle shells at Northwest Landing, coinlike and reflective and not yellowy as common jingle shells are. I bet they’re rare. They are clearly rare. I think they would make nice sequins for a tribal dance dress, if I were in need of a tribal dress or had any appointments to dance in a circle around a fire. There's always hope.



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