An Odd Day At The Beach

It was a gray day in San Diego, which means that it was somewhere between January and June.  The year was 1970 and I had been home from the Army for about seven months, which was long enough for my hair to increase from sub-military length (they threatened to not let me leave Vietnam unless my hair was short enough.  I made certain that it was) to somewhere around my collar.  My beard, which I had dreamed of for years, was a sparse and raggedy affair hanging miserably off of my chin, but by God, at last I had one.

Benson “Benny” Beck and I were posted up at the south end of the La Jolla Shores beach, by the end of the street which ran in front of the 7-11 store.  We had gathered driftwood from all along the beach and had a nice little fire going in a hole that we had dug in the sand where a concrete pad made a ninety degree angle from a wall.  The 7-11 was close enough to provide sunflower seeds and donuts and six packs of Budweiser, and we were doing our part to make sure that their business was successful.

Benny and I hung around together a lot during that first year back from the War.  He had arrived home about two weeks before I did, and I went to his parent’s house on my first evening back in San Diego.  We did nearly everything together that first year, with everything consisting mostly of drinking beer, smoking weed, eating pizza from Nicolosi’s, Pernicano’s, and Sorrento’s, all of which were located on El Cajon Boulevard.  Occasionally we would diversify and eat hot dogs from Der Weinerschnitzel on College Avenue (or ‘Der Tumorschnitzel,’ as we called it) or burritos from some nasty little joint on El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and 54th.  Strangely, Benny never gained a pound.  I, on the other hand, ballooned to over 200 pounds from my svelte post-Army 132.

We went to the mountains.  We went to the desert.  We went to the bar owned by Dave “Monk” Callabretta’s dad, and on that day we went to the beach in La Jolla.

There was no thought in either of our heads about going into the water.  I guess one could say that there was rarely any thought in either of our heads one way or the other, but that’s a different story.  Anyway, in lieu of bathing in the frigid waters off of the Shores – yes, in the winter they are just plain frigid – we sat back, opened packages of snacks and bottles of beer, and maintained the warm fire while we talked about – – – everything.  And nothing in particular.  And it was while I was pontificating about nothing important that Benny pointed out to sea and said “What is that?”

I looked to where he was pointing and saw nothing at first.  “Ain’t nothing there” I said.  “You’re tripping.”

“What’s the matter?  Ain’t you got eyes?” he asked.  “Look over there.”

Benny pointed to an object about one hundred meters off of the beach.  I squinted at the waves and at last perceived a dark object just barely protruding above the water  “Looks like a piece of wood” I said.  “Or a seal.”

The object was moving toward us and soon was joined by another similar object, and then another.  We watched, speculating on the nature of what we were seeing, until the objects came close enough for us to see that they were the heads of divers in wet suits.

As they approached the shore they rose up out of the water and we could see that they were carrying one of their number, or at least helping him to struggle out of the water.  In no time the divers spotted us and, more important, our fire, and made a beeline to where we were seated.

“What’s wrong?” Benny called out to them as they approached.  “Can we help?”

“Our friend here got cold” one of them replied.  “His suit failed and he’s got some hypothermia going on.  Can we sit by your fire for a while?”

“Sure” I said.  “Help yourself.  We’ll go dig up some more wood for you.”

The divers sat their friend in the sand in front of the fire, propped up against the concrete pad.  Benny and I didn’t take long to find more wood and we built the fire up a little more to help the cold diver recover.  We chatted with those guys for a while until the diver in distress claimed that he was warming up.  One of his friends volunteered to stay with him while the others resumed their dive and returned to wherever their cars were parked.  They would then return to pick them up.

Benny and I shared our beer with them and kept the fire going until a car appeared at the end of the street that runs by the 7-11 store, right where we were waiting.  They climbed into that car and disappeared.

After a few more beers we walked along the beach back to the La Jolla Shores parking area, which was almost empty on that gray, murky day.  Probably, we were going to grab some pizza, or a hot dog.  Who the divers were and where they went to I haven’t a clue.

