The Final Wave

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mary Wuerth

The road was rough and rutted, and at times they had to detour around potholes that would have engulfed the tiny rental car, but the beach here was primitive and untamed. Wild goats browsed the sparse grass. Startled by the car’s approach, they took to their heels. The terrain grew rockier, the wind rose and the sky took on a coppery glow as the car’s shadow straggled along behind them like a deflated parachute.

At a beach totally unlike the benign sugar-sanded stretches that they had been admiring all day, they stopped to read a sign: CAUTION! Hazardous Waves. No Surfing.

But wait, I’m jumping too far ahead in the story. Let’s go back to September.


He had been in Vietnam for seven months and they were beginning to think his R&R would never be approved. Twice it had been turned down and she could sense how low his spirits were. Their letters spoke of a feeling they shared that they were drifting off course.

Then the letter came that said: Guess what? I finally got my R&R approved today. I will leave here October ninth and go to Saigon and then fly to Hawaii on the 10th, your birthday. She stood reading the words, her emotions like the waves and dips of an EKG reading, pinging back and forth from eagerness to trepidation to eagerness, to eagerness, to eagerness.

Her hastily written reply was: This will be the best birthday of my entire life. It seems we’ve been apart for an eternity and I wonder, will you even recognize me?

There was so much to do and she had so many questions, but for each volley of questions there came a barrage of answers. Do you need new clothes? she asked, to which he replied: The only clothes I have to take are two pairs of pants (one has paint on the legs), two paisley shirts (one with a big hole), one dress shirt and my old loafers. Please write and tell me you are as excited as I am.

Should I bring your sport coat and what clothes will I need? And what about birth control? (She’d been off the pill since he left.) His reply: Bring my sport coat if you think we’ll be going somewhere nice. For yourself, be sure to bring your swimsuit and summer clothes and since it’s too late for you to go on the pill, bring some of the foam stuff. I forget what it’s called.

Nearly 22 years old and she had never flown before. During the day she frightened herself inventing new scenarios on how the plane would crash into the Pacific. By night she was plagued with nightmares from which she woke with the sensation of careening helplessly through space. In one dream the plane slid silently into the water and sank, fish swimming alongside, goggling at her through the windows. Rest and Relaxation? So far it had been Anxiety and Aggravation.

But then on the second of October he wrote: I am so excited about seeing you next week I don’t know what to do. I wish I could go to sleep and wake up in Hawaii. It seems like next week is so far away.

The night she left a friend took her to dinner and to a movie to get her mind off flying. She barely sampled the spaghetti, absent-mindedly moving the mound of pasta from one side of the plate to the other and rolling the napkin into a tight tube that she wove back and forth through her fingers. She drank the restaurant’s complimentary glass of rose and gratefully accepted her friend’s as well. Later she would have absolutely no recollection of the movie they sat through.

On the way to the airport the temperature sign at the savings and loan showed 28 degrees, weather more suitable for December. She shivered and stifled a burp; the butterflies from earlier in the day had been replaced by a bag of roofing nails that churned uneasily in her stomach.

At the airport she got flustered when they called the flight, couldn’t find her purse, found her purse, would have left her head sitting on the bench if it hadn’t been attached, but remembered at the last moment to hand over her coat for safekeeping. She wouldn’t need it where she was going.

The engines revved and whined and the plane vibrated menacingly as they rose into the air. Below twinkled the lights of Council Bluffs, Iowa and then the plane banked sharply, one wing pointing tipsily toward the Missouri River, before leveling out and heading west. Within minutes the lights of Omaha had receded and she was picking out the illuminations of farmhouses that grew more and more sparse as they neared the Rockies. She marveled at moonlit rivers and streams: capillaries of quicksilver against a crumpled tapestry of black velvet. With a blue United Airlines blanket pulled to her chin and warm air hissing comfortingly from an overhead vent, the plane’s cabin felt as cozy as a pup tent. She slept.

The predawn hours found her sitting bleary-eyed in the passenger terminal at the Los Angeles Airport waiting to continue on the next leg of the journey. Her throat felt scratchy and her nose ran. The previous day she had tried to ignore hints that a cold was coming on, but now it was a certainty and she thought ruefully of how bad the timing was.

The flight to Honolulu was intended to be jolly. The cabin stewards’ white slacks and Hawaiian shirts did add a festive touch, but their leis gave off a sweet scent that made her think of funerals. They circulated with breakfast trays and steaming coffee. Later, though it was barely eight a.m., they came down the aisle, perky and efficient, with stubby green bottles of champagne and poured freely into their plastic cups. On the first round she was wounded that they had judged her underage and passed her by. On the second round she spoke up. The champagne was sour, raw tasting, but the bubbles brought a temporary soothing to her throat.

