Beached

Tourists were often frightened by the sound

THE BREAKERS MADE a soft rhythmic splash as they lapped against the shore and receded again. Multi-hued fiddler crabs, garbed in every color of the spectrum, hurriedly swarmed about, sensitive clawed arms probing the damp beach sand for edible morsels before the next wave engulfed them.  Their brightly hued claws click-clicked as they  transferred digestible sediments from the saturated white sand to their grinding mandibles.

From afar, you could hear the whoosh and plunk as a mullet darted from the water several feet into the air, only to land again. I learned from years of working on a commercial fishing boat to decipher the various sounds that schools of mullet made when jumping, to determine whether they were traveling or stationary.

It was early yet, the sun just peeking over the blue of the Gulf, turning the sky a bright orange and pink.  The tourists had yet to upset the peaceful balance between indigenous wildlife and the sea. Soon the sharp scent of salt would be replaced by the acrid odor of carbon monoxide, as streams of automobiles maneuvered and parked along the highway adjacent to the coastline. Honking horns and screaming children would soon overpower the gentle lapping of the waves. 

A lone seagull, feathered in white and gray, drifted on wind currents overhead, searching for its next meal.  Most have become so dependent on litter and discarded fast-food leftovers that they seldom venture far from the shore during warm weather. They spend winters competing with ravens, stray cats and mice for edible garbage at the local landfill. The gulls survive on everything from apple cores to decomposing horses. When startled, great flocks of them blacken the sky for brief seconds before resuming their scavenging. The sharp contrast between their brilliant white bodies and the ravens’ black dots the landfill as if a giant had salted and peppered his foul-smelling meal.

It was summer now, 5:30 AM on a Tuesday, and the beach was at its most picturesque. No other people were in sight as I labored up the side of a large sand dune to gain a better vantage point and assess wind conditions.  I was fortunate that the great Windmaker had been generous that day; this was easily discernible by the countless whitecaps.

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I slid down the opposite side of the dune, my feet sinking into the soft white sand, startling a ghost crab and sending it scrambling for cover in its nearest sand burrow. Ghost crabs are bright white to camouflage themselves from predators.  They are harmless, though I have known a few to steal an unguarded French fry or to sample a dozing tourist’s toe.

As I started towards the water’s edge, I noted a wide track of smooth sand next to me, with small indentations on both sides, leading out to the water. I recognized the tracks as those of the sea turtles that I have seen only rarely.  Closer to the shoreline, the sand became cold and damp and the footing much easier. 

I stepped deftly over a sun-cooked jellyfish.  As a young boy, I learned the excruciating pain derived from even a dead one’s tentacles. I learned to judge the water’s jellyfish content by counting the number of evaporating carcasses in a given number of feet.  I preferred windsurfing only in shorts, thus jellyfish were always something to be wary of.  The Gulf waters are accosted by what I deem the three plagues: jellyfish one month, then blue crabs, finally ending the season with sargasso weed.  Fortunately for me, it was still early in the season and the Gulf’s hazards were at a minimum.

A gust of wind blew my sun-bleached, shoulder-length blond hair back as I removed my tank top and tossed it above the high tide mark on the beach. The warm waters of the Gulf surged up over my bare feet and beyond, before retreating again.

I never wore shoes on the beach, having grown fond of the feel of sand through my toes. It was only walking amongst the dunes that a beachcomber need be wary of sand spurs, an occasional cactus or blackberry thorns.

Deep paths in the dunes had been slowly eroded away by the never-ending herds of tourists, surfers and sunbathers on their treks from their automobiles to the water.  Vehicles were not permitted on the beach and must park along the roadside.  Farther up the beach, a boardwalk was constructed years ago and a parking lot provided. In recent years, a gate and an attendant were posted in order to charge visitors for parking.

The wind seemed to be growing even stronger as I trudged back the way I had come.  I picked up the pace, returning to my car with my heart beating more rapidly in anticipation of a fast ride.  It had been five days since my last sail, and I was anxious to get started.

I quickly unloaded my Mistral sailboard and sail, locked the car and ran back to the beach to assemble the two.  I stowed my car keys with my shirt, careful not to lose them in the fine white sand.

I would often see an elderly man wearing a Greek fisherman’s hat and headphones swinging a metal detector from side to side. He demonstrated once how easily jewelry and money was lost in the loose white sand.  I watched closely as he dropped a quarter straight down between us and then asked me to find it.  I prided myself on the keenness of my eyesight, as well as my physical prowess and was confident in my search. I soon relented in disgust. One quick pass of his metal detector gave a shrill, high-pitched whistle alerting him to the coin’s location.

