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The Man At the Beach


ISSUE:  Autumn 1982

From the top of the ferris wheel at Folly Beach you could see a long way in all directions, up the beach to where it was woodland along the shore and beyond that the black and white rings of Morris Island lighthouse tower, northward to the flat marshland beyond the wide creek that separated Folly from James Island, and to the south the ocean, green-blue to the far-out horizon beyond which lay nothing but water all the way to the coast of Africa. It was almost like being in an airplane, except that there was the steel grid of the giant wheel that, though it revolved, was anchored securely to the earth.

The amusement park was across the way from the pavilion. We headed for it as soon as my father parked the car. Uncle Leo’s car was right behind, and Maynard and Elaine hurried across to join us. Uncle Leo and Aunt Sophie were not really our uncle and aunt, but we had always called them that. There were five of us in all—my sister and my little brother, Maynard and Elaine, and myself. Maynard, at 13, was the oldest, and my brother, who was seven, the youngest. Each of us had money for three ride tickets and an ice cream cone when we were done. My brother went straight for the merrygo-round, as he always did. There was one horse that was his favorite, painted red with a silver mane and saddle. He would climb aboard it and grasp the reins securely, use all three of his tickets one after the other, then buy his ice cream cone and rejoin my parents on the beach in front of the pavilion.

What we liked were the electric cars. There were several dozen of them, and when the current was turned on they all glided around the circle. The cars were powered by electricity. They had metal rods that thrust up from the cockpit like the mast on a sailboat, and as the rod atop them made contact with the electric grid there were continual flashes and sparks and a strong odor of ozone, much like the atmosphere of a violent thunderstorm on a summer day. The cars had thick rubber bumpers, and steered very loosely, and the trick was to bump into one car and send it spinning into the path of another. But if you were not careful, and sometimes even if you were, someone was apt to run into your car, and before you knew it you were caught in the melee, frantically turning the steering wheel while your car slid sideways out of control.

Maynard and I got into one car. My idea was to move to the outside of the circle and stay out of trouble, but Maynard saw an opportunity to ram into the side of the car bearing my sister and Elaine, and we steered toward it, only to be bumped from behind, pushed sideways directly across their path, and promptly sent flying again. My sister and Elaine were laughing at us, but then someone rammed into their car and off they went, too. When the cars stopped moving and the ride was over, my sister proposed that we switch places. She would ride with Maynard, and Elaine with me. So we changed over, and Maynard and I dueled with each other, bouncing against each other’s cars again and again as we made the circle, while the girls shrieked and laughed. Finally Maynard’s car sent ours sliding halfway across the track, and we spun round until finally I gained control and was about to return the favor, when the flow of electrical current ceased and the cars slowed to a halt.

Then we went to the ferris wheel, and as the open gondola rocked back and forth we went rising up, seated four abreast, over, down, then up again, until the ferris wheel stopped while we were at the very zenith of the orbit and, suspended in the air and swaying slowly, we hung in space for a long minute, gazing at the ocean, the beach, the land. A bank of grey-white cloud was over the sky to the west. There was a freighter far out at sea, so far that we could see only the superstructure above the horizon. It seemed to be without a hull, only a white cabin and masts and a stack with a smudge of smoke. The Morris Island lighthouse tower was clearly in view. Then the ferris wheel resumed its revolution, and we dropped downward, until we could see only the tip of the lighthouse tower, and in a moment it was completely out of sight.

We walked over to the pavilion, bought our ice cream, then went down to the beach. Our parents were seated in folding chairs, beneath striped beach umbrellas. Uncle Leo had on his bathing suit. My father never went swimming; before his illness he had been a strong swimmer, and used to venture far out beyond the breakers, but though he had mostly recovered from the operation on his head he was forbidden to go into the ocean for fear of ear infection. He and my mother and Aunt Sophie sat in the beach chairs watching us as, running ahead of Uncle Leo, we sprinted for the surf.

