Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Ocean Bound

Neither of my parents were “water people.” After a crippling accident my father never went to the beach. My mother (who didn’t swim), never went in the water. Even though for a chunk of our lives we lived in a house with a built-in pool, my mother got in that pool only three times in close to twenty years. 

But I loved the ocean. Fascinated and fearful of its ebb and flow, I wanted nothing more than to be in its waters but  I was afraid.  My Uncle Charlie was the only adult I knew with both the authority and the willingness to take me in to “jump the waves.” This was a terrifying and heart-pounding experience that required someone who could both hang on and save you if necessary.

As much as I wanted to enter the ocean and bob among the waves, my Uncle Charlie had to coax me in. I was scared of going under, scared of drowning, and definitely scared of the “Under-Toad.” Now I know I’m not alone in this misinterpretation that had me and so many other kids imagining a mysterious and gigantic underwater frog  waiting to suck little children into its cavernous and slimy mouth like a monster vacuum. It wouldn't take much for a wave to knock you down and drag you in. I was absolutely terrified of the Under-Toad. Still, in order to jump the waves, you had to get past the shore, you had to go in past the breakers (you just had to) to jump over the crest of the rolling waves as they hammered on relentlessly toward shore.

Once you got past your fear, past the crashing white water and into the rhythm of the surf, jumping the waves you just couldn't feel any better. Floating over each wave, feeling the lift, embraced by the cold splash with the sun pounding its heat on your head, was exhilarating. You felt free with each rush of water. You felt buoyant and happy and tremendous  wave after wave after wave, until they started coming too fast and too high and before you could hold your breath you ended up underwater and you fought to surface, sputtering saltwater, gasping for breath with sand stinging your nostrils and then another wave crashed over you and it was time to go in. You fought the great fight, you “rode the waves,” but sooner or later you had to face up: the ocean had won.

Now in my late 50s as I enter the icy waters off Fire Island and push myself to go in further, go deeper and ride the waves, that eight-year-olds’ feelings of exuberance and joy come flooding back. The only thing missing is the tight grip of Uncle Charlie’s hand and the reassuring guidance of his voice yelling, “Over!” “Under!”


  1. What a great essay on so many levels...thank you!

  2. thanks hope and hope you will enjoy the others....

  3. This piece made me want to go find an ocean to swim in right now. Thank you!

  4. Reading this brought back my own ocean memories from when I was nine or ten and madly devoted to body surfing. The specific memory is hanging out in shoulder-high water with my buddies, handicapping the distant swells, trying to predict which would be the one to 'take'. 'Here comes one!' 'Are you taking it?' 'That's nothing' 'I'm talking about the one after it!' 'Oh my God!'
    But we were dismal prognosticators, swimming frantically, futilely for the crest as it rolled on by. But maybe once in four or five tries you'd catch one, and that would make it all worth while - hurtling forward in a wreath of foam, planted on the beach with your chest scratched and your trunks full of sand, and then, eventually, making your way back to the bobbing heads which would suddenly turn in deference to you, 'Are you taking it?'

  5. I have wonderful memories of body surfing all day in Virgina Beach with my brother - we had boogie boards - so maybe that wasn't body surfing? Anyway, I love jumping the waves and riding them into the shore. But, one memory of jumping the waves still haunts me. We were with my family in Emerald Isle in NC. It was our first day of vacation. My brother, his wife and their two kids and my son (the kids were about 5-6 years old) were in the ocean. Every adult had the hand of a child.
    All of a sudden a giant wave came into shore and knocked us all over. I was holding my nephew's hand. As the wave hit, we were tumbled upside down and rolled over. I was afraid I was going to break my nephew's arm, we were spinning and getting tossed about so badly... So, I let go of his hand....

    Thankfully we were all OK.

    But, when we were all standing again, my nephew looked at me and said, "why did you let go of my hand?" I tried to explain my reasoning to him but he
    just looked at me. I have never forgotten the look on his face, and have always questioned my decision to let go of his hand.... R

    But, when we were back on our feet, my nephew looked at me and said, "why did you let go of my hand?" I tried to explain, but he just looked at me. I will
    never forget that look or the feeling of letting his hand go....