A Christmas Stroll On The Beach

I was taking a Christmas break from the hustle and bustle of work at the beach with wife and friends this weekend and decided to take a walk outside.  As I was the only one who brought rain gear, I took that walk alone.  It was raining, the wind was blowing, and if I didn’t have something to keep me dry I would have been soaked before I had walked a block, and that would be neither refreshing, exhilarating nor meditative, nor anything else pleasant.  Instead, it would have been miserable.

I came prepared however.  Poncho and high rubber boots protected all but a few inches of the lower part of my jeans, and stepping out into the weather I felt like I was cheating nature.  I walked down the porch steps and into the street, wading through a few puddles to get there.

The street was a river.  Rainwater flowed over the asphalt, gathering speed as it rolled downhill and converged into a gurgling stream as the asphalt ended and the water found channels in the ruts of the dirt path.  My rubber boots are of good quality and I strode through water above my ankles in dry comfort.  I silently celebrated my little victory over nature as I emerged on the other side of the stream and began to climb the backside of the row of dunes, up towards the crest and the roaring surf which lay beyond.

As I reached the crest the beach became visible.  The waves were chaotic, crashing into each other and struggling against the old, spent waves which sought to return to the sea, where they could be recharged with energy in order to fling themselves at the shore once again.  The water was shades of gray with only the barest hint of green, and was laced with white foam.  These are waves which have only one mission: attack!  No surfer can ride them, and no swimmer would dare venture into their midst.  They pound the beach, fling logs high along the shoreline, and seek to sweep anything or anyone that they can catch off guard into the deep, where that unwary soul could join in the company of the myriad souls who have preceded them.

I began to descend from the crest of the dune and found that the sand which had been flung by the storm high up over the beach grasses had no firm foundation, and I sunk deeply into it.  This was disconcerting.  One thing that we all believe that we can count on is that the earth we stand upon is firm.  Yes, some sand is soft, and some debris on a mountainside will slide downward as you struggle up, but you just are never ready for the land beneath your feet to give way and allow you to sink downward.  Where would I stop?  How deep would I go?  Would it swallow me whole?  Would they find my bones when the next storm strips the sand away again?  The feeling was unnerving, and I picked out the most direct path down the seaward face of the dune toward where the sand lay packed more densely, at the margin of the surging sea.

Having gained more firm footing, I turned south and began to walk along the beach.  The rain was falling from that direction and a slight wind blew the cold water into the unprotected lower part of my facer.  It was not a heavy rain however, and I was able to ignore it for the most part.  I walked along, tracing the footprints of two people who had passed there before me, along with their dog.  There was one large set of prints and one much smaller.  The number of possible combinations which those prints could represent is actually quite large.  I settled on a man and a woman.  The dog was most likely – well – just a dog.  They were nowhere to be seen and I imagined that they were at home, sipping coffee or hot cocoa, the dog dozing before a fire.

I kept my eyes on the waves which surged to a point not too far away from the path that I was taking along the beach.  The storm was powerful, and rogue waves are widely reported to rise up out of the sea and flatten people with logs and other debris, or snatch the unwary fisherman or sightseer and send them to that watery eternal rest.  I have never seen any such wave but only a fool says “It can’t happen to me.”  My soul was at rest in the solitude of my walk and reverie, but my legs were coiled in preparation for the need to spring up the dune should the need arise.

At length I decided that I had gone a sufficient distance so that I could cut inland and reach the tiny downtown of the community where we were staying.  Spying a path over the dunes and away from the beach I turned my back to the growling, restless sea and began to plod up and over the crest, and then across a broad, low valley of sand and beach grass.  Again I climbed a rise and found myself, instead of on the path to downtown, in somebody’s back yard.  My options were to retrace my steps fifty yards or so to a path which would carry me a few houses north, or trust the charity of the homeowners and skirt the rear edge of their yards.  I chose to trust, or at least test, their charity, and pressed northward until I gained the gravel path which led to town, and from there back to our house.

Lunch, a nap, and a few chapters of a book later I sit in a window watching the wind pushing the rain first one way and then another, and then sideways.  Trees whip and sway, power lines swing in the wind, and I wonder if electricity will last until after dinner is cooked.  Yet I love it.  I don’t really care if we lose power or not.  We have quilts, candles, snacks and wine.  All of the basic needs are met, and I am at peace.

