The Great Wave

Bit by bit, I am collecting stories from my father and writing them down and recording them. Some of them aren’t very interesting, of course, but many are, and I’m trying to make more of an effort to transcribe them here as well when I think that they might interest readers. I know that many of you already know this, but, truly, people? Speak with your elders. They are such a rich resource of fascinating information and stories and history and all of that is slipping through our fingers day by day. Here is this marvelous chance to record things at the source. Don’t lose it.

The world is changing so rapidly around us, values and norms are shifting so quickly, the very technology upon which we base our lives will not stand still. Stories from our elders don’t just contextualize the world around us, they also provide us with fascinating information which future generations might be interested in. Some of the things I learn about from my father are already totally unimaginable to me, and we’ve spent time together on this Earth; I think about people who will be born 50 years from now and the things they will miss out on if we do not collect “ordinary” stories about how life was and it makes me sad. All of our ordinary stories have interest and value, even if we can’t see it today because we are too close to the events in those stories.

An image of 'The Great Wave Off Kanagawa,' a famous print by Hokusai. The image is a blockprint of huge waves which are swallowing up tiny boats.

My father’s parents were in the Navy, and his family moved around a lot. During his childhood, he spent some time in Japan because his parents were part of the occupying forces. His parents sent him to live in a village with a Japanese family and he spent several years there with his sisters, one of whom actually recently returned to their village to see how it had changed. My father has got a number of interesting stories from his time there, about earthquakes and cuisine and Japanese village life from the mid-20th century, but today’s story is about a tsunami.

The village was on the ocean, with very tall cliffs which loomed over the water. One day, my father says, they were on the cliffs, which must have been 200 feet above sea level, and he watched the ocean withdraw and simply vanish. It sucked out and disappeared, leaving a myriad of detritus about. They could see ancient shipwrecks, fish gasping for air, rock formations. The bottom of the ocean was revealed to view and people could trace the patterns of formations on the ocean floor which they had never seen before.

The ocean is normally a very present sort of force. When you live by the ocean, you are always aware of it, on some level, because it is there, burbling and crashing away. Even when you aren’t looking at it, you smell the salt and you hear it. When you are, you’re following the patterns of the waves and the shifting of the colors and you’re looking at seaweed drifting on the surface and imagining what lies beneath. For me, growing up on and around the ocean, there is something deeply eerie and unsettling about being in places where there is no ocean at all; I can’t imagine looking out one day to see that vast blue space as dry as a bone, like my father did that day.

And, gradually, on the small horizon, something grew.

“It was like a white ribbon,” my father tells me, creeping along the horizon and then rushing towards the shore with a roar. A huge wave, much, much taller than any wave he had seen before, roiling with froth and spume as it thundered towards the shore. Along the way, the wave churned up everything in its path. Boats were tossed like matchwood, fish spurted out of the wave and then fell back into the water, sand rushed up the face of the wave and was spit back out, and it moved inexorably closer to shore and to the people waiting on the headlands.

When my father tells this story, it takes a long time, setting the scene and talking about the ocean withdrawing and then rushing back in, but in real life, of course, this only took a few minutes. My father held his Mama Mitsuoko’s hand and looked out to sea and it must have been unimaginably terrifying; even my father admits that he was scared by this sudden and unfamiliar form which the ocean took. He often tells this story when we are standing on the headlands and our eyes are both drawn out to sea as he remembers and I try to imagine what it would be like to look out one day and watch the ocean disappear.

Finally, the unstoppable force encountered an immovable object, and the wave crashed into the base of the headlands. The shock wave was so strong that it knocked my father, as a little boy, flat on his bottom. Adult and child ears rang with the force of the impact. And the ocean slowly settled down while things floated to the surface and the sand drifted back into place along the ocean floor, and the life of the village resumed as people put their houses back together after they collapsed from the shockwave.

The ocean never did that again in all his time in Japan, but the memory has, understandably, stuck with him. When tsunami warnings are issued, as they are periodically, my father remembers the day he was a little boy and the ocean disappeared.

A photograph of a pole holding two signs. The top sign is a yellow diamond which reads 'END,' indicating the end of a road. The bottom sign is a reflective orange diamond mostly obscured with a paper notice reading 'tsunami advisory' which has been taped on. The notice goes on to say: 'February 27 2010 avoid beaches, low lying areas, surfing, swimming, and boating. Dangerous riptides are also expected. Avoid all water contact. Affected areas: Eastern Pacific Coast, including Mendocino County. Expected maximum wave height: Approx two feet. Precipitating event: An 8.8 magnitude earthquake in Chile.' The bottom of the notice bears the seal of the City of Fort Bragg, with a redwood tree and a splashing salmon.