Spirits On Shinnecock

Written By: Stephen  Lerner

I guess you could say I was a non-believer until my father died. I was in my mid- thirties and not having given much thought to it, simply believed that when one dies that was it. Loved ones are left with someone else’s worldly possessions and a reservoir of aging memories. It made perfect sense to me then. I accepted the fact that after one passes, we, the living, deal with the grief clinging to the notion that “time heals all wounds.” Eventually, each in our own way, we slide back into the routine of life. We yield to the pragmatic side of us knowing the person for whom we mourned will remain forever, fixed in time in our mind’s eye. My conversion, so to speak, occurred only after several unexplainable experiences. It started with a baptismal awakening a few years after my dad’s long battle with cancer was over. He was a veterinarian and relied on hard facts. Ironically, in all likelihood, he would have pooh-pooed what I am about to tell you. I was on Shinnecock Bay harvesting clams from my boat, one I inherited from my dad. It was a splendid summer’s day, hot and sunny. For some strange reason the area where I was digging was devoid of any other boats. While working the bull rake, my thoughts kept drifting back to things my father had told me while growing up, “just remember, even the biggest trees have to bend in the breeze,” “youth is wasted on the young,” “a massive heart attack is a good way to go for the one leaving, cancer is better for those being left behind– gives them time to prepare.” The rhythm of my work was breached when I smelled the unmistakable scent of pipe smoke. I remember thinking, this is weird, how can that be, there is no one in sight. Yet, the unmistakable smell grew stronger, and it was a bit haunting because the pungent odor wafting above the water was all too reminiscent of my dad’s pipe smoke. Get back to work I thought. This is nuts. Pipe smoke way out in the middle of the bay. I was not biting. There was a logical explanation, maybe even a scientific reason for this mysterious intrusion. I returned to the work at hand. Muscle memory took over, and I was back to the cadence of pulling on the T-bar as my boat was pushed along by the southwest wind and rising tide. From behind me, I heard as much as watched, a young herring gull alight atop the bow of my boat. It was perfectly healthy and did not appear to want a hand out. Initially, when that bird touched down, it railed at me with such an attitude, I began talking back to it. “What’s your problem, hey go find your friends.” I remember thinking, ” it’s a good thing no one’s around to see me talking to this bird.” Our “conversation” continued despite the fact that I spoke no “gull” and he spoke no English. That bird watched me, dare I say it like a hawk, and hopped around the boat keenly aware of whenever it needed to get out of my way. Eventually, he calmed down and became less vocal. Even when my outboard was running and I started a new drift, for some reason this gull either remained perched atop the front of my boat or found some other secure spot to balance itself while we were moving. After two hours of his company, I knew it was not my magnetic personality that kept him so tight to me. I was perplexed. Here was a lone gull hanging around, not scavenging for food. I did not try to shoo him away, but I doubt it would have made a difference had I tried. This bird was determined to stay aboard. Quietly, almost on the sly I asked him, ” are you here for a reason”? I do not know if it was the halting tone of my voice or what, but after finishing the question, he started squawking and carrying on like someone declaring, ” Bingo.” He was even more animated than when he first arrived. For some inexplicable reason, I remember looking upward and saying, “hey, God will you help me out here. I don’t have a clue what this bird wants, so could you give me some kind of sign, anything.” Within a minute of this invocation, two things happened almost concurrently. I pulled my aluminum, telescopic pole upward hand over hand and while doing so my feathered boat-mate quietly, with little fanfare flew off. While watching him circle above, I tipped my rake head onto my cull board and there, in addition to the little neck clams was an old black, partially deteriorated pipe. Cold sweat gripped me as I picked that pipe up and looked aloft and wondered. Mind you, I have been clamming now for some thirty-five years and have caught all manner of man’s detritus: coke bottles, hats, gloves, boots, cans, even pieces of carpet, but only this time a pipe. You would think the story ends there, but it does not. A lone gull has mysteriously visited my family and me in the ensuing years. As if on cue, one landed on our front lawn as my wife, daughter, and I were struggling with when to take our fifteen-year old German Shepherd, Eliot, to the vet for the last time. While lying on the warm sun-drenched grass, Eliot too weak to walk appeared to take comfort in the company of this bird. We all watched through the kitchen window for awhile and knew that bird was the sure sign that it was time. What does it all mean? I am not certain. I suspect in some strange way my dad is still watching over me and making sure I do the right thing.