Friday, April 18, 2008

In Memoriam


NW WIND 20 KT GUSTING TO 25 KT. WIND WAVES 5 FT. NW SWELL 8 FT AT 12 SECONDS...BUILDING TO 10 FT.
They're funny things...words...
They say a picture is worth a 1000 of them...
They say there are feelings words can't describe...
But words, alone or strung together in sentences, can trigger memories...
Yesterday, I posted a quote from Akhenaton...
A 14th century BC Egyptian Pharoh...
It was just a quote that mentioned waves...
Nothing more to me at the time...
Below is a comment in response to the quote...
From an anonymous reader...
I hope they don't mind me putting it up front...
But I feel it deserves to be.

As a rock on the seashore he standeth firm, and the dashing of the waves disturbeth him not. He raiseth his head like a tower on a hill, and the arrows of fortune drop at his feet.....
The ocean has no memory. For what is written in the blue world shall vanish as sure as a tide rip's whispered secrets to the offshore wind. People have memory. And what is written in their hearts and minds shall always remain, etched hard and indelible, only a thought away for all their days yet to come. The good times and the bad times, the laughter and the tears. These are the assets and liabilities. The necessary commodities of our human experience.
For the ocean, though, life or death bears no particular significance, and the currency of human tragedy is valueless, sorrow of no importance to the callous blue world order.
The Indian summer on the Oregon coast closed out and left town all in one day. The oceans promise of what was to come was the increasing size and power of the ocean swells. Off somewhere in the Gulf of Alaska the first of the major fall storms had been born. Kicking and screaming its birth announcement by sending forth the long ocean waves. Saltwater mountains in motion traveling thousands of miles ahead of the wind and rain to come smash and crash onto the headlands and beaches of Oregon.
We were watching the five o'clock news, and the Johnny on the spot roving mobile TV news crews are on the various scenes. Brightly and tightly zippered clad against the elements, they babble excitedly into microphones as the camera steals the violent heaving backdrop of the storm driven surf to satellite force feed it into the dry cozy living rooms far from the booming saltwatery explosions of an indifferent blue world order.
"I have to go down there tomorrow." I said to her, just as the wind shot rain's sharp skitter rat-tat rattled across the windows. "You wanna to come with?" "Well, sure.. I'll go..if you want me to." "It sounds like fun." Just a hint of excited expectation in her voice. "Good deal," I said, glad to be having the company. Someone to share the short drive, big surf, and the afternoon with.
We didn't even stop in the town. We could see that the broad and sandy beach had been claimed by the surf and surge. People stood hooded on the seawall or from behind the glassed insulated protection of their ocean front condos and motels, watching the remnant but spent waves, so far from the deep water, invade the sands then recede. The real action is a half mile, or more, offshore. A distance not so far for the eye, for the big waves are easily seen, but at that distance, not nearly as ferociously awe inspiring as being nearer to the deep water. We drove on, through the narrow twisting wind gnarled pine lined roads.There looming before us sat Tillamook Head. A fist-shaped steep mountain of basalt and clay. Slugging its shaggy green forearm and hard black basalt knuckles into the sea. Jutting two miles out, a thousand feet high. So high the fog and sea scud seems to snag up on the jagged and broken topped ancient fir trees on top, like wisps of soggy grey angel's hair. The angle of the bight of the Head creates a cove that is wide open to the north-northwest. Absolutely nothing but thousands miles of seriously open sea between the cove and the Aleutian maelstrom from where the big waves come. They roll onward in measured formation, uncountable in number, all the way across the open sea only to be funneled into a corner where they explode their fury against the hard basalt cliffs and boulders defending the Head at sea level. Just above, out of reach of the waves, the thick green forest of fir and fern give a serene lush contrast to The Head's hard and black sea scarred base. This is the interface, the point of impact. The cruel cutting edge of the hungry blue world order.
We start up the Head road as the mainland beach gets farther behind us. Just before the thick unmolested forest begins, I turn the jeep down a skinny narrow cut in the boulders. Off to the left, just fifteen or twenty feet above the sea a fine home keeps its watch on the surf. A tangle mix of drift logs and boulders serve as the front yard.
"Do you know whose house this is?” she wanted to know. "An old fighter pilot named Bud, a friend and one time business partner of my father's", I told her. "He died a couple of years ago, I don't know if his kids still own it or not."
I let the jeep slow crawl down over the smaller rocks until there was nothing but big ones in our way. We got out and were now standing a bout a half mile off shore. On a narrow strip of boulders that skirted the head. Above us the soft silent damp forest, and just a few feet below us, the angry roaring seas came to their ends against the rocks. Like panicked wild running horses being funneled into a corral, they leap and crash, now caught in a wave trap of no escape. Their two thousand mile run stopped dead cold. They rear up, enraged, tearing, clawing, and grinding away at the shore. As one spends itself out, another, right behind it throws it self with all its force at the same place. Every five or ten seconds, a huge booming frothy explosion, tossing its foamed spray like a bull throws saliva in combat. The air around us is thick with spray as the waves charge a roaring hissing run up the gravel and boulders. Then, as it recedes, rises the growling deep sucking moan. A mournful duet. Surf and earth play the harsh score. The music of consummation of the earth and sea locked in the ancient tryst. Tons of loose rock grinding and rolling against itself as the sea sucks it off the steeply angled beach, only to throw it back up with the next wave. This is the symphony of violence in the blue world order.
