CRY! THE BELOVED COUNTRY
I grew up in northern New Jersey. It was normal to me, living on a strip of asphalt and concrete that seemed to stretch from Washington, D.C. to Hartford, Connecticut, without interruption. I grew up running there too. More asphalt and more concrete. But in high school we eventually came to appreciate “the Jersey shore.” The wide Atlantic beach. The salt marshes of Cape May. Atlantic City before the casinos when the only gambling on the boardwalk was the fat balding guy who tried to guess your age or maybe your weight for 0.25. Asbury Park. Wildwood. The Atlantic Highlands where we fished for blues and doormat flounder in the summer and the big cod in the winter. I puked off many a fishing boat back in the day.
We ran them all when we weren’t messing around with the girls on the beach. Or under the boardwalk. That song is more truth than fiction. The Atlantic beach was packed solidly, we raced from pier to pier, sometimes as far as we could see north or south, then we ran all the way back, usually much slower. We ran barefoot back then. It was before we were informed that barefoot is the way to run. It came naturally. We ran into the marshes on little dirt roads too. They were cooler, mostly deserted places. Sometimes it was a little scary, we would joke about finding a dead body. Actually, in New Jersey back then, as now, it wasn’t that much of a joke. The Sopranos isn’t fiction either, friends. No one knew much or said much about the marshes. Some people and businesses treated the marshes like their personal sewer or garbage dump, we would pick our way around junked cars and washers and there were pools of only the Lord knows what chemicals. Thank God for the awakening environmental awareness in the 1970’s. Sadly lost somewhere in time.
Strange as it will sound, one of my most endearing memories is of the boiling Atlantic Ocean one very cold, very windy winter morning in Atlantic City. We drove the two hours to get there to run on the boardwalk during a time of year when the boards were totally deserted. The sun was just starting to rise over the white caps. All of us were running the boards when the best of us all, Swanny, threw off his sweats, his shirt and his shoes and ran down to the beach and began to run along the beach strand. He was an incredibly graceful runner. As fast and as hard as we could run the boards, he outpaced us all on the sand. And as he started to pull away I remember slowing down to watch him. He passed between us and the barely rising sun in the east, it backlit him such that all I could see was his huge graceful stride from the waist down, the rest of him momentarily disappearing, all consumed by the rising sun. Then he strode out of that fiery orb as though he had been granted an instant of Godspeed. An incredible moment frozen in time on the Atlantic beach in winter, never to be repeated.
I left New Jersey for Boston and college. We ran a lot along the River Charles and less frequently on the sand dunes of Scituate. It was a tough, tough run. It was a breathtaking run too. One night we got drunk as coots and drove to Maine or New Hampshire, I don’t know which, to run along the rocky shores until we couldn’t run any more. Then we ran back, wondering where the hell we had parked that damn car. We ran Rockport. We ran the hilly roads along the beach in Gloucester too. Once on another Gloucester visit I ran right past John “the Elder” Kelley, whom I had met while running the Boston Marathon in 1968 or 69. I hadn’t seen him in many years. It was around 1985 when this bent over, wizened, and whiskered man plodded by in the opposite direction. He was wearing Bermuda shorts and a long sleeved dress shirt. I glanced his way as he went by and dismissed him without a second thought. About three strides later there was this booming “Hey, Cherr!” from behind. Wheeling around, it was Kelley standing there with that little gleam in his ancient Irish eyes. Johnny Kelley…now, how in hell did he remember? Maybe the old Gloucester magic. Life’s a beach some might say.
I left Boston a biologist and moved to Florida to become an oceanographer. I did. Instead of puking off fishing boats, I now puked off of research vessels. We ran the nearly deserted beaches at Dog Island when we could find a boat ride out there. I ran buck nekked for miles on Cape San Blas before there was anything there except a $2/night campground with one hot shower stall. It was (not) aptly named Cape San Blas Resorts and it was a bargain let me tell you. I ran along the gulf beaches late one starry summer night on Cape San Blas and wandered into the shallow surf thigh deep to look at the Milky Way. Unbelievable that there could be so many stars so bright at one time. Close enough to reach out and touch. Then I felt something. I didn’t see it or hear it, I just felt it’s presence. I looked down. Within an inch of my leg was a bottlenosed dolphin who was doing the same thing that I was, star gazing. He was huge. We locked eyes for what seemed forever. Time ceased to exist. Do you question that you are part of something much greater? Don’t.
There have been other places and even other oceans. Big Sur where the mountains drop dramatically into the Pacific. San Francisco Bay. Muir Woods to Tamales Bay (what a place!), St. George Island, Key West and Fort Lauderdale, Fernandina Beach and Jacksonville Beach and Amelia Island and Virginia Beach and Norfolk more recently. I’ve run them all. Beaches and marshes. Crowded and deserted, winter, spring, summer, autumn. Morning, noon and night. I’ll bet that you have too.
But here is what is driving me now: Back in the day I worked for several months in the Louisiana oil patch. Maybe 1973. Diving around oil rigs, doing geological work among the roughnecks. Huoma. Grand Isle. Timbalier Bay. Barataria Bay. Terrebonne Bay. Sweet humid buggy places populated by tough, no nonsense, salt of the earth people, who worked hard and asked for very little in return. I didn’t understand them then, but I do now.
The marshes were stunning. The cradle of life in there one should justifiably say. An oceanographer could appreciate it. A runner could appreciate it. Anyone and everyone can appreciate it even if they do not totally understand all of the complicated interactions necessary to support life. Our life. Your life. Our lives. And recognize the fragility and dependence of life. The marshes were, are, a living, breathing interrelated, interconnected being. We do not stand alone. We are a part of, not apart from. Do not delude yourself.
I ran mile after deserted mile in the marshes. At low tide the water would come to within 3″ of the road. At high tide you had about an inch to spare. A little wind and you ran ankle deep in the water and looked around for alligators. So not deserted miles after all. Herons and egrets, songbirds, ducks and crabs and shrimp, diving birds and gulls, nutria and bobcats, frogs and toads and snakes. And above all of it, keeping their silent vigil, small battalions of soaring pelicans usually in formation, skimming barely a few inches over the waves.
The dolphin have fled. The pelicans die flapping their flightless wings on the beach, oil coated and confused. Dead sea turtles upside down on the beach with their necks hanging at an obscene angle, heads resting on the sand, baking in the sun. The invisible life that we rarely if at all appreciate, dead and dying. I can feel the death rattle as the marshes contort and try to breathe. Then expire. Louisiana. Cry, the beloved country.
That’s what I will think about when I next run the beaches. Or the marshes. Or any ocean, in any bay. Some things cannot be forgiven. Some things cannot be forgotten. We are all to blame. We have got to make this right. You cannot just turn away.
What will you think about the next time you run the beach? What?