The Wave, a Metaphor
The old man and his bodyboard ducked under the last wave and popped up in the smooth, green water on the seaward side. He was now out where the big ones would break. The sun peeked between two high-rise apartments to greet him. It shot a beam of light across his little sliver of the Pacific. The dark water caught the sun’s rays and reflected back its own emerald hue, an iridescent emerald.
This was the best time of the day. The surface was smooth as glass, and the waves broke sharp and clean. According to the weather reports, a storm off New Zealand had kicked up some dandies; they were supposed to arrive this morning.
The kid was already out there. He rested easily on top of his bodyboard, as if his lithe body had been sculpted for it.
The old man greeted the youngster, “Hey kid, where’s your grandpa this morning?”
“He’s home chasing grandma around the bedroom, not farting around on a silly piece of plastic.” The kid always gave a smart-ass answer.
“Some day I’ll meet your parents, and I’ll tell them you’re a dirty-mouthed kid.” The old man was smiling, but he wished the youngster wouldn’t always include his little dig about his own sex life.
They had forged an unusual friendship over the past several months, alone on the early-morning waves. The old man was retired; time didn’t matter to him. The kid didn’t seem to have much of a schedule either. Kids nowadays didn’t.
Together they would kill time waiting on those big ones. They would just talk and wait. It was nice out there—no newspapers, radios or TV sets—not even a cell phone. Their early morning spot in the Pacific was a special sanctuary. Whatever happened ashore was left ashore. Neither the Middle East nor the president bothered him. Even that that damn hole in the ozone layer could be forgotten until he returned to the beach. He wondered if the kid worried about such things. Hell, did he even know about them? Some day he’d ask him, maybe.
Then, a nice wave came along and the kid caught it. He disappeared behind the crest and left the old man alone with his thoughts. He envied the kid’s youth. Some guys welcome old age. It means they no longer have to prove things. Others deny their age with facelifts, liposuction, Grecian Formula, young women, and sports cars.
The old man wasn’t quite sure where he fit in. The young women would be fun, but he realized that the smiles he was getting simply meant they now considered him harmless. “God,” he wondered, “was he?”
He remembered his own fourteenth year. He was helping win World War II by working for his uncle, raising potatoes and onions on his Indiana farm. It didn’t seem so long ago. As a kid he hoped they could keep the war going until he could get his licks in. At fourteen he knew exactly what war would be like. Heck, every week the theater in Warsaw had a new war movie and they were accurate. His uncles, home on leave from For Benjamin Harrison down in Indianapolis told him so.
It turned out he missed that war by a year or so, but as soon as he could he joined the Army where he stayed for 23 years. nearly more than seventy years and several other wars later, the old man had enough of them. Still he was sure he had been saddled with the responsibility of saving the world. Sometimes he forgot about that responsibility out there on the waves though.
The kid and the bodyboard provided a link with his own youth, even though he had plenty of reminders that it was gone and how reluctant he was to really let it go. His own children bought him a bicycle a while back. He “took a header,” as they called it, the first week and skinned both his arm and hip; his head was saved by a helmet. Helmets are mandatory for kids; they should be for geezers.
The previous April the old man and his son took three of his pre-teen granddaughters on a hiking expedition into the Grand Canyon. They eschewed the jackasses and hiked all the way to the bottom and back. A year or so back, he and a couple of his boys had hiked to the top of both Half Dome and Mount Whitney. He’d even struggled through a couple of marathons to celebrate both his 70th and 72nd birthdays..
Each adventure was a triumph, but each was a stark reminder that old age was moving toward him inexorably, just like those waves from New Zealand. Hills got higher; campsites got farther apart. On his runs, it took longer to reach the check points. One of his fingers hung askew; it had slammed into the bottom of the ocean on a bad ride a couple years ago, and a tendon had popped loose. His eldest grandson finally beat him in a tennis match. His back hurt more every year. The doctor had just put him on a strict, low fat diet because of a high blood-sugar count. Breakfast started with a handful of pills.
The doc explained, “That’s to be expected with old age.” That mantra was getting to be a pain in the ass.
Damn! As that kid might say, bad vibes followed him everywhere. Now they were intruding on his thoughts even out on the ocean. He didn’t even realize the kid had returned until he heard him shout, “Hey gramps, Here comes the one we been waiting on.”
