The radiant September sunshine illuminated the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the blue and muted greens of the mighty Atlantic, the breakers stronger for the recent hurricanes that threatened the coasts. And I was there, with the sun, the sand, the breeze, and yes, a beach umbrella. This was the first time for this colorful beach umbrella to see the sun, to open proudly to the glinting rays which penetrated through its panels of bright lemon yellow; orbital orange, the color of the once-molten lava of the volcano of a Polynesian archipelago; hibiscus red; the fuschia of a Caribbean bougainvillea; the purple of an early spring crocus; the blue of the Atlantic on a clear, clear day; the lucent blue of the first blue shallows of a Virgin Island beach; the sunny green of a windsock.
This spectrum danced in the sun, an architect of color and design. So fascinated was I by this new beach umbrella that I’d seen early in the spring, but returned only, but inevitably, in early September to acquire, (to find but one in an away corner to make room for fall merchandise,) that I began to photograph this curious and ever colorful object, with backdrops as scenic as the leagues of sea oats, swaying and bending in the strong ocean breeze, seascapes of the Atlantic, and typical Outer Banks wooden decks and stilted houses. Several views did I take waiting for the right wave to crash upon the shore and spray up in artistic display, or for the sun to eke out from behind a significant poof of cumulus cloud formation in the stratosphere. I snapped some nature shots of some resolute sandpipers, so as to be part avant-garde photographer, part coastal naturalist, and some of those little tiny seabirds who nibble at the sand in admirable synchrony, only to run away desperately all in a line, one after another, lest they should get their feet wet by an incoming wave.
This little happy scene went relatively unnoticed by the two men down the beach industriously building a wooden walkway over the beach grass; the retiring fisherman casting his solitary line out to sea, sitting on a low beach chair with a tackle box on the side, and a little white floppy hat; and several bronzed sun-lounging couples down the beach.
I leaned back then in my lounge chair, partially shielded from the sun by the colorful and dazzling beach umbrella that had so thoroughly fascinated and entertained me all morning, to absorb the tranquility of the methodical and faithful sound of the breakers, the warmth and radiance of the Indian summer sun, and the escape and abandon of a good, good book, and just as the waves started to seem more distant, and my body temperature seemed to increase pleasantly… a massive gust of tropical storm caliber gale force wind tore my friendly beach umbrella cruelly from its roots deep within the sand to no longer mingle with the sand crabs of the deep, thrust skyward, and in an Olympic maneuver so impressive, and so sustained, my beautiful new colorful beach umbrella started absolutely somersaulting faster and faster down the beach.
Aghast and dumbfounded, I jumped up from my euphoric position instantaneously, and after precisely one full second of utter amazement, bewilderment, and stupefaction, I closed my jaw, reverted to track team position, and recalling the many impressive relays of the Olympians throughout history and into modern times, I sprinted in my tropical bikini, covered in SPF 30, down the beach after the colorful and ever-faster cavorting beach umbrella. Such precise and continuous an acrobatic maneuver I had never been witness to, and never hoped to again. What I had thought would be a cheetah’s mad dash across the Serengeti bore on, and success became questionable. Sleepy sunworshippers, beachcombers, and one-reel fishermen perked up as never before. Something was actuallyhappening on the beach. On and on, how far could it go, never veering from its course, never slowing, never wavering. And how long could I go on? I became fixated, mesmerized, by this cruel, but at the same time, somewhat beautiful trick. The sight of this umbrella, this beautiful, colorful umbrella, hurtling through space, impossible to identically recreate…and perhaps impossible to catch.
I was resolute. My gaze unwavering, transfixed by this three-dimensional object in flight, borne by the wind, I continued on, the sudden burst of energy starting to burn in my legs, starting to catch in my breath, when just then, something miraculous happened. The wind shifted, sending the umbrella off its course toward the waves, first landing with an indiscriminate splash, and hurtling onward a bit, its speed daunted by the powerful Atlantic currents, which began to relentlessly attack the colorful little umbrella. After several such batterings, the umbrella would be lost in the swirl for a moment, as I knew, however, that at last I would be able to reach it. I would alternately with each wave, see a new swirl of color. I tried to reach for it, as the cold sandy water splashed up to my knees. I approached again only to be repeatedly sent back by bigger and stronger waves, by the names of Hortense and the like. Finally, with a final surge that was met by an even stronger surge from the waves, I grabbed that beach umbrella firmly in my grip, and was sent down to the gritty sand to my knees to wrestle the beach umbrella from Neptune himself, all in a very lovely tropical bikini. I pulled the little umbrella onto the shore, folded it partly up in my exhausted arms, and began to trudge the long way back down the beach. I felt a throbbing in my right knee, and glanced down to see a nasty raspberry, with wet, salty blood dripping down to the ankle.
I passed the same beachgoers, some of whom smiled empathetically, some of whom stared attentively with partial amazement, concern for the state of the beautiful umbrella, and perhaps even for my bloody knee, and a curious gratefulness that I had indeed saved the umbrella from the waves, from a watery grave, from doom at sea, and that I had caught up to it at all. As I approached the final one-reel fisherman and his wife, I could only mutter a feeble, “That was rough.” “Windy day, ain’t it,” said the fisherman. It was his wife that gently broke the news to me that the little umbrella may have seen its first, and ironically, last day, this windy afternoon by the seaside.
I didn’t want to believe it. I made my final ascent to my grassy hovel to see for myself. I almost couldn’t bear to look. But the look in her eyes had said it all. Oh yes, the fabric, that colorful, beautiful fabric, was indeed intact, oh but the spokes, the spokes were bent hideously back against their joints, never to stand in the sand again. The driving, cruel force of the waves had been final. I lay the colorful beach umbrella in the sand, spokes coming out in all directions, gasping for its final breaths, the sun and breeze quickly drying it from its battle with the sea. I took a melancholy last shot of this gruesome sight, for the record, as it were.
But as I slumped down on my Hawaiian beach towel to watch it to its last, I found that I felt strangely happy, and satisfied. And that, in fact, this umbrella, still colorful, still young, had actually had a quite extraordinary existence, as beach umbrellas go. And I sat there in the sand that crazy afternoon in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, beside the colorful beach umbrella, the swaying sea oats, and the powerful but alluring Atlantic, under the strong September sun of a Kill Devil Hills afternoon, and I glanced back toward those hills, and only then did I notice the large stone wing in the sky resting peacefully on that hill, the monument to Wilbur and Orville Wright, brothers in flight, the first flight, silently overlooking the scene from a quiet but windy perch in the green hills above, and it was only then that I really understood how it all began, as a gust of wind crossed my cheek, and I reopened my book to read.
The next morning as I peered out from the wooden deck of the beachhouse, I saw the fisherman’s wife, starting to head out to the beach. “Hello,” I called out. She turned, and without hesitation in her best New Jersey, burst out, “I’ve never seen something just somersaulting and somersaulting down the beach like that. My husband tried to call out to the others to catch it. And then he said, ‘I don’t know if she’s gonna make it; I think she’s runnin’ outta steam.” Well, I proudly displayed my wounds and bruises, my only proof of valor and truth, and wished her well. I followed shortly thereafter, over the wooden walkway to the beach, for one last glance at the fierce and beautiful Atlantic. Looking up from a cast, the solitary fisherman put down his reel for a moment and just said, “No more umbrellas.” I smiled, took once last glance down the windy coast, and said, “We’ll see,” as I turned back to the green hills for the last time, having said “Goodbye” to the Outer Banks.