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Essay
Volume 39 Issue 12 • July 23-30, 2009
now in our 39th season

Courage in the Time of Seaweed

by Robert P. Barsanti

I can’t surf.  When I was the right age to learn, I was far from the shore and was learning important skills like can-openers, flip turns, and the forearm shiver.  The nimble grace of pulling myself up from the water, onto a board, and then sliding down the wave was preposterous, like leaping from one trapeze swing to another, or standing on the backs of two galloping horses.  I knew people could do it, I also knew that I never could be one of those people.

Ironically, in the fullness of time,  I became a good body-surfer.  All those swimming years of starts, turns, and streamlining off of walls had taught me how to angle my body to ride a wave.  Even now, with forty some odd years of reubens, french fries, and Watermelon Creams over my belt, I can kick into a wave, angle my body, and feel the break pick me up and throw me into the shore.  I can ride the wave far enough up the sand to snag an unsuspecting seal, and bring him back out to the rest of my pod. 

My sons have reached an age when they can venture out into the surf of the south shore with safety and pleasure.  At first, they sat at the far end of the outwash, letting the fingernails of the grasping arms brush against their feet and legs.  Then, egged on by each other, they scooted closer and closer to the ocean’s upper cuts and jabs until the waves would slap them up the beach, and then yank them back.  Finally, they surrendered to the swirling wheelhouse of waves, got boiled, and emerged punch-drunk and laughing.  

I taught them to dive in beyond the breakers.  I led them through the old bob-and-weave childhood games of bouncing over the waves, diving under, punching through, and, finally, riding them in.  Old skills, learned back on the Vineyard on South Beach, came back to me in another rolling surf and another sloping beach.

Luckily, I am still at an age when I know something of use to the boys. To them, I have a voice like sunrise and a laugh like thunder.  As a father, you grab this moment in both hands; you teach the skills you have and the ones you wish they had.  Lifetime success and the men they will become arise from the valuable skills a father teaches his boys now, like hitting a whiffle ball, reading in funny voices, and taking a whiz in the hydrangea.  Often, I find myself saying things that would make more sense if I had a light saber on my belt; I use words like “Honor,” “Pride,” and “Courage.”  In a few years, I will be an annoyance who drives them from practice to practice, and the reason they have to leave their friends for a weekend a month.  But for now, they run to greet me each morning as if I were carrying cookies.

Unlike their kids, fathers wake up each morning cursed by the calendar.  Each day washes up the beach, then back, never to return. You know that these days roll by in an implacable velocity.  I know, because I still have last year’s photographs, beach toys, and life vests stored someplace in the house.  A minute ago, he was tottering along the edge of Steps Beach with a stick in one hand and Thomas the Tank Engine in the other.  Then, a minute later, I could toss him high and heave him far at Jetties.  A minute from now, he will be in a wet suit, paddling a surfboard out past the breakers to the lineup off of Nobadeer.

But for this one moment, for this one summer, I am still Poseidon, Lord of the Seas.  I remain the master splasher, the heaver of children, surf puncher, wave rider, and King of the Seaweed. 

The boys are afraid to death of seaweed.  When the wind is northerly, the boys bounce joyously over clear waves.  When the wind is southerly and the waves are chest high, floating scalps of kelp and eelgrass dot the waves.  The boys feel the brush of the cold, rubbery fingers of the Under Toad and the panic sets in until they run up the beach.  It will kill them, they mutter.

I have done my best to cure them of this fear.  I show them the leaves and branches of the bushes in the backyard, pointing out that these bushes are just about the same as the ones that grow underwater.  I walk them into the water and toss the green branches away from them.  I even carry the biggest boy out past the seaweed zone so that he can play and swim kelp free.  Recently, during a particularly light infestation, I ventured into the waves and floated, safely, amid the few floating bunches of sea grapes.  It didn’t convince them that death did not lurk in the algae.

They stood on the edge of the beach, far from the water, watching me float.  I was flummoxed.

My own father, thirty-five years before on Good Harbor Beach, threw three- and four-foot banners of sea lettuce at my brother, sister, and I.  He would drape it over our heads, then laugh as we shook it off.  My fear disappeared in a tidal rush of anger and embarrassment.  On a Wednesday afternoon, in the heat of July, I thought of this tactic for a brief moment.

But Poseidon has only one thing to teach.  It isn’t the curveball, the flip turn, or the bicycle kick; it’s all of those skills and more.  It’s the resume, the handshake, the raised hand and raised voice, it’s the business cards given and the phone numbers collected.  Poseidon can only teach courage, and after he does, the Lord of the Sea disappears.

It would be easier to not teach it.  If you let the mysteries of the curveball and the kelp stay mysterious, the boys would always need their Dad to protect them.  Poseidon could stop the ebbtide of time and remain King of the Seaweed.  But they would never ride the waves.

So, I emerged from the waves and sat on shore.  The boys, dry and hot, came to me.  Obi-Wan Papa spoke to them of courage and strength and moral purpose.  Then he bribed them with a trip to the candy room.  Eventually, they picked along the edge of the water, poked their way into the churning water and within minutes, were courageously throwing wigs of kelp at each other.

Poseidon, Lord of the Sea, slipped away.

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