A Walk On The Beach

The day dawned wet and blustery.  All night long the wind howled around the corners of our hotel at Cannon Beach in Oregon, while the rain was hurled in great sheets against our window and upon the roof.  I had walked along the bluff overlooking the beach the night before and could hear the waves being flung against the shore by the winds that presaged the storm that would later accompany my fitful sleep throughout the night.  I have not been a good sleeper in my later years and frequently spend large parts of any given night revisiting old daydreams or creating new ones, trying to get my mind off of the fact of my sleeplessness so that maybe, just maybe, I will drift off to sleep.  That night was such a night, but the surge and play of wind and rain with their power, which men covet but which is only possessed by nature, sang to me a lullaby that loosened the grip of wakefulness and carried me away to a sleep which lasted until almost nine in the morning.

We lingered at breakfast until after ten.  Our master of the breakfast bar had a wonderful French accent, and when he recited the morning’s complimentary offerings he said “croissant” in that special, fluid French way, and it made me ache to order one just reward his accent.  My gluten sensitivity would not have shared my attraction however, and so I stuck with the ham and eggs and potato and cheese casserole.  I did, however, accept the offer of a well mixed mimosa.  My wife and I took our sweet time at the table after the European style, discussing this or comparing that, and at length decided that it was time to begin the day’s other activities.

We began with a short drive along the coast which ended up in the town of Cannon Beach.  We parked behind a store in an old, historic building with stairs that bowed, floors that rippled, and walls that leaned.  Inside were a thousand items from nuts and soap to beds and art.  I don’t know who in the world would go to a ramshackle building in an overpriced tourist town to buy a bed, but I have to take it on faith that such things happen.  We probably spent a little under an hour there during which time we saw all that we wanted to see and then had to make another plan.  I had wanted to walk on the beach for months while we were waiting for our little vacation and had packed a poncho and big rubber boots in case I got the opportunity.  Now seemed like a great opportunity.

“Let’s drive back to the hotel and I will put on my gear and meet you downtown for some lunch” I suggested, and my wife readily agreed.  We returned to the hotel where I exited our car and went to put on my gear.  My wife returned to town to continue browsing in shops and looking at things that I had little interest in.  I quickly pulled on my boots and slipped the poncho over my head, and soon I was walking out of the door with the better part of a mile between me and my wife.

The first reality which hit me was the wind.  It was not particularly cold but it whipped my poncho around like a torn flag on a pole.  I grabbed at the sides of the poncho from within and held it close to my body.  There was little rain at the moment and so the buffeting of the wind was the only really inclement weather that I felt.  I walked across the resort complex behind our hotel and found a stairway that led from the bluff down to the sandy beach.

The stairway dropped down between two high walls to a grove of either high shrubs or low trees which ran along a level stretch of the sandy bluff which was about halfway between the top of the bluff and beginning of the actual beach.  The branches and twigs of those plants formed a skeletal umbrella under which I walked for a short distance, the leaves having long since dried up by the cold fall temperatures and blasted inland by the Pacific storms that have hammered the coast this year.  Emerging from under that ethereal umbrella I passed over a path between tall stands of beach grass and finally came to the edge of that level middle stage of the bluff from where I could see the broad expanse of Cannon Beach.

The sand of the beach was wet from the waterline to the base of the bluff, partly from the rain which had fallen the night before and partly from the previous evening’s high tide.  Beyond that sandy beach lay the Pacific Ocean, which was that moment making it clear that this immense body of water is anything but pacific, or peaceful.  The waves were large and coming in one upon another, as if they couldn’t wait to end their transoceanic journey and return to the serene pelagic depths from whence they were stirred up and hurled against dry land.  The crash of breakers, the chop and cross-currents of rip tides, and the last, exhausted yet still powerful flow of each surge as it crawled up the sands of the beach toward where I walked in my impotent puniness all reminded me that I am of little account when weighed against the power and splendor of the mighty ocean.

