Monday, May 4, 2009
Just another day at the beach
It was summer of 2006 and as far as the weather was concerned for a day at the beach on Pawleys Island it was perfect. The kids and I stepped off the crosswalk over the dunes to loose, hot sand heated by the mid-summer sun. With each step my feet would sink about an inch bringing an uncomfortable level of warmth to my bare feet. Despite living in Columbia, South Carolina for ten years I still considered myself a local and I wasn’t about to walk out on that sand wearing my sandals looking like some tourist. I gritted my teeth while carrying my small daughter, Miss Wiggles and wearing my backpack carrying our beach supplies. My son, Darth Spoilboy, could be heard behind me trying to put his sneakers back on after discovering how hot the sand was to his feet.
Looking above me, pristine white clouds floated by over head looking for all the world like giant whales on migration being pushed by the wind that also carried the strong scent of both life and death from the nearby marsh. The winds had whipped up the waves to a heavy froth sending up graceful splashes as the waves crashed into the shore.
Gulls soared and circled overhead squawking with each other making quick dives to the earth below to retrieve small bits of food and other trash left by the people sitting on the beach. One old gull, that looked tired of the relentless airborne squawking, was taking refuge on the ground nearby casting a critical eye on those humans already laid out on the beach as well as me and my brood. Choosing a spot on the beach we began trying to spread out our old blanket on the ground only to have the changing winds catch and twist it into some pretzel-like shape before falling to the sand. As if in response the old gull would spread his wings and flap them in disgust at our seeming ignorance of the proper way to do it. Only after shifting Miss Wiggles to riding on my back, after dropping the backpack to the ground, and having my son grab the opposite ends of the blanket I was holding were we able to spread the blanket out flat and even on the ground, tucking the corners and edges into the sand to prevent the wind from catching it. Our feathered companion squawked twice and flew off in disgust as we laid our belonging on the blanket, stripped off shirts and flip-flops, and walked toward the ocean.
My son ran ahead of my daughter and me eager to jump into the warm waters. Our trip down had been long with several bathroom stops for my daughter who had insisted on two bottles of chocolate milk along the way down to allow me to drive in peace. The stops tried my son’s patience and I let him dive into the water ahead of us to assert a small measure of independence allowing him to relieve some of the frustrations I knew he felt having to put up with a much younger sister.
“Don’t go any farther than chest deep!” I yelled out to him. At his age I was swimming a good distance out from the beach with the water way over my head. However, I had lived most my life along this beach and knew the hazards of this stretch of ocean, and what possible dangers lurked underneath. I felt a sudden and stinging disappointment that my son had missed out from growing up along these shores with only infrequent visits to a place that held so many good memories for me.
For my daughter as soon as we entered the water she started laughing in glee at how the waves would slap against daddy’s ample belly. She herself was as eager to get as deep as her brother but with Wiggles was not yet four years-old and small in stature, there was no way on God’s green earth I was about to loosen my grip on her. As I did my best to keep one eye on my son who had begun talking with a few boys playing nearby I would hold onto my daughter as we jumped in the water letting an incoming wave carry us over its crest. Each time she would squeal in delight as we landed in the wave's trough only to have another wave pick us up again to repeat the cycle. I yelled for my son to join us but his new friends and he were now watching a small group of surfers attempting to catch the small but unruly waves.
As I watched what had to be local high school kids trying to surf in the rough waters not one of them seemed to know what they were doing. The few that actually caught a wave enough to stand up immediately began trying to twist and maneuver their shortboards into various tricks that the wave had neither enough height nor energy to allow and which those earnest but inexperienced kids didn’t have the talent to accomplish. I found myself thinking back to my own antics riding these waves and how I must have looked during those times to the more experienced guys watching me try to catch similarly small waves but who were unable surf because they were taking care of their small children.
