Disclaimer: the post that follows professes to no merit or significance, literary, theological or otherwise. It’s just a silly story. And it’s quite long. Consider yourself warned. 😉

Beach Picnic, 2010

It was too easy.

We had come laughing over the golden sands, we six: my husband and I and his brothers and their wives. It was an outing as traditional as vacation itself. Vacation five years running that feels like always in the old house by the sea with thirteen around the dinner table and beds to spare in the regions above. Where the very bricks of the floor and the timbers over our heads and the rattling fans on the porch ceiling keep memories of children that grow and adults that are not nearly so old as they think they are, and where the walls must ring with the echoes of our mirth long after we’ve gone for another year.

And each year we’ve had our night of enchantments, my beloved and myself and these other four whom I love with the love of the nearest and dearest. Often we’ve donned our finery, ladies in wisps of summer frocks and gentlemen in coats and ties, to board the fairy coach that looks very much like a Ford Explorer, bound for a neighboring island and a grande dame of a hotel and an evening of dancing and crystal sconces turned low and a muted trumpet crooning out the tune the band always plays for us.

Dinner Dance, 2007

But our plans don’t always align with those of the powers that be that schedule the dances, and we’ve had other adventures on other years, other nights just as memorable, if not slightly more so for the variation. If there’s one hallmark that characterizes them all, though, it’s the absolute, downright, side-splitting, endearing fun that we all have together. There are few on earth that can make me laugh like these newly-acquired kin of mine, and few that can slip so easily from hilarity to the thoughtful ponderings and quiet talk which my soul loves just as much as the fun.

We had decided to keep it simple this year: a sunset picnic on our own beach, less than half a block from the little wooden gate in the vine-covered wall that meant Home to us for the week. We watched the tide charts carefully and prayed for the weather. And on the night appointed we loaded a little cart with the merest essentials: a wicker basket provisioned with Blue Willow china and damask napkins and lovely cheeses, a cooler packed with fresh Georgia shrimp chilling on ice and new potatoes swimming in butter and fresh peaches and a bottle of champagne, roughly enough chairs for us all and an old white counterpane upon which to spread the repast.

Our blanket fluttered into the wind just as the sun met a bank of foaming clouds, turning them rose-hued above a perfectly placid sea and flinging out tints of lavender and gold over the water like a victor’s retreating standard. We lit our lanterns without any fuss, unwrapped the china and passed it around, fell upon the olives and cunning little stuffed peppers before they were well out of the basket. Philip opened the champagne and we lifted our glasses in a decorous little toast. A skimmer bird sailed low along the shoreline, its open beak tinkling lightly against the surface of the water. The sun threw out a final volley of golden rays before slipping to its rest beyond the edge of the world. It was utterly, blessedly quiet and lovely.

Edie was the first one to laugh.

I think it had been brimming in each of us, but hers was the first to escape.

“I was just thinking—,” she began with an impish smile.

But we all knew what she was thinking. A chorus of ‘do-you-remembers’, both spoken and unspoken, charged the air between us and we were all laughing in a moment and talking over each other.

She was thinking about another picnic, one even more elaborate and not nearly so successful, and of the evening that preceded it which would have given The African Queen a run for its money.

She was thinking about the Marsh Hen and of certain misadventures off the coast of Georgia.

Captain and First Mate of the Marsh Hen, 2009

A sturdy little craft, the Marsh Hen, with the heart of a steel trawler and the boyish pluck of a sailboat. We haven’t the heart to tell her she’s only a wooden fishing boat, and an old one, at that, 18’ with a 25 hp motor. My dad and Philip rescued her from a pawn shop for a mere $500 and she’s since paid us back in joy and adventure a hundred times over. She’s a lovely old girl, yet, though her trim red and white paint is peeling in places. And we hope she’s forgotten the incredulous fisherman that was leaning over the bridge when we brought her in one afternoon off a grey sea that the wind was whipping into white caps and peaks who yelled down: “You went out—in that?”

It was an off-year for the dinner dance, and it had been my idea to take the Marsh Hen to the coast with us for a sunset cruise and a picnic under the stars on nearby Jekyll Island. Seasonal regulations prohibited our beaching the craft, however, so the evening was cheerfully divided into Part One, being the cruise, and Part Two, being the picnic.

It was a perfect evening, calm and still, with just enough clouds to give a good canvas for the sunset. The boat launch was deserted, which was exactly to our liking, and Michael backed the trailer into the water while Andrew minded the hull and Philip steered her into the channel. We ladies waited on the dock, in our characteristic finery and with what looked like provisions for a week, and we were handed into the boat with all the chivalry of an affair of state. Cruising out into the waterway, we let down the bimini top to take on more speed and threw back our heads to the salty wind. It was everything I had dreamed it would be, everything the heart could desire for beauty and pleasure. The channel before us flourished out ahead into the Sound and the sun was dropping into position as if on cue.

