Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Surfing the Cosmic Shores

No, I haven't been smoking anything although it would have been a help.

Many times while growing up I listened to tales of how my uncles would get up before sunrise, load up their surfboards, and then drive up to Pawleys Island to catch some waves as the sun rose over the water. Several times I accompany them on such early morning outings whenever my parents let me and my uncles felt I would be useful chick bait. Even though I remember those trips they have for me moved into the realm of the mythical since they occurred before my parent’s marriage self-destructed, and my uncles moved beyond the carefree life of teenagers and into the responsibilities that the adult world demanded.

As my enlistment in the active army drew to a close in the summer of 1990 I began dreaming again of those early morning trips wanting to recapture the thrill of being the first person of the day to walk those soft sands and to feel that early morning ocean breeze. Even as a child I realized being next to the ocean while watching the sunrise that there were far larger, important, and powerful things than me in this universe. The mountains that I could see right out my barrack’s window could almost inspire the same awe and wonder when I hiked the trails along them but humans had long since put their mark all over the those mountain. From television antennas at the very top of Cheyenne mountain to huge mansions that seemed to have been carved in the side of others took away some of their power and made them seem tame.

My grandfather had passed away several months before my enlistment ended and there were many things that needed to be looked at and fixed after I returned home. My main mission though was to supply some company to my grandmother so she didn‘t feel so alone. Although in retrospect I feel I failed at it since I didn’t do a very good job giving her the company and support she needed. I hadn’t forgotten about my desire to relive those early morning surfing trips but most of my free time was actually spent getting ready for college in the fall. However, at that moment two issues prevented me from making my early morning pilgrimage even if I didn’t have chores I needed to do. I didn’t have a surfboard and all my friends who I had surfed with before my army time had for the most part succumbed to the adult world and didn’t have time to break away from young families and jobs, which fed those families. Uncle George solved the first problem one day as I was helping him clean out his attic. Amongst all the boxes and debris collecting dust in that dark place was his nine foot Hobie surfboard from his teenage years. As I inspected the old girl I could tell that the years had been somewhat hard on her. There were many dings and deep scratches on her surface along with her single fin being broken in half. Unlike surfboards now, the fin on Uncle George’s surfboard, which was made in the 60’s, was permanently set and could not easily be removed and replaced, if at all. Still with all the damage on the board I know how my uncle valued it for the memories it held. Never the less I somewhat nervously asked if I could use it for awhile. I could tell Uncle George actually had to think about it but in the end he allowed me to take it and even went and found the racks that would let me mount it to the top of my car. Both Uncle George’s boys had become very good at surfing but used the more popular short boards and looked sort of askew at their father’s ancient longboard. Therefore, if the old girl was going to get wet again it looked like I was the only person who would do it.

A couple of days later I secured my uncle’s old surfboard to the top of my car with the racks he also loaned me and took off for the south end of Pawleys Island. After the short drive I stood on the crosswalk above the protective semi-circle of sand dunes around the parking lot and looked out on the water. The very tip of the sun had just appeared above the horizon spreading a golden hue across the water. The waves that morning were running about four feet and breaking parallel to the shore. Looking back to the west I saw twilight shrinking fast with a few stars seemly covering the retreat of night. Even though for months my desire had been to be among the first people surfing as a new day begun as I proceeded off the crosswalk and into the sand I felt a small ripple of nervousness realizing I had gotten far more than I dreamed. Not only was I going to be the first person in that water that morning there wasn’t even an early morning jogger or fisherman on the entire tongue of land that made up the south end of the island. Looking northward up toward the houses I didn’t see anyone even sitting on their screened-in porches watching the sunrise.

After applying a new coat of wax on my uncle’s surfboard I finally had her in the water and was paddling out to where the waves began to form. The feel of the slightly chilly water and the taste of the salt from it on my lips quieted any nervousness I had moments earlier. The morning sun on my back warmed me and I could feel the stirrings of the old thrill that I had felt years before. I caught a great ride on the first wave that appeared once I got into position. Which given that I was riding a nine foot surfboard was nothing to crow about since it was so big I should have been able to catch anything down to a small ripple. My cousins, who rode short boards, had both the talent and the practice to perform some fairly wild maneuvers cutting across and up just about any wave they caught. I in turn did not have the practice they had and sure as hell didn’t have their talent so I was just happy to feel the rush of the wind and water as I used the wave’s energy to head toward shore. Several more attempts after paddling back out had me either missing the wave or falling off the board unable to get my balance right. I hadn’t been in the water more than thirty minutes when the waves stopped and the ocean around me went glassy and flat. After waiting for several minutes hoping that a new set would emerge so I could at least try and catch another good ride I decided that just lying on the board in the water with the sun on my back was good enough for the time being. My thoughts began drifting about at random and after scanning the shore line and realizing I was still the only person on the beach my mind used that as a prompt to go off in a very unwanted direction.

