The idea was to catch a wave and ride it back to shore. You go out maybe chest-high and wait for one to crest. There was no need for a board, and the 28-year-old actor on holiday stood waiting in the surf without one. Lifeguards dotted the beach. It was summer, it was Ocean City, and with the next big wave his life would change.

Maybe there were signs of danger all around, literal and figurative. Among the myriad warnings on the boardwalk -- no drinking, no dogs -- there was one about risky currents. And nothing about this vacation had been idyllic yet. The first day he was stung by a jellyfish. The second day it rained, and that night his wife was cross with him for being late to meet her at the boardwalk tram. The kids -- their son, her niece and nephew -- were cranky. And only a couple of hours earlier his wife, who was nine months pregnant with their second child, had snatched their 2-year-old out of the water, judging it too choppy for a child.

But the actor wasn't looking for signs, he was looking for waves. Everyone else was looking for the same thing about 12:30 on Aug. 1, a Wednesday afternoon.

The first wave was too small; he dived through it. He bobbed back to the surface to position himself for the next. Suddenly in front of him was the largest wall of water he had ever seen. He can't remember whether he was swimming or touching bottom as the ocean swelled. It didn't occur to him to dive through it. He tried to jump up and do what he'd come out to do on this sunny day -- catch the wave. He doesn't remember much about the impact -- how it turned him, whether he hit bottom, how it felt. Whatever happened caused the sixth cervical vertebra in his neck to pop up over the fifth. And it caused the seventh vertebra to be crushed.

As he surfaced again, he had three perfectly clear thoughts. "Okay, swim," he first thought to himself as he lay in the water on his stomach -- his wife would later say he appeared to be turned on his side -- facing the beach.

There was some weak movement in his arms -- in fact, a few seconds later he was able to raise one arm in a feeble signal for help -- but nothing else moved. His second thought was "Okay, hold your breath. Let the water push you in." And as it did, a third thought came to him: "I can deal with being a paraplegic. Just let me live."

Rob McQuay puts on fingerless sports gloves and expertly moves himself from hospital bed to wheelchair. "I leave in a week. I better be independent on my transfers," he says of the self-maneuvering. It helps that he's lean and fit, a legacy of the physically demanding stage roles he has played for the past six years in the Washington area. As the lead in "Barnum" at the West End Dinner Theatre, he even walked a tightrope.

He wears navy sweats, the shirt bearing the logo of the National Rehabilitation Hospital, where he has spent more than two months recovering from the accident that left him technically a quadriplegic. Actually he functions more like a paraplegic because he retained a surprising amount of dexterity in his arms and hands. "He's lucky," says his doctor, Kenneth Parker. "His hands were spared."

He's newly cleanshaven after having grown a full beard to cushion the neck brace that he wore for three months. "The brace came off this morning, and I figured as soon as it does, I'm shaving," McQuay says with a good-natured grin, his face now restored to its boyish smoothness. He is wholesomely handsome with thick blondish hair and wire-rim glasses. When he played Pippin three years ago at Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, "all the high school girls would scream and go nuts," recalls his wife, Chan, an actress who was in the chorus. "They would call the theater and ask for him."

Gone now is a life walking across theater stages, a life built on work in dinner theater, some of it in great roles that obsessed him, most of it in grueling rounds of eight shows a week, waiting tables and hustling steaks and chicken during intermissions. Fascinated by Jesus, he played Him once in "Godspell" and twice in "Jesus Christ Superstar."

He discovered theater at Towson Town Junior High School. A drama teacher interrupted McQuay midway through his audition for the school play. "McQuay!" he barked. "Where've you been the past three years?" He performed all through his years at Western Maryland College and continued professionally after graduating in 1984.

This month, he would have made his debut with Woolly Mammoth -- a respected local theater with no dinner to serve -- in its production of "The Rocky Horror Show." He brushes the lost chance aside now -- whatever pain he has inside he keeps there -- and instead projects a determinedly positive attitude.

