Round Six: A Landlubber's Grudge Match
by Carter O’Brien

I am gazing at a picturesque screensaver of the sea that is meant to be calming, yet I can feel my brow furrow with the practiced ease of a sailor unleashing profanity and I want to scream, "Serenity now!" (a la George’s dad on Seinfeld). With a trip to the North Carolina coast just weeks away, I am preparing for the greatest grudge match of my life, and this time I am seeking vengeance on behalf of all of god’s great land dwellers.

Water, my archenemy, has taunted, jabbed, provoked, poked, stung, and body-slammed me. Something has to be done.After my car flooded last summer (due to those damned rain blockers ,


recently installed on Chicago’s sewers) I knew that in its many incarnations, water had a complex, multi-tiered approach to fraying my last nerve. A plan, I needed a plan…. brash, yet subtle, lest I tip my hat too soon and thus prompt proactive retaliation.

But lest one think I have become completely detached from reality, I am aware that I am destined to lose this fight. The only question is how, and how badly.

I will tell the tale of how I have come to this twisted blood feud with the element that makes up 80% of my own body weight, as well as the larger malevolent conglomerations of said fluid, from rivers and lakes all the way up to the seas. It began many, many years ago, when as a wee landlubber I first realized that my encounters with bodies of water would come with a catch, a hidden cost, a curse, if you will.

My family was staying near a quaint, lovely little lake in Indiana. Little did I know that beneath its calm surface lay an instrument straight from the Spanish Inquisition known as an anchor. It was half-buried at the bottom of the lake with about 4 or 5 feet of water above it in an area directly next to the pier. With its hideous points exposed in the water, it must have been licking its proverbial chops the day I jumped off the pier while screaming like an idiot (‘cause that’s just what kids do). I felt a sharp pinch as something punctured my knee, and I climbed back onto the pier and toward the house to get a band-aid. Now when you cut yourself underwater it doesn’t always bleed right away, so when I turned around to tell my mom what I was doing I was shocked to see a red carpet of my own blood extending from the pier all the way to my leg.

Screaming like an idiot once again (‘cause that’s what kids do), I was rushed as fast as a 1980 Mazda station wagon would go to the nearest emergency room. In league with my watery foe was a local policeman, who pulled over my mom for speeding. Fortunately, his authority was no match against the fury of a woman whose child was bleeding profusely all over the interior of her car, and he escorted us the rest of the way there. I have a vivid memory of a doctor pulling a curtain out of the way to show me two splints going into layers of flesh, cartilage, and bone. A little too enthusiastically, he asked, "Hey, kid, ever seen the inside of your kneecap?", at which point I did the proper thing and fainted. I did not realize then, that this was my enemy’s first official victory:

Round One
Water: 1
Me: 0

But the villainy freshwater-style had just begun. A few years later, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I was in another lake, raking for bottles and debris ironically enough, and I managed to step on perhaps the only beer bottle that has ever been broken from top to bottom and remained otherwise intact. Standing in disbelief with a bottle attached to the entire underside of my right foot, I let out a mighty howl when my younger brother tried to detach it by smacking it with his rake. This assault required in excess of 40 stitches from my heel all the way up my little toe. Worse, I began getting visions of my toe healing the wrong way and webbing to my foot, so one night in secret I opened my Swiss Army knife, took a deep breath, and cut my toe away from my foot. Bad, bad, bad. Now assuring myself of a partially webbed toe, I knew the marker had been set:

Round Two
Water: 2
Me: 0

A few minor skirmishes followed throughout the years, but a truce had seemingly been reached. I occasionally dove into Lake Michigan, but I was careful to get out before being recognized. For the most part, I was content to confine myself to domesticated bodies of water such as my bathtub, or one of the park district pools. (It’s probably not fair to blame the elements for the inescapable amount of urine, bleach, and other nastiness found in public pools, but then again you never know…)

Over time I grew comfortable in the water, thinking it certainly couldn’t be complicit in the actions of people littering it with dangerous objects. I became a gung-ho enthusiast when it came to swimming, diving, water skiing, etc.

When I moved back to Chi-town after four years at a landlocked college, I didn’t hit the beach that often. Perhaps it was that omnipresent dead-fish smell, or the punk-ass little teenybopper lifeguards. But in the summer of 2000 I was psyched about a beautiful vacation to the North Carolina coast. Some friends and I had gone there the year before, and outside of drinking myself stupid a few times, no major incidents had gone down. This year, enter a happy little character called "Hurricane Floyd".

In the days before we left for the trip, we had been feverishly watching the news and monitoring web sites that showed up-to-the-minute storm movements via radar and satellite. Hurricane Floyd had been swirling viciously just off the eastern coast of the U.S., but it looked like it was going to shoot north without causing much of a ruckus. We had a fun, uneventful drive across the Appalachians, and then as we entered Virginia, a massive storm hit. But we drove through it and when we got to the North Carolina coast it was calm, but a little too calm, if you get my drift.

Looking out to sea, I noticed an eerie stillness to the clouds that blanketed the horizon, which had a blackish-green hue. The water, however, was frothing with activity—instead of the typical lone wave rolling in, there were groups of three or four waves only a few feet apart that were breaking into the shore at a high frequency.

This was a boogie-boarding dream come true! Already feeling claustrophobic from the long drive, some of us hopped out there with our boards and fins and started riding the surf. It was great. It was beyond great, we were cooking like real surfers, really riding the waves and getting up in the air before crashing upon the shore, laughing hysterically.

