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“The Oceanographer”

I love the beach.  I love the smell of ozone and minerals filling my nostrils. I love the aroma of the sun-steamed water that wafts to shore by tropical jet streams; these streams that have the power to take a calm rippling wave and turn it into a tsunami. It is the tsunamis I am after. As a child, some sixty odd years ago, my parents took me to a beach that we barely escaped from. My parents took me to the beach because they couldn’t afford much else, but that didn’t matter to me. The ocean was a second home; it cleared my mind, and allowed me to be free, and to think.

Today I am watching the people of San Pedro Beach Reserve. To these people I am nothing more than another tourist enjoying the hot sand climbing between my toes, feeding seagulls as they demand their tolls of bread for being on their land, and digging into the liquid sand to watch the crabs dance sideways towards the sea.

What the people don’t know is I am an oceanographer, and I am here on this lovely white sanded beach filled with sand castles, pretend mermaids or sea monsters, laughter and smiles to warn these people of something terrible. It is my duty and prerogative to either allow these people to remain on this beach to enjoy the rays of sun and sand or to alert them to the possibility of an approaching tsunami.

I know this sounds like I am playing God with these peoples’ lives, but honestly, it is the waves that will tell me; the smell of the air, the force of the currents when I paddle out on my surfboard. I imagine the young couple that keeps stealing glances my way look at me and think, “That old guy in red bathing shorts, with his salt and pepper hairy chest that is looking out to sea with a compass, telescope, and clipboard must be either a wanna-be-pirate or a crazy kook.”

laugh at the thought. When I was a child, I imagined myself as a pirate, sailing the ocean seas, finding treasure so that I could give it to my mom and dad.

My parents are hard working people. My mother used to waitress at a small diner and was paid .75 cents an hour. Tips were split between the cook and busboy, so in any given day she brought home around $15 to $17 dollars a day. My father drove the city bus. He made $80 a week, which to me, back then, sounded like a lot of money. I never knew we were poor. I used to pretend that my father was more than a bus driver; he was a secret agent, undercover, his job, protect the people of San Pedro, just like a super hero.

I am in my seventies, and I don’t consider myself old. Seasoned, maybe, but definitely not old. If I was old I would not still have my six-pack abs. I know that sounds like I am showing off or being conceited, but for any man of my age with their limbs still strong and limber, kept fit by years of surfing, paddling, and swimming, that should prove that I am agile-minded enough to still tabulate the wind speed by referencing the fluid dynamics of wind waves or, more precisely, wind-generated waves.

I started to notice the first signs of the tsunami a few weeks ago. I tried to send word to the meteorologist stationed at the San Pedro Navel Base.

“Hey Jim, have you noticed the waves around the Pedro area lately?” I asked.

“No, George,” his tone annoyed, but listening.

“You better check that fancy equipment you have, because I’ve detected a slight receding of the waves since that earthquake hit the other day. You know that is the first sign of a tsunami, having an earthquake last more than twenty minutes.”

“George, if a tsunami was going to hit it would have done so the same day of the earthquake. I am an oceanographer, and George, I hate to tell you this, but you are not.”

“The hell I am. I have lived and breathed these waves since I was a small boy picking shells out of the sand for my sand castles! Just because I don’t have that fancy education you do doesn’t mean I am not an Oceanographer.”

“George, it does say exactly that. I can’t express this enough. You… are… not… and I mean not, an Oceanographer.”

“Jim, this is bullshit. If you don’t help these people, they could all die, and it will be your fault.”

“George, look at your track record. You called me about a hurricane at Loky Beach. There was no hurricane, not even a heavy gust of wind. You called us from Hawaii telling us to close the beach because you feared a bigger tsunami was going to hit.”

“Imagine if there was a hurricane or tsunami, all those people would have died! Because you are too high and mighty to do something about it.”

“George I…”

“ Jim, listen. I was mistaken, I’ll admit that. But I am right. I am telling you Jim, this is real. I mean it. I was mistaken before, but everyone makes mistakes. Don’t punish these people for my past misinterpretation!”

“Look, I’ll personally check the radar scanners and the Dopplers and call you back.”

Jim never called back. It seems since I made a few a mistaken assumptions ten years ago they were more inclined to believe what their fancy machines said, then listen to an out-of-date old fogey like me, who has lived and breathed the ocean since he was a four year old boy.

I am angry and disappointed with my fellow oceanographers; any oceanographer worth his weight in salt would notice the slight receding of the ocean waves and at least for safety close the beach.  Now I stand here and frown at the sky as the wind starts to pick up. The sun begins to hide behind the clouds casting its shadow. I take it as a sign.

I laugh along with others as an orange and yellow striped umbrella up-roots itself and begins a cartwheel race down the beach. I watch as children jump from its path and laugh as the owners chase it down. I even take enjoyment watching the dogs pull to the end of their tethers barking and yapping at the excitement of a chase. I have to make the decision now, should they be told to pack up their things, their children, their dogs and hightail it out, or should I allow them a few more hours of peace before I send them on their way to safety.

The question is, “Will they listen? If they value their lives they will. I will show all those hot shots, when I am a hero, and they are blamed for almost killing hundreds of people because they won’t warn them.”

I look around the beach and spot a young boy, he too is wearing red swimming trunks. He is looking out to sea as I used to do, his face pensive as a young girl, most likely his sister, sneaks up behind him with an orange pail and throws the bucket of cold ocean water over his head initiating a game of cat and mouse.

I imagine the repercussions of the coming storm. The bodies of those children once alive and vibrant floating away cold and blue. I imagine the red shorts of the boy highlighting his corpse on the sand buried beneath the upturned cars, tents, and trailers. I image overturned trash cans littering the beach with broken glass, hamburger wrappers, moist Towelettes  and dirty diapers decorating all along the shoreline. Lives destroyed, and I shudder at the thought.

I remember my first tsunami, it started like it did today. The sweet salt of the air, the cool breeze and  the freezing water made for a perfect day. I was never the type of child to play sea monsters like the other children. On that day we were lucky enough to be alone, so I did what I love which was the construction of sand into architecture, a.k.a. sand castles. It was the wind that captured my attention because it threw the castle’s sands into my face, blinding me with salt. My mom, who had spent most of the morning sunning herself grumbled because the sun had gone and she was starting to get cold, and my father was complaining because the sand had invaded his sandwich.

I remember the sky darkening quickly as it went from day to night so fast, like a turtle into his shell. I remember the tremble and nervousness of my mother’s voice as she called my name.

“George dear, come away from the water. I don’t like the look of the waves.”

“George listen to your mother, pack up your things we are leaving.” My father called after her.

I was the closest to the water. I watched the water pull back from the shore, as if a true sea demon tilted the world to drink its fill, then the rumble, a sound that shook the sand making it dance in strange patterns. By the time the waves returned, my mother and father had ripped me out of the sand dune and ran with me to the car. As we were driving away, I still remember staring out through the back of the station wagon, mesmerized by waves overlapping waves as if they were fighting to be the first on land. The car shook as if the hand of God was fighting the devil to lift us up and away from danger.  I had not understood then, as I understand now, how close we were to losing our lives that day.

I know the signs, and that nobody would warn these people. It falls to me and I will not fail them. I head to my car and open the trunk, removing old blankets caked in dirt and sand; below the grime lay my bullhorn. I take no time to climb the long-abandoned life guard booth and flick on the bullhorn, the screech of which gets attention quickly. I address the crowd, then a thought occurs, “What if no one listens?”

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