A Flower of the Orient
You are now a fifty year old Asian-American lady. Your husband, LaVern, is a former army man who brought you home to the bosom of his largely unwelcoming family.
As a civilian, LaVern found that the best things in life are beer, potato chips, and televised sports events. With passing decades, there have been some medical problems including heart disease, impotence, and a tendency to turn purple with rage while shouting obscenities at the players on the TV screen. LaVern has never seemed inclined to join you on your five-mile runs, your swims in the Pacific, or your bicycle rides through the San Diego hills.
One day, while gardening, you hear strange loud noises from the TV room. But almost all of LaVern's noises are, to your ears, rather strange. Perhaps the game is going badly. You continue to garden, discovering evidence of new termite infestation in the persimmon tree. The situation is so vexing that you go in to call the termite people. In mid-call, you notice LaVern on the floor of the room next door. His team, you think, must have lost.
Having been assured that termite help is on the way, you find that LaVern is, more or less, dead. There is some scuffling around with an ambulance, and the filling out of many forms, but no one seems able to bring LaVern back to life. The termite people, on the other hand, assure you that the situation is well in hand.
You pop down to the local marina to tell some friends of the changes in your situation, and you meet a young English lady named Elspeth. She has just gotten out of a rubber boat with a wooden rowing frame, and she urges you to give it a try. LaVern wouldn't have approved, but you hop into the boat and find that it goes beautifully. When you return after a short row, Elspeth offers to help you make one like it, perhaps with some improvements.
The next day, you and Elspeth set off. You have just learned to drive LaVern's van. While there are a few jerks, not to mention a little gear grinding, there are no serious problems. You proceed first to a bank with an ATM machine. You have LaVern's card, but not his password, and you say to Elspeth,
"I think the password is probably a four-letter word. Anyhow, we have nothing to lose."
"The machine will eat the card if you get it wrong twice."
"LaVern hardly said anything without 'shit' or 'fuck' in it."
"Most Americans would be embarrassed to give the bank a password like that. Aren't there those funny identity numbers that you all seem to have?"
"Yes, social security numbers. LaVern was always giving the last four digits at the VA hospital, and I know them."
"Whatever works to get medicine and stuff at a hospital ought to work on a bank."
You try her suggestion, and money comes out in a gratifying way. The man behind you at the machine gives you a funny look when you and Elspeth cheer and hug each other. She says to him,
"We thought we'd already spent all the money in that account."
The man mutters something you don't catch. He may still think that you've used a stolen card, but he doesn't seem inclined to call the police.
You use some of this money to buy a Sevylor 280, just like Elspeth's, and then go to the Home Depot. Strolling down a lumber aisle, you see that they have oak planks. They're very handsome, solid to the feel, and much more regular than the ordinary soft wood. Oak may be harder to work with, but you have all the tools, power and hand, that LaVern bought obsessively and never used. In the next couple of days, you and Elspeth put together a rig smaller and more elegant than hers. She decides to make one for herself if yours works successfully.
Sea trials reveal a few problems, but you find a nice shade tree in the marina next to the water and set to work under it. Putting your revised frame back on the Sevylor, you find that the problems have been solved. At the mouth of the harbor, you meet Elspeth and row back with her.
Seeing an eccentric-looking old man fishing from a little boat, you are reminded of something, and remark to Elspeth,
"Just before I came out, a tall older man came up and said he wouldn't take off his clothes if I gave him a dollar."
"That's old Sandy. He's taken to doing that. I thought it amounted to threatening, but he says it isn't because he doesn't say that he will take his clothes off if you don't give him a dollar."
"I did give him one. I have so many these days. He stayed to talk, and I rather liked him. He's so different from LaVern."
"I imagine that he is different from LaVern. And he doesn't need money. That's just what he calls an experiment in applied logic. Another one consists in going into bad bars and asking rough-looking men if they'd hit him back if he hits them."
"Does he often get hit?"
"No. Even ruffians seem to appreciate the hypothetical nature of the question."
A few days' practice improves your rowing considerably. You learn to row while watching the compass, and you range over the sea area between LaJolla and Point Loma. The cruise boats sometimes pass you, and you hear a captain on his loudspeaker,
"Wayell, folks, the head seems to be broken, but ...."
The voice trails off as the boat charges on, but the interlude makes you appreciate the solidude of the sea even more.
The next day, you find that LaVern's relations with his family were so bad that he left money to no one but yourself. You put the house up for sale and go looking for a boat the same day. The yacht broker at the marina, a tall former navy fighter pilot, shows you some boats. You both agree that you're a sailboat type of person. He doesn't seem particularly surprised when you shinny part-way up the mast of one boat to get a better look at it, and calls up,
"Don't worry about falling. I'm also a navy doctor, and I can fix you up."
You haven't known many pilots turned doctor turned yacht broker, but such an accomplished man's advice must surely be good. You buy the twenty-six foot sloop with a red stripe around it that he recommends. He also helps you plan a nice little herb garden in the open cockpit. A platform can be made to go over it when you're sailing, and the cockpit drain holes will carry off excess water when you're watering.
As you conclude the transaction, the broker tells you that he's "always happy to deal with ladies of distinction who conduct their business with dispatch." He also advises you "to wait a week or two before you sail the boat around the world."
