The first time the ocean tried to kill me, it went back in time and targeted my great-grandfather William Williams.
When he was a boy, William and his mother were in England. They made their way down to the Southampton docks. Yes, they were there to board the ship responsible for allowing me to see the realistic upper nakedness of a woman for the first time:
1997 was the year. James Cameron was my teacher. He gave me a wise saying and taught me what it means.
“Everything happens for a reason.”
The Titanic sunk. The reason? Iceberg. Another reason: the realistic nakedness I mentioned. That tasteful nudity, like an ant climbing across a bridge of ants, climbed its way over 1,500 frozen bodies and 85 years to reach my young and respectful eyes.
The Face That Coughed And Launched A Thousand Lives
On the way to the unsinkable ship of dreams, William William’s mother had one rule: “Do not cough.”
Titanic was on the lookout for a certain kind of cough: pertussis (whooping cough), which is a cough that makes a whooping sound come out of you. It was a real killer in those days, and if you had it, you did not get to die on the Titanic.
William had a cough that day, which sounded a lot like a whoop.
Forgive me, but I’d have to hear it or have it to be convinced that a person who whoops isn’t the king or queen of comedy.
I’m like my mother. I laugh when certain bad things happen. She laughs when people fall down. She can’t help it. The more important the person, the harder she laughs. If God tripped on his robes, mom would laugh her way to hell. I laugh at the thought of someone screaming the sound “whoop!” in public while fighting for their lives. Yes, this is because my mother and I are the Devil.
But William didn’t have the cough that whooped. His was just a normal cough, one that parroted the whoop. Still, Titanic’s agents were afraid of any kind of cough. William, though he tried his hardest to obey his mother — “Just don’t breathe” — breathed again and coughed while they were halfway up the ramp. Instantly, an anti-disease officer shouted, “Stop!”
“Keep going!” his mother whispered.
“Stop right now!”
Another official, this one at the top of the ramp, stopped them.
And that was that.
My great-grandfather and his furious mother had to find another way across the Atlantic.
This scares me to death. I only exist because of one little innocent cough that slipped out of my great-grandfather’s mouth. The central figure on my family’s coat of arms should be this: a coughing boy.
The droplets and particles of that meek and mild counterfeit whoop contained all of us, the mighty Williams line. He coughed us out, a rehearsal of the later loin cough that would continue the rolling and growing of the colossal Williams snowball.
I hate that my existence hangs on a cough. If it hung on a real “whoop!” at least we’d have comedy woven into our genes. But no. Just a little, airy shout from a small boy who disobeyed his mother and breathed.
Why am I so sure they would have died on the Titanic? As I said, I’ve seen the film. I’ve seen certain parts of it many times. And what I’ve learned is that ships in the old days worked this way: poor people like William and his mother went down with the ship. It’s just how ships worked. The technology was new and crude. If you were an old timey ship, you ran on coal, and you sunk, and you were full of poor people. Today, we have better technology. Today’s ships run on diesel and when they sink, they’re full of “inadequately resourced” people.
I’m still not over it. I, Dan Williams, am a cough.
But I take comfort in the fact that some of you are only here because of a sneeze or a fart, which is why I have trouble taking most people seriously. Your origins are ridiculous. Though they are funny. You fart-born folks are comedy gold. How do I know? All I have to do is say the word “fart” and my son loses his mind. If the Pope lifted his cassock and broke wind, my boy would laugh and burn.
The second time the ocean tried to kill me, I was in college. I went to the ocean with a smoking hot friend of mine. His name is Mark Friedlander. Look him up. He’s an actor in New York and should star in your movie.
The beach we visited is called Kettle Cove. It’s in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and it’s my favorite beach. I don’t love it for its flat and lovely sand. I refuse to lie on sandy beaches. I fear the sun and its cancer. Remember what God hates: outdoor nakedness. That’s why he invented ultraviolet radiation. He especially hates outdoor nakedness in Alaska. That’s why he invented midnight suns and 70-below weather.
If you’re going to get naked, do it inside, and enough with the selfies. Have someone draw you.
Check out this aesthetically pleasing drawing of me:
Anyway, I’m not into sand. I like rocks. Specifically, malicious Maine coastline rocks. Serrated in Glacier Prison, rocks as dark as wolves and thunderclouds, and unforgiving to falling children.
Mark and I were at the ocean to scramble on dangerous rocks, but we were mostly there to visit Richmond Island.
Richmond Island, so the story goes, once hosted pirate activity. They shivered their timbers there, swashed their buckles, and they violently wagged their scallys.
I visited the island as much as I could. Sometimes I went by kayak. Sometimes I, like a Paleo-Communist, traveled by land bridge.
It was a human-made land bridge, a long chunky pileup of granite boulders, uncovered when the tide was low, and completely lost when the tide was high.