That morning it took only a few brief seconds to assemble my board and drag it into shallow water.

I recalled the first windsurfing lessons that my father gave me when I was about 12 or 13.  I remembered the frustration of wanting to do well in my father’s eyes, versus falling off or wiping out without ever fully gaining my balance on the board. It appeard to be so simple just to stand up on the board, hoist the boom, position my feet, and sail properly. I remember screaming and cursing underwater during my many “pearl dives.” I think my final lesson was the day I had finally mastered just standing up on the board, allowing the wind to take me with it. I had great luck sailboarding with the wind but after switching directions, had to disassemble my sail, paddling it and my board all the way back to shore.

As I stepped into shallow water, it was impossible to see the sea bottom due to the violent action of the waves and undercurrents.  Warm salt water sprayed my face as I jumped up onto my board, grabbed the boom and pulled my sail vertical.

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I never learned to water start but my balance was good enough to keep my board under me long enough to let the wind catch my sail. Calloused hands and corded arm muscles strained to keep the sail from being ripped from my grasp by the powerful gusts. I leaned back and let the great Windmaker fill my sail.

I cannot explain to someone who has never windsurfed, the thrill of adrenaline and the absolute freedom I felt when taking off. I leaned farther back to gain more speed and jettisoned off the closest wave crest into the air, landing roughly only a few feet away. My sailboard was rapidly gaining speed as I either bulldozed through or flew over each incoming wave.

At speeds like this, my footstraps were a necessity when attempting wave jumps or aerial maneuvers. Unlike a surfboard, sailboards have a rough surface and don’t require regular waxing for good traction.

I soon was clear of the breakers and raced over deeper waters. At this point, my body was almost horizontal with the water’s surface, in my attempt to gain maximum speed. I arched my head backwards, dunking my long sun-bleached locks into the rushing water, soaking them to keep my vision unobstructed as my sailboard gained momentum.

Tan muscular deltoids and biceps, developed from years of pulling 2800 feet of gill net onto a commercial fishing boat, bulged with the effort to ride the wind. My board first pounded, then glided over the chop, rapidly increasing knots. Frightened schools of pompano darted out of my path as I raced overhead. I tacked around a channel marker and began to race parallel to the beach at an awesome speed.

A lone fisherman waded through the shallows, a cast-net draped over one shoulder, scanning the water for schools of feeding mullet. Using one hand to shield his eyes from the rising sun, he looked up long enough to nod his head before resuming his search.

The swells seemed to be growing larger as I spent several hours shredding and jibing. The sun was at its zenith and the beach had long ago filled with sunbathers which, from my distance far offshore, merely appeared as small black dots moving to and fro. Even from this distance, I could observe the red flags posted indicating dangerous surf.

My arms, shoulders, legs and back had begun to fatigue and I thought I would call it a day. I decided to attempt to gain as much speed as possible on my return.

As I flew across the surface of the water, I noticed a very large pleasure cruiser coming up fast from the opposite direction. I was much too exhausted to sail around the yacht’s wake, which extended outward from the rear of the boat in an ever-increasing “V.” I hoped he would reduce his speed and allow me time to give him a wider berth.

He didn’t!

My board hit a huge wave, and I was instantly airborne, launched at a terrific speed almost straight up.  Everything seemed to move in slow motion as I simultaneously rotated and skyrocketed 20 feet into the air. I felt the complete freedom of even an uncontrolled aerial.  As I kicked my feet loose from the boardstraps, I thought of how I would boast of this one to my dad.  I continued to float upward, spinning, as I pushed the huge 10-foot fiberglass sailboard away.

My feet and board were above me as I finally began to fall. I knew the board would come down on me before my body ever hit the water.  It had happened before but only with my much lighter surfboard and much closer to shore.

I could see my board coming down, as if in a dream, skegs first. I was powerless to alter the inevitable collision between my skull and fifty pounds of hard fiberglass.

It was an old sailboard and like the first surfboards, was designed much larger than necessary. More than once I had wished for a smaller, newer board like all the rich tourists sported—now more than ever.

I hoped no one on shore could see my embarrassing wipeout, as I felt the first icy touch of the water. I was completely upside down when the freezing water closed over my head and eyes. I couldn’t understand how the water got so bitterly cold.

I could see my board coming down fast above me, as if I was looking at it through hazy glass. I squinted my eyes shut, blocking out the tunnel vision as well as the burning salt. I tried to shield my head and face with my hands and arms as the board came down but my limbs stiffened and would not respond. It was as if I no longer had control of my body. I tried to thrash and kick my legs but they also remained unresponsive.

