by Barbara Sherf
We are just back from vacation to what I called my “Happy Place” on Assateague Island, south of Ocean City, Maryland, and a mere three hours south of our Flourtown home. Wide open beaches, wild horses, scenic bike trails and campfires at sunset all speak to me. While there were certainly highs, there was also a series of lows.
The night after we arrived, I learned that a speeding motorist had hit and killed one of the wild horses, 18-year-old Sir Gruff. The motorist then ditched his car and hid from police until he was was apprehended but not charged. Huh? A pall hung over our campground.
On Sunday, a week ago, we watched a half dozen rescues on the beach as rip currents were strong. There were no lifeguards as the season had closed, but the unseasonably warm weather drew people to the beach. We watched as a 47-year-old man was taken by ambulance to the hospital after a surfer had rescued this father and husband as attempts were made to resuscitate him while his 15-year-old daughter watched from the shore.
Later that afternoon, I witnessed a search and rescue with boats and a helicopter looking for a missing swimmer. The body of an 18-year-old male was eventually recovered.
The beaches were finally cleared and closed. The previous night I had witnessed a lovely wedding on the beach, and when a peach rose fell from one of the bouquets, I claimed it and put it in some water back in our travel trailer as a celebration of our 30th wedding anniversary.
On Sunday, I placed the rose by the “No Swimming” signs and took a photo that appeared on the front page of The Maryland Coast Dispatch along with a Letter to the Editor about the need for signage and better public education regarding the wild horses and the dangers of rip currents.
My husband, our older golden retriever and I have visited Assateague twice a year since 2014 when the park became fully pet-friendly. This year, I went to work on “The Grief Recovery Handbook” by John James and Russell Friedman, but didn’t pick it up. Instead I switched to a novel (I can’t make this up) titled “Drowning Ruth” by Christina Schwarz. I ditched the novel and went back to the grief book.
This special, spiritual place means a lot to me personally. We came here a month after my father’s death in 2016. Charles Sherf was a former Cowtown Rodeo rider from whom I had been estranged after our parents’ divorce but with whom I reconnected through our riding horses in the Wissahickon Valley late in life. We even wrote a book together titled “Cowboy Mission: The Best Sermons are Lived, Not Preached.”
I remember sitting alone on a beach chair watching the waves, celebrating his life and bemoaning his death, when a band of horses came to stand before me. The foal nursed from its mother, and then the herd surrounded the baby to allow him to sleep by the ocean. It was magical, and I so looked forward to a return trip to be with the horses. And then Sir Gruff and the drownings took place, and I wonder if it will ever again be my “Happy Place.”
As a former lifeguard and water safety instructor (having learned to swim after getting caught in a rip current as a kid in Ocean City, N.J.), I had seen the heavy currents all week and opted to swim in the bay in Assateague Island National Park. After the fatality, signs did go up saying “No Swimming,” but honestly people just passed by without noticing the signage. I stood around dutifully pointing it out to visitors who passed over the dunes and took no notice.
As one who also conducts public education campaigns, I know that you have to keep beating the message in a variety of methods and multiple times — verbal, written, signage, social media and through mass media.
My first response to all of this activity was to “do a story,” even though I originally went there to do grief work, celebrate our anniversary and enjoy what will be our last trip to the island with our older Golden Retriever, Tucker, who is nearing 14 years of age.
Author, speaker and personal historian Barbara Sherf can be reached through communicationspro.com, CaptureLifeStories@gmail.com or 215-990-9317.