The Breakers

Geoff Watkinson

With straps to AR-15s slung over their shoulders, two New Jersey State Troopers warmed their gloved hands over barrel fires in the sand-covered median of Route 35 in Toms River, approximately 100 yards from the Tunney-Mathis Bridge that extends over the Barnegat Bay and into Seaside Heights. The two barrels, with orange flames and burnt-out holes in the sides, looked like jack-o-lanterns, dark smoke rising into the cold November morning. It was two days after Thanksgiving in 2012 and three weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck the northeast. Residents were allowed to return to their homes for brief periods. What had been a two-lane bridge in each direction was reduced to one to control traffic, creating a line of cars a couple of miles long.

My mother drove, father in the passenger’s seat, me in back. We were on our way to check her father’s house in Lavallette, in the middle of the twenty-mile long, thin barrier island: the Barnegat Peninsula. A plumber followed us to shut off the house’s water before the pipes froze. My grandfather, mostly immobilized by a progressive skin cancer, was staying with my maternal aunt in central New Jersey with his black miniature poodle, Murphy.

I had an eerie sense that the destruction caused by the hurricane was only the beginning of wide-sweeping changes in my life. I was 26, halfway through my second graduate program and, little did I know, on the brink of stepping into a two-year relationship that would force me to stare down life decisions that I wasn’t prepared to make: moving in together, moving out of state, getting a dog. I was trying desperately to hold onto something, but I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to hold onto.

*

Some of New Jersey’s richest habitats are within the 600 square miles of New Jersey’s Barnegat Watershed: bay islands, wetlands, migratory nesting grounds. It’s an oasis in an otherwise overdeveloped, environmentally challenged region.

As a boy, I loved, in the most novice sense, bird watching: black skimmers, osprey, hawks, and my favorite, the great egret. The great egret is one of the most common birds in eastern US estuaries. That didn’t matter when I was a boy. There was something about the bird that struck me as noble. Maybe it was its size (an adult can grow to three and a half feet), or its silky white color, or its long S-shaped neck, or its stick legs, or its long yellow beak. Maybe it was just its name—The Great Egret. Like the hero of a story that my grandmother would have read to me after Tikki Tikki Tembo.

It was unclear how badly my grandfather’s house had been damaged. The day after the storm cleared a YouTube video shot from the roof of the town’s liquor store—where my grandfather purchased his scotch—shows water covering every inch of street and land for as far as the camera can see. In many locations, the ocean and bay shook hands, creating new inlets that the Army Corps of Engineers would spend months undoing. Like the rest of the island’s residents, my grandfather had been evacuated.

Across from where the troopers stood, on the edge of a furniture store parking lot, a large red sign with white lettering read “Jersey Strong.”

As we drove over the midway point of the bridge, the destruction came into focus: houses on each side of the bay had collapsed into the water. Others had broken in half. By the time we reached the island, boats—sailboats, speedboats, and jet-skis—were in the streets and on front yards. Even with the windows up, there was a distinct smell of dead fish.

On the surface, the water looked strangely calm, but underneath was a minefield of debris: lost crab traps, sunken boats and cars and houses. Large quantities of fuel, oil, pesticides and chemicals were released into the bay and ocean. In most places along the barrier islands, the sewer infrastructure had failed. In other words, the sewage spewed, unimpeded, into the water.

We passed the baseball field next to the public library where hundreds of cars, trucks, and buses were lined up in the outfield, as if it was overflow parking for a concert. The inside of the windows were covered in condensation. Debris stacked nearby reached three stories, a mountain that could be seen from many blocks away. Ranch homes lay in ruins: some had sunk into the ground; others hung over holes created by the ocean. More had simply imploded. The debris—wood planks, appliances, garbage—was everywhere.

I kept thinking about that sign: “Jersey Strong.” And I’ve thought about it a lot since – not the sign, exactly, but the sweatshirts and hats and bumper stickers and Facebook pages that center around this idea of New Jersey Strength. That notion initially forced its way under my fingernails, where it rested uncomfortably like a sliver of scrap metal for a long while. The problem with the slogan, it seemed, was that it wasn’t true—that it simplified something elusive, complex, undefinable.

On a side street, a group of men attempted to flip a Jet-ski right-side-up as a Trooper approached. I imagined he wanted to see their identification—to see their paperwork. Looting had been widespread in the days and weeks after the storm. Each vehicle had to show proof of residence and identification to get onto the island.

