Dana Eldridge, 89, Knew He Was ‘Cape Cod Lucky’

By: Ed Maroney

Dana Eldridge. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

 

“God made mud.
God got lonesome.
So God said to some of the mud, "Sit up!"
"See all I've made," said God, "the hills, the sea, the
sky, the stars."
And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look
around.
Lucky me, lucky mud.”

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

ORLEANS When Cape Cod sat up, it looked like Dana Eldridge. Tall as a lighthouse, casting a cheerful beam on people and places, illuminating for others what lived so vividly in his memory, beckoning newcomer and old-timer alike.

“He was the first person to welcome me to the neighborhood,” said Peter Kennedy. “He said even though I was a washashore, I was not a bad guy.”

Dana Eldridge, a 13th generation Cape Codder, passed away June 8 in Orleans, 89 years after his birth at Cape Cod Hospital and following a lifetime of sharing his knowledge as a teacher, writer, and all-around storyteller. His youth was well spent in the woods of South Chatham and on the magical isle of Monomoy, his later years on the waters of Pleasant Bay or sitting in an Adirondack chair looking out at Meetinghouse Pond in Orleans.

Sue Haley, his park ranger supervisor at the Cape Cod National Seashore for more than two decades, recalled that the Seashore’s canoe tours of the Bay would end at the Meetinghouse public landing. “It was not unusual for Dana after a tour to invite the group back to his house for refreshments and more stories and conversation,” she wrote. “Dana enjoyed hearing other people’s stories as much as telling his own.”

Dana “was a living history of Cape Cod’s character and essence and a living being of its nature,” Haley wrote. “He grew up immersed in the natural resources of Cape Cod, understanding them at an innate level, and continued developing this knowledge through his graduate degree studies… He was a great storyteller and had the funniest, most absurd and unbelievable stories to share.”

Another Seashore colleague, fire management officer David Crary, called Mr. Eldridge “a true maritime and Cape Cod History google-pedia (my word) two decades before the internet. A fabulous interpreter for Cape Cod National Seashore because of his family (Cape Cod) history, his education (go UMass), wit and witticisms, and ability to chat, spin a yarn, tell true tales, tell not-so-true tales (with eye-twinkle), and when totally serious and down-to-business – an absolute solid resource on biology and history (somewhat of a rare combination these days).”

The scientific side of Mr. Eldridge was expressed in his early work at Virginia’s Institute of Marine Science, where he worked on oyster growing techniques, and later at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School, where he developed the marine occupations program. He built a 32-foot catboat, the Cataluna, which Haley recalled needed one final fix. “It was time to hoist the sail,” she wrote, “but the sail was so big and cumbersome, he decided to cut the mast off and turn it into a motor vessel, which it remained to the end.”

The old New England adage “use it up, make it do” appealed to Mr. Eldridge. Right after their first meeting, Kennedy was offered use of the Eldridge dock. “His dock was an old garage door held up by a Hobie cat and maybe some Styrofoam blocks,” he said. “That was my introduction to his structural skills.”

Kennedy said the Eldridges resided on the Cataluna for a couple of summers and remembered seeing Dana’s wife Lynne “rowing ashore in a tender, in a dress and high heels, on her way to work at the bank.”

Alan McClennen wrote that he and his wife Fran “live in a house that Dana built in 1962 on the shores of Pah Wah Pond… I knew him as an innovator. He was into growing shellfish early on. Our house has pipes that were connected to Paw Wah Pond to bring salt water to the upwellers he had on the lower level to help raise seed for growing oysters in the pond.”

For McClennen, “Dana’s books and weekly articles in the Cape Codder were always high on my reading list… He represented a wonderful bridge between 'the way it was' on the Outer Cape (pre WWII) to where we are today.” Mr. Eldridge’s books included “Once Upon Cape Cod,” “Cape Cod Lucky,” and a unique combination of an ancestor’s writings about service in the Civil War and his own experience fighting in Korea, “A Cape Cod Kinship.”

Former Cape Codder senior managing editor Carol Dumas said Mr. Eldridge “always delivered his column in person; he insisted on it and I looked forward to it. He always had a smile, an amusing quip. He had a commanding presence, a tall, robust man with a shock of gorgeous white hair and those bushy eyebrows. I also learned from him about distinguishing between the Eldridges with an e and the Eldridges with an i.”

(In “Once Upon Cape Cod,” he wrote, “One of the many stories about the varied spellings is that the ‘i’ Eldridges were horse thieves and the ‘e’ Eldredges would steal anything. We belonged to the ‘i’ Eldridges, and there weren’t many horses in town.”)

“One last thing about Dana,” McClennen wrote. “Whenever we saw each other he would approach me (all 6’5”) with this wonderful smile and would say, ‘We are the luckiest guys in the world,’ referring to our respective wives. He will be missed.”

An obituary is posted at tinyurl.com/yxf9xm2k.