We drive slowly through the narrow lanes, past Newport’s piers and shops, and once again admire the old Rhode Island town’s historic sea captain’s houses and millionaire’s mansions, then head out onto the scenic road that skirts Narragansett Bay.
The bay is hardly visible, as fog has swallowed up familiar scenes. One of our young companions looks out and observes, “It’s like the Newport Bridge never even existed!”
And so I am preoccupied with thoughts of bridges lost and drifting in the fog, of sailing ships and whaling ships, of those who must go down to the sea, of bodies and souls both tempest-tossed, of swirling surf and wild waves, of cabbages and kings.
Just then a snowy egret takes wing before my very eyes, bright pure holy white against the churning dark sea.
This day near the ocean is harsh and howling, its energy chaotic and its strength overwhelming and its roaring message sounding like a warning…It is a lovely day.
It’s not true. When your mortality is suddenly looking you straight in the eye and staring you down, your life doesn’t flash before you — at least for me, it happened so quickly that I hardly knew it had happened.
We were visiting Beavertail State Park on Conanicutt Island near Jamestown, R.I. It was an impromptu visit — we were driving around that lovely island when we spotted the park, with its classic lighthouse and rocky shore along Narragansett Bay.
We decided to walk down onto the rocks. Other folks had already done it — some were sitting there reading books or admiring the view; others had towels spread out and were sunbathing.
We headed slowly down toward the water, being very careful about where we stepped, very wary of slipping and falling and getting hurt on the rocks.
And then I slipped. My feet flew out from under me and I was aware that I was sliding down an incline. I heard my companion shout out my name.
And suddenly I found myself underwater. I felt my head make contact with a smooth rock — the impact, luckily, was apparently cushioned by the water.
I popped up to find myself in a deep narrow crevice that had been carved out of the rock by the waves and current — a space maybe about six feet around. I was standing on slippery rocks in water that was about chest-high. The ledge I’d fallen off was at least two feet above my head, and so were the surrounding ledges.
My companion, who at first could see nothing except that I’d disappeared, shouted my name again and then shouted frantically, “Where’s Roxy!”
She couldn’t see me. But she could see a pink leash floating the water. Roxy’s a tiny little puppy, half-dachshund and half chihuahua. I’d been holding her to my chest as we walked down the rocks.
Where was Roxy? I turned my head and there she was, looking scared but doing the dog paddle, treading water in what was certainly her first-ever swim — and an unexpected one at that.
I got hold of Roxy and handed her up. So one of us was now on dry land — or rock. Me, I now faced a new problem — how in the world was I going to get out? I could reach the stone ledges by stretching my arms upward, but the rocks were slippery and there was nothing to grab hold of — and the bottom was slippery and sharp rocks were nearby. It was definitely time to get help.
Within a minute, two men were there, looking down at me worriedly and taking stock of this unexpected scene. The three of us decided it might be too risky — for them and for me — to try to pull me up while they lay unsecured on the slippery rock slopes.
There was one option short of calling 911: Seeing if I squeeze through a narrow passageway, moving about six feet in the direction of the shore, toward the water. If I could get through there, I might be about to pull myself up onto the somewhat lower rock ledge.
I squeezed through sideways. Then I pulled myself, bracing my legs again one rock wall while boosting my body up onto a flat rock on the other side, then rolling onto my stomach and crawling up to a drier, safer rock.
And I was perfectly OK — a bit shaken up, bleeding from bad scrapes on both of my forearms. I was absolutely not quite OK when I realized how fortunate I’d been — if I’d slid an inch or two in either directions I’d have crashed into rocky ledges; if I’d tumbled over head-first, I’d most certainly have hit my head.
Over the last few years I’ve posted a series of essays here titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death.” Is it possible to have a premonition after the fact? Or maybe it might be more accurate to use a phrase that’s the title of a book by Edmund Wilson — it was a work of literary criticism, and it had nothing to do with death or mortality, but the title fits: The Shock of Recognition.
Funny, too, how such mundane thoughts come to mind in the most serious moments. As I walked carefully up the rocks, checking to make certain I really hadn’t broken any bones or cut the back of my head, I had an image of the opening credits of an old TV soap opera. There was a close-up of an hourglass and a narrator’s voice declaring ominously and with great authority: “Like sands in an hourglass…These are the days of our lives…”