“An Ocean of Wonder”

I was such a good-looking little boy (no way I’m posting a picture!). Just imagine: a skinny eight or nine years old, hair buzzed to sandpaper bristles—thanks, Dad—glasses with lenses so thick that I had perpetual bruises on the bridge of my nose, and buck teeth the envy of every jackrabbit in the neighborhood. On top of that, I had a very serious allergy to poison ivy. I know. Almost everyone breaks out with those damned little blisters when the oil of the plant gets on human skin. My problem was that I only had to get within ten or twenty feet of it and I had it everywhere!

Oh, sure. I got the blisters. Then I got blisters on the blisters. Big, ugly, running sores (whether I scratched or not, and I got to the point where I could resist doing so). I had blisters on the inside of my eyelids, in my mouth, up my nose, and in every other orifice you care to consider…no, really. One doctor said I had the poison, or whatever it is, in my bloodstream. It would take weeks to get rid of it. I think my parents had stock in Caladryl and Calamine lotions. I think that’s why I detest the color pink. Nothing really seemed to cure it. Ever taken an Epsom Salts bath when you have open sores? I don’t recommend it.

One summer our family vacation was to go and visit my cousins in Goldsboro, North Carolina. My uncle was in the Air Force and stationed at the base there. It’s not far from the Atlantic, and one of our anticipated excursions was to be a day at the beach. Quite a treat for us landlocked Missourians. Guess who made the trip covered in pink goo?

The drive was fun. This was about 1958 or so. No air conditioning in our station wagon. My brothers and I rode in back, of course. There were no seatbelts for anyone. My mother’s parents made the trip with us, as well, so there were four adults and three obnoxious little boys (OK, two and me). By the way, it was August.

When we got to the base, the high temperature was somewhere near that of the surface of the sun. I was sweating pink poison. Still had a good time. I got lost riding my cousin’s bicycle one afternoon. All the houses on the base look alike. Made my way into the Officers’ Club and was greeted with some smartass captain: “Oh, no! We’ve been invaded by Martians!” They joked, but got me home.

The afternoon we went to the beach was a real blast. It was as hot as ever, and now I had sand in every open wound, too. I’d learned to ignore almost everything. The adults got everything set up for our afternoon, and we kids, naturally, were begging to get in the water. My brothers and I lived at the pool and were pretty good swimmers even then, but watching the waves crash on the shore was a surreal experience. “LET’S GO SWIMMING!”

I stood there with my mouth open, listening to my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my grandparents debate whether or not to let me in the water in my condition! I couldn’t believe my ears! What did they think, that I would pollute the whole ocean?? No, they were worried that the salt water would hurt me. I argued that I was beyond that. They relented. I ran and dove headfirst into the nearest breaker. I didn’t come out for at least an hour.

I felt terrific. I think I got out because I was hungry. I loved being under water, and I’d spent much of my time exploring the sandy bottom. I was surprised that the salt water didn’t make my eyes burn, but they didn’t then, for some reason. My mother’s reaction when I ran up the beach to the picnic basket made me stop dead in my tracks. She gasped and pointed at me.

Everyone gathered around to look at this new freakish thing I’d managed to become. I didn’t know what the fuss was all about until Mom grabbed me. Every single mark on me was gone. Vanished. Cured. Washed away in the universal absolution of the sea. Of course, I was absolutely overjoyed. I wanted to fill several jugs with this miraculous solution and take it home with me for bathing when the next affliction assaulted me.

It was a great thing that happened. Made the whole trip worth every painful moment up to then. I remember wishing it had also cured my other faults. Didn’t work. I was still terribly nearsighted and would be until I had to have the lenses in my eyes replaced, and only braces helped that overbite. It was 1969 before I had much hair. For a while I had a really cool ponytail.


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