We stepped out, dodging the incoming waves, until the water was up to our waists. Though it was a very hot July afternoon, the sea seemed chilly at first, but after a moment we became used to it and settled down into the water with only our heads above the surface. Uncle Leo, however, continued out toward the breakers, striding out to an oncoming comber, then diving through the wall of the rising water as it broke over his head, to emerge well beyond it. Maynard, who could swim very well, followed him out. I could not swim at all, and I stayed with my sister and Elaine, my head above the water, letting the current sweep around me, occasionally pushing myself up to let the swell of an incoming wave go past. My brother, I saw as I looked shoreward, was seated in water up to his waist in a gully at the edge of the ocean’s margin. I waved to my father and mother and Aunt Sophie, and my mother waved back.

After a while Uncle Leo went back onto the beach. The four of us stayed in the surf, with everyone swimming around except myself. What I did was to move about, my arms outstretched so that my hands were just touching the bottom, and my body buoyed by the salt water, pretending to myself that I was a ferryboat, traveling back and forth, pausing occasionally to dock, and repeating under my breath the bells and the whistle signals, just as the boy in Tom Sawyer did with the Big Missouri. It was enjoyable to push myself about in the surging water, giving way as the waves swept around me, but always keeping a hand, or sometimes just a finger or two, in touch with the coarse sand of the submerged beach, gently but firmly maintaining my way even as my legs and my trunk swayed in the ebb and flow.

Later we left the water and went back up onto the beach. My little brother stayed on in the gulley. He seemed to be trying to splash minnows into a pool he had dug. When we reached the place where our parents were seated, we saw that a man was standing there talking to them. He was wearing white duck trousers with rust stains on them and a yellow polo shirt and was blond-headed and somewhat red of face, though his skin was deeply tanned. The man was doing most of the talking, with my father and Uncle Leo nodding and occasionally responding, “Oh, yeah?” and “Is that right?” The man seemed to be telling about a voyage or airplane trip or something that he had been involved in and was going into considerable detail, though I could not tell exactly what it was he was saying.

“That your boy?” the man asked Uncle Leo, pointing to me.

“No, that’s his boy,” Uncle Leo replied. “That’s my boy over there,” with a gesture toward Maynard, who was standing off to the side listening.

“Going to show you a trick, son,” the man said to me. He came over to where I stood, lay down on his back in the sand, and held his arms out in front of him. “Now you run and jump right into my hands, and I’ll flip you over, and you’ll come right down on your feet.”

I looked at him uneasily. I was not sure just what it was that he wanted me to do, and not especially eager to try it.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “Just run straight to me, and throw yourself right at my hands. I’ll catch you. It won’t hurt.”

I looked at my father. I stepped back a little way, and ran, not too fast, toward the man, half throwing myself, half falling upon him. He had to lower his hands to catch me, but he grasped me about the waist, and I felt myself being lifted and tossed up and over, so that my legs went over my body and head and I came down on my feet a foot or so beyond the man’s head, having executed a somersault in the air.

“How’s that?” the man asked. He looked at Maynard. “You want to try it now?”

Maynard nodded. He came running toward the man, launched himself in a swan dive toward the man’s arms, and was taken up and tossed in a flying somersault, head over heels, landing upright several yards beyond.

“That’s the way!” the man said. “Just run hard and throw yourself at me. I’ll do the rest.” Still lying with his back on the sand, he turned his face to me. “Now you come try it again. Run hard.”

This time I came at him faster, and dove toward him. Once again, but more smoothly, I felt myself being taken in his strong hand and tossed up and over, into the air, and some distance beyond him. As I did I again smelled a strong, raw odor, not exactly unpleasant but quite sharp. It must be whiskey, I thought.

“Can I try it?” my sister asked.

“I think you’d better not,” my mother said.

“I won’t let her fall,” the man promised.

“Can’t I?” my sister repeated.

“Do you think it’s all right?” my mother asked my father.

“I think so,” he replied.

“Very well, but be careful,” my mother told my sister.

Now it was my sister’s turn to go sailing in a cartwheel above and beyond the man. Then Elaine tried it, and for a while we took turns, one after the other, somersaulting in the air. The man did not seem to tire. My little brother, who had come over to watch, decided he wanted a turn, and because of his lightness the man flipped him far into the air and he came down, squealing with delight, well beyond where any of us had landed.

“Now, that’s enough!” my mother called. “You’ll wear the poor man out.”