Just as we drew opposite the aforementioned grande dame and began to wave at the people on the wharf eating oysters, just as I began to reach towards the cooler for the evening’s appetizers and libations, the Marsh Hen began to make a strange noise. Her engine started to churn and gurgle and strain and she gave a few gaspy little jerks and heaves. And at the selfsame moment we all noticed something else equally strange. The seagulls that were fishing and skimming along the water nearby seemed suddenly absolutely weightless—so much so that they were actually standing on the water.

“Those birds—you can see their toes–,” began my scientist brother-in-law.

But before he could finish, the Marsh Hen uttered one last choke and came to a dead stop in the middle of the channel.

Prow of the Good Ship Marsh Hen

Anyone who has traversed the Intracoastal Waterway knows that the channels among the barrier isles of Georgia are notoriously shallow at low tide, to which the huge dredge pile in the St. Simons Sound attests. To which the propeller of the Marsh Hen attested as Philip pulled it up with a horrible sucking sound and watched in dismay as the sticky black muck oozed off its blades in dismal plops.

“I think the Marsh Hen just became the Mud Hen,” Andrew quipped.

But Philip looked grim. He knew that it would be hours before the tide would lift us from our predicament, and an evening marooned in front of the Jekyll Island Club with nothing to eat, for all the show of provisions, but little cream cheese-stuffed endive leaves was not his idea of fun. So, peppered with a cascade of useless suggestions from the womenfolk, the three brothers put their heads together: engineer, scientist and brilliant English major. Stepping into the mud to free her was useless, they agreed, if not downright dangerous, as the paddle dipped overboard into the mire came back with difficulty and plastered with suffocating mud.

“We just have to stay calm,” said my husband, who is the past master of calm.

A fishing boat sped by us, in the real middle of the channel and Heather gave them a breezy wave that suddenly became a little more directed. Then she was standing up, waving both her hands, but they passed on, shaking their heads. There was no way any craft with any person of sense at the wheel was going to venture into that muck to help us out. But it gave us an idea. At our captain’s direction, Edie, Heather and I stood up in a line in the middle of the boat with our hands on each others’ waists. Andrew and Michael each manned a paddle and Philip sat ready at the helm. And we waited.

It wasn’t long before another boat came whizzing down the channel, a bit larger than the one that had passed before. We watched its approach intently, every one of us focused on the respective job we had to do. Perhaps they knew what we were up to, perhaps it was merely chance or the illusion of hopeful thinking, but it seemed that as they drew near and assessed our situation, the other boat took a slight, cautious dip in our direction.

But it was enough. We watched and waited more intently still as the wake that was our path to freedom approached. And just as it began to lap at the sides of the Marsh Hen we ladies went to work. There, in full view of the people dining on the wharf and strolling the ‘green colonnades’ along the river, directly in front of the most elegant hotel in the Southeast, we held onto one another and rocked back and forth, our bright sundresses flapping in the breeze. It was like some kind of grim, ritualistic dance as we pitched to and fro, Edie calling out “Right! Left” as if we were galley slaves and Michael and Andrew foisting us off with all their might and main.

"as if nothing had ever happened..."

With a sickening squadge we lurched forward and the Marsh Hen bobbed and buoyed underneath us once more. Philip dropped the motor as soon as prudence allowed, and within moments we were cruising down the channel again as if nothing had ever happened. We entered the Sound just as the sun was dissolving into the silvery water beyond the bridge with its graceful sweeps and arches growing misty against a gently-colored sky. Edie spotted a dolphin and Philip cut the motor. Instantly we were surrounded, capering and rolling their sleek bodies for joy in the waters around us, almost near enough to touch. It was magical: the light, the glistening creatures appearing and disappearing on every side, the utter peace of a rocking craft in the calm of a friendly sea. We didn’t want to turn back. But the magical light was fading, and Philip wanted to get the boat out of the water and back onto the trailer before it was utterly dark. And I had a feast to spread on the beach on the other side of the island, for which I was equally desirous of those last fleeting moments of afterglow.

So we swung our little boat around and headed back to the launch, waving artlessly at the same people on the wharf and looking back over our shoulders at the glory of sky and sea we were leaving behind. As soon as were deposited on the dock (with slightly less ceremony than before) Edie and Heather and I jumped into one of the cars we had brought and sped as fast as a 35mph overall island speed limit would allow to the beach on the eastern side, while our gallant captain and his crew navigated the Marsh Hen towards the landing in the vanishing light. A broken motor linkage, which suddenly prevented either stopping or backing up, and a concurrent close encounter with the nets of a shrimp boat moored alongside the dock, was only spice to the soul of these noble seamen, and amid such brushes with destruction they maneuvered their craft onto the trailer and out of the water. With many a ‘good riddance’ from the fishermen leering over the rail of the shrimp boat, no doubt.

But we all reached the shore, safely and intact, and by the time the gentlemen found us, we ladies had unearthed the contents of two baskets and a cooler. We had spread our white blanket on the sand and we were in the process of unsuccessfully lighting about a half-a-dozen little mercury glass lanterns in a gale force wind. Still charged with his late victory over the nets and the steering challenges, Andrew rose to the occasion and managed to provide us with some illumination before night was upon us in very deed. To the fairy twinkling of our silvery lanterns, I spread the plates, passed out silver and linens and arranged the fruit for our centerpiece while Edie and Heather took the chilled lemon linguine out of the cooler and tossed the salad and unwrapped the baguette.

