Part of a Series of Travel Stories: Five Truths and Two Lies
New Year’s Day
At 9AM the smell of salt water wafted over our king-sized bed at the Holiday Inn in Pompano Beach, Florida. Fuzzy headed, I remembered the date. January 2, 2000. Yesterday I had watched the University of Michigan beat Alabama in the Florida Orange Bowl in Miami. (Go Blue!)
I dressed quickly in my Speedo bathing suit, baggy nylon shorts, and close fitting long sleeve white shirt, with just my chapstick and my room’s plastic card key in my pockets. No shoes. Hurry. Checkout at 11AM.
I was poised to fulfill one last vacation goal: to describe a wave in writing.
This goal had been knocking on the door of my brain for days. What is a wave? Where does it begin? End? How are they different? But thinking doesn’t put words on the page. When it came to completing the little writing challenge I had given myself, time seemed to have floated away as fluidly and effortlessly as the waves themselves. This was my last chance.
Onto the Sand
Stepping onto the cool sand, I made a left to go north with the warm, bright sun at my back. My writing plan was this: become one with the waves. Walk along and not push out the words, but let the words come to me like the waves were. Hardly anyone was on the beach to distract me, the sky was blue, and the waves were highlighted and twinkling. I didn’t go far before I took my shirt off to expose my bathing suit, and wrapped it around my waist.
I walked along the wet part of the sand, a foot or so from where the waves ended. Shells were rare, and the water was warm enough to soothe, not shock, when a long-reaching wave ran over my toes. Every so often I still had to pry my gaze away from the water to look down at my feet, to avoid stepping on some type of beached fish that looked like an egg-sized translucent blue balloon with a two foot stringy tail. The fish seemed menacing, though they were very lifeless. I was sure they would sting if my foot touched them.
The Joggers and the Topless
A couple of runners jogged by, but still I had the place pretty much to myself until I saw a large figure laying in the water close to the shore. As I got closer I realized she was a heavyset woman, wearing a yellow and red print turban on her head, and some underpants. Nothing else. Her large, pendulous breasts seemed to echo the flow of the surf. She cavorted like a child in a baby pool, seemingly unaware that in Southern Florida topless women bathers are stare-worthy. A muscular man was in the water nearby, and as I passed by I saw a pile of clothes in the sand and the probable explanation for her abandon: an empty bottle of champagne.
Ahead of me, about one city block or so, was a long wooden pier jutting out far into the water. I designated the end of the pier as my turnaround spot. To get there, though, I had to walk past a hundred or so small birds that I guessed to be terns. They stood rigidly at attention, live weather vanes all facing the same way: orange beaks into the wind.
A child would have stomped her foot to see them all flutter into the sky at once, but I came up with a more subtle version of the same game: the birdie cha-cha. I took one foot toward them, and they took one step back. One foot forward, one foot back. The fun part was that they weren’t too good at the cha-cha and got totally out of formation to retreat, then waddled around comically to get lined up again into their precision weather vane position, beaks into the wind. We danced until my walk and the pier beckoned me on.
After a few steps the pier became a little store that one had to enter and exit before you could reach the part of the pier that stuck out over the ocean. It had a counter on one side with a handwritten sign: “Sightseers $1.00”. I looked slightly incredulously at the bespectacled, middle-aged man behind the counter.
“You have to pay a dollar to go out there?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said.
My hands were stuck in my pockets and I knew I didn’t even have a penny. Without thinking, I heard the words tumble out: “but I don’t have a dollar.” He flicked his chin towards the water, which I recognized immediately as the go-ahead sign. “Thanks,” I said, grinning at him for his kindness.
The pier was different from the beach, but not better. Serious fishermen lined the sides. One guy was watching a half dozen identical poles, all evenly spaced a couple of feet apart. When I leaned over the railing to watch the end of the fishing lines and into the swirling water below, I suddenly had the urge to spit.
Maybe I wanted to become one with the ocean, and mimic Neal Armstrong — “One small spit for mankind.” Afraid that others might not interpret my spit as being such as noble act, I ignored the urge and walked back onto the sand.
My birdie buddies were there waiting for me. For old times sake, we danced a few steps. I realized that we weren’t actually talking, but we sure were communicating. “I wish I could fly with you,” I thought, beaming my message onto their beak radars, all aimed toward me.
Birds Dance and Dip
Then an odd thing happened. All at once they were soaring gracefully through the air. I looked around to see what had startled them, but it was quiet and there was nothing in sight. They dipped their wings to make a turn over the ocean, then came back and did a glorious fly-by over my head. Someone else might have been worried about droppings, but all I could think of was those old movies where the pilot dips his wings over a friend on the ground as a gesture of respect. They landed next to me and I set off again, feeling like if I could become one with the birds, the waves would be a piece of cake.
Waves are People
As I strolled home I watched waves closely, picking one 20 feet off the shore and then following it in onto the sand. Then I’d follow in another, and another. Each wave was different, and each was the same. Like people.
Like children, they start out from nothing, looking clean and harmless.
The smooth wave crests, and each teenage wave becomes its own mini-waterfall. When it hits the surface the wave erupts: white and foaming, strong, turbulent and angry.
The ripples from the turbulence spread out and calm down, looking like little white fountains continually popping up through the smoothing wave as it nears the shore.
Finally, the fountains are gone, and the surface of the water is flat, save for the white boarder of foam at the forefront. The wave slows. Its soulful curve of foam bravely climbs up onto the sand as far as it can, but the body of the wave that follows can hold on no more. As gentle and slow as a sweet lullaby, it retreats slightly, then disappears as it sinks down into the sand.
Seconds later there is another wave starting and another wave ending. You are never there too early or late for the wave show. When I tired of watching, I listened. Your ear is not as able to pick out a single wave as well as your eye can, but it’s not one big roar either.
I’m sure if I sat there long enough with my eyes closed I would get better at hearing distinct waves, and learn how they’re different and how they’re the same. But that will have to wait until the next time I’m in Florida. See you then, ocean.
This story is part of a series of travel stories: Five Truths and Two Lies