The late morning passed to afternoon and Miss Wiggles and I left the water to grab the small lunch stowed in my backpack lying on the blanket. Darth Spoilboy had left the water a little earlier and was now playing volleyball with his new friends, so I left him alone. Another disappointing aspect for me was that I could not spend more time with my son because my wife, as usual, did not come and someone had to be constantly with Wiggles. She was just too small to leave alone on the beach which left Spoilboy to seek out activities with others. At least he was enjoying himself and not moping in boredom like he had on previous trips.
After our small lunch, and feeling secure that Spoilboy was safe playing on the beach Wiggles and I drifted back to the water but instead of heading out in the waves we stayed very close to shore. As much as I felt bad about not spending more time with my son the very reason for my diligence with my daughter was about to present itself. Moreover, the most remarkable thing is that she was never more than two feet away from me and we were playing in water that most of the time came up to her waist.
The winds had died down a good bit as the afternoon progressed and the overly energetic waves were slowly calming down. Wiggles and I walked the shore line collecting shells and pieces of seaweed and soft coral floating in the water. The bright orange color of the coral fascinated my daughter and she would skitter across the water to grab any piece that caught her eye. As much as any parent I know it is impossible to totally and completely keep your eyes locked on your child at all times, even when they are near. However, it wasn’t me taking my eyes off my daughter that caused the scare that was about to fall on me but the fact that I didn’t occasionally glance up to keep an eye on what was going around me.
While the waves had calmed down considerably every once and a while the wind would pick up momentarily bringing them crashing back with close to the same energy. Wiggles was about two feet in front of me when what amounts to a rogue wave crashed into her bringing the water depth up above her head where mere seconds before it had been at her waist. The abruptness of the event totally befuddled my brain freezing me in place. My daughter was nowhere to be seen as if she had vanished from the earth. When I did regain my ability to move, leaping over to the spot she had been and reaching around for her in the swirling and very frothy water I could not find her. Making matters worse two more waves of the same energy and height came bounding across. To say I was in a panic would not be accurate; words can’t describe the mental state I had attained watching my daughter disappear before me. What was worse some calm part of my mind way back in the recesses was telling me that such energetic waves would receded almost as fast and as strong as they came in dragging whatever they caught back with them. Just as the water started to recede I saw a single leg emerge from the water sticking straight up. Being guided by parental reflexes and a higher power I snatched that leg like some mountain man might have snatched trout from a stream and yanked it up and out of the water. Attached to that leg was my daughter who came out not scared and crying but laughing and apparently enjoying the submerged tumbled she had been on.
She and I left the water with me still holding her upside down by the leg. We were completely out and on the wet sand before I gentle put her down so she could walk again. Not very much to my surprise she wanted to go back in but I vetoed that quickly and firmly. I was on my knees, feeling more than slightly sick to my stomach while holding my daughter in one place when I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“I saw everything and you did a great job catching her.” A woman in a green bikini said looking down at me. “But it all happened in about four seconds”, she added. “If I hadn’t been looking right at you two I would have missed everything.”
“Four Seconds?” I said feeling more than slightly confused. For me the entire incident seemed like it had taken hours with both my heart and stomach exchanging places. Even then the anatomical re-exchange was still taking place and it was a real possibility that I might puke my recent peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the nice lady’s bare feet.
For my daughter, still clutching the piece of bright orange soft coral that she had been reaching for when the waves crashed on her, it was a none event. The green bikini lady, named Annette, walked with us up to the blanket still wanting to talk but as expected once she found out I was married quickly excused herself. I took some comfort to my returning brain function as I contemplated that I either needed to find my wedding ring, which I never wear for a whole host of reasons, or learn not to mention my marital status. As if in response the old gull that had disdainfully observed our arrival earlier was back and was squawking something that very much sounded like “dumbass” in my direction.
As Wiggles pulled out toys from my backpack to play in the sand I laid on the blanket trying to figure how the old gull was insulting me, I figure I earned it whatever way he meant it.