“That’s all right,” the man told her. “I’m doing fine.” He sat up. “Here,” he said, this time to Maynard, “let me show you another one. Come here and just stand right over my chest.” He lay on his back again. Maynard went up, placed his feet on either side of the man’s torso, and the man put a hand around each of Maynard’s shins and raised him straight up in the air, over his head. “How’s that?” he asked as he held Maynard three feet above him, firmly and without seeming to strain at all. Maynard giggled. Then the man tossed him deftly sideways and up, and he came safely down on his feet.

“My turn,” my little brother said. Each of us followed. The man’s hands were very firm in their grip, and I had no difficulty at all holding my balance, though when he tossed me away I stumbled as I landed and fell to my knees before I could regain my equilibrium.

“You’re real strong, mister,” my little brother said.

“I’m all right,” the man said, grinning at my parents and Aunt Sophie and Uncle Leo. “You’re pretty strong, too, I bet”

“Uh huh.” My brother flexed his biceps determinedly. The adults laughed.

“That’s enough acrobatics for now,” Aunt Sophie said.

“Were you really a pilot?” Maynard asked the man. Maynard knew everything about airplanes and pilots. He had books about them, and built balsa models that were highly exact in detail. When he grew up, he said, he wanted to be an airplane designer.

“Sure am,” the man said, making a change in tense. “Flew in the Dole Pineapple Derby, Seattle to Honolulu. Finished third, right behind Martin Jensen.”

“How come you didn’t win?” my sister asked.

“Cracked cylinder head about 400 miles out. Slowed us down and we finished out of the money. We were ahead till it happened. Flew a hundred feet above the ocean most of the way. Had only five gallons of gas left when we landed.”

“What kind of plane did you have?” Maynard asked.

“Beechcraft 17R. Got a picture of it in my living room.”

“Do you still have it?” my sister asked.

The man shook his head. “Sold it the next summer, when we went barnstorming in Mexico.” He pronounced it as if it were spelled Mehico. “Too heavy for that.”

“What kind of plane do you have now?” Maynard asked.

“Don’t have one right now.” The man turned to our parents. “How about if I take these kids up to the pavilion and buy them an ice cream cone?”

“That’s awfully nice of you,” my mother said, “but they’ve already had some ice cream, and we’ve really got to be going home.” She and Aunt Sophie rose to their feet. Uncle Leo and my father took down the beach umbrellas and began folding the canvas chairs and towels.

“Where did you go in Mexico?” I asked the man.

“Mexico City, Guadalajara, Tampico, Chihuahua—everywhere. Ran out of gas a hundred miles east of Chihuahua, had to land in a cornfield. Nearest gas was 50 miles away. Had to pay a man to go get it by horse and wagon. Spent three days waiting there till he got it and brought it back. Had to live on frijolas and cornmeal. Got sick from drinking the well water, was in the hospital in El Paso for a month.”

“Come on, Maynard,” Uncle Leo called. “We’ve got to get going. It’s going to rain before long.” There were dark clouds coming into view now over the dunes to the northwest.

We said goodbye, but the man came along with us. He began talking to my father. “How about doing me a favor on your way home? Turn right just past Mazo’s and go two blocks. My place is right there. Little white house, all by itself. You can’t miss it. How about stopping by and telling my wife I’ll be home later?”

“Well, uh, we’re sort of in a hurry . . ,” my father said.

“Won’t take you but a minute. Sure would appreciate it. I got some business at the pavilion. My wife’ll be real worried about me.”

“Well—,” my father said.

“Just go right in, and make yourself at home. There’s an ice chest with fresh milk and soft drinks under the cot in the hall. Just help yourself. Take the kids in, too. Got pictures of airplanes on the walls.”

“We won’t go in,” my mother said. “We’ll just leave word if your wife is home. Come on,” she told me. “Let’s be going.”

“Have you got any from the Pineapple Derby?” I asked. I had read about that in a book of mine entitled Minute Epics of Flight.

“Pineapple Derby? Got a picture of myself wearing one of them leis,” the man said. “Put them around our heads soon as we landed.” Then, to our parents, “Go right in the house, make yourself comfortable.” He turned to me. “You go in and see the pictures. Next summer when you boys and girls come back over here I’ll take you for a ride. Take you all over the island, and over to Charleston, and out over the ocean. Won’t charge you a thing. You folks, too,” he added, addressing the adults. “I’ll have my license back next May.”

