Authors: Rick Boyer
The Whale's Footprints
mystery fiction's formost
man of letters
and Keeper of the Flame
THE BOY WH0 LOVED WHALES
I'LL NEVER FORGET the summer Jack fell in love with
the whales. It was in 1970, when he was just six years old; his
younger brother Tony was barely three. There was a stranding of pilot
whales on the beach near Wellfleet. For reasons not yet understood,
whales periodically beach themselves and die, sometimes in great
numbers. Pilot whales are particularly susceptible to this
lemming-like behavior, especially in the shallow waters of Cape Cod
Great schools, or pods, of these twenty-foot
creatures drive themselves up onto the gently sloping beach sand
inside the bay. In the falling tide, they lie heavy on the sand and
cannot move. There they remain until they die. In the summer of
seventy, we went to see a pod of twenty-three pilot whales beached in
Wellfleet. Since our cottage is just minutes away in North Eastham,
it was easy for us to visit the beach and see what was happening.
At first, Jackie was afraid of the big black monsters
that lay strewn in the shallows. No amount of coaxing could bring him
from behind his little brother's stroller, where he hid so the big
fish couldn't see him. But after a while he saw they could not chase
him and gobble him up. He heard their ragged breathing, their strange
sighing, and finally ventured to the water's edge. He touched one
tentatively, feeling the slick skin that concerned onlookers kept wet
with sea water, pouring it lovingly from buckets, draping wet towels
over the curious, bulbous heads and long black backs.
Jack joined the people keeping the animals wet. For
two hours, he hauled water, ran among them on the wet sand, and
talked to them.
"It's all right, Mr. Whale," he assured
them. "It's all right!" He went up and down the entire pod,
carrying the big blue beach pail that was half as big as he was,
coaxing, petting, leaning over the blowholes that blew up at him like
strange, faceless mouths. We could scarcely drag him away.
We returned the next day to a grimmer scene. People
looked worried. Talk was hushed. Expectant whispers drifted to us
over the wind. Occasional curses, exclamations of rage. People tried
to push, lift, carry the whales back to deep water. It didn't work;
the animals weighed four tons each. Boats appeared, their owners
tying heavy lines to the wide tails. We saw the powerboats' big wakes
churning out there, trying to pull the trapped animals off the sand.
Jackie ran faster and faster between the long dark shapes. His
coaxing grew louder, more frantic. Then, toward evening, a curious
silence filled the beach. Strange and unpleasant smells grew in our
nostrils. The gulls came, diving and tearing. Jackie ran and ran,
shooing them off, his eyes filled with tears.
But there were hundreds of gulls, and only one little
boy, waist deep in water. In the near darkness of late evening, I
carried him, weeping and sunburned, back to the car. His nails dug
into my raw, red shoulders. His eyelashes—tiny artist's
brushes—flicked against my cheek, damp with his tears.
"Daddy! Daddy!" he wailed, "why can't
"Some will be saved,Jackie," said his
mother. "Don't you worry honey, some of them will be okay."
We half believed it. Until the next day, when the
stench of death drifted across the corner of the bay from Wellfleet
to Eastham, and to our beach. Housebound with sunburn, silent with
depression, Jackie sat at the table trying to help us with a jigsaw
And so he discovered whales and death at the same
A week later, when it was apparent that the rebound
we expected wasn't forthcoming, we took the boys to Sealand in
Brewster to see the dolphin show. The sullen blond boy filed into the
arena and sat, palms together and fingers pointed down, saying
nothing. His younger brother, swarthy as a betel nut, sucked a grape
Popsicle, the sticky purple juice dripping down the wooden stick onto
his hands and shorts. Jackie didn't want a Popsicle. He didn't want
anything. Mary and I exchanged nervous glances.
Then they started the show.
The shiny gray mammals, wearing their perpetual
grins, stood on their tails, wore sailor hats, shot baskets, dove for
coins, wore sunglasses, went through hoops, squealed and chuckled.
And when the kids clapped, the dolphins lay on their sides on the
surface and, swatting the water with their flippers, clapped right
back at them.
Jackie was standing up by this time. His eyes were
still wet, but he wore the biggest smile I have ever seen, before or
since. We had to go back to that show every other day for the rest of
the month. Damn near broke me. But there was no way out.
Thus, the bond between Jackie and the whales was
established—and atomic bombs couldn't have destroyed it after that.
When he became a young man, Jack knew exactly what he wanted to do:
go to Woods Hole on Cape Cod and follow the whales in a skiff. Listen
to their songs. Watch them play and feed and mate and care for their
young. Watch their endless rolling dives and chase their spirit
spouts across the blue-green sea.
But the whales' footprints led him somewhere else,
led him into trouble so deep that Mary and I wondered if we'd lost
him for good.
ON FRIDAY, the eleventh of August, Mary and I awoke
to an odd feeling in the atmosphere. The air had a lazy, leaden feel
to it. I had a hunch what it was: the tropical depression that the
National Weather Service had been tracking across the Atlantic for
the past week was going to show its teeth. After breakfast we went
down the deck stairway of our cottage to the beach and looked out
across Cape Cod Bay. Gulls weren't flying; they were huddling on the
shore or rafting up in the shallows, flicking their tails and
squabbling. The haze was bright and fuzzy; it hurt our eyes. Our dogs
walked slowly, tentatively, along the sand, pausing to sniff the air
and whine softly. Distant diesel trawlers, blotchy in the haze,
bounced up and down in the gathering chop, the oily smoke oozing out
low from their stacks and creeping over the water as if afraid to
"I feel weird, Charlie," Mary said in a low
voice. "Let's turn back. I feel nervous and tired."
