Cape Avenue Jetty: Letters from Kyiv
Ode to a pile of rocks at the Jersey Shore
“There are places I’ll remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain”
Song “In My Life” by The Beatles, Lyrics by John Lennon
There are places and places within or part of places. Not long ago, I wrote about a place called, Cape May Point. This story is about a place in that place, Cape Avenue Jetty in Cape May Point. This is an ode to a pile of rocks.
Rock pile, that’s what we used to call it in my family. The first time someone said jetty, I had no idea what they were talking about but that’s the term we’ll stick to for the rest of this story. Our summer place on Cape Avenue dead ended at the beach. Well, it ended at a very large mound of dunes with a path through the center and later in life, a wooden walkway. As you tread your way up the path, beach grass, poison ivy and grandma’s favorite beach plum plants were on your left and right. Topping the dune, below lie Cape Avenue jetty and the place where the Delaware Bay met the Atlantic Ocean, kind of. That line of where the ocean met the bay seemed to shift every year depending how severe the winter storms had been. You could usually see it clearly where the calm waves of the bay met the larger waves of the Atlantic and they crashed angrily at each other at times, calmly at others.
In fact, that’s one of the first things I did as a kid after helping my grandparents or my parents unload the car after our two hour trip down from interior South Jersey for the whole blessed summer in Cape May Point. Yes, every summer there, for me, was blessed. I would look to whatever parental authority was in charge and run like the wind down to my beloved jetty to see what had changed from the year before. Sands shifted, some things were covered by water or sand and others were uncovered. For years, there had been a sign to one side of the jetty that read “DANGER: Underwater Hazards; Swim at Your Own Risk.” Pieces of rusted metal from old steel pilings had sliced people up on more than one occasion. Eventually, nature, sand and salt-water took over and the signs miraculously disappeared as one would think, did the hazards. But we never swam on that side even when the signs were gone. Old habits or maybe a good dose of that old Jersey skepticism.
Cape Avenue jetty was a fairly short pile of dark gray rocks that came from some quarry that was unknown to me even though I knew every rock intimately. Jetties are built for many reasons, mine was built to slow beach erosion. This is laughable because man has no force or control over the powerful Atlantic Ocean. He can slow it slightly, but she’ll take what she wants when she wants. My jetty was covered with mussels, barnacles and seaweed. What seemed like ancient wood pilings were my balancing beam to walk on as I approached to climb on the rocks. Even at low tide, a little water pooled where the wood met the stone and I would occasionally catch a distraught crab there. Bright, forest green seaweed covered most of my jetty in summer. This was slippery stuff and if you happened to fall or sit on it, well, there was no Tide to get those stains out.
Standing on the jetty and looking out for me was always the christening of the start of a new summer in my beloved little seaside village. Every day, I would eat breakfast and walk down to the Cape Avenue jetty to check the tide. Tides matter when you live by the sea. You live your life and plan your days by the tides. Sooner or later, I would stop being lazy and grab a free tide chart from Mr. Ed at the Cape May Point General Store but for the first few weeks, I liked to feel my way through. The only times I didn’t go to the jetty was when the lightning was bad. Heavy and light rains never stopped me. Just like you get a feel for the tides, you get a feel for the fishing, the swimming, the crabbing and the just chilling on the rocks.
Early in summer, low tide was just ok for swimming and later no good at all because of the jellyfish with stingers. I went swimming on the ocean beaches at low tide in late summer, usually St. Pete’s because that’s where we hung out and talked to the lifeguards or our friends and the water was a little too rough for the liking of the slow moving nettles. Low tide was a crabbing tide most of the time. Sometimes it was catching calico crabs then using them for bait for tog (Tautog). Sometimes, I would wait for complete low tide and crawl around on the jetty looking for natural treasures like shells or even better for the boy fisherman, free tackle that somebody had gotten snagged while fishing. Of course, I would also fish at times for flounder at low tide. Low tide gave you access to every nook and cranny.
The tide would roll in slowly at first, it seemed. Cape Avenue jetty was often ideal for fishing because of the migration of fish between the ocean and bay. Fish would come in from the ocean to feed on the small schools of fish that seemed to favor the bay. Being in the location where they met, meant it was the first stop for a feeding frenzy and excellent spot to catch weakfish (Weakies) and blues. Mainly that is what we caught because the eating was pretty damn good. Weakies seemed to favor early and late summer while blues seemed to come a lot in the middle. Tog we usually also caught later in summer. That’s how I remember it but I could be wrong as those memories are almost fifty years ago now.
You were safe on the jetty as the tide rolled in but timing your exit was important. A full moon tide could almost cover the rocks completely. The ocean and its environs are easy to love. But as much as they can be loved, they must be respected like a good husband or wife. The seaweed on the jetty would become extremely slippery when wet. Sharp barnacles and broken mussel shells soon became like knives waiting to slice through soft flesh. A fall meant more than hurting your bones. You could be slashed wide open and be washed out to sea easily and quickly. Life on my dark gray jetty was joyous and beautiful but it could quickly turn dangerous.
Yes, the things you love can hurt you. My jetty had once swallowed a young boy whose body did not wash ashore for nearly a week. One morning in my teenage years, I walked down very early in the morning to see a corpse floating to the left. Someone called it in and we stayed as Pete Romano was tasked with retrieving the body. I remember it was the body of a Navy sailor whose helicopter had crashed a few days before. Pete could not believe how heavy the waterlogged man’s body was as he tried to retrieve and I remember how we all gasped when the shark repellent container burst as Pete was dragging him toward shore and this fluorescent green liquid spread out around Pete and the dead sailor. I also remember how respectful everyone was and gawkers were pushed away out of respect.
The last time I saw my jetty was just a few months before I moved to Ukraine when I came with my wife. These were happy times for me and sad, too. I knew that I might never return to this jetty and village which held such a strong place in my heart. So, I wandered out upon my jetty, she was smaller now from the shifting sands. But many of the rocks still looked the same as when I was a kid. Sure, I have pictures to remember but the memories are far better. I can still smell that jetty and feel her sun baked rocks beneath my feet and she always reminds me to be careful because you never know when the tides will turn.