I began my walk along the beach towards the business district of Cannon Beach just above the high water line of the churning surf.  The unobstructed wind was blowing great patches of sea foam loose from the forward edge of the surging surf and propelling them like large cotton balls across the wet sand.  The wind was even snatching up wet particles of sand and blowing them in low waves across the beach to where they collided with the grass-covered sandhill of the bluff, to begin replenishing what was ripped away by the storm in the night before and returned to the sea.  Looking out to the west I saw the vague green of the water and the white of the foam as the waves crashed forward, but beyond that no true horizon met my view.  The sky was gray, the sea was near gray, the light rain which has begun again to fall, blurred whatever lines of transition remained until the nature before me spoke of a cold, neutral personality; it didn’t care if I lived or died, loved it or hated it, feared or respected or ignored it.  It existed in power and mystery behind gray veils, and I could think of it as I liked or not think of it at all; it was of no consequence to the sea.

I continued my walk and at one point my boot sunk four or five inches into a place of very loose sand.  I simply walked through it and in a step was back on more solid ground.  It occurred to me however that nature as its secrets, and the vision of a pit of soft, loose sand swallowing me up and of my disappearance from among the living sent a tingle up my spine.  I have never heard of such a thing happening, but could it be because those whom the Earth swallows up, it never gives back to tell the tale?  No further soft spots clutched at my boot heels for the rest of my walk as I continued towards where I knew the center of town could be reached.

Just before the stairway that leads off of the beach and into town was reached however I came upon a place where the now-rocky bluff jutted out to meet the churning surf.  Every other time that I have visited this beach the stretch of dry sand between that bulge of rock and the water’s edge has been wide enough that it has not even been noticed.  On this day however the water met the rock, and I was walking through pools of seawater fed by the advancing and receding edges of the waves.  I felt no concern from the tongues of seawater which licked against my boots, but I could not put out of my mind the vision of a rogue wave gathering speed in the churning water off to my left, building its strength to lurch onto the beach, engulfing me and finishing the job that the sand pit started but failed to complete.  I knew that the odds were greatly against such a thing, but all the same felt relieved to complete my traverse around that rocky point and continue my journey, now nearly complete.

I passed the first stairway off the beach, the one which led directly into the center of town, and pressed on to another path a hundred yards or so further to the north.  That part of the beach hosts the stream bed of Ecola Creek, which usually snakes across the sands of the beach and ends its short journey in the waves of the Pacific.  On this day a swollen and determined Ecola Creek slammed into an equally swollen and determined ocean, and the currents which danced a mad minuet could be traced by the wavelets and ripples on the surface, showing with surprising clarity where the form of the creek refused to yield its integrity to the immensity of the ocean.  My eyes were fixed on this wonderful dance as I first gained, and then climbed, the pathway which led upward and off the beach.

Once I was safely out of the wind-driven drizzle and under a covered pavilion next to a sculpture of a whale I texted my wife to see where we would meet.  It happened that she was no more than half a block away at a very nice restaurant, where I quickly joined her, shucked my poncho, and soon was warming up with a bowl of soup and a cup of hot, black coffee.  It was a perfect end to a perfect walk on a cold, wet, gray, windy, and perfect day on Cannon Beach.

Sand Trap

1967 was a very good year for me. I had a girlfriend in that year and this was not something which came along often in my young life. In fact, she was the one and only girlfriend I had during the first twenty one years of my life. Rhonda was the friend of one of my neighborhood pals and we used to all eat lunch together at school. I was quite taken by the extraordinarily pretty Rhonda and hesitated for the longest time to ask her out on a date because of the curse of painful shyness which I endured in those years. When I finally found the courage to ask Rhonda out she accepted, much to my surprise, and we began a relationship which lasted a short but very pleasant while.

As I wrote earlier I was very shy, and just the thought of trying to kiss a girl made my head spin; the prospect of rejection was almost too great to bear. On the other hand I had an easy knack for talking with anyone, and with Rhonda it was even easier than with others. We would talk about our likes and dislikes, plans and dreams, our lives before we met, music, in fact just about anything and everything. I eventually worked up the nerve to try a kiss, and to my surprise and delight I met with success.  None of this ever led to more than a bit of innocent teenage necking, but it was heaven to me. Of course all of this very personal conversation and extracurricular activities required a quiet place of solitude, and that solitude was frequently found parked at the top of Del Cerro hill on what was then the edge of San Diego. A street had been paved over the top of the hill in anticipation of houses that would be built later, but at the time the street is all that there was, and we spent a few evenings there talking about life and plans and sharing a kiss or two.

