“Sea level” is an oxymoron.
Anyone who lives near the ocean knows that.
I’m not talking about waves that crash onto the beach, constantly bathing it and retreating in an endless rhythm that began when earth began.
I’m talking about the vast ocean that births those waves, the tides and the pull of the moon, swirling massive storms and the movement of tectonic plates miles beneath the undulating water that covers most of the planet.
The sea is never level. It is hills and sometimes towering mountains, gullies and sometimes deep, dark valleys. It is tides and currents and undertow, highways and backwaters.
Out in the middle, that’s a concern only if you’re in a boat.
Sometimes it becomes a concern to those who live by its edge – who’ve built roads and schools and hospitals, restaurants and houses and live on the lip of that living thing.
My cousin Bill (he’s my wife’s cousin’s husband – I don’t know the name for that, but I’ll call him cousin) – grew up on the sea like I grew up on the tabletop of West Texas. His bicycle was a boat, his backyard a vast, shallow bay whose inlets, marshes and islands provided him a place to play as a child.
A long-overdue visit to Long Island gave this ultimate land-lubber a basis for comparison to the vast open farmland where I grew up.
Bill and Julie live on Long Island. It’s a beautiful place, where New York’s wealthy build mansions and the masses come to play on the beach. Their All-American hometown has old houses with big front porches, trees that touch over peaceful streets, green spaces, shops, libraries, schools, hospitals – and a railroad that can put you in Midtown Manhattan in just over an hour.
They seldom make that trip. They work and play and worship right there in their community.
When they go somewhere, it’s usually to their “cabin” out on Oak Island, a small community with no roads and no electricity, reachable only by boat.
The place on Oak Island has been in Bill’s family for generations. It’s a simple wooden structure, added onto over the years – a place to rest, clean up, eat and sleep after endless summer days of kayaking, sailing, fishing, digging clams out of the mud with your toes.
It, and the rest of Oak Island, took a mighty hit from Hurricane Sandy last November.
The place two houses down is gone, a two-story frame house picked up and carried 500 yards by a wind-driven wave. It was deposited in a marsh. Bill has photos of it, sitting there pretty as you please, like it was built on that spot.
Sixty or 70 neighbors formed a human chain to salvage out of it what they could for the 80-year-old owner. What’s left is now a pile of boards.
On its journey, it smashed through the house three houses down. That place, like many others on this side of the island, like Frank and Dick’s marina across the bay, has been abandoned.
Most of the owners aren’t wealthy. They hang onto these places because of memories, and the hope that future generations can make some of their own.
They take what the ocean gives them, in good times and otherwise.
The house where Bill and Julie live, like most on Long Island, was spared from the worst of the storm’s damage. They know they were fortunate compared to those who came back to find their homes gone, cars piled up like firewood in the streets, cubic miles of sand in their streets.
They know they’re lucky – but Bill’s marine consignment business didn’t have a customer or a call for a month after Sandy did her work. Things are turning around, but slowly.
They’re hanging on, just like they’re hanging on to the place on Oak Island. They had to knock down the old chimney, and they’ve replaced some of the pilings that were knocked out from under it, thankful it didn’t fall in or float away.
It may be years before docks and decks come back, and seawalls, steps and boardwalks are restored. They can only give it so much time. They have busy lives, jobs, things to do.
We had one beautiful day to kayak, grill a burger, sail around the island. When the ocean gives you one of those, you take it. Most days they go out there to salvage, rebuild and get ready for the next Sandy.
Out on Oak Island, time is very much on the ocean’s side.
Bob Buckel is executive editor of the Messenger.