The Safe Face of the Waves

Steve B Howard

The hot autumn days had relinquished their hold on the sun begrudgingly. At 5 pm the dried out, burnt orange of the pine trees were still visible in the glacially receding sunlight. The shimmering heat waves rising off the coils of black asphalt collided with the cool wind coming down the mountain, following the solid wall of rock carrying with it the scent of wild flowers growing on the other side in a distant valley.Only the elements were alive and moving in the early evening heat.All the living creatures were silent except for the steady clicking sound made by the grasshoppers as they rustled through the tall, dried grass on the side of the road and one other.

Harvey walked through the grass slowly, feeling everything, searching for subtle changes in the forest’ mood as he headed quietly and naturally towards the beach. The barge and tug sat quietly bobbing with the tide.

He stopped for a moment when he got to the beach and saw the pier seemingly growing out of the bay like an abscess. Its foreignness wounded him.The mechanical straight lines of steel, wood, and concrete intruded on the correctness of the bay’s curving shoreline.

Harvey checked his surroundings, searching for any signs of activity. He could hear a few cars driving along Tack Road, but they were moving away from him, and he didn’t worry about them. Once he was sure it was clear he stashed his heavy green canvas backpack in the end of a large hollowed out log near the tide line. After stashing his pack he checked his surroundings again. He waited a little longer until the sun dropped further below the horizon until the red rays of the sun were perpendicular to the water. Then he stripped off his clothes and stowed them away in the log with his backpack.

The air was cool on his skin, but he wasn’t cold until he began wading out into the bay. He swam along the pier, following it out to where it met the reef. The sunlight that was left illuminated the water though the new murkiness that had established itself during the building of the pier obscured the bottom.

He dove down next to the pier following one of the round concrete pilings to bottom where it had been driven into the hard reef to anchor it. The damage done to the reef to make way for that first column was extensive. Harvey could see where the construction crews had used charges to blast away sections of the reef and where the crane had gouged out great holes, but he also saw that they had failed to level off the part of the rock where the concrete pillar had been anchored. A long crack ran up the cement column.

He held his breath as long as he could, and then returned to the surface. A fast incoming tide pulled him towards shore. He let the current take him, as he swam with it feeling its direction and speed. It had changed since last year. He could feel it. The pier’s large columns had narrowed the channel in which the waves flowed into the bay. The waves would come in a lot faster this year, and break further up shore, he thought.

He was concerned. The extra speed and longer break of the wave would present problems. His ride on the current had given him a general sense of the direction and the shape the waves would take, but he knew during a storm when the waves could reach heights of fifteen feet or more things could get unpredictable.

He wanted to hold onto the idea that if he emptied himself before paddling out and remained in that state throughout the ride, that the ocean would naturally mold itself around him the way water always assumes the shape of any empty container it occupies.Normally he would have no doubts, but the pier had changed things. The altered face of the bay, and and the forced man made sense of design that had been imposed upon the waves made Harvey think that maybe this year things wouldn’t turn out so well for him. As he rode the tide into shore memories of his past appeared.The claustrophobic tunnels filled with death and darkness suddenly closed in on him.He knew the waves were his freedom from those brutal times.

He reached the shallower water where he could touch bottom, and began walking towards the beach. The bad memories had weakened him. Before he reached the shore he squatted in the water checking to make sure no one had wandered down to the beach while he was swimming. His body was cold now. He squeezed the water from his long dark brown hair, feeling the tiny salt crystals between his fingers as he searched the road above the beach for headlights. He didn’t want expose himself too quickly.Concealment meant safety.The jungle had taught him that.

The waves were breaking at his back now. He could feel their strength, their eternalness pushing against him. Only the ocean was complete in his mind. Since the time he had returned from Vietnam his life had been shattered. Returning home had made the nightmare of war more focused somehow.Once he was away from it, no longer caught up in its immediate insanity and had time to reflect everything he’d done and seen there, all the evilness became so huge and so clear.He knew he had to surf this break this year, maybe during the winter solstice.

He surfed naked here every year. People from the town would come to watch, a sort of mini-festival ever year. They never verbalized the questions, but Harvey could read faces and eyes, body language. The question was why. Why do you risk yourself in the frigid Pacific each year? His answer was in the form of a memory. One he couldn’t share because it still had the dense reality of a stone gargoyle sitting in the center of his heart. When he saws these questions in their eyes and the gargoyle with its deep tunnels reeking of dirt and death appeared he would duck into another part of his mind. One not far from the gargoyle, it was always at least peripheral, but of slightly gentler content.

He could still feel it, the oven of the jungle lifting off of him as they sped away from its heat. The chop of the helicopter blades spinning those who had survived up and out of the fire zone and into the sky. Harvey liked to surf there too, on the skids of the helicopter as it zoomed along above the jungle and all its terrors, to be that high up from the earth Harvey felt like he would never have to return to the tunnels again.Surfing along the skids of the helicopter was the same danger, the same recklessness that brought him to the winter ocean of this tiny bay to surf its giant waves.Even after all the death he’d seen in the tunnels and jungles of Vietnam he still couldn’t let goof the deadly thrill.He needed it.


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I mainly write about fly fishing in Washington State, Classic Muscle Cars, and Stand Up Comedy.

Seattle, WA
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