I have always enjoyed variety however, and so one evening I decided to see if we could find a place to get away from the maddening crowd by going to the beach. I selected Mission Beach to be our hideaway for that evening, which proves that logic was not yet my strong suit. The beach, in a large beach city, is never a place to get away from people. In this case however, those people would save my bacon later that evening. We drove down Mission Blvd., past a closed and darkened Belmont Park amusement center. It seemed like Belmont Park was closed more than open back then, or the wooden roller coaster out of commission by fire or things like that.  Anyway, it was dark that evening and as we drove south on Mission Blvd. it got even darker, but still there were people popping up on sidewalks or paths which led to and from the beach itself. Eventually we came to a dead end at a jetty built out of large, jagged boulders. A dirt road led to the left, and there was nothing but darkness to be seen in that direction, so I pulled in and drove a hundred yards or so down that road in search of the solitude which we desired.

There was, however, no solitude to be found. It wasn’t exactly a parade, but it was summer at the beach in San Diego and any solitude found there would be rare and of short duration. I analyzed the  situation and decided that the heights of Del Cerro was going to have to do, and began to make what was called a ‘Y’ turn in the dirt road rather than return to Mission Blvd. in reverse. That was where I made my big mistake.

The road was narrow but I was sure that I had room to make the maneuver of inching forward and backward, slowly turning the car to the right and eventually making a 180 degree turn. Perhaps I did have the room, but the night was dark, my mind was on other things, and my hand was completely out of aces. At ninety degrees in the road I backed up a foot too far and settled gently into the soft sand of that dark bit of beachfront San Diego. Thinking of myself as a resourceful male I got out of the car certain that I could make everything work out just fine. I walked around to the back of the car and sure enough, the tire was buried in sand up to the hub.

I reentered the car and assured Rhonda that I could get us out of this.  I began to try to rock the car gently by accelerating in drive and then backing off of the gas pedal, hoping that my parent’s Mercury would sort of walk its way out of the trap. This plan was a complete bust; if anything at all the tire sat lower in the sand than before. For the first time since I felt that depressing sink of the rear of the car I registered a twinge of fear.  The car was not going anywhere, and I had no idea how to change that fact.

“How are we going to get out of here?” was Rhonda’s reasonable question.  I concealed my annoyance because I really liked Rhonda a lot.  Besides, I wasn’t annoyed by her question; I was annoyed because I didn’t have a good answer.

“I don’t know.  I’m going to have to think about this”.

We got out of the car and stood disconsolately next to the sunken tire. I had never been in this position before, and had no interest in walking a great distance back to the lighted area where I could find a pay phone and call my father. Dad went to bed early and would be unimpressed with his son stuck in the sand off of a dirt road in a darkened section of Mission Beach with his girlfriend. The thought of explaining myself to Rhonda’s parents gave me little cause for cheer as well.

“Do you need some help?”

I was jolted out of my thoughts by an older guy, maybe in his twenties, and his lady friend, who had approached as I was lost in my reverie. I explained the problem, which was pretty obvious to see, and he stood and thought a minute.

“Let’s get the girls in the back seat for some additional weight and you drive while I push” was his suggestion, and it seemed a pretty good one to me.  The ladies, who were not impressed by the ‘extra weight’ comment, nevertheless piled in and I fired up the Merc once again while my new best friend pushed, but the result was the same.  Before we threw in the towel another couple arrived and soon I had two guys pushing while I drove, but still the Mercury squatted obstinately in the sand.  I exited the car and walked back to where my two new best friends stood discussing the problem.

“How about if we jack the car up and then push it forward?” I proposed.  “We only need a foot or two to be on the solid part of the road.

“You’d probably put that jack through your gas tank” came a voice from behind us. The owner of that voice was a single guy of undetermined age who was carrying a paper bag. “Let’s see what we’ve got here” he said.  Our new rescuer placed his bag on the sand and studied the problem for a minute, and then said “I think we can use that jack after all.”

