by Mark Binder
— for Max, who is away at camp —
My cousin, Adam Siegel couldn’t boogie board to save his life. When we went to the beach, he would mostly stay on shore and watch everyone else have fun. While every other kid on the planet was in the water, Aunt Dot, would slather Adam with so much sunscreen, he’d look like a white oil slick trying to read.
Adam refused to go out with us. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the water, he was afraid of the sand.
The first time Adam visited us in Rhode Island was the summer that he and I were just barely six. Adam’s Dad had been killed in the service, and Aunt Dot had just met this guy, Paul. Later, Paul would become Adam’s step-dad, but we didn’t know that at the time. In one of those horrible bonding sessions that you usually only see in cheesy movies, Paul decided to take me and Adam and my sister Ellen to the beach for a day of fun. My mother and Aunt Dot were thrilled to have time to themselves without kids. They sent Paul and us off with lots of warnings about the sun and food and to be careful.
As soon as we got to the beach, Paul popped the trunk and pulled out these boards made out of four pieces of Styrofoam he’d cut by hand in his garage. “I call ’em Boogie Boards,” he said, “because we’re really gonna boogie on ’em! You know, dance? Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Paul was way into the Seventies, and we were skeptical. We’d never seen anything like them before, and they just didn’t look safe. But Uncle Paul demonstrated, and survived, so we decided to give them a try.
If you don’t know what a boogie board is, imagine hanging on to the top three feet of a surfboard. You run into the surf, look over your shoulder, and when a wave comes, hop on. These days, they come with a tether tethered to your arm to keep it from getting swept away when you wipe out, but Uncle Paul hadn’t thought of that, so we had to go chasing after them. There’s little or no skill involved, but they transform a day at the beach from fun to truly awesome.
Ellen, who was two years older than me, didn’t have any problems and was soon riding like a pro. I got the hang of it after about half an hour.
Adam was another story. Part of it might’ve been his resistance to Paul. Adam’s dad had only died a year earlier, and I know my cousin missed his father terribly. But mostly Adam was an Army brat, who had grown up on military bases around the world, and had never really been exposed to the ocean in all its glory and might.
Paul, for his part, was almost completely clueless about what to do with little kids. He figured he’d just load us into the water and let us play. He didn’t know that six-year-old boys need constant minding to prevent dismemberment and death. He was laughing and joking, encouraging and cajoling and generally having a good time.
The problem is that you can’t ride a board yourself and pay attention to someone else. There’s no control on a boogie run, and your head has a tendency to go underwater when you least expect it.
So, when I finally got Adam out above his shoulders to catch a moderately big wave, Paul wasn’t looking.
The ocean is a surprising place. One moment it’s amazingly calm, and a moment later it can be violently rough. Something like that happened while Adam and I were out there. One instant we were laughing, and the next, Adam was gone. Just gone.
I started freaking out. Ellen started screaming. Paul, who had been laughing, turned as white as a ghost with fear. The lifeguard started blowing her whistle. Everyone was running around like crazed seagulls.
It seemed like forever, but it must’ve only been a minute or two later that we found him. It had been a wipeout of massive proportions. Adam was way up on the beach, buried up to his waist with his feet sticking up out of the sand. He was fine. His face was a little scraped, and he was mightily embarrassed but not bleeding. Paul immediately wiped him off and bought us all ice cream, but no matter how much he begged and pleaded, Adam wouldn’t go back into the water that day, and from then on, he stayed away from the boogie boards.
(For his part, every time we went to the beach, Uncle Paul would grumble that he should have patented and trademarked the whole boogie board concept.)
Flash forward five years to the first killer hot day of the summer. Adam and I were eleven. Ellen was thirteen. Paul and Aunt Dot had been married for a while. My parents had loaded everybody up into the mini-van and we’d trucked off to Scarborough for the day.
Scarborough is an awesome beach with big waves, white sands and a fantastic snack bar. Everybody was in the water, even the grown-ups, because it was so hot. My parents, Aunt Dot and Uncle Paul were floating about, drinking iced coffee from plastic cups. Ellen had met up with some girlfriends from school and had wandered off to flirt with boys. I was boogie boarding, and Adam was sitting by himself on shore, trying to read a fat book on Greek Mythology.
I kept shouting at him, trying to get him to come in. Every so often Uncle Paul would frown; I think he still felt bad for traumatizing Adam at such an early age.
The morning went by in like fifteen minutes, and before we knew it, my Mom and Aunt Dot were insisting that everybody get out of the water for a while to eat lunch and digest. Nobody wanted the soggy sandwiches we’d packed, so Uncle Paul and Dad got us chowder and a huge bucket of clamcakes, which are basically deep-fried clam doughnut holes. Clamcakes are the most awesome and perfect food for the beach, because whatever you don’t eat, you can throw to the seagulls, who catch them in midair.
