I was eating the ice cream as fast as I could but the hot sun and warm wind melted the two large scoops of chocolate faster than I could eat them. My teeth were freezing as drops of melted cream streamed down my hand dripping into the hot sand. I didn’t care though because after finishing the last bite I would run down the beach and jump in the water washing off the evidence of my gluttony. Just another day at the beach for two water rats which was what my brother and I called ourselves then.
I grew up on Bell Island in Rowayton, Connecticut. My younger brother and I were raised by our grandfather, also known as Gran. The ice cream cone came from Hickory Bluff just across the Bell Island Bridge. To this day I think that was the best ice cream I ever ate. Hickory Bluff was a turn of the century old time resort with a small sandy beach and rows of bathhouses that were seasonal rentals. The store sold ice, sandwiches and bait to local fishermen who could rent a boat for ten dollars a day.
The boat we owned was one of these livery boats that Gran bought from Hickory Bluff. I remember the boat included a 5 horsepower outboard motor, a set of oars, anchor, and a few square cushions to sit on that doubled as life preservers. These 16 foot flat bottomed plywood rowboats, although cheaply built, were really good boats. They could hold four men and all their gear for a day of fishing and get them back safely in all kinds of weather. We called them dories but they were really skiffs or rowboats. They were perfect for the shallow water around Bell Island because they were light enough to drag up the beach and over the seawall which got them out of the way of the frequent fall nor’easters.
Growing up on the shore meant our lives were affected by the tides, high tide was for swimming and low tide was for clamming or digging for sandworms. The sandworms had green bodies with seemingly thousands of wiggly red legs. These Jurassic looking creatures had big black retractable pinchers on their heads and were fascinating to us kids. But taking a fish hook and impaling the wiggling worm on it as he tried to bite you was a rite of passage that was a little intimidating. I still get a shiver when I think about it.
East beach, where we kept the boat, was right down the lane from my grandfather’s big old house. The house was built in 1894 by the Fosters, one of the first families on Bell Island, and it had a water view out of every window. The Fosters must have been frugal Yankees because when we went to repair some walls in the house it turned out the whole house had been built out of scrap wood. There wasn’t a straight line in the house and it sagged as much as a foot in the middle. When a nor’easter blew the old house would sway and in big storms this became down right alarming.
The first time my grandfather took me out in the dory I was probably about six years old. We went trolling for stripers on the far side of Sheffield Island, the largest of the Norwalk Islands. We used a trolling rig with a spinner and sandworm. I’ll never forget the first time a fish struck my lure. It was like an electric shock. The power of the fish bent the rod in an ark that vibrated as the line swished through the water. My small arms ached from the struggle but I held on and we landed a fine five pound stripper.
I’d been so involved with the fishing that I didn’t notice the weather had changed. Dark clouds covered the sun and a strong wind began to blow. We pulled in our lines and headed toward the western end of the island. The tide changed and was running fast against the wind over Green’s Ledge as we steered for home. My grandfather sat calmly steering the outboard against the seas. The waves looked gigantic to me but looking back on it now, some sixty years later; the tiderip may have been five feet. I gained some confidence as the dory’s bow rose to every crest. Those boats were light and had tremendous buoyancy and although white caps were all around us we shipped only a little spray.
The sea went down after we crossed the ledge and an hour later we were on the beach. I proudly carried the fish up to show my grandmother. Laying the fish out on newspaper Gran proceeded to teach me how to clean it, later the large white filets basted with butter and lemon tasted great.
When my brother and I were about fourteen we decided to put in a mooring to replace one that had rusted away. We got the old 16 foot dory and put a 250 pound mushroom anchor in it. I started up the five horsepower Johnson outboard and motored out to the spot about 200 yards off the beach where we wanted the mooring to go. Our friend Chip helped us get the mushroom up on top of the gunnel ready to drop over the side. After securing the chain and ball we let it go. Not being a student of physics I wasn’t prepared for the reaction of the boat when released from the weight of the anchor.
The side of the boat shot up into the air catapulting all three of us into the water. No harm done except to our pride. Treading water I looked up at the shore and there was my grandfather looking at us and shaking his head. I knew what he was thinking.
That mooring served us well for many years. When I got the Independence which was a 26 foot gaff rigged cutter I wasn’t sure that a 250 pound mushroom was enough to hold a 5 ton sailboat in a blow so I added an old Oldsmobile engine and shackled it with heavy chain to the mushroom.
Those far away days seem like a soft dream now but I can still feel the rise and fall of the tides in my soul. I can feel the sticky ice cream on my fingers and see the worms wiggling on the hook. I can feel the warm salt water drying on my skin and see the grizzled face of my grandfather with a sly smile and a twinkle in his eye. I still wonder at the mysteries of the deep that stirred the imagination of my youth. They are still there today waiting for another tomorrow.