The old cassette tapes I find stuffed away in the back of a desk drawer have nothing to do with musical tastes from years ago. They don’t feature the Doobie Brothers or Fleetwood Mac. They’re 8 mm cassettes from an old camcorder used on many family vacations and I’ve been meaning, for eons, to get them converted to a newer format so we can reminisce over our kids’ younger days. Pretty pictures. But I also know there is a difficult image on one of those tapes. A ghost of sorts from a summer long ago.
We’d gone down to the beach that bright August morning to watch the opening, an event that occurs several times each year at Tisbury Great Pond. At 700 acres, the pond is actually the size of a lake, and is frequently dotted with sailboats, windsurfers, kiteboards and kayaks. It sits on the very southern edge of the island of Martha’s Vineyard, just barely separated from the ocean by a narrow strip of sand and dunes known as Quansoo Beach. Periodically, when the level of the pond gets high, a channel is dug across the beach, creating a connection, or opening, that allows water to flow between the ocean and the pond. The influx of salt water sustains the ecosystem of the pond, keeping it healthy for inhabitants such as oysters, white perch, and herring.
From our summer home on one of the pond’s coves, we anticipate an opening like kids waiting for cookies to come out of the oven. As the water level rises, rumors start to spread among the riparian owners, those with properties along the pond’s edge. Will they open it this week? Maybe Wednesday? Is the level high enough? Binoculars in hand, we scan the beach for the plodding excavator, or listen for its rumbling bass, a distinct counterpoint to the cries of osprey and hum of small motorboats. Its arrival is a starter’s gun, commencing a mad dash across the pond, as we sail or kayak or row down to the beach to watch the proceedings.
Everyone who spends time at Quansoo Beach looks forward to an opening because it means playing in the cut — the river that forms between the pond and the ocean after the connection has been made. The cut begins as a relatively narrow channel, maybe thirty feet across on the day it’s created. But the churn and pressure of a few days’ tides gradually broaden and flatten it, creating a shallow byway that beckons to swimmers of all ages. As you float in the cut, the tides carry you in one direction or the other, like a ride at a water park. The wide sandbar that forms at the mouth is like a protective parent, catching you before you’re whisked out to sea. A cut can last for weeks before being closed by high seas or storms. “Is the cut open?” is a question we ask as soon as we arrive at the pond each summer.
But timing is everything when it comes to a cut. A mature cut is benign, a safe place to play. A new cut can be treacherous.
We watched that day as the excavator lifted load after load of sand, piling it to one side of the gully it was creating. I recall our younger son and our vacation nanny climbing up this small mountain to survey the proceedings, then later, well before the digging was finished, crossing back over to the other side of the channel to rejoin our older son, my husband, and me.
The mistake the man made was waiting too long to cross over. When the excavator has just barely completed a link between pond and sea, the flow through a cut is modest, like the runoff in a gutter. Anyone can hop over it. But as the channel grows wider and deeper, the excavator withdraws and the immense force of the pond’s pent-up water takes over. It carves away the sides and bottom of the opening, pulling tons of sand along as it gushes into the ocean. Within a few hours, standing waves several feet tall have formed in the fierce current of the cut.
And yet, to someone not familiar with the process, the water on the pond side of the opening still appears flat, almost tranquil. Negotiable. I didn’t see it happen, but I can describe what must have occurred. As the man stepped into the water, he discovered too late that the seemingly benign sandy bottom had been turned into quicksand by the flow of water leaving the pond. His weight instantly took him chest deep and the current grabbed hold, dragging him into the cut.
I had been using a camcorder — one of those early models the size of a football — to capture scenes of the opening and our kids playing on the beach. After filming the standing waves, as I brought the camera down from my eye, I was startled and then frightened to see a middle-aged man in the surge of water at the edge of the beach. He struggled to stand, but the torrent was too much, knocking him off his feet and carrying him into the ocean.
There was alarm among the onlookers watching the opening, but not many were present. It’s a private beach, always sparsely populated. It has no lifeguards. My husband grew up spending summers on Quansoo and had seen other rare instances where someone was swept out the cut. He’d seen athletic young men launch into the ocean with surfboards to undertake a rescue. But looking away from the sea and down at our sons, ages two and four, he stayed with them on shore. Several people used their cell phones to call 911, but we all knew there could be no speedy arrival of help at this remote stretch of beach.
I raised the camcorder again, not to film but to use its zoom capacity as binoculars. I tried desperately to follow the man’s location, straining my one eye on the camcorder’s monocular viewer, hoping to catch him bobbing out of the water or his arms rising up in a rhythmic swimming stroke, some sign that he was okay. Soon his head was lost among the rippling waves. I continued to look, but as the minutes passed it was clearly futile. Dread replaced my initial shock.
No one seemed to know who the man was or whether he was a strong swimmer. We waited on the sand, staring at the sea with other questions we might not want answered. No one went swimming. No one built sand castles. Finally, we heard the approaching whir of a bright orange Coast Guard helicopter. It headed straight out from the cut and began to scribe circle after widening circle, its pulsing rotors a sad accompaniment to our vigil.
It took a long time to find the body. He had gone so suddenly from being a man, a teacher (I learned later), a visitor in a swimsuit, to being a body. Instead of leaving the beach in a boat or car, heading home for a shower and dinner, his body was placed in a rescue basket and reeled into the belly of the helicopter as it hovered over the waves.
It was a terribly sad day and I wasn’t prepared when it became even more unsettling that evening. While reviewing my filmed clips of the opening, I discovered a haunting image I’d captured unknowingly a split second before lowering my camera. There, in the standing waves of the cut, for just an instant, was a hand reaching skyward. The hand of a person struggling to survive.
A few seconds of videotape and I had become more than a witness, a passive bystander on the beach. I was the unwitting caretaker of an image of this man, still animated, a last sliver in time. It created an oddly intimate connection to a person I never knew, the film a strange heirloom I hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. I never learned why he was at Quansoo that day or whether he’d visited before. Since his tragic death, the local police supervise all openings and string yellow hazard tape on both sides of a new cut.
Did I neglect that video recording, abandon it in the back of a drawer, because of the man’s hand? I don’t think so; I’m a lifelong procrastinator of things both large and small. Someday I will get the tape reformatted and watch it again. I will imagine somehow, impossibly, grabbing that hand and pulling the man ashore, kneeling beside him on the soft sand as he splutters and gasps and fills his lungs with air. I will rewind the film five minutes, ten minutes, and he will still be alive. Walking down the beach. Enjoying the sweet salty breeze. He will remain forever braided into the record of an opening, a family vacation, one summer at a favorite beach. The flash of his hand so brief, almost a wave goodbye.
Image: “camcorder” by jo.sau, licensed under CC 2.0.