Although summer won’t officially end until September 23rd at 4:21 AM, most people think of Labor Day Weekend as the end of summer. If you are one of those people who become melancholy at the end of summer, you can make yourself downright crazy watching the clock on this website as it ticks down the seconds left until summer ends.
As for me, I could care less. Summer was never my favorite season. As a youngster, I was often bored during the long hot summer months, and actually looked forward to cooler weather and the beginning of a new school year.
Then I married a man who hated school and passed his childhood dread onto our children. The day before school started we always made one last trip to the beach – rain or shine. Then he would bring the kids close to tears saying things like, “This is the last day of summer,” and “This is the last day of our vacation,” or “This is the last time we will be on the boat until next year.”
After a while, this seasonal anxiety transferred to me and I found myself yearning for one last summer day at the beach. And that’s exactly what happened one balmy September day when, daydreaming out my office window, I e-mailed my husband to tell him we just had to go out on the boat for one last swim before summer ended…
I raced home, that afternoon, to slap some leftover chicken between slices of bread, threw a cucumber and some cherry tomatoes in to dip into hummus, then boiled water for a thermos of tea.
“Should we bring a bottle of wine?” my husband asked.
“Nah. Let’s just throw in some beers and get out of here before the sun goes down.” Bringing wine would have meant taking precious minutes to carefully pack two wine glasses, because my husband won’t drink wine from a plastic cup. In hindsight, we should have packed a few bottles of wine.
We arrived at our “little spot” on the Great South Bay – a hidden cove we had found the week before, located behind “Cow Island,” just east of the Amityville cut. While eating our chicken sandwiches, we laughed to ourselves at the wonder of being completely alone like this anywhere on Long Island.
“I won’t throw an anchor,” my husband said. “The tide is going out, so we’ll just drift into deeper water until we reach the channel. By that time, it will be dark and we’ll be ready to head home.”
“It seems awful low here,” I said, looking over the side of the boat. “Are you sure we won’t get stuck?”
My husband, an auxiliary Coast Guard member, chuckled, “Don’t you think your captain knows what he’s doing? Just relax and enjoy the last sunset.”
I should have known something was wrong when he finished his sandwich in two large hurried bites then jumped up suddenly to grab the one oar he keeps on the boat. He stumbled and landed his big toe in the hummus and I threw my cucumber overboard to the fishes.
“It was just my toe,” he said. “The rest of the hummus is still good.”
“No thanks; I’m done.”
I stretched out and relaxed, enjoying the last sunset -as he had instructed me to do, while he went to the bow and began rowing and testing the water’s depth with the oar. I wondered why he wasn’t relaxing, too, but then I closed my eyes and soaked in the silence, interrupted by the occasional gentle ripple of the oar pushing through the water and the distant call of seagulls. The crickets were getting louder so I knew we were drifting closer to the island. Something wasn’t right.
“We’re a lot farther away from the channel than I thought,” my captain called out from the starboard side.
“You know we’re going in circles,” I informed him, “and the mosquitoes are starting to bite.”
I covered my head with my hood to keep the little buggers out and closed my eyes, drifting into a gentle reverie, only to be awakened by the sound of a clumsy splash. It sounded like my captain had jumped (or fallen) overboard.
“Move up to the bow,” my captain called to me from somewhere in the water. “I need your weight up front while I pull the boat.” Happy to accommodate him, I lounged in the vee seat in the bow, observing how much lower the depth had become, how much darker the sky was and how little progress he had made with that one oar.
“Why is it getting lower?” I asked. “Didn’t you say we would be drifting into deeper water?”
My captain responded with a firm command: “You’ll have to get out of the boat now and help me push, or we’ll never get out of here until the tide comes up at midnight!”
It was dark now and I couldn’t see what was in the water – jellyfish? crabs? seaweed? Did he really expect me to jump into that dark water? Did he take me seriously last weekend when I playfully called him My Captain and assured him that when we were boating he was “my commander” and I would follow his orders – no matter what? The alternative was to sit out here on this dank dark night and get eaten alive by mosquitoes.
“Let’s go!” he bellowed from the water. “Now!”
I pushed at the back of the boat while he pulled in the front. Then he moved to the back and we both pushed. And at some point my foot landed in some mucky mush that pulled me down like quicksand. I screamed and let go of the boat, falling back a few paces.
“What happened?” my captain called out, as he continued grunting and pushing by himself.
“I stepped in some mushy muck!” I stood there waiting for him to come back for me, but he ignored me and just kept heaving his weight behind the boat. “Wait for me!” I cried. “Don’t leave me out here alone!”
Then my heart sank at the sound of sand pressing into the hull as the dead weight of our 17-foot boat was firmly marooned in a sand bank, engulfed in the pitch-black of night and desolation in the Great South Bay. Hidden here behind Cow Island in our cozy “little spot” no one would find us until the sun came up, and, it being September, chances were slim that anyone would find us the next day.
I thought about the wine we left at home and longed for a long deep swig – straight from the bottle.
The look of defeat clouded my captain’s eyes as he stared off into the night.
“NOW WHAT!” I screamed. He snapped out of his trance and began to shimmy the boat from left to right and I followed his lead. We were slow dancing with the boat, creating a rhythm of motion as I was whispering endearments to it under my breath: come on, baby, let’s go, let’s get out of here, we can do this! I chanted it over and over like a prayer of the faithful hoping for a miracle.
At last! I felt it loosen and the water was suddenly up to my knees. “Can I get back in the boat now?” I asked timidly at first, and as the water inched up to my thighs I was almost in tears as I cried out, “NOW? Can I PLEASE get back in the boat?” And then those beautiful words, my captain’s orders: Get back in the boat!
The sound of the engine starting in deeper water made me laugh out loud with happiness. I didn’t care that I was covered in muck and stunk like a dead fish; just spotting the green and red buoy lights of the state channel meant we would be home soon. So why was my captain heading away from the buoys?
The engine stalled and we hit bottom again. Then I remembered, the captain was colorblind. The oar came out again and I guided him back to the colored buoys. I heard him click the switch to turn on the boat lights but saw no lights. He tried over and over, and I realized all the clicking in the world wasn’t going to turn those lights on as I panicked and called out to alert the captain of an approaching boat.
“Don’t worry; I see him!” he shouted out above the roar of the approaching engine.
“I see him, too!” I screamed, “but he can’t see us because we have no lights!”
I grabbed a life jacket and clumsily fumbled with the strap to adjust it to my girth. Worst-case scenario, with the life jacket on, at least they will find my body after the crash, I reasoned. I saw my grandchildren’s faces flash before me. I thought of all the people I loved in my life and said farewell. I closed my eyes and prayed…Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee…
I was silent for the remainder of the ride home. My life jacket was so tight I could hardly breathe, let alone speak. My heart took awhile to get back to a normal pace. Before my captain could finish tying up the boat, I jumped onto our dock, and in a final gesture of farewell to summer, I flung my ruined wet, muck covered sandals across the lawn.
That was the last time I would wear them. That slow dance with the boat was, undeniably, my last swim of the summer. As for my captain, those were the last commands he would issue me, and the last time I would call him “captain” -until the following year.