By Jim Heffernan
The surf was up and the clouds were low as I walked briskly down the Gulf beach on a windy afternoon. Hardly anybody in sight – just a fellow diehard or two to see the “flung spray, the blown spume and the seagulls calling.” *
A lonely walk like that, on a day like that, in a place like that, can set your mind adrift like a small boat loose from its moorings and tossed about by the angry waters. I might have been on the Gulf of Mexico, but an ocean, a sea and a gulf all look and act the same when viewed from the beach.
So on I trudged, into a lonely remote stretch, -- my mind in wide-ranging mode, tapping into the brain’s imagination corridors -- when up ahead – could it be? – a group of young people surfing, playing volleyball, dancing around in the sand.
Hold it, it’s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon and their crew of surfers playing beach blanket bingo. “Annette,” I said. “I remember you when you when you were a Disney Mouseketeer.”
“Long time ago,” smiled the lissome brunette who had learned how to stuff a wild bikini since her Disney days. She tossed a beach ball to Frankie, who threw it to me.
“Boy, what’s happened to you, man?” I said to the kinky haired teen idol. “We haven’t heard from you in a coon’s age.” Frankie just laughed it off. “I’ve been busy,” he said.
Busy getting old, just like the rest of us, I was thinking as I continued on down the beach, past some dunes nearly touching the water’s edge at low tide. Atop one dune I looked down and spotted a man and woman in swimming suits in mad embrace at the water’s edge, the surf crashing in behind them.
“Burt…Burt Lancaster, and you, Deborah Kerr,” I said. “Pretty steamy for 1953, don’t you think?”
“Don’t worry, Jim boy (somehow he knew my name),” Burt smiled, “this romance ain’t going anywhere from here, unless it’s to eternity.” Deborah, demure in a one-piece black suit, said nothing. She just glanced down at the sand and the swirling waters at her bare feet.
I high-tailed it out of there, not wanting to interrupt anything so intimate, and continued on, the surf still high, waves crashing.
I glanced out over the water to get my bearings and to my astonishment an armada of Navy ships loomed on the horizon. Soon gunshots zoomed over my head and hundreds of landing craft headed shoreward, the occupants debarking before hitting the beach and wading ashore, dodging bullets.
“Hanks? Tom Hanks? It can’t be you.”
“It’s me all right,” the affable actor in full battle gear and carrying a carbine, huffed as he crouched behind a barrier.
“What the heck are you doing here on the Normandy beach?” I exclaimed. “This is dangerous.”
“Here to save a Private Ryan,” he grunted.
I shook my head and got out of there as quickly as I could.
Things were more peaceful as I trekked on, and with the wind subsiding I suddenly could hear a woman singing – beautiful voice singing something about a new day. Up ahead a man was standing by the water’s edge, a terrycloth robe protecting him from the slight chill brought on by evening.
“Hi,” I greeted him. “Pretty singing.”
“Yes, lovely,” said the slender middle-aged man with a slight British accent. “Loveliest thing I’ve ever heard. She’s a born star.”
“You’re James Mason, aren’t you,” I said. “And that’s Judy Garland singing up in the beach house, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said James. “And now I’d like to be alone, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” I said, moving on, haunted by the encounter. But just a few yards down the beach, I glanced back. James was no longer there and the surf had engulfed a white object in the water. It was his terrycloth robe.
Bummer, I thought. How could he leave Judy that way.
I was beginning to get weary and thinking about turning back toward home when once again I heard the sound of gunfire, roaring cannons on the decks of battleships that suddenly had appeared off shore. And just like at Normandy, landing craft were unloading their cargoes of Marines, rifles in hand, hitting the beach.
“Follow me, men,” a tall, husky sergeant yelled to his squad as they scampered up the beach, dodging bullets. I ran after them to the edge of the beach where foliage protected us.
“Where are we?” I gasped to the sergeant.
“These are the sands of Iwo Jima, son,” said the sergeant, who bore an amazing resemblance to John Wayne. Hold it, it WAS John Wayne.
“Mr. Wayne,” I said, “just let me say I have the greatest respect for you, but I want to warn you, don’t go up there on Mount Suribachi.” We were huddled in a sand bunker created by a heavy shell.
“Gotta take that hill, pilgrim,” Wayne smiled as he signaled his men to keep climbing.
I wasn’t there when the Marines raised the flag on Suribachi, but John Wayne was, until right at that moment he took a sniper’s bullet to the heart.
The beach stretched on, untold stories unfolding on its shifting, drifting sands, as some old song put it. But I headed home, muttering to myself, “this beach is lovely, wide and steep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” **
* John Masefield
** Robert Frost