The expedition you have in mind is actually of a different sort. You take Elspeth out in the van, get oak for her new frame, and buy clothes for yourselves. Finally, you take her to dinner at a pasta retaurant in Pacific Beach. The house wine bottles have a label which says:
"Government warning: The Surgeon General has determined that the consumption of alcoholic beverages may tend to make members of the opposite sex seem more attractive than they really are."
"You should bring Sandy here. After some wine, you might want him to take off his clothes."
After some more giggles about Sandy, and men in general, you plan your expedition.
The bottom of the Sevylor is fairly filled with the large inflated seat, water and food, and assorted other equipment. But everything floats, so you can toss it overboard with lines attached. You can then stretch out comfortably (being much smaller than Elspeth) and go to sleep. In fact, you've tried taking a nap out to sea. The ocean amounts to a super water bed, and you'll need only a light comforter or sleeping bag. A little tarp can be taken along in the very unlikely event of rain.
There's a great to-do at the marina as you set out on a fine morning. The plan is to proceed to the next harbor to the north, Oceanside, in easy stages. The first two nights, you'll anchor off beaches, rolling comfortably in the swells as you sleep. You also have a dry bag that you can tie to your waist. The idea there is that you can swim in to a beach front restauant, but on dry clothes, and dine in elegance. After a drink or two, you can put your dress back in the dry bag and return to your vessel riding at anchor. Everyone thinks that it's a great plan.
Elspeth in her boat and Sandy in a kayak accompany you out of the harbor and the channel, and then for a couple of miles. After leaving them, you row past Pacific Beach and drift off Bird Rock while having lunch.
The wind rises to its usual fifteen knots in the afternoon, and you steer some thirty degrees into it to hold your northerly course. Some spray comes aboard and cools you, but nothing solid. You round the rocky headland of LaJolla, too far off to see the expert body-surfers, but do see lots of seals.
The beach just on the other side of LaJolla, off which you plan to anchor for the night, is partially protected by the point, and is known for its low surf. You are aware that people launch all sorts of boats there, and it occurs to you to land directly without anchoring and swimming. Indeed, as you pass LaJolla Cove on the way to the beach, a motor boat that has just launched comes out. It's getting late in the afternoon, and the awareness of an excellent restuarant just two blocks from the beach impels you inward.
The waves don't seem particularly big until you get almost to the beach. Then, suddenly, you find yourself in the middle of what surfers call a "big set."
The first one twists you sideways, and you almost go over on the side toward the beach. But the wave doesn't break until it's just past you. You do try to get out of the area before the next wave gets you, but you're just too late. The wave, a bit bigger than the last one, breaks right on top of you.
You're aware only of water and foam until the boat lands on top of you, and you thump your head on the sand. There's a loud crack, clearly audible under water, as your rig breaks up. It may be a broken piece of oak that gets you in the stomach, and you think that it's probably the handle of an oar that hits you in the head.
You are, fortunately enough, thrown far enough up on the beach so that you can crawl toward land. As the receding wave sucks you back, you at least get your head above water with your hands and feet on the sand. You can see the appalled looks on the faces of the many bystanders, and you wonder how you yourself must look.
You are, in fact, reminded of a piece you saw in LaVern's collection of old MAD magazines. When Richard Nixon was vice-president, he went, with his wife, on a good-will tour of Latin America. By the time they got to Peru, certain American agencies had done things to irritate the Latins. When Dick and Pat were riding in an open car, waving optimistically and blowing kisses to the crowd, the crowd responded with rocks. The MAD artist, with that remarkable quasi-cartoon style of the magazine, captured wonderfully the expressions of the vice-president and second lady. You suspect strongly that you now have exactly the look of Pat Nixon while she was being stoned.
Recovering from their moment of immobility, the people on the beach rush to your aid. Two young gentlemen, one on each arm, help you out of the water. Some of the ladies collar your scattered possessions, and two men drag your broken boat, looking like a seagull with a broken wing, up on the sand. A lifeguard, used to every sort of mishap, comes up laconically but helpfully. While you're bleeding from several places and bruised practically everywhere, nothing seems to be broken. One of the ladies offers you the use of a cell phone, and you're able to reach Sandy on his cell phone at the marina.
On inspecting the boat, you discover that only one piece is actually broken. The lifeguard remarks,
"Oak is strong, but there is a limit. That frame had the whole weight of the wave on top of it."
It occurs to you that the weight of the wave also came down on you, not breaking anything at all, but you don't want to be boastful.
By the time that you meet Sandy and Elspeth at the restaurant, you've sufficiently recovered couth to put on your dress and disguise your black eye with make-up. You're somewhat ashamed at the abortive end of your expedition, but Sandy replies,
"I've often gotten piled up worse than that when I've tried something new. We'll get a new piece of oak from Home Depot and fix your boat in about fifteen minutes."
"That's good. I was afraid that it was hopelessly wrecked."
"It's almost impossible to wreck a boat that's small, cheap, and simple. You just replace a part or two."
"Then, I'll get off again soon. Next time, I'll anchor and swim in."
It is decided to order the house red to celebrate the occasion. Unfortunately, the waitress, perhaps preoccupied by some innner turmoil, tips the whole decanter of wine over on to you. After some considerable mopping of your dress, Elspeth concludes,
"The risks on shore always seem to be greater than the ones at sea."