There’s a picture that appears in the muscle mags and a book or two that sneaks up on me occasionally and causes me to shudder. I’m 22, 250 pounds and a brand new resident of Santa Monica, California. I’m a donut covered with powdered white confectioner’s sugar and I stand conspicuously like a grinning duffer on the hallowed sands of Muscle Beach. I’m in trunks yet. Excuse me. How did I know there was film in the camera?
It was late Saturday morning in mid-July and that picture was just the beginning. I was making friends and getting comfortable in my new world; like a mutt in a new home, tail wagging, chasing balls, and yelping… I was ready to play.
I wandered across the crowded beach to the water’s edge and gazed beyond the surf and splashing kids to the tips of tiny sails racing in the distance. The rugged pier that stretched offshore stood 50 yards to my right and the majestic blue Pacific reached for my knees with each vigorous wave.
I grew up on a lake and the sports in which I competed included swimming. Water was not my problem. It was the ocean I had not yet embraced. The restless and mighty waves fascinated me and what was lurking beneath the surface gripped my imagination.
Something about sharks caused me to pause and consider the weight of my courage and fear. My courage sank like a rock yet fear, powerful as it was, could not defeat my pride. I dove into the churning, seductive white waters and joined in the revelry.
The thrust of the waves and the tug of the undertow captured my attention and soon I was lost in play, my physical yearnings peaked and dared. I flopped and floundered yielding to the sea for in spite of its mass and muscle it was, today, a gentle bully. One good thrust and one good tug sent me upended into deep waters.
I rode the swell above the crowd with a grand view of the undulating, watery, people-packed beaches. Suddenly, the swell dropped me into a deep trough where all but the ominous sea walls vanished. My feet hit the sandy bottom briefly and up again I rose. MAY DAY… MAY DAY… Head for dry land, full speed. Negotiate the rise and fall of this formidable joy ride and head for shore, post haste.
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Up and down, again and again, my adrenaline in pursuit. I rolled with the next big, wet smothering cushion and hoped it would take me to the beach. My feet once more touched the ocean floor as I drifted toward the towering pier and its breakwater protection.
The exaggerated sea levels diminished, my short-lived rip tide consumption left me both energized and weary; most certainly humbled.
The great blue ocean, the vast, inscrutable, and wonderful sea was not yet done with me. I thanked God as I recognized a hazy onlooker, Panic, and his assortment of devices to bring one before his Maker. Clever rascal, I thought, as I continued to grope for shore.
I was in reach of the innocent and playful children now, their screams and laughter and wiggling bodies a fantastic delight. We’re in heaven for a day. I wanted to hug them, lift them and toss them as my Uncle Johnny did at the lake. Life was never more fun.
Up and down with smaller breaking waves, I struggled with confidence and a renewed energy… my foot stepped on something slick… something large and smooth. A swell lifted me up and forward and, at last, I stood waste-deep in the foaming release of the big waters.
What did I kick? What was that bulky slithering object? I stood frozen. I was safe. I cast my eyes in its direction and wondered if it was alive. Did I encounter a shark? Was it a bather? I scanned the surface looking for movement and saw only families of carefree swimmers.
Seconds later I was back at the spot amidst the swells, breakers, and undertow; looking, searching, prodding, again within the gaze of Panic… get ye behind me… There, hovering beneath my kicking feet was a large figure of a man looking up, looking still. Down I went to grab the hulk and drag him to the surface.
I fought frantically as he slid with the ocean’s movements and slipped repeatedly from my arms, my bear hug of insignificant might. We looked like and sounded like all the rest of the mid-summer frolickers, only he was silent. He made it to the water’s edge where I dropped him.
My lungs ached as I lay on the wet sand like miserable debris. I saw stars and thought wildly. The man, his lungs didn’t ache. No stars, no thoughts.
Lifeguards added oxygen and electricity, two hours too late. Nobody knew him. He jumped off the pier early that morning, so they say. Probably around the same time I was posing for that dumb picture.