As we drove past each block, the scene was similar: houses reduced to lopsided collapsed roofs, piles of two-by-fours and jagged wood, shattered glass, chunks of concrete rising up through the surrounding piles of sand. A varying layer of sand remained in the street, trees and branches resting haphazardly, piles of waterlogged possessions rising from the asphalt as if everyone on the street had suddenly decided to remodel. I snapped a picture of the pile in front of one house, which still looked structurally intact. On the pile was a blue leather loveseat, a refrigerator, a microwave, dark yellow insulation, a rolled up carpet, cardboard boxes, upside down wicker chairs, a TV, a tool chest, red and blue buckets, a green cloth couch, and a stack of black and white photographs. The piles were all so similar that, collectively, they took on a greyish hue matching the overcast sky.

Residents wore white masks over their noses and mouths to protect themselves from the growing mold. As if on a loop, people went into their homes, grabbed a handful of items, tossed it on the pile near the curb, and repeated.

We reached the corner of Route 35 and the ocean block of Camden Avenue. Across the street was Saint Bonaventure Church, a 22,000 square foot light brown gothic structure that my grandfather used to walk to almost every day. The steeple—one of the tallest points on the island—was tilted, the basement flooded.

My mother parked in the muddy sand of my grandfather’s driveway. The deep gray sky seemed to push toward the ground, and the ground toward it. Up the front steps of the porch, about an inch from the bottom of the front door, was a brown line where the water had reached its climax.

It’s a rainy summer evening when I’m 13 and my sister 10. With two friends we made at the beach that week—also a brother and sister—we play truth or dare on the front porch. The street is flooded, thunder and lightning in the distance, the rain gaining strength. The girl smiles, puts her wet blonde hair behind her ear, and dares me to run through the flooded street and touch the wooden electric pole. I say dare because I don’t want her to ask me if I’ve ever kissed a girl (I haven’t) or if I have a crush on her (I do). So I take off my shoes and run through the water and touch the pole. When I got back to the porch, the girl’s eyes bright, Grammy comes outside.

“You could get struck by lightning,” she says.

“I just went into the street, Grammy. That’s all.”

“Who are your two friends?” she asks. They introduce themselves. “Well, it’s getting late. You two should probably go home.”

“But Grammy,” I say. “It’s only six o’clock.”

“We’re going to have dinner soon. Be inside in five minutes.”

We didn’t often have visitors at the house, outside of family. I didn’t understand why as a kid. But over the years, it became clear that the purpose of the house was to get the family together. Not to entertain. Family was something my grandparents expected us to respect. It was, after all, their home. But on that night, with the street flooded, I was angry at my grandmother. The girl left the next day and I never saw her again. I hadn’t thought about her, or that night, in years.

As I stared at the water line on the front door, my mother unlocked the door then we walked inside. My grandfather’s dusty golf clubs were in the corner of the small foyer. I veered right through the living room and saw that Murphy, my grandfather’s poodle, had destroyed another screen in the window that looked out onto the front porch. The clear glass lamp with shells inside, made by my grandmother, sat on one of the coffee tables. A photograph of my grandparents, brother, sister, and me at the Cape May Zoo 15 years earlier was in a frame on the bookshelf near the stairs. I could see my breath inside.

Before entering the kitchen, I knelt down and felt the tan carpet. It felt cold, which, for a moment, made me believe it was damp.


“It’s dry,” I said to my mother.

She nodded and walked through the kitchen and into the back of the house. I walked upstairs from the living room and into the bedroom my brother and I shared growing up. I hadn’t slept there in years—a combination of me having moved to Virginia and my grandfather having become a progressive scotch drinker after his wife died a decade before. Nights with him were unpredictable—the sorrow and scotch fusing into a potent cocktail of unpredictability. 


I laid my face down on my bed, or what had once been my bed—the twin on the right side of the room. The faded blue flower-patterned bedspread smelled like salt and must, as if the smell of the ocean had somehow decayed. My grandmother had enforced a morning bed-making policy, which included precise tucks and folds—a process that has, more-or-less, stayed with me ever since. I turned over and stared at the ceiling, ears ringing from silence.

It occurred to me that my grandfather might die before returning to this house. All utilities were down on the island. Regardless of the structural condition of the house, the island wasn’t going to be able to support residents for months. Every time I talked to him, he spoke obsessively about getting home. “Je-sus Chris-mas,” he’d say, “what a damn mess.”


On my back, I closed my eyes and went back in time. It’s morning. I’m 10 years old. I can hear my grandfather in the kitchen below, scrambling eggs in a pan with a spatula. Bacon is crackling in a skillet and the smell has filled the house. My grandmother, 4’8” and shrinking, is talking to my mother in the living room and I can’t quite make out the words. I imagine that maybe she’s not feeling well and is talking about another test she’s having at a hospital in New York City—tests that would never determine what was wrong with her. I look over at the bed next to me, and my brother is already gone, probably boogie-boarding up on the beach. I’m the late sleeper, usually the last one up. My grandmother calls it “beauty sleep,” and it’s one of the many things we have in common.