“That’s very nice of you,” Aunt Sophie said. “Come on, Maynard. We’ve got to go.”

“So long now,” the man said. “You just come over and ask for me at Moffett Field, right off the highway a mile the other side of the bridge. That’s where I’ll be. I’ll have my license back,” he said again.

He went on into the pavilion, while we walked toward the automobiles, carrying the umbrellas and the chairs. Though the sun was still shining, a bank of dark clouds was rising toward mid-sky, in the shape of a giant anvil.

“How about that?” I said to Maynard. “A real pilot. He was in the Pineapple Derby.”

“The Dole Pineapple Derby only had two planes to finish,” Maynard said. “All the others were lost at sea. Martin Jensen was second. He said he came in third.”

“Maybe he got it mixed up with another race.” Maynard was probably right; he knew all those things by heart.

“Besides,” Maynard added, “that was in 1927. He said he flew in a Beechcraft 17R. They didn’t start making Beechcraft planes until a couple of years ago.”

“You think he was lying about being a pilot?”

“I don’t know,” Maynard said.

“I think he just got his dates mixed up,” I insisted. “If he was making it up, how come he’s got pictures?”

Maynard only shrugged.

“He was a mite loaded, wasn’t he?” Uncle Leo remarked to my father as we reached the automobiles.

“To the gunwales.” My father laughed. “He was feeling no pain.”

“Do you suppose he really does have a house on the back road?” Aunt Sophie asked.

“We can find out,” my mother said. “It won’t hurt to deliver his message, I suppose.”

“I’ll bet his wife will know what kind of business he has at the pavilion,” Aunt Sophie said.

My mother chuckled. “If it is his wife.” She turned to us. “Be sure you brush all the sand off before you get in the car.”

“Come on, get in,” Uncle Leo said to Maynard and Elaine. “If we’re going to stop by his house we’d better be moving. We’ll be caught in the rain if we don’t.” By now the sun was hidden behind the edge of a mass of gray clouds. It was hot and the air felt sticky. I thought I could hear a rumble of thunder off in the distance, though it might have been an airplane.

We got into our car and drove off. The cars had been sitting in the sun all afternoon long with the windows closed and were very hot. Past Mazo’s Grocery we turned right and headed down a sandy road with crushed shell spread along the ruts.

“Are you going to go in his house?” my sister asked my parents.

“No, we’ll just deliver the message,” my mother said.

“I’d like to see the picture of his plane,” I said. The man had said that he was in the picture with the plane, wearing a lei. If he was, I ought to be able to recognize him. Maybe there was another Pineapple Derby besides the famous one in 1927.

We drove past pine trees and a few houses, until we came to a small bungalow with white asbestos shingling, off by itself, with stands of pine trees on either side. There was an old bicycle near the front door, and alongside the house a couple of washtubs and several rusted 20-gallon barrels. The place seemed deserted.

My father stopped the car, and we got out. Uncle Leo pulled up behind us and got out of his car. “I’ll go see if anyone’s home,” he said. It was so hot in the car that all of us also got out, and we stood together in front of the house. We could hear the thunder growling off to the west, and the sky was dark.

Uncle Leo walked up to the front door and knocked. He waited. No one came to the door.

“Nobody seems to be home,” he said.

“Let’s go look,” said my mother. She went up to where Uncle Leo was standing. Uncle Leo knocked again. After a moment he tried the front door handle, and it opened. “Anybody home?” he called. There was no answer. He closed the door.

My mother went to the door and opened it again. She peered inside. “I don’t see anyone,” she announced.

“Maybe we ought to leave a note,” Aunt Sophie suggested.

“No, there’s no use in that,” Uncle Leo told her.

“Can I go in and see the airplane pictures?” I asked.

“No,” my father said. “You stay right here.”

“But he told us to,” I argued. “He wanted us to go in and see the pictures.”

“I don’t care,” my father said. “You just stay outside.”

Then, as we stood there, a woman appeared from around the side of the house, with a little girl.

Quickly my mother stepped back from the door. “Your husband asked us to stop by and tell you he was going to be late,” she said to the woman.

The woman barely nodded. She was small, with light hair, and dressed in a faded green blouse and a pair of yellow slacks. She was wearing sandals, and her toenails were painted pink.

