This is the week of our annual family pilgrimage to Rehoboth. There are only 41 of us this year spread out over four houses; last year, we had 46 and I’m still trying to figure out who’s missing.
But I digress. Last year, I found myself thinking a lot about the pandemic, the upcoming presidential election, and ice cream (not necessarily in that order). This year, there is a new, unbidden thought keeps interrupting my beach reveries: I keep thinking about undertows. I have no idea why. As far as I know, there is little or no undertow along this stretch of beach, and if there were, there are plenty of well-trained lifeguards to leap to the rescue. So, I guess it’s not the actual fear of being swept out to sea that’s swimming in my mind; rather, it’s the metaphoric quality of the undertow phenomenon that’s driving my little train of thought.
An undertow is the current beneath the surface that sets seaward or along the beach when the waves are breaking on the shoreline. Undertows don’t actually pull you under; they just sweep you far enough away from shore to exhaust you. Should you get caught in an undertow, the experts remind you to remain calm and to swim diagonally back toward the beach. Yelling for help is another good idea.
But just that applies to the undertows one encounters in the ocean. The reason I’m thinking about undertows now has more to do with their metaphoric manifestation. You see, an undertow can be any underlying current, force, or tendency that is in opposition to whatever is apparent. Like refusing to wear a mask in the face of another Covid surge, or rejecting the results of a fair and free election, or going out for ice cream when you’re trying to lose weight.
There’s another dimension to all this, literally another dimension. Undertows don’t usually end in disaster for a swimmer. They might make it difficult to exit the water or result in an embarrassing near-shore rescue by a lifeguard who looks young enough to be your grandchild. An undertow’s more dangerous cousin is the riptide—a current on the surface of the ocean that can sweep even an experienced swimmer far enough out to sea to make it impossible to get back to shore, as well as to make rescue by that buff young lifeguard much more difficult. Undertows are subtle; riptides are as apparent as they are dangerous.
Now it turns out that one of the 41 family members gathered in our circle in the sand actually was a trained lifeguard on this beach for six seasons. I asked him about riptides and undertows: were they common phenomena? How was he trained in the art of rescue? And what was the purpose of that ubiquitous little buoy that trails behind a guard on a rescue mission. His answers were precise: assess the situation and the ability of the swimmer caught in a current; if indeed a rescue is required, swim parallel to the current and only enter it at an angle; use the buoy to encircle an exhausted or panicked swimmer and give him/her something to hold onto other than the lifeguard’s head. That all seemed like good advice to me and gave me even more metaphoric food for thought: when encountering some poor soul’s problem, assess the situation; enter the danger zone cautiously; and have all the tools you need when you decide to tackle someone else’s sticky situation.
In The World According To Garp, John Irving’s masterpiece, one of Garp’s children is frightened of the beach because he has heard there is an “undertoad” living under the waves. As if a strong ocean current weren’t frightful enough; now it has the warty, scary face of a huge frog lurking in the shallows, waiting to pull you under.
I think I’ll go back to thinking about ice cream. Nothing metaphoric about ice cream.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, MD. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.com