LOCAL VIEW –Cold Comfort–

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The  Atlantic was so hot today that islands in the distance seemed to float over the shimmer of a mirage, like you see shimmering over a hot highway in July. The difference was the Atlantic really wasn’t hot as a highway; it was cool, but the air was frigid.

A gale was blowing straight from the north, and the surf grew manes like charging horses.

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I dressed in my warmest clothes, with my warmest long underwear, for a beach is beautiful in all weathers, except perhaps for women. Personally I prefer bikinis to burkas.

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Somewhere under that bundling was my wife, and her voice was warm, and that really is the main thing that matters.

It has been too long since the summer of love
When it all seemed obvious and simple.
The Woodstock dream was a beckoning dove
That made young maid’s cheeks beautifully dimple
But now those cheeks are like leather and creased
And the beauty is kept sheltered within.
The maid’s lovely smile has now sadly ceased
For she shows missing teeth with her grin.
Time’s tax has robbed those who do not look deep
And see that time improves wives as it does wine.
The superficial fall fast asleep
As others trim lamps for a Guest divine.
As winter draws near in the gathering storm
Be glad when you walk with a voice that is warm.

It is amazing how quickly the mind shifts gears, if you give it half a chance. I suppose that is why some spend so much to seek ski slopes. Being a bit more stingy, (call it frugal), and less able to withstand the terrible crashes which I, as a bad and reckless skier, once amazed (or horrified) all on the slopes with, I find a beach a better place to be when winds get bitter. But the effect is the same.  Senses are sharpened. And it is far cheaper, with off-season rates.

The streets are strangely deserted. You half expect to see a tumbleweed blowing down the ghost-town avenues, but instead must be satisfied with a windblown newspaper. (Rare enough; who reads those things any more?) Not only have tens of thousands of tourists left, but most of the workers who waitress tables and change sheets have fled as well. All that remains is a remnant of humanity, a little like you are in some sort of “Mad Max” movie about Earth after Armageddon. Vast eateries with huge parking lots are completely closed, and only smaller joints remain. And you had best be careful walking into such places. Some are where fellows go when they are unemployed from September to May, and you don’t want to bring a wife there. More upscale, but strangely even more adolescent, are restaurants where men connive how to rip off the public next June, (and I identify such places because all the cars outside have Florida and New Jersey plates, and the men inside wear shiny suits no one on vacation wears, and don’t drink from mugs.)

To eat well, go to a local grocery store. If you insist upon eating out, ask the people at the grocery store. The cashier will tell you she can’t afford to eat out, so my wife asked her where her parents ate out. Or ask the person running the place where you are staying.

To be honest, this research is far more fun than the recreation summer visitors find at night clubs or upon roller coasters or at miniature golf courses. Meeting people is far more fun than mere distractions.

And, if you are fed up with people and really do need a distraction, walk the beach and talk to the gulls. This is actually what drew people to the beach in the first place, though the purpose is defeated when you are elbow to elbow with ten thousand others on towels.  A beach is hardly a beach in the summer. The sands reverts to how a beach should be when the wind chill dips to zero (-17º Celsius).

The gulls are easier to talk to, because they are largely disgruntled. They were overfed during the summer, stealing people’s french fries and hot dogs, and do not approve of the changed circumstances. The sad fact of the matter is that plenty created an overpopulation, and many will not make it to spring. The healthier birds wheel and screech and fight over the sea-clams and dead crabs exposed by the retreating tide, in the acceptably un-spiritual manner of gulls, but many others crouch in the sand, sulking in the gale. The don’t want to fly in the wild wind, and even seem reluctant to waddle out of your way,  for that involves turning their tails to the wind, and the gale then plucks at their feathers, ruffling them like a hand rubbing a cat’s fur the wrong way.  Only with the most uncomplimentary glances your way will they open their wings and be whipped down the beach against the harsh glitter and glare of the wintry sun.

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Even as the lumbering gull is torn downwind, one notices tiny dots skittering to and fro below it, at the water’s edge. I suppose they are some sort of sandpiper. But what seems most incredible to me is that they are even able to survive in the cold.  Plucked they would amount to little more than a couple of tablespoons of hot blood,  and in the windchill two tablespoons should freeze solid in two minutes. Yet they seem utterly untroubled by the cold.  Compared to the gulls they seem downright cheerful. What sort of crazy metabolism burns in them? And what the heck are they pecking at in the sand that fuels such tiny engines?

Whatever it is, I want some.

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When gales dent my eyeballs and wires are singing
And ruffled gulls sulk, before bending downwind,
What sort of fires are sandpipers bringing
To beaches abandoned, where summer once grinned?
They skitter away from the water’s onrush,
Then scamper close to its sizzling retreat,
Untroubled by growling surf’s thump and hush
And running on amazingly unfrozen feet.
My fingers, far fatter, are bitten by frost,
Yet God keeps birds wonderfully warm.
Perhaps they’re a symbol, made for the lost
Who can’t see how they will live through a storm.
We shouldn’t be sure cold can chill to the bone
When Paul wrote great things from the sewers of Rome.

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