Strange Encounter at Linnell Landing

August 30, 2012

The recording and mixing for my CD was in its final stages, but I’d been procrastinating about taking the pictures for the cover. Like most folks, I guess I don’t much like having my picture taken. Laurie, my partner and designated photographer, had been busy on the weekends, an excuse I’d used to justify my delay. But on this partly-cloudy Indian-Summer Saturday afternoon with calm winds and an ebb tide on the Bay, she was free and it was time. I packed the camera and my blonde upright bass into the back of my ancient green Subaru and headed down to Linnell Landing in Brewster. 

As we pulled into the parking lot, the clouds covered the sun briefly. I lugged the bass out to the beach, and unzipped the black, padded cover near a spot in the sand with no stones or debris that could have scratched it. My idea for the CD jacket was to have a front shot of me sitting on the bass for the front cover, and then a back shot for the back cover. I was sure the front/back scheme wasn’t original, but it seemed like a good solution. I slid the cover off and set the bass down on its side in the sand. Taking a deep breath and going against every instinct in my being, I sat down on the bass ever so gingerly. 

Laurie is pretty good with a camera and she started firing away immediately. She’d click a few shots, we’d stop and then take a look at them. We decided what seemed to be working, and then she’ld shoot some more. After a while the sun returned and the day could not have been more picturesque. The sky over the bay was a soft, pale blue, and the early Fall clouds were white velvety puffs with bluish gray underbellies. Below the sky, the tide had retreated nearly to the horizon exposing the rich reddish-brown sand of the Brewster tidal flats. 

The flats have always been my favorite part of the Cape shoreline. At low tide you can walk out for hundreds of yards on the freshly-exposed wet sand, soft and yielding underfoot. The ripples left by receding tide act as reminders that this transitional real estate is only on short-term loan until the next tide. When time allows I love to walk to the farthest edge of the sand and wait for the tide to reverse. The bay creeps slowly back toward the beach, methodically and persistently filling the sand ripples and reclaiming the flats until the next cycle. 

Laurie and I agreed that the colors out on the flats would be the perfect complement to the light golden wood of my bass, so carefully cradling the instrument in my hands, I ventured out onto the damp sand. After walking out quite a distance, Laurie wanted some shots of me playing, so I extended the end pin as far as it would go, and plunked away as the bass sunk slowly down into the soft sand. The low-angle Fall light in the photos made it look as if I was suspended between the sand and sky. As much as I hated to, I eased the beautifully-finished wood of the bass onto the wet, salty sand and sat on it again. Laurie kept clicking away relentlessly. As we were taking the last of the photos, we noticed a group of people gathering on the beach. I’d witnessed this scene often with wedding parties or families coming down for a group portrait by the water. But this time no one was dressed in white, and they all seemed to be migrating slowly out onto the flats. 

I am a believer in the cosmic workings of the universe, and I had no idea what irresistible force had lead me down to Linnell Landing and out on the flats this beautiful October Saturday afternoon, especially with this gorgeous instrument that really had no business in this environment, even on a mild day such as this. And it must have seemed a bit strange for the assembly on the beach to see a couple with an upright bass out there hundreds of yards from the shore. As they drew nearer, a tall man with sunglasses and shock of white hair that stuck out from beneath a brown flat cap made a detour straight over to where Laurie and I were working. He was wearing sandals, and his khaki trousers were rolled up to the middle of his shins. He walked right up to me, and with an expression of shock and disbelief, said “What in the world are you doing here?” 

I explained to him why we were there, and that we were just finishing up. He regained his composure and explained that his dad, a long time resident of Brewster, had recently passed away. Friends and family had gathered for a short memorial and to sprinkle his ashes on the flats as the tide came in. But the odd factor was that his dad happened to be a huge fan of music, and of jazz in particular. And here I was, out there waiting as if his dad had planned it that way. I asked if he wanted me to play during the memorial, but I already knew the answer. I absolutely had to play. It was after all the real reason I’d been sent to this special place at this particular time. So Laurie and I joined in behind the procession and followed them as they walked out to the edge of the sand and water. 

I mentioned that I only needed one thing: some sort of rock or shell to set the end pin of the bass on to keep it from sinking in the soft sand. The man in the flat cap called over an attractive brown-haired lady who was carrying a basket of shells. Each member of the group was to take a scoop of ashes with a shell and then sprinkle the ashes in the sand as the tide washed in. Most of the shells in the basket seemed ornate and not native to the Cape, but I poked around until I found a big, flat sea-clam shell― just what I’d need to keep the bass from sinking while I played. I set the shell into the sand about twenty or so feet behind the gathering, and with Laurie’s help, I positioned the end pin on the shell. 

I remember starting with a twelve bar swing in G, playing a melodic walking line and then branching out in little solo riffs. I let that blend into a gentle bossa and from there into a slow ballad. The memorial wasn’t long and I probably only played for twenty minutes or so. Afterward every person in the group including the young kids came up and thanked me. The widow of the memorialized man took my hand and squeezed it with a tearful smile of gratitude. The tide was on its way in, so I returned the shell to the basket, and Laurie and I made our way back to the beach. On the way she found a smooth heart-shaped stone and asked me to give it to the guy in the flat cap as a memento of the day. Back on the beach, I carefully wiped all the sand from the bass, but before slipping it into the case, I dropped a few grains of Linnell Landing sand inside through one of the F-holes. After stowing the bass in the car, I walked back out to the beach to give them the heart rock. We shook hands and hugged, and I got their address to send them the photos of the memorial that Laurie had taken. After saying our farewells, I walked off the beach as if exiting some cosmic stage, and I sat in my car to soak it all in for a moment before driving home. 

Laurie and I were heading to Wellfleet that evening to celebrate a good friend’s 50th birthday. As we got ready for the party we recounted the bizarre details of the afternoon: all the elements that had aligned perfectly for the strange events out on the flats. The party that night was a wonderful warm gathering of close friends. As we stood in the beverage line, my head was still swimming with images of the afternoon out there on the flats. I happened to look over my shoulder was taken aback by a familiar face. “Laurie, isn’t that the lady with the shell basket from the memorial today?” 

Laurie answered quickly that it couldn’t be, but I looked again and there was the flat-cap guy, only this time without the hat. He was recounting the events of the afternoon to a group of friends in an excited voice. “We got down to the beach to spread my Dad’s ashes, and there was an upright bass player and a photographer out there on the flats―waiting! Dad must have sent him!” At that moment he turned and saw us and said, “Oh my God, there he is! There’s the bass player! And the photographer!” 

It turned out that the lady with the basket was the birthday lady’s sister. They had driven up from Rhode Island to have the memorial and then to celebrate her sister’s birthday. That evening Laurie and I had several chats with our new-found friends. During one of them, the lady asked me “Do you remember the shell you picked out of the basket?” I told her that I’d looked for the biggest, bad-ass clam shell that I could find to keep the bass from sinking in the sand. Then she told me about being at her father-in-law’s house that afternoon before the memorial. I guess the old guy liked to collect shells and then glue them to framed boards to decorate his home. It seems that one particular clam shell kept falling off its board, so she had picked it up and put it in her basket as she walked out the door on the way to Linnell Landing. “That was the shell you chose to set your bass on,” she said. “He left it there for you.” 

This was not the first time I’d found myself caught up in a swirling eddy of the cosmic tide, drawn in space and time to play a small part on a much larger stage. I’ve been told that these events just mean that I’m where I’m supposed to be. But as I think back on the magical events of that day, I can’t help but wonder how the next chapter will unfold, what unexpected turn of events might spring from this strange encounter at Linnell Landing. 

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