We wanted this day to be so memorable that the experience would last a lifetime. A legend to tell our children and grandchildren. The pressure to come up with an idea was great and our parameters made it almost impossible to achieve.
Our last year in high school on senior cut day (unofficial of course), my friends and I decided to plan something adventurous. Living near the Atlantic Ocean had its benefits. Freedom to walk on the clean, soft, warm sand in the summers. Digging toes into each step feeling the gentle coarse rub of the golden granules. Playing chicken with the waves while avoiding stepping onto a crab or worse. The vast majesty of the ocean has always had a deep allure especially for those who have the great fortune of experiencing it in their daily lives.
Winter brings closure to the beaches. No lifeguards to watch over the laughing and squealing sounds of children, no police on patrol via jeep or horseback, just a grey sky hanging over the sea waiting almost endlessly for the warmth of summer to make its way back and brighten the skies once again.
We set our sights on the beach in the dead of winter. Perhaps a picnic with blankets and a campfire roasting hotdogs and marshmallows. We will bring guitars and wine and bask in our freedom and in our accomplishments. We romanticized how the day would go. We had weeks before this day would happen giving us lots of time to dream. It seemed as if this day were never going to come so impatiently and on impulse, we decided to give it a dry run. We were 5. Three girls and 2 boys. A mere fraction of our group but we rationalized that since we were the architects of the plan, that we owed it to our group to do a practice run.
Meeting in the parking lot of our school, we all cut classes that day and took off in Jimmy’s Volkswagen bus. The quintessential mode of transportation in the late 1960’s. It was a very bitter January morning. Excited and unprepared as this dry run did not include all the accoutrements that we planned on having with us when the actual experience was going to happen. Hendrix, our rock God, was blasting on the radio as we sang along to “Purple Haze” from the album “Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are you experienced?”
The Meadowbrook Parkway took us to Jones Beach. Populated with residential towns flanking the road most of the way until you go over the Jones Beach Bridge. The next stretch of parkway was eerily empty. Just marshland with tall, blowing sea grass moving side to side. No homes, no towns, just miles of light-colored roadway. You always knew when you were getting close to the beach. We would open the window, close our eyes, and breathe deeply, taking in the salt air.
Summer months on this roadway is the cliché bumper to bumper traffic. Barely moving. Hours in the car, especially if you travel during popular hours. Looking ahead you see that bright blue vastness exposing that water might be straight away.
But this ride, this time created an emotion of dread and fear. We didn’t see one vehicle. We were the only one on the roadway. The sky ahead, grey with clouds, cold, dark, ominous, driving into the abyss. We continued in silence, just thinking the same thoughts separately. Meg dared to say it aloud “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea,” as we forged ahead.
Pulling into West End 2 parking lot, our favorite part of Jones Beach, we had a rare opportunity to park at the sand dunes which was only steps from the water. Normally parking is at a much greater distance but at this time of year there were no obstacles to pull into this coveted area.
As we exited the van, we shivered feeling the raw, biting cold day, with whipping wind forcing us to bundle into our coats. The five of us just stared at the site of the ocean seemingly far into the distance from the beach, as the tide was very low exposing more beach than usual. To the right, we spied the infamous jetty. Made of gigantic boulders merged and resting upon each other forever changing its configuration due to tides and storms. The jetty reached deep into the ocean’s surface, about a mile or more past the shoreline. We were stunned to see it uncovered exposing every inch of it. The jetty is normally covered or partially covered with water so it’s height and length are camouflaged. Young and impetuous we did not even stop to think before running to climb this enormously dangerous structure. Making it to the mile long end became our goal.
As we mounted the rocky and rough surface, we lost our footing and realized the rocks were wet and icy. Seaweed stuck in the crevices added to the slick texture. Freezing rain and spray soaking us to our core. Onward we followed one another, helping each other up ever so carefully and slowly. Once we reached the top, 10 feet above ground level, we looked out onto the oceans never ending expanse, holding each other tightly for safety. Taking in that awesome view, mesmerized by its hugeness and mystery. We were wet and freezing but the draw to take this barrier, to reach the proverbial summit, was too tempting for us to end our journey there.
Hiking and climbing while calculating each step took hours. As we gained footage further and further from the shore into the ocean, the sound of the waves became increasingly fierce forcing us to shout over the waves to be heard.
"Hey guys", with the loudest voice I could muster, “I think we should be turning back; it’s getting dark.” Meg replied, “We don’t have far to go, let’s try to make it to the point”, she shouted, as the swishing and roaring of the waves smacked into the jetty. “The tide is coming in, I’m worried about the darkness,” I implored. Unbeknownst to us the tide had already rolled back in much further than we realized, as we were singularly focused on our mission. Suddenly we became aware of the gravity of the danger we had put ourselves in. It was too late to turn back. We were trapped. A mile out into the ocean, rain and ice failing upon us, leaving us freezing and wet and terrified. No cell phones in those days. No one policing the closed beaches. No one knew where we were. No one would be coming to even look for us.
The water rising quickly. We could try and swim back to shore but hypothermia would surely set in. The jetty was slowly disappearing behind us as the tide was covering its massiveness. The beach now further. We were trapped. We needed to act quickly as our chances to return were growing smaller and smaller with each passing minute as the tide was swiftly on the move and we were no match for all these different forces of nature. Trying to have a discussion over the thunderous roars of the surf, we all agreed decisively that our only chance was to crawl back on all fours atop the jetty as quickly as possible until we reached the jetty’s impasse. Perhaps the tidal waters would still be shallow enough so that we could stand and walk back to shore. Relying on our tired and frozen muscles for swimming was not a reasonable plan. But time was of the essence and fast movements were not realistic. We wasted no time and started our retreat, with prayers.
Some of the previous passages were blocked with boulders now covered in more than an inch of ice, frosting its surface. The real possibility of slipping down 10 feet with rocks all around was terrifying. It was a death sentence. Trying to find a place to hold onto was impossible as the rough, hard, and slick surfaces would not allow us to secure a position. Our feet slid under us as we tried to catch ourselves while maintaining some sort of balance. It was like skating up the side of a mountain. Our vision was dramatically minimized from the stinging and drenching of the ice, rain, and wind. Holding each other and making a human chain permitting one-by-one maneuvers passing these death defying spots. At almost half of the way back, we noticed that the water had only risen about 3 feet deep. “Look,” I said, “I think this is our jumping in point. In minutes this tide will be much deeper.” We all took notice and cheered for joy at this sight of hope. “Okay guys, let’s do this!”
We decided to jump in and make a crazy mad run for shore. As Jimmy jumped in first, holding his hand out to assist while wading in the freezing waters and then the next person jumped and joined him. We continued till all five of us were down off the jetty. And then we ran a slow-motion run. No feeling throughout our bodies, arms and legs barely working, but hand in hand, we took off for the finish line. Frozen, soaked, our mouths stiffened, but we were laughing and splashing and yelling. It looked like we had so far to get to land, but suddenly we were there. We all threw ourselves onto the sandy beach and rolled onto it like we were putting out a fire. Screaming for joy experiencing the exhilaration of a lifetime. The ride home in the van was joyous. We were stunned with excitement, adrenaline still coursing through our veins. The feeling of beating a death-defying challenge wasn’t something we would imagine in our lifetime, we really lived it. A story for our children and grandchildren.