I opened my eyes and the musty ocean smell was back. I got goosebumps as a disorienting rush of thoughts came. Tapping the fingers of both hands against my sternum, I thought about how I had lost my childhood and I didn’t know what to do about it.

I went downstairs, out the sliding back door and into the detached garage where my mother was. The cement floor was wet with scattered clumps of black mud. It smelled like the channel in my backyard in Virginia when it emptied during low tide—the brackish water retreating, exposing the sludgy river bottom, tiny crabs scattering from a hungry great egret that always seemed to be around. It was an uncanny smell to find on a cold November day in New Jersey in the confines of a detached garage five hundred yards from the ocean.


“Car’s shot,” my mother said, looking at it with her hands on her hips. “It won’t start. But we knew that would likely be the case.” The windows of the almost new Cadillac Deville were foggy and coated in condensation.


“Guess I’ll start cleaning out some of the crap in here,” I said.


I didn’t know where to start. A dark ring encircled the walls of the garage, two and a half feet above the floor. I picked up a circular saw my grandfather had taught me to use to make wooden airplanes when I was a kid. In just a few weeks, the saltwater had begun rusting the blade and corroding the plug, the metal feeling of fine sandpaper. I put it outside on the driveway. In a cardboard box was a stack of bound National Geographic magazines (more like encyclopedias) from the ’30s that had belonged to my grandmother’s father. I picked up one and the black cover was mushy, the color transferring onto my fingers. I opened the book, the pages sticking together, ink bleeding.


“Should we try to dry these out?” I asked my mother.


“Is there mold on them?”


“Not yet.”


“I guess it’s worth a shot,” she said.


“Oh, come on,” my father said, “what are we going to do with a stack of old books that’s been sitting in water for the past three weeks?”


“They’re worth something,” I said.


My father stopped rummaging through the back corner of the garage, stood up straight, and nodded.


When my grandfather moved to the beach soon after his wife died, he threw out a lot of the trinkets that had been collected over the course of their lives, like that Tikki Tikki Tembo book that my grandmother used to read my brother, sister, and I. Much of what was left ended up in boxes on the floor of the garage.


There was a box of beach toys—a nerf football heavy from water saturation; a wooden paddleball set, black mold creeping up the handle; and one of my first baseball gloves. I picked up the glove, which was now heavier, the leather more brown than the tan it had once been. I tossed it out onto the driveway with the saw. There was the beach chair my grandmother had sat in, the metal frame rusting. There were boxes of her beach reads, hardcover Danielle Steele novels. She was a librarian and loved the classics, but on the beach she simply wanted to be entertained. They were all waterlogged, and as I brought the box outside, the bottom fell out, the books falling onto the pavement.


I began putting everything into garbage cans and then carted them to the curb and dumped the contents. I grew angry. As my twenties had progressed, it seemed that more events like this presented themselves—and always sooner than when I wanted to face them. My parents had moved two years earlier from the house where I’d grown up. They got a dumpster and I threw out almost everything—science fair ribbons, soccer and baseball trophies, books from the Illustrated Classics series. My mother insisted she hold onto my childhood paintings and drawings. She put them in a box, and I imagine, at some point, I’ll end up cleaning them out of my parents’ basement with the rest of the items with which they’re unable or unwilling to part.


I don’t like change. I don’t like not having control. I don’t like letting go. But there’s no choice in the matter. Sometimes it seems that my childhood is territory being fought over, but I’m the only one aware that there’s a war going on. I aggressively fight growing older, and the more I fight, the faster time moves.


I was cold and hungry. I lit up a cigarette by the curb and looked at the front of the house. For the first time, I noticed that my grandfather had left the American flag raised on the porch before my aunt had evacuated him. The flagstick was partially broken, the flag ripped and maimed. He had always kept the flag immaculate—putting it up in the morning and taking it down at night. If the flag got a tear, he replaced it. I put out the cigarette, walked up the steps, took the flag down, folded it, and placed it inside.


After most of the garbage had been cleaned out and the plumber turned off the water, my father and I decided we needed a break. We walked up toward the beach. A few houses up, a neighbor nodded to us as he tossed a wicker chair on his heap of debris.


A backhoe was parked where the boardwalk had once been. The ocean and wind uplifted the boardwalk planks, propelling them through the front windows of the beachfront homes. The gazebo beneath the lifeguard tower had been destroyed. My brother and I spent our teenage years walking that boardwalk, looking for girls, sitting in that gazebo.


