When Sade was younger, she was often surprised when I would strike up a conversation with a complete stranger. We might be on an airplane or an elevator, or in line at the grocery. I was always looking for something to say to connect with people. She would always ask, “Do you know them?” afterwards, as it seemed to her I would not be speaking to people I did not know and often engage them in a conversation. It’s just my nature. Now that she is older, and a teenager, this habit of mine often annoys her. It invites others into our family circle, one in which she is all too happy to hide within. It never stops me, the urge to connect is just too strong.
So it was the other day when we were all lined up on the beach waiting for the ponies on Assateague to make their annual swim over to Chincoteague. There were thousands of people lined up on the shore and in boats waiting in the early morning heat for the swim to begin. We were all sitting by a small pier when this young lady age 9 walked past us to enter the shallow water just off the shell-lined beach. She was looking for shells in the clear water. She had her water shoes on. “You’re gonna get your shoes wet,” I warned her. She gave me a funny look. “That’s not funny,” my daughter scolded me. “They’re supposed to get wet, they’re water shoes,” the little girl explained.
She walked back out of the water to where her parents and little brother were seated in beach chairs. Then made her way back to where we were sitting to look for more shells. She picked up one, and walked right up to me, “Look, here is shell I found,” she told me. “Ever find a pearl?” I asked her. My daughter rolled her eyes, my new-found friend told me, “Well it was not quite a pearl,” as she ran over to her parents and digging through her satchel, came back to show me what she had found at the water’s edge. “Open your hand,” she demanded, “ here is a shell I found, and…a special find.” Into my hand she placed a small nautilus and a piece of jewelry. It appeared to be part of a charm bracelet or earring, it had a gold hoop and hanging off the hoop was a little whale maybe an inch long. “Wow,” I said, “that’s pretty cool. And you found it right here?” I asked. “Yes, it was just lying there in the water,” she said. “Maybe I could wear them for earrings if I could find another for my other ear,” she ventured. “It goes to show,” she started, “third time’s the charm.” “Ah very clever, pun intended,” I told her. “Let me guess, you’re nine-years-old and starting in…” “The fourth grade,” she interrupted. My name is Mr. Frank, what’s yours?” I asked. “Cassie,” she told me. Her family lived in Frederick Maryland she told us.
I looked out and noticed the ponies were gathering in the marshes ready to make the swim for the end of the marsh grass to the landing in Chincoteague. I stood and made my way out the narrow pier. It was maybe a two by ten fastened between posts every ten feet or so. I carefully made my way out and stood there where I could get a better view. It wasn’t long before I noticed my little friend had made her way out to stand beside me. “What if I push you in?” she teased. “Well, then there would be two people in the water,” I countered. “What if I fell in?” she asked. “I would jump in and have to save you I guess,” I told her. “Make you a deal,” I said. “If you fall in I will pull you out and if I fall in you can do the same.” “That wouldn’t be fair,” she countered. “You weigh more than me.” “How much do you weigh?” I asked. “64 pounds,” she replied. “I guess you’re right,” I told her. “Well…how much do you weigh?” she wanted to know. “200 pounds,” I told her.
“I think I am going to have a seat,” she announced, and sat down with her legs dangling just above the water. “I may as well join you,” I said, and plunked myself down next to her. “My legs are a bit longer so I have to put them in the water. It feels cool though,” I confessed. I pointed out the ponies as they approached, and talked about the Saltwater Cowboys’ need to shoot blanks to move the ponies into the water. You could see the puffs of blue smoke followed by the pop of the starter pistols. She pointed out that all the people in row boats and motor boats and pontoon boats and kayaks were “Greedy, they’re blocking our view,” she complained. “I know, but there are a few gaps in between, like right next to that red boat. Tell you what, let’s see who spots the first pony to make it to that spot,” I challenged her. “There’s one!” she said excitedly, and I moaned in mock disappointment.
She asked me why I wore so much jewelry, I told her I just liked it and that my daughter had given me one of my bracelets. “What’s the green and white one say?” she asked and I asked her if she had heard about Newtown, or Sandy Hook Elementary. She said no, and I told her that it was a tragedy that happened a few years ago where a boy went into an elementary school and shot a bunch of kids and their teachers. I told her I was a teacher and had been to Newtown to visit and had written a book about it. I told her if she would like, I might even give her a copy. “That would be nice,” she told me.
“Looks like the ponies are on the other side, we might have to turn around to face the other way,” I told her. And since we were at the far end of the pier where two posts rose just above the 2 x 10, I safely ensconced myself right there in between them. “Now I have the catbird’s seat,” I told her. “Can’t fall in now.” She stood up and placed her hands on my shoulders. “I can see real good from here,” she said. I asked her, “How would YOU like to sit in the catbird’s seat?” “How am I going to get there?” she wondered aloud. “Well, I guess you’d have to step over me…carefully,” and I turned to sit sideways on the pier facing town now. She carefully stepped over me and sat between the post in the “catbird’s seat.” “This is great,” she admitted. “Told ya,” I said.
When the ponies had all made the swim, I asked her if she knew about the corner just outside the Campground where the horses would all run by on their way to town for the auction. “That’s where we’re heading, “ she told me. We both carefully stood up to walk back along the narrow pier. She popped up quickly, I was taking more time to get my legs under me and steady enough to walk the tightrope of a pier back to dry land. “You’re not very flexible. Do you work out?” She asked me rather frankly. One of the things I most love about kids, their honesty. “No, I am just old,” I told her.
I made my way back to dry land and she ran ahead of me to her parents. I followed her and reaching my hand out, introduced myself as a retired educator. Neither parent seemed impressed. Oh well. I told them I was the author of a children’s book and had offered to give Cassie a signed copy. “You can ride your bike over later,” her mom told her. “We’re in P-15 I offered.
Of course she did not ride her bike over, though I fully expected to see her ride by checking out our encampment. As wary as her parents might have been to have their nine-year-old daughter befriending a 65-year old man, the fact that I was an educator and with my wife and two teenage girls should have allayed any fears they might have had. We saw they were camped right across from the Camp Store, so I made it a point to pull out a copy of my book, sign it “For Cassie, from Mr. Frank, Chincoteague, July 2015, and on one of our trips out stopped by their campsite. I was in the truck with three girls in the back. Cassie and her dad were outside their camper, Cassie was sitting at the picnic table. I stopped the truck and grabbing the book, walked over to the split rail fence, “Here, I have something for you,” I said handing her the book with one of my business cards inside as a place marker. Her dad turned and smiled, and I waved to him. “Here,” Cassie said, and started to hand me something. It was handful of popcorn. I told her that would do nicely for payment, thanked her and got back in my truck. The next day they were packed up and gone. It was a brief encounter, but a rewarding one just the same. And she will have a keepsake for the time she was at Chincoteague and met a real author who was pretty nice and paid attention to her.