There’s nothing like an unqualified pummelling to inspire a practical respect for the power of nature. I thought about that as I lay curled in a fetal position on the hotel bed, enduring waves of nausea and wanting nothing more than to drift off into unconsciousness.
“Are you alright?” asked my wife, and I assured her that I was just fine, only I could use a few more minutes of resting limp as a rag doll, if she didn’t mind looking after the girls during that time. To my surprise, I felt remarkably better within an hour, and we were able to resume our vacation with no further delay. For a brief period, however, I felt like I had been set upon by a gang of thugs and left for dead in an alley. All because I didn’t have the good sense to recognize the difference between harmless fun and obvious danger.
We were on our first real family vacation. With our daughters having reached the ages of 7 and 4, Julie and I decided that we were ready for a driving trip to the east coast. We packed our compact sedan with plentiful snacks and diversions, doling out dollar store trinkets every so often along the hundreds of miles we traveled from Ohio to North Carolina. Our destination was the Outer Banks, where we had reservations at a seaside Comfort Inn in Kill Devil Hills, a mere primitive flight away from the Wright Brothers Memorial. The ocean would be good for a day’s fun, we reasoned, and there was much else to see in the area.
Naturally, the girls were enchanted by their first encounter with the Atlantic. We walked down to the shore as soon as we arrived, and their initial tentativeness quickly dissolved into a giddy series of splashes and waist-high immersions. Should have put their swim suits on first, I suppose. But Julie and I found ourselves caught up in our children’s enthusiasm for the ocean, so much so that we spent far more time in the water than we had anticipated. Our Outer Banks adventure became a swimming vacation with a little sightseeing thrown in.
It was I who was the most surprised by this turn of events, for I had originally pooh-poohed the beach as worthy of no more than an afternoon of our precious time. I’m sure my peculiar perspective must have been based on my experience as a child, when I accompanied my family on a trip to Florida in 1976. Wary of the ocean themselves, my parents instilled in me what they surely intended to be a reasonable respect for marine danger. There was talk of an undertow, a mysterious force that could grab you without warning and cast you out to sea. Jellyfish could sting you, and a Portuguese Man o’ War could kill you. Not to mention sharks, which went without saying, as Jaws was being relentlessly promoted everywhere.
Put it all together with weather that was never particularly hot, and the result was that we never really went into the ocean. Sure, we put on our suits and pranced along the surf, but up-to-the-waist was about the extent of my oceanic fun. I had not yet learned to swim (that would have to wait until college!), so to venture any further out into the water seemed like a blatant request for disaster. It was only natural, then, that I would grow up to have an ambivalent opinion about the merits of ocean swimming.
My attitude changed completely during our Outer Banks vacation. The weather was warm, the sun shone down from a vibrant blue sky, and getting out there up to my neck in the Atlantic was a joy. Were it not for our girls and their unrestrained happiness among the waves, I might never have known what I had been missing all those years. Suddenly the other tourist spots on our itinerary seemed more like an inconvenience, inasmuch as we would have to get out of the water in order to see them.
Our enjoyment of the water was enhanced by a gift presented to us during our first full day at the beach. Another family who had arrived in a compact sedan discovered that the pair of foam boogie boards they had purchased at the beach would not even come close to fitting in their trunk for the drive home. We gratefully accepted their generosity. The highly buoyant devices were a novelty to us, and I don’t think we would ever have thought to buy them for ourselves. We attached the tethers to our arms with the Velcro wrist straps and plunged into the water to try out our new acquisitions.
The four of us were delighted. Relaxing atop a boogie board and lazily riding the swell of incoming waves was great fun. We all took turns, and sometimes either Julie or I would swim a little further out to ride some bigger waves. It was an altogether agreeable sensation, and had the weather not changed to brisker fare, who knows how many days we might have stayed on the water? As it was, the cooler air enticed us to pursue some of our original plans, and we spent some time exploring the Wright Brothers’ old flying grounds and visiting a nearby aquarium.
As our time left at the Outer Banks was dwindling and the weather became even cooler and windier, I lamented the fact that I would not enjoy the bliss of ocean boogie boarding again until I might visit the ocean anew some time in the future. Julie and the girls were preparing to take a dip in the hotel’s outdoor pool, and though that was the sensible way to swim under the current weather conditions, it seemed like a sacrilege to forsake the adjacent, majestic ocean for a pedestrian pool. And then I thought, why should high winds and cool temperatures stop me? Julie looked at me like I was either crazy or stupid (perhaps both), but having been married for over a decade by that time, I was used to it. Besides, I knew what I was doing.
The fact that no one was on the beach, save for a middle-aged couple bundled up in jackets, might have given most aspiring boogie boarders pause. But I looked out into the ocean and marveled at the waves that were considerably bigger than what we had experienced just days before. I thought about how fun it had been to ride those modest waves, and I concluded that it would be even more fun to get tossed up and down by these larger waves. It was simple, really. I trudged toward the surf for one last dose of extra-intense ocean fun.
The first few meters into the water was a depository of pebbles and small shells, the sort of surface that makes you wince and arch your feet until you reach the soft sand beyond it. The water was cold, and I grimaced at the stinging droplets carried along the stiff wind. At last I ventured out far enough to stand comfortably, where the water reached my waist and waves smacked my shoulders. This was going to be great. I turned around, hopped on the board, and anticipated the next wave, which soon crashed over me and threw me down with a force unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I had been pushed forward and smacked down onto the pebbly bottom, and it was all I could do to get up on my knees before the next wave arrived and threw me down again. This caused me great alarm and no small amount of pain. At once I realized how tragically stupid I had been, and it occurred to me that if I didn’t somehow scramble up onto the beach, I might drown in a few feet of water. I managed to rise up to breathe again and felt the smack of another wave against my back, but this time I kept my head up and let the momentum carry me forward. As the middle-aged couple looked on from a distance, I staggered up the sand as nonchalantly as I could, vainly attempting to project an attitude of I meant to do that.
My head was reeling and I started to feel sick to my stomach. Julie and the girls were still in the pool, but I passed by and went directly to our room. Removing my trunks in the shower, I heard at least a pound of pebbles clatter against the tile. Minutes later I was curled up under the covers, calmly awaiting my imminent death. How unfortunate that my wife and children should discover my lifeless form, but I was resigned to my fate. In fact, as the nausea increased, it was starting to sound pretty good.
Of course, I pulled through quickly, having actually suffered nothing more than getting the wind knocked out of me. To her immense credit, my wife simply let this unfortunate life lesson speak for itself. Nature had already humbled me in a violent way I would never forget. There was no need for her to crow about her astute recognition of my stupidity. It was painfully obvious.