Wow, was it ever! The really great waves sometimes sneak in among the two or three footers. It would be a job just to stay on top of this one. The old man jockeyed about, a few feet this way and a few feet that, trying to guess where the monster from down under would break. Position is everything for a bodyboarder, especially one who is a little too old and slow to make a last minute correction. A bit too far out and the wave will slide right on by, too far in and the damn thing will catch a guy in the curl and turn him upside down. Usually it’ll slam him right into the bottom. Broken necks go with the sport. Old, brittle bones snap easily.
The wave moved inexorably toward the old man and the kid. Then, things started to move. The kelp was sucked into the wave. The water became so shallow he could see the bottom. The crest loomed high above his head, so high he had to crane his neck to see the top. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his young friend turn to catch it. The kid didn’t hesitate; his young bones were not yet brittle. At any rate the young pip-squeak wouldn’t let one like this go by, not with the old man out there watching him. The kid was a natural showoff.
It was a monster; that was for sure. This was one the old man could tell his grandkids about—if he lived through it. He followed the young lad’s lead and pointed the nose of his board toward the shore.
He was ready for it, and in the right position. Now, it was simply kick ONE TWO THREE with the fins, push ahead of the foaming crest, and it would be his. Like the seaweed, he was drawn into the wave. It picked him up from the shallow water. He looked down the front, waaay down. Recently the old man had visited Yosemite where he peeked over a waterfall. The wave looked just like that. The drop would be tremendous. The push off had better be perfect.
The kid gave a yelp and went over first. He got the whole thing! The old man, down the wave a little bit, waited a split second for the exact moment. Then he kicked ONE TWO—and pulled back. The wave broke with a roar, headed toward the beach like a runaway freight train. It left him behind.
“Oh well.” He thought, “Old folks aren’t supposed to catch big waves anyhow. This is a sport for kids.
But, he didn’t mean it. He had chickened out.
The old man watched from behind for the first sign of the kid. The lad was good--damn good! He could do flips, turns, barrel-rolls, and disappear into the “green room” beneath the curl. He could even pop back over the top of the wave just like one of those characters in a video game.
Sure enough, the youngster came flying back over the top in a maneuver the old man could only admire, not match.
“Jesus, what a ride, kid, you’re good.” The compliment was unnecessary, like telling Tony Gwynn he could hit. Still, he had given that thing a heluva ride!
Even before he could accept the plaudits the kid saw the next one, “Hey gray-haired old fart, you got the balls to catch that one coming?”
My god. Another monster was on the way. This was the second one within a minute or so. The waves had traveled across two hemispheres just to crash on the sands of San Diego’s Pacific Beach, and to give a bodyboarder a heluva ride—if he did indeed have to balls to get in front of it.
With a bravado he didn’t really feel, the old man answered the kid, “Hell yes. They ain’t built a wave so big I can’t handle. I aim to take her straight in.”
What in the hell had he done? He’d backed off the first one, now he claimed dibs on another, even larger one. One thing for sure, that kid would be watching him. The old man realized he had his own audience to impress. Ya don’t get too old to be a showoff.
Again, he looked up at the crest, higher than before. Again, the wave pulled the seaweed, then him, into it. Again he had to make a decision. When he got to the top, he kicked ONE TWO THREE.
Every great wave brings its own special moment of terror. The bodyboarder has to make his own decision of what to do about it. This time the old man pushed the board forward and it caught.
It was like he’d gone from zero to 73-miles-per hour, one mile for each year of his life. The drop was so huge he felt like a parachutist in a free fall. Aerodynamic skills suddenly became as important as surfing skills. Another bodyboarder was on the way out. She saw him fly down the front of the wave right at her, and ducked under the water.
He went down into the foam, blinded. Cold water beat its way into his wet suit chilling the very balls the kid had questioned. Then, the old man realized he had won. The terror lasts just one moment, no more. If a guy wipes out, his concern becomes his neck, literally. If he stays on top of the board, and the board stays on top of the water the moment of terror passes.
When the old man opened his eyes, he was on top of the water. He had overtaken the foam and was simply flying along like a bird—a graceful, unfettered, gray-haired, sore-backed, ancient, bird. The danger was past and the ride was over. He could stop and go back to catch another.
“Nope,” He told himself, “This wave came all the way from New Zealand just for me. I’ll ride it right into the sand. I earned the right.”
From the distance he heard a voice call out: “Way to go you old fart."