CATCHING THE BIG ONE • by Morley Young

The old man shuffled slowly along the sandy path, exploring the footing with his cane before he took each cautious step. The slight slope of the path would have been no challenge to most people; he grimaced as he remembered when it would have been no challenge to him. His cane sank into the sand, almost costing him his balance. He recovered, and proceeded on his careful way toward the bench. He relished the thought of attaining that space; the bench was set in concrete, and only a little sand dusted its surface. He’d be all right there, no more stumbling in the treacherous sand.

After a dozen more cautious, laborious steps, he sat down on the sturdy bench, shucked off his sweater, and leaned back with a small sigh. The cool ocean breeze kissed his damp face, and he let it do its work. After a moment, he took off his hat and let the breeze cool his sparse, sweaty hair. He looked back to the path he had just negotiated, and felt some small satisfaction at his victory. Every walk, no matter how short, was a victory these days. Assuming, of course, that he didn’t slip or fall. Staying upright; that was the victory. He savored it for a few more seconds before he turned his attention to the ocean.

The big, aquamarine backlit curlers were rolling in, just like they did when he was a young man. It was hard to believe he had once swum out to meet the ocean, to taunt the big waves, and dance on them, just him and his board. None of those pansy fiberglass things in those days; a man’s board took a good man to carry it down to the shore.

A hundred yards out, a flash of color moved, and he knew it was a surfer, getting up. He yearned for the acute vision of his youth, when he could have seen more clearly. Settling for what vision he still had, he watched the blurred image of the surfer catch the wave and ride it in. Not bad for a green kid, he thought grudgingly.

Something farther out caught his eye. Was that a big wave he saw out there — one of those once-in-a-lifetime waves? Was this the one he’d been waiting for? He strained to see more clearly, but his old eyes betrayed him, only letting him get a blurred impression of what might or might not be a big wave.

The surfer was almost all the way in; some premonition made him look back over his shoulder. What he saw galvanized him. He leaned back, rode the board up onto the beach, then picked it up with one smooth motion and ran, directly toward the old man. On the wet part of the beach he made good speed, but when he hit the dry sand his speed dropped seriously. He dropped the board, doubled over and put every ounce of his strength into gaining more speed. Just once he looked back, and he almost fell. After that, he looked straight ahead, toward the paved path the old man had left to come down to the bench.

The fear on his face and the abandoned board caught the old man’s attention. Again he looked out at the sea. He could see it clearly now; a huge, shining curler, gaining height and speed with every foot it moved toward the beach. The old man was fascinated; he had never seen one this big before. He’d heard of them, but to actually see a wave like this? He felt a surge of pity and contempt for the young surfer who had turned his back on the magnificent sight.

The surfer gained the pavement and turned for a moment to look back at the old man. “Hey, come on! That big one’s gonna get ya! Hurry!”

The old man spared the young surfer one quick, contemptuous glance, then returned his attention to the giant wave that was hissing and roaring its way toward him. Would it come this high? Would it take him back to the ocean? Maybe it would all be over in a few short minutes. He sat, his jaw dropped in wonder at the awesome sight, and waited for it to take him.

The wave started to break, but there was plenty of weight and power there yet. The old man wasn’t worried; it wouldn’t wash out on him. It hit the beach, and immediately turned brown with the sand it picked up. It started up the slope toward him. He stood to meet it, his eyes shining, his arms opened wide in welcome. Without realizing it, he dropped his cane. His hat blew away, but he didn’t miss it. His wave was coming for him. Nothing else mattered.

No more being half blind; no more stumbling along, weak, dizzy and half out of control; no more waking up in the morning, his hips racked with pain from the pressure of a perfectly good mattress.

The wave ran up the slope, more sand now than water. Then it began to slow. Before his eyes, it shrank, hesitated, and collapsed at his feet. The last pitiful dribbles of muddy water lapped at the concrete platform he stood on.

The old man looked down and felt like cursing the wave, but years of victories and disappointments had taught him to accept what the day brought. He might not like it, but he would accept it. Maybe there’ll be another one tomorrow. Or maybe I’ll get lucky tonight, and there won’t be any damned tomorrow. He picked up his cane, used it to retrieve his hat, settled the hat firmly on his head, and began the long, slow trudge up to the sidewalk. As he passed the young surfer, he smiled. “A little nervous around the water, are ya, sonny?”

Morley Young writes in Oregon.

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