We stand there watching the endless waves approach. Some come and hit square on, and some keep heading towards the mainland, a parade of watery mountains on wheels. Every so often a rogue breaks ranks and comes at an angle, sweeping along the base of the cliffs, as if trying to take from the land anything it can take. We stood there taking it all in. Waves so big one could pulverize a house in seconds, knock a fair sized hotel flat in a matter of minutes. All this going on at our feet.
Above us a seagull wind shears at an angle over our heads,-eyeing us as if we might offer him something to eat. Out in the surf a small fleet of Shags maintain a direct heading to the surf immediately in front of them. Just holding their ground, slip diving under each on coming wave to then resurface after it’s passed. Surfacing just long enough to shake their heads, look at the next fifteen foot churning breaker bearing down on them, then they extend that long neck and slide under the wave. Over and over. The serious business of life being lived according to the blue world order.
She asked me what I was thinking while I was watching the birds. I said something like I thought they must be so tired, but, they can't quit. If they weren’t exhausted they would take to the air to find calmer waters in the inshore estuary, but they haven't the strength to fly now. They are locked in a battle for their lives. To keep from being beaten to death by the sea. Every wave must be dealt with precisely the same. Any change of direction on their part, any loss of forward momentum would send them hopelessly tumble thrown, like a black feathered rag in a washing machine, onto the rocks.
She said, "I thought it looked like they were having fun."
At this point I didn't think it was necessary to tell her that the half-dozen shags caught in this corner of the ocean probably would not survive the storm. For they are either the old and weak or the young and inexperienced spring hatchlings that by the whim of nature have arrived at a place at a time that will not allow them to leave. They will paddle and swim under the waves with no rest as long as the waves are breaking so far out. The open unbroken seas are over a mile out, out of reach for their little bodies. They must just try to hold position, maneuvering their two pound bodies under tons of falling, rushing water and they must do it every ten or fifteen seconds, hour after hour, day and night. They cannot come to the rocks, for they would be smashed and pounded in the attempt. Most likely, if the storm surf continues, they will keep swimming until they are so exhausted they are washed ashore, where tons of raging water hammers them lifeless. The first big storm of the fall takes a toll on them. The rocks and beaches are always littered with the ones who didn't make the cut. The ones that do are the ones who survive the storm season's opening tempest to gain hardened veteran status, as they deserve. For they are born hard wired to the blue world. To become true skilled professionals or perish. Capable and savvy players in the never ending day for day reality of the blue world order.
Then I told her what I was really thinking about. "I remember standing on this same spot one day with my old man back in February, nineteen sixty six." "The surf wasn't as big that late afternoon as it is today and there was a cold sharp westerly wind. Visibility was poor; the grey overcast just came down and sat over the sea. Crap for weather. Out where those shags are, a big Coast Guard helicopter hovered like some giant mechanical bumble bee. It would stay in one place, then rise, drift a few yards, back and forth, and then descend. A big ungainly thing that looked more like a white box car than an aircraft. In the remnants of a graying daylight, the sound of the high powered engine's rotor whumpf-whumpf-whumpffing came to our ears mixed with the surf sounds. We watched the powerful rotor kicked up spray and made strange water patterns directly under the ship.
The old man asked me if that was my surfboard lying on the rocks. Looking at the long yellow battle damaged old board; I thought how it looked so out of place for its color, shape and fragility among the dark round rocks.
"Yeah, that’s' mine." I said. Then, for probably only the second time in my fifteen years of knowing him, I heard my old man say, "Aww, shit!" In his forty-five years of playing the game he knew as well as any man around here that in this one on one situation the stakes don't get any higher and the odds always favor the harsh house deal of the nothing to lose blue world order.
"What was going on…what happened?” she quietly asked, backed up with some sincere sounding need in her voice. "Let’s walk a little, I'll tell you."
We were like most little groups of fifteen-sixteen year olds. Full boy brains in three quarter man bodies. Our days in school were offset by the outdoor adventures of coastal Oregon youth. Running the woods, rivers, and beaches. Hunting, fishing, hiking camping, clamming, surfing. Exploring the world given us by day. The long stormy week nights spent at home, like good boys. The weekend nights spent drinking cheap red wine from the same bottle, smoking cigarettes from the same pack. Trying to kiss the same girls, trying to find the loudest music where the most number of other beach kids were hanging out. Ours was the wild beautiful green new world of teenage fun lived parallel to a wilder and infinitely older blue world order.
