Water Tunnels

Water Tunnels

Off across the face of the deep, where the sky marries the sea, the storm clouds gather. Even though I am far from the ocean, all I need to do is raise my eyes to the window that looks out to a scrap of sky—still blue in this inland space—and listen to the weather man, and I am there. I can smell the salt spray and hear the rumbling of the water and my heart breathes such a sigh of contentment.

 A hurricane is on the way…and there is nothing that weaves its tale like the sea.

Sometimes the moaning winds of a storm bring horizontal masses of rain, spreading like huge gray bed sheets across a down-comforted mattress of clouds. But today I picture vertical rain typing on the briny surface, creating dots of incomprehensible braille.  Closer to shore the drops sharpen to needles and stitch the edge of the waves to the glistening sand.

When the surf rolls back, white foam rises up, reminding me of the birdnests I encounter when I forget to load the bobbin on my embroidery machine.  With the help of a blade I cut the fabric away from the throat plate and turn it over to find the lathered white of the under-thread and, if the fabric is blue or green, gray or murky brown, I am carried away to the coast where my heart resides.

My father brought a musical globe back from his Navy travels one time. Imprisoned forever in the glass were three Parisian can-can dancers, one leg raised, bent at the knee, ticking like a clock pendulum, to and fro, to the tune of Infernal Galop from  Jaques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.

I hear that music and my fanciful eye sees the always measured rush of the surf augmented at storm time by the ever-increasing height and strength of the waves. They move sideways across the skyline like those enthusiastic high-steppers—the scandalous dancers—flicking the billowing fabric of their high skirts at the darkening sky, unfurling the frothy flags of their petticoats upon the beach.

I can remember that same stormy ocean tumult along the banks in Newport, Rhode Island, where my father attended the Naval War College. When the forecast warned of a hurricane, I waited and watched with anticipation for the winds to whip the trees, to starch the flags against the sky and turn the drenching spray to foam.

Before long my father would roll into the driveway and through the front door, tearing at his black tie, racing for his “tunneling” clothes, barking happy orders for all hands to hurry, “the storm is coming.” Sometimes I was the only one that answered his summons. Mother thought my brother was too young for what she considered a dangerous undertaking.  My sister would, more often than not, shake her head and disappear into her room.

Sometimes we beat the rain as we piled into the car but we could see it coming, moving up the coast with a purpose. The gusts of wind became a squall and then a gale and there seemed to be a resolve and intensity to life that I could feel but not quite understand. I didn’t know about adrenalin, I just knew that the adventure was worth any risk and that I would be safe with my sea captain at the wheel.

We headed for the coast road, up where the houses were bigger than the submarines and battleships and carriers that populated our part of this world.

“Here we go, sailor,” my father yelled. I looked down to the bottom of the cliff and watched the whitecaps break against the rocks, the watery fists of the sea pounding the land's face and  acres of spume and brine soaring through the air, arching across the road. We were wrapped, it seemed, in the petticoats of those outrageous French dancers.   I was always sure that somewhere we would see some of the sea gods dancing as well— perhaps Neptune himself beating time with his trident, laughing at the chaos. 

There was nothing more splendid, not even that I can remember now, than that tunnel of silver, glistening water and my father’s head thrown back in a wide smile, laughing at the beauty of it all. We drove, full steam ahead, until the tunnels lost their form or the sky was lost in twilight and then we made our way home.

“Next comes the salt rot saga,” he laughed, referring to the worrisome chant that would be mother’s greeting. And she was right; we went through more than one car, sacrificed on the altar of the storms, succumbing to the corrosive, magical thing my father called “Neptune’s sodium chloride.”

“What’s a car in the face of such majesty,” he asked, begging her with his eyes to see things through his.

I didn’t know then—I don’t know now—if she ever did.

To this day when the rising wind causes the treetops to bend their heads close together, like whispering school girls, and I know that somewhere the surf is beating, beating on the sand, crashing and roaring, spending itself on the beach like a lace-garbed swimmer, I head out the door.

“What are you doing? Where are you going? It is wicked out there!”  Cries might reach my ears as I flee to the comfort and danger of the storm. But I am gone, down the walk, into the wind, pressing my face against air full of sublime rage.

 You could almost write your name upon the hardening wall of the wind.

Remembering moments like this gives me the grace to face any darkness I encounter, reminding me always that even the longest storm gives way. The horizon separates the quietening sky from the elbowing earth. Harmony holds sway…until the next time.

Years later, my father moved from California to my shoreless valley, choosing me over the sea. His hair was white but his eyes were still that brilliant blue…and they would twinkle as he recalled the water tunnels and our wild evenings racing the Atlantic storms up the coast road.

“I would love to race the storms once more,” he would say in a rare moment of nostalgia. “Me and my sailor.”

“Am I your sailor?” I would tease, reaching out my hand, hoping that he would set aside his solitary self and let my fingers lace with his.

“My best sailor,” he would answer.

Our so-similar bare feet hung side by side, over the edge of the hospital bed that now sat in the corner of the family room.  My thumb, an echo of his, caressed his hand.

“Look at that,” I said. “We have the same feet; the same thumbs. Do you think you might be my father?”

“Oh, I am so glad that I am,” he answered quietly, afraid I would hear— afraid I wouldn’t.

Sometimes silence is the best map when the wilderness of emotion looms before us and some evenings we would just sit on the small front stoop and quietly watch the moon.  He liked it best when it was just a crescent—God’s thumbnail he would call it. Even today, years after he left my shores, I see him in that thumbnail moon. I whisper more farewells and fond hellos, believing that I will see him again by the grace of God and in the fullness of time.

“It’s always out there, sailor,” he would say, knowing I understood.  “Even though we are far from the sea, it’s there.” And as we had done many times before, we would close our eyes and listen for the whisper of the turning tide. This time, my head against his shoulder, I heard only - but so clearly - the sounds of his ebbing life.

To this day, when I see a thumbnail moon, I hear his voice, see his blue, blue eyes. And I  apprehend the symphony of the raging waves in the quiet night air, playing their music against the rocks of Rhode Island,  in the silver water tunnels of Newport.