I raised the trunk lid and extracted my bumper jack, which was the old kind of jack which stood vertically on a square metal plate and attached beneath the car’s bumper.  This newest member of my rescue party placed the jack under the bumper and began to lift the car up.  “Go and get some rocks to put under the tire he said, and we scattered to find stones of the right size, which was not as easy in the sandy area as I would have liked.  We all came back with what we had found and put them as close to underneath the tire as we could get them. He lowered the jack and I tried once again to advance the car out of the sand. The attempt failed and some of the rocks flew out from under the tire, but some of them stayed in place.

“Get more” said the new quarterback of this operation. We scattered to comb the area for rocks, preferably flat ones of just the right size. Several more people out enjoying the evening pitched into the effort and soon we had a nice pile of rocks under the drive tire and I was ready to try to move the car once again.

“Wait a minute” came a voice from the crowd.  “Let’s get some people on the trunk.”  Guys lifted their ladies onto the truck while as many as would fit positioned themselves behind the car to push.  In a moment I shouted “Ready!” and the throng responded “Go!”  I did just that. The tire bit into the rocks while the guys pushed, and with the agility of an arthritic rhino the Mercury lumbered forward onto the solid dirt path.

A cheer went up as I stopped the car, now safe and sound on solid ground.  People were talking and laughing; the men shaking hands. This was 1967;  nobody hugged back in those days. The quarterback with the paper bag retrieved his cargo and pulled a beer out of it and popped it open, toasting to the success of our operation. I thanked everyone profusely and assisted my lady into the passenger seat. With a last round of thanks I climbed into the driver’s seat, put the Merc in gear, and rolled out accompanied by the waves and cheers of our rescuers.  You’d have thought that it was a wedding.

Rhonda and I knew that little in the way of kisses would be enjoyed that night, but there was no shortage of things to talk about. We drove directly to Oscar’s, a drive-in hamburger place on El Cajon Blvd., and soon the drama of the early part of the evening faded as we returned to our role of two teenagers infatuated with each other. Rhonda got home on time, we shared a good night kiss on the front porch, and I got home just before my curfew. The next morning I was up early vacuuming sand out of the inside of the car and checking it over for scratches or dents. There was no physical evidence that anything untoward had happened with Dad’s car the night before and I chose not to share that tale with him. In fact, Dad died almost forty years later without ever hearing that tale. I hope that it’s possible he’s getting a chuckle out of it somewhere right now.

Age of Aquarius

I should have been born an Aquarius.  I don’t know diddle about astrology and couldn’t tell you what part of the year Aquarius covers, but if that zodiac sign covers water I should most definitely have been born under it.  From my earliest memories I have been drawn to the water and for the most part I have been comfortable in it.  In fact, I have sometimes been too comfortable in it and have forgotten to respect it.  It is my good fortune to have lived to write about my love affair with water and to tell a few tales from our long and enduring relationship.

As I said above, I have long remembered being in and around water and loving it.  My father taught me how to swim at the Navy pool in San Diego when I was six or seven years old, and before that I would sit on a poolside bench or in the sand at the beach and watch with the greatest envy while my family and some of my brother’s friends would swim.  My mother was the only person who would not swim, but that gave me no comfort at all.  I felt like a prisoner staring out of my jail cell through gray steel bars while everyone else would express their freedom with no regard for me whatsoever.

As the years passed I earned my gills and could be found in any body of water which presented.  The beach was my favorite, but the Navy pool and later the Municipal pool occupied countless hours of my time.  Even the Sweetwater River, which was barely more than a trickle most of the time, would draw me in.  When my family would camp in the mountains east of San Diego my brother and I would head straight for the river as soon as we were finished helping to unpack the car and were cut loose.  I can still hear my dad roaring “And don’t get into the water” at our backs as we ran towards the river that everybody, including my grinning father, knew that we would jump into without hesitation.

As I mentioned above, the beach was my favorite place to be.  As soon as I became a capable enough swimmer my dad would let me venture out to where the waves were breaking.  I would dive under them or try to jump over them, but if I wasn’t careful I would get picked up and thrown to the sandy bottom by them.  That was great good fun and I had no idea that those waves could jam a person’s head into the bottom and snap their neck like a rotten twig.  The only thing about that experience which gave me pause for concern was when I would get dunked by a wave and rather than popping up on the surface I would swim for the top but instead hit the bottom.  Invariably, when I would correct my error and reach the surface, the next wave would crash down upon me and I would get to do the whole thing over but with a good deal less air in my lungs.  A few times I got nailed by a set of three waves, and that got a little hairy.  I never really felt like I was in any danger when this would happen though, which only serves to demonstrate what a weak grasp on reality I had.