That Friday afternoon in February I was a sophomore. Sometime after lunch, but before last bell, Bruce caught me by my locker and asked me if he could borrow my board after school. Everybody liked Bruce. He was bigger, rangier than most of us. He had that sleepy half closed eyes look like actor Robert Mitchum. A calm kid, good sense of humor, adventurous, too. A big kid, broad shouldered, naturally athletic. Could have passed for an eighteen year old. He was strong from farm work on his parents place. Nobody, not even the older guys, started shit with Bruce. I imagine its' still like that today, nobody wants to fight some younger kid when they know inside themselves that the younger kid can probably kick their ass. So, it was good to have a buddy like Bruce. He added a desired sense of security to our little clique of hick hooligans.
I told him he could use my board anytime I wasn't using it and I didn't have much use for it unless the weather was really good, which that day sure wasn't. He said Benny had his brother's car, and they would come out to our place after school and pick up the board then get to the cove where they would have maybe two hours maximum of daylight to surf and freeze their balls off before dark. Then go get warmed up cleaned up and fed in time to make it to the Friday night varsity basketball game. Now, we weren’t all that into watching basketball back then, and for most of the game, guys like us were out sitting in old cars parked off of school property. We'd smoke cigs and drink as much wine as we could hold. Getting tuned up for either the after game dance, or maybe heading down to the teenage night club, where maybe there'd be a Portland rock band, playing a weekend gig at the beach. It was all important where the best band would be, because the most girls went where the best music was. Back then, decisions that really mattered were easy to make. Life wasn't complicated at all living in a small town on the edge of the blue world order.
After school I rode out with Benny and Bruce to my folks place on the beach north of town. There we tied my old long board on top of that old Ford sedan. We looked at the ocean from our yard, and it looked really rank, surfwise. Too much wind from the wrong direction- messed up the swell, and it was foggy, too. I knew I had no interest in surfing on a day like this, so I would be content to sit in my room and practice the guitar my mom got me for Christmas six weeks before. So I told him to keep the board as long as he wanted, maybe by spring break I need it, but I sure didn't need it back right away.
So, off they went. I headed in to the house to see what there was to eat.The old man was in there, wondering why those friends of mine would want to go in the ocean on such a crummy day. "Guess they just like it", would be the only answer I could come up with, "that or they want to practice on big, blown out waves". After awhile and I had my snack, I was up in my room, strum plunking away, watching the fog shrouded surf while practicing chords.
Our house was a huge old beach house, six bedrooms that sat sixty feet above the beach on a sand dune. It was solid and well built, but at sixty years old, it had been hit by all the Pacific weather there was. In the strong winds, it would kind of bounce around. Dad would say it would hunker down and lean into it. I just called it shaking.
From my room I could Tillamook Head, a mile and a half south stick its big green nose miles out to sea. Eighteen miles to the north, Cape Disappointment, and North Head. Their lighthouses marking the mouth of the Columbia River. Straight west of my room was nothing but ocean all the way to Japan. I had a ringside seat for the main event that is the blue world order.
I heard it before I saw it, I knew what it was. The Coast Guard was constantly flying the beach back in those days, combination training and patrols. The helicopters they used weren’t the little sleek high speed ones like today, but slow lumbering giants. Built to go slow, and carry plenty of fuel for long range. Big old Navy helicopters used for long trips over the ocean, not built for quick response rescues, but that was what they used it for. The thing always looked so out of place in the sky. A big boxy Felliniesque looking machine covered with ID numbers and letters. It would just seem to waddle and rumble through the low altitudes like some noisy old fat goose. When it came close to the house, or directly overhead, the roof and walls would tremble from the vibrations of the big engine and rotor. I was used to it, it was nothing new, but this flight was different.
Whoever was flying that thing had it wound way up, it sounded louder, more urgent than the usual cruising speed. By the time it came in range angle of my vision at my window, its attitude was apparent. Nose tipped aggressively down, tail slightly up. It was on a mission of emergency, no doubt. I watched it disappear into the low overcast as it clattered its way south down the beach. Then it was quiet again. I went back to my guitar chords.
A few minutes later I heard my old man calling me sharply from downstairs, so I went down to see what he wanted. He said the radio just announced that there was a kid missing in the ocean at the cove. He said we should get over there. We were soon on our way.
When we got there we pulled down Bud's driveway and joined some other people that were staring out into the fading half-light at the chopper running a slow search pattern about a half mile square. Someone said there was a kid that had been separated from his surfboard then caught in a fast surging riptide. The board floated to shore with the wind and waves, while the kid was being pulled further out to sea. They also said they watched him as he swam futilely for his life towards shore. As strong as he was he could not the out swim the stronger ocean current.
