Superhero of the Shoals

We lived across the street from the ocean, the only thing separating our house from the waves was a small street, a 2’ foot sea wall and a pile of large rocks anchoring the wall. I didn’t know the rocks were there to protect me from the ocean’s storms, they were my playground. Most summer days we would climb down the rocks with my Mom, my sister Shauna and my brother Dan to play in the tide pools. Entire mornings were well spent finding crabs, diverting snails, squishing the sand through our toes. We built drip castles until we dug so deep the mud turned black and we had to move on to another spot and start again. At the end of the day our beach at the tide pool would be littered with black spots of wet sand puddles next to our creations. We would scale back up the rocks in the afternoon to wash off and get a snack.

When we would bring. friends to our beach, they would often comment that it looked as if I was flying over the rocks as I went down. So familiar were the steps that I didn’t think about where I had to place my feet. So sure of my feet and my hands and how much to push off or let up as I jumped from rock to rock that I would often skitter down and make it to the sand only to look up and realize that I had left a cousin or friend back up at the top, looking tentative, not sure how to take a next step. I would climb back up and lead them down, step by step, “put your foot here, hand here, jump here.” Going up was much easier and but you had to go down to get to the gold, the tide pools, the sand, my ocean front yard. I loved those rocks, those tide pools and even the small blue canvas chair that my mother would unfold and place facing the sun but never sit on because she was at the water’s edge with us.

My Mom was in charge of the weekday beach excursions but on Saturdays and Sundays my Dad took over. Every Saturday morning right after breakfast I could count on a trip to Toabe’s Hardware with my Dad. He traveled most of the week for work so just getting to sit in the car and walk around the hardware store with him was a treat. Running to keep up as he would stride in and greet people and pick up what he needed for his latest project — our house. He and my Mom loved that house across the street from the ocean. It was a stretch to buy it and it wasn’t even fully winterized. But they knew that 203 Ocean Street was the perfect house for us. When the house was built, people named there houses, like they named their ships — our house was called The Shoals. A sea-weathered sign hung next to the front door. The waves that we could see from our front yard where sometimes big enough to land in our front yard. The Shoals was a perfect name for our house — we were perched on a shoal of rocks, from our kitchen it felt like we were a part of the ocean we could see.

My Dad and his friends re-constructed that house from the inside out. Insulation went in. Walls came down and then went up in different places. Every Saturday started with a hole in a wall and ended with a new picture window so that my Mom could see the ocean from wherever she was in the kitchen where we spent all of our time when we were not at the beach. Dad enclosed half of the wrap-around porch to make a living room large enough to hold the shag rug. Super shag, 2 inch nap, golden. It was the 70’s. In the winter we played on that rug and we pretended we were at the beach on the sand. Together my parents re-shingled the roof. I have a clear memory of watching my parents on the roof side by side — my Dad showing my Mom how to do it and then watching my Mom alone. Thinking back on it I am sure she climbed up to escape the bedlam of small children below so she could have some peace in the rhythm of accomplishment of shingling the roof.

For Christmas one year my Mom gave my Dad a table saw. She was a stay-at-home Mom but she was also a nurse and would at times pick up work to pay for something that they wanted or needed but was not in the budget. That must have been how she paid for that saw. Once he had it he was constantly walking down into or up out of the basement where his saw was set up. And now I had a new Saturday side-kick purpose, not only would I still ride shotgun to the hardware store but I would be called upon to hold a board steady as he guided it through the saw. The smell of sawdust can even now transport me to that basement and I can see my Dad in his red tag Levi’s, pencil behind his ear, looking right at me — “You got the end of that board Sadie Jane?” He only had one pair of jeans, he only wore them on Saturday and seeing them meant we had a project to tackle and I was going to be a part of it.

We always had sheetrock leaning against the inside of the garage — at the ready for the next project. One spring a family of Opossums was born in the space between the sheetrock and the wall. We visited them every day before school, peeking over the sheetrock and watching the mama tend to her hairless babies. Sour and earthy smells came from the little family. They tired of our peeking and moved out as abruptly as they had arrived. One day we heard scratching, we peered over and were accosted by. a new smell. A mama skunk and a pack of baby skunks had taken up residence. I can’t remember who devised the plan but we were all complicit in the freeing of the skunks from the garage to the local dump. We laid out some smelly old food in a line leading to a trashcan lying on its side. We left the garage and watched through a window. Eventually the skunks crept into the barrel. WHAM — someone ran in and clamped the lid down. We then hoisted the enclosed trash can into the car and dashed off to the dump. We pulled in and placed the can down at the edge of the deep trash pit. I think it was my Dad who pulled the lid back and kicked the can over so that its contents would spill down into the trash. We tried to do all of this without attracting the attention of the dump’s manager since the dump was another favorite Saturday morning excursion for my Dad and me and we didn’t want to get “kicked out of the dump.”