Finally the pilot came on the intercom sounding as though he’d just been roused from a nap. “We’re starting our final descent, folks. The temperature in Honolulu is 80 degrees. Aloha and welcome to the Land of Eternal Summer.”

She stepped into the blinding light and fragrant, earthy smells of a tropical morning. Jostled by the crowd at the luggage carousel, she felt perspiration start to slide down her sides and wondered what she could have been thinking when she picked a red corduroy suit and black turtleneck to wear. She removed the jacket and calculated how many hours it had been since she applied deodorant. Following his instructions, she took a shuttle bus to Fort De Russy, site of the Maluhia Service Club, referred to in the brochure as “your gateway to R&R.”

The building was teeming with nervous women, all waiting for their men to arrive. Painstakingly-applied makeup showed the ravages of their travels and carefully-coifed hair was under constant siege from the big ceiling fans that churned the sultry air. Looks of commiseration passed among them. Most of the women wore pastel-colored summer frocks, and in her turtleneck she felt like Nanook of the North. Repeated trips to the ladies’ room yielded reams of toilet paper for blowing her nose, which was now taking on a hue not unlike the color of her skirt. On the jukebox Mick Jagger punched out the words to “Paint It Black.”

Nearly two hours later she was sharing a table with a woman from San Antonio who, jazzed up on a potent mixture of adrenaline and strong coffee, did a filibuster on her three-year-old daughter Amy. The woman rummaged in her purse for a wallet that spilled an accordion-fold of baby photos and proffered a bottle of Aspirin.

Two plane loads of men from Saigon had moved through. Witnessing reunions that deserved to take place in private, she felt she should divert her eyes, yet found herself staring in fascination. Laughter and catcalls greeted a fat woman who got up such a head of steam as she ran to meet her husband that she bowled him off his feet and sent his hat flying.

Men from the third plane were beginning to straggle in and there he was. At first she didn’t recognize him; he was thin and the contours of his face had altered to reveal jutting cheekbones and a pinched look about the eyes. And he was so deeply tanned. She ran to him and pressed her face into the front of his combat shirt, then lifted it to receive a kiss.

Yes, she knew they had received the special R&R rate, but the hotel room was a disappointment. The receptionist had called it a Garden Level room, and she now understood that “Garden Level” was a polite way of saying it had a mildewy odor and avocado-colored walls, against which her skin took on a deathly pallor and his appeared jaundiced. When she went to the window to examine the tropical foliage outside, a tiny lizard closed its papery eyelids over bulbous eyes and froze in position. Its color nearly perfectly matched the big leaf to which it clung with splayed toes.

Their seven-month separation had changed him, changed them both, and she couldn’t quite shake the feeling of doing something illicit. With her head resting on his shoulder, she lay awake deep into the night listening as he recounted tale after tale of what his life was like in Vietnam, stark descriptions of the things he could not verbalize in his letters.

Morning found them sitting under a beach umbrella on the hotel’s terrace, watching people frolic in the surf. She was wearing a blue-checked bikini with a row of white eyelet ruffles that helped hide her flat-chestedness; he had on the new plaid swim trunks she had brought. The tortures of the cold were at their peak. A volleyball was being inflated inside her head and her ears were playing tricks. Unsure whether she was bellowing or whispering, she couldn’t seem to regulate her voice and had the sensation of being underwater, bubbles of words slipping from her lips to rise to the surface and make flabby popping sounds. Her forehead was clammy, yet she chafed her icy feet together under the table.

In the afternoon they joined a tour group headed for the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial. Later, in the hotel lobby they were collared by a man with a clipboard who signed them up for the evening’s Polynesian feast. It proved to be more false merriment, unfamiliar foods (roasted pig, poi, baked bananas and an undrinkable concoction of fruit juice and rum), writhing hula dancers and a pitiful Don Ho impersonator.

Suddenly the days were slipping away and they’d had their fill of wandering through the overpriced shops and bars of Waikiki Beach and gazing listlessly out the window of a tour bus. Brochures littered the bedspread. He picked up one and read, “Three dollars a day for a compact. Plus mileage.”

The lady at the car rental agency showed them a map of Oahu and made a squiggly red line through a section of road on the north end of the island. She wrote off limits in capital letters followed by an exclamation point. “This stretch of road is unpaved. Military personnel are forbidden to take it,” she intoned. They could tell she had been through this spiel hundreds of times before. He rolled his eyes when the woman wasn’t looking and they both suppressed a smirk. Frankly they didn’t think she’d care if they drove the little blue tin can off the top of Diamond Head.

