WordBowl readers (you wonderful people) may note it has been a bit since I last posted a piece. I’ll admit to feeling a bit under-motivated — not from the intriguing words you’ve submitted, this is ennui is entirely on me! — and in an effort to haul myself out of this funk, I turned to someone whose ingenuity and imagination is always catalyst for insightful conversation. His own art practice invigorated by an unanticipated sojourn to an unfamiliar coastline, I asked if he would be willing to share something with me — us, since I’m now sharing with all of you — so in lieu of a “wordspiration” today’s WordBowl story is inspired by a person (the artist RAD Etc.) and a (digital) painting.
This became a traveler’s tale, conceived in a New York City winter storm, drafted in mild Miami, written on airplanes, edited in frigid Philadelphia and polished in a weather-less Las Vegas hotel lobby amidst throngs of tourists and conventioneers.
PawPaw materialized middle of the night, catching us unawares in whatever city my father happened to be playing — Houston, Tacoma, Phoenix during Spring Training — smelling of salt and wind and smelt and grease despite the industrial soap vigorously applied in deference to his return to civilization, laden with treasures and tales. Departed middle of the night as well, to rejoin his ship or hop another, willing to stoke furnaces, repair engines in the bowels of any barge bound for exotic lands, lands far-far away from his Louisiana home, his wife and family.
PawPaw did not vacation, he voyaged.
He passed while I was still young enough to stare at my map of The Land of Make Believe and convince myself my grandfather was merely on another expedition. He left me, the oldest child of a burgeoning super-sized family, with wisps of memories, a trove of riches — extravagantly embroidered kimonos, soft berets with crayon-colored pom-poms, ivory-inlaid chess set— and stories. Stories I conflated with those of Sinbad, Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo, Jules Verne. And the myths of Poseidon, Neptune.
I wholeheartedly believed his a hero’s journey.
Nomadic baseball years came to an abrupt 1970’s recession-restricted end, my father settling us into a landlocked Southern town I prayed was mere prelude to exalted destiny. I missed the seasonal rhythms of my mother and I trailing my father bus-highway-ballpark–airport-motel, our once-epic road trips reduced to day-long visits to the nearby beach towns along the Mississippi Gulf – Biloxi, Bay St. Louis, Gulfport — where battered buildings, residents still testified to the horrors of Hurricane Camille. I stared at the desultory dishwater-colored waves dragging detritus upon silt that passed for sand, doubting these same waters could be capable of either — destruction, adventure — wondering if perhaps I had misunderstood the stories.
Adulthood, peak of what we did not yet know would be the first dot-com boom, living on the edge of an ocean my 24/7 job crisscrossing the country hardly afforded me time to see, I hopped a last-minute flight to join friends in Thailand, ferried to Koh-Phi-Phi, an island in the Andaman Sea. Determined to avail myself of the advertised too-good-to-be-legal temporary PADI “Vacation Certification” — the waters my PawPaw sailed upon I would dive below — despite my utter lack of preparation and propensity to hold my breath while thinking. After some minutes of basic scuba instruction and much flirtatious banter, I slid amfan of rainbow-hued bhat to the Aussie Dive Master/Instructor/Pitchman, who announced with a wink I passed the qualification test with flying colors, recommended I get a good night sleep. Unless I cared to join him for Happy Hour.
Dockside, dawn streaking over limestone peaks jutting up from the sea like a maritime Stonehenge, a surly American female dive master subbing for the Aussie charmer who broke both wrists toppling off a barstool, un-amused by a newbie among experienced divers. To keep me occupied while she led the real divers on their initial descent, she suggested-commanded I snorkel around our anchored boat, was even less amused upon return to learn a jellyfish had wrapped itself around my arm, leaving swollen henna-bright tattoos trailing from shoulder to fingertips. A novice’s Scarlet Letter.
Shadow-edged clouds billowed across a storybook sky, holding promises of relentless sunshine or possibly a brief burst of rain, like summers in Louisiana, a quick cry followed by a laugh of relief. On deck, divers jockeying, joking, rival comrades telling tall tales of exotic locales, rare specimen sightings, daring feats of diving do. Two men — a Danish Diving Duo — took pity, drew me into the circle as I cast about for an underwater tale of my own.
And I did! Years before, a friend — appalled by my never having taken a day off, much less a vacation — dragged me her family home on Oahu. We drank beachside Mai-Tais, sampled Spam sushi, visited a volcano. Pilgrimaged to Hanauma Bay, a snorkeling paradise known for sea turtles, emphatic signs posted along sinewy path from parking lot to beach, No Touching, No Touching! NO TOUCHING. Inaugural snorkel, I spied a Moray Eel, instinctively backed away, bumped into something behind me, turned. Face-to-face with a massive sea turtle.
I mimed apologies. He — assumed “he” — patted my gesticulating arm, pushed me along, fin gentle but insistent, guided us around dense formations of coral and fauna, between crevices and underneath reefs, past swaying seaweed fields, further and further, further than I would have dared on my own, my exclaims muffled by silicone mouthpiece. After some time — hours, I later discovered — my turtle steered us to shore, patted my back, glided away.
Danish Diving Duo appeared if not impressed, suitably appreciative. Surly Substitute Dive Master roused herself, called to me, readied us for our tandem dive. I tried not to think of wombs, umbilical cords as I acclimated to ambulating with flippered feet, Surly Substitute pointing at underwater landmarks, a perfunctory tourist guide.
I had yet to acclimate to the weighty weightlessness, the suspension of time and gravity while reminding myself to breathe-1-2-3, when a thresher shark darted between us, slipping underneath our tether. Surly Substitute motioned up-up-up. Back to boat, her announcement sent group scrabbling for gear, a rare sighting worthy of future tales.
Still leashed, we descended again. I watched the other divers moving as if in a dream, a buoyant ballet accompanied by breathy Darth Vader symphony echoing in my helmet. In an ungainly attempt to dodge a school of fish speeding towards some unseen goal, I backed up, flippered furiously to avoid touching the living coral, felt a pressure on my back. Humiliated — Surly Substitute would surely use my near-manhandling of precious, precarious nature as excuse to terminate our dive — I turned, found myself face-to-face with a sea turtle.
Surely, not the same one.
He — again, presumption — placed flipper between my shoulder blades, nudged me along, we undulated together, Surly Substitute trailing behind, tugging at leash, hand signals incomprehensible, as my turtle guide — uninterested in her — continued to prod, look here, and at that, and that, returned me to boat, patted my rump, swam away.
Ride back to Koh Pi Pi, no longer the outcast, divers and crew gathered around for me to tell the tale again, and again. Dreams that night vivid, peaceful. Rose before dawn, departure for Bangkok imminent, I sat solo on the soft sand watching waves lap shore, water reflecting, refracting, sunrise of fairytale hues, magic and myth shimmering not only beyond the horizon, but thrumming below the surface.