It’s hard to describe the feeling when you realize you are utterly alone in the world, even though you may be surrounded by family and friends on a regular basis. Such a condition makes the feeling even more acute since you can’t really go off whining about it to those who now have jobs, babies, bills, and the entire spectrum of normal life on their shoulders. College classes were soon to begin for me and after being away from school for such a long time I worried that I might not be able to handle it and flunk out. I didn’t even have the option of returning to the military if college went bad. Before I got out many of my superiors tried to talk me out of leaving the service telling me that I had a real future as a senior NCO down the road or even an officer if I pursued college while still wearing the uniform. Now that I was out and this being the early nineties the military was beginning its great post-Cold War draw down so I didn’t stand a snowball’s chance of re-enlisting. On a more personal level I might as well have been a complete stranger to my hometown in that I didn’t have a soul I could call to date or just to hang out with like I did before I entered the army. Every last girl I had anything to do with had either moved or married while I was away. After my return I soon found that I occupied a strange position of being too old to hang out with high school kids and that I was not yet a part of the college crowd. In addition, since my old buddies had settled down while I was away I found myself out of place at the bar and club scene. Going alone just didn’t feel right and I found myself heading home after only an hour or two in such places. This line of worries wasn’t new, soon after returning home as I lay in bed listening to the night sounds of nature outside my open window these thoughts would creep into my room like some intruder and play with me until my mind shut down.

As I was laying on that surfboard in the water with my doubts and fears running through my mind it was like some shark latching on to me and pulling me down into the dark depths. Even though my saintly grandmother had taken charge of the spiritual upbringing of my siblings and me to the point that to miss Sunday school you had to cough up your liver and both lungs before she would leave you alone those mornings at that time I didn’t find myself praying very much. I carried a faith in God but I found the increasingly strident, unforgiving, and political nature of the churches around me difficult to bear. Far too much had changed from the compassionate, joyous, and forgiving nature of the churches I attended with my grandparents up until the mid-80’s. However, the darkness that had hold of me right then had me saying a small and tepid prayer of divine guidance.

Many times I have heard from the odd self-appointed philosopher that I have run across say that there is no such thing as reality. That each person colors their own reality with their own biases, beliefs, and lessons they have learned from others. Since I agree with the idea that we each color our own reality take from this story what you will. But as I laid on that surfboard just after my little prayer beginning to think about paddling in and returning home I heard a small splash behind me and out of the corner of my eye saw some sort of fin submerge below the surface. Figuring that the metaphorical shark that had hold of me was about to become real I tucked my arms and legs up on the board to, hopefully, wait out any undue curiosity. Some small amount of time slipped by without any further sight or noise from my unknown aquatic companion and I figured it was time for me make my way to shore before it came back. The ocean around me was still a sheet of off-colored green glass but clear down to about two feet. I was about to begin paddling in when my companion came sliding up parallel to me less than a foot away. Far from being a toothy wannabe Jaws out to consume a lonely and distraught guy on a borrowed surfboard my companion was some sort of species of dolphin. Potential fear fell away to kinetic surprise as both of us examined the other, each curious of the strange mammal that was in the water that early morning. My new friend circled around never losing sight of me. This time “he” came even closer in and while looking into the eye of that creature I felt something that cleared away my worries and fears. To say that I felt some weight lift off my shoulders doesn’t do justice to the fact that I also felt some sort of feelings of compassion, caring, and that I was not alone that seemed to say everything was going to be fine. Like some child I reached out toward the dolphin with the more logical part of my mind saying that I was about to spoil this chance meeting and scare it off. Instead it came right up next to the surfboard allowing me to stroke its side. We stayed that way for only a short time never looking away from each other. How long could it have gone on? I have no honest answer but it was the sound of a car horn over on the other side of the sand dunes signaling that my solitude had ended that broke whatever spell had been cast. After looking up for the briefest of moments I looked back down and he was gone. He came around again one last time splashing me with his flukes then set off for some other location with me wishing I could join him.