I made the decision to take one ride too many, of course…

Out in the water lying face down on my board, I patiently awaited the next break, and the next thing I knew I was getting lifted up. But then a strange thing happened--while I was still rising on one wave I felt another wave start to sneak underneath my legs and the back of my board started to tip forward. In a blink of an eye I realized that the second wave was bigger than the first, and suddenly the nose of the board was pointing down, and then the third wave caught me and my now-upright board and drove me straight down face-first into the sand. To further add to my misery, a fourth wave then took me and pushed me, with my face partially buried in the sand, about 10 feet towards the shore until I was able to get up.

I slowly regained my composure and was immediately aware that about one-third of my face was just screaming with pain. Once I was able to stumble inside and look in a mirror, I saw that most of the left side of my face was completely raw from my eye sockets down to my jaw line. Fuck! Here it was 30 minutes into a weeklong vacation in paradise and now I had this grapefruit-sized abomination on my face.

It got worse.


I soon found out that the expression "pouring salt on a wound" has a basis in reality. I’d jump back in the ocean later that week only to have half of my face explode in fire. I soon figured that a few shots of tequila were beneficial, and then after a while I just got used to it.

So right about the time I was thinking the worst was over, the hurricane hit. We were told to evacuate the island literally hours after we came back from the grocery store with over a hundred dollars worth of food, which was a problem because all the power would soon be turned off. One of our friends who is a courageous chef extraordinaire was not fazed, and immediately began cooking pounds of seafood on every burner of the stove. Lesser mortals such as myself decided to "save" the ice cream by finding it a nice spot in ourbellies.We only had to evacuate

Photo: Pancho's
Now That's What I'm Talking About!!

for a day, but it was obvious the giant scorekeeper in the sky had tallied up:

Round Three
Water: 3
Me: 0

Now sure, I could have spent my next vacation visiting a nice desert area like Arizona, or perhaps a ghost town in Colorado, or even the famous Wall Drug in South Dakota. But no-o-o-o-o, the sea it was to be. Off to the beautiful coast of North Carolina I went again. Upon arrival, I was greeted by a much wimpier-looking surf and I smiled smugly, feeling that as I had (sort of) survived hurricane conditions the worst was over. But not being a complete and total glutton for punishment, I was pretty content to swim out with the boogie board just a little bit and wait for the waves. I certainly wasn’t pushing my luck like setting out chum for sharks or anything like that.

I think this time the surprise came on the second day of the trip. Once again I swam out casually on my board, and then turned and waited for that tasty wave to take me away Jeff Spicoli-style. I caught a pretty decent ride and was cruising towards shore when I felt an unusual itchiness as the wave washed over me.

Curious, I thought. Unfortunately, the itchiness rapidly turned into a feeling of hot liquid fire attacking my cellular structure all across my back. Puzzled and in pain, I ran back to the house. My first thought was to wash off whatever weirdness was causing this pain, so I burst into the shower and started rinsing off. My now-wife came in to see what the deal was, and we determined that I had

been stung by a jellyfish. She conveyed this to our resident nautical expert, who referred us to a guide on "what to do when stung by a jellyfish" that was stuck to the fridge.

Number one on the list was "do not take a shower," as apparently all that does s spread the poisons on your skin, or something like that (d’oh!). The guide recommended meat tenderizer, although some of my companions recommended peeing on the affected area (I’m pretty sure that was NOT on the official guide)

We didn’t have any meat tenderizer, but we were able to scrounge up some Accent. Accent is that magical powder that "makes chicken taste more like chicken, ham taste more like ham."


Photo: Patrick Hurley

Immediately After Sting

Of course, it is just pure MSG, but a liberal sprinkling of it combined with a flurry of tequila shots did the trick. For a few days it felt like I had a bad burn on my back (thank god the boogie board protected the old family jewels). The pain subsided, but boy howdy was that a smack upside the head. Unquestionably, the score was:

Round Four
Water: 4
Carter: 0

At this point I was convinced the worst must be over. I mean seriously, getting stung by a jellyfish? That just didn’t happen to a Chicago guy. I imagine odd accidents like getting hit by a piece of scaffolding or a messenger biker or a runaway L train. Jellyfish are those nifty looking things

Photo: Patrick Hurley
One week later

at the aquarium that are always lit with black lights so you can see how delicate they are—not murderous pirates of the sea!

It also occurred to me that perhaps I was being singled out by the Atlantic. Perhaps that feisty East Coast energy stirred up those critters, so maybe I’d have better luck with the Pacific—hell, it even has "peace" in its name!

Alas, two years later, on the first day of my honeymoon in Kauai, Hawaii, I managed not only to slice open my foot on a piece of coral, but also to lose my wedding ring in the process. Blammo, just like that. I’d extrapolate a bit more, but one second I’m in the water, the next my foot is sliced open, and the next my ring finger is a bit more naked than it ought to be. Sigh.

Round Five
Water: 5+
Me: 0

Photo: www.kauai-blue-lagoon.com

Friend or Foe?

Now, with only weeks to go until another masochistic trip to the North Carolina coast, my options for retaliation appear to be somewhat limited, and somewhat futile. I suppose I could go the route of the youngster-peeing-in-the-hotel-hot-tub, but that’s kind of gross and it’s more likely to bother me than anyone else. I’m sure the sea has seen worse. Another option is a boycott, but how do you boycott 80% of yourself, much less something that directly and indirectly is responsible for all life on the planet?

The only other option I can think of would require at least a partial lobotomy, namely voting for George Bush in 2004. In an indirect way I could then support him continuing to poison our oceans, lakes, and rivers by scaling back the EPA and insisting that global warming is just a fact of life and we better just grin and bear it.

Or, I could continue consuming tequila as a remedy to all water-related ills and ailments.

I think I like that option the best.

To be continued? Hopefully not, as the way I’m heading it will look like this:




Photo: Reuters

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Copyright©2002 by Carter O'Brien.

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