The Currents

A friend of mine has been posting gorgeous images of Bar Harbor, ME, on Facebook.  They strongly draw my soul to New England.  I grew up near Boston, so all of the region resonates with me.  It is still my home, even if I last resided there in 1961.  But in the summertime I think specifically of northern New England, where I spent so many formative years in summer camp.  And I think of the ocean, because at home or at camp, so many of the best summer moments were spent at ocean beaches, from Nauset to Wingaersheek to Sand Beach at Bar Harbor.  And I think of swimming, because whether at the ubiquitous natural ponds and lakes that dot New England, or in the roiling open-ocean surf of the outer Cape, where the nearest land to the east is Europe, being in the water is why I went to the beach.  Not the tanning, not the cooling “sea breeze,” not even the legendary fried onion rings at Philbrick’s on Nauset Beach.  Being in the water was always the point of going to the beach.

These days I get my “beach fix” once a year only.  I live in Virginia, a state with only two natural lakes, one created by a landslide hundreds of years ago.  The ocean is three hours away, and it is as warm as bathwater in the summer, while the beaches are all backed by boardwalks and “beach towns.”  But near and dear relatives have a beach place in Old Saybrook on Long Island  Sound.  We do an annual summer pilgrimage up I-95 to their “Sea Turtle” cottage, where they generously lavish us with excellent seafood, relaxing drinks, and beach time.

Last week I was there, in water over my head.  (I remember Laurel Lake, in Fitzwilliam Depot, NH, where I first swam in deep water at age 8.)  The air was hot and hazy, so you could see Long Island across the sound only if you knew it was there.  The water was especially refreshing because of the heat and humidity.  Near the shore I felt pockets of warmth here and there, with cold currents interspersed.   The cold was more persistent at the depth of my feet.  Tidal currents gently pulled in and out, while the water current paralleled the waterline, nudging me in the direction of the breakwater.  The water itself was a bit seaweedy because the day before had been windy, and had both churned up the weeds near the waterline and dislodged many from rocky outcroppings such as the nearby breakwater.  I was fully supported by a hat on my head to keep the sun off, and a float which let me hang on and drift when I chose not to swim.

Knollwood Beach with its breakwater. Long Island visible on the horizon. Photo crendt: Anne McNulty

Downstream lay the breakwater, on which kids sometimes try to catch small crabs with raw chicken on a string.  It is mainly the perch of gulls and cormorants, who rest and socialize between their fishing forays.  Some distance offshore it terminates in a cone-shaped rock, painted white by centuries of bird droppings, on top of which cormorants regularly spread their wings to dry.  At low tide it’s fun to swim around, because there are more large rocks nearer the surface.

Upstream was the human apparatus of the beach: a rather short pier, beyond which floated a raft, the meeting place for the clan of young local recreational swimmers.  It was a weekday, and not many folks were taking advantage of their free beach access.  There were at most two or three others in the water in “our” section of beach.

Out over the open water there were a few sailboats, the most beautiful evidence of the human love of the sea.  White quasi-angelic sails whisk them silently along here and there across the Sound.  They are all recreational, I think, and sometimes mass in great armadas from their piers on Long Island and the nearby mouth of the Connecticut River.  There are also occasional jet skis, a reminder that there is nothing that humankind cannot worsen by its perverse ingenuity, and “cigarette boats,” whose origin in criminal activity makes their deafening speediness all the worse.

Behind me, on the beach, my loved ones chat under beach umbrella as I squeeze the maximum from my one chance to swim in the waters of the grey North Atlantic.  They are not literally grey this day, but blue and sparkling, with thousands of instantaneous points of blinding white sun reflections twinkling like the flash bulbs of an army of paparazzi.  If you’re looking for evidence of divine presence in the created Earth, there they are, every (sunny) day!

I was caught by surprise on this day by the compelling symbiosis of the rhythms of the ever-moving sea and my own literal and figurative rhythms of body and consciousness.  Much as I love swimming anyway, I suddenly was far more aware of my need for it, my dependence on it.  Swayed and pulled by the tide and currents, I felt compellingly at one with all things.  Let me never forget the power of this experience, or pass up a chance literally to be inundated in the flux of life itself.

