The Indian Ocean surf on the white sand beach of Bali is cold between my south of the equator toes after a sunrise jog, and the unpeopled shore slopes sharply to the breakers. I backward walk through the rollers, dive through higher ones, and the first blow of a powerful offshore current carries me a quarter mile out to sea. With a patience breaststroke I fight the current for a minute without making headway. I shift to a strategy of floating and am carried another 200 yards out to sea.
Swells glide over the withdrawing layer of water, springing high and cresting with foam when the lip becomes too thin. An underwater tug-of-war for my body takes place with the waves beating me beachward and the undertoad pulling me outward until I grow dazed and thrust out the water like a porpoise for a view over the rollers of swell and break, swell and break on the island Bali.
What does it mean to fight for one’s life? There is a position, a goal, a plan, struggle, and the outcome. I try a modest front crawl, make headway to the beach, then stop, rest and drift back out to sea. Then it´s an all-out swim kicking hard and extending my toes in hope, stop to survey, and am swept to sea. The difficulty of rest there is that I am an Ironwood human with a body fat of 7.8% compared to the floating average of 17%. Following another adrenalin pumped leaden legged battle with the current I reckon that for lack of body fat I´ll fall to Neptune and this afternoon´s tourist attraction washed up on the shore of Kuta beach may be a bloated man with a half-smile on wrinkled lips.
The breakdown of the emotions when caught in a rip tide is: Panic with hope; hope disappears and willpower takes hold; truth replaces will, and in horror I believe I will drown. But it is countered by a flashback of water memories of my old man and the sea. At five years he took me by the hand into the Santa Cruz Pacific, and let go saying, ´Look out for the under toad´ that I thought was a rare water frog and spent several gleeful hours chasing. Red Cross swim lessons followed at the Idaho Falls YMCA pool. He built a submarine in a basement. Body surfing on vacation off Coco Beach I swam headfirst into a Portuguese Man of War narrowly escaping the 6´ dreadful tentacles, and he pacified it. One day Pa showed up like Jacques Cousteau on our front yard dock over Browns Lake, Michigan lugging a bell helmet to which an umbilicus ran to an air compressor like a fish bowl to a bike pump. He yelled at me to stop riding off the dock on my bicycle to make way for my first diving lesson. It was extraordinary looking from inside an aquarium glass at the fish and snapping turtles, and opened a life to scuba diving. A peak underwater moment was having a mouthpiece torn from my lips and breaking bubbles with my teeth to take in oxygen mixed with water, separate it in the oral cavity with a chewing motion, spit out the water and breathe the air for three minutes. The snowdrifts piled to the windows of our Charlevoix, Mi. home and father walked out the front door every Saturday in a black wet suit, the neighbors chattered, ´There goes Galloping Gil´, and he jumped off the ice into half-frozen Lake Michigan to scuba for an hour. One Spring we pulled a 19th century anchor from the bottom using a 55-gallon drum sunk, tied, water displaced by tank air from the mouthpiece, and raised the 5´ anchor and leaned it against out front yard Maple tree. The flash of incidents was like holding a dance partner for his strength and caring. Then the watery history moved swiftly full circle to a mouthful of saltwater in the Indian Ocean. I flip onto my back. Many fish take or rejects air from its swimbladder, a carrot shaped sac off the gut in the upper body, by swallowing or burping air. The amount of air inside the bladder controls buoyancy and an average fish must be occupied with about five percent air by volume to float. With a body density that approximates the specific gravity of water, I use my lungs as a swimbladder, taking in half a lungful when I desire to hover just beneath the surface, or a full lungful when I want to float, or exhale to sink like a tombstone. I take a big gulp, rest on my back and think. Buddhists believe their dying thoughts influence their next life but that presupposes the next life which i do not believe in. I refuse to go out kicking like a berserk fish.
I remember I learned to make water my friend. In this recovery a textbook solution comes to mind to swim parallel to the shore to escape the grasp of the rip, and I turn on my right side and begin the transverse. After five minutes onto the left side for five minutes more. In twenty minutes I pivot with an energy saving breast stroke toward Bali. The distance closes until my feet touch the bottom only to bob away. Finally I stand upright in waist deep and gratefully feel the push of rollers. I stagger heaving lungs through the breakers, crawl up the beach and flop in my earlier footprints. Our home should not be called Earth but Ocean for it is seven-tenths water. One body, dynamic under the sun’s heat, over the planet’s rotation, beneath the lunar tides and countless breezes and currents that shape our lives. I would have met Neptune today but was buoyed by a flash of memories owed to my father. It will be nice to see him again on what others say is his deathbed, tell the story, and thank him.
The lesson from these ten survivals is don’t believe anyone who tells you, ´You’re gonna DIE!´. But I had to put myself in the coffin after the Cold Freight trip. That winter I returned to my alma matter MSU seeking two things: warmth and money. I spent my last $50 on a simple pine coffin constructed by the woodwork instructor, who introduced me to the sociology dean at Lansing Community College who hired me to teach a sociology course ´Hobo Life in America´ You bet I took the first check and lined the coffin with electric blankets to sleep like a baby through the Michigan winter in a Lansing basement. The first night in the coffin was risky because I shut the door tight in the unheated basement and mentally calculated its cubic volume, my tidal respiration, and using a factor of 80% exhaled oxygen per breath determined there was enough to last eight hours, but set an alarm clock for seven hours as a failsafe.
The coffin from which I popped the next morning like a Jack-in-Box illustrates the formula for survivals: You venture beyond where most go, there´s a jam, you calculate the risk factors, and use a store of knowledge and experience to escape. I obviously have no death wish, but purely a strong will to calculate survival.
So it was with surprise last November I read of my recent death in Mexico hopping freight trains in dozens of Emails and Facebook posts. My family on not hearing from me for three months had filed a missing person report with the El Centro, Ca. police department, and assumed the worst on not hearing back from them. They appealed online. The death spiral was finally clipped by an a post-obituary in Chicagoist: From the Vault of Art Shay: The Legend of Bo Keeley Grows´ (12-14-11) which explained simply that I had retreated to my Sand Valley home to feed the animals and write.
The mind is the best all-purpose survival tool, and it is honed by experiences. The first test venture is the only difficult one, so head out as I am in the Amazon encountering fer de lance, tarantulas and Sapo frogs, and live to tell the stories.