End of the Line

Shore Leave

You’re never too old for the beach—just the water

Illustration: Illustration by Barry Blitt

As children, we romped in and out of the surf. As mature, not to say postmature, adults, we see the beach for what it is: an amalgam of too hot (sun), too greasy (sunblock), too gritty (sand), too salty (sea), and too strange (marine life). What we must not do is dwell on this. We must tell ourselves, the next time we are at the beach, “The chances that I will step on a poisonous granulated blenny and be blinded by sandy, briny favala-nut oil and get blisters the size of oysters on the tops of my ears are probably not overwhelming.”

Now we have a positive beach attitude. Now we are ready to see how far we can get out into the surf without getting our stomachs wet.

No question we are far less likely to disappear from loved ones and wash up years later on Madagascar covered with algae if we respect the water. If water colder than body temperature touches any part of the body higher than the navel, there is to be sure a risk of paroxysm. Some may feel that this conviction comes down a degree or so too far on the safe side, but I have yet to hear of anyone who took this conviction to heart who was ever strangled by stinging coral lice. At the very least we should take a few minutes to get our feet accustomed to the water.

Then our ankles.

Then our calves.

Then back to our ankles again. We can’t be too careful with our ankles. My grandmother believed that most colds were caught through the ankles. It goes without saying that it’s ankles that electric eels like to wrap around. A person who is bolder than his ankles may have an exciting time of it over the short haul, but he has lost touch with a crucial part of his body.

Then calves again, then knees. As we proceed, we hop with the waves. This is an important aspect of prudent-entry technique. If we are out to knee depth and a four-inch wave comes in, we are going to have to hop four inches straight up without bending our knees. Bending the knees brings the thighs down into the water. Hopping with the waves develops muscle tone that people who rush willy-nilly into the surf know nothing of.

It is these people who will be yelling, “Come on! It’s not cold once you get all the way in!”

That is what they told Napoleon as he entered Russia.

Okay! We’ve had a refreshing dip. Now it is time to take a walk on the sand with our athlete’s foot. The beach is made for curing athlete’s foot. Just walk. Squidge, squidge, squidge. Wet sand is good. Dry sand is good. Now then. We sit for a while, look around, and try to come up with a myth explaining why the sands are dotted with small gobs of tar.

The mundane truth may involve careless tankers. But how much more magical to spin the tale of the Indian maiden Naphtha, forbidden by her father, the chief, to marry Guncas, a young brave of another tribe. So the two young lovers—not having thought things through—put to sea on a raft of driftwood and pitch, which began to come apart twenty yards offshore. It is said that if we walk along the beach, and neglect to keep our heads down and our eyes peeled, the soles of our feet will be stained—with Naphtha’s tears.

It is also said that Naphtha wishes she had listened to her father, now. So if we are an older person, it behooves us, in Naphtha’s memory, to stand in the surf, up to our knees and her hips, hop, and exchange views with a young person.

Older person: “Hmmm, mm, wup. Hmmm, mm, wup.”

Young person: “It’s weird that I can’t see my feet.”

“Ah, well. As long as you can see your navel.”

“I’m standing on something weird.”

“Another good reason to hop. Wup. It will pass.”

“You know what’s weird?”

“Hm? Wup.”

“How two good waves will come and then no more for a while and then two more good ones.”

“Ah. Wup. Waves come in waves.”

“That’s so weird! That’s what I was going to say! Wup.”

A rapport has been reached. This is the moment to extract from the young person a vow that she will never—even if the sea’s fascination lures her into the merchant marine—get tattooed.