The “Take It or Leave It” pile at the dump was a great place to scavenge for treasures. One time my father noticed a large stack of barn wood being unloaded. Rather than unload it into a pile it was soon being directly unloaded right back into our car. My Dad was an up-cycler before it was a thing. Down into the basement went those barn boards and I held the end of every single one of them as he fashioned them into cabinet doors for the kitchen. I watched him measure and mark and cut and attach each board, puzzling out how to make it all work from his pile of found wood. I was with him when he picked out the black door pulls and hinges. I watched him stand back and look at it when it was done. This is when I learned that you can really do anything that you set your mind to doing. Where I learned how good it feels to make something beautiful and useful.

Those cabinets are still in the kitchen of 203 Ocean St. I knocked on the door a few years ago and when I started to introduce myself the gentleman who opened the door said — “Kelly Fallon? We’ve been waiting to meet you.” He invited me in, stepped into the kitchen and began opening all of the cabinet doors. To my embarrassment on the inside of every door was a child’s handwriting, scrawled in purple permanent marker. — “THIS IS MY HOUSE, KELLY FALLON, September 1977.” Every single cabinet door bore my inscription, my declaration. I had been very unhappy about leaving that house when I was 12 but I do not remember staking my claim on it with purple emphasis. I understand it. I do not remember it. I was attached to that house, those cabinets. I was made into the person I am as my Dad made those cabinets.

His adventures with me were not limited to Saturday rides to the hardware store and basement construction projects. He was always trying things out and getting us to try them with him. He decided to purchase a snorkel and a wetsuit and while I was on the beach playing in the tide pools, he liked to snorkel around looking for fish. One day he noticed a small pile of rocks underwater near an opening of larger rocks. He saw two antennae popping over the pile of rocks, he reached his hand toward the opening and pulled out a lobster. Just like that he became a lobsterman and I got a new side-kick role.

Now going to the beach on a Saturday or a Sunday meant we were bringing this large inflatable boat from the army surplus. I would carry an oar, his flippers, mask & snorkel in a large yellow mesh bag and he would follow carrying the boat. I could run as fast as I wanted down the rocks on those days, I didn’t have to tell him where to put his feet, his steps were as sure as mine. Once we were down he would pull up the top of his wet suit, we would put the boat in and we would wade out past the tide pools. Eventually I would slip into the boat. He’d pull on his scuba hood, mask, snorkel and flippers, pull the boat’s rope over his shoulder and swim toward the rocky jetty. He would pull me along. Looking down at the rocks below. When he found what he thought was a good spot he would signal that he was going down. This was also my signal to get to work. The tides were strong and they would move the boat while he was under the water. It was my job to keep the boat as close to where he had submerged as possible — this was the first use of the oar I had carried over the rocks. I wasn’t great at this job but I made a good effort.

Down he would go, the water blasting out of the snorkel and then there would be complete silence. I knew he was just below the surface but there would be a full minute of no sound. Then he would break the water, take a breath, shake his head, he was empty handed and go down again. Up again he would pop with a lobster wriggling in his hand. I would row over to where he was — hand him the yellow mesh bag that had previously held his gear and he would push the first lobbie inside the bag. Now I had to hold the bag in the water and the oar to steady the boat. Sometimes he would catch so many in a row that he would skip the bag and toss the lobsters into the opposite end of the boat from where I was sitting and then bag them up at the end. When he did that I used the oar to make sure they didn’t crawl toward me and since I was using the oar for defense I was no good at keeping the boat anywhere near close enough to him. Not only was he swimming down to the rocks on the bottom and back up but he kept having to swim to me in the boat. He never said anything about how lousy I was a rowing a boat. Once he decided that we had caught enough for dinner he would put the rope over his should and pull us back to the shore. Multiple trips up and down the rocks with gear and bounty we would go to get ready for dinner.

We would all gather for dinner around the kitchen table by the picture window he had installed and my Dad would tell the story of our hunt, his huge smile and sparkling blue eyes, his fingers glistening with the butter that had dripped off the lobster. He would be beaming as he told the story and he would make my part of the adventure seem important. Everyone loved the story as they gobbled up our catch.

It’s hard for me to see my Dad in any other way. In my mind’s eye his is 37, wearing his red tag Levi’s and cooking up some project or adventure in which I would play a starring role. Those adventures are the gift of his parenting. My Dad says that when I write about him I make him sound like a super-hero. He is. And, I think my daughter Celia’s poem is spot on. His guidance does give me light, his care is what I crave, his love does surround me.

Grandpa Ken by Celia Condrick

I believe that your children choose you

That somehow they know the parents they need

It happens before they are born

Their soul connects to yours in a way

So that when they enter the world

Your strengths match their weaknesses

Your guidance gives them light

Your care is what they crave

Your love surrounds them

That’s what happened to my Grandpa