BY TERRY BRADY
Year after year the cove was changing. He couldn’t stop it, but he wasn’t about to join it, either. So this hearty helping of pure saltwater Americana went on living the shore life he loved for more than 60 years, often to the chagrin of his snooty, newbie neighbors.
When his aging, wooden Chris-Craft with red, white and blue shiplap entered the “no-wake” zone after a day of ocean flounder fishing, it was throttled up just enough to make the mushrooming runabouts and Ski-Doos dance a bit in their moorings. Their owners would scowl, of course. Even complain.
But usually they reserved that for when the old man of the cove broke out the cracked corn and fed his resident flock of beloved mallards and Canadas: “Those feathers are everywhere!” don’t ya know. “And those damned geese are messing on our docks … ” And when he cleaned his catch of blue crabs or fish at day’s end, the gulls would flock to his scraps. And crap on their boats.
Like the working farmer surrounded by suburbanites whining about smells and noise, this aging Long Beach Islander had stayed too long. In recent years, it seemed there always was someone on the cove trying to change what drew him to his New Jersey coastal retreat. Or protesting what he retired to enjoy more than 30 years ago.
No matter. When the newbies shuttered their three-tiered, multidecked “beach houses” in October and left for seven months, the humble bungalow those structures dwarfed shined the brightest. A house that always was a home, it shouted warm seasonal greetings with its carved pumpkins, Yule lights and decorated eggs. And always, its owners made fellow fishermen and boaters feel welcomed.
Here, framed by surf poles racked on knotty pine walls, I dined on fried blowfish for the first time and downed golden crab cakes rivaling the best on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Here I was shown how to skin an eel, and clean a crab in seconds with a hose and a spoon. Here I learned how to properly tie off a boat in the face of a storm; find hungry blues early and departing fluke late; and how to cash in on the late fall run of stripers feeding on sand eels — and hitting surgical-tube teaser rigs my neighbor tied himself. Not surprisingly, his boat always was the last to be pulled when autumn came to the cove.
Migrating monarchs or brant geese. Stranded baby terrapins or wayward muskrats. No matter the topic, this sometimes neighbor of mine often had the answers, always an opinion. So I sought him out often during the 30 years I came to really know him. I was not alone. To the newspaper reporters that came in spring 2012, the crusty islander with short temper and long memory was the mother lode of information when it came to looking back. Way back to the other big storm — the March 1962 nor’easter that, until Hurricane Sandy, defined devastation on the Jersey coast.
“Your grandmother’s home is gone,” announced a tearful mom. “It’s been washed into the bay.”
That’s how I, a then-high school student, learned of the so-called Ash Wednesday Storm of March 6-8, 1962. Last time I saw that cedar-shake encased summer retreat it was on the front page of bigcity newspapers and national magazines, floating in Barnegat Bay. It was among hundreds of homes scoured from the island as the ocean met the bay for two days in Harvey Cedars. It had stood next to the home of the old man on the cove.
When most borough homes tumbled into the sea, his did not. It was left standing on the edge of a newly formed inlet, stark testament to fickle waters of fate. The then-42-year-old counted his blessings and later had a heck of a story to tell when reporters came around last spring to recount the “big one of ’62.” Photos of him and his wife wading around in hip boots as well as repairing damage and cleaning up debris, along with his account of picking up the pieces 50 years ago, were the backbone of several special anniversary supplements.
Tragically. Ironically. Incredibly, that trip back to a deadly, devastating storm of yesteryear would serve as a real-life prequel of what eight months later would befall our old man of the cove and his home — a home that had stood for more than 60 years, through so many other storms, so much other high water. When his neighbors rebuilt and remodeled again and again after the 1962 storm, they did so on dozens of pilings, taking their homes above future damaging waters. A foundation of cinder block in some areas was no match for what was to come on Oct. 29, 2012, when the second costliest hurricane to hit the United States engulfed the Jersey coast. Once again the bay surged over bulkheads, ocean waves again rolled down some of the streets in Harvey Cedars and swelled the normally tranquil cove.
Once again the old man’s home was threatened. This time there would be no miracle. High water had damaged the foundation to the point where the house no longer was habitable. Returning to the island after mandatory evacuation he and his wife found their house surrounded by police tape, off-limits. Their always warm house no longer was a home, it was condemned.
A younger man would vow to rebuild. Battling respiratory ailments often linked to an oxygen tank, what’s a 92-year-old man to do?
He is not alone in his suffering, to be sure. Hundreds of lives lost; damage along the East Coast topping $71 billion. The media dutifully recorded the carnage, the free-flowing tears, and the names and streets of the homeless, but, because of privacy and other issues, you won’t find my old neighbor’s name and address here. Just his tragic tale that deserves to be told.
In the late autumn of his life, he wanted little more than final days comforted by his cozy home. And perhaps the ability to watch mossbunker again dimple the cove waters next spring, or hear the purple martins return to his backyard nesting boxes. Maybe help a diamondback hatchling or two over his bulkhead.
Hurricane Sandy was much, much more than a “super storm.” It was a cold-hearted killer of dreams. And more.
(Two days after writing this column I learned Albert E. Wright, 92, of Harvey Cedars, N.J., father, waterman and World War II veteran, died Feb. 13, 2013. Cause of death likely was cardiac or respiratory failure. Medical records don’t cite broken hearts.) ◊
A member since 1986, Terry Brady is from Zieglerville, Pa. He is the deputy press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Brady is also a columnist for Pennsylvania Outdoor News. Contact him at tjbgetout@ aol.com.
BY TERRY BRADY