There is a time, on the coast of New England, when you can almost feel the Gulf Stream flowing northwards, past the lighthouses of Cape Hatteras, the Ferris Wheel at Asbury Park, past the fishing huts of Shinnecock, the dunes of Montauk and on into Block Island Sound.
Spring has ended but summer has not yet begun. The air is cool and soft, smelling of seaweed and honeysuckle, and the neon-pink buds of beach roses glow strangely in the mist. Each morning, you hear the sound of flip flops on the sidewalk and the clink of jewelry against the hollow metal legs of collapsible chairs as people from inland make their way down to the water. With your windows open at night, the sound of the waves is so loud that you dream they’re crashing through the room.
These are the days when teenagers, just loosed from the classroom, go looking for jobs. They have licenses but no cars, so they ride the bus beside old ladies with plastic rain hats and men in torn lumberjack shirts whose fingers twitch because they can’t smoke on public transport anymore. The students fill out forms which ask if they have ever been convicted of a Federal offense and smile at the lousy jokes of their maybe future bosses. They pray their friends won’t see the stupid uniforms they have to wear and wonder if they’ll carry on their skin, like a tattoo, the reek of fish guts, rancid ice cream or swimming pool chlorine. They worry about getting fired to make way for somebody’s cousin who got fired from some other job and if their paychecks will show up on time and if it’s always going to be like this.
In the summer of 1982, one of those teenagers was me.
I grew up in Rhode Island, on the shores of Narragansett Bay.
The place where I lived was called Plum Beach, named after a thicket of brambles in which there were, in fact, a few plum trees planted by the Conanicut Indians, long before white men ever set sail up the bay.
It was a small community, half empty in the winter time, with one gas station and a little restaurant next door. It stood next to the Jamestown Bridge and few of those who drove their cars across bothered to glance back at the gray sand beach littered with mounds of shells from which the Indians once carved their wampum beads.
But this place once marked the center of my universe. Blinded, I could have found my way from rock to rock and through the bristling spartina grass as well as if my eyes could see.
My father and I moved to Plum Beach right after my mom died.
I was 10 years old at the time.
On one side of us was an ancient woman named Mrs. Gilpin, who never came out of her house except to sit on her porch dressed in red rubber boots and a Panama hat.
On the other side was a family called Dalton. They had one son, named Adam, who eventually became my friend.
Adam Dalton was starvation thin, with skin that sagged in a way that reminded me of one of those rare breeds of cat which have no hair. His nose was curved like a hawk’s beak and dripped constantly, so that he began his sentences with a loud liquidy snort. His permanently hard nipples showed through the green Del’s lemonade T-shirt he wore all the time. Like most boys in the neighborhood, he had a flat-top haircut, the righteousness of which was judged by whether a phone book could be laid on top and not fall off.
During my first month in Plum Beach that kid never said a word to me, even though we shared the same bus stop for school.
The first time he made out like I even existed was the day we went on a class field trip to Quantrell Farm.
Quantrell Farm was one of the oldest buildings in our neighborhood and the site of a battle during the Revolutionary War. It stood on a rise overlooking the bay, surrounded by a field planted with corn and another field in which two horses wandered lazily from one clump of grass to another.
The tour guide wore Colonial clothes - white breeches, a thick vest and a tailcoat made from rough brown cloth. His long gray hair was pulled back in a pony tail and he had little round glasses which, I noticed, did not have lenses in them.
The twelve of us in the class shuffled after him, going from room to room in the cramped farm house. The place smelled of beeswax. The floorboards creaked. The windows were made of ripply glass, which made the world outside look drunk. The old Colonial furniture looked impossibly fragile - as if all you had to do was touch one of the spindle-backed rocking chairs by the fireplace, or the copper pans hanging from iron hooks in the kitchen and the whole place would come crashing down on top of you.
Our teacher, Mrs. Halley, accompanied the guide. She had long dark hair, parted down the middle, and freckles on her nose. She quizzed the guide about what they ate back then, how they cleaned their clothes and where kids went to school. The trip to Quantrell Farm was an annual event for my grade, and Mrs. Halley had been leading it for years. I wondered if she asked the same questions every time.