Arnold J. Bradford ©2022

The Preakness, Molly and Tenbrooks: The Art of Fiction

My colleague and friend, also professor and author (Hurry Up and Relax), Nathan Leslie expressed concern this week that the Preakness Stakes would have to be run in hot weather. Nathan’s a Marylander, and the Preakness is a Baltimore race, which comes up two short weeks after the Kentucky Derby. The weather for yesterday’s running was predicted to be in the mid to upper 90s, hot for the horses as well as the jockeys and other humans involved in racing them. Horses, I’m guessing, would rather graze and laze in the shade if left to their own devices.

Nathan expressed his concern on social media, sharing a page from YouTube featuring Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys performing what’s called “the race horse song,” a folk-ballad structured piece that recounts an actual race in 1878 between a California horse, Molly McCarty, and a Kentucky steed, Ten Broeck. I was impressed that Nathan knew of this piece, called “Molly and Tenbrooks,” though it was familiar to me. Back in the folky 1970s I had gotten into things rural and Virginian, like vegetable gardening, using a cider press (results out of this world), and bluegrass music, aided and abetted by the programming of a local FM station, WAMU, and a neighbor who played bluegrass bass and had worked with Grandpa Jones of Grand Ole Opry fame. I’d have thought Nathan, from the themes and style of his fiction, would not have known the tradition or the Race Horse Song. But he knew even more, namely that the narrative of the song, and the event behind it, actually hinge on racing in hot weather. I was delighted by the aptness of his linking it up with the searing Preakness forecast.

In the olden times of the nineteenth century, horses frequently ran much longer-distance races than today, measured in miles. The big 1878 showdown race was for best two of three heats in a four-mile race, held at what is now Churchill Downs on July 4. (It’s interesting just to know that in those days a horse would be transported across the country for a race with a $5,000 winner-take-all purse, even though that prize was the equivalent of $145,000 today.) It appears that heat did take its toll, and that the race may have been decided when Ten Broeck’s jockey changed tactics. But though Molly McCarty lost the race, and was exhausted and quivering at the end, she did not die, as the song tells it, but lived and raced for several more years and bore three foals.

Ten Broeck, not Molly, got his own tombstone in KY

Indeed, Nathan’s concern about heat was justified yesterday, when the temperature at Pimlico peaked in the mid-90s and was still 89 at post time (7:01 p.m.) yesterday. Not only did the weather shape the Post headline (“Early Voting scorches in Preakness”), but Dave Sheinin’s narrative waxed positively poetic. He wrote

A teeming crowd, invited back to Pimlico Race Course at full strength for the first time since before the pandemic, was treated to that singular, dreaded phenomenon: the sweltering, face-melting Baltimore summer day, albeit in mid-May.

And later he added

Years from now, more than the sight of the nine horses coming around the final turn or Early Voting’s strong finishing kick, those in attendance Saturday probably will remember the suffocating heat, which turned most living things on the premises, human or equine, into heaving, sweat-dripping puddles. Temperatures were already in the low 90s by midafternoon, topping out at 95 just after 3 p.m., and still sat at a balmy 88 at post time just after 7 p.m. Far beyond the backstretch, the skyline of Charm City shimmered in a thin, amber haze.

Early Voting at epicenter of overheated race

Positively eloquent. But I’m not sure it’s as good as the song “Molly and Tenbrooks,” which has the horses talking back and forth mid-race about the anguish of the heat:

Tenbrooks said to Molly, “what makes your head so red?”
“Runnin’ in the hot sun puts fever in my head.”

Molly said to Tenbrooks, “You’re lookin’ mighty squirrel.”
Tenbrooks said to Molly, “I’m a-leavin’ this old world.”

It’s to be remembered that Molly was leading the race early on, and the heat obviously was hard on them both. As the song reminds us rather laconically, Tenbrooks was suffering too at the end:

Go and catch old Tenbrooks and hitch him in the shade.
We’re gonna bury old Molly in a coffin ready-made.

What I see here is the difference between journalism and art. Dave Sheinin, the reporter, evokes eloquently what it was like at Pimlico yesterday. The Race Horse Song’s nameless artist entertains us with the fantasy of equine conversation (“Lookin’ mighty squirrel” uses that last word in a way that’s never exactly been seen elsewhere, adding a little mystery, a hint of special horse dialect maybe?) and melodramatic hyperbole, not just burying a dead racehorse in a coffin, but in one “ready made” by smug Kentucky partisans who knew Ten Broeck would win.

“The truest poetry,” a Shakespeare character once said, “is the most feigning.” And for evoking the spirit of a heated horse race, the most entertaining.

© Arnold Bradford, 2022