I love the ocean, but not enough to know much about its mysterious ways. Here’s what I do know:
- the megalodon lives
- sea monsters live
- the first twenty-five minutes of Waterworld is a great movie
I don’t know about tides. I know they exist, but I don’t know when they do what they do, or for how long. Which is why I crossed the land bridge when the tide was coming in.
I also don’t know about hypothermia. What I do know:
- the Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Little Match Girl,” and he’s in hell
And I didn’t know the ocean in Maine, even after summer has begun, is cold enough to kill you with hypothermia.
Off we went. We crossed the land bridge, explored the island, looked for treasure, sang sea shanties, and then came back to the shore and found our bridge was half buried by the Atlantic.
- wait a hundred hours for the tide to go out again
We picked “swim.”
Mark and I ran over the bridge’s jagged rocks and came to the place where the rocks stopped and the water began. Crashing water. Dark water. And cold. We took our wallets and phones from our pockets, held them in the air like waiters holding trays aloft, then with our legs and free arms, we swam.
At first, there was no problem beyond the slowness of our swimming. It’s hard to swim in boots and all your clothing while keeping money and electronics dry.
Mark, more handsome and therefore adored by God, was a better swimmer, so he got ahead of me by feet, by yards.
The ocean pushed me around like a bully. I rose and fell with the waves. And when down in the deeps between them, there was nothing to see but water, water, everywhere.
At 100 or 200 feet from the shore, something started happening to me.
I’m a decent swimmer, but in those moments, in that cold, I wasn’t. I found myself very low in the water, and my swimming arm and kicking legs were moving slowly and slowing down even more. I didn’t understand what was happening.
Why am I sinking? Why isn’t my body working?
This continued. On and on. Lower and lower in the water. Finally, I gave up on protecting my wallet and phone. Still holding both, I used that hand to paddle too.
A little improvement, but not much. I was moving as slowly through the water as an island, a big one.
Lower and lower. I had to fight to keep my head from going under every time a wave went by.
Then it happened. I put it all together: The shore is still far away. My body isn’t working. Deck after deck of Dan is going under. Every wave buries me.
I think I’m going to…
Then, from high on a crest, I looked over at the coming waves. I saw that they were endless and nothing was going to stop them. I can still see them: a million million watery hills, green and black and freezing.
I’m going to die.
But I didn’t think that. Instead I said, very quietly in my mind, Oh, God.
It wasn’t a prayer for help. I wasn’t asking God to send a local narwhal to assist me. It was just the sound of realizing this is the end. More than realizing. Knowing it. Oh, God, and then under.
Just after my “Oh,” and my “God,” my boot touched a friendly bit of ledge, and I was able to make it the rest of the way in.
I stood on the sand with my friend. His phone and money were dry. My money was wet. My wallet, salty. My phone was as dead as a match girl.
But I wasn’t.
I looked out at the ocean, shivering and afraid. What the hell was that, Maine Ocean? I love you. Are you trying to push me away?
The Atlantic answered with wave after wave and a tide that pushed me away and pushed me away. The ocean was disgusted with itself, having failed again to kill a Williams, even though I’d done everything in my power to help it.
That day, for the first time, I believed in my death. While sinking into a watery grave, shovelful after shovelful of chilly water dumping on my head, I knew it: It’s going to happen. To me. How do I know? It’s happening right now.
I wonder if my great-grandfather, when he heard the news that the Titanic sunk, experienced his first belief in his own death. Once he got over how satisfying it felt to cough in his mother’s direction and say, “Sorry, mother, I coughed again like that time I coughed and saved your life. Remember how angry you were? Was it wicked of me, mother, saving your life?” did he shiver, realizing how close he’d come? Did he think, I was really trying not to cough. I was trying as hard as I could. What if I hadn’t coughed?
Oh, God. We’re poor.
Visiting Kettle Cove With My Family
I stand on the beach, feeling incredibly alive. Nothing makes a person feel alive like repeatedly making his wife and son visit the place where he almost died, and saying, “How glad are you that I’m not dead? Are you as glad as you can be?”
“It happened right over there,” I say to my son, pointing at the land bridge. “That’s where I almost died.”
My son laughs. He loves my stories. The stories he loves most are the disastrous ones: heartbreaks, colossal idiocies, and especially death.
“You could be dead,” he says, then crafts an image in his mind that makes him smile. Death is far from him. He doesn’t really believe in it, not yet. Death is just a funny shape my body makes in this story, Dan as a bloated doll bumping along the bottom of the ocean, a shape I shake off every time the story is done.
“Well,” I say, full to the brim with my good luck, “let’s go home.”
And just like that, with a little cough, with a toe planted on a helpful bit of ledge, we turn our backs on the ocean and walk away, William Williams with his enraged mother, me with my wife and son, all of us believing we’re alive, because it’s happening to us, right now.