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Body Surfing

Body surfing

The only athletic skill I have been able to teach my sons is body surfing.  I have only the smiling patience of my friends to encourage me on the golf course.  I only run when chased by police or zombies.  Skiing, in my dotage, has become a manner of a long controlled fall down the mountain, interrupted by the occasional turns and sitzmarks. 

The boys and I found our selves on the south shore in the heat of the last week.  Whether by global warming or increased jelly fish populations, Nantucket has been beset by some very hot days this summer.  Of course, the heat on Nantucket does not compare to the heat on the mainland and a wise man would be wary about even mentioning stickiness, sweat, or sunburn to anyone stuck on a highway in Connecticut.  The island and its surrounding waters ply their usual trade.  The heat builds and then a breeze strikes up from the southwest, the surf builds, and we start brushing sand from our hair.  It remains mainland hot in town, but who stays in town?

We didn’t.  We settled onto the beach in our chairs, cast a long look at the ocean, then I followed the boys in.  The calendar had turned to August in the water.  A sand bar had built up within a hundred yards of shore, protected by twenty yards of racing tide.  A few strands of sea weed passed by and I was pinched more than once by a terrified crab. 

However, the waves had arrived.  Large rolling swells built up to six feet high before rolling and crashing along the sand bar.  If you ignored them, a set would steal up and boil you into the beach.  If you minded them, you could duck under the foam and pop up on the other side.  You could also ride them. 

If you caught it correctly, the wave would hang you five feet above the water, and then fling you in front of it in the midst of the boil until setting you down at the shore edge of the sand bar.  The boys, who can slip the clutch of gravity, could ride all the way up onto the sand.

In the words of the poets, you catch a wave and you sit on top of the world. Unlike most other sports, body surfing is an act of submission.  You catch a wave just at the point when it is starting to break and it carries you into the shore; you can only choose to bail out of the wave.  Catch the wave too late and you miss all of its power.  Catch it too soon and it just passes under you.  If you ski down a trail, you pick a path and make your turns.  If you play golf, you pick a club and make your shot.  When you ride a wave, you take what the water will give you and hope for the best. 

I learned how to bodysurf on the north shore of Massachusetts at a gem of a beach in Good Harbor, Gloucester.  As gems can be widely known, so was Good Harbor.  But, it has very fine sand and a long, gentle break.  Once you get on a wave, it will bring you into the beach at a sedate and geriatric pace.  As is the case with most things familial, wave riding became competitive and competitive became skilled.  By the time we ventured onto South Beach on the Vineyard, or even Surfside, we had no fear of either wave or sand.  The worst boil was hilarious and the best ride was legendary. 

So many sports you only master when you are young.  If you don’t know how to swing a golf club when you are twelve, or to jib a boat or even hit a baseball, you will never master the sport, no matter how much you practice and train.  When you are a child, you are the lord of the foam and the king of the sand.  You rise to the top of a twelve foot wave and punch triumphant through the foam.  You sing as the wave passes under you and you laugh when it spins you into the sandbar. 

Every parent on the beach knows what a false coat that invincibility is.  We all have chapter and verse about someone who broke his neck riding a wave or who strayed too far off the sand bar and started drifting into the realm of bluefish and shark.  But every parent knows to stifle those feelings into the seat of the beach chair, smile, and applaud.    This mastery, this confidence trick will last deep into life and even surface in middle age with a quick pull and a kick. 

On the last day of this heat wave, I rode as well as I ever had.  The waves flung me higher in the air than I had been since the Vineyard, and then sent me skimming over the water deep into shore.  On one particular wave when I was in mid-air for the span of three quick thoughts, I wondered what I would tell the E.M.T.’s when they body boarded me off the sand.  This time, the wave was merciful, and torpedoed me into the beach. 

Aging carries many ugly truths.  The worst of them is that you are all ages at once.  A forty eight year old man can see with twelve year old eyes and time the waves as he has always done.  He can still wear that false coat, even as he realizes it is false.  My body remembers the lift and feel of well-timed wave and, in that hung racing moment, gets to be twelve again. 

The twelve year old follows my lead and rides the waves.  He doesn’t understand the brief dramatic pleasure of being twelve and undefeated.  He only knows timing, speed, and the silent applause as he rides the waves up onto the sand.  May he carry it for the rest of his life.

Bob Barsanti's novel, Milestone Road, was published last summer.  His previously published book of essays about Nantucket, Sand in My Shoes, is available here.

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