Things could get uncomfortable at the pool just as easily as they could at the beach.  From my earliest days in the Navy pool I longed to go off of the diving boards, but a person as young as I was had to demonstrate the ability to swim the length of the pool and back before that could happen.  I achieved that exalted status early on and before long I was doing dives and flips and all manner of launchings off of the end of both the high and low boards.  I mostly used the boards to have fun but once tried to use the board to impress a girl.  Like most of my other attempts to impress a girl this was a disaster.  Even at my young age I should have known better.

LaDonna Lanning was without a question the prettiest girl at Hamilton Elementary School, and in the summer of 1960 her family moved just one block away from me and almost right behind my friend Craig.  With a boldness entirely uncharacteristic of me I marched right over to her house one day (sweating bullets every step of the way) and knocked on the door.  It was LaDonna who answered and we talked on the porch for a while.  I went back nearly every day and we would talk on that front porch.  Sometimes a friend or two would come with me.  We never did enter her house.  One day I decided to take my chance and asked her if she would like to go to the pool.  My father was a retired Navy man and would periodically take me and a carload of my friends to the pool.  I expected a polite decline but, to my astonishment, she was interested and went in to ask her mother who, after learning that my dad would be present at all times, agreed.  Oh happy day!  I didn’t have the slightest idea what a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship would look like but I knew that LaDonna was going to the pool with me, and that was enough for the time being.

When we arrived at the pool my dad escorted LaDonna to the women’s locker room while my friends and I dove into the men’s.  I was dressed and showered in about two minutes and emerged poolside well before LaDonna could do all of the stuff that girls have to do before they jump into the water.  I looked toward the deep end of the pool where the diving boards were and saw that there were a few men lined up to use the low board but nobody on the high.  That was exactly what I had hoped to see.

Among my repertoire of dives off of the low (one meter) board was a one-and-a-half flip.  I would get all the height that I could, tuck into a tight ball, and spin as fast as physics would allow, coming out of my tuck at the last moment to make a clean entry into the water.  I got to where I could make a good dive almost every time.  Today was going to be special however.  I wanted LaDonna to see me tumbling down from the three meter high board in a more leisurely and graceful version of that one-and-a-half flip and marvel at my courage and skill in executing such a dive.  I was certain that spinning just a bit slower was all I needed to do to pull off this dive from the higher board.  I climbed the ladder and placed myself at the take-off point and waited to see the blue of LaDonna’s swimsuit.  Being as much a novice at girls as I was at making one-and-a-half flips from the high board I continued to wait and wait until I feared she wouldn’t come out at all but finally, with a beauty that nearly took my breath away, LaDonna stepped out of the doorway and into the pool area.

I took my cue and began a stately march down the length of the board.  Two steps from the end I took my first high bounce and then rode the board downward, using the upward recoil of the board and full exertion of my leg muscles to propel myself high into the chlorinated atmosphere over the deep end of that pool,  I went into my tuck and spun with a little less energy than I would have if diving from the low board, as planned.  At what I thought would be the moment of perfect execution I extended myself straight as a board.  What I received, instead of perfect execution, felt more like I had just been perfectly executed.

I opened up and straightened out just in time to do the perfect belly flop.  Fingertips, arms, face, chest, belly, legs and toes all hit the surface of that water simultaneously from a height of probably fourteen or fifteen feet.  My father later told me that the “WHOPP” that my flop created echoed back and fourth within that cavernous indoor pool for a good couple of seconds, and that everyone in the building who did not witness my magnificent belly flop was looking around, searching to find from whence that dreaded and well-known sound had come.

