I was attracted to the man by the intensity of his stare. He was standing on the beach at Venice on an early morning, the wind in his face and the waves at his feet, transfixed by something he apparently was seeing beyond the breakers, oblivious to the water that soaked his shoes.
His hair was beginning to thin and he was wearing clothes that seemed as old and rumpled as he was. They hung like rags on a scarecrow.
As I approached, he glanced over at me, turned back to the ocean and said, "Will you look at that?"
I followed his stare but saw only a Pacific turned silver by the coming day.
"Will I look at what?"
I kept thinking he might have spotted Morgan Fairchild swimming naked near the breakwater.
"The ocean!" he said with enthusiasm that seemed about to explode.
Another Venice nut flying on mescaline.
"I've seen it before," I said with a sigh, and began to move on.
"You're lucky," the man said. He turned to me full-face and added with pride of accomplishment, "This is my first time."
His name was Hank Ketlin and he had arrived at the ocean that very morning after driving in from
a place called Thayer, Kan. He had never seen the ocean before.
"Have you ever actually been on the ocean?" Hank asked after introductions.
"Well, yes," I said, "many times."
"In a boat?"
"In a boat."
"Hoo," he said, "that must have been something."
He stomped his feet in the surf a couple of times, splashing water like shards of crystal into the diagonals of sunlight that sliced over the rooftops.
I couldn't believe the man. He was like a kid at a birthday party. I had never seen so much emotion in anyone over 9. We are accustomed to cool out here. Cool at any cost.
"I can't believe that horizon," Hank said.
I looked at the horizon. It was one I had seen thousands of times. I tried to imagine it was my first view, but that never works. Wonder is a passing magic, glimpsed once and gone forever.
But still, it was a magnificent horizon at that, wide and sweeping in its scope, tantalizing in its unknowns.
"All my life," Hank said, "I've wanted to see the ocean. Dad was in the Navy during the war and gave me one of those large sea shells he'd brought back from Dago."
Dago? San Diego? Do they still call it that? They do in Thayer, Kan., I guess.
"He used to tell me to hold it up to my ear and I could hear the ocean winds blow." He thought about it for a while and then said, "I think it was ceramic but I still heard the wind."
There just didn't seem good enough reason and there was never enough money to come to the ocean before, Hank told me. But Mary had died two weeks ago and there were no children ("Mary was barren," he explained somberly) so there didn't seem good enough reason not to come anymore. Hank was alone now.
He had just packed up and headed west in his 1972 Chevrolet Nova, pulling a U-Haul trailer and still hearing the ocean winds. He just wished Mary could have been there with him.
"Lookat there!" he said so suddenly I thought he'd spotted a Russian sub. It was a sailboat tacking into the wind, its clean bow slicing through the flying spray.
As we stared, the boat keeled to port, its multicolored mainsail (shades of orange and magenta), sweeping over the wave tips, then spiking upright, teeth to the wind, heading for open water.
"Jesus!" Hank said. He realized what he had said and apologized. "I don't usually talk that way."
"That's all right," I said. "You may be the first person I've ever known who doesn't talk that way."
Hank had seen the ocean on television and in the movies, of course. They showed fairly current movies in Thayer. But this was the real thing. Sea air you could smell and water you could touch. I didn't tell him the sea was toxic and the fish were dying. We didn't talk about the smog that sits along the horizon when the Santa Anas blow.
They weren't important now. A man was seeing the ocean for the very first time, an ocean of expanse and strength and life-giving vitality; an ocean of patience and beauty and dark currents of mystery.
The wonder deserved respect.
But time and magic are fleeting transitions and Hank had to leave. He was on his way to Long Beach to catch a ferry for Santa Catalina Island. "It isn't really being on the ocean," he apologized, "but it's close."
He pulled himself reluctantly away from the edge of the surf, torn between what he owned that sunrise moment and what he was about to experience. We shook hands. He took one last look at the sea and then strode quickly toward his car.
"Hank!" I called after him.
He turned. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what. I liked the man. And I liked seeing the ocean, the brand new ocean, through his eyes.
"I'm sorry about Mary, " I said.
I'm not sure he heard me. He waved and was gone.
I stood there for a long time, a native Californian, seeing the Pacific for the very first time, and grateful beyond words to a man named Hank.