“This beach is always deserted,” I said. “Especially at night.”

Nothing could have been more to our tastes. Michael bent over his vintage Victrola, tested the needle and gave the turntable a spin. Then he lowered the arm and amid the creakings and snappings of an old 78, Dinah Shore’s voice wafted out onto the silent night:

The moon belongs to everyone,
The best things in life are free.
The stars belong to everyone,
They gleam there for you and me…

I had just popped the cork off our bottle of champagne with a little shriek of surprise and a corporate burst of laughter when suddenly we realized that we were not alone. There were not six of us gathered around the twinkling lights and the festal blanket and the Victrola. There were seven. And that seventh was all dressed in dark clothing and their head bobbed with the red and green lights of night-vision goggles. I was too startled even to be afraid. But it was speaking:

“The lights, the lights,” whispered a woman’s voice from behind the goggles. “The lights—put them out! Put them out!”

I saw Andrew hesitate: it had been a battle with the elements to get them lit in the first place. But she went on, more urgently than before:

“No lights—no noise! The turtles!”

I have been coming to this island for half my life. I have had picnics innumerable upon this very same shore. But I had completely forgotten that it was smack in the middle of the sea turtle nesting season. And on this island above all others, it seems, they are protected with a vengeance. I’m all for it, truly I am—it’s just never directly affected me before. No lights. No noise. Nothing to lure them in the wrong direction or scare them off.

Michael took the needle off the record. The woman passed her goggles to Andrew for further validation with an almost frantic gesture towards the encroaching surf. He uttered an exclamation of awe and delight and passed them to each of us in turn. There, greenish and ghostly in the illumination of the goggles, we saw in what was otherwise pitch darkness, the strangely graceful lumberings of a sea turtle that was heaving itself, fin over fin, out of the tide. And it was heading straight for us.

“You’ve got to go,” the woman urged. “The lights—they misguide them.”

Andrew and Philip blew out the lanterns and we girls started packing our yet-untasted feast in the dark, the sea turtle patrolwoman assisting somewhat eagerly.

I chinked one of my plates against another.

“Shhhh!” she insisted.

“Sorry,” I whispered.

Shhh!” she replied.

We stumbled in the darkness back across the sand and loaded our worldly goods into the cars. Then we stood around in the parking lot, looking at one another and feeling ridiculous. Animal lovers all; two vegetarians on principle in our midst, two other thoughtful conservationists—especially where this island is concerned—and a scientist, to boot! We weren’t really as irresponsible as we looked. But we had to admit that it didn’t look good.

“We were just trying to set the mood for the turtles,” quoth the gentle Edie.

At which we all laughed our discomfiture away.

We relocated under some loved oak trees on the other side of the island and took dishes out of the cooler and a rather sandy bowl of linguine out of the picnic basket. And by the time we had arranged everything for the second time and sat down to eat it was nearly midnight. But it was safe harbor at last, after an evening of mishap on land and on sea, and it was lovely. If not a wee bit tame for our tastes, newly whetted with adventure as they were.

The Midnight Picnic

We’ve laughed about it so many times since. And we laughed over it again, that night on the beach scarcely a month ago. And we ate our shrimp and we wiped our fingers on damask napkins and sipped our champagne and enjoyed ourselves thoroughly for the moments that the tide had allotted to us.

But as much as if it were a tacit acknowledgment between us, we all knew that there was something missing. Lovely as it was, the evening lacked a certain flavor. Andrew, sensing this, perhaps, livened things up for a moment with a real, live ghost story. The thrill was genuine, if fleeting. But we all knew that this was not the kind of evening that we’d be spinning yarns about and slapping our knees over for long years to come. It’s not the perfect times, dear as they are, that make for immortality.

It was Philip that roused us from our self-contained enjoyment, hemmed in as we were by the light of our (perfectly legitimate) lanterns. The stretch of beach upon which we reposed with such languor (and such goods and chattels) was really something of a sand bar that reached further out into the sound than the rest of the shoreline and the tide was coming in fast. With the alacrity of a ready crew we all jumped to our feet, dumped out our glasses, snatched up blankets and chairs and threw the remaining cargo into the baskets like able-bodied seamen sniffing adventure on the breeze. As we made our way back across the beach, over sands glittering with new waves in the light of a slim crescent moon, we kept one eye on the shoreline while Andrew explained the technicalities of a swiftly rising tide. The wooden steps back to terra firma seemed to retreat as we approached, but at last, and just as the waves began to slap at the lowest planks, we reached our refuge. The men hoisted the cart up to the top and we all stood, looking back upon the spot wherein we had so lately dined under the stars: it was completely submerged.

Right in the very teeth of adventure.

Our beach at high tide, 2009

p.s who can identify the source of the Marsh Hen’s name?