(Administrator’s Note: This blog is the second of a two-part series. Be sure to read Dispatches from the Road: Nearly Dead in Panama City Beach — Part I as well.)
It’s morning – God only knows what time in the morning – and we’ve woken up and emerged from our tent into the sunlight, where I’ve given Surfin’ Scott (who wouldn’t leave the tent in the morning because he was scared I’d stab him if he startled me) crap for using sun block, which was a bad idea on my part and a brilliant one on his.
After a breakfast of cold Gwantly hotdogs straight from the cooler, with condiments pilfered from a QuikTrip, we headed to the beach with the surfboards.
I do not surf. It’s not been something I ever wanted to do. I tried skiing once, and didn’t take to it. Surfing is for pretty boys with bleached hair. Like Cameron. And to a lesser extent with the hair thing, Joey.
At St. Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach, Fla., the beach is sheltered from the gulf by a long wall of piled rocks that juts out into the blue water. As the tide races around this barrier, it creates some rather impressive waves for redneck surfers who mostly spend a lot of time lying on the bellies on their surfboards out in the water, talking to each other about how cool they are because they surf but who rarely actually, you know, surf.
Snapshots of Agony – Or, the Coriolis Effect
I had my camera. It was new – my first digital camera – and I’d bought the warranty from Wolf Camera that would replace it, so long as I at least came back with the strap that remained around my wrist as, say, a bull at Pamplona snagged it on a horn as it thundered past me. With a limitless supply of photos on a warranty-protected device, I was becoming quite the little shutterbug. I took the camera out into the water and snapped pictures of Cameron and Joey with their surfboards, then retired the camera back on a towel on the beach and enjoyed the warm salt water, the buoyancy of which felt good against my injured ankle.
It was amusing to watch Cameron and Joey chase waves and try to mount one, jumping up eagerly on their boards as the crest raced past them, leaving them behind.
A weak swimmer, and injured to boot, a stayed fairly close to shore, as Cameron and Joey paddled further out to catch the waves as they lurched from the sea.
At last, Cameron caught one. And just like that old adage about a dog who chases cars, he didn’t really know what to do once he had it.
I watched him zip toward me, standing proudly on his board. As he drew closer, it seemed evident that he intended to ride this thing out. He’d take it to Orlando if it’d let him. So, I cut to my left. Cameron, with little control over his board, did the same. I cut right. Cameron did likewise. He drew closer. I zigged, he zigged. I zagged, he zagged. At last, just a few feet from me, he lost all control. Cameron went to my right, and the board passed to my left.
Well, it turns out that surfers are actually tethered to their boards by about a six-foot leash, which fastens to the end of the board and around the ankle of the surfer. And that six-foot leash was doing as it was intended, holding Cameron and his board together, even as it clotheslined me in the surf.
The Coriolis effect describes the circumstances that cause something that is turning to go faster, such as how the water in a bathtub spins into a vortex when you pull the plug, or even how it feels like a car is accelerating when on one of those spiraling highway onramps.
It also applies when you have a surfboard wrapped around your throat.
The leash caught me beneath the chin. I grabbed at it, the way a victim grabs at his attackers garrote, which is to say, futilely. The surfboard swung around, my throat serving as the fulcrum, and lapped me once, then twice. By then, the cord was diminished sufficiently to allow the board to hit me in the face. The board wrapped itself around its own leash, tightening its noose.
The blow knocked me off my feet. Because a surfboard floats, it stayed near the surface. My mass did not; and so the experience was somewhat less like choking and more like hanging, as the board kept my head near the surface and gravity pulled my body down into the weedy depths of the Gulf of Mexico.
At last, struggling for air, the world becoming encased in a black fog around me, I felt something: the bottom! I kicked against it and propelled myself up and backward. A wave caught me, pulling the board and me to a slightly reduced depth. I could stand! I found my feet and pressed them into service, heaved myself out of the water and pulled at the choker around my neck, gasping.
I don’t know what was happening to Cameron during all of this. I presume he was upside down in the water, as close to death as I was. He’d led me to believe no different. But he emerged from the waves just as the sweet salt air at last filled my starving lungs. So, I tried to kill him with his surfboard.
Back on terra forma, limping, head aching from the merciless sun and temporary lack of oxygen, and my flesh starting to sear, we showered in a bathhouse near our site and planned to hit the town that night.
We were going to make a show of it, too. We’d invested in an order of Jolly Roger flags from a cheap online flag site. The flags they sent – black, sure, and with the skull and crossbones – also had emblazoned around them the legend, “Commitment to Excellence.” Which seemed a very peculiar thing to put on a pirate flag. The site made it right by us, however, sending us a double order of proper pirate flags, and so we had plenty. We placed poles on the running bars of the Jeep, flying a Jolly Roger off one side and, as a conversation starter, a “Commitment to Excellence” flag off the other. We affixed a Jolly Roger to the Nighthawk 750 as well, which I insisted on riding, despite my sprained ankle, because of the hell we went through to get it there after damned near losing it in Eufaula.
