The Thing That Happened

Author: Kerry Temple ’74

Some stories don’t have a moral at the end; they just tell about something that happened.

So it is with the October day my family and I go to the beach along Lake Michigan. A windy day, big blue sky and waves — maybe two feet high — lapping incessantly onto the beach. The water bracingly chill on the feet as we wade up to our knees.

We wander south down the beach, ambling along the shoreline, looking at beach glass and stones, slowly approaching a creek that marks the state park’s southern boundary where tall dunes slide into gentle knolls of grasses, sand and trees.

The creek emerges from the green woods there. We have in the past trekked up the creek, thigh deep in water, finding relief from a beachy summer sun in the cool shade and enveloping greenery.

Today, though, my wife and kids linger on the sand flats through which the creek, maybe 15 yards wide, makes its serpentine course toward the lake whose vast waters stretch west to the sky. So I follow the creek’s S-curve to the place where the creek flows into the lake.

But today the creek is dammed, blocked by a hummock of sand formed and fashioned over time by westerly winds and the strong, insistent waves. I stand there a while, looking at the creek, corralled before reaching the lake. I am tempted to dig a trench, to help the creek flow into Lake Michigan.

It’s an appealing task. I love playing in water. I have spent hours goofing in rocky mountain streams, in rainwater pouring through gutters and ditches, up to my elbows hand-clawing trenches across Red River sandbars siphoning water into rivulets of my own making. Such earnest interaction with this liquid life force is an elemental pleasure to me.

I stare at the barrier here, this levee that rises three feet above the water on each side, repeatedly pounded by waves apparently piling up more sand. The lure is there; I consider and reconsider. But the forces of nature look strong; what could I do? I don’t want to look silly — a man my age — on hands and knees, trying to dig a trough in the sand, failing to undam the creek as people, lounging beneath beach umbrellas, watch.

So I move away, see my family still playing with driftwood, skipping rocks, entertained by little things and each other. I wade into the lake, stare at the wave action, jewels of sunlight, marvel at planet Earth and consider the teaching: “Be like water.”

A few minutes later I notice him. Apparently alone, he strolls past me, pauses where the mouth of the creek is walled off. He looks down, looks up, his eyes survey the creek. He turns to look at the lake.

He is a roundish young man, maybe 25, with baggy swim trunks just below the knees and an oversized football jersey draping over his ample girth. He is barefoot, with a shaggy beard and black hair splayed to his shoulders from beneath a red-white-and-blue, stars-and-stripes bandanna. He has a drawstring bag on his back, with a folded beach towel strapped onto it. He is scruffy. And somehow likeable.

After taking it all in, he drags a toe across the sand. Draws a line. A line in the sand from creek to lake, mapping the incision to follow. Then a heel, a heel dug more deeply into the sand, bulldozing crosswise through that barrier mound. And again. His right heel dragging through wet sand while he steps backward, balancing nimbly on one leg. An action he repeats — three, four, six, a dozen times. I am watching as he carves a canal.

His V-shaped chute coaxes the creek lake-ward but the first expeditions of water appear to seep into the sand, and the sand oozes down to swallow it. So he digs more deeply, more quickly, hurrying his pace, but without losing his sense of nonchalant experimentation, as if humored, merely curious to see how this game will go.

He perseveres, though, and eventually the water runs to the lake, spills from the creek. It gathers momentum. A stream forms, the creek water on its own now, stronger than sand, flowing freely.

Then — dam breached — the water gushes into the lake in a torrent of ripples, like a mountain stream tumbling over rocks. Sand is washing away. The walls on each side of the galloping water erode, cave in, crumble into the flowing creek, carried away to the lake. The water is now cascading in a series of undulating waves powered by gravity and the force of pent-up water running free.

People come to see. They look down and stare and smile. The trench is now a waterslide 10 feet wide. Driftwood and sticks and golden leaves ride into the lake. A father and young daughter surf on their skimboard. Youngsters toss in twigs and watch. A middle-aged couple tests the crossing, holding hands, wobbling, grinning. Others come to see what it feels like to stand in the current; a mother photographs her son posing.

I get closer, too, and as I approach, the dam-breaker looks at me and — with an expression of surprise and appreciation — says, “Man, the power of water.”

And that is all. The end. That’s what happened that day.

Some stories have no deeper meaning; this is one of those.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.