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Thank You for Assateague Island

May 8, 2009 | by Tova Saul

Sometimes God takes one small, seemingly insignificant event to teach us all we need to know about life -- though it may take years to find that out.

Suddenly I was an adolescent, lost at sea in a Pittsburgh public high school of 3,600 students. Suddenly, I was surrounded by teenaged girls who obsessed about their clothes, make-up, hair, nails -- in short: how to beat their competition to impress the boys.

Boys and looking good seemed to be all that mattered in life. One gained social points by being beautiful, having a cute walk or giggle, and dancing well -- none of which described me.

I loved exploring the woods, admired the horses at the riding stable, and worried about the world's injustice and cruelty. I felt there was something very wrong with me. I didn't belong. I did not have the faintest idea of what to talk about with my peers. They yakked constantly to each other. What on earth did they have to say, while I could think of nothing?

If I ever did venture to say anything, I would rehearse it at least five times in my head before saying it aloud. It was in this state of bewilderment and loneliness that I spent my high school years.

If I ever did venture to say anything, I would rehearse it at least five times in my head before saying it aloud.

Upon graduation, someone asked if I could be a "chaperone" for a small girl scout troop, whose Jewish den-mother was named Mrs. Roberta Hoechshtetter. It was to be a 500-mile trip to camp out on the Assateague Island Nature Reserve for a few days. I had read about this wild windswept island in a children's book. It was a long narrow strip of land off the coast of Virginia. The eastern side had clean beaches facing the Atlantic, while the western side had lush marshes with shaggy-maned wild ponies.

I tried to tell myself not to expect anything too beautiful, so as not to be disappointed if the island didn't live up to its mythical allure in my imagination.


We set off in two vehicles -- Mrs. Hoechshtetter, her daughter Wendy, and 11 girl scouts who were almost my age, and two other "chaperones." The girls were wholesome and down-to-earth -- nothing like my high-school peers. There were people in the world I could relate to, after all.

By the time we reached the island and pitched our tents I simply forgot about any social discomfort. Before I knew what was happening, I was experiencing joy with a group of fellow human beings for the first time since pre-adolescence. Feeling a new, warm life in my veins, my excruciating shyness melted into becoming the acknowledged comic of the group.

No matter that we never saw a wild pony. We swam in the sunny waves and just had fun.

That afternoon, a ranger came to our campsite and told us that everyone had to leave the island because a hurricane was on its way. Indeed, we could see in the distance that others were already packing up, and cars were slowly making their way on the one road over the water to mainland Chincoteague.

We paid no notice. As far as we could see, all was serenely calm. Even the insects and birds were nowhere to be seen nor heard. This was, of course, the "quiet before the storm."

That evening, we were smugly the last on the island, preparing dinner. Mrs. Hoechshtetter had suggested that we make a stew on a Coleman camping stove and we put it up to simmer covered it with its very heavy lid. I will never forget the sight of that heavy lid being blown off the pot by a sudden gale, fluttering off as lightly as a butterfly! As our tents were wildly ballooning and contracting, Mrs. Hoechshtetter gave orders to tie them down, pack up whatever we needed for the night, get into the two vehicles, and evacuate to the mainland.

Driving in a middle of a hurricane on a slick unlit road over the marsh was not a simple matter.

In the short time it took to secure the camp and pile into the two vehicles, it was pitch dark, and we were cold and drenched from the driving downpour. Negotiating the slick unlit black road over the marsh to the mainland was not a simple matter. It was hard to see where the roadsides ended and where the marsh began. The windshield wipers were on full speed, and the radio played The Doors' Riders on the Storm, which is accompanied by thunder and rain in the background, and Paul McCartney's Uncle Albert, whose chorus goes: "Hands across the water, hands across the sky".

It was these two songs that accompanied us as we carefully crawled on that slippery marsh road and made our way to a motel in Chincoteague. The next morning was glorious sunshine and blue skies once more. We arrived back on Assateague Island to unbury and set up our sand-covered tents, and continue our merry vacation until its end back in Pittsburgh.


I entered my freshman year at college much more relaxed and outgoing -- not the withdrawn, socially frightened person I was in high school -- the direct result of Mrs. Hoechshtetter's trip.

Time passed, and I worked as a counselor with delinquents, moved to Israel, studied at a women's religious seminary, and became a tour guide, which involved non-stop public speaking. I often thought back warmly upon that trip, and silently thanked Mrs. Hoechshtetter.

Some years later, I went to visit my family in Pittsburgh. I was in quite a gloomy state, after a potential marriage prospect fell through. I attempted to be cheerful, but was quite miserable.

My sister-in-law told me that every Friday the girl yeshiva students would go to a hospital, receive a list of the room numbers of all the Jewish patients, and visit them, wishing them a good Shabbos. Would I like to join them?

On the inside, I said, "REALLY not!!" But not wanting to appear shirking in my duty as a Jew offered the opportunity of performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick, I reluctantly agreed.

Next thing I knew, a group of us were climbing out of my sister-in-law's station-wagon and walking into the lobby of Montefiore Hospital. I was given the list of Jews on the 6th floor, and we arranged to meet again in the lobby in an hour.

This was truly not my cup of tea -- walking into the hospital room of a very sick stranger and paying a visit. I uneasily did my best, visiting about six patients, until I saw that the clock was nearing the appointed time to quit. There was one Jew in one room left. I stood, hesitating. "Oh, go ahead into the last room," I decided at the last moment.


There on the bed, with her eyes closed, was a pale woman who had lost her hair to chemotherapy. Sitting across the room, on a chair in the corner, was a stylish young woman. I said, to her, "Hello. My name is Tova Saul. I came with the yeshiva to wish patients a good Shabbos."

She sprang to her feet, crossed the room, and exclaimed, "Oh! That's so nice!" She extended her hand and said, "I'm Wendy Hoechshtetter."

In an instant, I recognized the woman on the bed.

In an instant, I recognized her mother on the bed, after all the years. I said, "Wendy ... it's me ... Tova Saul, who went to Assateague Island with you ... remember?"

She cried out, "Oh! Mummy will be so glad to see you! The nurses don't think she understands anything anymore, but I think she does!"

She led me close to the bedside, gently woke her mother who was too weak to speak anymore, placed her mother's hand in my two hands, and said, "Mummy! This is Tova Saul! Remember her from when we went to Assateague Island?!"

Mrs. Hoechshtetter's eyes opened so wide as she stared at me in silent, amazed recognition.

I slowly and clearly said to her, "Mrs. Hoechshtetter, I always wanted to thank you for taking me to Assateague Island. It was a turning point in my life. I was so shy and miserable in high school. And that trip really changed me ..."

She was all rapt attention, and a tear was rolling down her cheek.

"... Mrs. Hoechshtetter, because of you, I learned to enjoy being with people. Thank you so much."

I went back in a few days to see her again, but the nurses told me that she had passed away. I was so grateful to God for putting Mrs. Hoechshtetter in my life when I needed her most, and grateful that I had been given that chance to thank her.


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