I listened, but not very closely. Instead, I stared out of the wobble-glass windows at the corn, the stalks grown taller than a man, and horses in their stone-walled paddock and the woods beyond, like a green tidal wave flecked with red and yellow maple leaves. I felt a kind of trembling inside, which made me want to run from the house and vanish in that wilderness.
At the end of the tour, the guide gathered us together in front of the big fireplace. From the mantelpiece, he took a long-stemmed clay pipe and packed it with tobacco from a leather pouch he kept in his pocket. After he had lit the pipe, sending a tiny mushroom cloud of smoke towards the ceiling, he smiled at us as much as if to say he knew we were bored out of our minds and, what’s more, he didn’t care.
“I noticed you were studying the cornfield,” he said, and it took me a second to realize he was talking to me.
I felt the blood rush to my face. Oh, God, I thought. What kind of trouble am I in?
“They didn’t eat that corn, you know,” said the guide. “Not usually. Not all of it. Most of their corn was left to dry out in the fields and wouldn’t be harvested until the first frost. Then it would be fed to the animals during the winter.”
Mrs. Halley nodded, a stern look on her face as if to show she knew how hard life was for the colonials.
“You know,” the man continued, “out there is where the battle took place, right out where that corn is standing now.”
I wondered why he hadn’t begun the tour by talking about the battle, instead of going about corn, which he must have known, if he had given the
tour even once to a bunch of school kids, was of no use to us whatsoever. “What battle was it?” I asked.
“If you’ll wait a minute, Sam,” snapped Mrs. Halley, “I’m sure you’re about to be told.” She turned to the guide. “Sam is new here,” she said, as if that might explain my interruption.
“On the morning of August 17th, 1775,” began the guide, “a British ship on its way down from Providence dropped anchor, just out there in the bay.” He aimed the curved stem of his pipe towards the water. “A party of Redcoats rowed ashore, looking for fresh water, which they knew they could probably find if someone had built a farm here. What they didn’t know was that a group of colonial militia were staying here in this very building. A fight broke out. Two of the British soldiers became separated from their comrades and were chased all the way to Plum Beach before being shot and killed by the militia. Those men were buried right in back of the old Wardell House, where a member of the Wardell family still resides.”
“But why would they kill the British soldiers?” asked a girl named Beth Kidder, who had blue eyes the color of a swimming pool. “All they wanted was a drink.”
“It’s hard to say why they were killed,” replied the man. “Perhaps they refused to surrender. Perhaps the Colonials misunderstood the British intentions. In war there is always confusion.”
“I don’t think they should have killed those British soldiers,” said Beth. “I would have given them water.”
The guide smiled. “And that is a very kind thought, but…”
“That’s not the real story,” said a voice.
For a moment, there was total silence. All the students in the class turned to see who had spoken.
It was Adam. He stood against the wall with his arms folded, looking like he was ready for a fight.
“Adam,” said Mrs. Halley.
“The Redcoats were burying gold,” continued Adam.
“Adam!” barked Mrs. Halley.
“No, that’s all right.” The guide spoke in a soothing voice. “I know the legend he’s referring to. It represents a common misconception. What all the stories do agree upon, however, that the British ship which stopped just out there in the Bay was called the HMS Rose, and it had departed earlier that day from the city of Providence, up at the north end of the bay, which is about twelve miles from here. HMS Rose was transporting the soldiers who became involved in the fight with the militia here at Quantrell Farm. But soldiers weren’t the only cargo on that ship. HMS Rose was also transporting a strong box filled with wages for the British Army of Northern New England. And do you know,” he asked the class, “what British soldiers were paid in back then?”
“Corn?” suggested Beth.
“Gold,” said the man. “Golden guineas.”
“Why was the gold on that ship?” asked Beth.
“The answer is that a Colonial Army was advancing on Providence, and the captain of HMS Rose, a man named Ponsonby, had been given the task of moving that strong box to a place of safety. When the Colonials captured the city a few days later, they would also have captured the gold if the British hadn’t first removed it.”
“How much gold was there?” I asked.
