Of all the sounds that stir deep and immediate memories of my summer vacations in the Sixties and later, the timeless and distinctive sound of the the boat-tailed grackle. Here’s why.
This particular grackle does not have a melodious song, nor is it especially pretty in the conventional pretty bird sense. It looks like a blackbird at a distance, but if you look at photos of them the color is more akin to deep purple or dark blue. They are found in a narrow band of coastal plain from Texas to Long Island.
How to describe the sound. You can listen to the YouTube video linked below. It’s a brief snorting-crackling kind of sound. But I hear it all the time here in coastal South Carolina. It’s a very pleasant sound to me because of the memories it arouses . If I really think about it, as I am now after listing to a recording of its call, this is what that sound conveys: I’m in high school and just finished my junior year. The family heads to Folly Beach, SC, a quaint and funky beach community, lost in time, which looks today pretty much as it’s always has, with the exception of lot of new houses, some of them truly beautiful and the type of place I’d love to own myself. If only..
Anyway, it’s a dazzling summer day, teenage cares have faded away, and I’ve just come in from swimming in the ocean and sunbathing on a large beach towel, transistor radio having accompanied me playing hit songs from the Top 100 or Top 40 lists, I forget which it was. A favorite was The Tams singing “Be young, be foolish, but be happy.” I have to laugh now because back then at that brief time and in that magical sun and surf ambience, my serious self was ever so noticeably transformed into something akin to happiness.
Coming back to the house, it was time for my favorite lunch, and boy, was I hungry after all that time swimming in the ocean. I was a pretty good swimmer and loved to go out to where the water was about five or six feet deep and dive down and swim right above the sandy ocean floor where it was so briskly cool and refreshing. My brother and sister and I might have also taken a walk up the beach toward the lighthouse.
Once back at the house as I was climbing the stairs I would notice the grackles, communicating their inimitable sound, unlike any bird I’ve ever heard. They were perched up on the telephone and power lines, and in the palmetto trees which dotted the yard. Pretty soon I was in the kitchen, having left a little trail of water and sand behind me on the hard floor of the den. This was the beach. It could be cleaned up.
I’d get a loaf of extra soft John Durst bread, a local favorite, spread on mayonnaise, and add sliced, really fresh summer tomatoes and cheddar cheese to the now mouth-watering sandwich. I’d pour a glass of ice-cold Fresca and there it was: a sloppy, messy, but oh-so-delicious sandwich and my favorite soda to guzzle down. With that kind of lunch I hardly noticed the incipient hints of sunburn. My gosh didn’t the Coppertone SF 3 do any good?
After lunch, I’d sit on one of the rocking chairs on the porch finishing my Fresca. I could hear the sounds of the surf not too far away, especially if the tide was coming in. And, course, more grackle sounds to add the finishing touches to a perfect beach day. I was in heaven!
Call of the boat-tailed grackle
Me at the beach, Summer of 1969, looking pretty tanned. In those days *everybody* got a tan. It was the cool look. Of course, we didn’t know any better then.
Finally, I want include here, appropriately with this entry, an account of part of a summer vacation spent at Folly Beach when I was 19 and about to start my sophomore year of college. It had been a terrible start of the college year that past fall, and I transferred from the school I originally attended the previous fall. There was all kinds of self imposed pressure that spring to make up for the big mistake of going to the wrong school, and U was trying hard to salvage the remainder of the school year. That August I rewarded myself with a week at the beach. Here’s what I wrote on August 25, 1970. Bear with the sometimes purple prose of a sophomore in college who was just seriously starting in academic career as an English major.
<i>All of last week I spent suspended in a dream paradise of surf and sand, seagulls and purposes, calm inlets and quiet shores. Perhaps it was fortunate to have become so absorbed in this restful Interlude between school sessions because I was so happy enjoying to the hilt the euphoria of summer vacation. As I floated on my back in last Saturday’s perfect surf, I was awed by the seeming infiniteness of the ocean and each crying crying gull that sailed beneath white clouds.
Far up Folly Island past the last granite boulders to prevent erosion, is a marvelously quiet stretch of beach leading from the sandbar-strewn edge of the ocean to the entrance of a river that flows with the tide through a vast expanse of Classic Spartina marsh. Across the ever-narrowing channel from the shore of this section of beach is the abandoned Morris Island lighthouse. It rises majestically above its surroundings at low tide. As the tide comes back in, it’s surrounded by choppy, foam-flecked flecked surf that has rendered the once-proud guardian a forlorn and useless Beacon.
The all-enshrouding shrouding stillness of the shore across from the lighthouse is complemented just perfectly by the rhythm of lapping of water on the beach. Each delicate ripple discreetly breaks the silence, followed occasionally by the only other sounds – seagulls with their sharp cries, or a sea bass’ lonely splash as it breaks above the water surface with a quick turn and the sun’s reflection on its silvery side. A constant sea breeze brings coolness and moisture. At high tide the surf is relatively rough, its waves breaking quickly and in irregular succession as they pursue the highest reaches of the shore…</i>
Now, more than 50 years later, I still go out and walk along this same stretch of beach and enjoy Sunday supper with my brother at the same cottage bought for our enjoyment by my aunt in 1967. My brother has lovingly restored and enhanced it over many years, and the front and back yards look like botanical gardens. At sunset when I’m there, I go out to the dock overlooking that exact same expanse of seemingly endless marsh, and take sunset pictures as a cool breeze ushers in the night.
A marsh sunset like no other