Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Beware the Undertow

When I was a kid, we vacationed at the sea, swimming in the Atlantic Ocean and basking on the beach. We usually went to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, long before it became whatever kind of expensive Mecca it is today. We camped. Early on, we camped in a family sized tent, and we had all the camping accoutrement that were probably stereotypical for a family in the ‘60’s – camp stove, inflatable mattresses that were really swim floats, heavy sleeping bags padded with cotton batting, a cooler, and a station wagon. Later, we tried a camper of the type where it’s like a folded up trailer, and the top pops up and presumably provides room for four people to sleep. My sister pushed me onto the floor in the middle of the night most of the time, so I can’t say as it really slept four. The tent was better.

In comparison with today’s parents, our parents were criminally negligent; so were everyone else’s. My sister spent most of the time doing whatever tweens do when they’re not being watched, and I was told to, basically, go stand in the ocean. Every so often, one of our parents would remember us, and we’d have to go sit on a towel near them, sticky and sandy and thirsty. I generally wound up, over the years, trolling for sharks’ teeth, which were everywhere, digging up little sand creatures, getting wet sand in my butt, and with half of my one-piece swimsuit twisted around somehow. In good years, I’d have a floatie of some sort, and I’d pots around in the near surf. I did learn to swim and got more courageous, which is when I first started hearing about the Undertow.

The Atlantic has a ferocious undertow, and it has a terrible reputation for being sneaky. It doesn’t matter if you’re close to shore or further out, if it wants you, like a great, soulless Kraken, it comes after you, slurps you up, eats what it wants of you, and spits out a token reminder of you. Maybe. Every summer, we’d hear tales, some were perhaps vacation myths designed to keep kids from being reckless, of kids snorked out to sea and never seen again, by the Dangerous Undertow.

One year, the Dangerous Undertow struck for real. I didn’t realize it right off, and I think my parents tried to keep the information from us at first. The mom and dad from another family, camped only a few spaces away from us, had gotten to be friendly with my folks in that campground way adults do. They had a couple of teenagers, a son and a daughter, who were older than my sister and I. Their kids would hang out with my sister sometimes, but I was too little and none of the teenagers had any time for me, so I barely knew them.

One day, as I was digging up seashells and peeing in the surf, or whatever, I heard screaming down the beach. I sat in the sand and looked around. The adults were beginning to stand up to look for trouble, too. I looked out at the water, there were very few lifeguards then, and noticed that the swimmers and rafters were heading in, except for the lifeguards, who were heading out. A big bell started ringing somewhere, and mothers and fathers ran like hell, grabbing their kids out of the water and counting noses. My sister came tearing down the beach, too, and we four huddled on our beach blankets, watching what had become the center of attention – the distraught parents who were friendly with my folks.

The mom was screaming, the father was shouting, and both of them looked like they were going to explode or collapse. I sat there, digging in the dry sand with my green plastic shovel, not having a clue as to what had happened. Except for the sound of the waves, the occasional clang from the bell, and the screaming of the mother, the beach was silent. Eerily silent. It stayed silent for a long time. A very long time. The bell stopped clanging.

Parents hustled their children back to camp to wash up, change and go do something distracting. My Dad took my sister and I back to our tent, but my Mom stayed on the beach, which I thought was weird. My sister was crying, and my Dad looked grim. I wanted to go back and dig up more seashells, but Dad said that no one could go back to the beach that day. He and I went looking for somewhere to go fishing instead, after we had cleaned up. My sister decided to stay behind.

We couldn’t find anywhere to fish, oddly, but I don’t think my Dad was looking all that hard. We potsed, we piddled, and we stopped in one of those ubiquitous, all-purpose general stores that dotted the South in the ‘60’s. My Dad conversed in quiet tones with the clerk while I lusted after a Moon Pie and a Mountain Dew. I got the Dew, but the Moon Pie got vetoed. We drove around some more, and finally picked up, glory be, a pizza to take back to camp, since it was nearing dinnertime, and the sun was setting.

The camp was quiet when we drove back in. Mom was back at the campsite, my sister was still in the tent, red-faced and blowing her nose, and we ate our pizza in silence for the most part. I wanted to ask what was going on, but my kid antennae advised me to shut up and sit down and wait for further information. I colored. We all waited.

An hour or so after dark, an ambulance screamed by, a commotion started down by the beach, and it moved towards the center of camp, where our tent was. There was wailing and angry, tormented shouting and the sound of many feet on packed sand. We looked at each other, then towards the commotion. It was the parents, being led back to their campsite after all those hours on the beach. Every other parent or official who’d been waiting was with them.

I got sent to bed, like that ever does any good, and I lay there, listening, wondering what had happened in my world. Eventually, news filtered back – the son and daughter had been rafting, and the son’s body had been recovered, but there was no sign of the daughter. The Undertow had gotten them.

Over the next couple of days, about a third of the people in the camp left. We didn’t. It took a while for the lingering miasma of despair and loss to clear, but the sunshine and the waves, and the seashells, and the crabs, and the shark’s teeth, and the salt-scented summer breeze remained. As did the Undertow. Parents were more vigilant, for a while, and there were plenty of official-looking adults traipsing up and down the beach, but eventually vacation became vacation again, only different.

The next summer a spring-loaded tent peg busted out my sister’s front two teeth, and she had to get emergency dental work and suck baby food through a straw for a while, which is, I think, what prompted the acquisition of the crummy pop-up camper for the following year. She got older, I got older, my parents got closer to divorce, and vacations went by the wayside.

I’ve since vacationed in Virginia Beach, Atlantic City, Kauai, on the Lido, beachside at lakes, Great Lakes, inland seas, near streams, and puddles, and rivers, and duck ponds, and I’m still here. Somehow, deep down in my psyche, I’m probably still holding on to my plastic shovel with vigor and determination, and I probably still have plenty of sand in my emotional pants. But I try to keep a weather eye open for the Dangerous Undertow, whatever form it may take.

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