The beach is where I learned to surf, learned to fish, and had my first awkward lessons in romance. Most of what I’ve learned at the beach came when I was young. But I vividly recall one more recent lesson.
It happened on a spectacular day on the narrow path between South Pamet Road and the short stretch of dunes a half mile south of Ballston Beach that we flower children once referred to as high dune — and which many still remember as the nude beach.
I had just returned for a vacation on Cape Cod following a grueling three-week business trip to Europe. I was physically and emotionally wrung out and desperately in need of some down time surfing and fishing on my favorite beach in the world.
One thing that made the day so fine was the three- to four-foot surf marching shoreward from some distant southerly storm. There was a crisp, dry offshore breeze that stood up each incoming swell perfectly. I had arrived just at ebb water, hoping to surf the incoming tide. I could fish afterwards, as the sea began flooding over the shallows.
The bars at high dune were particularly good that summer. So, I wasn’t surprised when I got to the seaward dune and found several surfers already in the lineup. I zipped up my wetsuit, waxed my board, and paddled out. I hadn’t surfed anywhere for a long time, and I’d been absent from the Cape for a half-dozen years, so I didn’t know any of the surfers, who were, in any case, a decade or three younger than I.
Within minutes we were cheering each other on as we rode wave after perfect wave. A few hours later, the tide had dulled the power and shape of the waves, and my new surf buddies paddled back to the beach. “Great waves,” the last surfer said as he passed. “You rocked it today.”
His words were music to my ears.
As I was drying off, Paul Brodeur, my longtime fishing buddy, came strolling down the beach, rod in hand. Paul, who died recently, had an illustrious career as an environmental journalist and novelist. He was also a devoted saltwater fly fisherman.
We chatted and before long were fishing the deep pool between the shore and the slowly flooding sandbar. As we fished, me with my spinning gear, Paul with his big saltwater flies, we both began getting strong hits but failed to hook any fish. I found a tiny silver mackerel lure in my tackle bag. On the first cast with it, we saw a glowing yellow 16-inch fish take to the air in front of us. It was a golden shad, often referred to as a “poor man’s tarpon” due to its small size but incredible leaping ability.
We fished for several hours, catching and releasing dozens of shad, enjoying every minute. Paul returned to Ballston, agreeing first to meet me later for drinks, and I headed up the path, about a third of a mile long, between high dune and South Pamet soon after.
The path is narrow and winds between thickets of beach plums, rugosa roses, and poison ivy, which tend to keep hikers and beachgoers single file. I climbed up the dune with my rod and beach bag in one hand, my surfboard draped with beach towel and wetsuit in the other. Between the surfing and the fishing, I was feeling quite proud of myself, perhaps even a bit smug.
About halfway back to the road, I heard the gleeful yipping of a happy kid. A five- or six-year-old boy, wearing a Boston Red Sox shirt, appeared out of the scrub pines racing ahead of his mom, who kept shouting to him to slow down. The smile on his face was infectious. Seeing me, the little boy stopped suddenly on the narrow track, as did I. Still beaming, he looked up at me and, in an innocent, breathless voice, shouted enthusiastically, “Hello, old man!”
I stood in front of him in shock, speechless, while he stared up at me, waiting to be acknowledged. After that ego-shattering moment, I broke into laughter so deep that it brought on tears. I knelt, tousled the boy’s brown hair, and told him, “I know you.” I did. He was the innocent, joyful boy in me that I hope will never grow up no matter how old I get.