"I went into the water August 1st, and when I woke up on August 3rd, some people in the Middle East had invaded some other people!" he exclaims with great theatrical irony. There's a hint of his tenor singing voice. "I woke up to World War III. I was like, 'What the hell is going on around here? How long have I been out?' "

Toby Orenstein, proprietor of Toby's Dinner Theatre, where McQuay and his wife met, heard a knock on her office door last week and opened it to find McQuay in a wheelchair. "Got any parts for a guy in a wheelchair?" he inquired brightly.

"You know, we just finished doing a play where there was a man in a wheelchair," says Orenstein of "Red, Hot and Cole," based on the life and music of Cole Porter. "I told him, 'If we ever do that play again, the part's yours. You don't even have to audition.' "

Tonight a dozen area theaters -- dinner theaters mostly, plus the Olney Theatre and Woolly Mammoth -- will pool their talents for a benefit show titled "A Step in Time" to raise funds for McQuay's health care, and for the purchase of a car equipped with special hand controls. The benefit at the Burn Brae Dinner Theatre is being directed by Orenstein and will feature numbers from various musicals, including Woolly Mammoth's "Rocky Horror Show." The McQuays will be there. Tickets are $25, tax-deductible, and there are two shows -- 7:30 and 10:30. (Tickets may be purchased at the door, which opens at 6 p.m. and again at 9:30.) There's also a special fund set up through Toby's to handle contributions.

He's already taken day excursions out of the hospital on outings with other patients -- learning how to open doors for himself, ride the Metro, get around in society. He went trick-or-treating with his 2-year-old, Daniel, on Halloween. And on Thursday he moved back home with Chan, their son and their 2-month-old daughter, Maggie. A staph infection kept him from being at his wife's side during Maggie's delivery. The first time he saw his baby daughter, he was gowned and gloved and could barely see her over his neck brace as he held her for just a minute. Only when he talks about the frustration of that moment does a flash of anger show.

He goes home not just to a new daughter but to a new one-story house in Catonsville that his wife's grandparents helped the couple buy. Friends scrambled to paint walls, pave a driveway and enlarge the bathroom so that McQuay could maneuver into it in his wheelchair.

Three months ago when McQuay woke up in a Baltimore shock trauma unit, still breathing with the aid of a ventilator, doctors told him there was a 95 percent chance he would never walk again. McQuay smiles in exasperation. "Now, you have just become paralyzed from the chest down. You've had two major surgeries on your neck. And they come in and start you off with a negative thought," he says. "Tell me that I have a 5 percent chance that I will walk again."

His doctor has seen it happen once. "It's highly unlikely but theoretically possible," says Parker, his doctor at the National Rehabilitation Hospital. "It takes one to two years before you know."

There was something else McQuay wanted to know when he awakened from surgery in Baltimore. Who was the woman who pulled him out of the water? He had seen her so distinctly as he drifted toward shore -- pink-and-blue swimsuit, gray hair, maybe in her fifties. It was this woman who stopped the nine-month-pregnant Chan from wading in toward her injured husband. But after McQuay was safely out and Chan turned to thank the woman, she was gone. They still don't know who she was.

"To tell you the truth," says McQuay, "I believe it was my guardian angel."

Soulmates

As she rode in the ambulance from the Ocean City beach to Peninsula General Hospital in Salisbury that day, Chan McQuay was annoyed. "I really didn't think it was that serious," she remembers. "I thought, 'He sprained his neck. I'm going to kill him. He's going to be walking around with this collar on ...' "

The couple had been inseparable since they first met in 1986 at Toby's Dinner Theatre. "Here's this good-looking guy who's straight -- gotta take this chance while I've got it," laughs Chan. (Her name, short for Channez, is pronounced Shan.) They were the same age, the same clothing size, the same shoe size. They went bowling at midnight after their shows.