“Ah!” He poked the air with the stem of his pipe. “That is a question we historians have been asking ourselves for many years. The truth is, we don’t know. What we do know is that the Army of Northern New England, which numbered approximately 5000 men under the command of General Packard, had not been paid in quite some time. It was the cause of considerable friction between ordinary British soldiers and their commanding officers. When soldiers fight, they expect to get paid, and on time. It is possible that the strong box contained upwards of twenty thousand guineas, although we may never be sure.”
“How much would that be worth today, sir?” asked Mrs. Halley.
“A quarter of a million dollars, easily.”
A quiet moan of approval came from the people listening.
“But it might as well be a million dollars,” continued the man, “and it might as well be nothing, because no one has ever been able to find that strong box. The reason is quite simple. The HMS Rose was attacked and sunk by a Colonial war ship called The Ranger, under the command of John Paul Jones, not five miles from the mouth of Narragansett Bay. The box went down with the ship and, in spite of several searches over the years, the exact site of the wreck has never been located.”
“The gold did not go down with the ship,” said Adam.
Mrs. Halley whirled around to face him. “Adam, what is wrong with you today?”
“It’s all right, Mrs. Halley,” said the guide. “This young man is just confusing fact with fiction. The story he has no doubt heard is part of a local legend here in South County, that the Redcoats came ashore in order to bury that gold.”
“But why would they do that when they could simply sail away with it?” asked Mrs. Halley, casting an exasperated look at Adam.
“Because they knew that the Ranger was waiting for them out beyond the Bay,” replied Adam. “They buried that gold because they knew they might get sunk.”
“It’s a charming anecdote,” the guide interrupted, “but it’s just not supported by the facts. There’s even a story that the gold has already been found, by some crazy old man who lives in the woods not far from here. They say,” the professor snorted out a laugh, “they say he has it hidden under his house. Now I think if I had thirty thousand guineas, I wouldn’t be living in some shack in the woods. Would you?” He grinned at his audience.
“That old man is my grandfather,” said Adam.
The guide’s smile slid off his face. “Well, as I say, it’s just a story. It’s not true about the gold being landed here, any more than I imagine it’s true that your grandfather is crazy. I was narrating…”
“He is crazy,” said Adam. “He got blown up by the Japanese in World War Two.”
“Yes, I see,” the guide said quickly. He breathed in deeply and addressed the class again. “Well, what we do know is that the Redcoats and the Militia fought an honest to God battle here. And do you know how we know?” He paused and looked out at us, his eyes big and shiny.
We waited in silence for his answer.
Slowly, he moved the stem of his pipe to a mark in the wall above the mantelpiece. It was about the size of a thumb print and had been filled in and painted over. “That,” he said, “is the mark of a British bullet.”
We all moved forward, as if drawn in by a magnet towards the little smudge.
“Now step back,” said Mrs. Halley, holding out her little hands. “Step back all of you!”
Through the blurred glass window, I saw the corn swaying in the breeze, and I imagined the Redcoats crashing through the stalks, muskets held out, charging towards the farmhouse.
“They came here to bury that gold,” said Adam, refusing to drop the subject.
Everybody turned and stared at him again.
I felt my stomach cramp, wondering if Adam might be missing that natural instinct of knowing when grownups want him to keep his mouth shut. I had known kids like this before, back at my other school. I dreaded having them in my class. When they opened their mouths, one way or another, everybody paid for it.
“Excuse me?” asked the guide. The slippery tone of false patience had gone out of his voice. He was smiling but he didn’t look happy any more.
And all of a sudden, it occurred to me how ridiculous he looked in his costume.
“They didn’t need water,” continued Adam. “They had just left Providence and there’s plenty of water up there. Why else would they have stopped except to bury the strong box?”
The guide’s cheeks began to turn red.
Mrs. Halley was staring at Adam, her lips pressed tight and her mouth as straight as a knife cut. If she had been the only grown up in the room, she probably would have just told Adam to keep quiet and that would have been the end of it, but since there was another grown up, and since that grown up was technically the one in charge, it made things difficult, because if she butted in and took over, that would have seemed disrespectful. And since that other grown up was a stranger to us, he kind of had to mind his manners. Otherwise, it would have looked disrespectful to the teacher if he just told Adam to shut up, which was most definitely what he seemed to want to do.