Was this only a chance encounter that tide, time, the desire for me to relive earlier days, and the early morning feeding habits of a marine mammal allowed to happen? Or was this the answer to a small but desperate prayer that I had cast out to a far greater more diverse ocean. As the years have flown by I have alternately held both positions along with a hybrid mix of the two. None the less, the dark clouds that had at times confined me to outright despair never appeared with such power again. I still had enough concern to keep my nose to the educational grind stone and far from being a perfect person after my encounter I still found a way to screw up completely on many different levels many different times through the years. Whatever explanation I happened to be leaning toward on that early morning encounter for me the whole basic question boils down to whether there is something greater in the universe than we hairless primates. My own idea on the matter has the curious benefit of irritating just about everyone who has discussed the issue with me. But at least it can be said I came about it on my own.

Years ago I sat in awe in front of my grandparent’s television watching the late Carl Sagan explain on his show Cosmos various aspects of science and the nature of the universe. One of the many things he touched on that blew my mind was how the very elements that make up our bodies were created at the cores of long dead stars. Those same elements would over the course of billions of years coalesce and form our planet. As more time passed those elements somehow combined, crossed a threshold from just a chemical soup to simple life that began the struggle of evolution. After billions of years of evolution we hairless primates emerged having gained a modest amount of intelligence to try and contemplate the very nature of the universe we live in. In short Sagan was saying nothing less that we, and whatever other intelligent species that might exist, are the universe itself becoming self aware and trying to understand its nature.

Where I usually veer off into left field, and piss everyone off, is that to me the universe itself from its earliest times we can discern after the Big Bang has continued to organize itself into higher structures. From the lowest quark to the largest super cluster of galaxies we can observe there is a continuing effort for greater complexity. Even here on Earth as life emerged from a smelly carbon-based protein soup to basic celled organisms it has moved up in the level of complexity until our arrival in which despite our faults and shortcomings have begun trying to make sense of our very reason for existence. I can’t help but wonder that given the age of the universe and the continuing evolution of all things great and small might not there be intelligences for whom we have no way to contemplate or understand their existence much like microscopic life forms have absolutely no way to understand that they are observed and studied by us using a microscope. Let me be the very first to say that all this is the addled speculation of a more than slightly deranged mind who desperately need to find a more productive hobby. But I have always been uncomfortable with the notion that humans are the pinnacle of development for the universe and that there is nothing greater in scope for us to discover. What comes to mind for me was the accepted notions that the Earth was the center of the creation with everything else revolving around us, or that we were the special, highest creations of God which made us and everything else in 6000 years.

While I can dance around the subject I do have to admit that I do believe in a higher power. The nature of that higher power for me is, like my dolphin encounter, subject to my own internal debate which ebbs and flows as time goes on. If I haven’t really freaked everyone out I would more than welcome their input on this subject. My own attempts before to discuss something as strange as this subject have usually failed miserably with the usual two warring camps quickly forming up and dialogue devolving to name calling. In truth the one creature I would love to get its opinion on this subject would be my dolphin friend but I have the strangest feeling if I did get the chance he would just keep his enigmatic smile, say thanks for all the fish, and swim off again saying I think to much and need to surf more. I can’t say that he would be wrong.

(Author's note: I didn't like how this turn out but after messing around with this post far longer than I liked I wasn't about just to leave it on my hard drive.)


Vigilante said...

Should have, Beach!

LMFAO! Just kidding.

Vigilante said...

My real comment is to confirm in my own mind and soul that there is (for me) something special about sailing (a) single-handed and, (b) in the early morning. Something about that light, off-shore breeze and gentle wavelets, sparkling in the sunlight and something about you're there without conversation or a memories of a day's events controlling your mind. In that setting, one is completely vulnerable to whatever comes to and sweeps over one. I have never had that magical morning sail, I have always yearned for it, and now, in these final sunsetting days, I fear I shall never attain it. So, I salute one who done it!

Anonymous said...

Have you ever come across a turtle on its back, felt sorry for it, and turned it over sending it on its way?
Every now and then, the universe looks down on one of us and taking pity, turns us over and sends us on. Thanks for sharing this story.

Leigh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randal Graves said...

Goddamn, sir, you really do need to write that book. What a wonderful storyteller you are.

I'm firmly an atheist, and I've never had anything like your dolphin encounter, but when I've gone for a walk in the park or wherever and it's just me, I get snippets of that feeling that you had. Calm isn't the right word, and I'm not sure there's even a right word for it in the English language. Contentment, awareness, there are threads of each weaving into the whole. It's unexplainable, but you can feel it.

And don't worry, it turned out just fine.

Leigh said...

I had so many mispellings I had to it is....