Now, it should be mentioned that none of us can recall what happened to Surfin’ Scott during this part of the trip. I don’t believe he was surfing, it haven grown dark. But, we can say definitively that he was not in the Jeep, nor was he on the motorcycle with me. The very prospect of such a thing would have terrified him beyond his senses.
As the sun set, we hit “the Strip,” driving slow up and down with the other cruisers in heavy traffic. Cameron had, in a stack between his seat and his console, a series of signs on poster board that, like the “Commitment to Excellence” flag, were supposed to be conversation starters.
The signs included, “Honk if You’re Horny,” and “I’m Single and Well-Hung,” which was frankly a bold-faced lie on Cameron’s part, but we’d let him have his fun.
This was before Panama City Beach had become an endless stretch of high-rise condominiums from one side of town to the other. At the time, there was still an active – if rickety – boardwalk and an active college party scene, with a vast nightclub that hosted wet T-shirt contests that never turned out to be worth the cover charge.
Somehow, the signs and honking got noticed, and three girls accepted an impromptu invitation to hop on up into the Jeep. They stood in the backseat, shouting, hollering, holding up Cameron’s “I’m Single and Well-Hung” sign. Cameron and Joey were having the time of their lives, glancing up the girls’ shirts as they partied hard in Cameron’s Jeep.
And then, behind me, a loud voice cut through the bacchanalia: “You in the Jeep! Pull on over.” I glanced in the rearview of my Honda at the lightbar of the Panama City Beach Police cruiser.
Cameron pulled into a lot. I rode a little further down and parked. The girls climbed out of the Jeep and lined up alongside it. The cop gave Joey a lot of grief, it looked like from my safe distance. Finally, he let Joey get out of the Jeep and walk away. With a lack of excitement and concern that kind of startled me, Joey strolled over to my bike and said, “Yeah, Cameron’s going to jail.”
Joey explained that the first problem was the girls, who were not wearing seatbelts. Then, the girls, it turned out, were age 15, 15 and 16. So, any thoughts we had of getting them to come back to our campsite were going to be a problem. Also, Cameron had that whole court-ordered class-thing that he had to attend, and had his name in computers as being someone who had to be good and probably not, you know, cross state lines for an established period of time. So there was that.
We waited to see what might unfold, unable to help Cameron. I hung out to see if I needed to ride Joey back to our campsite, should they impound the Jeep, and Joey waited to see if they’d let him drive it away if Cameron was led away in cuffs. Finally, the cop pulled away – without Cameron – and Joey approached the Jeep. The officer said he would let Cameron off with a warning, if he took the girls back to where he picked them up (why he let Cameron continue to ride around with them at all was perplexing, but I think the officer just didn’t want to deal with the paperwork). Apparently, they were staying in a condo near there. With their parents. Since there weren’t enough seatbelts in the Jeep for everybody, Joey was the odd man out, and the poor lad went from a Jeep with the top off and three cute girls in the back on the Panama City Beach strip to riding down back roads on the bitch seat of a fat man on a Honda.
But, hey, at least we still had our Jolly Roger – and our commitment to excellence.
Words with Friends
While students – and, later, loiterers – at the University of West Georgia, Joey and Cameron devised a game called “Phrases” or “Fragments” or something like that. The idea was, you walk along, having an innocent conversation, until some interloper comes within earshot, at which point the conversation would take a violent turn into the macabre.
“Did you ever get that rash cleared up?” “Nah – doctor said he’d never seen it before. Told me to come back if it started oozing worse.”
“…so, after I found the pictures online that Bobby told us about, I was like, there’s no way I’m calling her back, but then I slapped my head and went, the hell I’m not!”
And so forth.
In the bathhouse down the lane from our campsite, Cameron and I retired to shower. (Not in the same stall. Not that he didn’t try.) I was badly burned, practically unable to walk, and pretty severely dehydrated. Also, it appeared someone had taken a shit in my shower stall. Damned Florida.
We spoke until we heard someone else enter the shower area. Then, we turned on the “Statements” or “Sentences” or whatever the hell they call it. In the shape I was in, I somehow utterly missed that Cameron left the shower – and that a stranger had occupied his stall.
Said stranger heard all kinds of strange things. I confessed to killing a hooker. In gruesome detail. And then I spoke about how I felt no different doing it than when I killed my whole family. I speculated how long it’d be until the bodies were discovered. I then told Cameron what I was going to do to him when I got him back to the tent, and that if Joey and Surfin’ Scott had anything to say about it, I swear to God, they’d end up just like that dead hooker, so help me.
The stranger said nothing. Nothing at all. As I collected my bath supplies and noticed that the sandals beneath the door of the stall next to mine were no longer Cameron’s, I chuckled. I didn’t apologize. I didn’t try to explain anything. After all, it’s a dangerous world.
Home at Last
We left about midday, packing up and heading back home.
I reclined as best as I could in the passenger seat of the Jeep, still baking beneath the southern sun, riding for hours on a cloudless day in a car with no roof.
Somewhere near Columbus, afraid that I would soon lose consciousness, I placed a call. I asked for aloe, for acetaminophen, and for peace. And I promised myself, I would never be sunburned again.
Promises are made to be broken.