The day of her 25th birthday -- Sept. 20, 1987 -- he threw her a surprise birthday party in the Baltimore row house they shared. Then he took her upstairs and asked her to marry him -- at that moment. "He said, 'I haven't told any of the guests downstairs so you don't have to feel pressured,' " she says. "I said, 'Yes!' "

Her mother -- who was in on the surprise -- produced a white suit for her daughter, and flowers. A good friend performed a ceremony, but they later had to legalize the marriage with a trip to City Hall. Rob even had a wedding cake.

"People later said they thought it was kind of odd to come to my birthday party and see this cake," Chan recalls. "It had bells on it."

But those memories seemed far away as she raced to the hospital that day. The doctor met her in the emergency room. "He said, 'He's broken his neck in two places and he'll probably never walk again.' "

There was a second when she thought she would faint. Suddenly nurses were hovering around her, concerned about her pregnancy. She was taken to a conference room, where she sat alone and cried.

"They brought in someone DOA from the beach, and they took that family into the conference room next to mine," Chan says. "I could hear them grieving. It was terrible, but it put the whole thing in perspective. He's alive. I thought, 'Let's help him, let's do what has to be done.' I knew I would have to be very strong."

Searching for a Remedy

McQuay has become an expert on his body -- the paths of nerves running through it, what it can still do and what it can't. He has had to relearn everything. "I cried with joy the first time I saw Rob feed himself," says Chan. In some parts of his body affected by the injury, he can feel light touch, in other parts deep pressure.

Always open to holistic medicine, he now embraces it eagerly. A holistic doctor he knows sends tapes, literature and emissaries to him. An acupuncturist visited him. Another alternative therapist suggested he placed magnets on his back, to heal it. As a therapeutic exercise, McQuay has tried to visualize his own DNA and imagine it restoring his body to its original condition.

"It can't hurt," says Parker, "and it might help. No one knows."

After the injury, McQuay says, he spent the first few weeks in almost constant prayer. He prayed to walk again, he prayed for a miracle. "Allow me to get up out of this bed right now and walk and I will do whatever the calling is ..." Every night he read the Bible as he had never done before. He listened to tapes of healing Scriptures until he fell asleep. And then he dreamed of walking, right out of his room and down the hall to the nurses' station. Mornings were the hardest, when he awakened to find they were only dreams. "I got very depressed in the mornings."

Now, he's put the tapes and the Bible aside. "I just pray for control over my bowel and bladder functions," he says with a rueful chuckle.

"He was a very promising actor with a career in front of him," Toby Orenstein says, then corrects herself. "I'm not going to use the past tense. He is. They both are."

Orenstein characterizes both McQuays as considerate actors who get along well with their colleagues. "It's one of the reasons the theater community has rallied around them so. They're not 'me' people, they're 'we' people," she says. "He's got a lot of sex appeal and charisma. He's got an adorable smile. Who knows where he could have gone? I think his sensitivity and talent could have taken him anywhere with luck -- which is nine-tenths of the battle."

Recently someone called to ask about Rob McQuay's availability to work. "I told him about the accident. He said, 'Oh, that's terrible,' " Chan recalls. "And I said, 'Well, I know my husband would say, keep his re'sume', and if you have anything for a physically challenged actor, give him a call.' The guy seemed to think I was weird. But I think Rob will work." She pauses. "He'll work. I have no question about it."

McQuay hopes occasionally to find parts for handicapped actors -- he muses about staging a production of "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" -- or doing voice work. He also says he will explore film editing.

Even before the accident, the McQuays were sometimes discouraged with their chosen careers. "There've been many times when we said maybe we should chuck it all and sell insurance," says Chan. "But we've got to do what we want to do." She's just begun rehearsals for "On the Town" at Toby's.

"I do not feel, 'Oh, God, what will our future be?' " says Chan firmly. "That's one thing I've always said to Rob: 'We're going to have a wonderful life together.' We both have a real ability to roll with the punches. Some people would say before the accident happened that we were crazy -- we were having children, we were doing theater. But now since the accident happened, people have said, 'This ability you have to bounce right along has really helped.' "

Rob McQuay, of course, does hope to walk one day. "The thing is it just doesn't matter if I don't," he says. "It really doesn't. I am not my legs."