Benny had been with him out there, but they were too far apart when Bruce had fallen off the board. Benny made it out and ran to a house for help. A call to the cops got the Coast Guard airborne, but now in the fast fading light Bruce was nowhere to be seen. Now darkness fell. We hung around until the helicopter left, and the people lining the rocks and beach sort of wandered off to their homes in groups. At daylight the search would resume. The helicopter would return, but instead of making close low altitude hovers, it would make long sweeping passes the length of the beach. It was tight lip time. Everyone knew no one makes it back from a night in the ocean here.
That night some of us friends gathered at our house. We were kind of in shock, I guess. No one among us had ever lost a young friend like that. Most of us had never lost anyone before except for Billy. His grandmother died when we were ten. We really didn't have a clue how to feel or what to feel. It was sad, alright. But it was a new kind of sad. We sure felt sorry for Bruce's folks and little sister. We figured it was going to hit them hard.
The folks around town took it all a lot worse than the kids did. My old man got drunk that night and came up and sat in my room with us and gave a speech about taking risks, or trying to do more than we were capable of doing. Just because the older guys do things, we shouldn't try to emulate them or something like that.
The next morning brought plenty of people out to patrol the beach. All the way from the Head to The River twenty miles north. I took my turn on our beach in front of the house. Walked my usual route south to where the little river cuts through the beach, preventing a dry walk all the way to town and The Head. I walked up the river bank to look around the estuary. People were everywhere, and the Coast Guard was flying long slow passes over the surfline and beyond. I could see the ship go all the way to the foot of the head then swing out west. Following those rugged cliffed walls all the way around, and then come back. Same drill the next day. People wanted to recover the body. They wanted back what was lost to the surf, but the ocean cannot be expected to honor the wants of people. There are secrets to be kept and mysteries to be honored in the selfish blue world order.
The third day, a Monday, was a school day. I did not make the morning beach walk in front of the house. Our little high school sat just two hundred yards from the high water line. The classrooms on the west side of building offer a generous view of the ocean and surf tossed spray from the breakers, and if it was quiet (which what high school is?), the surf roar was always in evidence when it was stormy, or the really big swells were breaking. If you live by the sea, sometimes you have to concentrate to hear it, because you just get so used to it you tune it out.
The whole school was subdued, quieted over the tragedy less than seventy hours ago. Everybody felt something, and everybody was part of. In fact, in our small communities everyone knew someone that knew someone, or their families. It’s the small coastal community way. All the kids have been involved through school, outside activities, or just hanging around. Almost all of the kids had been together all their lives, from kindergarten up to the moment. Every body felt something. Even if we couldn't say what it was. That Monday morning was the morning the sea gave back.
We heard in the afternoon, that just after sunrise he'd been found. He came on the night flood tide; the sea delivered him on a wet sandbar just a couple hundred yards south of our home. If I had taken my usual trails, it would have been me that made the discovery instead of the retired postmaster neighbor a few doors down. At an hour after daylight at half ebb tide, he lay partially buried in the wet sand. The ever present seagulls stood around him like respectful attendants. For this was a strange offering given up by the night tide, and it demanded their attention. The surf, in the two days and three nights it had him, had stripped him of his wetsuit and swim trunks. The boy-man lay as naked as the day he entered this world, more naked than the day he entered into the blue world order.
His skin was turned a hard shiny lifeless white, his limbs grotesquely contorted by the raging surf. The sea took from him what it took from him, and nothing more, and he had given what was his to give and nothing more. As for what was taken from, or given to his family and friends, that is never part of the accounting process in the blue world order. It’s just the way it is.
A few days later we were all crammed in a Lutheran church. The words were read, the prayers were said, and the red wooden coffin was carried outside and put it in a hearse. Then the short seven mile drive to a place up the beach called Ocean View, a green rolling carpet of soft manicured earth.
There we gathered tightly shouldered under black umbrellas by new grave. On a gentle seaward slope amid the pine trees, green grass and rows of bright white marble. More words were said in the cold spitting drizzle while the graveside flowers rustled and moved with the wind. It was then that Bruce's mother lost it. Sobbing and shaking she crumpled into the arms of her husband. Burying her face into his chest as her body heaved with grief at these awful moments of her ultimate loss. There was nothing for a kid to do now but stare at the ground, swallow hard, and listen to the soft shuddering sobs of an innocent broken heart. I looked to the dune just west of the cemetery. On the crest stood the gnarled pines swaying their tangled arms in the wind. Just on the other side of that dune the surf roared the constant background sound of our young beachside lives. It’s the haunting ongoing sound of living for awhile and dying forever when one has met the severest of conditions and unbreakable final terms. The final terms written by the cold and unforgiving blue world order.
To The Memory of Bruce Zumbuhl-1950--1966