The guide set the end of the pipe in his mouth. It made a clicking sound when his teeth clamped down on the stem. Thoughtfully, he puffed at it, as if to show he did not care. “You seem to have given this a great deal of thought, young man.”
“Some.” Adam was starting to realize there was no way out of this for him. Now, when he spoke, his voice was hesitant, and his gaze began to wander around the room, as if looking for an escape route, just like those Colonials must have been doing when the Redcoats were shooting at them.
The guide breathed a cloud of smoke over our heads. “And I wonder who told you this marvelous story?”
“My grandpa,” said Adam.
Now a different kind of smile, more cruel than amused, appeared on the guide’s face. “The man you say is crazy. Well, fascinating as that story is, I’m afraid you won’t find it in any of the history books. I know because I wrote those history books!” He paused and grinned at Mrs. Halley before turning back to Adam.
He looked like a man I once saw in a boxing match on TV, who had knocked his opponent to the mat. And while the injured fighter struggled to get back on his feet, this man strutted around the ring, raising his gloved fists to the crowd.
“I happen to be a college professor,” continued the guide. “Is your grandfather, by any chance, a college professor?”
“Nope,” replied Adam. “My grandpa didn’t go to college.”
“He didn’t attend?” The guide pretended to look shocked. “Oh, my word, that is a shame. Well, you’ll find as you grow older that people in his position do tend to embellish the truth when they aren’t aware of the facts.”
“Do you know what ‘embellishing’ means, Adam?” asked Mrs. Halley.
“I think it means he’s calling my grandpa a liar.”
“All right class!” Mrs. Halley clapped her hands. “Why don’t you all go out and have your lunch?”
Somebody opened the heavy wooden door leading out into the farm yard and we began to flee the building.
“Adam,” said Mrs. Halley, “why don’t you and I have a little talk?”
I sat on the wall, eating a tuna fish sandwich out of my metal lunch box and thinking how it would smell like tuna fish for the next week at least. In the doorway of the farm house, I could see Mrs. Halley talking to Adam. She was bent down, hands on her knees and her head tilted back so she could talk with Adam face-to-face.
Except Adam wasn’t looking at her. He had his head turned to one side and was scowling.
Mrs. Halley touched one finger to his chin and swiveled his head around until they were looking each other in the eye.
Adam’s chin sank down against his chest.
The guide walked out from behind the house. He was no longer wearing his Colonial outfit. Now he had on a plaid sports jacket and a tie. He got in his car and drove through the farmyard, heading for the main road. He didn’t look at us as he went past.
At the end of the field trip, Adam and I got off at our bus stop.
I started walking down my driveway.
“He was lying!” shouted Adam.
I spun around. ‘What?”
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“But you’re thinking it! And those two dead Redcoats he talked about, they’re buried right across the road in the yard of Mr. Wardell’s house!” He pointed to the house opposite from where I lived. “Mr. Wardell can tell us what really happened.”
“I don’t care,” I said. “Really, I don’t.”
“It’s too late now,” replied Adam. “You’re coming with me.”
I went along, partly because I wanted Adam to like me, but mostly because I was scared of him.
We knocked at Mr. Wardell’s door but no one answered. Then we went around back, in case he was in his garden.
“There,” said Adam, nodding at two slabs of slate propped up against the garden wall. There was some kind of carving on them but so worn away that I could barely read what it said.
“How come they’re just resting there like that?” I asked.
“They must have dug up the bodies when they built the house.”
Then the back door opened and Mr. Wardell came out, wearing worn-out chino pants done up with a piece of string and some slippers that looked like old lady shoes to me. Mr. Wardell used to be a teacher at Hamilton Elementary, and it seemed like after years of schooling kids like me and Adam, he now wanted nothing to do with children for the rest of his life. “What do you want?” he shouted.
“We came to ask about the Redcoats,” said Adam.
“Rain coats?” shouted Mr. Wardell. “What is this? Some kind of fund raiser?”
“No,” I tried to explain. “Not rain coats. Redcoats.”
“I already have a rain coat!” he yelled at us and shut the door in our faces.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Adam, as we walked back across the road. “I’m telling you the truth is all.”