I could hear a voice calling me from far off, as the sound of the yacht’s twin props grew fainter. First barely audible, then increasing in volume, almost shouting, repeating my name, over and over, “Gavin, Gavin.”

Again I heard the voice, “Gavin, Ga-a-avin?”

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Startled, I opened my mouth wide to answer and was rewarded with a mouth full of water, as I choked and gasped for air. I felt hands roughly shaking me and my eyes involuntarily opened at the unexpected touch.

As my vision cleared, I realized that I was flat on my back, in a hospital bed, a nurse standing over me, grasping a dripping shower nozzle. My head rested on a shallow, bowl-like basin with a drainage tub attached, and she was spraying water over my head.

“Is this too cold, Gavin?” she asked. “Dozed off there for a minute, didn’t ya?” she asked in a Southern drawl.

I often fell asleep during these early morning bed baths but seldom during my shampoo. As I sputtered and coughed, the nurse wiped the stinging shampoo from my eyes and mouth.

I chose not to speak as we quickly finished my daily hygiene, so that I could contemplate my dream. I grimaced as my legs spasmed briefly, sending tremors through my leadened extremities. I used my shin to depress the button which would elevate the head of my hospital bed.

The purr of the electric motor hummed softly as my upper torso was slowly raised. Sitting upright, with a sigh of acceptance, I looked down at my emaciated and atrophied frame.

I had no sensation or bodily control from my neck down. My once tan, 6’ 2”, 180 pound muscular physique has long since wasted away from lack of exercise. I now weigh a mere 115 pounds, proving the well-known saying, If you don’t use it, you lose it. Well proportioned legs and arms have been replaced by bony sticks wrapped in pale leathery skin.  Mighty chest muscles and washboard abs have all but disappeared, leaving protruding ribs and a skeletal frame.

My depleted health and weakened state, as well as my paralysis, are the result of a motorcycle accident 11 years ago. After many months of strenuous physical therapy, I was admitted into a nursing home, where I regained partial movement in my right arm. I was no longer able to read or write unless I gripped an upside-down pencil in my mouth, though later I used a wrist brace. I now suffer from respiratory and kidney problems as well as the frustration and loneliness that accompany isolation and confinement to a hospital bed.

I long to feel the wind through my hair and watch it fill my sail, as I once again race the wind. The spirit of windsurfing still pulses through my veins.  The memory of flying over the water’s surface remains vivid in my mind. The great Windmaker still calls out to me in my dreams as I lie here, amongst the elderly and dying, listening to cries for loved ones, screams of pain, and pleas for help.

Gone is the sweet sharp scent of salt in the air, replaced by the ever-present putrid odor of urine and feces.  The gentle lapping of the waves and call of the loon are gone from my life.  Peace has become pandemonium.

I will sail again one day, perhaps in the next life.  But for now, I remain beached….


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THIS STORY BEGAN six months ago when I received a “Letter to the Editor” from a young man in Florida. He described his sad story and professed his admiration for our publication. Though he made it clear that he wasn’t looking for handouts, he did ask if we wouldn’t mind sending him one of the bound books of our past issues. I was delighted to do so. His letter was so very eloquent and moving that I decided to send him a tape recorded message challenging him to write an article for the magazine. I told him that he had the gift of writing and an unique perspective on life. I also told him that few of us have the opportunity to explore the capacity of the mind as we are filled with distractions and vanities. Two weeks later, the first article ever written by Gavin Grow arrived in our office.

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Four months later, I flew down to Pensacola, Florida to visit Gavin and was met at the airport by his fiancé, Kathleen Mack. I learned of their love story and how their love liberated him from the confines of a nursing home and brought them into a trailer home on the outskirt of town.  I stayed with them for three short days. We worked on the article together and took pictures. We ventured out to the beach where Gavin use to go windsurfing; I was amazed how rare these outings were for the couple as she wasn’t strong enough to lift him into their car. During my visit, Gavin began telling me of the amazing outpooring of humanity he has experienced from strangers he had written. Since he regained the movement of his arm six years ago, he began writting two letters a day to people he admired. He showed me albums after albums of pictures—mostly of celebrities who had sent autographed photos of themselves. Many would call to say hello and would, from time to time, drop him notes, pictures, and some would send books and videos. I was quite amazed to see this collection of photographs and letters. They were heartwarming. Uncelebrated gestures of humanity reaching out to touch a man’s misfortune.

