Thursday, August 4, 2011

What the Dead Fish Taught Me...

Approximately forty years ago, three young boys found a dead fish on the shores of the Manasquan Inlet. Actually, it was on an obscure, non-swimming sandy beach in what I’ve since learned is part of the fifty-five acre Fisherman’s Cove Conservation Area. But four decades ago this slice of geography was considered both off-the-beaten trail and sort of on the seedy side. Few people navigated it with its myriad byways through tall and thick sea grass—Tick Country. This sprawling space is a popular “dog beach” now and has been considerably upgraded and manicured.

It was early springtime when my two brothers and I—visiting family friends who owned a home in Manasquan—made a beeline to this stark stretch of beach whose shoreline looked out into a busy seafaring thoroughfare of chartered fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and Coast Guard vessels heading to, and coming back from, the Atlantic Ocean, a maritime stone’s throw away at the mouth of the inlet.

The close proximity to the ocean and incessant boat traffic ensured that small waves perpetually crashed along the shore there. The beach was kind of difficult to access from our entry point—we had to climb down a haphazard pile of rocks—and a little bit malodorous, too, but in the most evocatively natural sense. Sea remains washed ashore there all the time, including every imaginable strain of seaweed, the ubiquitous horseshoe crab, and other creatures of the deep.

The beach was quite desolate when we touched the sand, which was the norm, but even more so because it was springtime and pretty cold outside. The Pea Coats we wore underscored both the temperature outside and the snapshot in time: the early 1970s. We also called our in-style sartorial winter wear “navy jackets.” Boys from the Bronx wearing navy jackets by the Manasquan Inlet in springtime—it didn't get much better than that! So, encountering an as-yet-decaying and as-yet-reeking dead fish was a real find for us—both exciting and cool in a seashore setting with fishermen everywhere and nearby streets named Whiting, Perch, and Pike. And just as a cat might bring home a dead mouse or cicada bug, we brought our dead fish—our catch—back to the house. We wanted this Kodak moment to be captured for posterity, I suppose.

Encountering a dead fish on a lonely stretch of beach wouldn’t really do much for me anymore. And as I don’t carry around a pair of rubber gloves and hand sanitizer, I very likely wouldn’t even touch one. Perhaps, though, we all need to awaken that inner-child in us again. You know, the one who would enthusiastically transport a dead fish—that, of course, had died of natural causes as part of the cycle of life—home. I suspect the world would be a better place if we did.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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