"It's the low pressure. That's why the birds
can't fly and the smoke won't rise. There! You hear that whistle out
there? Hear how close it sounds? That's a sign, too. The sounds are
bouncing off the layers in the air. You feel it? I can just about
feel my skin tingle."
After lunch we went back down to the beach. The sky
was darker now, and the wind was picking up. Gusts blew the dune
grass flat, and up on the bluffs tossed the scrub oak trees and made
the pale undersides of their leaves wink at us like a million tawny
We walked back to the cottage. Inside, I turned on
the big SONY short-wave. It buzzed and crackled ominously; the air
was full of bad electricity. I raised a few marine stations: Nauset
Beach, Point Judith, Boston. All said the same thing: the tropical
depression was now a gale. The big storm was pounding the islands of
Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard to the south, and moving in our
direction. Gale warnings for the Northeast and to all vessels at sea.
Traveler's advisory. Stay inside. Watch out. I went back onto the
deck. Now the water was glowing white-gray. The sky was darkening.
Black sky, light water. The world had turned upside down.
"I'm worried about the boys, Charlie," Mary
said. Our two sons, Jack and Tony, were both working at coastal
locations on the ocean side of the Cape. Jack was at Woods Hole,
enrolled in BUMP, the Boston University Marine Program, studying the
intelligence and vocabulary of whales. His younger brother Tony was a
grounds keeper at the posh Chatham Bars Inn. Both towns are on the
south shore of the Cape and therefore were vulnerable to the storm's
direct onslaught. Tony in particular, on the low bluffs overlooking
the southeastern corner of the Cape, was in the storm's path. I
didn't like it. I studied the incoming rush of the sea nervously. We
would get a monster tide, no doubt about it. Would our small bluff be
adequate protection against the storm surge and high waves? We'd soon
"When's Jack due?" I asked.
"He said they were leaving Woods Hole around
four, which means they should be here by five-thirty or six."
"Let's call them; maybe they can leave early."
"I doubt it. Jack said last night that Andy had
a lab at three. I don't think he can skip it."
Andy Cunningham, a fresh Yale graduate, was Jack's
new friend and roommate in Woods Hole. He was a premed doing a summer
fellowship at MBL, the Marine Biological Laboratory, while Jack was
working in BUMP. From our impressions of Andy during a trip to Woods
Hole in July, he seemed to have everything: looks, brains,
personality, and driving ambition. We'd been very struck with him
during our quick visit, and now were looking forward to having them
both up to the Breakers for the weekend. If they arrived safely, that
At four-thirty the storm broke. It was as if a
gigantic foot came down out of the sky and stomped us flat. The sky
turned black and exploded in thunder. The dogs, though accustomed to
shot-gun blasts, turned in tight circles under the coffee table,
crying. I didn't blame them. Mary and I sat close on the braided rug
in front of the fireplace. The wind shrieked through the dune grass
and wailed and sobbed around the chimney. The ocean was a basso roar,
and the rain crawled across the windowpanes in horizontal streaks,
the way it does on the windows of a moving car. You could feel the
cottage rock in the big blasts.
At six-fifteen we heard the front door open and slam;
the candle flames on the mantel flickered and jumped.
"We're here!" Jack shouted above the din.
We were both relieved to see them come in. They stood
in the living room, dripping wet. Andy shook my hand and hugged Mary.
He was a handsome kid, with black hair and bright blue eyes set wide
apart. He had a strong jaw. He was almost as tall as son Jack, our
blue-eyed blond who's six-two and has his mother's classical Roman
features but the Adams-Hatton Anglo-Scots coloring. Jack's younger
brother Tony looks like his mother, with the olive skin, wavy dark
brown hair, and coal black eyes of the Calabrian side of his
"When do you guys want dinner?" Mary asked.
"Jeez, Jackie, you're soaked through."
"We're in for a three-day blow. Heavy-duty gale.
They say maybe it's a hurricane. You been listening to the radio?
Woods Hole and the Islands are swamped; it ought to peak up here
"I'll put the lasagna in the oven now. I would
have put it in earlier, but we weren't even sure you'd show up. God,
I'm glad you're here."
"We brought some mussels with us. We could steam
those up first. Did you know we saw over thirty whales yesterday? A
big pod of fins, three seis, and the rest humpbacks."
Were they singing?" I asked him.
"Oh yeah. We got their songs on the hydromike."
just then there was a terrific crash of thunder. The
window-panes and dinner plates rattled; the dogs whined under the
coffee table. Mary took the mussels into the kitchen while we got
drinks and stood in front of the fire. Now and then a gust would come
down the chimney and send a big ball of smoke into the room.
Last time we talked, Andy," I said, "you
were still up in the air about med school, trying to decide between
Harvard and Johns Hopkins."
"I've settled on Hopkins, mostly because of the
financial aid package. I hope we can talk a little bit while I'm
visiting, Dr. Adams. Your medical experience would be helpful."
"I'll do what I can, but I left general medicine
some time ago, Andy. Now I specialize in oral surgery."
Oh that's right. I remember Jack telling me
that now. Why did you decide to switch?"
It's, uh, rather a long story," I said,
looking out the window at the rain. "Let's say it involved a
family . . . sadness. But I wish I'd had your choice of schools. You
can't go wrong."