7 comments:

Nash said...

wow.

Gaz said...

Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

to Bruce's friend: you've honored him with a beautifully told memory. thanks for sharing it.

Chum said...

Amazing and chilling. Left me wondering where I can read more by an obviously talented writer with an intense respect for our area.

jim said...

thanks for reading my story and thanks for the kind words-I'm glad you liked it. Thanks also to Doc for posting it. I know it's kind'a rough in places and can use some refining- but it is what it is.

Hope I see you at the beach sometime

Slater said...

As I paddle out this weekend and raise I will say a small prayer for Bruce and his family.

Anonymous said...

I have read this many times, going to school with Bruce myself, I remember Bruce being called out of class. It's been so many years, I think it was to have a retake of his picture. As the writer described
Bruce was tall, I think the girls in school described him a little different than his buddies did. He was good looking, not large eyes, they were sure pretty & caring. He was your friend. Though Bruce hung out with the popular, surfing, the good looking guys, pretty cheerleaders, he also didn't care what 'crowd' you hung out with. If he was your friend, then more than likely he'd been your friend since you were very young. As he walked out of class, so happy he was picked to leave in the middle like he was the Chosen honored student that day. We envied him, laughing as he walked out he jokingly said "I may never come back to this class" everyone laughed, except the teacher. I can't even remember if anyone else left also, because by Sunday my friend called to ask if I had heard, he was presumed dead. No way this was happening, he was turning 16 in 2 weeks, his step father had the perfect job for someone about to be a licensed driver, his business was selling cars. Bruce was so excited, he was getting a car for his 16th birthday....back then we didn't get new cars, all I can say is you were one lucky kid to get a car!! Monday in school we found out our dear friend, our classmate wasn't ever coming back to that class. Was he just joking or did Bruce have an eerie sense of something bad that was about to happen. Knowing Bruce it was a joke. How those words played over & over in my head. I have thought about him so many times over the years, had many dreams where we are back in school I'm talking away to look over & see Bruce...so overwhelmed that he hadn't died, so happy to have that smile back from a friend that cared, no matter who you were. I read this & it lets me see him in a different light. I realized I never knew about his last weekend, about his ending. I didn't even realized I needed to know. The writer did a beautiful job of allowing us to share his final days. Now I don't just say Bruce drowned our sophmore year, I actually feel it & as rough as it was to read, it touched me so much, because you can't take it away...he died a rough death, for unexplained reasons it makes me feel closer to him to share that weekend with him. Thank you j for writing this, to honor your friend by making sure his memory lives on.