Iteration III

The day I left Turtle Cove

August 6, 2007

When I was eleven years old and I never thought of death, I used to go with my dad to a place we called Turtle Cove. There are a hundred Turtle Coves on the big Island. Some marked that way on maps, some known that way in the neighborhood, and some, like ours, only ever called that by four little boys and their dad.

Our Turtle Cove was at the very end of a street that stopped about 30 feet above where the Pacific Ocean started. The cliffs were black, shiny lava, and the ocean carved them into inlets and arches and caves. In bare feet you could feel the power of the waves vibrate up through the warm stone.

One calm day I was chasing the little black crabs across the rocks, and I could see that there was a ledge about six feet down from the lip of the cliff where dozens of them came out to sun themselves. I knew that if I could climb down and then hold still for just a few minutes, one would get close enough to throw my tee-shirt over. That is how you caught them. Under a tee-shirt they would hold perfectly still, thinking they were hidden, and you could scoop them up and put them in a bucket to run in circles for a few minutes while you peered over the edge and tried to figure out how they moved sideways so quickly.

One thing I always appreciated about my dad when I was growing up is that he would not immediately veto a plan like climbing down the face of a cliff over the thundering Pacific Ocean. Instead he would ask what my plan was to get down there, and then he would suggest ways to improve the plan, leading me towards something less suicidal in a way that let it still be my idea.

One of his contributions this time was to ask me how I was going to keep an eye on the ocean if I was paying attention to handholds on the cliff. The two rules I remember most vividly from growing up are “feet first the first time you jump” and “never turn your back on the Pacific.” Sure, there was “stop, drop, and roll” and “stand in a doorframe when there is an earthquake,” but those were for big, ambiguous dangers. Even with all of my ill-advised experimenting I never set myself on fire, and even in Hawaii earthquakes big enough to worry about were rare, but the Pacific managed to sneak up on me almost every time I gave it a chance.

In the end the plan was to have him lower me down with his long arms, while I paid attention to my landing and he watched the ocean. That way everything was covered, and I would be able to safely (or at least less dangerously) try to catch a new crab to study. As far as it went, the plan was perfect. He lowered me down slowly while I walked backwards down the face of the cliff, and when my toes could just touch the ledge I pushed back a little, swung out from the face of the cliff, and let go of his hand. I landed lightly, and the crabs scattered at the vibration or the shadow or whatever supernaturally perceptive sense it was that told their little brains “Sideways! Sideways to safety!”

I hadn’t even straightened up when I knew something had gone wrong. All afternoon not a single wave had broken as high as the ledge, but somehow, in the two seconds my dad had looked down at me to make sure I had landed okay, one was coming. It wasn’t even coming, it was there. He saw it when I did, and called out “tom, here!” as he dropped down on his stomach and reached down again. I don’t remember being scared. I could feel the roar of the wave running aground in the shallows at the base of the cliff. It was all around me. I jumped and grabbed onto my dad’s hand with both of mine, and the wave broke over me.

That high above the ocean, the wave was already rebounding from the impact lower down when it got to me. It pushed up and pulled away, salt in my eyes and water in my mouth before I could close them. The world turned to white noise and one hand on both of mine. Then all of a sudden there was air in front of me again, and I took one deep breath before the second, bigger, wave broke. I was drawn away from the face of the cliff, suspended, caught between the ocean and my dad, and I never doubted he would hold on.