I am a wave, well-shaped and seeking shore.
Ah, this is my final, glory moment! My veil of spray burns iridescently in the sun. . . .
But what's this? An intruder crosses my flawless, greenish-blue surface, mars me with his arrogance, cuts an ugly path of white, quickly changes direction and scars me with a long, thin blade of foam. I sense his power!
I try to toss off this dagger-like form, but he holds,
daring me, laughing at me,
marveling at his own gracefulness,
debasing my moment of fleeting beauty --
A Surfer! -- from "A Wave Speaks," by Bruce Bonney
Relax, Wave, it's just me -- a noodle-like form clutching a canvas-covered air mattress with the trembling-yet-vise-like grip of a newborn opossum hugging his mamma's belly -- and somehow I don't think I'll be saddling you with any major humiliations. "A Surfer!"? No. I am but a simple Raft Jockey, and while it is true that, as your rising swell surges forward and takes me up, I am "hanging ten" over the edge of my "board," in my case that means eight blue fingers and two stridulatory lips preparing to screech either "Cowabunga!" or "Eeeeeek!" depending on how things go in the next two seconds.
This one turns out to be an "Eeyaaaaaaugh!" The gray waterwall overtaking me here at Assateague is large and mean by Atlantic standards -- five feet high and thick -- and using the matchless form I've developed over the past seven summers, I close my eyes, cover my head and start kicking up pathetic little piles of suds in an attempt to scoot down the wave's face before it tosses me end-over- end to the spot where it will come crashing down with an awesome force that real surfers describe with terms like whomper, boomer and widow-makuh. I call it de-pantser, but by any name the result is the same: I don't make it, Big Daddy Don Poseidon puts me through the "rinse cycle," I get dragged underwater butt- to-bottom for 50 yards, and I crawl out of the shore wash, gasping, blinking and looking for the inevitable smirking surfboard brat waiting to tell me how funny I looked wiping out.
Sounds rough, doesn't it? Okay, so it's not quite as wild as riding a 25-foot wave on Oahu's north shore, but air mattressing is challenging, fun, there's not much capital outlay (all you need is a $15 dollar raft, a pair of flippers and a priceless commodity called guts), and it's easier to learn than any other form of surf rodeoin' -- the major problem being that, because rafts don't slide down waves very efficiently, you wipe out (or "stop for gas") about 90 percent of the time. There are other drawbacks. Ever since 1912, when Hawaii's legendary Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku ("the Duke," for short) introduced the ancient Polynesian sport of surfboarding to the California coast, the history of wave-riding in this country has been a sorry, undemocratic tale marred by needless hierarchical sneering. Everyone is competing for territory, and the pioneer surfers who braved California's chilly waters on 10-foot redwood planks ("elephant guns") looked down on the shorter, speedier boards that followed. Today, short-boarders rule, and they scoff at belly-boarders (calling them "kook boxers") and body surfers ("squids," "beavers," "targets"). Not really involved in this fray because we are so far beneath contempt is my ilk on our "dork mattresses," and if you decide to join this lowly group, there are a few things you must accept. One, nobody on the beach wants to hear a splash-by- splash account of your latest "hairy bailout." Two, anybody riding anything non- pneumatic will try to run you over. Three, you can't call yourself Ho-Dad, you're not allowed to use surfer lingo, and there's really no point in inventing your own. (It just doesn't work: "Man, I was carrying my raft on the beach and with the wind blowing me all around I was really weathervanin'!") And four, the only "beach babes" who will be impressed by what you're doing are wearing inflatable Swim Helpers on their arms -- because the sport was invented by and for the drool set.
So what? I prefer the Atlantic coast precisely because it isn't dominated by water snobs, and I'm not ashamed to admit that it was a friendly 7-year-old who introduced me to the thrills of wave rafting. This happened in 1980 on the Jersey shore -- my first- ever exposure to a real ocean beach. I'd spent the morning trying to body-surf the shore breakers -- note to beach neophytes: Don't try this -- and in the afternoon I bought a raft so I could float lazily in the troughs and recuperate. I was starting to snooze when I noticed a giggling little girl (a "teeny wahini") floating nearby on a flimsy plastic raft with a Dino Flintstone figurehead on its prow. The kid was tube-shaped, of course, and wore one of those nifty one-piecers with decorative sea horses and a useless aqua-skirt around the midsection. In short: wading-pool material. I sneered (at this point, I knew nothing about the dangers of beach prejudice) and returned to my snoozing. The kid stayed, doing some very affected splashing and sighing.
That's when I remembered: When I was a kid and found myself near a sharp and charismatic older person, that's exactly the sort of thing I did. At that moment, all you want out of life is a few simple words of recognition, something like, "Hey, kid. Cool raft." I decided to give her a break and possibly a lifelong memory.
"Hey, kid. Do you know where the waves come from?" No reply; more bashful giggles. "From 10 million Frenchmen on holiday dog-paddling simultaneously in the Mediterranean." Silence. Hmm, prolly too many big words. I tried again. "Okay, how about: From Christina Onassis doing belly-busters off the side of her yacht?" Silence. "See, kid, uh, Christina has put on a lot of blubber recently, and she . . ." More silence. Then her eyes widened and she pointed at something over my shoulder, out to sea.
"C'mon, I know that gag. I turn around, you splash me." But no, she really was pointing at something: a tsunami two feet off my stern. The kid wheeled and expertly rode the wave in at an angle. I got a major bust-up topped off with a sand sandwich and a forehead strawberry. The child was so gratefully amused by this that she paddled back out, clapped her hands and said, "Yayyyy. Do again." Remember how Red Skelton used to say, "If I've made just one child smile, it's been worth it"? Yeah, I know, I don't buy that either. Nevertheless, I swallowed hard, cinched my trunks and positioned myself for another 12,000- gallon saltwater Wet Willie. ::