We were dozing in a greasy food coma, so nobody noticed when Adam sneaked off with a boogie board and began playing in the water by himself.
It was like him to do things like that. He was a solitary kid, and it was hard for him to get up the courage to go out at all. Never mind the fact that it was stupid thing to do, Adam didn’t want anyone else to see him, an eleven-year old, just now learning how to boogie board.
As a result, he’d been gone for a while before we noticed he was missing, and at first no one thought anything about it. Grownups were more laid back in those days. Ellen was off with her friends, and none of the parents figured that Adam would be in the ocean.
It was when the lifeguards started blowing their whistles for everybody to get out of the water that we realized Adam was missing.
The whole scene was weird. Nobody really had to clear out of the water, because the water itself was peeling back away from shore. It was like it was suddenly low tide. The water was just gone, and you could see all sorts of hidden things like rocks and crabs and clumps of clams digging their way under.
We didn’t think much of it, until one of the guards came over the loudspeaker announcing that the beach was closed and asking everyone to evacuate in a quick and orderly fashion.
If you want to panic a bunch of beach goers, tell them to evacuate in an orderly fashion. Suddenly everyone was grabbing their coolers and towels and running for the exit.
Later on, we found out about the underwater earthquake off Georges Bank. We read in the newspaper about the way that tsunamis work, the way water recedes unexpectedly and then comes crashing back to shore all at once in a monstrously big wave. Tsunamis have wiped out villages and even cities, but as I said we didn’t know about them at the time.
All we knew was that everybody was running, and Adam was gone.
Aunt Dot was hysterical. Uncle Paul and Dad didn’t know what to do. They were trying to get the family back to the van and search for Adam at the same time. The lifeguards were no help, and I don’t suppose you can blame them. They were the only ones trained in disasters, but they were still young kids, and rather than helping, they hightailed it out as soon as they could.
Fortunately for everyone it was a small earthquake and a tiny tsunami.
The beach was empty. There was no surf. No people. Everybody was stuck in their cars. The parking lot was jammed. The road was bumper to bumper. Nobody was moving.
All of the seagulls had flown away.
It would have been was almost perfectly quiet, except for us.
My whole family was running up and down the beach, screaming, “Adam! Adam! Adammmmm!”
“Look!” Ellen said, pointing out to sea.
The wave was coming in. It looked like a gigantic black wall of water moving toward shore like a bulldozer.
And bobbing right at the top of the wave, riding a red boogie board right at the curl was a white glistening shape with brown hair and glasses.
“Ba-gahh-Bagah!!” my father shouted, making no sense whatsoever.
There wasn’t time to run away or do anything else.
“When the water hits, take a deep breath and dive into it,” Uncle Paul yelled, handing each of us a boogie board. “If you get dragged out to sea, stay on the board.”
Ellen looked terrified. My mother gave us both quick hugs. Dad said goodbye. Aunt Dot was in tears; she was watching Adam coming closer and closer.
Then the wave hit, and we dove in.
It was like being thrown into an industrial size washing machine on an overloaded spin cycle. Everything whirled and twirled. I thought I saw three lobsters swim by as I hung onto my board. It was dark and loud and salty. For a while I felt like my lungs were going to burst. I didn’t know which way was up.
And then it was gone and I was floating on smooth seas not fifteen feet from shore, surrounded by my whole family. Ellen was sobbing. My Dad and Uncle Paul looked shell-shocked, but my mother and Aunt Dot were already busy scanning the shoreline.
I saw him first, and I had to grin and laugh. “There he is!”
Adam was standing up on top of one of the lifeguard chairs. He was holding his boogie board over his head, jumping up and down and shouting over and over, “Whaaaaaahooo! Whaaaahoooo!”
We all paddled into shore.
By the time we got to the base of the chair, Adam was down, had his boogie board under his arm and was heading back toward the sea.
His mother and Uncle Paul intercepted him, wrapped him in their arms and gave him hugs.
“Did you see that?” he shouted. “Did you see that? I rode that wave. That was awesome!”
“You are not going back out there,” Aunt Dot said.
“Come on!” Adam moaned. “That was my first ride on a boogie board ever. I want to do it again.”
But they were all firm. Nobody was going back into the water until the lifeguards gave an all clear. And of course the lifeguards all stuck in traffic like everybody else.
Later on, we learned how lucky we’d all been that the wave was so small.
But I think we knew that at the time. We sat by ourselves for a while, the only people on the long empty beach, watching the debris float about and the seagulls return one by one.
Since that day, Aunt Dot and my Mom and Ellen freak out every time we want to go to the beach.
But Adam and me, we go in with authority and a certain amount of swagger, because we know how to boogie board.
Copyright 2010 by Mark Binder. All Rights Reserved