May 5th of this past year I was walking the beach chuckling while recalling a politically incorrect joke told to me by an acquaintance a decade or so ago. I’m somewhat gullible and I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Twice, I think.
As I recall, it was chilly for early spring along the grandest of strands. I was wearing a sweatshirt beneath my favorite hoodie, which has since been stolen from the beach. The hoodie drew more than a little suspicion when I wore it. Imagine that.
“Did you know,” the acquaintance had asked, “that a cargo ship carrying Duke’s Mayonnaise into port near Georgetown sank in Winyah Bay back in the ’60s?”
“No, I’ve never heard that.”
“Yeah, to this day it’s mourned as Sinko de Mayo Day.”
Since May the 5th is Cinco de Mayo, observed in the United States as a celebration of Mexican heritage and pride, one would think that I would have seen the punchline coming. “Nada” chance.
Political correctness isn’t really my bag and, admittedly, I’ve laughed every time someone has repeated that joke since. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves. So, there I was, walking the sands of time near the 63rd Avenue North beach access and laughing like a hyena. Luckily, both tourists and locals steered clear of me. They usually do.
The sea was angry that day, my friends, and Neptune tossed a fossilized sand dollar at my feet. Stunned, I lost control of my legs for a moment. It was as if I were doing the Mad Hatter chilliwack.
“Holy shit!” I’m not going to sugar coat it. Those words slipped out of my mouth before the indecency of it all registered in my mind. Two, maybe three times. I sounded like Bluto when he realized that he, Flounder and D-Day had managed to kill Dean Wormer’s horse in “Animal House.” I’d walked the beach 4,000 days without finding a sand dollar-turned-to-stone. I wasn’t about to suck on soap as punishment for a little slip of the tongue.
Still grinning like a Cheshire cat while wiping sand and silt from that beautiful echinoderm, I continued my stroll while staring at the fossil. People scampered away from me as if I were Godzilla walking out of the sea. Perhaps they assumed I was packing a semi-automatic weapon.
Just three years earlier I’d found the only other fossilized sand dollar in my collection while ditch digging along the Intracoastal Waterway. My friend, Mike Viderman, and I had only been there 15 minutes, scraping away at the banks with spades and pocket knives, when I unearthed that spectacular specimen. He found a smaller one later. Neither of us has had any luck finding sand dollars in subsequent trips to the waterway.
I relate well to echinoderms. We’re fellow bottom feeders. They’re just more respectable about it. They slowly move across the ocean floor, often submerging just beneath the sand, and eat microscopic organisms and organic particles. Hundreds of tiny legs push prey and dead stuff to a feeding cavity, located in the center of the sand dollar’s underside.
Live sand dollars are covered with small hairs called cilia. It’s pretty cool to feel those velvety spines moving in the palm of your hand, but I don’t mess with them much anymore. I put them back where they belong. Sayonara, Cilia.
Nearly all of the sand dollars we find along the Grand Strand are dead. Our discoveries are the bleached skeletal remains of a most fascinating creature.
I’m not holding my breath while anticipating the next fossilized sand dollar find, but I promise to bite my tongue if Mother Nature graces me again.
Sources: echinoblog.com, ask.com, IMDb.com