“I never expected this to happen,” I said to my father. “I knew it could, that it probably would, but I still never expected it.”


My father nodded.


The topography of the beach had been transformed. The beach was shorter, the dunes flattened.


 “It’s completely unrecognizable. All of it,” my father said.


Dad and I looked south and didn’t say anything for a while. In the ocean two miles away was the Jet Star rollercoaster from Seaside Heights’ Casino Pier—the iconic image that emerged from Sandy. It had dropped straight down with the pier and into the Atlantic. The roller coaster was 50 feet tall, with 1700 feet of track. From a distance, it looked as if an erector set that had been tossed into the water, struggling to stay upright.


The only time I’d ridden that rollercoaster was with my first girlfriend, Brittany, the summer between high school and college. As I looked out at the coaster from the beach, the bottom 10 or 15 feet submerged in the sea, I thought about that night with Brittany. It’s one of our first dates. We drive down the New Jersey Parkway together and blast Bruce Springsteen’s “Jersey Girl.” That night, we hold hands while walking the boardwalk. I win her a large stuffed bear playing ring toss. On the coaster, the two-person car bangs around the track, up, down, the salty breeze compounding the excitement, the danger. We’re above the ocean, after all—on top of it, so high up.


“You know what’s strange,” I said to Dad, “is that we all knew this was inevitable. We knew that a storm was going to come. There was that one in the early ’60s that wiped out the island, but that was before it got so industrialized. I’ve heard the locals talk about it for years. We knew that everything, eventually, was going to get destroyed, and nobody did anything about it.”


My father nodded and looked out at the ocean. “But nobody can live like that, Geoff. This stuff just happens.” The rebuilding of infrastructure on that fragile barrier island was already underway. A few hundred yards away, a man worked a backhoe futilely tried to rebuild a section of dunes.


Jersey Strong. What did that sign before the bridge mean? Strong enough to withstand a hurricane? Definitely not. Strong enough to rebuild after one? That’s economic strength, not emotional strength. Real strength would be recognizing the reality that maybe, just maybe, we shouldn’t rebuild a barrier island that the ocean wants to take back.


And this wasn’t Queens, where most people didn’t have flood insurance. Where most people lost their primary homes. Their only possessions. This was an economic hub for New Jersey. Where most people lost their vacation homes. Where most people could afford to rebuild.


I wanted to believe that everyone was wrong. That somehow I was the only one who grasped that people had no place on that thin barrier island. Because then I would have control. Then I would never have to go through this again. But it wasn’t true. “Nobody can live like that,” my father had said. And what I was finally beginning to realize is that I couldn’t control everything, no matter how much I wanted to.


Jersey Strong meant a lot of things. It meant holding onto what, collectively, New Jerseyans love: the promise of summer on the warm sand of the Jersey shore, overpriced ring toss with poorly made prizes, clunky roller coasters that push you closer to your creator, and time spent with family in a place where families have spent time together since people decided that sitting on a beach was a good idea for a vacation. And that was especially true for my grandfather. Even if he’d never sit on the beach again, if it was possible, then all was right in the world. The Jersey shore was an ideal—a delusion of grandeur that had to exist for people in the tristate area to keep on living. It was something to fight for, even if the enemies were the unstoppable duo of wind and water. Jersey Strong meant community. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the locals rallied. From social media updates to the organization of local rebuilding nonprofits, the community was there for one another.


My father and I walked toward the coaster, out there in the distance. Debris was scattered—buoys, soda bottles, pieces of wood. We walked along the beach like that for a while and then sat on the cold, compact sand and looked out at the water as gulls glided silently overhead. The ocean lapped onto the beach in thin sheets, the only sound. The cold from the sand on my bare feet crawled up my legs, sending a shudder through my torso that made me yearn for the end of a winter that had yet to begin.


When we got back from the beach, I called my grandfather.


“Well, the house itself looks okay,” I said.


“When do you think I’ll be able to move back?”


“I think that’s going to be a while, Poppy. The car’s shot. And a bunch of stuff in the garage. But the house is okay.” He was quiet. “I took the flag down for you. It had seen better days.”


“Thanks, kiddo. I’m glad the house is okay. I’ll see you when you get back.”


After we’d finished cleaning out the garage, my parents were tired, and so I drove north up the New Jersey Parkway towards their house in central New Jersey, my father beside me and my mother in back. As we crossed the bridge to the mainland, I wanted to look for the great egret. Sure, it was too late in the season, but I wanted to catch a glimpse of one anyway. Just one, wading in that green-blue water of the Barnegat on a summer morning of my youth, patient, intent, looking for a fish to eat. But I couldn’t look.