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!”