(drawing in a deep breath). What a wonderful story. Wonderful. Of course I love the ocean, dolphins, and feel so in tune with God and with the universe and nature when I am there. I see it more clearly from that vantage point, with my feet in the sand, the water pouring over atop.


Great post. And no, not scary. I think questioning is normal. It IS a big universe and certainly we aren't "it".

And I loved your line, "I carried a faith in God but I found the increasingly strident, unforgiving, and political nature of the churches around me difficult to bear. " That couldn't be more me if I said it. I feel such a spiritual connection with God. I am a believer. But every time I set foot in a church I find myself in those thoughts. I am now at a point in my life where I feel that I do not need to be in church to have a relationship with God. Church is like school, to eductae on the teachings. But a spiritual relationship, a daily relationship, not contrived is what I have and am secure in. I find his word most clear through nature and my surroundings.He speaks to me that way.

Great post.

October 2, 2008 6:49 AM

Beach Bum said...

Vigil: I must admit to something that I alluded to in the post. Actually walking out on the beach and finding that I was the only person did freak me out. When it comes down to the basic nuts and bolts its a lot nicer to know someone is around should you drown, have a shark make you breakfast, or get kidnapped by a gang of beautiful naked women. Okay, the last wouldn't be a bad thing but I would still want someone around to see it so I would have a witness. And no it hasn't happen except in my wildess fanatsies.

Anon: You made my point, that was what I was trying to get at. Please come back again.

Leigh: After getting married in 93 Dragonwife and I found a great preacher but the church itself was filled with folks that would have been far better served just to go find some country club so they could socialize. Never felt comfortable there and never really felt any spirituality there and once the preacher left we never went back. Like you I get closer to God walking through the zoo with Wiggles, a forest, or at the beach close to the ocean.

Randal: I'm with you despite my words I can't really describe the feeling and presence I felt that day. Honestly, it could have been all in my feeble mind but I don't think so. I do really believe that humans just do not yet have the ability to grasp the total nature of the universe. So I'm trying to keep an open mind while at the same time trying not to let my feeble brains fall out. Its a slippery slope to debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Beach Bum said...

Leigh: Don't worry about it. I'm at work right now and can't correct my spelling. Honestly if it wasn't for spell check I would be up a creek.

Mike said...

Fantastic story Beach. I stopped by here earlier and started reading this story, but had to leave. Had to come back just now to finish it.

Jessica said...

Thanks for the kind comment.

Beach Bum said...

Mike: Yeah, I'm full of hot air.

Jessica: You welcome, and once again best wishes.

Utah Savage said...

Beach, once again you have moved me to tears. I love sailing, like Vig, and had my own dolphin experience in the Mediterranean in the mid "60s. I was on a yacht with my momentary beau and friends of his sailing out of Portofino. Sailing up the coast we were accompanied with what I guess was a pod of dolphins. I lay up hanging on the bow watching the dolphins lead the ship in what looked like frolic-- nothing less than play. Don't they have bigger brains than we? Isn't their language as rich as ours? They have a social organization. Who knows maybe a verbal history and awareness of death. Elephants do. Great Apes do, Chimpanzees. My dog understands my language? I'm not sure I'm as smart as he. God, not so much, religion, no way. Spirit. Sure so long as we recognize the spirit of the other big brained creatures we share this planet with.

This might be my favorite post of yours. It was a lovely read.

Beach Bum said...

Utah: Yeah, I treaded lightly on the spiritual stuff, for me. I just think their are mysteries to existence and "realty" humans can't even fathom yet. How these mysteries play out I have no real idea.

The Mediterranean in the 60's? Have you written about any of those adventures yet? You may have and I missed them but that is something I would like to hear about.

Keshi said...

Very inspirational post BB! Loved it.

**Many times I have heard from the odd self-appointed philosopher that I have run across say that there is no such thing as reality. That each person colors their own reality with their own biases, beliefs, and lessons they have learned from others.

so so true! What is REALITY...MY reality. :)



Beach Bum said...

Keshi: I first that from a hippy back in the seventies. I thought he was the coolest guy I had ever seen at the time. I wonder where he is now?

lime said...

lol, you beat me to the punchline.

i struggle. i have strong convictions which are quite opposite the atheistic and unitarian convictions my parents hold dear. that said, i have the same frustrations (and others) you have with the churches today. i find myself examining much these days.

Beach Bum said...

Lime: Its tough to look for some deeper meaning in life when so many preachers tell their churches that they should pray for people who disagree with them to shut up. I find myself examining everything but coming up short.

Anonymous said...

Really good... i enjoyed...
thanks for this....

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