Al Knable-1.jpg (copy)

Al Knable

“And the sea will grant each man new hope, as sleep brings dreams of home.”

The Hunt for Red October

I long for the beach. I have been too long away; soon over two years. COVID and family dynamics have conspired, rendering me landlocked beyond endurance.

Salt, sand and sea; the screeching of gulls; the rhythmic concussions of the waves — so much to see, hear, taste, smell and feel — yet rather than becoming overwhelmed we are somehow settled. Relaxed even.

It’s the horizon that does this, one of nature’s keenest displays of legerdemain. Amidst the tumult the mind’s eye finds clarity paradoxically by focusing upon the seemingly infinite. Long-sought answers are found. The worries of the day forgotten. Blood pressures return to normal.

A neat trick. How’d she do that? I don’t know. Let’s see it again!

And see it again I must do soon for I have decisions to make. Long-walk-on-the-beach, lose-yourself-find-yourself types of decisions. You know what I’m talking about. Clarity.

For we “flyover” Midwesterners who might sojourn to the shore once a year if we’re lucky, our cumulative seaside time is a pittance compared to the spans of our lives, but oh what significance these brief trysts have upon our lives!

Here are a few of mine:

Age 6

I am chasing Emerita but I have not studied biology just yet, so I call them “sand bugs.” As each wave recedes I have approximately 10 to 15 seconds to dig for specimens before the returning water chases me to drier sand. It’s not easy to get the timing down, but still, I have several specimens in my bucket and I’m eager to show my mom.

An errant wave reaches farther ashore than expected and pulls my bucket back to deeper water with it. Anxious about losing my collection I race after it. Just as I grasp the bucket’s handle I am pulled at both ankles and knocked from my feet. Sucked beneath the churning water (in what I would later learn is called an “under tow”) I was soon far from shore…far enough for a 6 year old in any case.

I right myself but as I try to make my way back to shore, I quickly lose balance and cry out just before being taken under once more. This time I am somersaulted along the bottom enough times to collect several abrasions from the sand and shell debris before reaching the surface for a breath.

The third time I go under my mouth is filled with salt water and I begin to breathe in brine before a brief darkness takes me.

As despair begins to give way to acceptance, a Samaritan’s strong hands lift me from the drink and he swims, then carries me to shore where he sits me down and pats me on the head.

As God is my witness, his white beard falls below his belly button.

“Best stay closer to shore — for now,” is all he says.

I immediately run to my mom, sea weed clinging to my hair and tell her what happened.

“Where’s this nice old man?” she asks.

I point to where he had been a moment before but he is gone.

I will never see him, or my bucket, again.

Age 12

I am building sand castles with my younger sister.

We have perfected the art of a firm foundation and “strudeling” wet sand over it to make fantastic towers, tunnels beneath parapets to allow for water flow.

To our mutual horror, each time we complete a castle, our foster brother destroys it.

“Jack,” as I will call him, is a menace; wild; entropy personified. Think “Mayhem” from the Allstate commercials. Plus he’s just close enough to my size that when we have a disagreement (3-4 times a day) my mom says, “You guys settle it yourselves,” but just enough bigger than I am so that all disputes are “settled” in his favor.

By mid-week I’d estimate that we have erected over 20 castles and seen as many laid low by Jack’s stomping feet. Jack and I have engaged in a proportional number of wrestling matches over that time and I have come up short each time. Gloom, despair and agony on me…as the song goes.

Feeling rather dejected the next day, I set out for a walk along the beach. I figure that if we build farther away from Jack’s territory perhaps we’ll have a chance. That’s when I find it — a beautiful, pyramidal, possibly even primordial chunk of coral jutting 18 inches above the sand. I try to retrieve it but its bulk is buried well beneath the surface. It will not budge.

Sweet inspiration!

I run back to the hotel to get my sister. She is reluctant to build another castle only to see it ruined, but I insist. Once at the coral she quickly catches on.

The structure we build over the next hour is a labor not of love, perhaps, but certainly of purpose. Over 2 feet tall, tunnels for outflow, strudel towers beyond compare. It is truly our crowning achievement.

It is built to be irresistible, and it is.

Eventually Jack finds us and begins to taunt about how unfortunate it is that this beautiful castle must be destroyed. And that no one can stop him.

“Please. Jack. Don’t.”

His right foot is already in mid-arc and descending faster than any regret might ever possibly be articulated. But there is no remorse.

Coral splits skin and screams rend the air and the sea eventually reclaims all traces of evidence, except for the avenging coral.

Jack longs for revenge, but I will be able to outrun him for the rest of the summer.

Age 30

I am recently married and honeymooning in Bermuda. My wife and I find a secluded beach and...while swimming close to shore, she is stung by “brain coral.”

I spend the rest of the day nursing her wound.

I am beginning to feel like a “grown up.”

Age 37

I am enjoying taking our children to the beach for the first time and seeing this wonderful force of nature through their eyes as much as mine.

The ocean is powerful; life and love even more so.

Age 49

I will soon be 50 years old.

I have just driven over 12 hours and close to 700 miles to bring my family to the beach.

I am tired. Physically, emotionally and spiritually wiped out. I suppose I want some recognition for my effort rather than the bickering and squabbling I am witnessing over room assignments and dinner options.

In truth, we all are tired but this selfish moment belongs to me.

As evening goes down to night, the kids are watching the NBA finals and my wife is in the shower and I have had enough so I leave without saying goodbye for a solitary walk on the beach.

The sky is dark, the moon bright, and I am seemingly alone with nothing but the roar of the Gulf for company.

I wade knee, now hip, quickly chest deep into the cold water and I am so desperately tempted to swim outward to the point of exhaustion, to meld with the moonlight.

I take an intentional breath and force myself below to a depth where the moon becomes an unrecognizable blur, deep enough that I’m not sure I can make it back up, not sure if I even want to.

But life is stronger than me this night and I resurface to embrace all of her responsibilities, her challenges and the reward of mundane glories for modest duties well-performed.

I drift on my back until the tide bears me to shore.

I make my way back to our house ... no one seems aware that I was gone.

Age 53

We are snorkeling off the waters of Costa Rica. My family and I return one by one to the boat, tired from the effort. My wife seems at one with the Pacific and is the last to return, climb back aboard.

The Captain and his mate ask if we would like some quiet time on a nearby beach before sunset and we eagerly agree.

The boat pulls ashore and deposits my wife and I and our children and my daughter’s boyfriend upon a deserted beach composed of pebbles and shells rather than sand. Only barely detectable ripples tell of a gentle tide.

“I don’t like a beach made of pebbles, I like sand,” my wife says.

“Give it time,” I quip.

The beach extends to either side of our landing point for perhaps 300 yards. There is a berm of thickets about 20 yards from shore effectively blocking the view inland except for one central pathway which leads through the thickets.

The Captain instructs us not to take the path as we are now in Nicaragua and he’s not sure how we might be greeted.

So, we stroll leisurely along the beach for the next hour, each exploring our own areas, alone together.

I am reluctant to leave this beach. It is our last night together.

I am overwhelmed with the thought, I see it as clear as day — if there is a Heaven, and if I am called first, I will return here.

I shall wait patiently upon this shore until the gentle waters have worked these stones into sugary sand.

If need be, I will endure longer still, until I am joined by the one I love.

Then, clasping hands, we will take the path between the trees into the clearing — and the clarity — beyond.

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