On Father's Day, Remember Who to Thank

Sometimes, walking our Ventura beaches, I stop, transfixed and transported, before a jetty. Any jetty does it, though one in particular is responsible. If I listen very closely, I hear the soft breathing of small boys. If you are a parent, you understand.

Regarding Father's Day, I believe the wrong person is being thanked.

This special jetty -- and its hypnotic, lifelong effect -- is but one illustrative tale, plucked from hundreds. If you are a lucky parent, you are aware of the largesse.

Longer ago than it seems possible, our family vacationed on Cape Cod. This was something of a puzzle to the Cape Codders we met, who wanted to know who leaves a home at the beach for a vacation at the beach. People who love the beach, that's who. Cape Codders appreciate a straight answer.

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On this particular summer vacation, the beach that consumed us was small, but at the time, two of us were small, too. Tucked within the protected confines of Nantucket Sound, Quohog Beach is a beach for young children. As if attempting to make things pleasant for its primary patrons, everything about Quohog Beach is small, from its wee crescent of sand to the pint-size jetty jutting like a blunt thumb into the sound.

Upon this beach we performed two select tasks, which eventually became intertwined in the happiest of fatherly fashions.

Our first task was scouring the beach, buckets swinging, poking through tangles of seaweed, broken bits of whelk, and moon snail, searching for pieces of horseshoe crab. These prehistoric creatures once littered Cape Cod in such numbers they were ground up and used as fertilizer by farmers. From what we observed on Quohog Beach that July, their numbers hadn't decreased much, though each horseshoe crab appeared to have been placed atop a firecracker and then scattered by a schizophrenic wind.

No matter. Our plan remained unaltered by this minor deterrent. We would piece together a horseshoe crab, whole and complete. Cullen (six) and Graham (four) raptly plucked up cracker-thin crab bits, placing them carefully in their buckets. I followed their example, but with slightly less enthusiasm. I understood the odds. Now and again I glanced at other parents, flat on their backs in the hot sun.

As the older brother, Cullen ran things. He waved a magisterial hand at Graham.

"If we don't get enough pieces to put together the crab now," he decreed, "we'll get the rest later."

"Uh-huh," grunted Graham, possibly because he mildly resented being bossed around, possibly because he was sorely bent to one side under the weight of a bucket spilling over with pretty much everything he could pick up.

Cullen strode over to his brother's bucket.

Peering in, he scowled.

"Crabs aren't made out of beer cans!"

Now 19 and 21, they know this.

On that long ago beach we collected jigsaw pieces for hours.

Buckets full, again and again we walked back to our cottage.

"I think we have the pieces we need for a whole crab," Cullen would say.

"Right," Graham would reply.

Out on the back porch we emptied our buckets. I threw away the beer cans. Quickly it became quite the obliterated shell collection.

After each emptying, Cullen would crouch to arrange a few promising horseshoe pieces.

"Hmmm," he would say, moving the pieces in circles like a centrifugal chess master.

"Hmmm," his brother would respond.

Cullen would look to Graham.

"Just a few more pieces."

"Hmmmm," Graham responded.

At night, Kathy and I would lay in bed. Our sliding screen door opened to the porch. Occasionally a puff of wind would ferry a smell that made us wonder if Stephen King was cooking something outside. Beneath the stars dark shells lay, methodically sorted according to what I don't know.

"Anything is possible," my beautiful bride would say to me, and I knew again why I married her.

Our second task was crabbing on the pint-size jetty.

We became fascinated with crabbing because frankly nothing, with the possible exception of King Henry VIII, eats with more gusto than crabs do. Also, live crabs do more interesting things than dead ones. The small jetty pronging off Quohog Beach was loaded with crabs. We knew this because by the third day of our vacation -- between bouts of horseshoe shell collecting -- we had already been crabbing roughly two thousand times.

For this task, we each had our own bucket with chicken bits and string inside. I would tie a chicken piece to each string and then we would get to work, solemnly lowering the sacrificial chicken into the jetty's dark rifts. Crabs leapt at our strings as if they had suddenly realized they were aboard the Titanic. They rose from their dark places furiously stuffing down chicken bits, exhibiting not a whiff of self-preservation.

As a father I sometimes tried to use present opportunity to impart long term wisdom.

"Crabs are called crustaceans," I told our sons.

"I dropped my string," said Graham.

The crabs poured from that long ago jetty in a locust horde, striking wantonly at the chicken bits and each other with harsh clicks. When our buckets filled with clacking crabs we carefully emptied them back into the sea.

One afternoon, the three of us crouched on the jetty with our dangling strings, Graham regarded me soberly. Perhaps he was tired. We had been up since dawn, commencing our day with the collection of horseshoe crab remnants.

He looked solemnly toward the beach.

"We're not going to find enough horseshoe crab pieces," he said.

"We might," I said.

"Maybe not," he said.

I have always wanted our sons to believe anything is possible, but they should know life has disappointment, too.

"You're right," I said. "We might not find enough pieces."

Something stuck in my throat.

We returned to crabbing. Wordlessly, both boys moved close to me, sharing my crevice. We crouched. In the quiet I heard their small breaths. A moment later I felt the butterfly press of a hand on each thigh.

Sometimes life's pieces fit together in ways you don't expect.

Happy Father's Day.

Thank you, boys.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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