I was unaware of any such thing happening above the surface of the water.  Pain and humiliation battled across my nervous system and I just gently let out air and sank to the bottom where I could nurse my aching body and devastated ego away from the eyes of the other swimmers and especially the eyes of LaDonna.  When the option was finally surface or drown, I came back up and tried to affect an air of nonchalance about the whole thing which was betrayed by my glowing red belly and legs.  LaDonna didn’t say much about it and I don’t really remember much more about the day.  LaDonna moved again at the end of that summer and I never saw or heard from her again.

One decade later I was installed in Sonoma State College north of San Francisco and I was quickly drawn to one of the most impressive geographical features of that county; the Russian River.  The Russian was as different from the Sweetwater as it could possibly be.  It began as a smallish but very active river in the far north and grew as it added from tributaries on the way down from the hills.  Eventually it would meander in a large and stately fashion through the forests and meadows of Sonoma County and at last empty into the Pacific Ocean near Jenner-By-The-Sea.  My friends and I would swim, raft and fish in that river every chance we got.  One of our favorite things to do was to get buck naked and lie on the beach in little sheltered coves in the thick undergrowth which grew periodically along the banks.  Canoe tours would descend this more tame portion of the Russian with tourists from all parts and as they would paddle by we would wave while the cameras went off.  We believed we could hear the tourists saying “Look Harriett, look at the hippies”.  Maybe they didn’t say that, but we believed that they did and would take stories of the exotic fauna of the West Coast back home.  We did our part to not disappoint.

On one particularly fine, warm day we decided to visit a pool on the upper reaches of the Russian which we had swam in before.  It had been a wet year and the river was a little higher than usual.  Into a Volkswagon bus we climbed; Terry, Lisa, Fred, Rip, Marty, Cleo, Steve, Chris and myself.  We journeyed north into Mendocino County drinking beer and smoking weed, which is to say that we were in our normal state, and finally arrived at the turnout on Highway 101 where we could park and carry our coolers and food and blankets down to the small beach by the pool.  Because of the wet year the pool was deeper than usual and we had a great time diving off of the rocks (stupid under the best of circumstances) and swimming in the cold but not nearly freezing water.

After a while Rip and I noticed that the downstream outlet of our pool was a very smooth looking little rapid that dropped by easy stages into another pool.  This looked like it would be great fun to raft, but we had failed to bring any rafts.  After a while during which we drank a few more beers and shared a joint or two I said “Come on.  Let’s just take in a deep breath for flotation and go down on our backs.”  All of the guys agreed with the plan (better dead than ‘chicken’, I suppose) and we lined up to take our shot bare-back down ‘the chute’.  I went first.  Drawing as deep a breath as I could I floated on my back, toes out of the water and let the current draw me into the middle of the chute.

I was not ten feet into the rapid before I realized that this was one of the stupidest things that I had ever done, and when you ponder the competition on that list it was an impressive accomplishment indeed.  The velocity of the current went from gentle to hell bent for leather in no time at all.  The first drop plunged me under the surface where I could see snags and boulders which could easily break bones, bash heads to a pulp, and jam bodies underwater which wouldn’t be recovered until hours later.  Bouncing off of my first boulder I turned a half circle and caromed off another and then dropped a few feet into a swirling cauldron of water and stone that pinballed me out of that hellpot to drop a further couple of feet into the calm pool which we had noticed before.  Numb with fear and amazed to be alive and in one piece I swam over to the edge of the pool and clung to some thick grass which grew there.

Looking back I saw Rip, eyes almost bugging out with fear, plopped unceremoniously into the pool.  Rip paddled over to where I clung to my grass and we watched while the other guys, one by one, carried the same facial expression over the same drop into the pool.  We all pretty much just clung to the grass and stared at each other for a few moments.  Then Chris, who was clearly the craziest of all of us, began to laugh.  That broke the tension, and we were soon all laughing like madmen.

After a few more minutes we swam to the other side of the pool where we could pull ourselves onto dry land and begin our climb back up to the highway.  As we began to climb we looked up and saw a group of motorists who had stopped to look at the river.  There were probably half a dozen and they were still looking at us with jaws hanging open.  We thought that was odd, since we were all wearing swimming trunks this time, but when we got to the top and looked down upon the rapid which we had just surfed on our backs it looked like something out of the movie “River Wild”.  We stood and gawked for awhile, then broke into laughter once again, this time for joy of being still alive,