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The Clue in the Breakwater

I blame it on Nancy Drew. I was impressionable. I was looking for a strong female role model and I craved adventure. She was a girl sleuth who embodied moxie and independence. She went on interesting escapades and solved complicated puzzles.

I was ten when I picked up my first book, "Secret of the Old Clock", and I was hooked. At every holiday for several years all I wanted was more Nancy Drew books. I saved my money and meticulously added to my collection. The yellow spines lined up on my bookshelf next to my Madame Alexander "Little Women" dolls. My other literary hero was Jo March, the courageous and headstrong writer.

As I read the "Sign of the Twisted Candles" and learned the "Password to Larkspur Lane", I began to see myself as an up and coming detective and visualized things around me as suspicious. A misplaced box of cereal in the cookie aisle at the grocery store could offer a clue to some intriguing caper. The milkman clearly looked shady and I was certain that the he was carrying something other than milk in his orange Pine State truck. Letters might be hidden in library books that could lead to unclaimed treasures. I began to bury clues in my own diaries in case something ever happened to me so that the Raleigh Police Department would have some leads in their investigation.

Nancy Drew’s mysteries absorbed much of my spare time from age ten to thirteen, at which point I became more interested in real boys than in hoping that Nancy would finally kiss the dreamy Ned Nickerson. When they met in "The Clue in the Diary," Nancy mistook him for a car-thief, but soon he was described as Nancy’s “special friend,” and I wanted a boyfriend just like him. He was tall and handsome, he played Varsity basketball, baseball and football for Emerson college in Boston. I don’t know where he found the time to help her in her amateur sleuthing business with all those team sports, but whenever Nancy found herself trapped, Ned would be on the scene just in the nick of time.

When I was twelve my family took our annual summer trip to Emerald Isle on the North Carolina coast. Back then, the sea grass-covered sand dunes went on for miles. Nowadays there are giant beach houses that sleep twenty or more lining the coast, but in the 1970s, weathered cottages were nestled in the dunes, with windswept, gray wood-planked walk ways that led from the front porches, over stilted decks and on toward the shore.

Daddy’s work buddy let us use the lower level apartment of his celadon green cement block beach house. From there, it was a short walk through the Peppertree Condo complex up to the big gazebo that stood proudly between two dunes, with showers on the stair landings so you could get the sand off yourself and your beach toys before you headed back to the surely plush, shag-carpeted, air-conditioned heaven that I imagined a Peppertree Condo promised.

Our accommodations were not all that impressive, but mom would remind us that we were lucky to even BE at the beach and if we felt like complaining about the musky mildew smell that greeted us when we kicked open the warped front door, we could be camping at Salter Path. And we’d shut up because we were grateful for the cool linoleum floors and the bathroom where you didn’t have to pay a quarter for a shower or risk peeing on a patch of poison oak under a Loblolly pine behind the tent.

One afternoon, my family decided to spend the day at Fort Macon, the massive fortress at the North end of the island. It was built after the War of 1812 revealed the weaknesses of the US coastal defenses. The fort was meant to guard Beaufort Harbor, North Carolina’s only major deep-water ocean port.

In the 1840s young army corps engineer, Robert E. Lee developed a system of erosion-control for the fort, utilizing rock jetties. He later became general of the confederate Army, and at the beginning of the Civil War, his militia seized the fort from Union forces. It was later attacked and fell back into Union hands.

This trivia was important to my brother and me as we had our own Civil War tally going on between us. You see I was born in Charleston, South Carolina, so I was a Confederate. He represented the Union forces due to his birth in Groton, Connecticut, while our submariner dad was stationed there. As family travels over the years took us to Civil War sites throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania, it became clear that, even though I didn’t fully comprehend the history of the War Between the States, I got the bum deal being the one born in the south.

After climbing through the labyrinth of the fort, we headed to the shore to picnic and relax in the sand. I’d learned from a plaque along the beach path that Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Ann’s Revenge, was believed to have run aground on a sandbar off the coast not far from where we were. As I lay on my towel reading "Mystery of the Tolling Bell" my mind drifted to swashbuckling pirates and the possibility of hidden treasure along the Bogue banks. I asked my mother if I could take a walk and I headed out toward the jetty.

I was only about two hundred yards from my father, who was sitting in his lawn chair, ankle deep in the water fishing for the speckled trout that might be our dinner, when I saw it: a greened-bronze rectangle at the end of the L-shaped fork in the jetty. As the tide ebbed, it was clear there were words on it. I was certain that those words were a clue that would lead to a treasure, possibly something from the Queen Ann’s Revenge.

I climbed up on the first of the dozen or so of the large concrete blocks that made up the breakwater. Barnacles crunched below my feet as I gingerly walked to the next eight-foot long block. I looked back to see my mother in the distance flipping through her Better Homes and Gardens magazine while my little brother and sister built a sandcastle with a pail and a broken shovel someone else had discarded on the beach.

The next blocks were cool and damp from the splash of the tides, and the block after those felt good on my feet, the barnacles covered by mossy green algae. I was getting closer to the end, where the wall turned to make the L-shaped blockade, but I still couldn’t make out any of the words. And then I slipped, slamming my knee into the cement, and slid off the left side of the barrier wall. My family was on the right.

As I struggled for footing and a place to grip the wall, a big wave came in, slamming my head against the jetty. I tried to swim out from the breakwater toward the shore, but each wave pushed me back into the wall.

My feet came upon a rather large rock. I was finally able to rest my legs and assess the situation. The wall was covered in urchin, anemone and mussels and was difficult to cling to. There was no way I could climb up it and, even jumping on the rock, I could barely wave my hand above it. There were no people visible on the beach save for a fisherman in the distance, where the Barrier Island curved toward the inlet. But when I shouted as loud as I could for help, he didn’t move, the sound of the waves surely drowning my voice.

The tide was rising and my rock perch was quickly becoming deeper. Water that was at first up to my shoulders as the tides receded was now almost to my chin. As a big wave came crashing in, I had time for a deep breath, but I hadn’t braced myself. I slipped off the rock and my ankle slid between it and the wall, lodging my foot in the gap. I couldn’t budge my foot and I was below water level, running out of air fast in my panic.

Just then a hand gripped my arm, pulling me up. But my foot was still stuck and I felt like I was on Nero’s stretching rack, being pulled in both directions. I twisted and squirmed and somehow wrangled free as my guardian angel grabbed for my other hand and pulled my scraped and bruised body up to the surface of the jetty.

He was a fisherman who had seen me walking along the breakwater and glanced back to see that I was no longer there. He briefly thought I might have been an apparition, his eyes playing tricks on him in the bright July sunlight. But instinct told him, “No. Go check just in case.” He faintly heard my call and saw my hand pop above the wall as he navigated the slippery rocks.

He cautiously carried me across the wall toward my family. Mom raced over to take me from his arms, thanking him profusely. I was crying as my father approached the towels, “What in the heck were you doing that far out on the rocks?” he yelled.

I was trying to solve a mystery,” I whimpered, “There is a clue on the plaque at the end of the jetty and I just wanted to see what it says.”

I’ll tell you right now what it says,” grumbled my dad, “Slippery when wet.”

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As shared at Story Salon February 3, 2016.

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