There’s a moment sailors call slack tide. When the tide is neither coming in nor going out, and the water is perfectly still. It’s a moment frozen in time, when all is calm and peaceful. The only downside to it is that it passes so quickly. As much as we might like things to be suspended in time, they never are.
Mariners and fishermen have more detailed and scientific explanations of slack tides, but the version I learned as child is the one I’ve internalized and refuse to release. I must admit the south side of Chicago and spring smelt runs are unlikely places to learn about tides and slack water, but that’s where I first heard of them. I thought of slack tides today while walking through Old Town, Florence. Like many others, I’m pulled like iron to a magnet by the strength and serenity of water and understand why visitors are drawn to the small coastal towns of Oregon.
Years ago, destruction of an ice making facility drove commercial fisherman from Florence up to Newport where ice was still produced in quantity. Ice is again available in Florence and commercial fishing vessels are slowly returning to its harbor. I love to walk the harbor quay and take a hard look at those boats so I can see, close up, the battering they’ve taken. They have stories to tell and I’d love to “borrow” them. Today, however, my attention was diverted to a family on a pier opposite the quay. Their new crab rings, the time of day and the tidal flow marked them as beginners at crabbing. The children were bored and fussy and I suspected that if crab appeared on their dinner table it would come from one of the docked commercial vessels or a neighborhood fish market.
I wanted to tell them about slack tide, but they were perfect strangers who seemed to lack the time or patience needed to appreciate the abundance the next tide would bring. Those who live near large bodies of water are familiar with the fresh smell of fish runs. It is unmistakable and it causes schedules to be reworked and the hearts of fishermen to pound. In Chicago the smelt run in April and the scent of a fish run has netters running with them, proud to bring home hundreds of the small fish to be battered and fried, heads on, for a Lenten dinner.
Now Shortie Olsen was such a man. He and his wife Lilah were academics, he a professor and she a teacher. Their daughter was my best friend and I spent as much time in their home as I did my own. Like many professors, Shortie would lecture, often telling Clair and me more, especially about vertebrate paleontology, than we ever cared or needed to know. On the other hand, Lilah, whose credentials didn’t quite match his, taught by example and exposition. She was a great believer in recognizing and remembering life’s lessons and gently, without preaching, would point them out.
And so it happened that late one April evening we had a Ford-like assembly line in their kitchen. Shortie brought home a 5 gallon bucket of smelt still fresh enough to smell like cucumbers. His eyes gleamed like those of a child on Christmas morning and Lilah smiled when he passed the bucket to her. Each of us was assigned a station and as Clair dipped and I dredged, Lilah began to fry the small fish. She was from South Carolina and to help pass the time from pan to table she started to talk about tides and the crabbing she had done as a child. She asked Clair if she had seen the look on her father’s face when he came through the door. Clair nodded and Lilah said to remember it because it was a “slack tide” moment. And as she often did, when we asked her what that was she said we’d learn about it tomorrow.
Lilah was never one to miss a teaching moment and the next day she put us on the IC commuter line and we headed to the downtown library for information about tides and their importance to commercial fishing. We spent the next few days digging for and absorbing information about the types of tides and what they could portend. However, we could find nothing about the “slack tide” that had started the search the night of the smelt fry. Convinced that we had done all we could to divine the answer on our own, Lilah stepped in to help explain why she called Shortie’s smile that night a slack tide moment.
At some point in her own childhood, Lilah was taught that moments of calm and tranquility, moments of perfect contentment, were like the slack tide her family loved when crabbing. The stillness couldn’t last but it was important to recognize and remember the gifts the tide, that life, provided. Initially, I had to work at recognizing these moments in my own life, but Lilah was a profound teacher and I’ve finally come to treasure them. I know that many strive for mindfulness. I meditate myself, but I pray I’ll always be able to recognize those ephemeral spontaneous moments I’ve come to call slack tide. Life is very short. Its sweetness is a measure of moments that are recognized and remembered. Still waters can be deep.