They set out with no destination in mind, driving the road that skirted the beach, past graceful palms, lazy villages and fields of sugar cane. Here and there they paused to watch surfers. It felt so free, just like in the old days when they used to strike out on long rambling drives, passing through the small towns and the corn and wheat fields of home. Evening found them shoveling pepperoni pizza into their mouths at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in Pearl City.

The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast, they were on the road again, heading north on the highway that snaked along the beach on the other side of the island. She was feeling better, yet she bore a new heaviness in her chest: the knowledge that this was their last day together. They were both quiet, subdued, having in the last four days said all that needed to be said. They settled into peaceful camaraderie, she resting her head on his shoulder, he draping a hand companionably across her thigh, lifting it only to change gears. Like a spool of ribbon slipping from their fingers, they felt hours unwind erratically and far too quickly.

It was late afternoon and they’d seen most of the island. She pointed out that the “forbidden” stretch of road, which had become a joke to them, lay not far ahead. If they were to take it, they could cut across to the highway that ran south through the pineapple plantations at the heart of the island instead of retracing their route along the coast. He liked the idea, and removing his hand from her thigh just long enough to make a crude gesture with his middle finger said, “Here’s to you, bitchy car rental lady.” They guffawed and were rebellious teenagers again.

And so they had taken the forbidden road, over the ruts and past the goats, and had stopped to read the CAUTION! Hazardous Waves sign. Getting out of the car he pointed to the silhouette of a lighthouse on Kaena Point. They clambered over tawny jagged boulders to reach the beach, kicked off their shoes and waded in. The waves didn’t look that threatening and the water was surprisingly warm. Ankle deep in the surf they prepared for the first wave. It broke over their knees and exploded in a flurry of foam. As the water flowed back out they felt the vertiginous rush of the sand being tugged from beneath their feet. They laughed and hooted over the pure exhilaration of it and waded out a bit further—only knee deep, but this time taking the precaution of linking hands. The next onslaught slapped in even harder, hitting waist high and spraying their shirts with foam. Gasping, they stepped back, playing a game of advance and retreat. They knew they needed to be careful, but the waves were intoxicating and finally they were standing in the surf up to their waists.

They hadn’t expected the fury of the next wave. It broke over their shoulders and tore their hands apart. Without him to steady her, she was knocked onto her hands and knees and just when she thought things were okay and that she’d be able to stand, she was grabbed by the undertow and tumbled over and over in the surf. Suddenly he was there, seizing her by the back of the shirt and hauling her to safety. She coughed, spewed salt water and felt the grit of sand between her teeth. Away from the waves they stood and clung together, shivering, chastened, sobered by thoughts of what their folly might have brought.

That night the frenzied hunger of the previous days’ lovemaking was replaced by a sad, slow clasping. She willed herself to remember each sensation to play back to herself in the lonely days to come. Music drifted softly from the clock-radio and they paused to listen to a hymn-like lament that began with the strains of a Hammond organ. The melody seemed the very product of their emotions and in the years to come they would never hear Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” without recalling that moment.

They slept through the 6:00 alarm and were in a rush. He complained of a sore throat and she, bruised and sand-scraped, found she had seriously sprained her wrist in the fall. Packing brought such misery that she gave up trying to fold things neatly and tossed her clothes into the suitcase in a confused jumble. What did it matter? She was going home.

His flight back to Vietnam left after hers, so he accompanied her to the airport and helped her pick souvenir postcards and little vials of pikake perfume. At the customs counter a gruff agent opened her suitcase and, to her mortification, began pawing through her rumpled underwear. Her cheeks burned with indignation.

Far too soon her flight was announced and they clung together once again, every bit as tenaciously as they had the night before, and braced themselves for the final wave.


The year was 1967. The she of the story is me and the he is my ex-husband Dave. While the big wave spared us, the relentless ripples of daily life finally did us in. But don’t feel sorry for us. We still have this memory (or at least I do) and we still have our song.


“When I was a kid, right after the phase where I wanted to become a jockey, I became certain I’d grow up to become a famous author. Aptitude and talent didn’t have much bearing on my occupational aspirations. I’ve supported myself in a variety of ways, primarily proofreading and typesetting, but have never lost the urge to write. Now, however, I understand that pleasure, not fame, must be my motive.” E-mail: geraniumgirl[at]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email