“He said he had some business at the pavilion,” my mother explained.

I looked at the little girl. She seemed to be about eight years old, and with long blonde hair and blue eyes. Her face was almost expressionless; her eyes gazed at us.

They must have been around back, I thought. I had the conviction, which grew on me, that no matter how plausible our reasons for having come, we were intruders. There was a blanched look to the little girl, and to her mother as well, which seemed to go along with the fading colors of the clothes they wore and the chalky siding of the house, as if the weather had bleached them all to a drab, neutral tone. The girl and her mother stood there impassively, while around them the afternoon was growing dark with the heavy thunderclouds that now entirely obscured the sun. The air was oppressively thick, and the imminent approach of the storm gave a forlorn and even desperate cast to yard, house, and inhabitants.

I took it all in—the weatherworn look of the small house, the coming storm, the absence of the man at the beach, the presence of the woman and little girl who had to wait for him to come home—as with a sense of a terrible weariness. Why did what I now saw appear so squalid and wretched? We must seem like part of the coming storm to them, I thought: a band of strange people suddenly materialized at their front door. I felt that if there were in fact photographs of airplanes on the wall, then actually to see them would only confirm the shame.

“Well, let’s go,” Uncle Leo said after a moment. We returned to the automobiles and go in. As I did, I looked back and saw the woman and the little girl still standing there watching us.

As we drove off down the road, the wind began blowing strongly, and the sand swirled about us. Then the rain came. It came in torrents, driving at the car windows as we turned into the highway, sweeping across the road. All about us the thunder boomed and the lightning flashed. My father drove very slowly, peering through the windshield as the wiper blade beat back and forth to clear a narrow field of vision through the streaming water.

“She didn’t even so much as say thank you,” my mother remarked after a minute. My father, concentrating his attention on the road ahead, made no comment.

“Is that man going to take us for a ride in his airplane?” my little brother asked.

“No, he was just talking,” my mother said.

“He was real strong,” my brother said. “He threw me way, way up in the air.”

“I smelled whiskey on his breath,” my sister said.

I watched out the window at the salt marsh alongside the road. The storm had begun to slacken in ferocity, though the rain was still falling steadily. The marshland, which in sunlight was sharp and brightly defined, seemed blurred and diffuse in detail. I tried to make out the shape of the lighthouse tower in the distance, for I knew that usually it was visible across the marsh, but the rain and haze were too thick. Through the back window, I could see Uncle Leo’s car coming along behind us, headlights burning. He too was driving carefully through the downpour, keeping well to the rear.

“Why do you think he lost his pilot’s license, Daddy?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” my father said.

“How do you know he did?” my mother asked.

“He said he was going to get it back next May,” I told her, “so he must have lost it.”

“Maybe it was because he tried to fly when he was drunk,” my sister proposed.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “He’d have more sense than to do that.”

“Well, he was drinking plenty today,” my sister insisted, “because I could smell it on his breath.”

“He wasn’t drunk, though,” I said. “Was he, Mother?”

“It depends on what you mean by drunk,” my mother said. “I don’t think he was no longer in control of his actions. He was just feeling real good.”

“Maybe he wasn’t a pilot at all,” my sister said. “He might have been pretending.”

“I bet he was!” I declared. “He couldn’t have just made all that up. Could he, Daddy?”

“I don’t know,” my father replied.

“What difference does it make?” my mother said. “It’s really none of our affair.”

“I bet he was a pilot!” I insisted.

“I bet he wasn’t,” my sister said.

“Oh, shut up!” I told her.

“That will do,” my father said. “I don’t want to hear any more about it.”

I thought of how Maynard and I had steered the little electric cars around the metal floor at the amusement park, and had tried to ram into each other’s car, while Elaine and my sister had laughed and shrieked each time the rubber fenders collided and the cars were jolted from their paths, while the sparks flashed overhead. The rain continued to come down, and my father drove carefully. Occasionally an automobile would come along in the opposite direction, materializing abruptly out of the downpour with headlights turned on for visibility, and pass by in a rush. The thunder seemed further away now, and there were no more flashes of lightning. Soon the darkness lifted a little, and it was possible to see objects off in the distance. My father kept his eyes on the road.

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