Caught In a Wave

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When the stories are all told, by anyone’s account, I shouldn’t still be here on this blue planet of ours. I should’ve never made it off that Jacksonville, Florida beach.

Now that’s a rather startling statement, I know. But it’s a true statement, nonetheless. At the tender age of six, it was the first time I almost died. Since then, there’ve been six more. But for some reason, here I still am. Why? Someone much younger and wiser than I finally answered that question last night. But that’s the end of this story. Here’s the beginning. Welcome, Dear Reader to the wet, wild, and terrifying true story I call “Caught in a Wave.”

We four boys and The Sister had been looking forward to it for over a month. Our beach vacation was finally here! Just like the year before, our parents loaded up bedding in the back of the avocado-colored station wagon with the faux wood panels. Late at night, all five kids crawled in the back with all the beach stuff. We pretended to be sleeping while Dad drove through the night, and early in the morning, we arrived at our hotel.

While we played in the sand, our parents unloaded the car and set up our spot on the beach. Thirty minutes later, Dad finished blowing up our floats, and all of us kids started to play in the surf. The large powerful waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashed all around us while we walked on the sandy bottom struggling to make our way out from the beach.

With the water up to chin level, we had to jump up over and over to keep our heads above the incoming waves. Finally, we made it to the first sandbar, climbing up and standing upon it to claim the island as our own. On top of our little island, the ocean lapped and tugged at our ankles – inviting us to dive in and play.

On the beach side, the water was up to our chins, but on the open ocean side, it was dark blue and well over our heads with monsters waiting to drag us down to their lairs far below. We knew not to go that way and were safe playing king of the island and riding waves with our floats back to shore. And that’s where the problem lay.

Dad was so tired from the drive that as he blew up five floats, he didn’t notice none of the air plugs were secured tightly. One by one, the plugs opened, and the floats began all leaking. None of us noticed. Besides we had no fear of drowning, since we’d learned how to dog paddle in our backyard swimming pool just the week before. I soon found out the mighty dog paddle and a rapidly deflating float were no match against giant waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

The wave formed on the horizon, rapidly coming towards the sandbar. My three brothers and The Sister had already ridden their waves into shore, leaving me all alone standing on our island to watch the ginormous wall of approaching water. They saw it, too, and started yelling warnings, but I was determined to tame it and ride it all the way back into shore.

As a six-foot swell crashed down upon our little island, I jumped onto my float just in time for the cascade of water to propel me faster than any other. Like a rock skipping on top of a lake, I was mastering the wave and surely was the envy of my brothers and The Sister — right up until the point my float went flat, and I was sucked into the giant wave and disappeared.

To be honest, what happened next are only fragments of a childhood memory, a memory I wish I could forget. The endless tumbling of the wave pounded me into the brown sandy ocean bottom with such force eventually all the air was squeezed out of my lungs. Each time I broke the surface, I sucked in gulps of gritty salt water mixed with sand, bits of seaweed, and just a little air.

There was a moment I thought I’d escaped, but as if with invisible hands, the wave grabbed me and pulled me down, raking my body across a shell-covered bottom … shells that cut like razors. My lungs burned with spent air, when suddenly there was daylight!

I tried to swim, but my dog paddling was useless. The ocean rarely gives up what it has taken. I was sucked under one last time. A powerful wave was just too much for a boy of only six. The last thing I remembered was being churned over and over again, and as pain spread throughout my body, my entire world went dark.

Salt-filled eyes burned as I opened them, and the world slowly came back into focus. Dad was pushing my abdomen while I coughed up mouthfuls of ocean. Picking me up, he carried me back up the beach and gently deposited me in his lounge chair. None of my brothers made fun of me the rest of that day for almost drowning. It was the first time I’d ever seen my parents cry. Sadly, the following year they cried once again — when we lost Older Brother Richard forever.

After my giant wave incident, our family never went back to the Atlantic side of Florida. Since then, we’ve always vacationed at Panama City. Dad said it would be much easier to see a child in trouble because the water is almost clear, and the waves are much smaller in the Gulf of Mexico.

Last night this was my granddaughters’ bedtime story, and they finally gave me the answer as to why I didn’t drown on that beach so long ago. “Papa, you didn’t die because you had to be here to take care of us.”

I kissed each one of them goodnight, thanking them for answering my childhood question. While I read another story to them, they quickly fell asleep.

Later this summer I will return to the Atlantic Ocean as we vacation with our granddaughters on Jekyll Island. I’ll blow up their industrial strength floats that first morning and will keep a sharp eye on them from the beach while they play in the surf. Because I know the ocean doesn’t give up what it has taken … at least not willingly.

[Rick Ryckeley has been writing stories since 2001.]