1910: It wasn’t the last summer but it was one of the last summers when America was at peace with the world and at peace with itself. The Civil War was a 45-year-old memory. The first of the World Wars that would scar the century to come was not even the shadow of a premonition. Lenin was an exile in Europe with no power and Mao was a student in Hunan. Hitler was living in a homeless shelter in Vienna selling paintings to tourists. Stalin was either being sent to or escaping from Siberia. Churchill was the Home Secretary in England and planning the first bit of social engineering, the National Insurance Act. Taft was President and his plan was “try to accomplish just as much [as Teddy Roosevelt] without any noise.”
Both the automobile and the electric light were ubiquitous. Air conditioning was still a wild fantasy, but the swamp cooler had begun to come online in 1904 so it wasn’t completely out of the question for the very rich.
Halley’s Comet had just passed by taking Mark Twain with it. Somewhere in Macedonia Mother Teresa had just been born. If men looked up they could have seen, had they been in the right place at the right time, other men in flight. If any had been in Sheepshead Bay outside of New York City on the 20th they would have heard the first gunshots ever fired from an airplane. Individual lives might have their small tragedies but there was no perceptible or imaginable catastrophe in the cards dealt Americans that summer. It was August and everywhere Americans paused to refresh themselves.
Presented for your contemplation: One wave breaking over a group of Americans who have waded into the Atlantic on the Jersey shore sometime around noon on a hot day in August 1910.
The wave would have swelled up and started out far over the eastern horizon near the edge of the Gulf Stream. It would have rolled with strict impunity in the midst of thousands of others like it, all bound towards the shore. The photographer would have gotten up early and hauled his cumbersome equipment towards the shore. The bathers would have arrived in the late morning if they were not already staying near the shore.
Once there they changed into swimming apparel known more for modesty than comfort. From the light it was around noon and would have been hot. Seeking to be cooler they waded in. Some stayed near the shore. Others waded further out into the steadily deepening water.
On some kind of elevated platform above the sand, the photographer put the 8×10 glass plate into the camera and ducked under the black hood for final adjustments. Then he stood up and called out and called out and called out and finally got the attention of some. Most ignored him.
The wave rolled in from somewhere over the horizon, rising up and down, maybe cresting here and there, until it swelled one last time and, just as the photographer happened to release the shutter, jumped up in that one moment and splashed and spattered the unwary people posed and unposed in the cool salt water just off the beach on the Jersey shore. That was the moment, less than a second, in the midst of that summer now more than a century gone. All, each and every one, of those nearly 300 souls are now gone as well, even the children held on the shoulders or standing in the shallows, all gone — all perhaps, maybe, save one now almost silent centenarian.
Well, what of it? That’s the way of the world and the way of the waves of the world and our lives. What we have is this moment snatched out of time on the Jersey shore one afternoon in August before the last century went smash. Who is there? What were they like? It can’t be known, but it can be seen and what can be seen, at least in this one moment, is that these people had what anyone would recognize as that thing we call happiness. Let’s see what we can see of it.
We can see the chaos ruining the photographer’s carefully composed moment with a splash soaking those nearest and plastering down the hair of a man who was probably balder than he would like to be
We can see the young girl not entirely pleased with being drenched from the security of her father’s shoulder.
We can see those who are not particularly interested in being recorded on film for another century they would never know and gaze at something, at what?, that is just beyond the frame.
We can see one person who is concerned enough about the sun to carry a parasol with her out beyond the group until she is shoulder deep in the Atlantic and looking off at the horizon or contemplating the spatter of sunlight off the rollers.
Closer in towards shore, we can see two sweethearts looking at each other and liking what they see in each other’s eyes.
Closer still we can see at least one who has not disappointed the photographer and is determined to present a smiling face to the ages.
We can see those who, in their frumpy and modest bathing suits, hold hands as the water deepens.
We can see those who smile and clasp each other ignoring the rout and the riot of water and waves around them.
In the middle of the splash, we can see the young man, full of life and ready for anything, held up high by his father, shouting out and waving down the years as if to say hello from a great summer day in 1910.
Out beyond the bathers two men in a boat row past. Heading south. Perhaps for exercise. Perhaps as guards that would scoop up and return to life any bathers who had been swept too far from shore.
And then, finally, at the extreme right side of the frame we see two hands; the hands of a man moving towards the splash and the picture, but now caught forever just outside the frame; just a second too late to find himself forever frozen at this moment that I can see now, a hundred plus Augusts later. One step quicker and he would have been there. But at least his hands made it.
Maybe that’s enough. It’s August again in America. Maybe not the happiest August in our history, but it’s been a hard century so far, and is due to get harder.
We owe ourselves at least one more day at the beach.