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Melanie Griffith sent him videos of her favorite movies along with the movies of her husband, Antonio Banderas. With the movies she sent a VCR and made several calls to wish him well. Arthur C.Clark sent two friends to Gavin’s home to make sure he would be there when he called from Sri-Lanka. Boxer Roy Jones Jr., the Light–Heavy Weight WBC Champion of the World has, along with his assistants Mary Beth Abel and  Stanley Levin, been“Big Brothers” to Grow for the past six years. They’ve treated him like a family member and have given him countless gifts and boxing memorabilia.

 

The President of the World Boxing Council, Jose Sulaiman, flew Gavin and Kathleen to one of Jones’s fights in Conecticut. He paid for all the expenses, but the couple had to turn back halfway there as the seats on the plane did not recline enough to let the blood flow back up to Gavin’s head. The VP of HBO Sport, Lou DiBella, also offered to fly Gavin to any of Jones’s fights, but unfortunately, he couldn’t accept this offer either.

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Hume Cronyn, the star of the movie Cacoon, sent him $100 along with a photo. This money was promply returned with a gracious note of gratitute. Whether it was pride or the awareness of not wanting to exploit the power he had with words, Gaving has never accepted gifts of money. He has however accepted many other gifts of kindness. Dick Morris, one of Clinton’s political advisors, has sent seven books from various bookstores at various times. Author Mary Gaitskill gave him a computer. Darrell T. Hare,  author of “Ramar the Rabbitt With Rainbow Wings,” purchased a Walkman and sent it to Gavin when he was in the nursing home so that he could hear music. Authors such as Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker, Tom Clancey, John Berendt, and Robert Jordan would  send him their latest books or audio tapes of the books. The walls of Gavin’s trailor home are covered by books from authors too many to list. They are the most cherished gifts in his collection.

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Other cherished items are the artworks given to him from comic book artists. Will Eisner was one of the first, followed by Charles Shultz, Jon Muth, Mitch Byrd, and Glenn Fabry, one of  the famous DC cover artists. Steven Goodrich, a sculptor/artist of comic figures has, for the past three years, sent original models and called or written at least once a month. In times of need, Gavin would write these artists and request permission to sell a piece or two. This was the case after moving out of the nursing home and being in need of a car. Gavin wrote Glenn Fabry and Mich Byrd to see if they wouldn’t mind if he sold a few of the Superman drawings. Afterwards he felt he needed to honor Superman and proceeded to acquire a tatoo of Superman’s logo on his upper arm. It was only three days later that Christopher Reeve would have the accident that would render him a quadriplegic.

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Acts of kindness flowed in from the corporate world as well. Burnie Stolar, head of Sega USA, sent him a complete entertainment unit with a custom made joy stick. Guy Watson, an executive from Motorola, drove down from Tallahasse and set up an alpha-numeric keypad to a pager and cell phone so that Kathleen could be free to go out and still be in touch. Martin Greenwald of Image Entertainement would continually sent him videos of movies knowing that they would help pass the time. Tom Thornbury, CEO of SofTub, set up a jacuzi for Gavin so that now he can be submerged and feel the water around his neck, the only area that has sensation. These are only a few of the remarkable and inspiring acts performed away from the limelight of recognition; Gavin has  amazingly kept detailed account of all these good deeds. These records would fill several books.

During my visit, it was clear that Gavine and Kathleen were hampered by a lack of proper transportation. The van they drive does not have an electric lift that can raise the heavy electric wheel chair that he uses around the house. This is a special chair that allows the seat to recline so that the blood can flow back up to his head when he needs it to.  Because they are without a lift,  the only time Gavin and Kathleen can go out is when a visitor like myself comes and helps transport him from his chair to the car. Even so, the fact that his electric chair cannot travel with them means that  a portable, manually pushed chair must be substitued. The discomfort level is so high during these trips that they are rarely taken even in the presence of able bodied help.

American Windsurfer Magazine would like to challenge our readers to purchase a van with an electric lift for Gavin Grow. If you’re touched by this story and would like to help us achieve this deserving goal that would open up many more possibilities for a fellow windsurfer, please send a tax deductable contribution to:

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The Gavin Grow Fund  c/o American Windsurfer Magazine

Bayview Business Park #10

Gilford, NH 03246

603-293-2721

If you are not a subscriber, enter your subscription with the words Gavin Grow and we will donate $5 of the $20 subscription fee to the fund.  ED

by Gavin Grow

Gavin Grow, a windsurfer from Pensacola Florida has drawn a tragic card. His motorcycle accident ten years ago left him paralyzed, homeless, and in many ways, loveless. But the triumph of his spirit can be found when we read his first written article entitled, Beached

photos by John Chao

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